Closed Cages A Walk In Mumbai’s Red Light Lane

Blue black hot congealed vapour, steams out, hitting right in the brain forcing the handkerchief straight to nose. The burning low sun hidden somewhere below the horizon glowed blood-red across the dying embers of rain clouds in the dirty skies.

                The rain water in the gloaming time sizzles with hot violet clouds of swirling grey gleaming dusts, on the asphalt roads as the darkness slowly envelopes the rows of hovels, smoke-soot saturated black huts glimmering with pink, orange and red lights, shimmering out numbers in a garish display of an outrage.

                The night is humid and drips from the tin roofs. Yellowed window-screens soften the garish red-pink lights to orange and ochre. Even then the coloured rays are strong enough to brown the edges of the papers trying to stop and hide the odour, vague thuds, groans, ear splitting shrieks, curses and bangs emanating from interiors.

                The interior is musty and hot like a steady plasma-torch. And the water in the air is mingled with limbering smoke, dripping tears, oozing sweats, secretes and drools as the short-lived transactions in the commerce of flesh take place in rooms with creatures seeking out each other in the damp ridden lust sweat soaked bed sheets or in the lightless alleys and musty attics.

                The blind grindings, gropings behind shutters, windows and screens in hovels and houses are all part of the transactions on this street, called, Foras Road—Mumbai’s centre of forbidden flesh market—an open secret as a wart on one’s nose.

                Walking into myriad iridescent fragments of the falling of the night, the walls grow together into the little corpuscular lanes trickling into gulch. The ice-cold time is so still that one can hear the bells of temples and churches tinkling far away and dissolving into the honking of cars smashing into the voiceless music of the night with red, orange and dirty yellow lights blazing away.

                The streets humming with women with décolletage and navel displaying clothes lounge on the doors speckled with green white alkali sprinkled down from the sheds under the lamplights, chewing away pan and bidi dangling from the mouth trying to dance with mocking smiles lurking on

bright red lipstick streaked lips.

                The fluorescent light sends a cold flickering light making everybody look grotesque and decayed. The night and street become red and yellow with shapes of women contours. And whores with come-on sweetness look, hang on doors with piss-puddles on sidewalks and rooms blasting out sweat and perfume wafting out in one wave whiff.

                But men like centipedes drinking the stench with sensitive filaments spill out on in the ectoplasmic dark lanes, choking the streets they dart furtively like walking wounded sperms seeking eggs in ovum to disappear in the pink tinted, ochre-bathed dark maws of cadavers of brothels. Every lane is dotted with men swarming like ants on a banana tree branches walking over the dark puddles like dark mirrors lying on the ground. On an empty sidewalk a woman stands in the shadows of light like a mirror-image with her face blotted out by the heat coughing out gobs of phlegm and a man starts talking to her pissing against a dumpster.

                A sickly pale girl with strands of hair waves like deep purple flowers in the forests of night, near a cigarette shop cries softly in her eyes and laughs as two drunk groping in the dark pissing in a broken toilet up one of the hovel come down collapsing and bouncing on the stairs crashing into the garbage cans. Laughing they pick themselves up as if nothing has happened and start bartering with the girl under the gleaming tin soot-coloured roof.

                The girl with two big round eyes glints with precocious maturity for her age and with smile crumbling into a dry vomit walk over a drunk lying in the vomit which has turned dry and golden. Pools of dirty water rippled in mud alleys and drains run like endless piss. All rows of hovels with huts patched up pieces of petrol tins and boards taken from drawers of semi-constructed buildings colour washed with cobalt-black blue having corrugated iron and aluminum roofs stand proudly over puddles roughly star-shaped saturated with cartons bleached in the dark brown water with greasy surface and streaking foul with detergent foam, reflecting lights in darker tones.

                In the dark, men jumping over the puddles, climb under the dirty yellow light burning at the top of wooden stairs to dusty floors, dark walls stained with mould and stuffy smelling rooms with no kitchen but light indiscreetly showing the cracked plaster and disemboweled tins. The climb is witnessed everyday and every night by thousands of roaches hidden beneath the moldings, wallpaper streaming out in columns on walls, ceilings, floors, crannies crevices and parading like commandoes on a hit and run raid.

