A masala chai vendor captured a long pour of creamy, sweetened tea in a low-fired, red, clay cup. These terracotta bhands hold about two swallows. Money exchanged hands and the last drop fell on the thirsty man’s tongue. A crushing throw lands the steamy, clay cup into a rubble pile of previously used and broken terracotta cups. It shatters, and over time is ground to powder under the feet of passersby, eventually washed away by the afternoon downpours.
As my gaze extended beyond the immediate I saw beautiful women and children as young as 11 years old who wore brightly colored saris, or scanty western clothes and thickly painted mascara and shadow. They line the street ahead and behind and number in the tens of thousands working these streets. Men moved in groups from one brothel to the next, window-shopping, in such a casual manner as if to purchase that clay cup of tea, consume, discard, crush and forget after the rain.
I found myself startled as a young Bengali girl, standing in her line, reached out and grasped both my hands in hers intermingling our contrasting complexions. Her touch drew me out of my head, which was frantically attempting to comprehend what my eyes perceived. I gladly returned the gesture and smiled. Leaning in I whispered, “Namaskar”. My mother and our friend came to my side and began to speak Bengali. Words I could not understand began to spill from the girl’s mouth as if conversing with white women in her native tongue took her breath away. Her grip remained firm.
Out of the corner of my right eye was a brothel, which stood out from the rest and trapped me in a moment that seemingly lasted longer than reality. Although strangers, their faces appeared familiar. I had been acquainted with the dark Tibetan wrap dresses adorned with the traditional pangden, woolen aprons woven into brilliant horizontal stripes.
Trekking to some of the most northern and remote Himalayan villages in Nepal I had discovered the fullness of their ancient culture through hot Tibetan bread for dinner, and Tibetan dance with flowing arms set to music played on handcrafted Tibetan guitars. Walking a trade route established centuries ago outside Namche Bazzar, I passed men with threadbare red strips of fabric braided into their hair, bent low under the weight of baskets carrying goods to trade at the Saturday market.
Climbing upward through rhododendron forests at 10,000 feet and stark barren landscapes at 15,000 I would stop in villages to rest for the night. Taking my last few steps into the teahouse I was always warmly welcomed with the nectar that refreshed my soul more than my body: Nepali milk tea. And over that cup of tea I shared a view of Mount Everest with Tibetan monks who resided in a monastery under her shadow. They shared with me their stories of the beginning of man from a rainbow and described the details of sky burial rituals.
Early mornings in the villages were filled with sounds of families preparing for the day’s work. Yet I began to notice an eerie lack of young girls and women spinning wool, or milking yaks or grinding corn. Where had they gone?
The Tibetan women of Sonagachi were renowned as beautiful and it was apparent that Nepal had a natural resource, which was becoming quickly depleted. I stood motionless watching men, like flies, hover over them as if they were choosing a cut of meat from the sidewalk meat market.
I wondered if that was her younger brother I had seen scratching math problems into the dirt with a stone in her home village. Was it her mother who had served me a cup of chai tea in her dining room, or her father I had seen repairing the tin roof on the family’s one room stone and mud house. The soil from her home had dusted my feet and would forever be a dusty film covering my heart.
Reality for the prostituted Tibetan girls has now become this: even if she were to gain freedom from this slavery, she can never return to that life. She has been molded and formed by the brothels into something disgraceful and full of shame. Her family would never accept her back because of that shame, and the risk of the girl’s father selling her again is a constant and paralyzing fear.
Towards the end of this particular street, near the Marble Palace, more women approached us. They touched my freckles, played with my wooden earrings and stared with intrigue at the green of my eyes. We exchanged a few words in English but again they held to our arms and hands and insisted we stay a moment longer. Quite a crowd began to press in around us until we were body to body. If we had lingered the women would have extended an invitation to sit with them in their diminutive cubicles, drink a fresh cup of chai tea and enjoy each other’s company. However, we had to keep one eye on the local police officer on the corner who seemed to increasingly become more agitated at our presence. So we kept walking.
Peering inside the curtained walls of the brothels I saw children tied to their mothers’ work beds by rope or chain, which was wearing sores and breaking open the scabs on their ankles. These mothers service between 10 and 50 men each day while their children hide under a bed that fills most of her assigned space. So unimaginably far removed from where she had come, she once had been a soft earthen vessel, but was deceitfully taken from the soil of her family’s village. After a price had been settled for her purchase, the madams and pimps would begin to form her by their own hand like a malevolent potter: caging, starving and beating. Fear claimed command over her mind. Finally she was placed into the kiln for firing by means of forcing one man after another onto her until she submitted.
Negotiations were going on all around us. Superstition and lack of education lead men to believe that having sexual relations with a virgin will rid his body of STDs and pass them on to the girls. Therefore virgins go for a much higher price. Young girls who have been sold already are sewn closed time and time again and resold as virgins. The pain and bleeding is enough to convince the man that he has broken her hymen and that he was her first client. The price, a young woman 100 rupees ($2) and an older woman 25-30 rupees (55-65 cents), is a monetary expression of the perceived value of those precious girls.
As I walked through Sonagachi that night the moon hung low and appeared red through the atmosphere filled with pollution and the smoke of cooking fires. The heaviness of incense burned as worship to the goddess Durga and it clung close to my skin in the post-monsoon air. She is said to receive her power and life from the “virtuous dust of a prostitute’s floor” which is mixed with mud and formed around a bamboo skeleton of her image. The warrior deity of female force, the divine mother outstretches as many as 10 arms wielding weapons in each hand: a sword, an arrow, a thunderdisc, and a trident, while balancing a lotus flower and riding a tiger.
Despite these traditions I hear whispered rumors of a resistance that has begun behind the tattered curtains of a prostituted woman’s quarters. During the annual Durga Puja celebration priests and potters alike come to gather sacred dirt from her floor in order to fashion images of this goddess only to be turned away. While for a few days these forgotten women hold a blessing to their people, the rest of the year they are known as whores. And while Durga’s name means destroyer of poverty, suffering and injustice she withholds the very powers of her weapons from the ones who give her that power.
Resistance is the engine that propels them into a new and unwritten future and education is the practical use of hands and feet to take them there. Grassroots efforts have begun to collect the broken pieces of these terracotta girls and are tenderly forming them into new vessels. Where they once were filled with fear and emptiness, broken and discarded, they are now being made whole again, overflowing with the sweetness I experienced that first visit in Kathmandu.
Vocational centers in Calcutta have been established to teach these women new trades and skills with which to support themselves outside the grip of the brothels. Suffering from PTSD, the trafficked women once thought that even if they could escape the brothels the world would look at them and know that the brothel was all they are good for. Yet love, counseling and encouragement inspire them to take a chance, risking their lives to break free. However, the heartrending reality is that not all who attempt to break free leave with their lives.
I was privileged to visit a home for girls that had been established at the request of the prostituted women. Fearful that their daughters will be forced into the same line of work they desperately sought women who could take care of their children outside the Red Light District. Now these young daughters live in safety and have the opportunity to grow into healthy young women.
I was invited to see the tutoring programs within the confines of the brothels turning the meager 25% of children passing their classes into 100% passing to the next grade. Volunteers spend hours nightly giving the children a safe place to stay while their mothers work. They feed the children, teach them songs with oversized motions and bellowing voices and, wrapping their hand around a child’s hand, teach him how to color. Literacy soars and children are given a voice where they were once silenced.
These women are our daughters, sisters, mothers, and nieces. I believe that with continued resistance and education we can end the trafficking of these terracotta girls. We can see the streets of Sonagachi emptied of prostituted women and children in our lifetime.