No cloistered virtueRatna Park, like any other evening was beginning to get busier with people on the way to their destinations jumping on and off vehicles. I met with my friends on the footbridge and then made our way toward the bus stand. Unlike most days, when I wear jeans and a jacket, I was wearing a low neckline jumper over leggings. I also wore a hat. I had applied lots of make-up and even drew a mole on my face. I was worried I would run into acquaintances and didn’t want to be judged so I tried to look a little different from my real self.
By Erika Bam (As told to Prateebha Tuladhar)
Ratna Park, like any other evening was beginning to get busier with people on the way to their destinations jumping on and off vehicles. I met with my friends on the footbridge and then made our way toward the bus stand. Unlike most days, when I wear jeans and a jacket, I was wearing a low neckline jumper over leggings. I also wore a hat. I had applied lots of make-up and even drew a mole on my face. I was worried I would run into acquaintances and didn’t want to be judged so I tried to look a little different from my real self.
I hadn’t been able to sleep all night thinking about the evening’s performance. Our theatre group, under Sunil Pokharel Sir, had planned on experimenting with the invisible theatre that evening, at Ratna Park. Brazillian dramatist Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed introduced the invisible theatre, which is a way of making the society think about an issue by becoming a part of it. Making people think about how people in surreptitious professions are judged by the society was going to be our attempt that day.
I was to perform the role of a prostitute. When I told my family I was going to do the invisible theatre, they were very supportive. They understood how important theatre was to me, as I had taken it up passionately as an escape from my own suffering, following a scooter accident, during which I came very close to death. Nursing a semi-paralysed body, with over 20 stitches, for seven months, I wasn’t sure if I would ever walk again. But when I recovered, I joined a theatre group and it made me feel like I didn’t have to hide in my wounded body anymore. The accident helped me look inside myself and I felt the need to heal from within.
A couple of evenings before our actual performance, I had already been out in Ratna Park with my colleague Anup. I noticed that prostitution wasn’t just about what has come to fit into the social definition. I spotted middle-aged women and transgenders, waiting for customers. I saw how women were standing in the crowd out of need, while men were jostling past the crowd for momentary pleasure— brushing past, pinching, elbowing. Part of me told me I didn’t want to be in that crowd. But I wanted to experience what being in such a position would be like. And I had already made a commitment to my class.
So there I was with my group that Thursday evening.
Nine of us, scattered in different parts of Ratna Park. Three boys stayed with me so that they could protect me, should something go wrong. They were to act as pimps. They wore coats and chains and sunglasses, and tried to emulate the body language as well the language used by people in the profession. We stood under the trees, waiting for attention. Soon there were tugs at my jumper. I did not have to invite attention. As men walked past me, they deliberately brushed against my breasts.
I bought a bottle of water and as I was drinking, a man walked up to me and asked how much—kati ma janchas. Curt and already at a denouement. He looked like he would be a college student. He said they were three and wanted me to stay the night with them at their place in Tripureshwor. I told him to show me his wallet first and said that it didn’t look like he could afford me. I pitched ten thousand. He offered eight. But I had to find a way to shrug him off. So, I told him I was in no mood for three men and that I didn’t go to other people’s places.
I walked away. He left.
I walked along the footpath leading to Bir Hospital. A man in his mid 30s walked up to me and offered to pay fifteen hundred. I said it was too little. Then I walked into an eatery and ordered roti. There were men drinking in there. They pinched me as they walked in and out. It’s not unusual for women to be groped in public places. But when men assume you are a sex worker, they seem to think it’s alright to seek pleasure and entertainment in whatever form they can. It’s like they think violation of sex workers is never a violation.
I left without eating and went back to where my friends were standing. My friends Suraj and Sanjeev, who were performing as pimps, were watching me and I didn’t feel so unsafe anymore. There were other women standing on the sidewalk, waiting to strike a deal with clients. They looked at me like I was ruining their business. Some transgenders walked up to me and said that to my face. Soon, I was surrounded by haggling men. They wanted to know my ‘rate’.
My friend Mohan pierced through the crowd and dragged me away. The transgenders who sensed I was uncomfortable, came after me and asked me if I wanted to join their group. Mohan told them I was taken and we mingled into throngs of people hurrying to their destinations. As we walked away, there were images in my mind of the people I had run into. A man selling winter clothes on the sidewalk had asked me if I would ‘go’, even as he tried to sell me jackets. I had seen women, their faces hidden behind shawls, offering sex for a hundred rupees. There were around 40 sex workers lost in the Ratna Park hustle-bustle that evening, trying to strike a bargain— for the sake of their hollow pockets, with those with ungratified needs. There were women, old enough to be my mother. There were college girls. The image that broke my heart, however, was that of a woman who stood with her toddler in tow, hoping someone would offer to pay.
I don’t know how effective the act was for the spectators who became a part of our performance that day. But it did change my perception of sex workers. Working as a prostitute is full of risks. Sex workers get raped and are often sent off without money. If they complain to the police, they are subjected to further harassment. If being touched can be so repelling, even as I was only acting out a part, how hard must it be to really live a life of constantly being fondled, pinched, and mauled by strangers? While the society brands prostitutes as outcasts, each one of them is a product of the society that has wounded them.
Since my debut performance, I have had several sleepless nights. I often have this recurrent dream: I’m walking at Ratna Park and suddenly, I’m being chased and I’m running through dark alleyways.
On the day of Maghi Mela on January 15, I was passing through Ratna Park. I walked up to a transgender, who was waiting for a client and hugged her. Tears brimmed in her eyes and in mine. At the end of the day, we are all only looking for some loving.