Are you ready for a night walk around Mumbai's oldest red light district?

May 25, 2016, 08:36 IST | Krutika Behrawala

An architect wants you to look beyond Kamathipura's notoriety on a walk with its oldest residents

A few years back, when the clouds of redevelopment began to cast a shadow over Kamathipura, Zeenath Pasha, who runs the three-room Hijra Kotha in the red light district's Ramabai Chawl and is revered as a 'guru' by the area's transgender community, felt she would get a flat as part of the deal. However, after several meetings with builders, she realised that she, like some of her old friends, would have to leave the area, and move to far-off places like Nalasopara or Vikhroli. So far, she has refused to budge but the brothel next to her was sold to builders recently. “They want the place cleansed; it's why they want us out. They have quoted '40 lakh but the property is worth much more. All redevelopment plans are a farce. Many have left. It is a matter of time before everyone else goes. Sex will sell on the streets, in parks and under bridges. But the claim that organised sex trade and exploitation will be wiped out is a myth. All of us know that,” she told city architect Deepa Nandi, when the latter met her as part of her research for an upcoming book.

With an aim to sensitise Mumbaikars about the dying district and its stories, Nandi, who is also the founder of RaahGeer, a citywalk organisation, will conduct a Kamathipura Night Walk over the weekend, with 20 participants on each night. Starting from Mumbai Central station and leading into the bylanes of the Grant Road district, the two-hour walk also features a glimpse into the lives of homeless citizens in that part of town. The walk has been organised in association with NGO Pehchan and part of the ticket money will be donated towards building shelters for the homeless.

Deepa Nandi (third from left) with Brijesh Arya, founder, Pehchan and a few of Mumbai’s displaced citizens at the Studio X exhibition. Some of them will be present for the walkDeepa Nandi (third from left) with Brijesh Arya, founder, Pehchan and a few of Mumbai's displaced citizens at the Studio X exhibition. Some of them will be present for the walk

No city for the homeless
“We will start the walk by showing the participants how homeless citizens manage their bedroom, toilets, kitchen, living and dining hall in a four-five sq ft space, sometimes even lesser. We see them every day but choose to ignore their plight. Most of us also think the homeless are into sex trade and they must be beggars by default, which is a myth. In fact, these people have been living in Mumbai for six to seven decades now. The authorities have slyly confiscated their documents, so technically, they don't have proof to live by their rights in Mumbai,” informs Nandi.

An aerial view of Bachchu Ki Wadi. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi
An aerial view of Bachchu Ki Wadi. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

A few of them, who were also documented in Without Walls, an exhibit on the lives of Mumbai's homeless families, which ended recently at Studio X, will be present for the walk. They will share their life stories with the participants. According to Nandi, there are around 10,000 homeless people living in Kamathipura too. “Pehchan is trying to create shelter homes for them, getting their identities, taking care of their basic needs and education,” she says.

When in Kamathipura
The walk will veer towards the city's underbelly to get participants acquainted with its diverse cultural fabric. “Earlier, Kamathipura flourished on a stretch of a 52 acre-land with various narrow streetscapes. The 1970s and 80s also witnessed the rise of places like Bachchu Ki Wadi with its famous kothas and mujras, frequented by the rich and famous, including members of the Mumbai underworld. Now, the area has reduced to 20 per cent. The sex workers are made to live in small blocks. The walk highlights the charm and importance of the place to the people,” says the 28-year-old, who made friends in the locality during the two-month research process for the book.

“They call me 'didi' lovingly. Initially, they were reluctant to share their stories, but things went smoothly once they got familiar,” she says, doling out nuggets that participants will get to hear during the walk. “The area is also known for a cottage industry run by 200 women, who roll beedis (thin, hand-rolled cigarettes) to make a living. Did you know that Kamathipura is divided roughly into 14 lanes, which are further divided according to regional and linguistic backgrounds of the sex workers? There are many more stories waiting to be heard. They are ready to talk about it, but who's listening?”

On: May 27 and 28, 10 pm to 12 am
Assembly point: Mumbai Central railway station
Cost: Rs 700
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Residents around Kamathipura have repeatedly filed a plea to eradicate the sex workers from the area. And it’s working in their favour as no one wants to listen to the plea of sex workers living here, who are working hard to be recognised. Probably,
even they are aware that they are fighting a losing battle
— Deepa Nandi, founder, RaahGeer

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