Soft Things by Sushma Joshi
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. Her book The End of the World was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Her short film The Escape was accepted to the Berlinale Talent Campus. She has a BA from Brown University.
Date: October 23, 1998
Black mounds of trash outside buildings that are crumbling, peeling. Punk and blue shutters and iron grilles in every balcony. Six balconies on each floor. What I take to be four storey houses, on closer inspection, have grilled openings above doors and between floors, with shadowy figures of women combing their hair with long, brisk motions. Little girls in frilly pink dresses pace back and forth.
“Children are good to have sex with,” says Kalu, with his weasley smile, a smile sticky with apology, promise, deception. “Their minds are not formed, so you can do whatever you want with them.” Kalu sits in a little wooden laundry shop on the 14th Lane in Kamathipura. Kamathipura, the city of love. Our translator and guide, Shailesh, has taken us to him, promising us that Kalu is a well-known pimp who can procure us the child prostitute that we are looking for.
“We are looking for some komal maal,” Sailesh says. Sailesh, a journalist from the local newspaper, who’s been recruited to take us along and act as our guide in the redlight district. In the words of international journalism, he’s a fixer. And that’s precisely what he’s doing right now—asking for a soft thing with the casual inflection of a man used to asking for soft things. I don’t think he necessarily frequents child prostitutes. But his tone makes it abundantly clear that whatever we are after, he’s willing to procure for us—and if it’s a soft thing, he’ll get us a soft thing. He is big and solid, dressed in casual clothes, speaking the local dialect like he’s one of the locals.
I try to act cool and go along, although every nerve in my body is telling me to move away from these people who are on their quest for a child prostitute.
Of course, the two women who I am translating for have an excuse for their vicarious glee when Kalu says he can find us many komal maal. The two women are in Asia to write a story about child trafficking. One is an award-winning photographer, and she urgently needs photographs. One is a writer—she urgently needs stories. They have been sent by the biggest, most important newspaper in London. They are both desperate for a child prostitute. I, their gullible translator who has flown in from Nepal on my own expense to accompany them, look at their greed and hunger and feel a physical sickness.
Perhaps it is the methodical way in which journalists try to get to their subjects, rather like hunters tracking down prey. Or perhaps it is the impatience that the two women are exuding after being stuck for a week in an expensive hotel in Marine Drive, with one fixer after another promising them girls that haven’t materialized. Perhaps it’s the combination of both, mixed in the Mumbai heat, that makes me feel the way I do.
Why am I here with them, you may ask. The reason is simple. A hard-smoking, hard-drinking friend of mine named Vidhea had called me one day and said to me: “Sushma, there are two journalists here from the UK. They need a translator. Are you interested?” I was at that time employed by the Harvard School of Public Health, and I had made several trips already to Mumbai, where I had visited the red-light district and come to know of the situation of Nepali women there. When I said “yes,” it was more out of scholarly curiosity than the need for employment.
Besides, Vidhea said, the two journalists were about to visit the famous rehabilitation home of Anuradha Koirala, who some had likened to the Mother Teresa of Nepal. Mother Teresa had recently received a group of girls rescued in a high profile raid from Mumbai. The raid had been done by one Balkrishna Acharya of the Rescue Foundation. These girls were now at her home. The only problem was that she didn’t like Nepalis to visit the home, but foreigners were very welcome. This, I thought, was a very good moment to see what was going on inside that institution. Mother Teresa had also recently received a million pound grant from Prince Charles to do her work, so British people were especially welcome.
Sometimes luck favors the bold. We had arrived an hour early. “Can we start our interview?” Mary asked. Mary, as the writer, felt sidelined by Olivia’s constant need to get her photographs, and the reminder that: “A photograph is worth a thousand words.” A young man there, with a rather militaristic demeanour, frowned, but he decided to bring one young girl into the room anyway. She was young, shy and fair. The interview started off well. The girl started to tell us about how she had been taken to the border, how she had been sold, how she had ended up in the brothels.
