Tara is short, less than five feet, and petite. She is in an orange saree and blouse that wraps her like an Egyptian mummy. An orange bindi, orange bangles and flowing black curly hair complete the image of a fluorescent dervish. Tara always manages a lazy drawl even when she is in a hurry; she drags her feet when she walks, her chappals scrape the ground collecting the dust with them. It is an uncommon walking style. You can't miss it; you can even hear it. Her hands are wildly flayed and her posterior rolls in exaggeration. Her gait is expansive and requires a lot of space to accommodate it. There are flowers in her thick black hair. She has sparkling eyes and a large mouth that often finds the time to smile. She keeps giggling and gesticulating; it's her way. When she is in the vicinity, it gathers you in its turbulence.
Tara was married but her husband died of tuberculosis years ago. She looks after two young children back home in her village in Andhra Pradesh from her earnings as a sex worker in Kamathipura. Her father was a farmer and her mother, frail and blind, is still alive. Tara looks after her too. There are siblings but they have been separated from one another by the wiles of time and circumstance.Tara has memories of childhood but they don’t flow as easily as her laughter. She doesn’t know where the others are and doesn’t want to talk about the details of growing up, hungry and homeless most of the time, under the scorching southern sun. Maybe, she just doesn’t want to remember the pain.
Tara was gang raped several times, had repeated abortions and several venereal diseases long before she turned eighteen, and finally found deliverance in a brothel she was sold to by her family with the help of an agent. It is the destiny of many girls in her village. Middlemen habitually make the rounds. They know about the poverty that will always refuse to cuddle the girl child and the desperation of those tilling the land made barren by the heat and dust, repeated monsoon failures and over cropping. There are scars on her body, knife wounds and burn marks, but Tara refuses to stop smiling and offers me tea. "If you stay longer, I will cook for you," she says happily. "That's if you feel like eating with me."
Her cubicle is tiny, neatly kept, and lit by a tube light. An old ceiling fan, a trifle unsteady, whirs silently. There is a large cupboard in which she stocks up on cash, jewellery and some clothes: sarees, salwar kameezes and undergarments. She has a bank account with a nationalised bank and a passbook she is proud to show. She has eighteen thousand rupees in it. There is a chair, a small table with powder, lipstick and some make-up, a mirror, and pails of water under the cot. A thin brown rope stretches from one end of the room to the other with some clothes hanging on it. They are her clothes, washed, wrung and left to dry. She will iron them later, or the pressman on the ground floor will come to the brothel in the morning, collect all the girls' clothes and send them over in the evening, ironed and sorted out in neat bundles.
The room is small, clean, cool and intimate. It wears a good feeling probably reflecting the aura of the occupant. There are shadows lounging around and geckos are mating on the wall. They grab one another with little gurgles of ecstasy. Tara pours me tea in small stainless steel tumblers and we sit on her large bed and talk. The bed sheet is brown and clean and the pillowcase an ugly green. Her eyes shine like expensive diamonds, maybe that's why her parents called her tara or star, and she smiles all the time. I am speechless. I want to know what makes her so happy. I want to know how she is filled with so much love and how she can keep giving without being held back by the sorrow that could have turned into crust in her soul.
She lifts her saree and shows me her arms and legs. I can see knife and burn marks. She tells me that even her vagina has been cut up. One nipple has also been sliced off. She says all this in a matter-of-fact voice as though reading out a child's report card. There's no drama, no tears, no look-at-my-sorry state cry. "How's the tea?" she then asks smiling, trying to cheer me up. Tara is in her mid thirties and wants to live in the brothel till the last ebb of life. "I can't go anywhere now. This is my home. I go to my village whenever I want, send money every month for my children's education and hope they will do well in life. There is nothing else in my life. I am a prostitute. It is my job. The lowest job ever. I am like the garbage can. Born to be used. Anyway, forget all this, tell me about you, why are you here, are you married, do you have children, how does your wife look, must be beautiful, what are your children's names, where are they studying?"
Tara charges three hundred rupees for a session, which roughly translates to six dollars. A portion is handed to the madam. It is a few times that for the whole night. Sometimes, she is booked for the weekends too. She keeps the tips and the gifts she gets. "I have customers I have known for years. I have loved too but now I don’t love like that I think I have grown up. That mad, desperate love is over, thank God. My mind doesn’t connect to the body. It's just a job. Many customers just want to talk and tell me their problems. They pay me because I listen. No one listens to anyone in the big city. No one has time. Everyone has problems. When I hear them, I feel my problems are nothing. I am sure even you have problems. It is the human condition. We are all supposed to have problems and we are meant to solve them. It is karma. Then we will leave this body and take another form. And, maybe, take on some new problems."
I ask her how she knows all this. "Is there any other reason? Look at my life. Is there any reason for all that has happened? What have I done? I haven't even had the chance to be a bad person. I was raped as a child. So there must be something I did in a previous life and this is my punishment. When I die my punishment will be over. My next life will be good. I have done nothing wrong this life. We have talked about this in the brothel. All the girls agree. There is no other explanation. You tell me. You are educated. If not for karma, why have we suffered like this? It is destiny, nothing else." I look for answers. The happy geckos are also not on the wall.
