Monday, June 18, 2007

Kolkata Daze

Tonight, while watching a cloudy sunset from the balcony of my guesthouse and listening to the medley of cawing crows and chanting coming from a nearby religious service, I thought about how I could concisely verbalize my experience in Kolkata (Calcutta) thus far. I can’t.

I spent the afternoon at a shelter in the Kidderpore red-light district. It’s run by Apne Aap Women Worldwide, the NGO I’m interning with. To look at it, you could not tell it is a place of refuge. On either side of the alley that marks its entry, stood women waiting for their next client. They looked at me curiously as I approached. I smiled. They smiled. I wondered what they were thinking…how they viewed me walking into their world.

A world best classified as hell. Every night, hundreds of women waiting. Man after man. And rape when the women would rather say no. Filthy mattresses. A shared shower to wash away despair that must never disappear. Escape mostly impossible. Some young girls even in cages until they are seasoned to the lifestyle. Nine year olds neither uncommon nor the youngest. A price over their head that they are working to pay off but because of their helplessness lingers on indefinitely. Unimaginable. And yet true.

Following Reena, the woman showing me around, I walked down the littered alley into a dark doorway and up paan-stained stairs. On the second level, we were greeted by a group of excited, young girls. We sat on the cement floor in a circle, or rather, in a circle around me. I smiled and laughed as they practiced their English and pointed to their drawings on the wall. And then they laughed at me when I tried pronouncing their names.

In the corner of the room sat a pile of blankets for when the kids return to sleep at the shelter while their mothers “service” customers. Not all kids in the red-light district are fortunate enough to be sent to classes and a crèche at night. These kids’ mothers are hoping to break the cycle that is only so common to prostitutes and their daughters.

It’s hard to comprehend being in a red light district of Kolkata, looking at the playing kids, the waiting women and the men who nonchalantly walk by. I can’t quite grasp it, and I suppose the reason why is that it makes no sense. There is no justification for why these women are oppressed and enslaved.

Enough depressing realities…here are some photos around town. They are random and not really representative. Next time I promise to take some of the amazing colonial architecture, covered in grime and with the plaster peeling and chipped. Their dilapidated conditions strangely seem fitting though; the buildings that have been restored seem a little too ostentatious and emblematic of a time gone wrong to be amid this chaotic city.

Interior of a bus

Where I buy fruit

Not all of my days here are spent in the shelter. I have been asked to write a proposal on how India should adopt legislation similar to the protocol we have in the US that protects nonimmigrant trafficked victims. Basically, in the US once a nonimmigrant victim is rescued they can apply to get a temporary visa (along with the possibility of eventually getting permanent residence status) and will have access to certain benefits. In India, there is no similar protection. The rescued victims are dealt with unevenly. Many are just dropped off at the border of their country, where they face the likely event of being trafficked again. There is a lot more to it of course (like the fact that the US system hasn’t been very effective), so most of my time is spent on a computer reading reports on trafficking laws from various countries and international agreements. It is arduous, but I actually love it.

In other news, monsoon started early last week. Temperatures had been in the upper nineties and the locals were waiting for it impatiently. The deluge started at around seven. It slacked to a light shower by nine, but some streets were already flooded. All the taxis were taken, so I trudged to the bus stop, clutching my bag under my waterproof jacket. As miserable as I was, I couldn’t help but smile at having dry feet. I had felt foolish putting rubber boots on that morning, knowing that no one else would be in anything other than sandals, but I hadn’t realized how necessary (at least to me) they are. Bits of garbage floated in the water and it was impossible to see what lay in the deep sections. On a side street a tree lay on downed power lines. I walked gingerly hoping not to step on something dangerous or, even worse, into an open manhole…like the one I had just seen moments before. In my delight at having dry feet, I decided to take the following photo. Just guess what happened a moment later when the approaching wave reached me…let’s just say, it’s too bad I didn’t have hip waders on. :)


J. Spencer said...

Shannon, this is extraordinary... I'm truly moved by your experiences there. Even after seeing films like Born Into Brothels, hearing your real-life experience is simply unbelievable. Heartbreaking...

PWBrennan said...


The next time I even start to think about feeling sorry for myself I'm going to reread your entry.

Thanks for sharing.

Paul Brennan

Bill Treanor said...

This is incredibly powerful and sad beyond belief. Thank you for sharing this.

Laurence said...

hi Shannon, I don't know if you remeber me, Grace Martin, Mrs. Lisa's daughter, I am staying with your parents right now on a visit and they had me read your post8ings (after telling me why and where you are) I think its amazing what you are doing, God has given you such a great opportunity and mind of courage, to be able to go to India, I have freinds that just got back from a year of mission work in India. I just wanted to say hi and I'm really glad your doing this, its great, this is something I would love to get into later on. -grace

Martin Flaherty said...


Truly extraordinary, both what you had to describe, and the way you described it. Your experience brings home why the interns program, and the human rights program here more generally, exists. If we the privileged can learn more about what people in the world must face on a daily basis, seek to help in some small measure, and bolster those who stay to help, then perhaps we've begun to do something. Thanks for your posting.