We went past malls that disappeared quickly as roads became smaller and traffic more dense. In less than 15 minutes I had left behind Nucleus, SGS Mall, Dorabjee’s, Mc’Donald’s and Landmark and reached overcrowded streets with dilapidated looking buildings crowding on each side and balconies that hung over roads. I paid the rickshaw driver and as I got off he drove away. He had dropped me off on the main road and I just had to ask around for the organisation’s office and walk there. Simple enough, I told myself. With grim resolve I set about on foot, the quintessential college yuppie with a trendy backpack and a digital camera slung around my neck. I was more than aware of the looks that I was garnering, and with each step my thoughts turned inwards. I was nervous as hell. It was a place unlike any I had ever been to. Maybe I had seen streets like this before but this was just...different. Or maybe the difference was in the way I was looking at things. I was at the verge of starting my own NGO and I knew this was the first of many times I’d be here. There were thoughts churning inside my head…I had seen so many ‘social workers’ who worked like mechanics. I had witnessed smug superiority from those who worked for the ‘underprivileged’ (inferiors, their attitudes screamed!). I had known people jaded from working years in the field...they weren’t working with people anymore, they were working statistics. I had seen many motivated by pity, those who were doing ‘charity’, and only a few motivated by a sense of righteous indignation for their fellow human beings. I wanted to be like the latter and I was dreadfully afraid of how I would react when faced with the very people whose rights I wanted to fight for. I had no way of knowing that for it was one thing to sit in an ethics class in philosophy and debate and argue and entirely different to break out of that familiarity and step into the reality of things. I had only ever done the former. As I broke out of my reverie and focussed outwards, I realized with a start that I had reached the office building.
I looked around and with a sinking sensation in my stomach I realized that the building that looked like it’d collapse on my head was locked. I gave the person I had to meet a call and realized that I had reached the ‘field office’ in the interiors of budhwar peth, definitely not the one they’d intended me to find. I was directed to the other office and as I cut the call I forced myself to keep my awareness outwards. I was a little scared I must admit, here I was standing midst a maze of gullies with hardly a clue as to where I should turn. There was hardly anyone around and those who were, were so different from me I didn’t know how to go about asking them directions with language being the least of the barriers. I walked aware of every male glance that rested on me. Coming from a very physically demonstrative family ‘personal space’ was a concept I had never truly appreciated, until then. I wanted to scream every time a man came within two feet of me. I just felt so crowded. Every other woman I looked at, I invariably wondered…is she? Then scolded myself for the thought, asking myself how it mattered even if she was? Finally, I reached the main office and stepped inside. I walked up a winding stairway barely wide enough to accommodate my generous size, gingerly stepping over the still wet paan-spatters, slightly gagging over the faint stench. I finally came to the office, saw the clinic for treatment and prevention of AIDS and other STD’s, found the person I intended to meet and forwarded the invitation for the march. He told me their volunteers would come but none of the sex workers they worked with would be able to. In my naiveté I asked him why and the answers shook my sense of reality. The march was on Sunday night, the busiest time of the week, their dalla’s wouldn’t allow for it. Anyway, they never go anywhere unescorted. The dalla’s or their minions accompany them everywhere, even to the bathroom! So, would their children be part of it, I asked? And met with the same response – they aren’t allowed to go anywhere. This was the least of what I heard that day and by the time I walked out I had gotten over myself. My earlier reactions were chased away by a sense of burning indignation. I had been told about three similar organisations just around the corner but as I walked out my vision was blurred with hot tears welling uncontrollably, a vice like grip constricting my heart. My sense of rightness screamed at such blatant violation of humanity, this disregard for another person’s freedom, their being. Accompanied to the bathroom? Children kept veritable prisoners? I was filled with a sense of purpose, of rightness…of knowing that something needed to be done and that I wouldn’t back away. I don’t know how long I walked like that; tears streaming down my face, feet aimlessly wandering, eyes seeing but not looking. Somehow, MG road though ten minutes away seemed like part of a different world, my ethics class and the brilliant debates even more so.
Once my raging emotions calmed I felt ready to go on with my meetings, but where to? I was lost, courtesy my wandering. This time when I looked around I spotted a group of women sitting near a tapri having cuppa chai’s I knew they were commercial sex workers. I don’t know if it was their bright fuchsia/hot pink/parrot green sarees, obvious kind of make-up, the jaded look in their eyes, their body language or their ‘escorts’ standing nearby that gave that fact away. This time I walked up to them and asked directions. Only they didn’t know Hindi, but they recognized the name of the doctor I was looking for. What followed was an attempt at a conversation in broken Hindi/ Marathi and signs and gestures that had us dissolving in fits of laughter! Each one of us! Once I understood they offered me chai and we continued our conversation with me trying to put in words and gestures my purpose for being there. It was hilarious. I got up to go and thanked them. We were all smiling. It was a fun little interlude for them, I guess. For me, it was also life changing. Yes, I found the doctor, finished my work and started walking to the main road once again. But this time the journey was different. Neither was I assailed by my own insecurities nor was I blazing with indignation and righteous fury. I was filled with a sense of overwhelming oneness. At the risk of sounding corny, I felt neither pity, nor revulsion nor a sense of being better or having more, but I felt love. Not the shouting from the rooftops, giving me a goofy grin type but something more understated – I felt love like I felt for my friends and acquaintances and everyone I know. They felt no different to me. Yes, I still felt indignation and a sense of injustice. I still wanted to fight for what I believed in but the primary emotion was that of us all being part of one world. Sharing chai and laughing over nothing does that sometimes. The divide didn’t feel that great anymore. MG road was only ten minutes after all. The blacks and whites were merging together making the whole view grey. Suddenly, a well-bred, coat-shining, Great Dane leapt into view almost underscoring my thoughts. I laughed while tears streamed down my face. To this day I don’t know where that Great Dane came from and to this day I carry that sense of oneness with me. I have been to budhwar peth on numerous occasions since and I even have friends there now. Nothing, however, compares to my first time there – the day I lost my black and white.