MARY Ellen Mark, 41, leading photographer for Magnum, the international photography agency, first passed through India on her way to Nepal in 1968. Landing in Bombay, she visited Falkland Road, the city's notorious red-light district "out of a tourist's curiosity". But the images haunted her for 10 years before she could return to document them fully. In the intervening period, India almost "became my second home, a country whose fascination I can never recover from". She has been here eleven times since on assignment that have yielded some of the best known photo-essays on India published internationally: her feature on Indian street performers appeared in Geo magazine last year; Life magazine carried her epic pictures of Mother Teresa at work in Calcutta; and Sir Richard Attenborough hired her to shoot stills for Gandhi on location. Yet Mark admits that all these years, her chief object was to somehow penetrate the superficial view of Falkland Road: "I wanted to find out what the lives of the girls who lived there were really like." Then, in 1978, 10 years after she had first faced the hostility and suspicion the street reserves for intruders into its inner life, Mark came to stay. For three months she devoted her days and nights to explore the lives of Bombay's "cage-girls".
Mark: fascinated by India
In the process, she found herself exploring their hearts and minds as well; and discovered in the garish bargain basement of vice, virtues that made "those months really joyous". Says Mark, who now counts a few of Falkland Roads professional whores as among her closest friends: "They were warm and intelligent, caring, courteous and giving." Last fortnight Mark, who hopes her book on Bombay's prostitutes will instill sympathetic reaction among people to prostitutes everywhere, spoke on the telephone from her New York home to INDIA TODAY'S SUNIL SETHI. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. What made you focus on Falkland Road as a subject for your book, when there are probably more notorious and sordid red-light areas in other Asian cities?
A. First of all, India to me is the most interesting country in the world. It has been a fascinating and rich experience to work there, and over the years I have come to regard it as my second home. And Bombay is a city I love even more. It has a vitality that is special. That vitality extends to Falkland Road also.
Q. Do you think it was easier for you to do the book because you were a woman and also a foreigner?
A. As a woman definitely, yes. They are a very closely-knit community of women and only a woman could have become part of the community. As a single foreign woman they identified with me, especially my single status. They were very curious about my aloneness. Also they would ask me why I dressed so badly, why I wasn't married but most of all the fact that I lived and worked alone -like them- established a bond between us. One of the madams there said to me: "You and I are sisters, because we sleep alone".
Q. Do they regard themselves as social drop-outs?
A. No, not at all. They consider themselves participants in society and life-as survivors of life.
Q. Did they regard your camera as an intruder into their lives?
A. My camera was part of me, they were used to it from the beginning. They always knew me as a photographer. In fact, they were amused at my persistence and, if I didn't have it on me they would ask: "Where's your camera?" Also it depends how you approach them: if you regard them as odd or strange they will resent your taking pictures of them. But if you are spending time with them, then they accept you and also your camera.
Q. Did you become close friends with any of them?
A. I know I did. I made very close friends. They are warm and intelligent and caring women-I love that street. Some of my moments of greatest sharing were spent there. And their pride is tremendous: not once did they make any demands on me, for money or anything. Of course, I used to make pictures of them and give them, but that was all. Yes, some of the eunuchs did ask me to send them wigs from America, but that's in their nature. The women never did. They just gave and gave, whatever they could, as true friends. One of the best Christmases I've spent was on that street. One of the madams cooked a special lunch for me, then we sat around and chatted.
Q. Would you regard their situation, even if paradoxically, feminist?
A. No, I wouldn't call them feminist in the way we understand the word. But they are brave, courageous human beings, courteous and giving and supportive of each other.
Q. Yet you don't think your book is likely to feed voyeuristic fantasies?
A. That wasn't the purpose and intention. I was recording and documenting a life-style which I think is important. If people are voyeuristic then that's their problem.
Q. Don't you think the subject, at least to the Western media, has a built-in sensationalist appeal?
A. I've been very, very careful with the use of this material. It has appeared in publications that I trust absolutely, and who I am sure will not misuse it sensationally. For instance, Playboy sent me a cable in Japan that they were interested in the pictures, and I didn't let them have them. There is no way I would have let a magazine like Playboy use these pictures.
