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Bordello Knights

A group of men form a collective in a Calcutta red-light area to protect the women they love

Bordello Knights

PROTECTION, not just pleasure, is the principle that guides a few good men at Sonagachi, Calcutta’s busiest red-light area. In a unique initiative, these 30-odd babus have formed what they call a Sathi Sangathan or a Companions Collective. Their vow: to fight against harassment and violence faced by sex workers and their customers.

Formed only this April, the collective has already held four meetings on how to go about spreading the message of safe sex and rein in hiv infection in the area-a project estimate suggests 5.53 per cent of the workers are infected with the virus in Sonagachi. Not only do the members keep a hawkeye on abusive customers, they also counsel casual customers on aids and venereal diseases, operate a special aids hotline, shepherd shy customers towards sex clinics for tests and work towards reducing drug and alcohol abuse in the red-light areas. The collective is already active in Sonagachi and Bowbazaar areas and plans to move to other districts soon.

For, the 300-odd babus who visit Calcutta’s half-a-dozen red-light districts are a far cry from their nouveau riche, licentious 19th century Bengali counterparts. The 20th century cast of babus, trawling grubby red-light areas and taking on lovers and wives, comprises social outcasts, petty traders, drunkards with golden hearts or simply insecure, lost-out men searching for a companion.

Among them is 40-year-old Ashish Saha, a second-generation cloth trader. Every morning, he leaves his north Calcutta home and makes his way to Sonagachi, leaving his father and brothers to manage shop in crowded Burrabazaar. And in a badly-lit, stinking hovel, Saha whiles away his day drinking and chatting with Hashi Maity, a fiftysomething sex worker. When night falls and thousands of customers clog the area’s brightly-lit narrow streets, Saha returns home to his wife and two schoolgoing children.

It’s a ritual the scrawny trader’s been following for the last 10 years. It began with him looking for a place to drink because his wife didn’t allow him to do so at home. Landing up at Sonagachi, he met Maity, who allowed him to drink at her hovel. In return, Saha, who also owns an autorickshaw, looks after the ageing unlettered sex worker, operates a bank account in her name, and pays for her recent gall-bladder surgery. "I love her as much as I love my wife," says Saha. "I don’t know whether my wife knows about this, but she tells me, ÔWhatever you do, return home by night’."

The fact that Saha and his ilk are coming out of the shadows, talking frankly about their lives and loves, as also the predicament of being a babu and a social husband, points to a social churning in Calcutta’s red-light areas where about 5,000-odd sex workers live in some 400 dank bordellos. "The babus are rich and poor in a heterogeneous group that straddles all classes," says Debi Prasad Haldar, the collective’s co-ordinator.

He’s right. Forty-five-year-old Paritosh Ghosh, a member, earns Rs 1.5 lakh a month in rentals from his four bordellos, kerosene dealership and petty extortion. On the other hand, Dipak Bhattacharyya, a former mechanic and sharebroker who began living in with a sex worker at Sonagachi after being spurned by a girl, earns Rs 1,200 a month as peer educator with the collective. "We’d rather call ourselves sathis than babus," says he. "Babu has such a pejorative connotation in a red-light area."

As Bindeshwari Ram learnt to his dismay when he arrived from his Darbhanga village in Bihar 20 years ago to look for a job. Lonely and struggling, he landed up at Sonagachi and promptly fell in love with Arati Das, a small-built doe-eyed girl from the border town of Bongaon. When he moved in with Das into her Rs 700-a-month 20-sq-ft room in a grotty nine-room bordello, neighbours badgered him-"He can’t earn for himself, so he’s feigning love to live off a woman. Just like a babu." Ram soon found a job, ferrying gas cylinders and now earns Rs 1,000 a month. The couple tied the knot seven years ago, have two schoolgoing children, and go for movies and short holidays together. "We pool in our money and live life like a normal couple," says Das. For 36-year-old Ram, it is still difficult to reconcile with other men sleeping with his wife every day even as he hangs around outside their bolted room. "I feel very bad. I feel helpless," he says. "But we have to both earn to run the family, the kids’ tuitions." Some day, he hopes to have enough money to take Arati home to Darbhanga and settle down.

Dreams die hard for Akhil Kumar Maitra too. This 42-year-old babu once worked in a small grocery in Burrabazaar area by day, and slept on the sidewalks at night as home was far away in Midnapore district. When the shop closed down, a friend brought him to a Sonagachi bordello to rent a cheap room. Here he met Purnima Chakraborty, a sex worker from Birbhum district, who was recovering from a bruised relationship with a former lover. "I moved in and gave her a hand," says Maitra, who has a wife and children in Midnapore. He says he confessed to his relationship with a sex worker to his wife, and after a while "she accepted it". Today, Maitra stays with Chakraborty most of the time, earning Rs 35 a day as a peer educator. Meanwhile, Chakraborty has become a star in the sex workers’ cooperative: she collects money from sex workers to put in a bank. After a decade of slaving in a hovel, Chakraborty has risen fast in the sex workers consumer cooperative’s ranks: last week, she got promoted as an assistant supervisor and will earn about Rs 3,000 a month. Some years ago, she tied the knot with Maitra and the cheery couple share chores, household work and cooperative activism, distributing condoms, explaining diseases, inspiring the sex workers to save. "I have two wives and two families and we are very happy. We all get together also at least once a year," says Maitra. "But I stay most of my time here, because I feel I have made a big difference to Purnima’s life."

It’s not easy going for everybody though. Sentu Das, 26, a school dropout, came to Calcutta from Murshidabad district, to earn a living. Driving a cycle van, he reached Bowbazaar, and fell in love with Pratima Das, a fragile-looking teenage sex worker from Dakshineswar. "I give all my money to her," he complains. "But she refuses to give up receiving customers." The money they earn together, Pratima says, is too little to run a family. A few months ago, they even relocated to a suburb to cut down on rentals. Now the couple take the early morning train to Calcutta, and trudge to the Bowbazaar bordellos, where Pratima puts on her frumpish makeup and stands provocatively on the street to attract customers. The couple lost their first child-the two-month old baby boy died of rickets. Now Pratima is pregnant again, and her lover hopes this time she’ll give up her job for good. "It’s difficult for me take this coming and going of men all the time," says Sentu. "I don’t know how long we’ll last together."

But when evening falls, even Sentu joins other babus, who with a lump in their throats, exhort the 20,000-odd customers that flock to Sonagachi every day with the message: "Have fun with our girls, but please use condoms."

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