Jan 24, 2014

Caged Within



On a recent visit to Mumbai, I spent a lot of time wandering about in South Bombay with a friend, soaking in the historic British era architecture. Our wanderings also led us to Crawford Market. Once a magnificent piece of British Architecture, it is ramshackle now, dirty and unkempt. As we walked through it, we inadvertently found ourselves infront of the pet market. The place was a cacophony of noise with the animals shoved in cages and baskets much too small for them. The worst were the birds, in small cages with hardly any space to even flutter their wings. It was not pleasant to see and we left in a hurry.
Later, while having dinner at one of South Bombay’s famous sea facing Cafes, I still couldn’t get the caged animals out of my mind. The cages made me remember something I had read once and I asked my friend if she had heard about ‘The cages of Falkland Road’. Falkland road lies in the heart of Kamathipura - the notorious red light district of Mumbai. It is said that in some of the hovels the girls are actually kept in rooms with iron bars on the windows. Just like cages. They are not allowed to venture out on their own and are beaten and abused till they ‘break’. Then they are pushed into prostitution.
We got talking about it I don’t know how or why we decided that we must go and see if it is true for ourselves. I don’t know what it was, a morbid curiosity or perhaps we were just 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 to take us there.

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 the taxi go. Still determined, we stopped the next one, the driver, although curious and surprised, told us that he would take us. We told him we needed him to drive us round and round the area and then drop us back here. “Aap log journalist hain” he asked us, eyeing our backpacks and cameras. “Haan haan” we lied conveniently.

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

We turned off into one of the smaller roads and suddenly the mood of the street outside changed drastically. The first thing I noticed were 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?

There were infact shops selling paan and cigarettes, also a few small grocery shops and even a small mobile store. And suddenly there were a lot of men on the streets, sauntering down the road, standing grouped near the shops, smoking, talking. A few even peeped into our Taxi. Unconsciously both of us shrank back against the seat.

Still everything seemed as it would in any other slum in India. Clothes dried in balconies, children ran about on the streets or peeped out of the windows in 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. Till we looked at their faces. The faces were caked with makeup. Bright, red lipsticks, eyes thick with mascara. Most were provocatively dressed, bare bosoms and bellies everywhere. Weaving in and out of sight as the lights from the passing traffic picked them out, They looked garish, almost hurting the eye.

What hit me the most was the fact that their faces seemed without emotion, almost harsh. Or perhaps the emotions were ruthlessly shoved down and suppressed. May be that is the only way they knew how to survive here.

The taxi continued to move slowly through the crowded lanes.

And then we turned a corner and perhaps saw what we had come to see. A few dilapidated buildings, tightly packed together. Almost tottering under the weight of the rooms piled haphazardly on top of each other.

In one of the buildings, the rooms on the ground floor had huge windows with bars on them.Women stood inside, looking out. Some sat on stools. We could see some children. Girls who seemed as young as 12-13 years old, made up like grownups, skimpily dressed. Showing themselves off – when they had nothing to show off still!
Out on the road, I saw a young girl talking to a pot- bellied middle aged 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.

There was decadence everywhere. Both within and without.

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. As if by clicking them and putting their pics for the world to see 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 unexplainable need to feel the fresh sea breeze on our faces, to look at the wide expanse of the sea stretching seamlessly in front of us and perhaps try to forget what we had just seen …..

77 comments:

  1. Reminds me of the time I went on a tour of G.B. Road. It is sickening, I agree

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  2. Some things that we humans do defile the soul to even look on - that feeling of guilt about being an involuntary participant only because we do not actively fight against it.

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    1. It does defile the soul Suresh and yes we do need to fight actively against it.

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  3. I remember the first time I passed through that area. I must have been in school and there was a large wholesale market that my mother used to frequent. Sometimes I accompanied her. And in those days, we took the local buses. On one such ride, I remember the route went through Kamathipura. I had no idea about red light district or prostitution but yes the change of scene hit me. I remember many men in the bus gravitating to the left side to get a better view and I remember shrinking next to my mother who looked straight ahead. There seemed something very strange about those women and the entire atmosphere felt very uncomfortable. But I did not ask my mother. I sensed her discomfort too. That was it. I never remember to have passed that part of town again. I can empathize with how you felt. You just brought back some very uneasy memories. Like you pointed out, glitzy streets hide murky secrets and places that we all want to wipe away from our consciousness.

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    1. Very well said Rachna. We do want to wipe away such memories from our consciousness. It makes us very uneasy when come face to face with this reality.

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  4. so vividly written.....the thought process, the experience and the feelings....you have gone into the dark corner of human nature,seen it, experienced it and expressed it beautifully!!


    http://www.myunfinishedlife.com

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    1. Thanks Sushmita. It was a very unsettling experience and I have simply penned down what I felt.