Q. Do you expect official Indian reaction to be explosive?
A. I would be really surprised and disappointed if it was. My book is a metaphor for prostitutes not only in Falkland Road but for prostitutes all over the world. And all I'm trying to say is that they are genuine human beings with real feelings and real dignity. Perhaps we learn more about vulgarity through their lives. But we also learn about love, in terms of understanding and human survival. Nothing to me is at all vulgar about these women. This is a book basically about humanity.
*Extracts from Mary Ellen Mark's book, 'Falkland Road', published by Alfred A. Knopf ($ 12.95), appear on the following pages.
At six o’clock each evening the girls prepare for work. Each has her own make-up box.
Falkland Road’s “cages” beckon at nigh: is there virtue behind the vice?
Every Saturday the girls perform a fire ceremony to ward off the evil eye.
A potential customer approaches one of the cage girls: available for Rs 5 and above.
For 10 years, each time I came to Bombay I tried to take photographs on Falkland Road. Each time I was met with terrible hostility and aggression. The women drew 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 drunken man. Needless to say, I never managed to take very good photographs.
In October 1978 I decided to return to Bombay 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. The night before I left I dreamed about Falkland Road. It was a very vivid dream: I was a voyeur hiding behind a bed in a brothel, watching three transvestite prostitutes making love. I awoke amused and somewhat reassured by my dream. Perhaps it was a good sign.
Once In Bombay I started out by just going to the street. It Was the same as always -crowds of men around me, and the women alternately hurling insults and garbage at me. Every day I had to brace myself as though to jump into freezing water. But once I was there pacing up and down, I was overwhelmed, caught up in the high energy and emotion of the quarter. And 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. And slowly, very slowly I began to make friends.
Gradual Thaw: My first friends were the street prostitutes. They were the first to approach me because they are the most independent and the least inhibited. That is why they are on the streets and not inside a brothel-they are too independent to accept the restrictions imposed by the madam of a brothel. When they find a customer, they take him into a cage or a bed in a brothel room rented out to them by a madam in return for half their fee. Some madams will also allow them to wash and change inside their home. At night they sleep out in the street with the beggars.
Soliciting in the street on their own, they are often arrested by the police and, without a madam to pay their fine, they have to go to jail. They are often sick with fever and often hungry. Many of them have boyfriends who are pickpockets and who, when they are not in jail, beat the girls and take their money.
So these girls really only have one another, and they form close friendships and are very protective towards each other. Their favourite refuge and meeting place is the Olympia café. This is the largest and most beautiful café on the street, with mirror-lined walls and is full of potential customers. It became my favourite place on the street too, and it was here that I made friends with the street girls.
A Falkland Road madam, prosper, and proprietorial, poses with her brood of girls.
Trapped: I spent hours In the Olympia café, drinking tea and listening to qawwalis and Hindi film songs on the juke box. My companions were Asha, 17, Mumtaz, 17, and Usha, 15. Asha is one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen. Her parents are dead and she is completely alone. She has a boyfriend, Ragu, a local pickpocket who is constantly in and out of jail. Once Asha disappeared for four days. I found out that she had been arrested for soliciting on the street, and I got one of the local men to bail her out. Whenever I came to Falkland Road at dawn, I saw Asha curled up with one of the other girls, in the street. I would wait until 8 a.m., then I woke her up and we had tea.
Asha hates being a prostitute, but she doesn't know how else to survive. She dreams of being a servant. I asked friends of mine whether they would hire her, and they told me that, while they themselves wouldn't mind, their other servants wouldn't tolerate her in the same house with them. Asha charges Rs 10 to Rs 12 from customers-a much higher price than most of the women in the street. She told me: "I wouldn't do it for less. It's not worth it. I don't have to; when people see my face, they will always give me some money to eat." Once she said to me: "What kind of a God is this-to give me this face and then to put me in these surroundings?"
