“The events, characters and firms depicted in this story are fictitious. They do not bear any sort or resemblance to actual persons or professions, living or dead.”
It’s a foggy morning. It’s September but the sun’s still not visible. Slowly the light rays make their way into the cramped room through the spaces between the iron rods, as rustic as the hues of the golden sun that splashes all its colors at once; dramatic, enchanting yet temporary, lasting till the night sets in and paves way for the uninterrupted darkness.
Razia stared at the ceiling, then her gaze fell at the man sleeping next to her. He was handsome, his fair skin contrasting with her dusky one. Soon, the heat inside gets unbearable, and the man gets up. He puts on his shirt, makes his hair, gets his cellphone and calls up his wife.
“Sorry sweetheart I was stuck up with some urgent work. You know how these IT industries operate. We have foreign clients. Sometimes we need to work overtime and stay back for night shifts. Yeah I’ll be back in an hour.”
“I know what you must have been thinking about me, Razia. A man must be dedicated to his wife. But you know what? I’m in love with you! You surely have something in your eyes that makes me come to you again and again! The comfort you provide is unmatchable! I mean, my wife can never live up to my expectations. You’ve set a benchmark. Will meet you soon!” He left with a wink and a smile.
Razia smiled back. She didn’t respond. How could she know about the relationship between a husband and a wife? Unperturbed, she got up and cleaned her face, smeared with kohl and lipstick, and put on her clothes. It had been a steamy night, like all other nights.
The phrase “I love you” was no more a melody to her ears. Everyday someone or the other used it on her, to soothe her burns, only to cut them up again, just for a few hundreds of rupees per hour. But she has learnt not to complain.
“Listen to what your customers say and don’t be a hassle. This is our business, and we must do it the right way. Sometimes settle down for a bargain. Business is slow- so do as the men say. Don’t let your ego get into your head. It can ruin your career. Utilize your youth before it is lost behind your age. And yes, sell your body, but not your heart. This isn’t a place for weak hearted individuals. Once you’re in, you’re out of the game. Understood?”
Mornings are filled with hustle and bustle in this part of the city. Sometimes Razia goes around the electronics shops, looking at newly ordered gadgets. Goods starting from televisions, microphones and cameras-all glitter through the glasses. She had managed to get enough money saved to buy a smartphone for herself. How she wished she could call her mother and talk to her, at least for once! She might be still alive and languishing somewhere, begging for a livelihood, or she might have died of a disease…who knows?
Budhwar Peth- a name synonymous with Lord Ganapati, houses three temples out of the five major Ganapati temples located across Pune. Every morning after she took her bath, Razia would go and stand outside one of the temple premises. She never dared to go inside, for the world had labelled her as impure; a creature who has no past and no future, a creature not even worthy of a penny, nothing. Just a creature whose existence was carved up long time ago inside the four walls, who was silenced forever. And God wouldn’t like to see His ill-fated lesser mortals. It would be a disgrace.
The ABC Chowk was the favorite destination of students. Every day she could see scores of children, teens and adults thronging the marketplace as if it were a sweetmeat shop. She could see so many girls carrying schoolbags with them, chatting loudly as they stop to eat Dabeli and Pani Puri. Small girls, with oiled hair neatly tied up into two long ponytails in their red and white Salwar Kameez, looked adorable.
She had the freedom to go into any bookstore she wanted. She could glance over the stories from the Panchatantra and the Aesop Fables. Diagrams from twelfth standard chemistry textbooks. Images of the Universe. She used to get astonished by the photographs of celebrities in glossy magazines. Some were identifiable, from the item songs that they perform; some were not. They looked so gorgeous!
She looked gorgeous too; her kohl rimmed eyes spoke of a feminine aggression; her ruby red lips gave her face a new dimension, already overloaded with powder. Jasmine flowers adorned her long hair and she wore strikingly bright colored saris. Her wrists grooved to the tune of her bangles.
“Why am I not rich and famous like them? Even I put make up and wear dazzling clothes”, she had asked her Madam one day.
“They work for the entertainment industry; you work to entertain men. They encash their beauty, you encash your build.”
She was infamous; for her identity belonged to the city’s biggest brothel. Never did a single day pass on the roads where she could walk with peace; the men catcalling and making jeers, the women throwing disdainful glances. Mothers could often be overheard warning their kids, “Never go near her, she’s a prostitute!”
Running away was not an option. This was her home, her only identity. She had tried running away a long time back. She doesn’t even remember the dates anymore. The stigma associated with the monotonous humdrum of her polluted life followed her like her shadow.
