(picture source net Patrika)
Sonagachi is not a landscape but a sinful communion of histories. From landscapes it is easy to discern histories but from histories perhaps one would find it difficult to conjure up landscapes.
Still I was looking for a landscape. I could see faces partially hidden by the shadiness of the night. Desiring bodies moving inconspicuously with prayers seeking anonymity filled the streets that let out different odors of which I could distinguish the smells of frying fish, eggs, chicken, onion, red and green chilly, cheap deodorants, boiling oil, talcum powders, soaps, liquor and petrol vapors, urine, decaying fruits and vegetables, and above all the undefeatable smell of sex.
I felt no fear, no shame and no trepidation. I was just eager.
‘Sonagachi, thy name is woman/You beget pimps/Dispense pleasure/You look so real at night/And I have seen you in daylight/Sonagachi, thy name is man/During the day/Toiling bodies/Tired streets/A great yawn/Tumbling down/From the creaky balconies.’
I could only think of it in poetry. It was the refuge of someone who was about to do something he had never been good at doing; visiting the sex workers.
As a young man I had never felt any dearth of sex. I had it from within the marriage and also without. There was no need to visit a brothel. I was never so desperate.
(Suddenly I remember a day. I do not want to say when and where, how and why but I remember the day. It was when all the shops were shut due to a strike. I wanted a packet of contraceptives. The one who was ready to share her body with me that day asked me to get a contraceptive first. I went out in search of a shop that sold it. Having found none, I went to a place where a lady doctor used to run a private clinic. She was there, reading some magazine. As she knew me she smiled at me. She looked at a vacant stool on her side as a doctor would do to a patient. I kept standing and she was amused. After a few seconds of embarrassment that had been forced her too by my reluctance I opened my mouth, “Do you have, by any chance, a packet of condoms with you?” She just laughed out. “No, but I do keep sanitary pads,” she joked. I bolted out of that room.)
Someone told me that in the city where I lived too there was a street that housed sex workers. I got hold of a book that described the street and the lives of women there which I found had the fantasy of the writer playing havoc than an actual research and findings. I still do not know was it my modesty or the book that held me back from visiting that street.
Sonagachi was there in my mind for long. I wanted to visit the place more than I wished to visit Kalighat Temple. I was lucky that I managed to visit Sonagachi first and it took another four more years to visit the temple.
Sex sells and absolute sex sells absolutely. But in places like Sonagachi sex does sell but there is no absolutism in it. There are no frills. You go there, wander around, you want it or not pimps come to you and before you know you are climbing some creaking stairs, and you are before a stereotypical madam complete with her cherry red lips, obscene fat, enticing smile and affected sophistication. You make your payment and you are ushered into the next level.
Pimps are dime a dozen in Sonagachi. Kamatipura is no less.
I walked with my local friend who seemed to have some previous experience in the place. Pimps came and made lucrative offers; ‘sir, Manisha Koirala will run for her money if you just once see my Pinky.’ A drunken man who had gone mad with love scampered around wailing, ‘Oh Karishma, where are you?’
Pimp who had been accompanying us with cajoling and mild threatening laughed and enlightened us saying that the drunken guy was looking for Karishma Kapoor, the then reigning heroine of Bollywood.
The story of the mad lover was poignant. He had visited the place a year back and was pleasured by a girl who faintly resembled the actress or the guy had a misperception about her regarding her looks. He gave her the name, Karishma and kept visiting her whenever he could save enough money. One day he found out that she had taken a man permanently as her paramour, pimp and protector. The lover was thrashed well by the new man in Karishma’s life. The lover lost his mind forever. Ever since he was a part of Sonagachi’s night life adding a sharp note to the existing melancholy of the street, balconies and damp rooms where the women laughed the hollowest of laughs, parted their unresponsive thighs and let out moans that they had rehearsed jokingly with other mates during the post lunch lazy hours when they dried their gaudy little clothes and combed their tresses.
