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An auto-repair shop in Kamathipura. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

An auto-repair shop in Kamathipura. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Kamathipura: bought and sold

Kamathipura: bought and sold

In Kamathipura Gully 14, in the second room on the ground floor, madam moti Moiratha is set to leave. In this, one of the last few lanes of what was once the largest sex district in Asia, and Mumbai’s most historic, Moiratha is seated on a bench in her doorway, combing her dishevelled black hair. Behind her, two carpenters are breaking down the wide teak bed that has served her trade for the last 35 years. All her worldly possessions are wrapped in two cloth bundles. She has sold her flat and will leave for her “gaanv", Dharwad, in Karnataka. “Now what is left here?" she asks.

An auto-repair shop in Kamathipura. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

According to Sanjay Dutt, executive managing director, South Asia, for global real estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield: “The current rate here for a mediocre quality old structure should range (from) 35,000-40,000 per sq. ft for retail and 15,000-25,000 per sq. ft for residential. Expect a 100-200% appreciation in five years for a premium project in its final phase of completion."

Moiratha doesn’t seem to care what the market rate is. She looks at her son, less than a year old. The “beemari" (HIV/AIDS) has spread everywhere. She needs money. Mumbai has become expensive. The trade is dead, she says. “Ye sabkhatam hua (All this is over)," she says, gesturing with her comb outside her door.

An aerial view of the red-light district and the changing cityscape beyond from a nearby skyscraper

The builders are moving in, buying out Kamathipura, unit by unit. On the ground, word is the purchase of tenancies has begun, seth by seth, madam by madam, and every day, someone quietly shifts. Nabil Patel, director, DB Realty, says: “We are working on it (redevelopment), but can’t share details at the moment."

Priti Patkar, who runs the NGO Prerana within the sex district, has been systematically mapping Kamathipura, building by building, since 2010. “We estimated that by end 2012-13, Kamathipura would have gone. Builders have been buying out individual units and leasing them to small industries—bag makers, hat and mat makers—on 11-month leases," she says. Her map lists everything from new paan-beedi shops to industrial units. It also marks the falling number of brothels: “Building 257: from 22 to 10. Mothi Bohri Chawl: 18 to 13...." Overall, the number of brothels is down from 583 to 535 in the period from January-March (see “Brothel bandh" on Page 12).

Unlike an overnight sale which clears out the area, the current redevelopment in Kamathipura is a process. Individual units are being bought and leased to small industries for 11 months. The new industrial units are noisy and spew fumes well into the night. This disturbs the sex workers, business dips, and they too eventually look to sell and leave.

A 2009 photo of sex workers waiting for clients

It was not always like this, Sushila says, sitting on her cot. “Paise vaale aate the (The moneyed used to come here)." Now there is no money flowing into the system. Migrant workers with a few rupees to spare drop by. It costs 150 for a session with a woman. “Low-budget, savings-wallah..." Sushila laughs. It barely buys them a living.

A woman with a past

The most expensive brothel at Kamathipura’s peak in the 1960s cost 13 and 80 annas for a sex act. Mumbai Police historian Deepak Rao says specific brothels—like No. 25 and No. 107—were on the “approved" list of in-bound sailors. “The pulling down of Bachuseth ki Wadi, and the Kebab House on Foras Road five years ago, where a tower now stands, marked the beating of the retreat," he says.

The late Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, in a 1998 essay on the racial composition of the Bombay police force, highlights the nexus of power and influence that revolved around one of the most famous brothels of its time—No. 392 Falkland Road; Fritza’s brothel. Inspector Favel, recipient of the King’s Police Medal in 1917, the essay claims, colluded with the brothel keeper to ensure all new girls—“fresh arrivals"—went there. He provided protection to Mary Fooks, a Russian girl in the brothel, who was to later become an influential brothel keeper herself.

Also See | Brothel bandh (PDF)

Pathans guarded the foyers of the brothels, and rights of admission were reserved.

A zari workshop in one of the by-lanes

There were distinct lanes for dance bar girls, mujrewalis and sex workers. No. 38 Foras Road was once a sprawling bungalow known as Spy House, on the radar of foreign intelligence agencies during the world wars. “It is said men of the calibre of national statesmen came here. It was a hotbed of espionage," Rao says. Entry was reserved for men who descended from horse-drawn carriages, wore shoes and, preferably, a tie.

