My mother was trafficked from Malkangiri in Odisha, where I was born, to Sethbagan, one of the five red-light districts that make up Sonagachi in Kolkata. Years later, I came to the city with my grandmother in search of her. A mother I did not know in a profession I did not like. In a way, it was photography that helped me overcome that alienation.
In 2000, I was part of a UNICEF project that sought to empower the children of sex workers through photography. On the first day, our facilitator asked us, “Who do you love in your family?” I hesitated, before saying it was my mother. The second question was “Why?”. “I miss her,” I replied. He gave me a small compact analogue camera and asked me to photograph my mother and the surroundings in which she works. And so I did.
It’s challenging for a son, who is not an ‘outsider’, to take pictures of the locality where he lives. There is a sense of facing one’s own, a fear of one’s own emotions clouding the lens. But through the exercise, I began to understand my mother, her life and her work. My relationship with her is still complicated today, both on an emotional as well as an institutional level. This is an attempt to capture that relationship.
I’ve been told to my face that I’ve sold my mother all over again. But these words don’t stop me anymore. My mother has been supportive throughout. And I want to tell this story, because it’s the biggest story I know. The story that still sometimes makes me numb. How with his grandmother, a three-year-old was roaming the streets of Kolkata, looking for a woman named Kavita. How we didn’t find each other for a month, even though we were living in the next street. How I rediscovered the woman who is my mother.