Exploring the stories of Asia’s largest red-light district

How does one write about sexual violence without brutalising those who experience it?

Wherever people have lived for long enough, they’ve found a special place to keep the sex workers.

Asia’s largest red-light district is in Kolkata, India. Shonagachhi, as the area of crisscrossing lanes are known collectively, is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in north Kolkata.

The name is weighed down with connotations, whispered in innuendo or solicitation, used as an insult or warning, and never far away from the collective imagination. Red-light districts like Shonagachhi make frequent appearances in Bollywood; sometimes as specific, recognisable areas, and sometimes simply as shorthand for a generic house-of-ill-repute.

And yet, authentic exploration of red-light districts in Indian cinema or books is relatively rare, though there are reams of statistical, sociological and academic documentation of data. But in films, it usually plays a bit part, a convenient stop where the sympathetic hero wallows in self-pity after a heartbreak or where the unsympathetic villain sharpens their villainy. When it is given any thought at all, it is usually romanticised, or glamorised, and the figure of the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold is never far away.

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My novel Small Deaths was born out of a desire to explore a space such as Shonagachhi in real, specific terms. But some tropes, like sex-work, seems to be have narrative expectations that exert their own gravitational pull. How does one write about sexual violence without brutalising those who experience it? How do we look at sexual violence with empathy and authenticity without making it a byproduct of saleable sexuality?

Shonagachhi is home to about 10,000 sex workers (the exact number of residents is notoriously hard to estimate in a population that is as rooted as it is floating), their families, husbands, lovers, children, servants and shopkeepers. Shonagachhi and places like it function within the bounds of society where they are often illegal and ostracised, and yet are dependent on the interest and business of the very society that others them. Like sex, sex work fascinates as much as it reviles, but for those who work and live there and many of whom have ‘lost’ the homes they knew, have found new meanings of the word there.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the pandemic, all the entry points to Shonagachhi sprouted makeshift checkpoints, manned by volunteers. They regularly scanned incoming traffic with temperature guns, and handed out sanitisers and masks. Disease and the sexual body have always had a complicated, overlapping relationship, each shaping the other. Organised sex work, in recent times has gone through the upheaval of the Aids epidemic, and then the Coronavirus pandemic, with perhaps another already at our doorstep. It’s interesting that organised sex work in the Kolkata had a lot to do with our collective anxiety with the diseased and sexually active body.

During the 19th century, two acts were passed to regulate and classify prostitution in colonial Calcutta. The 1864 Cantonment Act, to regulate a small population of Indian prostitutes who serviced the European soldiers and needed to be kept disease-free, and the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868 (CDA), intended to bring all manner of prostitution in the city under its regulation. This ambition, however, proved very difficult in practical terms, not only because in a sprawling metropolis there were all manner of covert, irregular, blatant, and systemised modes of prostitution, but also because the vast population of prostitutes in the city was directly related to the interests and desires of the land-holding, wealthy, native gentry which the colonial government preferred to leave unruffled.

There were wide social gaps between the courtesan and a lower-class woman who substituted her earning with occasional sex work, quite often with her husband’s active support, to say nothing of the status as performers. Courtesans were typically high-class, expensive, and catered to the aristocratic elite, and as such were loosely associated with regimes of precolonial power and patronage. Till its retraction in 1886, the CDA ran up against native sentiment as it became more and more clear that the prostitutes that the European soldiers went to could not be separated from the prostitutes that the landed Bengali gentry frequented with any efficacy.

Perhaps realising that it was nearly impossible to control and regulate all the prostitutes in the city, the CDA turned its expertise towards regulating the space in which the prostitutes operated. A ‘sanitary cordon’ was established around those areas that were inhabited by prostitutes who were visited by British soldiers. The women were not allowed to leave these areas to ply their profession and were subject to treatment in lock-hospitals should they contract a venereal disease. The empire, in some ways, created Shonagachhi to protect its fighting men.

There is a lot a casual observer gets wrong about places like Shonagachhi. One is that a place like this, where thousands are barely scraping by, at the huge cost of selling bodies to keep bodies alive, must be a joyless, soulless, hell-hole. Reality is, as usual, stranger than the fictions outsiders ardently believe. It is possible that Shonagachhi is a place powered, to a large extent, by dreams.

Take for example G (she’d rather I didn’t use her real name) –– married at 16 to an alcoholic who used her face as a punching bag and whom she left at 26 to return to her parents, two small children in tow. Her parents, initially sympathetic, ran out of both sympathy and resources. G ended up in Shonagachhi, and considers that a bit of good fortune.

She educated her children, one of whom has a post-graduate degree and both are now gainfully employed. She says to me she’d never have accomplished that had she stayed in that marriage, or stayed with her parents. ‘Self-respect’ she says, ‘is the most important thing.’ Something she’s taught her children. She’s proud of achieving what was her dream –– financially independent, educated children.

Or take M, who is pursuing a commerce degree, but spends some daylight hours in Shonagachhi when she’s supposed to be in college. She is 22 and what is considered a ‘flying’ sex worker. She never spends the night in the red-light district, but she can rent a room for a few hours in Shonagachhi when she has a client –– many of whom she picks up in the lanes of Shonagachhi, though thanks to smartphones, she has her pre-scheduled appointments with regulars. M dreams of starring in Bengali mega-serials, and from that, to films. Her family lives in an old, cramped two-bedroom house well outside Calcutta, and sex work gives her access to a ‘high-society’ lifestyle that she craves.

Shonagachhi is full of such stories, and as many dreams, and it takes a lot of courage to dream in Asia’s largest red-light district.

Small Deaths by Rijula Das is out now from Amazon Crossing, £8.99