My earliest memory of Kamathipura is probably holding my mother’s pinkie and walking jauntily down Kennedy Bridge to reach the whistling sea on a drizzly evening, looking at her sparkling reflection in a grey puddle and laughing at my good fortune of a world that is made entirely of her moonlit face always shining above me.
Mother worked as a courtesan in Pavanpul in the 80s and later returned to the kothas of Calcutta, where she had originally begun her career. In the after hours, when the Pavanpul compound was shut, the bais would travel to Foras Road, where the mujras continued till the morning azaan.
If you look at the distance between Foras Road and Kamathipura on a map, you will notice that the road is shaped like a boomerang—which, once thrown, always returns, ironically, like the two professions that have co-existed in Kamathipura for eons. Only that now, one of them has almost entirely faded—the kothas no longer thrum to the beat of tablas, ghungroos and ghazals. Forty years ago, they were clearly defined by the nature of their business, now blurred. Now, a mock song and dance can be tossed ex-gratia in the dens, when the baser instinct for corporeal pleasure yearns for a sensory stimulation.
“We never fraternised with them,” my mother used to say, always trying to maintain a cold distance from the Kamathipura sex workers. “We saw them, dressed in fashionable jeans and shorts, smoking and drinking crudely in public. Some of them were nice, especially when they came with rich patrons and showered cash on us. But we did not want to be branded as prostitutes. Ours was a different profession.”
Sex work thrived alongside late-night mujras in Foras Road. In some rooms of Baccchu Seth Ki Wadi, when the tawaif sang a wistful Bollywood ballad like Jab Hum Jawaan Honge, Jaane Kahan Hongay, a sex worker would undress to the same melody in another room, perhaps using the background song as a cue for youthful foreplay.
In 2018, after an essay I wrote about growing up in a kotha fetched me a book deal to write my mother’s memoir, I also found myself being interviewed by actress Neena Gupta for an Audible story feature. When I nervously told her about my mother’s clear distinction from sex work, she bristly shot back: But what’s wrong in sex work?
I’ve been on the other side, as a journalist interviewing film celebs such as Vidya Balan and Ranveer Singh. Their warmth often comforts my nervousness. And here I was now, in a shivering voice, trying to explain to a film star whose reference was from her own experiences playing feisty sex workers in such films as Mandi and Utsav. I wished she knew better, as she also played a courtesan in the tele-serial Mirza Ghalib.
“Zillat,” I said. “There’s more hardship in sex work. The tawaif wants just a little bit of izzat, which the sex worker is denied to even dream about.”
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I have always been aware that in popular culture, the tawaif is a glorified sex worker, but so long as she wants to believe she sells her coquetry and not her body, who is to deny her that agency? Perhaps, the sex worker is braver, selling her wares without artifice. But I also know that my mother would never want to call herself a kamanewali because she feared society would reject me, like it keeps the tawaif in the shadows of anonymity. There isn’t a vast difference and yet there is, in intent. The tawaif now exists only as a curious, fascinating fossil trapped in the golden liquid of nostalgia. She will always insist between adaa and jismfaroshi when freed from the amber of a distorted glory.
As a child with little understanding, I saw a bit of both. Behind half-drawn curtains, after the mujras and mehfils were dispersed, some men cozied up to a tawaif in a manner that would make a child instantly aware of something more intimate taking place. Later, on vacation trips from my boarding school in Kurseong, where I studied since the age of five, mother would take me along to meet her friends in Delhi’s red-light district GB Road, or Calcutta’s Sonagachi. I began to recognise the harrowed, trapped gaze in the eyes of the women in these red-light areas. They looked, talked, and behaved differently from the tawaifs—unmusical and razor-sharp. I did not need to be schooled about their profession. I could sense why my mother felt freer than them. She did not have men soliciting sex from her at any time of the day. After a mujra, if a patron came strongly on to her, she did not have to entertain him. Mother was cordial with her sex worker friends, but did not want to be one of them. She preferred the clique of the tawaifs to keep unwanted male attention at bay. Some of her energy transferred to me in what I thought of sex workers as neglected sisters from the same mother. They definitely begot worse fate, but they seemed to embrace it with a plucky courage that almost exposed their vulnerability.
I asked a friend about her experiences as a writer and filmmaker documenting Kamathipura. She says she has spent a decade befriending sex workers there, and sometimes just goes there for lunch and gossip. I marvel at her adventurous spirit. It wouldn’t come so easily to me. I have in the recent past tried to visit the streets where I spent my first few years. Something has always deferred it. Once, as my friends trickled into a café after a Pride March from August Kranti Maidan that ended near Kennedy Bridge, I felt an odd tug of the familiar and began walking up. My heart pounded as if I would find a dark, damp, rickety staircase filled with a mossy green pungent smell of my past. Memories would rush down. I had only made it halfway, when a friend hollered. I returned, even a little relieved by the interruption.
In the recent film Gangubai Kathiawadi, Alia Bhatt trenchantly tells us that once you arrive in Kamathipura, you never leave. I suppose, in a strangely discomfiting way, I fear if I seek it, I will reach home.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Sonshine Years")
(Views expressed are personal)
Manish Gaekwad is a journalist who co-wrote the Netflix series She. His second book, The Last Courtesan, a memoir on his mother, will be out this year.