Then Mary broke in and asked a sympathetic question. “Did you know the man who was selling you?” she asked, flirtatiously. It was girl talk and girls knew how to get confidences out of each other. At the moment, I rather admired Mary’s interview skills.
The girl blushed. She was all of fourteen. “Yes, I knew him,” she said. “We went together. We were in love.”
“Ah, your boyfriend?” Olivia asked. “Boyfriend” sounded radical in this small room, with Anuradha’s man frowning from behind the chair where the little girl sat. The concept of “boyfriends” don’t exist in Nepal. It is as if people only get married at an appropriate age, and any relationships before that is considered non-existent.
The girl giggled.
The man stepped in. In a rather harsh tone, he said: “No, she didn’t know this man who took her,” he said. “She didn’t know him. He was a stranger.”
Anuradha Koirala’s institution soared to the skies telling the world Nepali girls were carted off to India by criminals offering them drugged mango Frooti drinks. The fact that adolescent girls may be having relationships with men and getting sold through the trust factor would besmirch their image as innocent girls in the hands of great danger. The young man left the room abruptly. We continued our conversation with the young girl. The young man returned and said very stiffly to Olivia: “You have a phone call from Anuradha.”
Olivia blanched. We were clearly in trouble. She left the room. When she returned, she was very agitated. “She screamed at me over the phone. Who is that Nepali? She asked me. We have to leave immediately.”” And this is what we did.
This was Kathmandu in 1998, where even the idea that teenagers may have had sexual relationships with men was an unthinkable idea. Young women could be virgins only, innocent victims of criminal gangs, never individuals with desires to travel the world, get jobs, take care of their families or have boyfriends.
It is often these desires, and the ways in which they cannot fulfill them in a safe manner, that land girls in bad places, even now. Fourteen years later, young Nepali women can now be found in Lhasa nightclubs, instead of Kamathipura. But I have no doubt those in the rehabilitation business are still insisting that women are being drugged rather than going of their own accord.
Now lets go back to Kamathipura, where we are still seeking our Nepali child prostitute.
“Hah, hah,” says Kalu. “I’ll bring her out to a hotel and you can do whatever you want with her. Whatever you want.” His “whatever” falls along a continuum of rape, defloration, torture and photography. You can do whatever you want with her, he promises, allowing the women perfect leeway to violate virginity, body, and privacy with equal access.
The negotiations continue. Olivia is willing to go to the guesthouse to see the girl. She says she cannot go back with the photographs she has—they are useless. I raise my eyebrows, and try to tell her, without opening my mouth: Maybe we should be careful. Kalu, with his knife scar, his greasy laugh and his assurances are not a guarantee I want to trust my life with.
Kalu sees my raised eyebrows. He turns to me and addresses me directly: “Ahhh.” He exhales his breath, considers me, pauses. I look at him, defiant. “Where are you from?”
“America,” I lie. I try to hide behind my glasses and my American accent. I am not one of these Nepali girls he is used to selling for a hundred dollars. I am different, I think in panic.
“You should take off your glasses,” he says. “You’d look pretty without them.” I don’t want to take off my glasses. Without glasses, my vision blurs and I feel helpless. I glare at him.
I take a deep breath, try to look intimidating. Inside, I feel the dreadful sinking of fear. Olivia looks at me with scorn, as if to say: toughen up. He’s just a pimp. If we can deal with him, so can you.
“Here,” he says, getting up to get what looks like a plastic album down from a ledge in the rafters of the wooden box. “I have many college students like you. Many college girls who are available. All kinds. Very well educated. English speaking. They are available, with photos. If you ever want to work, leave your photo with Kalu.” And he grins that khaini, tooth-rotting smile. He flips open the album. Photograph after photograph of women in pretty kurtas and college outfits peer out.
“Okay,” I say, trying to hold on to my last bit of cool. What answer is there for a pimp who’s just offered you a job as a low-paid prostitute? “I don’t think I’m interested, though.”