It had been a summer night. Razia was a teenager back then, barely 15 years old. She was sleeping beside her parents. Suddenly, she was woken up by a commotion outside. There was this loud sound of firing and gunshots, and before they could understand what was going on, she saw her father being shot in front of her own eyes. They dragged away her petite mother, who didn’t even get a moment to cry over her husband’s corpse.
Razia was confused. Her father’s lifeless body was before her; his calm eyes wide open. It seemed as if he wanted to say her something. The ethnic cleansing of their community was getting violent and deadlier with each passing day, but Razia had never ever thought in the wildest of her dreams that she’d have to lose her parents in such a horrific manner. She ran away to the village mosque nearby, and sat inside, clutching the Quran tightly in her fists. The mosque was a dilapidated structure now, which bore the signs of religious discrimination and hatred.
The next day, she could hear the screams of women and children who had lost their husbands and fathers last night. She was still scared to go out of the mosque, she felt secured inside. “Allah would stop all wrongdoings and punish the goons”. She had full faith on her God.
In the blink of an eye, she saw her Ammi Jaan.
Ammi Jaan looked no longer petite, it seemed as if she was in the possession of some djinn. She had disheveled hair and her clothing torn to pieces. Her face was swollen and her eyes were red. Her body was full of scratch marks and wounds.
“They’ve burnt our house. We have nothing left in this country. Let’s go.”
“Go where, Ammi Jaan?”
Soon they were busy walking amongst a sea of people who seemed to be knowing where they were going. It was bad, crossing jungles in those same set of clothes and barefoot. The thought of death scared them no more, they had already lost everything back home. The hopes of a new, dignified life at a distant motherland—-
“So is this your story, miss?”, the reporter sipped tea as she made notes.
“And what is your name again, pardon?”
“Razia. Razia Sultan.”
“Razia Sultan was the—’’
“Was the only female ruler to rule the Delhi Sultanate in your country”, came back the curt reply. “I don’t know why my parents christened me with this name, but I had read about her in school. She had been a brave lady, and had always tried to connect with her subjects. She had protected all kinds of ethnic minorities in her state. Unfortunately, she couldn’t reign for long and was killed. Three burial sites in India claim to hold her dead body remains.”
“Yes. I had to leave my country the year I was in 10th standard.”
“Please continue with your story.”
“Where was I? Ah, yes. My mother was acting strange. She had this grave look on her face and wasn’t crying or talking. She just held my hand firmly and led me through the forest. After walking some miles, I realized that we were fleeing our country. Imagine, leaving your country in this condition—’’
It was a hot sultry afternoon, and the reporter was getting impatient.
“I meant your story. About how you landed up with this Madam here.”
Razia smiled. Her shadow followed her everywhere. Such a wretched luck that she had, the misgivings of her fortune had even robbed her of the status given to a refugee.
“Okay let’s stop it here. How many times do you reporters need to learn about the stories of these women? Do you think the police has the entire day to spend over both of you? Off you go now! I have to go through these official proceedings,” the Police Officer came in and took the chair next to her.
“How long you’ve been in this service?”
“Three years. Maybe four. I don’t remember exactly, Daroga Sahib. During the initial days, they used to hit me because I was always trying to escape from their clutches. I never cooperated with the clients. I used to cry and scream and kick my hands and legs in anger and disappointment. So, Madam and Ashfaq used to beat me hard. Very hard.”
“The guy who sold me to Madam.”
“We’ve issued a notice to look out for him. He is responsible for a lot of cases like yours. By the way, do you have any medical issues?”
“I don’t know, but I have had abortions quite for a few number of times. I wasn’t taken to any nursing home-Madam used to hit my stomach hard with the heavy sticks like you use.”
“Your medical reports suggest that you’re HIV positive.”
Raziya’s face went expressionless.
“Technically you’re not an Indian citizen, but you have a voter ID card. You are an orphan and you don’t have a family to go back to. Also, you’re infected. We don’t know what to do with you. You’ve to stay under detention for a few days till we find a reprimand home for you. As I said, there are lots of women and children being rescued every month, some have families while some don’t have, and mostly the families don’t want their daughters back. We don’t know where and how to accommodate you all. The NGOs are in constant collaboration with us. Let me see if I can register you with any.”
“Thank you very much, Sahib.”
“And while you’re here, you can keep on entertaining us.”
It’s late evening, and the sun has started to descend, throwing its golden hues for the one last time tonight, before paving way again for the victorious, uninterrupted darkness.
The red light area at Budhwar Peth in Pune is said to be very huge with 4000-plus commercial sex workers. Where is our world heading to?