What We Saw During A Visit To Kolkata's Largest Red Light Area

Ashok Alexander, who headed the the Gates Foundation's HIV/AIDS prevention programme Avahan for over 10 years, speaks about what he observed and learnt during his visits to brothels in Sonagachi, in his new book A Stranger Truth.

Ashok Alexander Updated: Feb 14, 2019 11:10:08 IST
What We Saw During A Visit To Kolkata's Largest Red Light Area Representational image (Credit: Shutterstock)

In India, large brothels in identifiable red-light areas are rare. The prominent ones are Kamathipura in Mumbai, Budhwar Peth in Pune, Sonagachi in Kolkata, and GB (Garstin Bastion) Road in Delhi. Many towns in India have brothels on a smaller scale. In other regions of India the brothel is a home, often in respectable residential areas, housing three to five women, where sex work is practised. The permanent fixture in these mini-brothels is the owner, who is always a woman. The madam will take in women to practise sex work from her home daily, or she may house them for months. She takes a cut from each transaction.

In Ballapuram in West Godavari district of coastal Andhra Pradesh, we visited a home-based brothel of a special kind. The house had three tiny rooms, a kitchen, and a small courtyard. Four generations of one family lived together there. They were a grandmother, simply known to everyone as Amma, her daughter Kanta in her mid-thirties, Kanta’s daughter Shobha, about eighteen, and Shobha’s child, a one-year old boy. Kanta ran the home-based business. She was beautiful, with fine features, light brown eyes, and olive complexion.

We were sitting with the whole family in the common area of the house, doors shut so that we would not be disturbed. Commercial sex was a way of life for Kanta, the only dependable, steady source of income to keep her household going. Kanta ran the family business with tight efficiency. She also took in a few women residents, on a short-term basis, but generally avoided quick in–out daily transactions by street-based sex workers. She explained how her cash flow worked, her pricing system, and how she managed the local constabulary and goons.

While we were talking, there was a knock on the door. Kanta shouted out that they were not open for business, but the frustrated client would not go away. The knocking became louder and more insistent, as though he was in a state of desperate emergency. Sighing, and at a signal from her mother, Shobha got up to handle the client. After a loud discussion, during which Shobha berated a now-contrite client, they disappeared into an inner room, and she emerged in less than five minutes, with an apologetic smile. Our conversation picked up, without losing a beat, from where it had been interrupted.

‘All of us are in sex work,’ Kanta said, as her mother and daughter nodded eagerly. ‘In fact, if a man comes here, he has a choice all in one family, the old and the new. Where can you get that?’ she laughed. Life was not as easy as Kanta’s joking manner valiantly tried to suggest. When I met her four years later she had aged prematurely and looked haggard almost beyond recognition.


In Sonagachi in central Kolkata, we learnt a lot from Dr Smarajit Jana’s renowned HIV prevention programme. Where Thailand’s was essentially a top-down model, Sonagachi used a grassroots community-based approach.

Sonagachi in 2004 was a series of streets and narrow alleys, where more than ten thousand women from all over India practised commercial sex. The large brothel area had separate sections for women from different states. Here, there would be a little Andhra Pradesh and there, Punjabi, Uttar Pradesh, and Nepali sections. Sweets, savouries, and even glossy magazines from those regions were on sale in many of these sections. Hot poha could be had in the Maharashtrian area and steaming momos in the Nepali section. These regional units were maintained so that the women could feel at home and to make it easy for clients who have preferences for women from certain communities. Not all women stayed fixed in one area – there were free floaters as well, who chose to move around. Each section was a series of houses, from single-room cubicles barely bigger than a bed to units with a couple of bedrooms and a living room, sofas, and large-screen TVs. Typically, the houses were owned by madams, who rented the rooms out by the hour to street-based sex workers, or took a cut from the earnings of women who stayed for a longer term.

We arrived at Sonagachi in the late evening of a hot summer day in 2003, and it was as if we had stepped into a carnival. The lanes were crowded with customers who defied categorization. There was the government babu stopping by for a quick one before he went home to his loving wife and children. Small-time businessmen from out of town, seeking to unwind after a hard day’s work. Dhoti-clad lovers of art, come to enjoy an evening of ghazal and mujra. Men of affluence who stepped gingerly out of chauffeured cars. And even a few foreign tourists, keen to discover all that India had to offer.

