Letters from the heart

An editorial meeting is on in a cramped room on the first floor of a building near the Park Circus crossing at Topsia, central Kolkata. The girls sit around on the floor, some with notebooks and pens. The musty air is filled with ideas that are aired, shot down and debated.

"I think the topic for this month should be 'community'," says Nazia, a senior member of the group. As Kohinoor quickly jots down the idea, some in the group intervene to say that they want to write on their dreams.

This is the editorial meeting of the Red Light Despatch, an e-magazine, with write-ups from sex workers from brothels across India. "We should write about our local club that gets all the grants from NGOs but passes on little to the slum dwellers," says Shagufta. At the end of it, every girl has a brief. Kohinoor and Nikhat are excited about theirs—they have been told to do a movie review.

Launched on October 2, 2006, Red Light Despatch serves as a mouthpiece for women who are brought together by Apne Aap, an NGO that works for sex workers. The magazine got its registration only last month and held its first editorial meeting after the registration on June 26.

"Women, girls and men trapped in prostitution from the red-light areas of Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal write for the Despatch. They write for each other and share stories of their dreams, struggles and hopes," explains Ruchira Gupta, a former journalist who founded Apne Aap and who also edits the magazine. "Without a registration, the girls would mostly write on their personal experiences. But now they can work like mainstream reporters and we can get the magazine printed," she says.

The magazine, done in simple black and white, is without pictures and looks more like a booklet. But the contents are touching—emotional outpourings of women sold to brothels and personal accounts of harassment, abuse and torture. It is put on the Web once every three months. Women write about tales of betrayal, bad marriages, physical torture, their dreams of living a life of dignity, of owning a "house with lots of sky" and the "frightening" world of prostitution.

"The pain that I have in myself for years is not only my own but is shared by thousands of my sisters who are trapped in prostitution and who are victims of pimps and traffickers. So I wanted to express it for everyone," writes Meenu didi, as she is popularly known in the red light area of Munshigunj in Kolkata. She has been a regular contributor to the magazine.

"Initially we had newspaper reading exercises but soon the women and girls said that there was nothing in the paper that was relevant to them. That was how we thought of the Despatch," says Gupta.

Every two months, the NGO organises group meetings at various centres, where the groups decide what they want to contribute to the magazine. The final selection is done by Gupta who sends the articles to translators and then edits them. "I do very little editing so that the flavour of the writing is not spoilt," she says.

Meenu didi, a resident of Darjeeling, worked as a prostitute for about 10 years before joining Aapne Aap to work towards freeing others like herself from the shackles of pimps and agents. "I got married when I was about 14. Within three years of my marriage, my husband died of alcoholism. I was left with a daughter and my parents could not support me. People told me I could get a job in Kolkata. So I put my daughter in a boarding school and started for Kolkata," Meenu, now 35, recalls. "A man brought me to a house in Park Street and gave me a job. After four months, the man of the house tried to molest me and once again, I was on the road. Another man brought me to Munshigunj. I thought I would work as a maid but even before I realised, I had clients coming to my room. As prostitutes, women are raped, beaten up and robbed," says Meenu. "The Despatch lets us share our thoughts with each other," she says.

While some girls and women pen down their thoughts, others dictate them to a volunteer. Most of the writing is in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali and are translated to Hindi and English and edited before they are put up on the Web. Once on the Web, volunteers of Apne Aap read out the articles in informal meetings with sex workers across India.

"If your husband beats you, then you should go to the local police station. But in most cases, we see that you don't because you think it's your husband's right to thrash you. But no, it is your right to stay in a violence-free world," writes 27-year old Mumtaz from Topsia in Kolkata in her article, 'Learning About My Rights'. Before she could turn 20, she was the mother of three and a victim of domestic violence. "Today I know of my rights and I want to share them with others like me," she says.

"People tell me I will never get married because I live in a red light area and my mother is a prostitute," says Ruby, who went to Assam on a UNICEF child participation project and wrote an article in the Despatch on her experiences.

"We hope that our reporters and correspondents will prove that grassroots journalism and alternative newspapers like ours have a space and can succeed," says Gupta. She also hopes her 'reporters' will be trained in writing, editing and layout, and can someday be integrated into the mainstream.

Please read our terms of use before posting comments
TERMS OF USE: The views expressed in comments published on indianexpress.com are those of the comment writer's alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of The Indian Express Group or its staff. Comments are automatically posted live; however, indianexpress.com reserves the right to take it down at any time. We also reserve the right not to publish comments that are abusive, obscene, inflammatory, derogatory or defamatory.