How did you come to live in Mumbai?
Baby I was born in Bihar, but my father had a fruit business in Bada Bazaar, Kolkata. We shifted when I was a few months old. Our business was doing well — there was no shortage of anything. I had three sisters and four brothers. I was the youngest. My sisters had all been married off by the time I was born.
Police Officer I was born in Nasik, I have lived in Mumbai for 22 years. I was the only son in my family, and I moved here to join the force in 1990.
Did you experience a culture shock seeing the way people lived in Mumbai?
Police Officer It was slightly jarring, but I was from Nasik, which had a grameen sanskriti, and I knew that Mumbai was going to be different. I got used to it quite quickly.
Baby This is still the case in everyone’s house. If you have a young daughter, she won’t be allowed outside unaccompanied because of what people will say about her. I fought a lot of this at home. My mother died when I was 14. Until then, I had done what I wanted, worn what I wanted — trousers, lungis, shorts — and she had been fine with it. Once she died, the restrictions began. I was told not to go out, not to talk to anyone, not to study. None of us had been sent to school, but I really wanted to go. I’d get beaten up everyday, but go anyway. I read up till Class V in an Urdu medium school, then worked at a teacher’s house and took books as payment.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Police Officer A policeman.
Baby I wanted to marry and have children (laughs), but I also wanted to be educated and live well. I did marry when I was 16, against my family’s wishes. But when I was 22, my husband died and left me with two children, one seven months old and the other four. In Kolkata, I met a woman who used to live opposite my mother’s house, a disreputable woman, but someone we had always cared for. She told me that if I worked as a maid in Mumbai, I would make about Rs 8-10,000 a month, and plenty of families let young children stay with their mothers in the house. I was in a desperate situation and needed money to raise my children. I agreed and took the train to Mumbai.
What happened next?
Baby When I reached Mumbai, the house we went to was full of sex workers, who solicited men on the streets. The women smoked and drank and gambled all day. I was in shock. But I had no other choice. The women felt bad for me. They said no one would force me to sleep with men, they would give me Rs 20 to wash their clothes, so I managed to survive for a while. But then the old woman took me to another pimp in Malad. That woman was awful — she would beat me, she wouldn’t feed me or the children.
(Baby’s voice breaks)
She took me to Kandivili station and said, “Smile at every man that walks by, wink at him, call him.” Instead, I kept crying. She put the fear of the police into me. “If you cry,” she would say, “the police will come and take us away. They will take your children and send them to a foster home where bad things happen.”
After a week, she found a customer for me. It was the first time I slept with someone I didn’t know, and because I had no choice. He paid me Rs 1,000, the woman took Rs 600 and gave me the rest. That’s when I realised I needed to leave. If I had to sell my body, I wanted the profits.
How did you become a bar dancer? How is it different from sex work?
Baby I returned to the old woman from Kolkata and threatened to tell the police about her. I took the little money I had, went to a beauty parlour, bought makeup and clothes and went to a bar to become a bar-dancer. As a bar girl, it isn’t necessary for you to sleep with customers — you have the option of sleeping with them if you need the money.
There are three kinds of bars: disco bars, where you can dance but it’s also compulsory to provide sex to the customer. There are the cassette bars, where the customers watch you dance and choose who they want to make an ‘entry’ with. It’s up to the girl to decide if she wants to go with him or not. Finally, if you cannot dance, the third kind of bar allows you to just serve alcohol and be a personal waiter. You stand by the table, sometimes sit with the customers, but they can’t touch you unless you want it.
At all the bars, the men buy you drinks, smoke with you, dance with you. It is completely different from being on the streets or in a brothel. It is much safer. The customer cannot force you to do anything that you don’t want to because he wouldn’t be allowed back into the club. We take them for quite a ride — ask them to take us shopping, buy us gifts, take us out to eat, tell them we need to pay rent. Bar girls don’t agree to have sex easily, we exploit the men just as much as they exploit us (laughs).
How did your equation with the police change at this point?
Baby At the bar, they became a bit of a joke; all the men did, and policemen were often customers too. Every once in a while, when they were about to raid a bar, we would get tipped off first. The waiters and bouncers would distract them at the door while the girls escaped through a back entrance. Every bar would have an empty water tanker handy nearby. We would go hide in it. No policeman would think to look for a group of girls inside a tanki! It became a game — we would be giggling inside, as we heard their jeeps pull away. Sex workers are scared of reporting rape because they know that the police will only humiliate them further. After all, how can a prostitute complain of being forced to have sex? But in the past seven years, I’ve realised that all policemen are not bad and all prostitutes do not have hearts of gold. The reason we need to be educated about our rights is so that we can tell the policemen about our troubles — if they are good, they help us, regardless of whether the troublemaker is a politician, a goon or a family man.
Have you known officers who refuse to help women because they are sex workers, or have “asked for it” in some way?
Police Officer This is very wrong. It is the police’s first duty to help the weak, so women and children are very important. I didn’t see sex workers as any different from other kinds of women. At the same time, I do feel that women should not drink or smoke openly.
Baby When I became an active member of the sex worker community, trying to educate the girls about the risk of STDs and AIDS as well as their legal rights, I would make sure I came to this police station every day. Each day, one of the policemen would try to convince me that I was a good woman, doing something bad. I would laugh, I would cajole, but I wouldn’t stop arguing with them, “If I am bad then what about the men that come to me? The officers from this station? The family men of this society? They come for pleasure, I do it for money.” Every day, I would show up here with other women like me, we would tell them our personal stories, the circumstances in which we lived, how we came to Mumbai, the battles we’ve had to wage to keep our children fed. We tell them about the diseases we can carry, how unsafe we have felt, and the precautions we are learning to take. We bring them to our meetings so they can hear about our everyday battles — getting children admitted to school, paying rent, getting medical treatment.
So how did things begin to change?
Police Officer We have always been sympathetic to their cause. Now, we hold a special meeting every week on Thursdays in Malwani so that all the women can come and talk about what is bothering them, regardless of who they are and where they work.
Baby Every Rakshabandhan, we tie rakhis to our policemen and extort gifts (laughs). It took seven years, I have literally gone to every house in this area and talked to families, about what we do, about AIDS, about gender violence. If we can’t change the world, we can definitely change ourselves. One of the hardest things was for the sex workers themselves to realise that there was dignity in their work, that they had rights.