Sangli is clean. It begins with the railway station, which has been awarded the second cleanest station’s title in Maharashtra. A five-minute auto-rickshaw ride takes you to Dusshera Chowk. Through clean roads canopied by huge trees, you arrive at a small junction. A clean swept road from there leads to Sangli’s red light area. Pink doors on pink walls flank the street. There are no open drains with floating condoms in them. A decorative rangoli adorns the doorstep of every house. A few young girls stand next to a door, waiting for customers. Most others are busy with the chores that keep any housewife busy every morning—washing utensils and clothes, running after children, cooking meals, and taking dried clothes off the clothesline.
Two decades ago, when Madam was just 18, she eloped with a boy, but he was too scared to marry her. She couldn’t go back to her parents and so she decided to stay on in Dusshera Chowk, doing sundry jobs. Eventually, she became a sex worker. Seven years into the business, she saw contemporaries suddenly falling ill, developing blisters in their mouth and on their tongue, and then becoming just a memory sooner than expected. “The fat girls suddenly became sticks. Then someone said it was AIDS. We had never heard of it before. We never thought that our work could kill us,” she says.
She began to work with Sangram, an organisation in Sangli promoting awareness about HIV and AIDS. That’s where she first encountered the condom. “I thought ‘What kind of weird sticky rubber is this?’ But then, since we were getting it free, I decided to try it,” she says, “I eventually understood that it was for my protection as a sex worker.” She took it upon herself to teach other girls how to use condoms. And also the customers who strode in. “Sex workers saw condoms as a hurdle not just to the sexual act, but to their business,” she says, “The girls would argue that asking the man to wear a condom was as good as showing him the door and not earning anything. They thought that the pleasure of sex would be lost if a condom was worn.”
Since most of the girls were from next-door Karnataka, they spoke only Kannada. Talking about condoms in Marathi or broken-Kannada was not really helping her get the message across to other sex workers. So she had an innovative idea. “I bought two huge plastic buckets and put them in an intersection of the lanes. I told the girls to throw used condoms into the buckets. Around midnight, I would ask the girls about the number of customers they’d had. Then, I would thrust my hand into the bins, pull out the used condoms, and count them. If it did not tally with the number the girls had told me, it meant someone did not get her customer to use a condom. I just had to call out once, and the errant girl would apologise. If they address me as ‘Maa’, then I have every right to scold them.” She is the boss of about 200 girls now, most of whom are from Karnataka’s Devdasi tradition, with tiny white beads on a red cord around their necks identifying their lineage.
Madam’s efforts took three years to come good. Today, none of the women will ‘bithao’ (seat—for sex) a customer who refuses to wear a condom. But are the men willing to oblige? “Not if they are very drunk,” says Madam. So she does what a good mother will do for her daughters—she screens the customers. By 6 pm, Madam settles herself under a big tree at the entrance of her territory. Every prospective customer has to pass her screening—essentially, an assessment of his level of inebriation. “No man comes to a brothel unless he has had some alcohol,” she says, “I look at a man and I can tell how drunk he is. If he is too drunk, then obviously he won’t be able to wear the condom. Then I send him back, even if that means shouting and pushing him away. For the rest, I ask if they are carrying condoms, though my girls are well stocked in any case.”
Many a times, girls have had to show the door to rich customers who try offering more money for condomless sex. “My man asks me, ‘Why do I have to wear the condom even after being with you for so many years? Don’t you trust me?’ I say that this is the way it needs to be, because I do not want him to bring in diseases from his wife,” she says.
Source: Open Magazine