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  5. I guiltily enjoyed the visual imagery the post threw at me. Markets, birds, streets, make-up, bars, children, stools, red sequinned tops. I did, because you created the scene for me so well. But what I want to mention is how the post made me 'feel' - for the women, the birds, and you in that taxi. No, I did not feel guilty for living a different existence from the ones with stone cold eyes, but I felt a connect with all three. Maybe because I am a woman too. My goosebumps are yet to subside.
    May I say how brilliantly you touched me with this post?

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    1. Thank you. It was a very intense experience - and a very disturbing one. Glad you liked it !

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  6. This was quite some post, I really have to admire the way you helped me visualize the entire scene before me with these words of yours. And just like Suresh mentioned in his comments, a large part of me felt extremely helpless at the fact that despite all the advances our country makes, there are issues like these which go largely unnoticed by everybody concerned.

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    1. Thank you Mahabore. The experience was disturbing not only because of what i saw but also because I felt very helpless about it.

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  7. What an expressive post, Ruchira. It doesn't matter that you felt unable to take pictures, your writing painted the sights and smells of the place very vividly. And, perhaps even more than the sights and smells, I could actually see the anguish in your mind.

    I have nothing to add to the millions of sentiments people like you and I have already shared about the moral decadance of our society.

    This was a great post.

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  8. You almost created a picture, frame by frame. The honesty of thought comes through and touches the reader. I have never witnessed anything like this but I can understand why you felt,the way you did. An unfortunate reality.

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    1. Thank you Alka. Yes, a very unfortunate reality. Leaves you extremely disturbed but also helpless.

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  9. Truly lost for words. Reminded me of what Deepti Naval had written about her own experience in 'The Mad Tibetan....'

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    1. Thank you. Glad you liked it. I have read the story and I think she also mentions the cages in her story.

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  10. Yes, that was quite an evening I must admit. One of my most intense days in the city and the only thing I am glad about is that you were there with me. Both the caged animals and the women moved me deeply and there is nothing I can write that can convey the storm that was going on in my mind.
    My mom in law who grew up in a Parsi area near Kamathipura told me how it was initially being a place where only British soldiers would come to seek out Anglo sex workers. Back then it used to be called 'safed (white) gali'. Apparently the term red light originated because red bulbs were lit outside 'busy' rooms in the brothel.
    I do wonder though that are so called 'normal and decent' people any different than the caged women. Aren't most of us prostituting our souls, caged up in office cubicles we hate going to or empty, abusive marriages, just because we need to survive?

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    1. Piya, yes that was quite an evening and I am glad you were with me. There are different sort of cages Piya, some are mental, some physical. I think mental cages give us as much anguish as the physical ones .. If not more.

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  11. I am so happy you decided not to click any pictures. Often the socities treats these women like some social outcaste and that is totally wrong in a lot of aspects.

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    1. It is very very wrong to treat them as social outcasts Ritika. Thank you for your comment and welcome here !

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  12. A profoundly poignant post. Even after a decade in Mumbai I am safely cocooned in my own world.

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    1. Thank you Janaki. We all live wrapped up in our safe cocoons !

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  13. Thank you for writing this. It is so easy for me to pretend everyone has the same life as I. Those poor women.

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  14. Because I know, because we spoke.........because this is how it is, unfortunately, this post could only be written by you.

    And I remember how you mentioned about the pictures too, Ruch. And I am glad you finally penned this. On the lines of your Jallianwallah Baug, this post has got my standing ovation.

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  15. I have never visited a red-light area but you painted such a realistic picture with words that I almost saw it in between the lines. Life , I guess is so un-just for some. Can't imagine what these women go through :(

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    1. Thank you Akanksha. Yes life is really unjust for some and we are lucky to live such sheltered lives.

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  16. Visually evocative narration. Was like watching a short film..
    This is the seedier side of Mumbai, well explored.

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  17. Left me speechless Ruchira. Admire you for even vising such a place. Some experiences, sights and sounds touch you in ways that you can never fully comprehend.. Your words just did that to me.. I don't even know what to say apart from this - We all make peace with the silences and noises within us and outside of us.. till we go to a better space / time / world.. My first visit to your blog, and wishing you more power in your writing

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    1. Thank you so much Nischala. Glad you liked it. And welcome here !

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  18. I don't know what to say...I'm speechless...

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    1. Thank you ! The experience left me speechless too.

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  19. No words. Reading this itself has affected me deeply.This is one of your best posts.

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  20. Poignant. Gut wrenching. Startling. Silencing. Tumultuous. Have read this post at least 3 times and each time it a dimension is added to the imagery it evokes. Very beautifully painted.

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    1. Thank you Jayanti. Thank you ! That is all I want to say.

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  21. Why do I have tears of shame floating in my eyes? A big hug to you, girl for penning this down for us to get a glimpse of your experience. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you for reading Kajal. Such things do affect us deeply.

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  22. Alas the ugliness is always hidden way deep in our cities. You had the courage to through that journey is commendable cause seeing all this must have been very hard as just reading it is giving me the creeps!

    well written, Ruch

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    2. Thank you. Glad you liked it.

