The Fading Red Light

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As builders take over Kamathipura to build residential towers, the queen of India’s red light districts heads towards certain extinction

Her silver dress inches above the knee, tiny breasts peeking out of the lycra dress, cleavage dusted with silver powder, the eunuch glitters in the night. The hours go by. She checks her watch and decides to light a cigarette. Tonight, no dhanda. She then heads towards the chawl in Gulli No. 1.

In another section of the neighbourhood, Munnibai, ageing prostitute, sits outside a storefront and watches the women pace up and down the street, and then disappear into the alleys, men in tow. Drunk men who won’t pay the fixed price. But what do you do? In times like these, you make do.

“Not for long. Kamathipura is dying like me,” she says. “We are all doomed. Young and old. Firm and infirm.”

Sometimes Munnibai chances upon a client who is willing to pay Rs 30 or so for her crumbling body. For a long time now, she has been living on the streets, getting high on drugs, and getting by. At 55, she is no match for the Nepalis with their fair complexions and straight hair, or the full-bodied women from Karnataka, who wear short, tight blouses and wrap the sari to seductively reveal the curves. They stand against the wall, chests heaving, hands on hips. Munni, on the other hand, is spent. Her breasts sag and her hair is limp.

India’s most famous red light district has withstood much in its lifetime. First, the sailors—the first patrons of Kamathipura, for whom it was set up during British times—went. Then came the onslaught of HIV AIDS, and with it the sudden drop in business.

But Kamathipura hung on, and on its 40 acres, pimps and prostitutes still roamed. In the evenings, the cages would be lit and the madams would sit outside and claim that this is where the desires of the city found release; they were the keepers of its sanity and suffered so others were healed.

Most of the madams have now moved back to their villages, or shifted to the suburbs. When Munni first arrived here, Apsara, a madam, took her in.  That bro- thel too has been sold off. Apsara moved to Sholapur, leaving 30 sex workers homeless. Those still here are fighting a losing battle. From Gulli No. 1, where Munni first found refuge in Apsara’s kotha, she can see the shining towers of the adjoining Bacchusheth ki Wadi.

What AIDS couldn’t do, a real estate boom is doing. Kamathipura sits on prime land on Grant Road, close to south Mumbai, and land here has become too precious to be a red light area. For years, builders have been trying to find ways to throw the prostitutes out, and they are finally succeeding. Its inhabitants are being lured with offers increasingly hard to resist. It is inevitable that the area will soon be redeveloped, and then it will be hard to believe that Kamathipura ever existed. Pravin Patkar, who has been working with women in the red light district since 1986 and runs an NGO called Prerana, says in the 1960s, at least 100,000 sex workers lived and worked here. Now, only 20 per cent remain.

“There has been a steady change of hands,” he says.

The builders stalked Kamathipura like predators. They bought unit by unit, first renting it and then convincing the landlord to sell out. Zeenath Pasha, madam of Hijra Kotha in Gulli No. 1, who inherited the second floor with its three rooms in Ramabai Chawl, was told her eunuchs would have no place in the new world. At first, Zeenath had thought they’d get a flat there as part of the redevelopment plan, as promised by the minister who she had heard say on television that nobody would be forced to move out of Kamathipura. They would not be able to do sex work, but then her adopted daughter Saleha would inherit the flat, and move into the new world easily. Social mobility, she says. But by the third meeting with builders, she knew she would have to go like her old friends to the other new world coming up in the distant suburbs of Nalasopara and Vikhroli, where prostitutes use the train tracks to service industrial workers.

“They have quoted Rs 40 lakh. I know the property is worth much more. They want a clean place so they want us out. All redevelopment plans are a farce,” she says. “Many have left. It is just a matter of time before everyone else goes. Sex will sell on the streets, in parks and under bridges. I give Kamathipura two more years. But the claim that organised sex trade and exploitation will be wiped out is a myth. We all know that.”

So far, she has refused to sell. But the brothel next to hers sold out to builders recently. “Where do you go from here?” she says. “This is a refuge. We share our earnings, and cook together.”

When she was 13 years old, Zeenath had run away from Hyderabad, and come to this brothel in Kamathipura, run by a ‘hijra guru’. She recalls how the street came alive at night. Cars, tongas and rickshaws would stop and men would stare at the eunuchs sitting by the windows, resplendent in their flowers and gold. Kabab shops and paanwalas did brisk business.

“At least 500 eunuchs lived here,” she says. “Now, we are just a few of us. What we lose is a tradition.”

