You are a woman of questionable character if you step on the boat that takes you to Ahiritola. Every time I sit on the boat, admiring the calm of the Hooghly River, I feel several eyes rest on me from time to time. As the boat goes under the Howrah Bridge; the tourists shuffle a little, murmur a little and some even point at it, making the natives like me a little less bitter about the eternally crowded steam boat.
Ahiritola is only a short walk away from Sonagachi, which can be counted among the most secular regions of the country. People of every caste, every religion and every social status frequent these filthy, congested streets. These streets are also home to several women from the neighboring Bangladesh apart from women from the whole of India. In one of the numerous matchboxes that these women call homes, lives Sarvani. Her room on the second floor of a building similar to hundreds of other buildings in the area is mostly occupied by her bed. The only other furniture in the room is a cabinet in one corner in which she keeps a copy of ‘Bitter Soil’ along with her 3 saris. This was the maximum number of saris she had ever owned. The oldest of them is a white cotton sari with red borders, which she wore every year on the last day of Durga Puja. Above the cabinet lay a small idol of Goddess Durga, riding a lion.
A similar idol lies on my study table on which I write this. Above the study table, on the blue wall hangs a picture of a middle aged woman. She looks like any other woman her age, apart from a scar that one would see only on a second, more meticulous look. While the dark circles around her eyes are a little darker than usual, the eyes themselves are an enchanting grey. The rarity of the colour makes me feel fortunate on having inherited those eyes.
It is due to this colour that the woman in the picture was named Abha. But after her mother died, her father gradually began calling her Bidya. He was hardly ever in his senses to even remember her name and Bidya was more familiar. For the education of the children of the surrounding area, there was a government school in the neighborhood where Abha lived. Nishtha, Abha’s neighbor, was also a student there. They had been friends for as long as they could remember, for their homes were separated by a thin wall. So Abha would often watch as Nishtha would do her homework.
Once, Abha’s father dragged himself home after two days of absence and threw a hot pan in the children’s direction when he saw Abha sitting on the neighbor’s doorstep looking into a book with Nishtha rather than returning inside and giving him food. He had already drunk the little money he earned. Arguing with him about the permanent absence of food would come to no avail. So Abha filled a glass with the coldest water she could find and pressed it to her cheek in hopes of curbing the swelling. Her father had fallen to the floor in deep slumber soon after she picked their only cooking utensil and returned to her home. It was surprising that Abha did not shed a single tear, considering the fact that it was the first time her father had hit her.
A few days after Abha’s fifteenth birthday, her father did not come back home for a week. With a halt on the little money he used to give whenever he felt generous made her realized that she could not survive on sugar water forever. She knocked on the door to the home where her mother used to work as a house help, hoping her services would be needed. A woman a few inches taller than her opened the door. She was wearing a yellow cotton sari. Her hair had been left loose, so they brushed her lower back as she walked. The parting of her hair was filled with vermilion and between her eyebrows sat a yellow bindi. Her eyes, rimmed with kohl, looked at her in question.
“Can I talk to Roshini Madam?”
“She died a few years ago. I am her daughter-in-law.”
“Oh! My mother worked for her. Do you need someone to help you around the house?”
“Let me ask Baba.”
Then she asked her to come in and went in towards the room where Roshini madam used to tell Abha stories from the Ramayana while her mother finished the chores of the house. A few moments later, a balding man clad in a Khadi kurta with a copy of ‘Geetanjali’ in one hand and round spectacles in another came out of the room.
“You are Bidya’s daughter?” He asked, almost bewildered.
“Why did she not come back after her pregnancy? She had promised to come back a few months after her child’s birth.” He probed further when Abha nodded a yes.
“She could not survive the delivery.” Abha replied, looking around the house where she would so often accompany her mother, unable to talk straight when her mother was mentioned.
Abha got the job. For the first time, she did not have to sleep hungry for almost a week. After that week, on Sunday, she pulled out the only bed-sheet in her house, threw in both her saris, the idol of Goddess Durga that her mother used to pray to and knotted the sheet. She had saved forty rupees from the seventy rupees that she had received as an advance. These she tucked in the blouse she was wearing and covered it with her sari.
The woman who had hired her loved to cook for her husband. On weekends, she would spend the entire day in the kitchen and at dinnertime; she would place Doi Macch or Lamb Curry on the table.