I ask her about God, religion, about her spirituality. Her room has several pictures of deities. Yes, she prays every day. All the girls pray. They have grown up praying to some God and the madam also insists that they pray together. "I am born a Hindu and I pray to all the Gods and Goddesses. I also celebrate all the festivals. Religion doesn’t matter to me. I don’t know too much about all this. I haven’t studied much, but there has to be some power that makes all of us so different. Even the girls in the brothel are so different from one another. How? Isn't that surprising? I feel happy when I pray. So I pray. I don’t know anything else. Maybe, there is no God. I don’t know. Maybe, He is not kind, maybe He is not just, may be He is. I don’t know all this. How can I know all this? I just pray to what, I feel, is responsible for creating life. Prayer makes me feel strong and secure and happy."
We have more tea. It is late at night, early morning really. The rooms are full. Business is good like it always is. The cubicle's door is shut and there is no noise intruding our space. A long triangular stretch of light seeps in from under the door. Some girls who have not been taken for the night sleep in the hall outside on charpoys laid on the ground. "Why don't you eat? It is not good to have so much tea. There is some rice and dal. I will heat it. Let's eat," she insists. We eat together in clean, separate plates. She gives me a spoon so that I don’t dirty my hands. Tarakeeps talking and giggling like a schoolgirl. She is kind and loving and wants to pamper me. "This grain of rice has your name on it. So it is your karma to eat with me today. So eat as much as you can. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? We haven't seen it."
Do you miss your kids? "I am a mother. Which mother won't? I am here for them. I want to live and work till they are settled. Both are boys. So I am not worried. If they are girls anything can happen to them. When I meet my mother I wonder what dreams she had for me? She must have had some dreams at least. Having become a mother, I understand my mother better. Luckily, she is blind and can't hear or speak too well. If she knew what I have gone through, her heart will pain."
She has pictures of the kids framed on the wall. Two little boys, short, thin, tanned, oiled hair and powdered up, in matching blue shirts with white stripes grinning away astride a red motorcycle. It is a studio shot taken in her village. Tara can read and write Telegu and watches a lot of television. She loves Hindi films and sees at least one a day. Sometimes, the girls go to the cinema close by. She likes action and romance and even the scary flicks. "I even saw Sunjay Dutt shooting," she says all excited. "He had come to Kamathipura."
What's her daily routine? She normally wakes up late, but it depends on customer traffic. If the traffic is heavy, the brothel gets a life only at noon. Every girl gets about five customers a day on an average. There are love stories and special customers, and weekend and festival rush. So the numbers vary depending on several factors. Customers can walk in anytime, some even come to the brothel for breakfast. Some stay in the brothel for weeks on end. Customers can stay as long as they want if they pay. But the evenings and nights are always busy.
The madam, a former sex worker in the same brothel, wakes up early everyday and looks into the provisions and other details. The girls, who had an early night, help her. Everyone does something or the other; duties are assigned. Some cook, other clean up, and food is also ordered from the several hotels nearby. Customers may want to drink and smoke too. Biryani, tandoor dishes and kebabs can be ordered. On festive occasions the girls cook the dishes they are most fond of. They don’t entertain customers during their menstrual cycle but hang around and chat. It's holiday time then. They also eat out with customers. Vendors come to the brothel with fruits, vegetables, flowers, clothes, utensils, jewellery, with almost everything the girls and the brothel needs. So there is no need to shop unless they need the colours, smells and noises of the bazaar.
The brothel is spick and span. There are maids to clean up; normally they are retired sex workers. The two toilets and two bathing areas are kept spotlessly clean and disinfected, water collected in large cauldrons, floors swabbed several times a day, condoms are used always, and great stress is laid on post coital hygiene. The girls and their customers clean themselves thoroughly with water, lemon and soap. Lemon slices are always used as a natural disinfectant. It is used for everything: washing, cooking and eating. A doctor on the street below is always available. He lives above the clinic. Sometimes the girls fall sick, but Tara has never been unwell. "I have never fallen sick, never even had fever, I don’t know how. I am so lucky. Maybe, it's my prayers."
There is order and the brothel runs without murmur. Fights between the girls, though not uncommon, never last. There are some 20 girls in the brothel and Tara is one of the senior ones. The others listen to her without protest. They know why they are here. Tara helps them come to terms with the new circumstances and when the old ones get frayed at the ends. The girls fight over new clothes and lovers, but it's not serious. What's a little bit of ego bruising when they have been pulverised by life?
Tara jokes and laughs till the tears trickle from her eyes. I simply can't fathom her and the others in the brothel. I need a constant yoga practice to still my mind and find fleeting happiness. How do Tara and the others keep laughing at life when it has always mocked them?
The Buddha talked about clinging and non-clinging. If something good happens, you have a reflexive tendency to try to hold on to it, and if something bad happens, you have a tendency to push it away. This clinging response is inevitable if you believe yourself to be the same as or the "owner of" all the desires and fears that arise in you. You become trapped in an endless web of tension and contraction. For most people life is just this.
"He who understands clinging and non-clinging understands all the Dharma," said the Buddha. This is the Dharma of happiness. The alternative to the tyranny of clinging is to fully receive the experiences that arise in your life, knowing them to be pleasant when they are pleasant and unpleasant when they are unpleasant. Life dances and you have to dance with it. Each moment is a fresh moment in the dance, and you have to be present for it.
Tara and the girls instinctively radiate the wisdom of the Buddha. I spent years with my yoga practice yet was unable to scratch out the images of burn and knife wounds on Tara's body, her dazzling eyes, the wisdom of her words and the smile that roped in all the joys of the world in its loving expanse in a badly lit cubicle of a brothel on the first floor of a building steadily falling apart in one of the most notorious flesh districts in the world.
Life is dancing, and Tara is dancing with it. It’s the last tango in Kamathipura. It’s her last dance of life.