They can’t fight the market. There are little collectives like the Kamathipura Bachao Samiti, but when the deluge comes, dams don’t hold out for too long, says Zeenath. She mentions the fate of Pila Haus (“a ghost of its former self”), Faras Road, and the brothels once known for their beautiful women from all over—Baghdadis, Bengalis, Nepalis and others. “Now, there is one identity. Cheap, dangerous sex,” she says.

In the earlier days, the Play House area, now known as Pila Haus, used to have eight theatres and the genteel class, both men and women, came in buggies for entertainment. The theatres now run old movies, mostly B-grade or C-grade films with pornography clips.

Falkland Road was documented three decades ago by photographer Mary Ellen Mark in her book by the same name. She captured the bustling streets, the stuffy rooms with colourful walls and the intertwined bodies of naked men and women. A 1981 photo shows cage-like structures on the ground floor from where women of all ages beckoned customers. Most of these cages have now given way to stores and restaurants.

Outside Gulshan Talkies, men sold goats and women sold themselves. In 1985, according to a shopkeeper who has been living in the area for 45 years, the fear of AIDS set in. The sex trade took a beating. Migrant workers moved in, rented the buildings and started embroidery units. In the windows where women once sat soliciting customers, men sit now, crouched over their work, working the needle in and out of colourful saris.

“Only five per cent of the sex trade has remained. These girls are from Bangladesh and I feel bad for them. But it is good for the area; it is now a clean space,” the store owner says.

In the lanes that feed Faras Road’s traffic, there are the girls who once worked in dance bars. After the Maharashtra government closed down the bars, many of these girls were forced into prostitution. A few still dance, and live in tiny rooms with other girls, and take cabs to the new illegal dance bars late in the afternoon. Entry to these bars is highly restricted. There’s one across Bombay Central station.

Then there are the famous mujrawalis. One of the best known is Sundarbai’s kotha, a whole chawl, where virgins from Agra, sold off by parents, are auctioned. Celebrations follow the sale, and Zeenath is invited to put a red mark on the virgin’s forehead before they all break their bangles in a ritual and the girl is initiated into the sex trade.

Zeenath is a repository of many such stories. At her brothel, they draw the curtains when a customer staggers in so that this reporter remains invisible. When a man stops and stares, Zeenath abuses him. It is she who takes me to Munnibai of the decaying body.

There are many like her, outcastes with nowhere to go. They came when they were too young, and now they are too old and diseased to start afresh. “Their fate is worse than that of a street dog. When they die, their bodies rot until somebody decides to give them a burial or the BMC comes and takes them away,” says Zeenath.

Munnibari became pregnant at the age of 14 in Kolkata. Her lover went back on his promise to marry her. Her mother taunted her. She moved clumsily around the house. Her body wasn’t ready for the ordeal of childbirth. But the child was born, and left behind. Munni boarded a train to Mumbai and found her way to Kamathipura.

Apsara, the madam in Pehli Gulli, looked at her and decided that this short, dark girl could only be sold cheap. With the Rs 25 or 30 she could charge, she had to take many customers to earn enough. Munni got to keep only a part of her earnings; the rest went to Apsara and towards rent. But those were good days compared to her present. She had a room, clients, dressed in red and blue saris, wore gold, and drank beer or whisky.

Munni is HIV positive but can’t think of leaving Kamathipura. Once she fell in love with a man and went with him. “He took me to Vikhroli. I was pregnant with his child. I stayed in his home for a few months. I was abused, and returned to Kamathipura,” she says.

Her daughter is married now, and rents a small room in Nalasopara. Munni visits her every week but returns to the pavement in Kamathipura, which gives her life a context. For Rs 10, she can get a cot in a pigeonhole brothel, make some money, buy some garda (brown sugar), and spend the rest of the night too stoned to care if she is sleeping on the pavement.

“The solution is to rehabilitate the women, and unfortunately that has not happened. Now, the Supreme Court has taken a stand and we are working towards it,” says Patkar. He feels it is a good thing that the brothels are being dismantled because they are exploitative. But the victims of Kamathipura’s redevelopment are the unorganised sex workers who can’t claim housing rights since they have no papers. Most brothels were rented spaces, and when these were sold to builders, owners made the money, not sex workers.

Patkar doesn’t buy the argument that Kamathipura should be preserved because it’s part of Mumbai’s cultural fabric. “That is for those who can afford such cultural symbols. It can be documented and kept aside but can’t be kept intact. We should not mix up values of culture and heritage with exploitation.” What is important, according to him, is to keep the debate focused on addressing the needs of those who get displaced. “The sex trade is growing. It is spreading to peripheral areas, and the growth rate is alarming,” he says.

