My first few weeks in Pune, I was overwhelmed with the opportunities in front of me. As a medical student, I already had a strong foundation in HIV and AIDS, both the clinical aspects from my work in the hospitals and the social implications from previous work in Spain and South Africa. Still, there was so much to learn about the situation specific to India and to Pune. I was eager to see how this new place, my Sahara Allhad with its key players of clients, care workers, and physicians fit within the larger campaign against HIV and AIDS.
In the first week at Sahara in mid-September, I shadowed the physicians on rounds to learn their approach to HIV management and care in a low resource setting, to meet the clients at the center and make them familiar with my face, and to absorb as much Marathi as I could. As a highly proficient conversational Hindi-speaker, in that I can tell a rickshaw-walla where I want to go or buy most things that I would want from the market, I was eager to improve my Hindi and pick up a little of Marathi if possible. As such, my most immediate connection was with Laksha, a commercial sex worker originally from Nepal who had been working and living in Budwar Peth, Pune for several years. Though HIV negative, she came to Sahara through an affiliation with our partner NGO Saheli and received compassionate and comprehensive care for injuries sustained after an altercation with one of her customers. Simply stated, she was thrown out of a window from the third floor when a customer was unhappy with her services. The result: a fractured hip and a significant loss of income from this imposed “medical leave.”
She spoke with a lisp, the left corner of her mouth opening very slightly while the right moved ferociously with expression. Her words required the movement of every muscle in her face minus those of that left corner. She was very clever, making shrewd observations of her surroundings and retaining no filter for the ideas expressed. I wondered if her sharp tone and manner was the result of cultural differences or that she had mild mental retardation. After discussing my observations with the physicians at the center, I found out it was likely the latter, which sparked another series of inquires about Laksha and her profession—How did she get to India? Under what circumstances did she start in Budwar Peth? Was she able to understand the intricacies and complexities of the brothels and commercial sex work? Was she different from other commercial sex workers because of the mild MR and how? My questions were endless.
I missed her farewell party as I was already on route to Mumbai for another project for Sahara, but I heard from my roommate that it was an emotional affair. The men at the center, usually very stoic and proper, except of course when they are dancing as is a common observation of India, expressed their concern and warmth for Laksha. They bid her farewell back to Nepal; she was discharged under the presumption that her brother was taking her back to their village to take care of her.
These three months so far in India have passed very quickly; I feel like I have done so much and absolutely nothing at the same time. I have seen and learned countless facets of India, tangible knowledge at my disposal right now mixing with some subconscious understanding of this place. I know that right now I cannot realize a large portion of what I am actually learning here; it resides just below the surface.
In this first week of December, after starting the month off with a flurry of activities for World AIDS Day—presentation of our research paper at the General Practitioners Association and Indian Medical Associations of Pune Conference plus Wake Up Pune events of street plays, condom distribution, games to raise awareness, and a drawing competition at one of the local cinema complexes—I went on my first field visit with Saheli into Budwar Peth. To give a little background, Saheli is a collective of commercial sex workers that advocate for their rights to proper healthcare, financial security, and basic human rights. Their relationship with Sahara Allhad and several other NGOs culminated in the formation of Wake Up Pune in 2006, a campaign started to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS within all communities of Pune.
As for my role at Saheli, I am in the process of creating a medical chart for each child. In order to compile the most complete and thorough past medical histories, I started interviewing the mothers every Tuesday. Currently, mothers are invited to drop off their children to the crèche at any time, for any reason. There is no system in place to gather information about the children when they are dropped off, often due to the time constraints on the mother to quickly return back to work or the shortage of staff dedicated to the crèche to maintain such detailed records (we are slowly developing materials to fill this gap). Anyway, critical to my work with the children is an understanding, or at the very least some exposure, to their living conditions prior to the crèche. My first visit into any brothels of India, my second visit to a brothel ever with the first being the red light district of Amsterdam, was surreal.
