A HOOKER AT FIFTY

Rishi Majumder and Rana Chakraborty chance upon Mehboobi, an unlikely dreg of the city’s flesh trade

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty, but obviously

Mehboobi

The woman in the picture, being dragged onto the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus pavement by two female constables, calls herself Mehboobi. She is a 50-year-old sex worker. She was hauled over the divider where she was sitting by four constables – two male and two female, who beat her while dragging her across the road. On seeing the photographer taking out his camera for a photograph, the constables stopped beating her. The two male constables stood aside and let only the female constables drag her. Prerna, an NGO renowned for it’s documentation and active involvement in the sex workers issue puts the number of sex workers in Mumbai at over 5,00,000. Sex workers aged 50 or more are fewer in number but not unheard of. Sex workers facing an altercation with the police are definitely not unheard of. Why then are we doing this story?
Because some scenes, however repetitive, continue to disturb. Because this incident, which occurred a few weeks before International Woman’s Day, revolves around one representing every criteria of the downtrodden: a woman who is poor, old and denied respect. And because, as Mehboobi reveals over a cup of chai at Pila Haus, Kamatipura, the reasons for this photograph go far beyond a quarrel with the police…


UPTO AGE 12, KURNOOL, ANDHRA PRADESH
My village lies near Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. Once, many generations back, my family was into saree weaving. Then the business died down. I don’t know why. My father and mother were landless labourers, working as farmers on another’s land. I had to help out in the fields too – and I hated it. I would rather do housework. So my father, mother and especially my aunt beat and scolded me when I refused to go or cried. A lady, who had left my village, came in from Bombay. She was very well dressed and rich. She told me, “Why don’t you come to Bombay with me. My daughter works there as a maid. She’s earning Rs 1,000 a month.” She said I would be back in a few months, with money for my parents – and I wouldn’t have to do farm work either. So the night she was to leave, I ran away from home, to meet her at her house.


Kurnool is in Andhra Pradesh’s Telengana region – famous the world over as one of India’s least developed areas. Residents of the region to date complain of the lack of government attention to the region where the education, irrigation, agriculture, industry and employment sectors are concerned. The economic disparity in the
area has led it to become one of the Naxalite hotbeds.

FROM AGES 12 TO 25, BOMBAY,
MAHARASHTRA
In Bombay I was kept locked in a house with three storeys in the Pila Haus area. It belonged to a madam called Shanta Bai. I was taken out only to be taken to different Madams or brothels, where they mostly said I was too young to be put into the trade. Then when I was 14, Shanta Bai’s brother raped me. After that many customers followed. In a room on the ground floor of the same house, with three or four managers sitting outside for security. For a long time I got no money for this work, only food and a place to stay. After some years I shifted to work with another madam – then another. We shifted either because the place we were in was to be
raided, or because we were sold. I had a daughter when I was 25. Someone informed my Khaala, a relative who stayed at Jogeshwari. She took my daughter away because she didn’t want her to be in my trade, saying: “Tera saaya se usein door rakhna hai.” I haven’t seen my daughter since.


Vijay Raghavan, assistant professor at TISS, who’s heading a Prayas field action project involving sex workers doesn’t want to comment on the proportion of people involved in the flesh trade who belong to other states because political parties might then interpret this as an outsider’s issue. “Whereas 60 per cent of Mumbaikars are migrants in that sense,” he reiterates. “Don’t we matter?” He claims the focus has to lie on prevention: “The police should check such trafficking at the primary bus and railway stations. There should be a separate intelligence unit for human trafficking, like the Anti Narcotics Bureau for drug trafficking.” Preeti Patkar, executive secretary and director of Prerna, points out: “Whereas earlier the areas targeted for
such trafficking were Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Nepal, today West Bengal, Bangladesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are targeted equally.” States like Punjab and Haryana, she claims, are used for trafficking women abroad or to Delhi: “So few Indian states are left untouched.”


FROM AGE 25 TO 50, MUMBAI MAHARASHTRA
Once, a man who said he loved me paid my madam Rs 10,000 to take me with him to his village near Azamgarh in UP. After a year there, the village elders, his wife and his brothers said, “Choose between living here and living with her.” So he gave me my bus fare and told me to go back to Bombay saying, “Aurat log to milegi. Bhai log kahaan milega?” When I was 30, there was a raid at the brothel I was at and we were sent back to our villages. There, as I expected, my family disowned me saying I was “as good as dead for them”. My mama stood at the village outskirts with a sickle saying he would chop my head off if I dared enter. My only family then on was my best friend Ka
mala, from Karnataka, who soon died of AIDS herself. Yet, who’ll give me other work with my background? I asked a magistrate once, “Mujhein izzat nahin dete ho, par koi kaam to do?” His reply was, “Maine tum logon ka theka nahin leke rakha hai.” The rare cases in which I have seen girls get out of this hell is through marriage, where after they keep their pasts a secret.


Countries like Mexico have set up old age homes for aged ex-sex workers. “Having a separate home might lead to greater discrimination. But the acceptance of such victims into normal old age homes is necessary,” stresses Raghavan. “But then we don’t have government sponsored homes as a priority.” Raghavan says the older sex workers either resort to begging or doing menial jobs around the red light areas – which is all they get. “And that is for those who are lucky enough not to die of diseases before that.” Patkar, however, claims, “Rehabilitation is possible, if the society is accepting.” She quotes incidents of corporates (which she doesn’t want to name for obvious reasons) which have rehabilitated such victims “in proper 9 to 5 jobs”. “Yet this support is only a thin sliver of light in a very dark tunnel.”


AGE 50, OUTSIDE CHHATRAPATI
SHIVAJI TERMINUS
The police asked me why I was hanging around. I said, “I’m not harming anyone.” They caught me and started dragging me across the road, beating me meanwhile, saying they’ll take me to the thana. I had an operation on my arm recently, so I told them not to hit that. But they kept on raining blows on my arm. I said, “Do you really think I come here at age 50 for my daily pleasure?” But they just kept hitting me, and kept me in the lock up for a day. Next day, I wasn’t even given a chance to speak before the magistrate. A fine of Rs 300 was fixed without me being heard… With 1200 being my average monthly earning, and such fines being slapped every other day, where do I go?


Such fines are slapped under Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act for indecent behaviour in a public place or Section 145 B of the Railway Act for loitering in the premises. “But such fines are self-defeating. They lead to greater borrowing from pimps and moneylenders,” Raghavan points out. The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act on the other hand which targets soliciting, gives the judge discretion to send the sex worker to a rehabilitation home. “But this act isn’t used because it’s found too cumbersome, and the other two acts are open to often being interpreted wrongly,” Raghavan winds up. Patkar however has another take: “Considering the long years I have been here, I have seen the police improve drastically in their treatment of women involved as ‘victims’ rather than ‘accused’, and their willingness to use the ITPA.” Would you agree?

Mehboobi...

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/9u5p

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