By Hilary Price
I was back in Kolkata, India, in the red light district of Kalighat. The brothels, where daily sacrifice is offered on the altar of lust, surround the Kali temple where daily sacrifice is offered to Kali – the goddess of death.
I make my way along the busy, dusty street among people hurrying to work, stopping to shop at the many stalls selling trinkets to offer in idol worship, or making their way to school in old- fashioned uniforms from Empire days. Lunch money, given by trusting mothers, is often spent to feed desire by school boys who cannot resist temptation in this place. My friend, Monique, who has lived and worked in Kolkata for over 16 years, is my guide. We are greeted at the entrance to one of the “lanes” by the brothel manager. She steps aside and lets us enter her world – the darkest world I have ever been in.
Remarkably, we are welcomed to come in and befriend the girls who are her source of income. Does she realize our goal is to rescue them from under her very nose? As we pick our way along the lane we pass the most beautiful girls who are “put” out at the entrance, close to the street to attract customers, like the lush fruit shining at the front of a display at the green grocers, tempting the buyer to touch and buy. The fruit further back, just like the girls, is older, less attractive, and has obviously been there for some time.
I want to look into the face of every woman we pass…but I need to keep my eyes down to avoid stepping on rats, or waste thrown out from the cubby holes which line the path, always cleaned with disinfectant once a client has left. It may be a shelf, a tatty curtain, a hole in the wall where women have no choice but to serve the customer what he wants.
Some of the women meet my gaze with a blank expression and as I look longer and deeper into their eyes there seems to be no one at home. Some are young and giggling, they look away. Some are old, faded, and sick behind makeup, plastered on to extend their shelf-life well beyond their sell-by-date.
Men are entering the lane and walking down the line, taking their time to select their purchase for the day. I cannot look into the faces of these men. Suddenly there is a shout as a young man has just entered the lane and is in a heated conversation with a young woman, who has blocked his path. She shoves him backwards. A fight breaks out and she will not back down. Her anger has made her strong and he turns away with his friends’ encouragement and leaves with her words sweeping him out like a flood carrying flotsam down a river.
There is tension in the air and we later discover one of the yelling girl’s friends had poured petrol all over her body last night and set fire to herself. This morning she has died. She leaves a young daughter. Life had become unbearable in the brothels. Was this young man one of her regular clients? Was he responsible for the sacrifice of a life? Her friend certainly thought so. It is hard to move on, but we must. What we have seen has been extraordinary – an outpouring of grief, anger, frustration, and courage. A woman who usually has no voice and no power, finding her voice and raising it to defend her friend, as a standard for all to see, a voice screaming for dignity and for justice.
We have come to see Clara (not her real name) and we hope she will be in and not busy with a client. As we approach her door, it is closed and we turn away to call on Bashanti (not her real name) who lives just down the lane. Bashanti is also a brothel manager – she inherited the lane and the job from her husband when he died. Bashanti knows Jesus and her tiny home is a lighthouse in the brothels. She has two sons and a daughter. Her daughter makes her way in and out of the brothels every day in her school uniform and tells me she wants to be a lawyer. One of her sons has just married a beautiful young woman and they now also live in the tiny house. She is home, too.
Our eyes adjust to the gloom in the room. A tiny, crinkled smiling face emerges and seems to almost be glowing in the back corner – grandma is here for a visit. Three generations of women who love Jesus Christ in one tiny house in one of the darkest places on earth. We laugh and sing and pray together. We read a Bible story and feast on the truth of God’s love for each of us that we find in its pages. I feel as though my heart is exploding in my chest with the joy in this place. I would love to stay, but we must move on and Bashanti is now tired because she is not well.
We head back to Clara’s room. The door is now ajar and we knock. Her beautiful face peeps round the door. We are recognized and hugged and welcomed. Clara casts a glance over our shoulders as she ushers us in, checking she is not missing out on any possible trade. Last time we sat with her on this pristine clean floor she sobbed like a small child as she told me her mother, back in Bangladesh, had died. Clara so longed to go home. She had not seen her mother since she was trafficked here at the age of about 17 and now, because of what she does, is no longer welcome in her community. Clara has no place of belonging, but this room is her pride and joy. She is one of the most beautiful girls which means she gets the most customers, which means she can make her room pretty. Net curtains blow in the breeze, the walls are painted pink, and a rich patchwork quilt covers the bed. A television perches proudly on a shelf high up and all is kept neat and tidy.
We talk to Clara about the chance of a different life. I ask her if she has ever seen a butterfly. With drawing and translation, I try and explain how a caterpillar lives in a dark seemingly dead place until the day it emerges as a butterfly. She smiles from a distant place. I ask her which of the pictures is a picture of her. She points to the butterfly. But Clara’s wings are clipped – she is not flying anywhere. In the end it all comes down to money. She tells us she is in huge debt for rent and could never leave because she can’t pay off the debt. She is being kept in debt deliberately and she does not know it. She cannot read or write and numbers on a page mean nothing. The more she earns the more she seems to have to pay and there is no way out.
I realize Clara cannot be “rescued” at this point in her life. She cannot conceive of another life as she conscientiously works at paying debt by being the best prostitute she can be. My heart breaks for this young woman. She is a beautiful homemaker and her talent shines, maybe all the more brightly in this hell hole. But her beauty has started to fade even in the two years since I last saw her. Her days are numbered and she knows it and must work even harder before she is no longer of use and finds herself thrown on the rubbish pile of broken lives for good.
“Do you know God loves you Clara?” I ask. “Do you really know he loves you so much he sent Jesus to find you?” Just because Clara cannot get out of here, does not mean God cannot get into here. Clara stares at me as I ask these questions and does not reply. A sad smile spreads across her lips. Quietly she gets up and opens her one cupboard door removing a small box. She gently opens it and lifts it towards my face murmuring in a faint voice, “Do you think I would keep this if I didn’t know God loved me?” I look into the tiny box to see a silver cross with a tiny Savior nailed to it, resting on a piece of white cotton wool. Clara lifts it out to reveal a broken chain. Sadly and protectively she tells me, “The chain is broken.” She then lovingly returns Jesus on His cross to His safe place in His box where He secretly lives in this room.
I fight to keep the sobs down that are welling up inside me from a very deep place. It’s time to leave. Clara doesn’t sit down again. She politely thanks us for coming and guides us back out into the lane, where clients are not so patiently waiting by the wall.
Before I leave I slip the butterfly broach I have brought her, under her beautiful bed cover. I want her to find it very soon. I pray it will not be broken like the necklace chain, in a moment of anger or passion or greed, monsters that attack Clara every day in her beautiful room with the net curtains that blow in the breeze gently fighting to dispel the clawing heat and humidity of this hell-like furnace.
We turn to wave goodbye to Clara, but her eyes don’t meet ours, she is busy making the next visitor feel welcome. I turn away and stumble back out down the lane, past the line of women, until we make it back out onto the dusty street. Caught up in the passing throng I sob with an intensity of pent up pain I have never before felt in my life.
God is still as anxious to make His way into brothels and set the captives free as He has ever been. Through remarkable people like Monique, He is still reaching the Rahabs of this world and rescuing them.
It was to a prostituted woman that He offered the invitation to come under the covering cleansing blood of the Savior, the Christ on the cross, long before he had lived, never mind died. Rahab did not keep her Christ in a little box in a cupboard, she hung him from her window for all to see and her story, like Clara’s is truly remarkable.