Personal opinion

Walking Mumbai’s Red-light

It is 11pm. We’ve just had dinner at Café Noorani near Heera Panna and are now making headway to one of the city’s most menacing locales. Arzai (name changed) is with us. He has promised us a slice of Mumbai’s dark side. I am not keen about the visit, in fact I am very sceptical, not because I am not well-protected, but because the red-light is not the most fascinating place to be. When you see people of the same sexes garishly displaying their bodies as if to be objectified only, a bag of mixed emotions surface. There is anger, there is sympathy, there is hatred or there is either absolute ignorance.
We have decided to watch the red-light from inside the car. It is said that the red-light just gets brighter post 9pm and business is at its peak. We first pass by Falkland Road. The narrow pathway greets you with an unpleasant stench and you don’t know from where it is coming. But the smell reeks of filthy sex, small money, poor women and hungry men.
The stench is augmented by the restaurants, which have their pantries outside. Sweaty men are cooking chicken tikkas and naan for the customers who want to have full of everything today (both sex and food). Falkland Road is also lined with three cinema halls of which I remember Roshan Cinema. Right now it is screening “Golden Girl”- A rated.
On either side of the road, there are small buildings each compartmentalised into small rooms. The doors of the ground-floors are opened while the top floors have iron cages, just like the one you find in elevators.
Interestingly, these cages were built in the mid-1900s on the orders of the police. Girls in the red-light would be dragged or molested by pushy men. At the time, prostitution was at its peek, and men would literally line the doors for their turn. The cages were built on the ground and top floors to ensure that these girls remain within their safe havens and not loiter around in the “tolerated areas” and become victims of notoriety. These cages though of not much use today, still stand rusted but strong in these partially dilapidated buildings.
The women here are freely moving for customers. They are approaching men, calling out to them, making sleazy gestures. Most are dressed awkwardly in tight-fitting clothes, lining their stomachs which have developed a bubble with time. If they are wearing sarees, you wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t cover the upper-half of the body. Plunging necklines, red lipstick and heavily powdered – these women are nothing close to being deceptive prostitutes. It is a mix breed, from ages 16 to 60 to limitless frontiers, from the east (Bengal, Bangladesh, Assamese) west (Gujarat), north (Nepalese) and south (Tamilians and Kannadigas).
You know they are commercial sex workers and they have no reservations about it. They flaunt it, regardless of any appreciation. They are the cheapest of the lot (Rs 50 to Rs 500) and they have no qualms about it.
Enter Foras Road, which is on the other side of Falkland Road, and I feel like I have approached a dead end. It is nothing like Falkland Road. Prostitution is close to redundancy here and cane workers and tall buildings line the road instead. However, few metres ahead, the lanes of Kamathipura speak the same language of Brothels. Kamathipura is split into some 14 lanes, each unique with its own story to tell. Some of these however bear the footprints of residential homes today, as several brothels have now shifted base.
The ride was interesting, but Arzai tells us that there is more to come…he speaks of Congress House. Before I begin, let me give you a briefer. Congress House is located in one of the bylanes of Lamington Road near the Grant Road police station.

Once a beehive of India’s freedom fighters, the Congress House which is an enclave of seven buildings is literally surrounded by a mujra complex. Its only sightings with History are the names of the buildings like Sarojini Sadan, Dadabhai Manzil, Jinnah Hall, Congress Restaurant and Beer Bar.
In 1972, Mrs Indira Gandhi the then Prime Minister had set up a Sangeet Academy at Congress House. The Academy was home to members of the Agra community of singers and dancers who organised dance shows for the royals over 300 years ago.
I am sure she did not realise what it was going to be like today. Since the Sangeet Academy is located close to Congress House and because the National party’s activities are now dysfunctional, Sangeet Academy has become synonymous to the Congress House.
Arzai also tells me that partymen at the Congress House were fond of song and dance (naach-gaana). So, after their days work, a mujra session would usually be called for late in the night… and women would sing and dance to the tunes of tablas and harmoniums. This is how the place went on to become a mujra complex and also flourished with time.
The ambience of a mujra performance is usually unique in itself. It has mirrored walls, huge chandeliers and brightly lit rooms that are filled with drinkers, who splurge money on girls. Well-depicted in movies, these men shower notes on the girls or gift them with garlands of notes.
Over the years the definition of Mujras has however changed, more due to the taste in music.

