It was a few years ago when I first met who I call the sirens of Mumbai, the sex workers and bar dancers that inhabit a parallel world that most of the city's other residents rarely speak of or only grudgingly acknowledge.
Few know of the wisdom, courage, beauty and grit of these women (and men). They dance gracefully in the city's infamous dance bars and play the sexual power game more expertly than anyone I know. Many break gender binaries and understand and satisfy the needs of both men and women. For a price, they deliver on every sexual desire, however forbidden, and absorb the angst, suffering and frustration of millions living in India's maximum city.
To the world, they traded their bodies for money. In truth, they offered healing, satisfaction, affection and violence for very little.
I recall vividly when I first met them in a small room of an NGO office reached only by foot through narrow lanes in deep Dharavi. On our way there, we ran into a drug lord, a performing stuntman and an insistent fortune teller—that's Dharavi for you. The tiny room had a few women, along with three men and two hijras or trans individuals earnestly discussing issues of police harassment. A massive idol of Ganesha, the Hindu god of good fortune, watched over the proceedings unflinchingly from a corner.
As I watched silently, the group drafted a strategy to address a particularly difficult police person posted in their area. Even with differing opinions, this group showed each other respect and courtesy. I was amazed at their ability to strategise and address this trying situation so deftly. All these activities were supported under a massive HIV prevention project. This group had come together as a community to address issues of discrimination and human rights violations. The end goal was to bring together diverse groups, create greater empowerment, reduce discrimination and improve the quality of life for these populations, thereby reducing new HIV infections.
My work was to document this project and as a result I spent a lot of time with them. My openness about being gay made them more candid and expressive, creating strong bonds of friendship. I was, like them, on the margins of a heteronormative society. We were all outcasts in a society that treated us as criminals.
Ours was a friendship filled with the sharing of lived experiences. Our honesty made it possible to discuss even the most forbidden sexual desires with ease. I would tell them my stories full of foolish experiments and misadventures. In turn, they would narrate their most memorable or terrifying sexual encounters, reducing me to tears or leaving me helpless with laughter. We all had scars to prove these stories.
Despite the derision the world gave them, this group could give life lessons on self-respect, dignity, desire and love to anyone. Savitri, an HIV positive hijra, said one of the most profound things about surviving HIV to me one day: "Death and disease come to everyone. It's not the disease but people's hate that kills you."
As consumers of public health care, they were insightful about what constitutes well-being and prevention. Free drugs weren't enough, health must come with dignity, and with empowerment. "It's my body. Tell me what to do. Don't dismiss me because of what I do," Rohit, a male sex-worker said in one meeting. I wished then I could record their conversations and play them in medical school where facts trump human dignity.
For them, sex work was only an occupation. Their resounding roles were that of parents, supportive children, siblings and friends.
At night, my walks with them on their "business trips" were instructive. The men who dished them rejection and derision during the day, flocked to them in darkness, seeking their company. To the world, they traded their bodies for money. In truth, they offered healing, satisfaction, affection and violence for very little. Ironically, those that deviated from the established gender norm, the hijras, were often the most desired—a testimony to our society's double standards.
I walked one night cruising with the male sex workers on "the wall" opposite the Taj, Mumbai's famous landmark by the dirty ocean. In the full moon night the sea was a mellow silver. Post midnight, expensive cars stopped and windows came down. The boys negotiated successfully for a few minutes of passion. "Sometimes, in the middle of the night when the windows roll down, some of India's most desired faces are inside these cars," Peter, a 31-year-old sex worker and my guardian angel for the night told me. I didn't doubt him for a moment.
One night for kicks the boys decided to peddle me! They sent me to negotiate with a middle-aged Gujarati businessman. I was predictably poor at it. "Tune kya free mein karna hai ? (You want to do it for free)?" Peter yelled at me, interrupting the negotiation, as he dismissed the man with a wave, partly amused and partly angry.
For them, sex work was only an occupation. Their resounding roles were that of parents, supportive children, siblings and friends. Above all, they were human beings full of empathy and affection. Many were married and their sex work was an open secret. Despite this, they were devoted to their families and children. I marvelled at how easily they coped with these endless contradictions.
The hijras, who were especially fond of me, were the most fun and their stories about their "straight" lovers were incredible. This was a time well before the Indian Supreme Court recognised them as the third gender. Their lives were the most dangerous and violence was always lurking around the corner. Some had been thrown out of home, others raped for being who they were. Many lived with their families pretending to be men by day but dressing up at night, supporting their loved ones through sex work. The families pretended as if this part of their lives didn't exist.
"Sometimes, in the middle of the night when the windows roll down, some of India's most desired faces are inside these cars," Peter, a 31-year-old sex worker told me.
Almost a decade later, I reconnected with them, stuck on a long trip to Mumbai. There were numerous familiar faces though many others were missing, lost to tragedy, disease and death. It was a few days after World AIDS Day. As the development community and India's political establishment celebrated the fall in HIV cases, I learnt these groups were suffering extensively. Reduction in HIV funding had led to ending many community-based activities There are fewer workshops, more people had returned to sex work and the infections may be rising I was told. India's HIV program itself had been in the news for drug and diagnostic shortages.
Yet despite their adversities and challenges, constant hate and rejection, the sirens were just the same—joyous and endearing. They were moving forward happily even if the world had forgotten them. They are a reminder that happiness is a choice. We choose it, it doesn't choose us.