Kalu gets interested now. “Ohhhh… Memsahib,” he says, smiling some more. “This is Kamathipura. Its united. If we didn’t like you, you can enter here and never leave again. Nobody would ever find you again.” He looks at me directly in the eye, making sure I have understood what he’s just said.
I give an offhand smile, and pretend I haven’t understood his threat. I smile, I shrug. I move slightly away, suddenly aware of the slit in the back of my dress, the blue and black flowered dress that I had bought in Colaba and which had seemed so innocent, and now in the heat and stench of Kamathipura suddenly takes on sinister connotations. I take out my Konica, and fiddle with the lenses. My big fat solid Konica, which I’d bought for a hundred bucks in Providence, Rhode Island, and which had stood me in good stead for so many years. I pray I won’t have to use it as a weapon.
Last night, we have just been taken to a tour of Kamathipura by a flamboyant man who has taken a fancy to us, and wants to act as tour guide. His name is Ramjee, and he says he’s a local. We find him at an open air building where he’s taking an afternoon nap, along with other well-oiled, scantily clad men. It looks like they’ve all recently had a massage–their bodies glisten with oil. The male energy is palpable—I wonder if this is the local version of a gay club.
“Do you know where we can find a young Nepali prostitute?” Olivia asks with brazen desperation.
And he looks at them, sees the white skin, gets up slowly, and enunciates: “Hello Madam.”
Ramjee is pleased, indeed, almost happy to see us. He sees the two British women and instantly his demeanor becomes grand and flowery. He starts to declaim. He demands that he be allowed to take us around. He insists. Somehow, somewhere, he asks the questions: “Are you in any way connected to the British Royal Family? To the Queen?” It’s a setup, but we play along.
Almost flawlessly, as if to fulfill this deception that we all know we are participating in, Mary, the smoother one, says: “Yes, we are sent by Prince Charles. He’s very interested in stopping child trafficking, you see. Yes, we are sent by the Royal Family of England.”
That’s all Ramjee needs. “Madams, tonight,” he explains, “is Laxmi Pooja, the night of Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth. All the brothels, by a stroke of luck, must keep their doors open tonight so that the Goddess doesn’t feel offended by the close doors. We can go wherever we want to go.” The women look at each other and shrug, trying not to show their glee. “Yes, please. We would like a tour, thank you,” they say, as if this is not something they had not been dying to do for the last fortnight. This is a rather staggering stroke of good luck for journalists who’ve flown thousands of miles and spent a helpless fortnight trying to enter the infamous but inaccessible brothels.
Ramjee takes us from one brothel to another, all the while announcing that we have been sent by Prince Charles. “These people are representatives of Prince Charles!” He announces in big florid accents each time we enter a brothel. The transvestites on Lane C welcome us with open arms. They are putting on their makeup when we make our way up the narrow stairs to their room upstairs. There is a gaity and festivity in the air.
As we walk through the crowded streets, a transvestite in a red blouse and silver sari tries to pull Olivia along with her. “Sweetie, come,” he says. Olivia resists with a smile and a tough: “No, thank you, darling.” “I’m used to the streets,” she explains to me, when I marvel at her apparent coolness. “This is the same as my neighbourhood in London.”
We walk up and down narrow staircases of a dozen brothels. Ramjee introduces us in his florid accent, in each instance, as Prince Charles’ envoys. In many places, we get scowls and angry looks. In many brothels, we are ignored. In one brothel, a madam with a classic Nepali face looks down, see us and slams the grilled door in our face. As the grilles shut, I can see young girls scampering to get out of sight. Olivia, with her big camera, seems not to notice. In her head, she has this ideal child prostitute, and it seems that she doesn’t see the young girls who litter the brothels.
There are fifteen hundred brothel owners in Bombay. They are ready to kill the people who come and tear apart their stables of young girls. Many of the top ones are Nepali, women who worked their way up and now own their own stables, as they are called.