My pimp (as if my life was hinged on his) took me to a Kothy (they call the whore houses so) where I was welcomed along with other sex hungry drunks, government officers on travel duty who had decided to commit yet another sin for a change in their boring lives, experience-collectors like me, young artists who had not yet seen a naked body ‘live’ and just depressed people who had been given advice by friends to visit a brothel so that they could come out as men in love and hope!
Money changed hands and I was taken inside a room which looked like an one room flat in my city’s standards, where a man, two women, a young girl in her early twenties and two children were deeply involved in a game of cards. An old television set was belting out some Bollywood songs and it sounded just a god-alone-knows-why type of background score for the setting where a sexual encounter was about to take place between myself and one of the women in the room (which woman I couldn’t figure out then). May be the songs in the television had already given the background score for several physical encounters by then.
It was seriously not a time to think about Bollywood songs.
Upon seeing me, the man got up, tied his lungi tight, collected the cards and nodded at the women in the room. Two of them got up and picked the children and moved out of the room. The charade seemed to me well-rehearsed and perfectly timed. Even the children did not make a sound.
The woman in her twenties did not look at me. She walked past me and latched the room from inside. Then she came in front of me. She looked straight into my eyes and gave me a full smile.
Suddenly I knew, she had a history. But I could not make out her geographical background. She looked like any other young sex worker in any Kothy in any red street in India. She could be even a local who spoke Bengali or she could be one who had crossed the border from Bangladesh and got inducted in the business.
I did not feel like having sex. I wanted to make a conversation with her and get out once the time was up. But I did not dare to do so. Sex workers are not always kind and they are there not to make interesting conversations unless you are known to them over a period of time.
One of my friends had told his story with a whore. He was suspecting himself to be a lunatic after reading a lot on Vincent Van Gogh. He wanted to fall in love with a sex worker. He managed to find one in a place and struck up a deal for some hours. Once inside the room, he started talking to her as if she were a character from Van Gogh’s life. After listening to him for a few seconds the lady told him: “Hey dick, want to have a fuck, do it and get the fuck out. I am not here to listen to your rubbish. If you don’t fuck I am going to kick your ass. If not pay up and get lost.”
So I did not want to do any small talk with her. She continued to smile. Then she raised her hands and started unbuttoning my shirt. She ran her fingers all over my chest and pressed the right places that sent lightings all over my body.
In utter silence, like a prayer she helped me remove my clothes. Then she herself opened a contraceptive packed and put one on me. Then she lied down on the cot and lowered her garments.
I saw her face. Many men might have seen her in that angle. She too must have seen many men the way she was just seeing my face. Unreal faces in distorted angles. She opened her lips inviting a kiss. I was reluctant. I thought of all those lips those had pressed on those receptive lobs. My eyes wandered all over the cot with soiled towels and bed sheets. I wanted to get over with it as early as possible.
She caressed my hands and said something that embarrassed me: “You are as strong as Salman Khan.”
I should have felt good or rather she might have thought that such a comment would bolster my ego. Instead, I felt defeated.
“Where are you coming from?” she asked.
As she had already referred Salman Khan I thought it would be good to say “Mumbai.”
I had exhausted myself. One of the shortest of sex encounters had felt the longest and torturous.
She got up, with her Salwar and panty somewhere below her knees she awkwardly walked to the other side of the room where there was a bucketful of water. She poured some water and pulled her garments up and tied the strings without letting the smile on her face go.
She threw an oily towel at me. “Clean,” she almost ordered.
I would have committed suicide than cleaning myself with that clothe. So I went to the bucket and tried to clean myself.
It was time to go. I mumbled something to make her feel good; just a human obligation.
“Take me with you?” she said.
My eyebrows shot up.
“Yes, take me with you to wherever you came from.” She was not smiling then. Her face had gone dark and she had her palms folded.
I thought I would die out of fear at that moment. She walked past me and unlocked the door.
Then she just walked into the darkness of the corridor.