I attended one and it was less like a typical Mujra and more like a dance bar -this one is at the Congress House. The entrance has a old board which reads Sangeet Academy. As we enter, we have male and female gazes on us. People stare from floors above and are suspicious about the unregulars around. However, unlike Kamathipura and Falkland Road, the girls are extremely beautiful. Lustrous black hair, milk like skin and designer or expensive sarees…yes, this is not exactly the red-light, this according to Arzai is where mujras or kothas take place. The girls come from Agra, UP and Delhi.
When I attended one of the mujras sessions, the feel of the original Mujra is devastatingly tweaked. There are mirrors, tabla players, a singer and bling-bling lights….all apart but the musicians are stationery, they just sit and watch.

The music comes from blaring speakers and these pretty looking north-Indian damsels dance to the tune of Bollywood remixes. Two guests are sitting in the centre and they have in their hands several bundles of Rs 10 notes.
One of the guests tries his best to get hold of the girl or touch her, but all that he can do is pat her on the waist. He pats her twice on her waist and then gets no more of it. According to Arzai they don’t sleep for a pittance. Each of them make a maximum of Rs 50,000 per day, only by dancing and…wow, I say. The girls remain confined to their homes during the day and only work at night. Their day begins at around 3pm and goes on till 4 am.
Incidentally, they don’t work as prostitutes but naachne wallis instead. If they sleep, it is for the master who feeds them enough so that they don’t shift loyalties. Once they are his, the are salaried.
I move out in 10 minutes. It is not the best performance, but the thumkas, jhatkas and eye expressions can be a treat for any man, both inviting and sensual.
Well, this is some slice. One dark, one light, one monetarily exhausting and the other financially tempting…This is a slice of “red-light” Mumbai

Pic: Courtesy The New York Times

17 thoughts on “Walking Mumbai’s Red-light

  1. Mujras is something i have heard and seen only in some old movies..the closest i gotta know till i read this “slice” about them….. u r gonna make ppl change their occupation jane with such escapades…:)

    Wonderfully narrated experience, you have managed to pull a reader staright in the mujra hall along with you…….Keep it up


  2. I like ur sense of observation. Good job esp. sketching out minute details about lanes, rooms etc etc.
    Kept me gripped till d end.
    Keep it up Jane.
    I’d like 2 read about ur experience with the Lady Drug Dealer.


  3. Thanks Roshan, Shelley and Blessy

    This experience is going to stay with me for a lifetime. I really don’t know if i can make another visit, but I really want to dwell deeper into the lives of these dancers. And Bless, the drug dealer, I shall write about it soon…


  4. that was like amazingly too good a read…

    prostitutes, lanes of filth, sex and greed, mujras – the manner in which u took us through all of it is way beyond any visual reality that i could possibly have even winessed…

    a brilliant description…


  5. Nibz says:

    Good research Jane!!
    Maybe u have the answers to many of life’s curiosities and this is one of them.
    God help you to deliver more.

    Jane ,you can try out SEAL ,which is a charity organisation in mumbai dealing with all such people.I also have a video which was taken by us to telecast but unfortunately we cudn bcz it ws toomuch for people to watch them.Even i cudn watch the whole thing.It so amaing!!

    idon think i cangive you the video due to copyr8 but SEALorg. can surely help you get a lot of information.

    Happy writing ahead dear.. Hats off


  6. well described an narrated article, I have been to congress house and the red-light streets, just out of curiosity..after reading this article.. but returned back from the gate. Have seen lots of activities in mumbai subarbs and at Dahisar where i saw lots of Dance Bars have also seen flesh trade happening at these dance bars.

    Have came across articles on the same topic, interesting

    *Mumbai Red Light Area – Real Photos
    *For sale: 13-year-old virgin
    * Pickup Joints
    * Prostitute stories in the area near Juhu, and Mith…


  7. hey Tool Smith,
    I am glad u bothered to check Congress House after reading my article…wud have loved to know your experience about it….And the links to the articles u sent me were good…thanks for reading my article…


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