We’re sitting on the floor in a mostly empty, small room. On our right and left are bare walls, painted blue. Behind us is a back room. I haven’t been back there, but I know there is a stereo, because that’s where Goma* walked before Nepali music started blaring from the speakers behind us. In front of us is the street. There are no doors or windows. Instead there is a shutter that gets pulled down at the end of the day and locked to keep people out. It is like all of the storefronts here in Kolkata – shuttered when closed and mostly open air when open; except, there is nothing for sale here – at least, not when they’re in this room.
Three long, faded sheets hang down in the open entryway. Each is tied at the bottom with the long end pointing toward the floor, leaving triangles of open space pointing upward between the sheets. It’s enough open space for men to walk by, to glance in, to pause, and enough space for us to see the curious looks on their faces before they walk away.
A couple times men approach the room where we sit.
“What are you doing?” the women around me yell at one man in Bengali.
“I’m coming in,” he replies stupidly.
“No you’re not!” The women in the room snap at him that he is not allowed. He apologizes, and turns to leave. The women look at each other and laugh, satisfied that here in this sanctuary, for a few minutes, they hold the power. Laxmi, the oldest there, is like the defender at the gates. Sitting cross-legged at the edge of the room, she wraps her shawl back over her shoulders and smiles softly, content that she keeps this space safe for these women. Safe, for a few minutes, before they walk back to the line.
As the man is walking away, he looks at me. His face seems to say, “What the hell is that white guy doing in there?” I share his question.
We sit at the edge of a mat surrounded by 6 women. Two – Goma and Topi – are Nepali. The rest are probably Bengali. On the mat are all colors of nail polish, a couple bottles of nail polish remover and wads of cotton. My wife’s nails are already bright pink and blue. In turn she holds each woman’s hand, painting them a bright color, with thin white designs on top. Some ask for letters in English script and I wonder about their meaning. They like my wife. She is gentle and she looks them in the eyes, determined to love them as sisters, not slaves.
I am there because I speak a little Nepali. That and because the violence we do to women in this world keeps me up at night. A couple buildings down from our room is a house full of Nepali girls.
(Not all of the women in this red light area are trafficked. Some of them choose the work, I guess – if you call abandonment by your husband, inability to feed your children, and doing this work because you feel you have no other options a choice. But Nepal is too far from Kolkata for me to believe any of these girls had a say in being here.)
This room is a refuge for many, for the 20-30 minutes they spend there in a day, but the Nepali girls have made it theirs. They control the music. Topi lies on the cushions like it’s her bed. She is shy when I speak to her. I’m white, I’m a man, and I’m speaking Nepali. She giggles and covers her face. God, she’s so young, I think. I’m told later she’s seven months pregnant.
Goma is less shy. She seems to appreciate that I speak her language. “I don’t speak Bengali,” she tells me, her lower lip jutting out past her upper one.
I don’t know what to say to her. I’m never good at small talk, but I feel even more unsure here. I think about the usual questions we ask strangers and stop short when I consider where each question leads.
So, what brought you to Kolkata? Do you miss Nepal? What do you do? I know what she does, and I doubt she wants to talk about it.
Tell me about your family. Maybe it’s too painful for her to think about her family. I sit quietly, watching my wife paint a woman’s nails turquoise, and respond to Goma’s occasional questions. She is better at small talk than I am.
Tiny clay cups filled with steaming chai are passed around and everyone takes a break from painting nails. I sip my tea with a smile; I love that about this culture – tea time. A woman walks by outside and interrupts my quiet gratitude. She’s in her early twenties, her long hair is let down. She is wearing a kurta, a traditional Indian top, and tight western-style jeans. With her is a man in his forties or fifties. She chats with the women sitting around me for a minute and then walks away, grabbing the man’s hand, running her fingers between his and leading him somewhere not here.
Maybe you have to be in India a while to feel the awkwardness of that action. Men and women rarely shake hands and public physical touch – even among married couples – is taboo. But not here. Taboo is set aside when you step onto the main lane of the red light area.
I watch them walk away and think how I used to seethe with anger at men like this; men who do such grotesque violence to women and girls to satisfy their own desires and exert their own power. Sometimes I still do. These days I mostly direct my anger at God, who I assume would want to do more than God seems to do to protect all these women from the violence they meet every day.
And now as I sit among beautiful women in this small room, watching men walk past us to find a woman they think will satisfy, I know I am probably not so different from them. I know that if circumstances were different, I might be in their place – doing violence to others in my pursuit of intimacy, or power, or identity, or whatever inner brokenness leads them down this lane.
And these days I remember the truth: we all do violence. The violence in this world is like a monster, one we all feed by our small actions of violence. We feed that monster until we our bound to it and we must keep feeding it. And this monster, whose most brutal destruction is seen in the red light area of Kolkata, among victims of war in the DRC, in domestic abuse in the suburbs of Minneapolis, when women are abused on college campuses, is fed by much smaller acts: when we objectify women as things for our desire in magazines and movies, pay them less than men for the same job, relegate them to certain positions in church, tell jokes about where their proper place is – how they belong in the kitchen or aren’t cut out for farming, when we catcall on the corner and on and on.
I think this is why Jesus told the crowds not to commit adultery in their hearts, because we need to stop feeding the damn monster. And that doesn’t start in the red light areas of Kolkata, it starts in our own hearts and minds. It starts in our churches and on our farms and in our businesses and on the street corner and in our basements with our buddies. I’m not as angry at these men because I know that we’re all caught up in this system, bound by the ugly talons of this monster of violence, and we are all in need of freedom, we are all in need of transformation.
We all do violence. The violence done here to women and girls like Goma and Topi is some of the ugliest. But it is time for us to increase our outrage and intolerance of such violence, so that we are also outraged at and intolerant of the small acts of violence done to women every day in our own lives. It is time to unmask the work of the monster in our own thoughts and words and deeds. It is time to starve the monster.
*The names of the women have been changed.
** We don’t take pictures in the red light area. The picture is a street nearby.