Twenty-three-year old Lakshmi was born in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s famous red light district. She has met her father just once and doesn’t remember the last time she spent the night with her mother and siblings in the same house as a family. But she still considers herself lucky. At least she was never drugged or given alcohol by her mother as a child just so she would fall asleep before it was time for business, the last resort of women working in Kamathipura.
Her mother was divorced and worked at Kamathipura to support them, but Lakshmi didn’t have to live there or bear the stigma attached to it. She now has a new name, a loving husband, an adorable three-year-old son and is about to graduate from Mumbai University.
In a small one-room flat on the fourth floor of house in Dharavi, Lakshmi is smiling as her hyperactive boy plays drums on the dustbin. There’s a bed and a television in the room that serves as both the living room and the bedroom. The kitchen has a fridge and a gas connection. Four generations share this space—Lakshmi and her husband, their son, her mother-in-law and her husband’s grandmother. Having moved from one boarding school to another all her life, Lakshmi has finally found a home.
New beginnings: Lakshmi wants to get a master’s degree in social work so that she can help other girls like herself. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar
“In my life if there’s anyone else I love and respect as my own mother, it’s the women at Prerana,” says Lakshmi as she pulls her son towards her and hands him his colouring book. Prerana started a night care centre at the Kamathipura Municipal School in 1986. The centre opens at 5.30pm and children are provided food, shelter and tuitions until their mothers pick them up the next morning. Preeti Iyer, project director, Prerana, says: “It’s a dangerous and exploitative environment to grow up in. For mothers who feel their children are unsafe even in our shelter, we provide them with options outside the area.”
Lakshmi’s mother wanted her children as far away from Kamathipura as possible. Lakshmi and her younger brother and sister studied in an English-medium school and lived at a rented house in Thane with a caretaker, till Lakshmi was 6. But as they grew older, expenses increased. “My mother had no choice but to bring us with her to Kamathipura. But she wanted to get us out of there as soon as possible,” says Lakshmi.
A friend of Lakshmi’s mother who worked at Prerana suggested she take the children to the night care centre at Kamathipura. That was Lakshmi’s first introduction to her new mothers—the Prerana didis. “Didi came to our house, met all of us and I spent a year there,” says Lakshmi. By then all three siblings knew their way around Kamathipura and would sometimes go out looking for their mother. Lakshmi’s mother did not want her children exposed to that aspect of her life and enrolled them in a boarding school in Nashik.
“We hated it there. The food wasn’t good and even the studies were not very nice,” says Lakshmi. Education for girls was limited to class VII. Once again, Prerana came to the rescue. Lakshmi was enrolled in Shraddhanand Mahila Ashram in Matunga. Lakshmi spent six years of her life there and counts them among her best. “When I look back I realize I was lucky. They used to take good care of our diet and education. We got proper meals, milk, fruit, and even salads. There was a full-time doctor, social worker and a psychologist. My mother had no idea about this place. Without the help from Prerana I don’t know what would have happened to us.”
It was in class X that Lakshmi first spoke to the boy in school who later became her husband. Her husband and his family were aware of her background but they accepted her unconditionally. But when it was time for her to tell her family, Lakshmi called the Prerana didis first. “I was so scared initially but everyone at Prerana was supportive,” says Lakshmi. Later, with the blessings of her mother, she was engaged. She waited until she was 18 to marry.
But Lakshmi still wanted to pursue her studies. On her first day at SNDT College, she waited for her mother to come and meet her. She didn’t. “She hadn’t even called to cancel. I got very worried and spoke to didi to find out about her.” The women at Prerana found out that Lakshmi’s mother was suffering from tuberculosis and that it was at a terminal stage. “Didi admitted her to Sewri hospital and I went to meet her. She died five days later.”
In fact, Prerana had to fight with Lakshmi’s mother’s employer for the small belongings that were left behind for Lakshmi and her siblings.
Whenever Lakshmi talks about her Prerana didis, she gets emotional. “They were a godsend for me. I think they have spent more time with us than their own children.”
Prerana started working in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light area, in 1986 with a focus on ending second-generation trafficking of children. It tries to prevent commercial sexual exploitation of children and young women, and has also worked with children who are HIV-positive. Prerana also runs day and night care centres and educational support programmes.
Rs5,000 For This Charity Can
• Fund a child’s education for a year
• Pay for extra tuition for high school dropouts and their senior secondary exam application procedure
If You Want To Volunteer
Prerana is looking for professionals to participate in its career counselling sessions and expose the children of this area to a world they have not seen, but hope to be a part of