In a petal-strewn Bombay alley, up a narrow rank of rusting metal stairs, is the one-room bedroom-bathroom-kitchen of social activist Indira Paudyal. Two bamboo mats are beds; a wall cupboard holds clothes, paperwork, photographs. A kerosene stove warms water for lemon tea. A single window overlooking suburban Thane’s envied greenery eases the claustrophobia. Through this, 32-year-old Indira, who emigrated from Nepal two months ago leaving her two children and parents behind, watches a street slowly flood, hears the comforting clang of temple bells, and, like the persistent buzz of mosquitoes, listens to conversations in languages she does not understand.
Indira is among an estimated 300,000 Nepali women in Bombay. While the majority are housewives who accompany their husbands, following the push and pull of political and economic realities, many are employed, in sectors ranging from domestic and sex work, to non-profits and small businesses. However, like the city’s estimated 200,000 Bangladeshi women, at least half have been trafficked, including into domestic and forced labour, and may spend years trying to regain control over their own lives. Even those living the ‘immigrant dream’ are faced with obstacles, of being both women and migrants.
Says social anthropologist Rahul Srivastava: “Migrant women are preferred to men, because they are cheaper and can be exploited more. In sweatshops, behind sewing machines and as cheap domestic labour, they are easily manipulated by the power and brutality of the economy.” As their numbers increase, Bangladeshi and Nepali women are helping to change Bombay’s migrant face. In the process, they are contributing to its successes, and concerns.
Dangerous fairy tale
Such concerns are particularly true of women in the sex trade. Activists agree that up to 50 percent of Bombay’s 100,000 sex workers are Nepali. Triveni Acharya, president of the Rescue Foundation, which focuses on migrant girls in Indian brothels, says that 5000-6000 Nepali women are trafficked into Maharashtra every year. The majority are sold to brothels for INR 25,000 to 100,000 and upwards, depending on their physical attributes and age. Although most girls are between 14 and 17 years old, a few are as young as six or as old as 40.
For up to three years, sex workers receive no money except for tips from customers, and it is only after the brothel manager decides that the girl’s debt has been paid off that she receives a cut of her earnings – approximately INR 150 for less than an hour, INR 300 for one hour and INR 600-800 for the night. Popular girls may service up to 15 customers a night. Every year, up to 10,000 female children are believed to go missing from Bangladesh, trafficked to India, Pakistan and the Gulf. “Bangladeshi sex workers were never taken into account, because they passed themselves off as Bengali,” says Acharya. “But deception is harder now, and they outnumber their Nepali counterparts in Mumbai by a ratio of 60 percent to 40 percent.”
An investigating officer who participates in brothel raids, and requested anonymity, explains: “During the first two or three weeks of her arrival, the girl is broken mentally and physically. Beaten, raped, threatened and mocked that she can never escape.” After a while, he says, most girls accept their circumstances and forget about returning home. Years later, there is only one job that she can do. “So she returns to her village, impresses the young girls with stories of Mumbai’s prosperity, and beguiles them into running away. After they do, they find themselves trafficked into the brothel she has set up for herself.”
Bangladesh’s porous border with West Bengal, as well as its sea route, and Nepal’s open border with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, enable this selling, buying and transportation of women. Poverty and illiteracy are the primary reasons that women become involved in sex work, says Acharya, while many also come from disturbed families. “For example, a Bangladeshi woman may find herself abandoned when her husband remarries. In both places, impoverished village girls and their families hear a fairy tale: in Mumbai no one goes hungry.”
Last February, 21-year-old Fatima Ali, whose husband and family of four survived on 15 acres of petulant land in a village near Dhaka, was cajoled by a friend into journeying to Bombay. After a week’s travel by boat, train and bus, Fatima was deposited at what she soon discovered was a brothel. The friend told her, “I’ll be back shortly. Rest.” She never returned. For 15 days, Fatima was mutilated with cigarettes, beaten and threatened with rape by the brothel’s pimp. She believed that the beatings were meant to abort her month-old foetus.
On the 16th day, acting on a tip, police and members of the Rescue Foundation raided the brothel, freeing Fatima. She now works as a chef in a women’s hostel. Her daughter Khushi is one year old. Back home, her husband has remarried, and wishes no contact with her. A dark-eyed beauty with hair falling to her waist, a baggy blue and white salwar kameez shrouding the dozens of burn scabs on her legs, Fatima shrugs: “I’ll never return. I was hungry. There was no work.”
Rafia and Hameeda
It is not only sex workers who are trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh. Female trafficking for forced labour and domestic work has been traced to 20 districts in Nepal, including Lalitpur, Kathmandu, Chitwan, Jhapa and Lamjung. It is more difficult to track the source areas in Bangladesh because the majority of immigrants enter India illegally, and hence are unwilling to divulge details.
“It’s never the girl’s idea to enter illegally,” says Kavita Saxena, deputy superintendent at the Rescue Foundation. “Greed is instilled in her. Whether it’s greed of a job, greed of travel, greed for a marriage proposal – which a young, male trafficker, who is proficient at this, dangles in front of her … not one of the girls knows what awaits them.”
Neither did the family of 14-year-old Rafia Khan, a domestic worker who moved from a village near Chittagong to West Bengal, and then to Bombay three years ago. She and her mother and sister are all domestic workers here, collectively earning INR 2800 a month for working from 6 am to 8 pm. “There wasn’t enough food in our village,” she explains, simply. The Khans live in a construction of knitted palm leaves, with layers of plastic sheet and sacking for a roof, in a slum in Andheri West. Rafia’s father, Shahnawaz, is unemployed and addicted to country liquor.
