I would like to say that it was Namdeo Dhasal's Golpitha that led me to Kamathipura. But that would not be entirely true. It was Namdeo himself. In 1995, I had taken pictures of a morcha by sex workers that he had organised. He was giant of a man fighting for the rights of the despised people. Kamathipura was the world that Namdeo grew up in. He called it do number ki duniya... the bottom of the world. It included pimps, sex workers, hijras, petty criminals, homeless urchins, beggars and thieves. Namdeo said, "They are my people - these lumpen; I am one of them. My poetry is about life here."
I read his poetry. It was an assault. Every word was a slap in the face, a punch in the gut. Here are some lines from his poem entitled -
Mandakini Patil: A Young Prostitute: My Intended Collage
On a barren blue canvas her clothes ripped off, her thighs blasted open, a sixteen-year-old girl surrendering herself to pain. And a pig; its snout full of blood... Never before had I seen a face so devoid of light as was yours; and of a thousand other females like you. Flashing out from so many countries, and so many cages; And bearing so many different names.... You make anguish scream inside me; and stream inside me; and appropriate me. Is that the scream of an ending; or is the end itself a scream beginning?
Many years were to pass, many lessons had to be learnt before I entered Namdeo's world. What I saw wasn't Kamathipura of the early 1970s when Namdeo had written the Golpitha poems. Since then, many things had changed: the cages were gone; work on social empowerment was underway; HIV had entered; globalization was taking its toll; the people had been uprooted; even the physical landscape had undergone change.
Every time I walk through thee 11th lane, I feel horror and helpless. I have walked there for many years, asking myself, "Who are these women? They live in the heart of my world. What do I really know about them? How do they survive? Why are they forced to live like this?" It took me months and years before I had the courage to take my camera out of my backpack. Not only because I was sure it would get smashed (and quite rightly so) but also because I had to first earn the right to see. These women are sellers of sex. But they are not the sum total of their private parts. Men use them. And throw them away after use; and then gargle with the holy water of the river, as Namdeo says.
The women are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, friends and neighbours. They have faces and eyes and hearts and minds. Yes, they can be vicious; they can lie and cheat, betray and be betrayed, beat and be beaten up... their vulnerability takes many forms, as does their humanity. Look at their faces. What do you see?