Decoding the real Durgas in narrow lanes of Asia’s largest red-light area

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Kolkata has once again risen to rousing spells of excitement with vibrant lights lighting up the city’s thinnest alleys. Months before the homecoming of goddess Durga, the narrow alleys of Kumortuli come alive with deft hands moulding clay to give shape to armoured idols. And age-old practices have it that the numerous clay figures of the ten-armed warrior goddess are never sanctified unless the clay is mixed with dust collected from outside the multi-story brothels, or the Nishidhho Pallis housing thousands of sex-workers. While every effort is made to ensure that the brief sojourn of the mother goddess at her ‘natal home’ is as memorable as it can be, sex-workers like Shibani Giri, who are outcasts into the folds of autumnal festivities, are expected to surrender to the onslaught of the societal dominance without much of a fight. 

We are but a nation of schizophrenics, prostrating before the mother goddess, standing tall against the evil or the asura at her feet — and how deceptive it is that we fail to notice the contradiction in ill-treating women in human form, who represent Devi Durga herself. The idol Durga, defiant and unwavering in her resolve, slays those unworthy of mercy — the symbolism involved renders it almost salient. Sonagachi sex-workers refuse to assimilate into the dominant culture, much like Devi Durga, and so do their children, who are finding a new lease of life through the sport of football.

Tears well up in Shibani’s eyes as she laments,

We are not able to progress further due to financial woes. I am not able to look after my child and give her the life she deserves. I am not able to fulfill her dreams. To chase dreams (to play football), one needs to have some economic stability. Like a jersey, or boots, or maybe snacks, where do we get the money from? Where is the solution to this problem?

Located on the edge of the city, Sonagachi mirrors the life of a mother trapped into a vicious polyamory for her daughter to fulfill a far-flung dream through football. One can see the optimism brimming in her fragile frame. The reason that Shibani has high hopes? A committee called the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) has been a helping hand to the sex workers and their children so that their dreams find a voice. 

Sonagachi girls are chasing their dreams to battle stereotypes through their love for football.

In an area where prostitution flourishes like a poisonous flower in the swamps of the lower-middle class way of life, apart from watching their mothers become daily victims of inherently exploitative practices by Babus, the children are chasing their dreams to battle stereotypes through their love for football. “DMSC has contributed a lot to our development. It has helped me a lot. I had barely imagined that I would be able to reach this stage or discuss my problems in the open. I had never imagined that my daughter would be able to play football. I am hopeful that my daughter will march big steps ahead to climb newer heights in football,” says Shibani. 

There is a sprinkling of the waves of energy and enthusiasm to match that of the bunch of rising football enthusiasts in the narrow, dingy lanes of Sonagachi. But it fails to outgrow the entrenched poverty and utter destitution thrust upon the young girls. Last year, the committee launched a first-of-its-kind football team under the franchise, ‘Amra Padatik’ with the sole objective of rekindling the fire in these enthusiasts. 

Shibani is, however, expectant of a better future not just for her own child but for the children of Sonagachi. With strokes of optimism in her tone, she says,

I nurture only one dream for them, that they may get a chance to play everywhere. That their mothers are sex-workers should not limit their commitment towards the game. This is my only dream.

Sex work tends to be regarded mostly in a single dimension, women like Shibani are considered as only prostitutes, not individual characters, not people with their own lives and goals. It is time that we, collectively, faced up to this problem. It is time that we, as a community, gave attention to reasons behind sex work. It is probably time that we found means of ridding ourselves once and all for this evil. Perhaps then, the little lives will be lifted, then transformed. As we stand before the imposing ten-handed Durga with folded palms, will we be able to accord to the football enthusiasts of Sonagachi, as a consequence of the pinnacle on which we place Devi Durga, a small fraction of the reverence we reserve for the clay idols?