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How would they survive if they couldn’t take customers? Most women had kids, or alcoholic husbands! How would they survive if they could not do their work?
Kusumkoli felt exhausted every night. It was getting extremely difficult to manage the baby and customers simultaneously. The baby used to sleep in the day and stay awake the whole night. She only slept when Kusumkoli stayed next to her in the bed.
The moment Kusum left the baby’s side she used to wake up and start crying. Kusumkoli tried to keep her with other women at night but the baby would always know that it was not her mother.
Jaba was menstruating and decided to take a break, the baby loved playing with Jaba during the day, so Kusum was relaxed. She was sure that night would go on smoothly as the baby would be happy with Jaba. How wrong was Kusum!
Initially, the baby was playing and gurgling happily with Jaba. For a moment both Jaba and Kusum expected the baby would fall asleep. But as soon as Kusum left, the baby started crying loudly.
Kusum had not even left the corridor of the small building when she heard the baby’s cry. She consoled herself that the baby would be fine in a while but her motherly instinct did not allow her to leave the building. And she came back to the baby. That night Kusum didn’t earn a penny.
Kusumkoli often regrets her decision to have the child. Manohar wanted her to abort the baby. Ganga Masi also threatened Kusum dire consequences if she had the child. She was fed up with all the children in her custody, too many mouths to feed. However, Kusum was adamant, she didn’t want to kill the foetus.
She had no relative in this whole world, not a single soul she could call her own blood, this child would be her only kin. Kusum’s mother, Malati died when Kusum was eleven years old. She didn’t know who her father was.
After Malati’s death, Ganga Masi started looking after Kusum. The next year Kusum got her first period and Ganga Masi decided that Kusum was old enough to earn her own living. However, Ganga Masi never allowed any rogue customer for Kusum. Manohar was the only man for her.
Unlike other women, Kusum had never known any other life outside Sonagachi. This was her home and she was comfortable here. She hardly stepped out of this area. Other than going for movies a couple of times and a circus once, she had never gone anywhere.
Kusum was happy with Manohar even though he was a married man, almost twenty years older than her with two grown-up sons. He was a tender man. And wanted Kusum to not have other customers.
Ganga Masi also wanted a safer arrangement for Kusum, she was slightly protective of Kusum, so she agreed. Manohar was not an alcoholic, unlike most men who came to visit the girls. He used to come early in the evening around seven pm. And came every day directly from his office.
Kusum was not sure what kind of work Manohar did and never bothered to ask also. Kusum used to get dressed soon after sunset and wait for him. Manohar always insisted that Kusum kept her room and bedsheets clean. He also wanted Kusum to take a bath before he came. Manohar followed a simple routine.
Every evening he came at seven pm and left at nine pm. The two hours that he stayed he used to listen to folk music on his mobile and ate muri chanachur that Kusum mixed for him. He was never rough with her.
Often he brought her small gifts like earrings, bangles, ice-cream, jalebi, and lipstick. Every year during Durga Puja and Poila Baisakh he used to gift Kusum a saree and blouse or salwar kameez. Once he even exchanged the salwaar kameez twice as Kusum didn’t like the colour.
Manohar never used protection, even though the rule was to mandatorily use protection. Ganga Masi allowed only because Manohar went only to Kusum. She knew he had a relationship with no other woman, not even his wife. Ganga Masi used to make sure that Kusum took her pills regularly. She used to get extremely angry if Kusum missed them.
Despite so much caution, Kusum got pregnant. Both Ganga Masi and Manohar wanted Kusum to get rid of the pregnancy. But she was stubborn. When Manohar realised she wouldn’t listen to him, he stopped coming. Kusum never expected this. Ganga Masi initially cursed Kusum a lot for her stupidity but gradually accepted the whole thing.
Kusum started taking other customers. She was no more a ‘one-man woman.’ After the child was born, it became extremely difficult. She needed money as raising a child was expensive but the child wouldn’t let her work at night. So she started working in the morning but hardly any customer came to this area in the morning.
She did call Manohar and wanted to ask him to give her some money but he never picked up the phone. But she didn’t know where he lived. Kusum had never felt so helpless in her life.
One day, Kusum heard a few women talking about some coronavirus in China and how fewer customers were coming. Kusum was so hassled with the baby that she had actually not noticed the thinning of men in the locality over a few weeks.
She went to hear the Bengali News at Ganga Masi’s room where the news lady was talking about some lockdown. Though she didn’t completely understand it, she figured a lockdown meant something like a Bharat Bandh where no one stepped out of the house. Most women seemed anxious.
Next day, an NGO didi came and explained that they need to wash their hands regularly and use a face mask. The NGO didi also asked all of them to avoid customers. A commotion started among the women.
How would they survive if they couldn’t take customers? Most women had kids, some even had an ailing or alcoholic husband, sick parents, disabled siblings! How would they survive if they cannot do their work? Kusum also felt worried. Earlier it would have been easier. But now, with the baby, it would be extremely difficult.
That night the Prime Minister came on TV and said there would be a Junta Curfew. Women in Sonagachi were divided. Some believed that after the day-long curfew the virus would be gone, especially if they made loud noises.
The other women were more aware and they said it was just the beginning of a longer curfew. Most women had already lost work by this time. Few women, who had family in villages, were contemplating going back. However, the majority of women who land up in Sonagachi have nowhere to go, even if they have a family. Their families only accepted their money but not them.
Kusum has no family other than her baby. The only home she even had was Ganga Masi’s cottage. She was looking ahead to a dark future. NGO didi assured them that the Government and the NGO would take care of them during the crisis. But most of the women were not convinced.
On the day of Junta Curfew, at five pm the women in Sonagachi clapped and blew conch shells, some banged a plate with a spoon. There was some kind of a festive mood in the area. The next day few women had their customers back and many thought maybe the crisis was over.
However, the news channels were saying something else. Most women were glued to news channels either on their TV or on their mobile phones. In the evening the PM again came on TV and declared a lockdown of 21 days starting within a few hours.
Most women started crying, some started calling their families, some packed their bags and left for their villages. There were utter chaos and panic. Kusum didn’t know what to do, whom to call, what to do. Ganga Masi had almost turned stone. How would she feed so many girls and their children for 21 days without customers?
Kusum tried the number of Manohar for one last time in desperation. She knew he wouldn’t pick up but still, she called. To her utter surprise, he picked up. There was anxiety in his voice. He said he was worried about her and the baby. And that he would send someone to her within an hour and leave her with some money and food items to survive for the next 21 days.
It was the twentieth day of the lockdown. The money that Manohar had given was adequate for Kusum. He had also given her ten kilos of rice, five kilos of pulses, onions, potatoes, and dry milk. Kusum is now taking care of quite a few women and children in the area.
Few other kind babus also left some food. The NGO is also giving food. Most women eat less so that the kids can have their full share of food. Kusum has now become an important woman in the area.
Ganga Masi also depends on her. The women have never been out of work like this before. Brothels and temples/churches/mosques always remain open. However, this virus shut them all. They have uncertainty but also many of them are getting time to spend with their children.
These days Kusum’s baby doesn’t wake up at night. Manohar said he would come to meet the baby after the virus is gone. Kusum could feel he would again become a regular as he was missing her.
After ages, Kusum saw a bright full moon from her small window. The pollution is less everywhere and stars could be seen shining brightly. Kusum knew in her mind there was hope.
Picture credits: Still from movie Tikli And Laxmi Bomb
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