May 24, 1981
Ian Jack

300D-003-059 (cover)
The life of a Bombay cage girl.

A Falkland Road exterior.

The squalid brothel district of Bombay is hardly the place to look for tenderness and beauty. Yet the distinguished American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, famous for her reportage of Indian life, went on such a search. After three months living among the prostitutes she produced some haunting images, to be published next week in a remarkable book.

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, on assignment in India.

A Bombay madam with her girls in one of Falkland Road's more elite establishments. 'They worship and fear the madam,” says Mary Ellen Mark. “They have a master-slave, mother-daughter relationship.”

Prostitutes off duty. They rarely leave rooms like these, apart from going on brief errands or visit the doctor.

Inside the cubicles of male pleasure and female work.
Left: a customer bargains. Right: a girl arranges her clothing.

The prostitutes of Bombay have for long been the subjects of scandal, concern and curiosity--attracting the voyeur as well as the paying customer. In the last century, in the Imperial age, the city had European brothels staffed by the victims of the white slave trade for the sexual gratification of the bachelor servants of the Empire. Indians were appalled and intrigued by such behaviour from the ruling race.

“No educated native,” wrote the Quaker reformist Alfred Dyer, “thinks he has properly ‘done’ Bombay unless he has seen the seething hell of European vice.

Two playful Falkland Road girls at the doorway of their workplace.

Kamla, customer and curtain of decency. The clients are mainly lower middle-class Indians, though Arabs, says Mary Ellen Mark, may rent a girl for a couple of days and are considered lucrative prizes.

A transvestite and client. The child looking on is the daughter of a prostitute.

The native streets of vice are decorous in the extreme (by comparison) … the women are decently clothed and many of them veiled, and the contrast is most humiliating.”

Today the trade in voyeurism has been turned about. After the curious European visitor has inspected Bombay’s famed Towers of Silence, where the bodies of the Parsi dead are picked clean by vultures, he may then proceed to Bombay’s famed libidinous quarter--to streets with old Imperial names, Grand Road and Falkland Road, where Indian prostitutes solicit their clients from cages. Many of them are children, kidnapped or bought from Indian villages. Others are hijras, transvestites or eunuchs castrated shortly after birth.

Prices are cheap ‑ the average in rupees is the equivalent of 20 pence ‑ but few Europeans who have come to scoff remain to pay, and trade is mainly plied with Indians of the lower middle-class. For the European, therefore, the common Bombay prostitute has remained merely a tourist curiosity, a beckoning unfortunate imprisoned in a cage. Such is not the case with Mary Ellen Mark, who first saw Falkland Road and its girls as a young American photographer in 1968. She tried to photograph it then and failed. "The hostility and aggression were just too much," she says. But the faces she had seen haunted her for the next ten years. She went back a dozen times to India, where her reportage of all aspects of life won her international acclaim. On each visit she returned to Falkland Road, and each time it continued to elude her. Then, in 1978, she came to Bombay prepared to spend three months living with its prostitutes, in a final, determined effort to get beneath the bizarre and inhuman surface of their lives.

At first Mary Ellen Mark found the going tough. Hostile men would gather round. Women would hurl insults and garbage. But eventually she made friends and after a few weeks she was popping in and out of brothels like a French bishop. What she is most concerned to show is that the cage girls are thinking people rather than trained animals. "They were just great people. Those months were really joyous."

She also uncovered a few hitherto hidden layers of sociology and, perhaps less unexpectedly, some sisterhood. The prostitutes of Falkland Road can be divided into four groups. There are the street girls, who hire rooms from madams by day and sleep among beggars on the pavement by night. There are the transvestites, who have heterosexual as well as homosexual clients. There are the posher girls with rooms on the upper floors of Falkland Road houses (Ms. Mark once had to hide under a bed there during a police raid). And then there are Falkland Road's most famous inhabitants, the cage girls, ridiculed and abused by the rest. No-one seems to know where the idea comes from, but the cages are used to protect and display their contents not imprison them.

A young prostitute gets made up. Sometimes they will dress as little girls, sometimes as “English ladies”.

Potential customer, potential goods. The first stages in a deal that will probably cost five rupees (about 25p).

Later stages in a similar deal. Girls rely on their colleagues and madams for protection. Pimps are rare.

Cage girl. "All of them, even the most seemingly aggressive, are vulnerable," says Mary Ellen Mark.

Companionship. A prostitute sits with an elderly friend now retired from the game. They are both transvestites.

Cage girl at home. Girls eat, sleep, rear their children and work – all within the confines of the brothel.

The girls defend one another. They form close friendships, share food and jokes. They asked few questions of their visitor. She writes: "They wanted to know only my age, why I didn't wear a brassiere and why I wasn't married. I think the reason I was finally accepted was that I was single--alone in the world like they were."

Mary Ellen Mark describes Falkland Road as "the most gentle and interesting street I've ever visited. Prostitution is a way for these girls to survive, and the one thing they have going for them is that they're not involved with drugs or pimps."

During the 1890s American missionaries came to Bombay and patrolled the streets from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., knocking on brothel doors and windows and quoting scripture ("Be sure your sin will find you out."). Sometimes--in ill-lit streets--their female helpers were mistaken for prostitutes by the British soldiery. Fighting ensued. One courageous Christian, Malcolm Moss, would sing hymns outside brothel windows and follow clients home--by tricycle--to note their addresses, thence to bombard them with tracts through the post. According to records recently unearthed by Professor Kenneth Ballhatchet of London University, Moss was frequently assaulted for his pains--once by a major and once by a lance-corporal of the Lancashire Regiment; presumably buttoning up their flies first.

Beside this Ms Mark's own intrepidity pales somewhat. But then great fortitude is often a product of great moral certainty.

‘Falkland Road' is published by Thames & Hudson. Hardback, £12, paperback, £5.95.
Most of the photographs in this article appear in the book. An exhibition is now at the Olympus Cameras Centre, 151 Piccadilly, London W1 and is on until June 19. Opening times are Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. until 5.30 p.m. Admission is free.