The Durga Puja week used to be nightmare for Anita Das, a 43-year-old sex worker and single mother of two. Anita has been living in Shonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red light districts, in Kolkata for over 10 years and both her kids were born here. And every Puja, she faced the same problem. What to do with the kids?
“I had to go to work at night so that I can feed the kids in the morning, take care of their other needs. And Pujo is good business. But if I work all night, they end up missing out on Pujo. There’s no one to take them out for pandal hopping or for eating street food”.
She adds that in most cases, they were not appreciated in the pandals even when they do manage to go out. "Whenever they know we are sex workers, they want us out, many priests and puja committee organisers think we are polluting the holy environment," she adds.
Anita’s kids are her only family apart from the 3,000-odd other women in Shonagachi who share similar fates and problems as Anita. “So we got together and started our own Pujo,” she quips.
The Durbar Mahila Sammanwaya Samiti's (DBSS) Durga Puja has been taking place since 2012. This year, the committee’s total budget was nearly Rs 25 lakh. The committee has also ensured distribution of ‘Bhog’ twice on all five days of the Pujo, starting Shoshti to Doshomi. Inside the Masjid Gali road where the pandal is located at the mouth of Shonagachi, a crowd of men, women and children throng the little office DMSS located behind the idol.
At first, the committee had just received permission to conduct the Puja inside their own office. In 2015, they were allowed to rent a community hall for their Puja. “But we were not satisfied. Political committees and powerful individuals get permission so easily. But we had to fight all the neighbouring pujo committees who strongly opposed it at first.”
“No idol of Durga can be made without us. We also represent Durga and Devi Shakti and are all her daughters. Why should we not be allowed to take part in the city’s cultures and religious traditions?” Bishakha Lashkar adds.
In West Bengal, no idol of Durga can be made without soil from a brothel. It is a key component of the Earthly form of the Devi Shakti. It is said that the custom is followed to honour the Naba Durga - the nine forms of Goddess Durga by worshipping ‘Nava Kanya’, the nine classes of women that have been collaboratively mentioned in the Vedas - A nati (dancer/actress), a vaishya (prostitute), rajaki (laundry girl), a brahmani (Brahmin girl), a Dalit and a gopala (milkmaid). Many in West Bengal believe that the worship of the Goddess is incomplete without worshipping these forms and soil from a “niishiddho polli” is thus considered “punyo mati”.
And yet, women of brothels have historically been denied respect in society and shunned on social occasions. The Durga Puja in the red light district, Durbar President Bishakha Lashkar tells Outlook, is an attempt by the sex workers to build a space for themselves in the city’s public life. From the 90s onwards, the women of Shonagachi have been protesting for the rights of sex workers and the right to sex work as a legitimate and dignified source of income for women.
Using religious practices as a site of feminist practices can become tricky in India where the rise of religious nationalism is often linked to more conservative attitudes and moralities towards women’s sexuality and rights. The Durga Puja conducted by Durbar becomes all the more significant since it has been an concerted and successful effort by the city’s sex workers to “demystifying the lives of sex workers and undo the commonsense of fear and stigma that”, according to a 2018 paper titled ‘Of Festivals and Public Life: Sex Workers. Activism in India As Affirmative Sabotage’.
In the paper, researcher Debolina Dutta noted how the success of DMSS’s initiative shows how a “conception of rights informs the ways in which a particular group of sex workers envision their public lives and re-order the relationships they inhabit with those who are opposed to their interests.” It has also helped the women of Shonagachi, who live a life shrouded in stigma and discrimination, to build an identity for themselves morphing discriminatory relations with oppressor classes to reflect their own personal struggles, joys and lived experiences.
And it has been successful. Since 2012, several Puja pandals have depicted the lives of sex workers through creatively themes pandals. This year, the Nawpara Dadabhai Sangha and others created a sex-worker-themed pandal to pay homage to the ‘Baij’ era and culture of West Bengal, where courtesans have traditionally been respected as a class of women. Its President Anjan Pal said that the idea behind the theme of the pandal was to highlight the fight for right of sex workers.
Durga Puja advertisements have also picked up on the trend. An ad by Smart superstore depicting sex workers has earned much attention on social media. Mita Ghosh, a resident of Shonagachi and not a part of Durbar, tells Outlook that the Pujo is open to everyone, not just sex workers. “The more people come the better. These lanes are usually just filled with customers. But now, people are coming to see the puja pandal of sex workers,” Ghosh says, adding that she is proud that her sisters could make it possible through collective activism and sheer strength of character. “What can better embody Ma Durga’s spirit than empowering oneself and freeing the self from the shackles of the world?” She asks before mixing back into the crowd of women.