“Sometimes I feel as though Bipin loves fish and lamb more than me.” She would laugh.
On Saturday, when Abha was cleaning off the dust from the portrait of Rabindra Nath Tagore that hung in Bipin’s study, he spilled a glass of water on the table on which he had been correcting notebooks. When she bent next to Bipin’s chair in order to dry the table, she felt a slight brush on her behind. The next day, he spilled his tea, and the brush on her behind became firmer. She jerked upright as Bipin went back to his notebooks, without looking at her. Near the elbow of the hand that had touched her was a mole that Abha could never forget.
Back at home, her father had finally found his way back home. When he did not find her home, he took the entire neighborhood by storm. She returned to find that he had barged into the room that was Nishtha’s home, searched every bit of it, and had gotten into a drunken duel with Nishtha’s father. So now he sat on the bunk, bruised and looked towards Abha with red, swollen eyes. When she explained that she had gone to work, he picked up the pan again and beat her until he was too tired to stay awake.
“Does the money I bring not fill your stomach?” He would scream in between hits. Abha did not know if she should laugh or cry. When he went to sleep, Abha pulled the bed-sheet from under him, packed her belongings and ran.
Today if you ask Abha about it, she will tell you that she wishes she had run in the opposite direction. Or may she could have taken a stroll to someplace else that she had even remotely known. But that night she ran into the darkness and dropped on a fisherman’s boat near the Ganges, unable to summon the strength to crawl towards the slums that she could dimly see at a distance.
An old man woke her up next morning. She told him why she was there, that she needed a place to live and was willing to work. The man took her into the slums, gave her food and asked her to wait. A woman arrived a few hours later. The end of her sari was thrown recklessly over her shoulder, so that her half of her blouse and her bulging stomach were on display. Abha tried to fix the woman’s sari when the old man was not looking, but withdrew when the woman raised her eyebrows. She took Abha through the streets of Kumartuli, which were decked with countless life size idols of Goddess Durga in several unfinished stages.
The minute they entered Sonagachi, several people came at them, trying to buy or sell. It puzzled Abha, for their behavior resembled that of vegetable vendors, but there were no vegetable carts around them. Walking past them, the woman took her to a three story building. It was squashed between two other buildings that were just as narrow, but a floor taller. It was early morning, but the low voices she heard as she followed the woman upstairs made it evident that the inhabitants of the building were awake. She was asked to settle in a tiny room and come down for work in an hour.
Abha changed her clothes. The wounds her father had given hurt her muscles but not a lot of them was visible on her skin. He had been too drunk to remember to heat the pan this time. An hour later, she joined the four other women who were waiting downstairs. Their faces were covered in powder and the kohl around their eyes was darker than Abha had ever seen. The ends of their saris were tucked in their petticoats instead of going over their shoulders. Try as hard as she may, she could not stop staring at them. A few moments later, the woman who had brought her returned with two men, both unsteady on their feet.
“Take whichever you want and leave in half hour.” The woman said, before lighting a cigarette and leaving from the door she had entered. Abha’s eyes widened as she looked from one man to the other. One of the men caught her shivering form when she tried to escape through the same door. He grabbed her waist and dragged her up the stairs, deaf to her screams and blind to the horror in her eyes as he threw her on her bed. He stood over her for a few seconds as she pleaded with her hands folded, tried to kick him away from her and cried her heart out.
Today she laughs at how naïve she was back then. She remembers the man’s eyes that looked at her as though she were a bitch in heat and he a dog. Those first few days, the horrendous green paint on the walls of her room looked a lot uglier. But then, a month before Durga Puja, a priest with a few men from Kumartuli came to ask for a handful of soil from their doorstep. This was to be added in the idols of the goddess, because of the ‘high virtue content’ in them. After all, ‘a man drops his virtues at a sex worker’s doorstep.’ When she saw the first man who had raped her standing right behind the priest, Abha stopped struggling with her clients. The other women around her became her friends. They had already formed a community of their own. So when Abha joined in, they gave her a new name, Sarvani.
The next year, they refused to give the soil to the priest. The tradition was broken, and the prostitutes who were made goddesses for a day chose to stay prostitutes all year round. A few years later, when Sarvani, my mother, was expecting me, she made no attempts to find my father, just like all the other women in Sonagachi. She sent me far away from Sonagachi as soon as I enrolled myself in college, but she made sure that I taught her to read and write before I left.