I arrived at Saheli under the impression that I would be interviewing two more mothers, but because they had just finished a PLHA meeting (People Living with HIV and AIDS), all of the mothers were too busy to meet with me. I finished up some paperwork and then inquired about possibly visiting the brothels. As I mentioned before, it was always on my agenda while working at Saheli, to visit at least once if not multiple times to truly get a sense of the living conditions and atmosphere for the children, but as life and work tend to be slow in India, I found ideas of mine slowing in urgency as well. Today though, since I was already at Saheli with nothing substantial to do, it was the perfect opportunity.
I went with Mandekini, a peer educator on staff at Saheli, and Tara, a former commercial sex worker who has now exchanged her responsibilities in the brothels for those in Saheli. Mandekini’s task for the afternoon was to collect financial deposits from the men and women in the brothels that would go toward the Saheli Collective Bank for future savings. We left the office, headed down the street crossing five stores, and turned right. I had not realized that the brothels were right there, that I pass the main entrance area every day after getting off my rickshaw to work. At the entrance to the core, the heart of Budwar Peth stood several barber shops, music and candle stores, condom stalls, and paan stalls. I pictured the men getting ready to visit the brothels, choose who they want to be with for that ten minutes, one hour, overnight. I felt disgusted.
There I stood, in my traditional and conservatively tailored peach and violent salwar-kamez, the spring colors striking yet inappropriate for the December weather, with my hair in a pony-tail and my shoes shining of gold beads and sequins. My skin color looked very fair compared to the Maharastran and South Indian women who comprise the majority of those trafficked into this particular district. I also do not look Nepali or East Asian, again separating me from a large majority that resides in Budwar Peth. By my looks, it was clear that I was an outsider. I was not wearing a provocatively tailored salwar-kamez, a stylish western top with a mini skirt, or a neatly arranged sari. I did not have on the signature red lipstick. I did not have my hair down, beautifully styled and combed. Looking at my feet and some of theirs, however, I did notice the similarities in our shoes with the stylish shapes and shiny colors. To repeat the classic cliché: I could be in their shoes, with just a turn of events if my grandparents were limited in their provisions for my mother and father, if my parents did not immigrate to America, if they were struck with some devastating financial misfortune, if, if and if.
It was a strange feeling, standing there. Within seconds, I felt Tara’s hand on my shoulder. For the next two hours, her hand did not leave contact with my body—my shoulder, my hand, my hip, my side. Her body language conveyed a sense of protection, either for me to keep me from walking away, being taken by someone, or getting approached for conversation OR for the women, to make her fellow sex workers comfortable with my presence in their neighborhood. If it was moderately apparent from my dress, it was blatant from the unfamiliarity of my face; they were a tight community and I was not a member.
I looked left and right recalling Amsterdam, its red light district, and the countless differences. I can still picture the women standing in the windows literally since they and their services were for sale. I remember each woman having her own window, barely any standing in the doorways or streets, and the overall atmosphere feeling like a normal commercial street lined with several small quaint boutiques. In Budwar Peth, the overcrowding of India was apparent and visible as five to six women stood outside one doorway with three to four more just inside and several others in the building. I wondered what the insides looked like; I wondered whether I would get a chance to find out. I was just about to ask if they could take me inside a brothel house, being proactive to learn as much as I could, when Mandekini asked if I minded accompanying her in to collect money. It hit me; they were accustomed to seeing the unsanitary, cramped, and disheartening conditions of the brothels. She was concerned for me. I did not hesitate for a moment and nodded my chin side to side signaling that I was comfortable.