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  23. Applause to you and your friend for having the guts to see what we general public aren't "supposed" to see. But I will talk about the way you wrote it, it was divine.. with every line I read, there was guilt and respect, I pictured everything you wrote there. Glad I come across this piece of Art.

    -Amritt

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    1. Thank you Amrit. So glad you liked it.

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  24. I am new to your blog. Saw it when Janaki posted it in the Facebook. But could not help not comment. Kudos to you and your friends for not making a show out of them. Very well written but more than that your article has touched the hearts of many readers.

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    1. Welcome here Rubina. So glad you liked the post.

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  25. It is sad we cannot do anything when girls young as 12-13 are pushed into flesh trade. Very strong message... May be people like you will bring about a change.

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    1. Thanks Farida. Glad you liked it.

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  26. I wouldn't have dared to go Ruchira. It is one thing to read about it, it is quite another to see it with your own eyes. It makes it all so personal, so in your face. I'd have nightmares for days!

    Reblogging this, may I?

    Dagny

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    1. It was totally in my face Dagny.And I could not get the images put of my mind for days. Please feel free to reblog this !

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  27. The pain you felt can be felt through the words you wrote... I could paint the picture you saw and feel as hapless as you did... And that is what separates a fine and astute writer from the rest... The ability to make the reader feel the emotion being expressed in words, making them immerse into the writing and feel empathy.. Beautifully written... I intend to visit this page more often now in the hope for more such expressions exuding from your pen...

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    1. Welcome here Seeta and I am so glad you could connect to my post. A writer can have no greater compliment.

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  28. Having lived in Bombay for years,I know what is it all about.
    You have expressed your "trip" so well that some of us feel us having seen it ourselves.
    Just imagine ,what these girls go through every day,every night?
    They are just poor helpless kids.
    But then,that's life.

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  29. Very poignant Ruch. Wonderful writing because this has completely come from your heart. It left me feeling as though I was with you feeling the exact same emotions. Thanks for bringing this fact out in your own beautiful way.

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    1. I am so glad you liked it Sandhya. Thank you !

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  30. I felt sick in the stomach just reading your account. Young girls abducted, facing the worst of humanity everyday of their lives and just waiting to die.

    Or maybe there are a few spirited ones who rise from this muck and survive.

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    1. I do hope there are a few spirited ones Purba.

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  31. Not sure how to react after reading this. U just said it all. I would not hav felt any different. I just had a glimpse of such people once in a remote village and I guess what I witnessed was lot better than what U actually saw !

    Not really sure how but I shall pray that they flee and live the way they want to ..

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  32. Sometimes, words sit down, and just gulp down what you read. Mine are in the same state, trying to take it in, understand, and realize, that while i sit on my cozy white couch, reading the post, there is someone, and many of them, who are just like me, but are being eaten away, punctured to the core, killed every night, and left to live, and they do. No, these words didnt do enough justice. Your post was somehow like a visual roll, like a voice over of a documentary. Credulously penned down thoughts.

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  33. Such a powerful post, Ruchira. Shook me up to the core. Yes, we want to forget that such a side to our society exists. The one that sees no difference between cages animals and kids as long as they feed its fancy and lust. Actually seeing it can be devastating. Hats off to the organisations that are working with these women and children and trying to get them out of the hell they live in. Hugs.

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  34. you described it wonderfully.. I felt I was there with you in the taxi..
    and omg little girl being trafficked - so sick ...I really get so depressed hearing about these things..

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  35. The visual imagery created with your words made me uncomfortable and sick. I have resided all my life in Mumbai but have never ever gone close to this area but am acquainted with it through newspaper reports and film clippings. We live a safe life far away from the the squalor but can imagine what the ladies/girls undergo to sell a part of their souls to earn a living .

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  36. This post has been selected for the Spicy Saturday Picks this week. Thank You for an amazing post! Cheers! Keep Blogging :)

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  37. Just reading about it has given me jitters and you have been there. Such experience is bound to shake you from within and makes you question your own life. Wonderfully written Ruchira.

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  38. A great post indeed.. I felt I could visualize everything as it happened.
    But I am feeling sick too at the thought that girls/female have to sell their body to earn. Wish things like this could end. This reminds me again that seriously we live a blessed life.

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    1. I agree, we do live very blessed lives ! Thanks for reading and welcome here !

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  39. I dont have words to express how I am feeling after reading this post. Can understand how you must have felt after seeing all. I get feeling of anger and guilt whenever I read about such things..

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    1. Thanks so much for reading Ravindra

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  40. Congratulations! Your blog post has been selected for the Best of 2014- Spicy Saturday Picks Edition at BlogAdda! You can check it out here - http://adda.at/BAspicy14
    Thanks for a wonderful blog post! :)

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    1. Thank you BlogAdda for the honour !

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