In one brothel, we we enter a green vinyl and mirrored disco room where the Nepali girl, only twenty-four, tells us that she was sold by the man who married her after her Bachelor’s degree examinations. “I was deceived,” she says, as if being deceived was the most normal thing in the world. “I didn’t know he would sell me, that I would end up here.” She is from Darjeeling, and has the sweetest accent. As we walk out, we see her a twelve year old girl looking at us as we walk out. The girls are everywhere—hanging out in familial packs, doing girl things, playing with dolls, plaiting hair. Just being little girls.
At the very end of the evening, we enter a gigantic brothel that looks like it has a thousand women living inside it. The brothel’s entrance is covered with shit as a broken sewer overflows the entry way. We jump over the yellow liquid and walk up warren ways of passages in which iron bunk-beds have been put in every corner. There are women inside the curtained bed-frames, whispering, smiling, laughing, talking. There are men dressed in humble outfits, walking in like they are there to buy their daily bread. The women in their blouses and saris look only slightly tousled, as if they have been caught in their homes entertaining guests rather than clients. Some of them look indifferent. Others look like they are enjoying moments of intimacy. Mostly, they look businesslike and practical, as if its all in a day’s work.
We are on a quest for a Nepali prostitute, Ramjee explains. Ah, a Nepali. The women, chattering and curious, escort us to where the Nepali woman lives. Her name is Radha.
Radha is thin. She looks tired. She has a smile on her weary face. Radha says: “I pay Rs. 80 a day rent for this place.” She waves her arms around the small three feet by six feet cubicle balcony, with a small bunk that rests halfway up. Her room is open to the elements—there is a roof but not much else. I sit on the broken ledge and listen to her tell her story—how her husband sold her to the brothel, how she can’t work much now since the accident, how she wished she could send her son to school—all this with the calm detachment of an ordinary woman telling an ordinary story. As if, in her mind, this is how life is supposed to be.
“I can’t work much now since the accident,” she says. A lorry came up behind her and hit her. Now she walks with a limp. She is in her thirties. She has a three year old son who she had with the man who sold her after he married her. She takes a few clients each day these days, but her clients are drying up because of her disability. She fetches a small price, but its still enough to live on. She looks at me with those eyes and asks me to take her son to Nepal where he can go to school. The small boy pretends not to understand his mother’s entreaties, and looks down as he plays, all with the intense self-conciousness of a little child eavesdropping on important talk.
On our way out, Ramjee stops at what looks like a wooden box in the middle of a dark passageway. This, says Ramjee, is where another Nepali woman lives.
We see the girl as she comes in—big, dark, perhaps a Dalit. She doesn’t say a word as she disappears into the box. Its like she doesn’t see us. We are appartitions, we don’t exist in her numb mind. The wooden box, shaped like a telephone booth in London, looks like it’s big enough to hold a human being upright. That’s her home? I ask. That’s where she sleeps, a young man says, eager to show us around the brothel. The man, I realize, must be her owner.
We are back in the sunlight. Radha, dressed in immaculate pink silk, comes down for us. She rests on a pole outside Kalu’s laundry shop. I know that inside that poise her legs, the legs that got run over by a lorry driver, by a drunken lorry driver, is getting tired… Olivia clicks, and clicks, and clicks. She takes a thousand photographs.
Kamathipura, I think with a shiver, is about death, the death of trust and the death of illusion.
Kalu goes back to bargaining with Olivia and Mary. “Nepali girls,” he says, “are very fashionable. They are like film stars. They wear good scents. Men come to them for fashion. For sex, they go to South Indians. They go to Nepalis for fashion. For honesty. Even if the wallet fall out of his pockets, the Nepali girls keep it for them so they can come and get it later. It happened last week with one customer.”
Olivia checks her digital camera, and realizes that she still doesn’t have photographs she came to get. “But I don’t want any Nepali girl,” says Olivia impatiently. “I need a little girl. One that is eight or nine.” She has two more weeks before her editor recalls her back. If she goes back to London with photographs of teenaged girls, she is screwed. She is depending upon this money from the story to pay her mortgage. She has already wasted two weeks visiting brothels and seeing the women in it. They are all too old for her.