Exhibitionistic: The next group of people I got to know on Falkland Road were the transvestites. It is in the nature of transvestites to be exhibitionistic, and seduced by the sight of me pacing up and down with my camera, they ultimately came out and asked to be photographed. The transvestites tend to live clustered together in a block of cages and small brothel rooms right next to each other. My closest friend in that community was Champa, a transvestite madam. Like all madams-female as well as transvestites doesn't solicit customers for himself, but he does have-again like many madams- a very close relationship with a boy-friend. Champa's boy-friend is Yamin, a taxi driver, very handsome and very masculine.
Champa told me all about his own emotional troubles, and his financial ones (rents on Falkland Road are very high). We drank beer together, and he let me photograph him dressing like "an English lady". He introduced me to other transvestites, and I would arrive early in the afternoon to photograph them putting on their makeup and their elaborate dress for the evening. I learned that many of them are eunuchs who have been castrated at an early age. Their customers are not homosexual but, on the contrary, super-macho masculine types who find their fullest satisfaction with transvestite rather than women partners.
One of the girls (left) and Putla, a thirteen-year-old prostitute, was sold to the brothel by her mother.
The girl being made-up was brought to the brothel by villagers when her husband deserted her.
Hard Exteriors: Champa also has some female prostitutes in his house. One of them is called Munni, 15 years old, small and beautiful. She was once a beggar on the street, and I think she chose Champa's house to live in because transvestite brothels allow more freedom than female ones. So she could retain the independence she had known on the streets and also have the protection of Champa and a place to live in. Champa told me, "She is like a daughter to me."
It was much harder to get to know the female cage-girls. These are the girls behind bars on display in Falkland Road, and they are considered very low class by the interior brothel girls. They are constantly abused and ridiculed by customers and other prostitutes, and this makes them defensive and resentful and very hard to know. At first glance many of them look outrageous and obscene as they pose and gesture from behind their bars, with their madam sitting on the step in front like the keeper she is. But as I got to know these girls, 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 on a huge bed with a bright cover on it in the tiny front room of her cage. Most of the socialising is done in this room. It is separated by a curtain from a very small, dark back room with two beds in it, both with curtains around them; behind the beds is a cement drain and an enormous vat of water. In this space her three girls work, sleep, and bathe.
Mysterious Disappearance: Fatima's sister is also a madam, with it cage across the street. One night this sister brought one of her girls to Fatima, who dressed her up in an expensive blue burqa and sent her away. I later learned that a pimp from a more expensive area in Bombay had come to Fatima's sister with a commission from an Arab customer who was willing to pay a lot of money 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.
Fatima's favourite girl, Abida, had once been rented by an Arab for a week. Fatima showed me a studio photograph of her with the Arab. She was 19 years old, very attractive, and successful with customers. A local merchant on the street was in love with her and wanted to take her away. There were terrible fights between Abida and Fatima, for Fatima didn't want her to go and Abida couldn't decide what to do.
About two weeks before I left Bombay, Abida disappeared. When I asked Fatima where she was, she was silent. One woman on the street told me that Abida had been stabbed, another said that she had run away with the local merchant. I never found out what happened to her. Three days later Fatima sold her cage and left. Her two remaining girls were sold to another madam who took over the cage and repainted the interior a bright blue. I never saw Fatima or Abida again. I felt that I shouldn't ask any more questions. There were many secrets among the cage women, and a firm line was drawn beyond which I could never go.
In garish costume, a prostitute solicits her "quarry".
The most elite brothels on Falkland Road are the interior rooms rising above the cages. They are not in the same class as the numbered houses in other areas, but on this street they are definitely the best. I felt very shy about entering there. Whenever I climbed the stairs, the women ran out of the hallways into their rooms and hid behind the curtains, and some madam would start screaming at me. So I decided to concentrate on one house, in the hope that the people in it would get used to me. It was right next door to the Olympia cafe, so I felt I could always run down and take refuge there if necessary.
The house I chose was typical of the others, with three or four storeys rising above the cages on the first floor. You enter through a wooden door and mount steep wooden stairs. Directly to the left of the top of the staircase is a small brothel room, then further down the hallway there is a landing with three more brothel rooms opening out from it. The stairway leads to another landing with six more brothel rooms. Each town is a separate "house" with its own madam and her own girls. The madams normally own anywhere from three to 10 girls, though five is about the average.
