“Night come tenderly,
Black like me.”
I teach two of Maya Di’s sons and on that account she struck up a conversation with me. She’s worried that her younger sons will turn out to be like her eldest- he is in jail for stabbing a man who refused to pay his mother for the sexual services she had rendered to him. (Somehow writing that last truth out in formal, terse English makes it less harsh, easier to face because it feels like I’m writing a mere report, not someone’s life. Of course, from Maya Di’s mouth it had come out in coarse Bengali, “Amake chutey taka dichhilona, diyechhe salar gola ketey.” She has the courage to tell the absolute naked truth- a rare occurence in our world, a common one in their’s.)
She doesn’t know if her father left them or he died, she never asked her mother. She used to collect paper from garbage dumps and sell them. In winter she used to burn the papers to keep out the cold. The days the paper collection was scarce they used to scavenge for food in the garbage bins, in fierce competition with the street dogs. She wore the same frock for 6 years, a hand-me-down from the house where her mother washed the dishes. When it tore, she stitched it, patched it, darned it… for 6 years until the cloth was rotten and you couldn’t tell which were the patches and which the original frock.
“And then my mother sold me here when I was 14,” Maya Di said with a shrug. And I shuddered. How could she say it so casually? As if going hungry or wearing torn clothes was equally painful as being raped repeatedly at the age of 14? Well, maybe it was. We lie at night in our comfortable beds and content stomachs and in our complacency feel sorry for underage girls trafficked into prostitution. “Tsk, tsk!” we click our tongues. How would we know which one is worse or better, hunger or a painful vagina…we’ve never felt either. Prostitution is mentioned in hushed tones in our pretentious middle-class social circles, “Oi je maney…red light area tey hoy na…” and they’re referred to as “sex workers” by the politically correct beaurocrats who decide to take up their cause to get plastered onto newspapers. And we all feel sorry for them.
Maya Di doesn’t feel sorry. She doesn’t need pity. She doesn’t need anything from us. She is an independent working woman who uses the assets she has to earn herself food, new sarees, books and bags for her children she wishes to educate. Yes, she was trafficked and raped. But now she provides sexual services to sex-starved men willingly, just like we provide technical or educational or medical services to those who need it. Are doctors ashamed to be selling their brains (and often their morals) to patients for Rs. 100 per minute? Then why must we expect her to be ashamed of selling her body for Rs. 50 an hour?
I knew she had recently enrolled in the adult literacy program so I asked her, what seemed to me, to be a very relevant question, “When you used to collect those peices of paper, didn’t you ever look at them and wonder what was written there or what the pictures were of?” She merely gave me an incredulous look and laughed out. And at that moment I felt so small. My 15 years of formal education in elite institutions, my exposure to various cultures and countries, my reading, nothing could qualify me to understand what that laugh encompassed. Sometimes the papers were wet and the letters washed out, or the pictures worn out by dust and time. And I expected her to be a Rennaisance scholar peering over them wondering what the letters meant when her 2 year old brother was wailing in hunger? In the life she had lived she had learnt more than education can teach. She had gained the wisdom to laugh at me and I had nothing to say to her anymore.