Suman turns over and blinks. Munnibai is kicking her. “Get up. Tell your story.” Suman is sprawled under a Maruti Omni. She hauls herself up, walks dreamily across to the liquor storefront, where there is place to sit. She tries to speak and it is an inaudible mutter at first. She is doped on garda, an easily available form of brown sugar. On her arms, belly, legs, right cheek are grotesque scars of self-inflicted blade wounds. Her arms look like soap water on boil.


“To get my lovers to stay.”

“Do they?”


She points to Pinto, the man who woke her up, and whispers, “He stayed.”

Suman came from Karnataka years ago after her husband sold her, and was initiated into the sex trade in Gulli No. 14. She is part of the naka where you find the rejects of Kamathipura. They are easy to spot as they stand rigid against lamp posts with their glassy eyes and haggard faces, most of them HIV infected, all of them addicts.

When the fear of HIV emptied out the streets, Suman figured she could make money through her womb by selling infants. She had six or seven or maybe more children. She doesn’t remember. A few were sold off, a few died, and one girl was lost in the streets of Kamathipura.

“At first I used to fear death. Now, I don’t. Because I guess I am going to die soon,” she says. Suman is 30.

She says the doctor has told her not to have more children. But her belly is full and round and, even though she denies it, she is carrying another child. Her tight white shirt does not hide much. Munni has known her for years; they smoke together. Time is frozen for Suman—a joint, some local brew, a few customers if they aren’t horrified with the scars on her skin, and then a recline against the wall to smoke a cigarette. Her life has been a saga of money for sex in little hovels that the madam rented out in Gulli No. 11 at Rs 10 for a few minutes. She loves her man, but says she needs to fuel her addictions and has to take customers. 

“For Rs 20 or 30. But I don’t get many [customers]. I sell my blood,” she says.

A woman comes to her, asks her questions, and gives her money for food. She is from an NGO, and is surveying sex workers in the area.  Once, there were many NGOs in the neighbourhood. Now, only a few remain as the district shrinks. Zeenath says once the district is gone, such interventions will become difficult. There will also be other losses—family, community and home.

At Zeenath’s Hijra Kotha, Shehnaz emerges from the inner room, a bunch of incense sticks in hand. She places them in a hole in the wall near the entrance to the brothel. Kajal rushes in after her. It is Chand Raat, the night of sighting the Ramzan moon, and fireworks can be heard.

On madam’s designated seat in the main room sits Nisha, the heir apparent. She is undressing. She lifts her shirt and tosses it away. Kashish helps her rub Olivia bleach cream over her breasts, her thighs and all over. On the bed sits Zeenath, hands decorated with henna. “The moon may not shine on us from this patch of sky next year,” she says, and then breaks into a film song—“Jadoo hai, nasha hai, madhoshiyaan hain.” Then she looks out of the window and her eyes scan the residential units across the road. Beyond those, another crumbling block.

“Kashish and Kajal and others beg on trains. They started almost four years ago. Evenings they sit outside the chawl and wait through the nights for customers,” she says. “It is difficult for us to make even Rs 200 a day. There are ten of us here. We stay together and sometimes talk about the future and feel sad.”

Eunuchs go for Rs 130. But not all who walk up the brothel steps can pay the rate. So, they offer discounts. The crumpled notes are put away under Zeenath’s pillow. For Eid, Zeenath bought them all saris. As guru, she heads a family of nine eunuchs and one woman in the brothel.

It is evening, and Kajal, Kashish and Shehnaz queue up in front of the mirror facing the pinjras (cages). They line their brows, paint their lips, highlight their features. Then, they walk down. On the first floor, Kajal pauses to greet her lover, who lives there with other migrant workers and irons clothes for a living.

Kashish is married to a man who fell in love with her after he saw her standing outside the brothel. He moved in, and now lives on the roof, under an asbestos sheet. Zeenath talks about another love story. There used to be one Khadija Bibi, who took a lover named Irfan. He smoked charas and lived in the brothel. He died 15 years later of tuberculosis and Khadija Bibi was inconsolable. “Such love blossomed in these brothels. We call it pure,” she says. “Who will understand us and how we live and love if not here?”

Zeenath talks of the past with such fondness that Kamathipura seems like a place of romance, where love was “sexless” and there were “feasts with 40 dishes” and “gold and diamond jewellery that weighed in kilograms”.  But though she narrates her stories with great pride, we know that memory has succumbed to imagination and the need for dignity. She takes me to Mohammad Ali Road, the Nal Bazaar area for Chand Raat. I buy them bangles, and they buy me mehendi cones. They offer me tea, and they want me to remember Kamathipura for its gracious eunuchs and its tales of love and loss. When the towers come up, remember us, she says.

That evening, Kashish stood in a corner of Gulli No. 1, waiting for a customer. Nobody came.