                The air musty reeks of an abscess of shame and dead pigeons decomposed with squashed fans of feathers. A soft brooding darkness flits on the wings of an owl and scuffles of rats and hot wind whistling through pipes pierces the bubble of silence into shards.

                A frequent visitor to these lanes and hovels, Sadar introduces a woman calling her herself Pinky with roasted coffee eyes mirroring sadness and a sad face. Her breath congealed in blue vapour crawls along the walls in the composted dust swirling around and black liquid spilling over the wash basin.

                In the sodden cabin called a tenement costing Rs 5,000 per

month, Pinky says after the closure of dancing joints, “I am just living with memories and on the mercy of my patrons.” There is a silence, multiple silences as she chews on her memories, spun in a cocoon of the room and the face fogs into a pale sickle moon swimming in the darkness of cobalt-violet hair.

                Sadar interjects, “Oh you are now old…who wants to see you dance.” Pinky gazes with a sad face and eyes wet, dark and deep with lines radiating downward from them like a sun rays going down the horizon in lined pouch between her and her mouth and softly mentions about a woman who slept curled on the staircases and now considered monstrously old, in the darkness hears the scuffles of the rats waiting for her body to be nibbled away when she dies.

                “But I have two children in Rajasthan and I come from a family, from a community which has a tradition of dancing.” She looks at her sister and knows what happens in the flesh market—the dead are left for the hearse to take the body away. In this world like the corporate world there is hardly any time for anybody to shed a tear since the pus of the night blows a stench of poison of tomorrow.

                In a similar room another girl gives bath to her two year-old son. “I used to dance but now I sing in the live orchestra but I know what happens. After the closure most of them have joined the ranks of whores. Earlier it was not like this. The dancing joints gave us hard-earned money and we looked after our families. But now if they don’t then death is hiding in beds, cupboards under the staircases and down in the streets.”

                Varsha Kale, who had formed a union of girls dancing in bars before the imposition of ban in Mumbai, says, “The ban has increased the number of commercial sex workers in the city. Contrary to the image depicted in the films and society, girls dancing in the bars were not commercial sex workers. Like in any other profession it was upto the girl to decide whether she wanted to sell her body or not. Since many of the dancing girls were from communities which have a tradition of dancing, the dancing joints came as a powerful source of legitimate income.”

                Kale further agrees that the profession was fraught with exploitation, points out, “it is precisely for this reason that the union was formed so as to get them proper wages and make the job exploitation free. However, due to the regressive approach of the state government many girls who had become independent and were supporting their families have now fallen into the clutches of flesh traders. Of course many of them now take part in live orchestra. But not everybody can sing and many of them dance clandestinely which again is run by pimps.”

                A walk ahead and after jumping over sewers and gutters and a row of huts with roofs like skull caps come into picture with light bending down caressing the shadows like a fine sand sifting through red jellies with music drifting out and incense of unknown bodies beyond the door giving a choking glimpse of a world with clawing hands of men.

                The dancers in this colony known since pre-1947 period as Bachubhai ki Wadi have increased so also the number of whores. The tenements look up to the huge tinsel glass structures fast coming up. The tenebrous darkness between the colony and monstrous skyscrapers oscillates between the colonial structures and neo-colonial systems engulfing the society.

                Inside the sodden cabins with walls like orange and red prisms of heat and light, the dancers become orange and red. The porch also refracts in the night with colour and the dance, like wreckages floating on sea into the rhythm of a snake standing on its tail, swaying from side to side with a backward gyration.

                And men in starch white shirts and pants—the clientele—shower money in the spectral light signaling their choice to the pimps and inhale the fragrance of flowers in this archipelago of poverty. The monstrous glassy skyscraper symbol of the neo-colonialsm continues to look down upon the atavistic huts with a mocking tone, reflecting the glimmering market lights of the supermarket glowing like candles on a skull.

                Two different planes of reality reeking of same liquid. Two different dimensions smacking of same space-time curve and on coming out and grabbing the last train from the station, words of Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Brecht explodes in the mind: Student-Pity that land which has no heroes and Galileo replies-You are wrong my son. Pity that land which needs heroes.

By Prabhat Sharan from Mumbai

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