Struggling to survive in Bombay's red-light district.
April 1981
Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark

The storefronts on Falkland Road, Bombay, have cage-like structures from which prostitutes beckon passersby.

Falkland Road in Bombay is lined with old wooden buildings. On the ground floor there are cage-like structures with girls inside them. Above these cages the buildings rise three or four stories, and at every window there are more girls, combing their hair, sitting in clusters on the windowsills, beckoning to potential customers. They vary in age from 11-year-old prostitutes to 65-year-old former madams.

The street is like any other busy lower-class street in India. All day long there are enormous traffic jams, horns constantly honking, hundreds of taxicabs, unwieldy two-storey buses. Vendors selling brassieres, fountain pens, magazines and medicines dash back and forth across the street. Water-carriers trudge into the houses with goatskins filled from a tank truck.

Putla, barely a teenager, works for a 26-year-old madam.

Cage girls relaxing with young coffee vendor.

The Olympia Café, where the street girls gather to drink tea and solicit customers. Photographer Mark would take refuge here and, for a while, used it as a place to meet the girls and gain their confidence.

The customers walking up and down the street surveying the girls range in age from 13 to 75. Some are handsome and some grotesque. They are lower-middle or lower-class Indians, since the area is too poor to attract foreigners. The cage girls do everything to attract the men. They beckon and shout and grab, and sometimes pull up their skirts and make obscene gestures.

For ten years, each time I came to Bombay, I tried to take photographs on Falkland Road. Each time I was met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water on me and pinched me. What seemed to be hundreds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book, another time I was hit in the face by a drunk. I never managed to take any very good photographs.

In October of 1978 I decided to return to India and somehow try to enter the world of these women and to photograph them. I had no idea if I could do this, but I knew I had to try. I started out by just walking the street. It was the same as always, crowds of men, the women alternately hurling insults and garbage at me. Every day I had to brace myself for the street as if I were about to jump into freezing water. As the days passed and people saw my persistence, they began to get curious. Some of the women thought I was crazy, but a few were surprised by my interest in and acceptance of them. Very slowly, I began to make friends.

Munni, 15, was once a beggar. Now she works for a transvestite madam.

Lata sprawls across her tiny bed in the cramped cubicle where she works.

My first friends were the street prostitutes. They are the most independent and the least inhibited, which is why they're on the streets and not inside a brothel working for a madam. When they find a customer, they take him into a cage or a bed rented out to them by a madam in return for half their fee. At night they sleep out in the street with the beggars. Sleeping in the street is not a disgrace in India-many people prefer to sleep outside in that hot climate-but it's a sign of the girls' true homelessness that they are entirely alone and have no one to care about them.

Soliciting in the street they are often arrested by the police, and without a madam to pay their fine they go to jail. They are often sick with fever and more often hungry. Many of them have boyfriends who are pickpockets and who, when they are not in jail themselves, beat the girls and take their money. So these girls really only have one another, and they form close friendships. Their favorite refuge and meeting place is the Olympia Café, the largest and most beautiful café on the street, with mirror-lined walls and crowds of potential customers. It became my favorite place on the street too, and it was here that I made friends with the street girls.

It was much harder to get to know the cage girls. Considered very low-class by the interior brothel girls who work upstairs, they are constantly abused and ridiculed by customers and other prostitutes, which makes them resentful and very hard to know. At first glance many of them look outrageous and obscene, but as I got to know them, I saw that many of them are beautiful and all of them -even (perhaps especially) the most aggressive ones- are very vulnerable.

A madam called Fatima allowed me to stay with her and her girls for several nights. Fatima sleeps in the tiny front room of her cage on a huge bed with a bright cover on it, separated by a curtain from a very small dark back room with two beds in it. Behind the beds is a cement drain and an enormous vat of water. In this space Fatima's three girls work, sleep and bathe.

Fatima's sister is also a madam, with a cage across the street. One night the sister brought one of her girls to Fatima, who dressed her up in an expensive blue burqa and sent her away. A pimp from a more expensive area in Bombay had come to Fatima's sister with a commission from an Arab customer willing to pay well for a girl from a good Muslim family. So the pimp had come to the cheapest street in Bombay to find a three-rupee girl to cheat the Arab.

Preparing for the evening's business.

Putla, once beaten by her madam for undercharging, now knows better.

The most elite brothels on Falkland Road are in the rooms above the cages. I felt very shy about entering. Whenever I climbed the stairs, the women ran from the hallways into their rooms to hide, and madams would start screaming at me. I decided to concentrate on one house, in the hope that the people in it would get used to me. The place was right next door to the Olympia Café, so I felt I could always run down and take refuge there if necessary.

The house I chose was typical. You enter through a wooden door and mount steep wooden stairs. Directly to the left at the top of the staircase is a small brothel room, then farther down the hallway a landing with three more rooms opening out from it. Another stairway leads to a landing with six more rooms. Each room is a separate "house' with its own madam and her own girls. The madams normally own anywhere from three to ten girls, though five is about the average. The girls never enter rooms other than their own, or- apart from visits to the doctor or brief errands - go out into the street. During the day they stay in their rooms, cook on the floor, sleep, sew, play with their children-all very much like normal Indian family life.

Two rooms on the third floor of this house belong to Saroja, a 26-year-old madam who looks 40. Like all madams, her relationship to her girls is one of mistress to slave, but also of mother to daughter. The girls worship and fear their madam. One night Putla, Saroja's youngest girl, allowed a drunken customer to have her for only three rupees. Saroja brutally beat her; she grabbed her by the hair and was pounding her with her fists. Putla didn't utter a sound, and the other girls stood by and watched silently. Five minutes after her beating Putla was ready for work again, her face washed and her dress changed. Later that night I saw Putla embracing Saroja and even giving her a back massage.

In Saroja's house all the sex takes place on two beds with brightly patterned curtains around them. In the same small room there is another bed used as a waiting bench for the girls and their customers. At the end of the narrow room is Saroja's bed and a dresser, and a window overlooking Falkland Road.

Each girl has her own little wooden box hanging on the wall with a small lock on it. At the beginning of each evening, when the first customer arrives, the madam blesses each girl, and at the end of the evening she divides the money in the box with her, fifty-fifty. At 1:00 AM the lights are turned out and the "all-night" customers come in, those who pay up to 30 rupees to spend the night with a particular girl.

One night while I was there the police came into the house and arrested girls for illegally soliciting in the hallways. The madams went out to bargain with them, and one Nepalese madam hid me under her bed till it was all over. "I don't mind paying money to the police," she told me. After all, the policeman has a family to support too." I felt very safe under her bed.

Asma and Mumtaz share a frivolous moment at a photography studio on Falkland Road.

Adapted from Falkland Road by Mary Ellen Mark (Alfred Knopf).