Situated in North Kolkata, in the oldest part of 300 year old city situated on the banks of River Hooghly, is Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red light district whose narrow , rat infested lanes houses around 11, 000 sex workers.
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SONAGACHI in Bengali means TREE OF GOLD. There is a fascinating story behind the origin of its name.
SONAGACHI- a place of SAINT and SIN
Sonagachi is named after a Muslim saint turned dacoit, Sanaullah. The area in olden times was known as the den of notorious dacoit Sanaullah who lived with his mother. After his death, when his mother lamented the loss of her son she heard a voice which said ,” Mother don’t cry, I have now become a Gazi”. Gazi which means a “warrior who help in the spread of Islam” is the title given to the Muslim saints. Thereafter, a mosque was constructed in his rememberance and many people came there for cures and the mosque came to be know as the Dargah of Sanaullah and the area as Sonagachi. This fascinating tale was traced by PT Nair, Kolkata’s “barefoot historian” in his book ‘ A History of Calcutta’s streets’.
Though the transformation from a dacoit to warrior may seem strange but it is pretty normal as there were many Bengali Hindu dacoits who were the devotees of Goddess Kali and a robin hood figure for the people.
Though there is no direct documentary tracing the reasons responsible for the transformation of Sonagachi into a Red light district but some stories blame the neighborhood of the area which was a business one. Sonagachi is in the neighborhood of Chitpur which many centuries back was a business center even before the arrival of the Britishers. Any place with large number of travellers or pilgrims in the British area was bound to have a red light area which housed brothels enclosing many women who were seen as nothing but a toy.
Brothels in those times were known to be owned by the prominent Bengali families . The now decrepit mansions which has suggestive names like “Prem kutir” houses and provides livelihood to thousands of woman living there.
SONAGACHI- where bounts of make up hides the pain
Majority of the sex workers there like any other red light district are trafficked . They were dubbed by husbands , lovers or by the well wishers in the false hope of a better future and “sold” to this area which has painful stories behind every gesture. The 10 by 10 rooms in the brothels provides a perfect balance of the personal + professional lives of the workers. The single bed with condoms stacked beneath the mattress and household utensils underneath the bed is a reminder of the family life for which these places and this profession provides the money for. The glossy make up, flashy lights , scented rooms and loud music is a facade to drown the cries of the children of sex workers and also the horrors faced by the workers.
To us , as the third persons the place may seem like hell , but for some workers it is a place of refugee which accepted and provided shelter to them when nobody else did. A sex worker told her story to Indian Express mentioning how she dreamt to be a teacher in a rural conservative household but since the idea of woman in the professional zone is strictly prohibited in a rural conservative home, she had to give up on her home until she found a “well wisher” who on the pretext of helping her get education sold her to these narrow lanes of Sonagachi , which after all these years are her safe haven.
Women here are scared of love because all they got in the name of love from the men outside is just hurt. Another sex worker recalled her leaving the brothel with the man she loved only to come to know months after being pregnant with his child that he already had two wives and in order to escape the physical torture , she had no where else but the lanes of Sonagachi to return.
The children of these workers have a hard time coming i terms with their mother’s profession. They have only their mother in terms of family , identity of the fathers being unknown . While some children slips into depression and denounce their mothers, the others leave their mother forever when they are able to stand on their feet while some understand the sacrifices she gave in terms of her body, soul and peace to provide for them.
Health concerns of the workers
The local government , a few years back had started the “Sonagachi project” which educates women about the use of condoms necessary to prevent HIV diseases. The result is that today the area as compared to other red light districts has low rate of Hiv.
During the covid lockdown, when there were no customers, local authorities and NGO provided ration here and educated the women about measures to keep themselves save from Covid-19. Authorities also ensured the vaccination of the workers.