The girls only go into the hallway, they never enter rooms other than their own, or go upstairs or downstairs or-apart from visits to the doctor on brief errands-into the street. During the day they stay in their rooms, cook on the floor, sleep, sew, play with the children-it is all very much like normal Indian family life.
Relationship: Saroja has two rooms on the third floor of this house. Since my attempts on the second floor had been so frustrating, I felt very inhibited about climbing up another storey. But Saroja said at once, "Welcome –come on in."
She is a madam, 26 years old, but she looks 40. Like all madams, she has complete control over her girls. The relationship is one of master and slave-but also of mother and daughter. The girls both worship and fear their madam. One night Putla, Saroja's youngest girl, allowed a drunken customer to have her for only Rs 3. I witnessed Saroja brutally beating Putla. She had 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. The girls solicit customers at the doorway and in the ball along with the girls from the other brothel rooms. Sometimes there is a bit of competition among them, but there is also a strong feeling of solidarity -especially when it comes to protecting one another against the customers.
Life's Ambition: Each girl has her own little wooden box hanging on the wall with a small lock on it. At the beginning of the 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 a.m. the lights are turned out and the "all-night" customers come in. They pay Rs 30 upwards to spend the night with a particular girl (the ordinary customers pay Rs 5).
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; safe and protected and accepted.
Saroja was kidnapped from her village in south India at 12 and taken to Bombay. She worked as a prostitute, then gradually saved and borrowed enough money to have her own girls and become a madam. She told me: "My dream is to have my own house -a bungalow like the numbered ones on Foras Road, with separate rooms for my girls. I could have a refrigerator and sell alcohol and cold drinks. I could have a guard in front to keep the police out. I could have a better class of customers-even foreigners."
A cage-girl strikes a languorous pose: comfortable only in a brother room.
Closeness: Saroja is very attached to her girls. One of them, Kamla, fell in love with a waiter and ran off with him. Huge tears fell from Saroja's eyes and all the other girls wept too. One day Saroja told me about one of the girls- "Rekha is actually my daughter. I had her when I was 13. See how much we look alike. She just got her period one year ago."
When the girls get pregnant, it is up to them to have the baby or not. Abortion is legal in India, and there is a local abortionist who is also a sex change doctor. He told me: "I charge Rs 100 for an abortion and Rs 50 more for hospital charges. But I can't understand why men go to prostitutes. I have only one woman, my wife. I say to men all the time, 'Don't go to a dirty prostitute -if you make love with your wife and close your eyes, it is all the same."
There are many children running in and out of the brothel rooms. In the same house as Saroja lives a beautiful 22-year-old girl, Sharda, with her two sons, Yellapa, about 11 months old, and Mari, three years old. Mari is the most extraordinary child I have ever met. He is absolutely beautiful, intelligent, and sensitive. He is madly in love with Saroja and she adores him. He spends hours sitting on her bed, and when she has a headache he rubs tiger balm on her temples. When he has fever, which is often, he sleeps with Saroja and she takes care of him.
One of the brothel jokes is for Saroja to say to Mari: "What does Putla do? What does Kamla do? What does Rekha do?" Mari answers by making an obscene sign with his fist, and the whole house roars with laughter. Whenever Saroja or any of her girls is upset, Mari is upset too.
Uncomfortable: Sometimes I stayed in Saroja's house until the lights went out and the all-night customers came in. We ordered tea from downstairs and sat and talked. We got closer and closer. I went to a street fair with her and her girls. One night I invited her to a restaurant. I wanted to take her to some place special, to a restaurant in another part of town, but as soon as we arrived there I knew I had made a mistake. She was overdressed and felt terribly uncomfortable and out of place. I realised that I could only be intimate with her on her own ground. She didn't even like going down into Falkland Road-she would rush to find a taxi as soon as possible. The only place where she really felt comfortable was sitting on her bed in her own brothel room.
She never asked me anything very personal about myself. No one did. All anyone ever wanted to know was my age, why didn't I wear a brassiere, and why wasn't I married. I think-the reason why I was finally accepted was because 1 was single-alone in the world like they were. "You and I are fated for the same life," one madam told me. "We are sisters. Both of us are alone every night. I say my prayers and I sleep alone."