18/06/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

A Fleeting Encounter: The Women Of Kamathipura

AFP via Getty Images
An Indian sex worker looks on past curtains in the red light district of Kamathipura in Mumbai on August 23, 2010, ahead of the Hindu festival of 'Raksha Bandhan'. Prostitution is illegal in India but police often turn a blind eye to the trade. There are around 1.2 million sex workers in the country, according to the National AIDS Control Organisation. AFP PHOTO/ Punit PARANJPE (Photo credit should read PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images)

On a recent visit to Mumbai, my friend and I were sitting in one of the numerous sea-facing cafes that dot the coastline when somehow the conversation turned to Kamathipura - the city's notorious red light district. Sitting in that posh café, Kamathipura seemed distant and unreal. Yet, according to my friend, it was just a stone's throw away.

I don't know how or why we decided to go there. May be it was just voyeuristic curiosity or perhaps we were trying to prove something to ourselves. At first the idea seemed preposterous, almost ridiculous. But soon we found ourselves out on the road flagging down taxis.

The driver of the first taxi looked us up and down and positively leered at us when we told him where we wanted to go. We stepped back and let him pass. Still determined, we stopped the next one. The driver though surprised, agreed to take us. "Aap log journalist hain?" he asked us, eyeing our backpacks and cameras. "Haan haan," we lied.

"It seemed as if they were normal working women out on a normal day, until we looked at their faces."

We drove through South Bombay, with its glittering high rises and where land prices vie with those in Manhattan. It was difficult to imagine that just beyond this shine and glamour lay Kamathipura.

We turned into one of the smaller roads and suddenly the mood of the street outside changed drastically. The first thing I noticed was the buildings. There were no high rises here. Just old, shabby buildings, squatting on either side of the road, dingy, dirty, the paint peeling. The streets became narrower. There were signs of filth and squalor everywhere. We looked out of the window expectantly, although we were not really sure what we expected to see.

Did we expect a scene out of a Hindi movie? Shops selling gajra and paan and music floating out of the houses?

Instead we saw shops selling cigarettes, a few small grocery stores and even a small mobile outlet. Suddenly we could see a lot of men, sauntering down the street, standing grouped near the shops, smoking, talking. A few even peeped into our taxi. Reflexively, both of us shrank back against the seat.

Still everything seemed as it would in any other poor neighbourhood in India. Clothes dried in balconies, children ran about on the streets or peeped out of the windows on the top floors.

Then we saw them. The women of Kamathipura.

Some stood alone, on street corners or in front of the houses. Some stood in groups of two or three chatting nonchalantly. It seemed as if they were normal working women out on a normal day, until we looked at their faces. They were caked with makeup. Bright red lipsticks, eyelashes thick with mascara. Weaving in and out of sight as the lights from the passing traffic picked them out, they looked garish, almost hurting the eye.

"We could also see some children. Girls who seemed as young as 12-13 years old, made up like adults, skimpily dressed."

What hit me the most was the fact that their faces seemed without emotion, almost harsh. Perhaps years of suppressing their feelings had taken their toll. Maybe that was the only way they knew how to survive here.

The taxi continued to move slowly through the crowded lanes.

We turned a corner and saw a few dilapidated buildings, tightly packed together, almost tottering under the weight of the rooms piled haphazardly on top of each other.

Women stood inside the rooms looking out of barred windows. We could also see some children. Girls who seemed as young as 12-13 years old, made up like adults, skimpily dressed. Showing themselves off, even though their childish bodies really didn't have much to show.

Out on the road, I saw a young girl talking to a pot- bellied man almost double her age. She looked ill at ease in a tight black skirt and red sequined top. Her young face ridiculously comic under the heavy make-up. Turning, she led him inside a room.

Suddenly we felt ashamed of ourselves, sitting there protected in our taxi, staring at them like they were on display. We had our cameras ready but we couldn't bring ourselves to click any pictures. Somehow it seemed indecent to do so. If we took photographs and then displayed them to the world to see, we felt we would be invading their privacy, insulting them further.

I felt physically sick. There was a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if someone was twisting my guts. I was horrified by what I saw and yet I couldn't take my eyes off the scenes in front of me. It was like looking at a stinking, festering sore -- something which repulsed me, but fascinated me at the same time.

Finally we decided to head back. We had not spoken much to each other, my friend and I. This drive had shaken us both more than we were willing to admit.

We decided to get off at Marine Drive and walk. There was an inexplicable need to feel the fresh sea breeze on our faces, to look at the wide expanse of the sea stretching in front of us and perhaps try to forget what we had just seen.

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