Mandekini walked first and I followed, Tara waited and chatted with the women and girls outside. The hallway was five feet long, very narrow and dark leading to a staircase on each side perpendicular and vertical to our path. We turned the sharp corner to the right and carefully climbed the stairs. The medical student in me kept thinking about the cleanliness of the area and I tried not to touch the walls or steps as I moved. This task was quite difficult as the staircase was barely wide enough for one person, Mandekini having to turn with one shoulder leading. My petite size enabled me to walk facing forward, though I too turned a bit to avoid contact with the walls. We stepped up thirteen steep times and turned a sharp left to a small room divided in half, one side as the kitchen/laundry/water use section and the other side as a sleeping space with a mat on the floor. We collected ten rupees from one woman and continued to the back area. We walked along another narrow hallway coursing like a square donout that then opens to the center, a loosely railed terrace overlooking the floors above and below. I was shocked to see so many children and men living in the brothels. I knew the estimates of over 300 children living in Budwar Peth but actually seeing these children and knowing that the kids I work with in the crèche at Saheli used to live here was overwhelming. I guessed the men were husbands, dhalals (pimps), or both at once. We turned another corner to climb another set of stairs reaching the third floor, the entire time I was thinking that the building could collapse any second. The structural support seemed so withered and weak. This top floor room looked like what I had imagined; a large room with bedrooms resembling office cubicles large to only fit one twin bed and complete with a door. The wallpaper of the room alternated between posters of deities like Laksmiji, Durga Mata, and Ganpati Papa and bollywood stars like Sharukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, and Abishek Buchan. One of the women was much older and dressed in a heavy ornate gold necklace. She was the gharwali (the female head who controls the house). She looked at us with disgust and walked into a room slamming the door behind her. The two women sitting on the bed stood up but motioned for me to wait before I sit down so that they could spread a clean sheet. I did not hesitate in sitting; I assumed it was not a bed used for customers and I did not want to offend them. They smiled and giggled, looking me up and down. I smiled back and asked how they are in Hindi. Astonished at my accent, they giggled even more. The taller one with dark skin, long black hair, and features that in another life may have bought her a modeling contract with Ford in Manhattan reached into her blouse and pulled out her bright pink wallet. She handed me one hundred rupees, saying that she did very well this week and wants to save a little extra. They offered us chai but Mandekini refused saying that we had more work to do. For the next two hours, we weaved in and out of the brothels all tucked in small gullies. We collected money from all sorts of women, the most startling being those who appeared well into their 60s in age. Mandekini explained the problems with older commercial sex workers who make very little money but have no refuge. They must continue to work because there is no where else to go or no other means to live. Just to illustrate, some of these older women make only ten rupees for ten minutes. Ten rupees equals a quarter of a dollar.
We collected nearly eight hundred rupees and set off to return to Saheli. The entire time fumbling through the small winding streets I had kept my head down, my eyes fixed on the ground so that I would not trip. For some reason, as we approached the main road, I looked to my left. Laksha? She was sitting at a doorstop, wearing the same yellow and white nightgown that she wore every day at Sahara. It took me a few seconds to recognize her, to locate her face in my memory because she was completely out of context in the wrong environment from which I had met her. What was she doing back in the brothels? She was supposed to be safe back in Nepal, her brother taking care of her. She jumped up with the right side of her face smiling. She grabbed my hands and pulled me close to her, “what are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here. This is a bad place. What are you doing here?” I told her that I work here, meaning at Saheli, but she mistook my words for meaning Budwar Peth. She panicked with her Hindi now pressured and jumbled. She was clearly upset that I had become a commercial sex worker.
I sat her back down on the doorstep, squatting next to her and rubbing her back. I explained my relationship with Saheli, an organization with which she had become very familiar, and that I was just here to collect money for the Saheli bank. I asked how she was doing, how her hip was feeling, why she was not in Nepal. No answer. Laksha just smiled and walked away saying ‘Vaani, Vaani, Vaani.’ I turned back to catch up with Mandekini and Tara, explaining to them my relationship with Laksha. I walked out of my first experience in the brothels of Pune starting with amazement at the sights, shifting to concern for the future of every soul there, and finishing with being absolutely humbled by the care and worries of one woman for my safety and future.
Names have been changed for confidentiality