Tumpa (name changed), a 35-year-old sex worker, has never been so excited about Durga Puja as she is this year. She has bought three saris and has straightened her hair to be at her finest when she will be sitting inside the community pandal. The narrow lanes of Sonagachi — Asia’s largest red light district and home to over 10,000 sex workers — are already glittering with coloured lights for the first Durga Puja to be organised entirely by women in the area.
More than 3,000 sex workers have pitched in to set up a small pandal with a 6-ft-high idol at Abhinash Kabiraj Street, where everything from the dhak to the rituals will be performed by women. Even the Durga idol has been created by woman artist Kanchi Pal. Members of the Sonagachi Sarbojani Durgostav say their pandal may be small, but for the sex workers here, it “epitomises their determination to rise above social taboo”.
“I want to bring my son here for a day during puja. I want to teach him that a woman is powerful and every woman is Ma Durga’s daughter, hence they must be respected and treated equally in society,” Tumpa told The Indian Express. She was just 17 when she was forced into the flesh trade by her husband. She has been staying in Sonagachi for almost 18 years. Since her husband’s death, her son has been staying in a hostel in south Kolkata, leading a “normal” life.
“If mud here is considered pure and virtuous, then why can’t the same society accept us? The goddess is a perfect symbol of ‘Nari Shakti’ and we are celebrating womanhood. It is our effort to find an identity for ourselves,” said Putul, president of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO. Putul’s 20-year-old son is a driver who is financially stable, but she chooses to stay in Sonagachi because she is happy there and doesn’t want to disturb her son’s life.
Women associated with the puja said they faced several obstacles, especially on moral grounds, while working on an all-woman puja concept. When they first decided to start their own puja a couple of years ago, they had to move court.
“The biggest challenge was to get a female purohit (priestess). Luckily, Sharmistha Bhattacharya from Midnapore gave her consent. Dhak players are traditionally male. It is difficult to find female dhak players but we have approached a group in Naihati and are hopeful that they will agree. We will also be making the bhog and prasad,” said Kajol, secretary of the Durbar Mahila Samiti.
The sex workers contributed a chunk of their earnings towards the pandal — which is about 10-ft-high and almost complete.
“We don’t have a huge budget, hence ours is a simple puja with a message that society cannot survive without women and hence they must be given all rights,” said another sex worker.
“It is a great change, but it would have been even better if people across the city come to see their small pandal. This will send a message that they are very much a part of mainstream society,” said a male resident of Sonagachi.