In a fortnight, Rafia says, she is to return home to marry. Shahnawaz, who rarely communicates with his wife and children but to beat them, has married twice, and Rafia hopes that her marriage will not tempt him into a third. “The fathers get frustrated from remaining unemployed,” explains Shobha Kale, of the National Domestic Workers Movement. “They want alcohol to feel better, but don’t have any money. So they beat their children, and extract money from them.”
As the monsoon engulfs Bombay, its easiest targets remain slums like those in Andheri West. Perpetually wet and cold, with no access to water to drink or bathe in, their hunger never satiated, the Khans are contemplating resettling in their village after Rafia’s marriage. “My mother doesn’t want to return to Mumbai,” she explains.
Across the city from Andheri West, South Bombay’s Reay Road is a string of hutments inhabited by Bangladeshi families. Despite their poverty, with no identification, they are not entitled to ration cards. Until last year, Hameeda Sheikh, 38, worked as a steel polisher in a factory, earning INR 50 a month. After a hot steel container fell on her foot, corroding it to the bone, Hameeda was fired, and has since lived on the earnings of her eldest daughter, who pipes beads on blouses for INR 1.50 per blouse. Hameeda does not have the option of returning home. Her wounds have shackled her to a life of poverty in a city she had believed would lift that burden.
Both Hameeda and Rafia knew that survival in their hometown was impossible. They also believed the stories of the opportunities Bombay proffers. But in a city already teeming with the hungry, they quickly found themselves as disadvantaged as before.
Strength of community
Not everyone is as unlucky. Sita Dhuri, a Nepali acrobat with the Great Royal Circus, is content with her new life. Married to an Indian acrobat, Sita’s hair is parted with vermillion, and she is a doting mother to one-year-old Pooja. Like many immigrants from central Nepal, Sita entered India via Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, initially leaving behind her parents and brother, who worked in the fields for a living. “My parents didn’t want me to leave,” she says. “But I put my foot down. I told them I’d return after two years, but I never did!” She traveled to Gujarat, and then Maharashtra, where she was joined by her family, who she left shortly thereafter.
Sita saw an opportunity to escape a life of drudgery by joining a circus as an acrobat artiste, a trying profession that inducts many impoverished Nepali girls like her. Sita performs five acts in three shows daily, earning approximately INR 8000 a month. Although she receives a fortnight of paid leave annually, she chooses not to visit her family, maintaining contact through phone calls. “This is better than home,” she says. “Once my performances are over, I don’t have to worry. At home, there’s always something else to do. And here someone is always looking out for my child.” Nevertheless, Sita says her daughter will not follow in her footsteps. “Children should be educated,” she says, firmly.
Whatever their work, Bombay’s immigrants maintain strong links with their ethnic communities. This is particularly true of those who work from home, are unable to speak Hindi or Marathi, and subsequently have difficulty assimilating. Gita Sharma, for instance, is 21 years old but only ventures out of her house with her husband, Raj, a chef in a Chinese restaurant.
For a city that has six Nepali newspapers and 21 cultural and political organisations, it is not hard for Nepalis like Gita to occupy themselves. The Nepal Sahitya Mahasangh, the largest Nepali cultural organisation in Bombay, celebrates Nepali festivals throughout the year. Says Shanta T Sharma, a Nepali teacher in a school in suburban Dahisar: “It’s hard for new migrants, particularly housewives who aren’t educated, to communicate with their Indian neighbours. So we wait for festivals like Teej, and sing songs about our lives in Nepali. And if there’s something that’s bothering us, whether it’s our husband or mother-in-law, that’s included in the lyrics as well!”
The lives of Bombay’s Nepali and Bangladeshi women immigrants vary significantly – from those who live mild lives of domesticity, to those whose experience has been so dark that they cannot bear to talk about the past, nor harbour hopes for the future. But somewhere between the world of the weary, made-up women of the cages of Hanuman Tekri, and the bustling housewives of Thane’s leafy green colonies, are women like Bindu Adhikari. She has struggled and succeeded in Bombay, but is now ready to settle down in Nepal.
Bindu moved to Thane from Nepal’s Kaski District in 1991 as a 16-year-old bride. She had heard great things about Bombay, she says – about the shops, and how much money a man could earn by waiting tables at a restaurant, or guarding a building through the night. “I heard you didn’t even have to be educated,” she exclaims. Unable to speak Hindi, Bindu spent her first month in Bombay familiarising herself with the city through the chinks in her blinds. “I didn’t like it first. I saw all the Nepali men working, and all the Nepali women sitting at home all day. I thought, ‘I have hands and legs; I can work as well.’” She soon opened a vegetable shop in her house. Within months, business was flourishing, and Bindu also began selling music and videotapes to cater to her Nepali clientele. Soon she was selling albums of the Lok Dohori duets popular in Nepal, as far away as Rajkhot, Nasik and Pune.
15 years later, Bindu’s business was flourishing. But she recently sold it, and bought a house in Chitwan, southwest of Kathmandu, where she will live with her husband and four daughters. “I’ve worked with Nepali women in Mumbai for years, encouraging them to do something with their lives. I’ve even traveled to Gujarat, meeting women in trouble,” she explains. “Then I thought, ‘why should I remain here when women at home need my help even more?’ That’s why I’m going. I don’t think I’ll ever come back. Bombay has shown me what I can do.”