Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Taxi Driver

Dark wet streets reflecting flashes of neon; a naked toddler in a monkey cap running after the wagging tail of a well fed stray; ding, ding... a ghost tram, dragging its tired empty coaches along the Maidan. The rains seemed to have washed the city clean and in the dark Kolkata looked almost beautiful.

“Moja mangta, dada?” The taxi driver, a wild eyed Sikh, given to obsessive bouts of peek spitting, was scanning the rear view mirror for a reaction. Confused yet curious, I gave him what I hoped was a ‘I’m not sure what you’re talking about but I hope you know who you’re talking to’ look. That ‘look’ though has often been translated as the ‘I know you’ve caught me with my hand in the cookie jar but you won’t tell on me, would you?’ look. This time it was no different… “koi pata cholbena dada. I know secret place”. Driver sahab was grinning. “Maney?”, I was hoping my voice would find that fine edge that conveys interest without betraying a nervous tripping-over-my-toes kinda excitement. “Tangri dada, tangri chayi?”. Tangri?! What exactly was he trying to offer? Contraband chicken? Mildly disappointed, I asked ,“Tangri maney?”. “Ladki dada, vilayti ladki! Chayi?” Ah! A hurriedly raised eyebrow and a brusque shake of the head, hopefully conveyed disinterest. An impasse. Driver sahab returned to his mission of painting the town red. I rolled up the window as another volley of driver sahab’s viscous red oral expressions streaked past… Kolkata gazing through stained glass…. a bit like the end credits of a blood soaked Almodovar classic. I wondered if driver sahab was a communist…

A mosque, the Statesman building... seemed familiar. Must be the correct route. “Kothokhone… how much longer”, I asked. “Fusht time, dada?” he asked. “Na, na! Onekbar eshchi…I know the roads”, I fibbed. One can never be too careful with taxi drivers. “No, no… your fusht time?”, he gestured. Gosh! How na├»ve do I look? I didn’t really know how to, or even if I wanted to answer that question. “Arre chai na… told you I’m not interested”, I shot back. The irritation was genuine. I was beginning to dislike the man. He apologised. “Sorry dada, gussa mat karo…” I nodded. I felt more at ease. He slowed down and stopped in front of a high wall. “Eta college… college girls you want? Hostel nearby… five minutes. No problem. School girls also.” The moment had lost its intrigue. I was tiring of this game. “ Nahin yaar, not interested”. Driver sahab looked disappointed.

I tried to change the topic. “ Kolkata mein kabse?” “Many years dada.” I asked about his village. He was from Gurdaspur. Family? Married - happily, he claimed. Kids? Three. “Do ladki, ekta ladka”. I was more than surprised. I had never thought of a pimp as a family man. I asked if they went to school, but he wasn’t listening. “Sastao ache dada. I won’t charge commission. I have room... I have girl there. Very cheap… we share and you pay for me. We’ll get very cheap, please dada”. Confronted by sickening images of a seedy room, a faceless woman and driver sahab at the ready, I guess my incredulity masked my disgust, because the man just kept insisting, almost pleading. But for what? Money? Cheap sex? Or was this a set-up?

I was guarded. Driver sahab was quiet, almost morose. “AIDS maloom hai?” Still quiet. Finally, Linton street. He slowed down and turned back “agar ladka mang…” “Arre nahin mangta… don’t you get it?” I had had enough. He obviously hadn’t… “Main bhi karta hai dada. Kisiko darkar ho…if anyone wants…” This man made me sick and he just wouldn’t stop. Fortunately, we were minutes away from my destination. What made him so desperate? Didn’t he make enough driving passengers that he had to work the streets as a pimp and a gigolo? He was quiet. We reached Shakti mama’s house. He stopped the car. I got down and walked up to the old Ambassador’s front door. “You should know about AIDS… poochhna”. “Maloom dada. I know. I’ve been doing this for some years now… pass se jaani.” He spat on the pavement, took the fare and then slammed the door shut. “But it doesn’t matter… not to me. Amaar bachha choto dada… kids are small. They are growing… and I don’t have time. I’m all they have… I need the money. I don’t have time.. ekdum nei.” He turned away, pushed the car in gear and sped away. I turned to leave and was almost about to step on the dark spittle on the pavement. Barely avoiding it, I suddenly realised that the man did not have any paan in his mouth. I looked up, but the tail lights had long disappeared. I wish I had given the man some more money.

Carnal Capital

It’s just not the Victoria Memorial and the Howrah Bridge that give the City of Joy its colour. Sonagachi, once the home of the mistresses of the Bengali babus, today is notorious as the largest red-light area of the city. With over 2.3 million prostitutes in India, about 10,000 of them thrive in the several multi-storied brothels of Sonagachi. Most of them were brought in from Nepal and Bangladesh and shockingly, about 15% of them happen to be minors. Illegal immigrants in India, there is no way of stopping these hapless children from being pushed into this abyss.

In countries where prostitution is legal, there is no coercion and the use of condoms is mandatory. As a result, less than 10% prostitutes are victims of HIV/AIDS and have access to legal protection in the face of exploitation by pimps and clients. But in India, where the practice is deemed illegal, without protection from the law, these purveyors of the oldest profession in the world are exposed to brutal exploitation, violent coercion and a virulent virus. Nearly half of India’s prostitutes are HIV positive, and without legal legitimacy, both their numbers and the numbers of those infected will continue to grow.

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