“Ahhhh…” Kalu closes his crafty eyes. “Too many raids these days, Madam. Many little girls have now been moved to Surat, across the border into Gujrat, because the madams in Bombay are too afraid to keep them here. They lose too many of them. So they are all hidden away in Surat.”
Finally, they agree on a deal. At night, Kalu will bring a little prostitute to the Oberoi Hotel for us to do as we please.
I will not show up for this event, because it sickens me. Later the women will tell me the girl came but she was a disappointment. In what way, I cannot tell. Perhaps she wasn’t sexy enough.
The shutter speed is slow, closing, capturing the light. I look at Radha and see that look of betrayal in her eyes. The look of someone who thought they’d seen a friend but instead seen just a camera.
Kanchi, the first prostitute we met in Kamathipura, sitting outside in the threshold of a one storey brothel, had given me that same look of betrayal. The men had stared at us as we walked into Kamathipura. Hundreds of men, just staring at us with big eyes. Then we’d seen her, sitting in that little threshold on a bamboo stool, just waiting. All dolled up, waiting for her first client.
And the clients were us. Sailesh, moving towards her like a hunter who’s seen his first prey, had whispered to me, “Talk to her, distract her!” So I, numb, panicked, distracted her while Olivia took her photographs. Click, click, click! Each photograph a violation, taken without permission, without due diligence, without notifying the subject where her image would end up. She had looked at me with that remote, detached face, the beautiful young woman who knew once again that she was being betrayed and told me: “My name is no longer Kanchi. After I came to Bombay, I became Hasina.”
Then as the cameras clicked, she told me: “I used to have a lot of clothes, a lot of jewelry. But now I no longer want them. I give it to the beggars who come to beg. I gave it all away.” And I sit there, feeling the reproach, knowing at once that I am the beggar, and again she is giving me all that she has, over and over. Her image. Her face. Her youth. Her beauty. All this will appear in a magazine in a faraway place, and make money for other people. She knows this.
Hasina lives in a stable with her brothel-owner, who trusts her now not to run away. She’s too broken down, too dead, to run away. She has no possessions. She wants nothing. Her best friend, Aarti, looks at me with beautiful eyes and purple marks of melanoma on her arms. She will soon die of the dreaded disease, like all the rest who went before her. “There were many of us here,” she says simply. “But many of them are now dead.”
After she was done taking photographs of Hasina, Olivia, in the glee of snagging her first young prostitute, went to the bazzar and bought the cheapest makeup kit she could find. I tagged along, suddenly exhausted by heat and depression. I’ve talked with Hasina for the last half hour. She’s treated me like a visitor from far-away, someone who she’s trusted with her life’s story. She ran away with a friend when she was sixteen, ran across the border to India. After she paid her debts to the brothel-owner, she decided to set up her own shop here in this little threshold, and not be owned by a madam. No she is never going back. Yes, she had another name in Nepal, but in Kamathipura she is known as Hasina.
The two journalists know nothing about her other than her profession.
Only one quid for all this!, Olivia said, marveling at the cheapness of the makeup kit.
The makeup kit was a big red plastic case filled with garish powders and potions. Silver letters say: Hasina on top. Something in me screams “No!”, but Olivia is implacable. Sailesh says: “Yes, these women like makeup.” We take it back, and I am pushed forward to handover the gift. Olivia beams, pleased by the cheap deal, and pleased by her own gesture of making a prostitute happy.
With the greatest of embarrassment and sickened fury, I hand the box to Hasina. She extends her hand and takes it without a word, neither happy nor displeased. She looks at the Hasina embossed with silver letters on top. I don’t know if she can read, but she looks down at the letters for a while. Then she puts it down, gets up and enters the building. She vanishes in silence, as if she is happy to be released from our presence.