In the 1950s, when the then chief minister of the erstwhile state of Bombay, Morarji Desai, began his crackdown on social vices, he was reportedly advised that Kamathipura’s undisturbed existence was essential to the sanity of society. A “tolerated area", it escaped the crackdown. References to the district abound in Hindi cinema, from Amar Prem (1972) to Chameli (2003) to the forthcoming Talaash by Reema Kagti, starring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. So far, only Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry have captured the streets in their raw, stark reality.

The burden of Lal Bazar

A paan-beedi shop at the start of Gully 12.

Today landlords, unable to deal with the complex mess of tenancies, are handing over “landlord rights" to builders. They, much like the government and private developers, are not clear on whom the onus of rehabilitation must fall, and do not want to address it. Seth Jain, seated at Ambika Electricals and rumoured to own five buildings in which the sex trade continues, won’t speak. Merwan Kola, who owns building 56, Foras Road, is waiting to redevelop it. Landlords are fed up of being blamed for a trade spawned by subleases they could never control.

The Kathawala family has owned a 7,000 sq. m. gala (shed), located between lane 5 and lane 13 of Kamathipura, for the last six decades. Individual units within the gala were leased to around 230 small industries and residences. Patriarch Zuzar Kathawala says they have ruled out cluster, or collaborative, redevelopment: “It’s been a headache. Rent was 3 and 5, so after municipal taxes, maintenance, etc it was a loss-making enterprise for us." Kathawala is currently in the process of redeveloping his gala himself and, despite a recent go-slow on government approvals, is thankful for the changed laws. “Since we are a large space we are entitled to cluster development, but we opted for 33/7 (a government development rule which grants greater FSI). Earlier, these things were not clearly defined. Today, tenants also know their options. We have been generous landlords, paying tenants well as we purchase plots back from them, so we have no problems now," he says.

Red signal: A 2008 photo of two sex workers preparing for a night of work in Kamathipura, Mumbai. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Mahendra Warbhuvan, chief executive officer of the Mhada repair board, says: “The government has priorities. India has many homeless people to be rehabilitated. This is under consideration and will take time."

The Congress MLA for Nagpada, south Mumbai, Amin Patel, who has also been involved with the transformation of Bhendi Bazaar by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment project, says: “It being a charitable trust, many factors of dispute were resolved overnight. Here, in Kamathipura, so many issues come up—there are family disputes within landlords’ families, tenancies and rehabilitation on humanitarian grounds. Each plot is not more than 50 sq. m. No one can buy it out—it is too small. All of Kamathipura is not a sex district, yet it has gained that reputation. All such factors have made cluster redevelopment unviable."

New faces: The McDonald’s outlet on Belasis Road is a stone’s throw from Kamathipura Gully 14. By Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

A bankrupt district

This disintegration of the old city is symptomatic of the larger context of socio-urban change. Architect Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard University, says: “There is a co-relation between urban form and the texture of life in the city. A fine-grained urban form, like the amazingly robust one of Kamathipura, supports social interactions and synergies in ways that large-scale megastructures just don’t. This is being unsettled."

Kamathipura’s process of redevelopment is not merely the bringing down of a few buildings, it is changing Mumbai as it occurs. “What we are allowing to happen in Mumbai, and which I find is an extremely dangerous trend, is the amalgamation of property. It alters the DNA of the city—not only its physical structure, but also its social structure and the varied relationships which evolve over time," Mehrotra says, pointing out that Mumbai is blindly adopting the paradigm of cities like Shanghai, China, which have completely altered as cities. “It is expressive of the impatience of capital. Cities should ideally redevelop using the original form as framework, upgrading it for needs."

Kamathipura is today teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Its symbiotic economy has unravelled. Feeding off the sex district was a chain of supply to the brothel houses. Historian Rao explains: “Between 1965-75, Kamathipura was at its peak. Taxis and Victoria hacks were parked at the docks so sailors could be brought directly to Sukhlaji Street and Falkland Road. When prohibition was relaxed, it took off even more. Pimps would get commissions, but also beer was sold here at a premium. There were cabs, carriages, cigarettes, clothes, dressmakers, lipsticks, business, liquor, food. You paid 8 annas for services like hot water with Dettol, clean towels, and to a woman who supplied them." Even in today’s subdued economy, beediwallahs, attarwallahs, dry-cleaners, tea stalls, liquor and food survive off this. But the clientele that comes now is without money.

