The place: A small town somewhere in Northern Karnataka

It’s approaching dusk. In a fully covered and shuttered three-wheeler, along with three male outreach workers, I’m headed out to a well-known brothel, situated in the midst of a residential locality. I’m researching a story on the levels of awareness among different sections of society about HIV and its spread, and sex-workers have to perforce feature in the story for obvious reasons.

The vehicle stops about a furlong away from the brothel and one of my escorts sheepishly points to the house telling me I will have to proceed alone. “Ma’am, we are nervous about accompanying you. Things can get unpleasant as we are known here and you are from the media. We will wait here, and come for you if we sense any danger.”

Undaunted, I make my way to the house expecting to hear Bollywood style ‘kotha’ songs, and see deep pink chandeliers in the rooms of the house, not to talk of the fragrance of jasmine and shops selling liquor and paan; what I see is quite different. It’s actually a passage with cubicles lined along the left wall. And the cubicles mean business. They sell sex and are done up for just that. The cubicles have only a cot and nothing else in them. There’s a flimsy curtain across the doorway for privacy. A woman waits on the cot in each cubicle waiting for clients. I peep into one and the woman waves to me. Hastily I step away. My palms are wet with anxiety by now. It’s too late to turn back. The resident bouncer has seen me and has come to fetch me.

He doesn’t ask too many questions and leads me to a decent-sized room at the end of the passage and hands me over to a giant standing at the entrance. Giant gestures to me to leave my footwear outside and step into what turns out to be a huge puja room. In a vacant corner, sits the madam – a woman with saucer eyes, wearing a shapeless gown that covers a middle-aged out-of-shape body. Something in common with me, I’m relieved to find.

I find myself embarrassingly tongue tied. All the questions I’ve prepared seem so trivial. Do your girls insist on the use of condoms? Do they have knowledge about HIV and how it spreads? The puja corner, the matronly appearance of this woman, and her innocent, saucer eyes preclude all such conversation and my questions actually seem prurient now. Instead I ask what she does for a living and she floors me by saying she sells vegetables! I inch forward and ask who the girls I saw outside are. “Oh! I give them shelter and look after them,” she says blithely. I persist, “Do they know of HIV?” “Yes,” says saucer-eyes easily. “Do they insist on the use of condoms?” I am emboldened by now.  “We know about condoms,” she hedges. She looks at giant standing by the window. He inches closer to the door.

I hear male voices from the next room. Giant gestures to me to leave. I try not to rush outside, but the adrenaline flow that is suddenly active in my system urges me to flee, leaving footwear behind. On my way out, I’m unable to resist a quick look into the room from which I hear voices. I see several (at least 10) girls standing in a semi-circle, and several men leering at them, sizing them up, trying to decide who is their prey for the night. Condoms? The thought, the word, and the need seems very far from this room which emanates the stench of raw lust.

Hastily exiting, I try to catch a last glimpse at the girl who smiled at me from one of the cubicles. The curtain is drawn across the doorway now, and I hear tell-tale grunts from within. Condoms? They seem out of place here.

Saucer eyes and giant stand at the gate and ensure I’ve really gone away. I want to go to my hotel and have a shower. To wash off the stench of lust which seems to stick to me. I tell my story which goes on to win an award but the story of the cubicles of joy gets only a paragraph. I can’t seem to be able to tell the story – till today, when the GR Initiative tells me it’s a story worth telling, at least for the sake of the girls who were being assessed like cattle before being ‘taken’.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

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