Pappu the pimp belongs to what is known here as “a good family". His sister runs a fruit stall in the by-lanes. They live in the non-sex-district part of Kamathipura. He still “keeps girls". He is candid about making money off it when he can: “This business will be done in three-five years. After that you will not see us here." Where are the girls going? Nalasopara, Vikhroli, Vashi, Goregaon, Malad—the new suburbs with new needs.

Kamathipura then is merely a forgotten vestige of colonial rule falling off; a scab on a wound that has taken an unduly long time to heal.

Historically, Kamathipura was never an Indian construct. Yet, its physical demise is not its existential end. The issues Kamathipura came to symbolize have always existed. Tambe, in her paper, says: “Indian brothel workers were far more dispersed across the city, and met with less public revulsion. There were no furious debates between police and residents over where to locate Indian prostitutes. The census figures for both 1864 and 1871 show high concentrations of prostitutes in parts of Bombay other than Kamathipura, and notably in neighbourhoods populated by working-class Indians, such as Market, Oomburkharee, Phunuswaree and Girgaon. Census figures for 1901 and 1921 also indicate that there were areas other than Kamathipura, such as Khetwadi, Phunuswaree, Girgaon and Tardeo, also working-class areas, in which larger numbers of prostitutes lived. Yet none of these other areas were defined as red light zones. Kamathipura was not the only area with a concentration of prostitutes, but it was significantly the area where European prostitutes first resided, and then were allocated. It was on the strength of this European dimension that Kamathipura was termed the ‘prostitutes’ zone’ by the administration (home department 1920, Police-A)."

Placed in that context, the imminent dissolution of Kamathipura is merely a city redirecting its sexual energies elsewhere.

The newer sex

“The arranger" meets you at the McDonald’s opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station. She produces an album; two girls to a page. You only have to pay her 100 each way for the commute. The girl will contact you. The rate is 1,500 onwards for a session. She cannot be arrested, she says, because she has only asked you to reimburse her travel. There has been no money transaction through her. If a man and woman choose to sleep together and he happens to give her money, who is she, or the law, to interfere in a personal transaction that she knows nothing about? This is the nature of the new Mumbai sex trade.

These are the fault lines upon which Kamathipura is disintegrating.

“Some sex workers seek work in new districts, others have love marriages and go," says Akhilesh Pandey, a Congress worker who has lived in the non-sex-district part of Kamathipura all his life. The next generation—the children of the sex workers, pimps and landlords—have put their collective foot down. Rashid Multani, who has run a hotel here for the last 35 years, says: “The NGOs take away the children, send them to boarding schools, so when the children grow up, they don’t want to come back." He points to a woman standing in Gully 10. “Her daughter is a nurse. She won’t have anything to do with her now. There is no next generation of anything."

Ansari Muhammad Asif, a dry-cleaner with a shop on Kamathipura Main Street and also a reporter for the area’s daily newspaper, the Tirchi Aankh, says: “We are blacklisted for loans, credit cards, our children in colleges are told ‘Kamathipura? No admission’." Kamathipura is dying from within.

Shah, in her paper, explains what Asif and Rashid attempt to in their own street lingo: “The criminalization of prostitution through the Itpa (The Immoral Traffic [Prevention] Act, 1956) and the local Police Acts is experienced by residents of Kamathipura as routine raids, police sweeps, and extortion by representatives of the state for personal gain. Residents of Kamathipura are targeted because the sexual commerce there has been produced as a visible, factual, and therefore ‘known’ activity...the generalized sense throughout Mumbai that the district exists for the sole purpose of prostitution, residents have alternately experienced severe state-sponsored regulation, multiple levels of extortion, generalized indifference, and exoticized consumer interest."

It is assumed that Kamathipura is Mumbai’s only sex district because it has been its most visible one.

Perhaps, when Kamathipura is physically destroyed, those who fight a daily battle against its roots hope, the real onslaught against sex trafficking, as opposed to the raid-prone criminalization of sex workers under Itpa, can begin.

Perhaps this is what taxi- driver Dalit activist and Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal, court poet of the area once known as Golpitha, meant when he wrote: “O Kamatipura/Tucking all seasons under your armpit/You squat in the mud here/I go beyond all pleasures and pains of whoring and wait/For your lotus to bloom."

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint


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