Like actors in a great stage show, the sex workers of Sonagachi were displayed in every possible style, matching the diversity of their clients. They were a riot of colour. A woman with plump thighs in a red micro-skirt had her arm linked with her friend in a gaudy sari. A gaggle of hijras, with exaggeratedly painted lips and impossibly narrow waists, stood with casually flung pallus magically sliding down their bosoms. Small groups of male sex workers offered cigarettes, some broad-chested and macho, others delicately feminine.

Meanwhile, the brokers for the women in residence up the flights of stairs sidled up. ‘The real action isn’t here, babu – you look like a bhadralok – come with me, I’ll take you to the real action, just upstairs.’ Street vendors purveying hot pakoras, NGO kiosks offering free condoms, and a group of performing acrobats completed the scene of unrestrained and macabre celebration.

Our assigned guide that day was Debu, thirty, the son of a sex worker who had practised at Sonagachi and passed away, an early victim of HIV. He was watching us closely to gauge our reaction and asked with some pride, ‘What do you think of our Sonagachi, Ashokji? There is nothing like this anywhere in India.’ I nodded, smiling in assent. Indeed, as we were to find out that day, Sonagachi was in many ways a wonderland for sex workers.

dpps_28468483_120718101602.jpgRepresentational image (Source: Shutterstock)

Our host Dr Jana was the tiny bespectacled architect of Sonagachi’s community-based HIV intervention programme, clearly its father figure and authority from behind the scenes. In 1995 NACO had asked Jana to create a model HIV prevention programme at Sonagachi. He was convinced that the Thailand model of ‘targeted intervention’ was flawed. He believed a better way was to mobilize the sex worker community and turn over the ownership of the programme to the sex workers themselves. Ten years later, Sonagachi had become a globally celebrated success. The sex workers’ collective that Jana created at Sonagachi is called Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Cooperative – DMSC or Durbar (meaning unstoppable in Bengali) for short. Durbar has three parts: service provision (outreach services, clinics), a cooperative bank, and a cultural wing.

The next morning, we visited one of Durbar’s clinics. It was a clean facility, its record-keeping diligent. A doctor attended to a handful of sex workers who were awaiting their turn calmly. The nurse in attendance and the record-keepers – in fact, all the meagre staff apart from the doctor – were also practising sex workers. They bustled about, getting first-time patients to fill out their forms, with no proof of identity required.

In the afternoon we met with the twelve-member governing council of Durbar’s cooperative bank. The council members were all sex workers. Shipra Das, the eloquent chairperson, explained how it worked. ‘Nearly every woman in DMSC has an account at the cooperative bank. We ask each woman to deposit ten rupees every day in her account. The money is picked up by a boy that the bank sends around, because it is difficult for the women to come to the bank every day. It’s the regularity of deposit that is important, so that saving becomes a habit. Sex workers have a way otherwise of spending all their daily earnings, leaving nothing for an emergency.’ Additionally, the bank was the fulcrum for Sonagachi’s activities, ensuring that sex workers stayed.

Turning to a young sex worker at the back of the room – not part of the council – I asked, ‘Can you explain how this bank keeps you safe from HIV?’ She replied confidently, ‘When my child was sick, and I needed a hundred rupees for medicine I took it out of the five hundred rupees I had saved. Otherwise I would have had to have sex without a condom with a customer, to make the extra money that day. I was always living hand to mouth before the bank was made.’

Meeting over, we were entertained by Rasika, DMSC’s dance troupe. It had a dozen performers, both women and transgenders, all sex workers. They were dressed in matching costumes of red and black, the women wearing saris and the transgenders in kurtapyjama. We watched a dance-and-music sequence called Oi Mahila Ke (‘Who Is That Woman?’) that depicted the eternal aspects of woman – wife, mother, and sex worker. I was captivated by the performance, which was sensitively portrayed and exquisitely choreographed in classical Bharatanatyam. I learnt that Rasika had performed to acclaim in major cities in India and abroad. I was told, amid laughter, that on one such trip to Geneva, they had a crisis when their star performer, a transgender, found a client and could not be traced for a couple of days.


Admirably, the Sonagachi programme prevented minors from appearing in the trade. Any girl suspected of being a minor was reported by the community to one of the several NGOs working in the brothel. Incidentally, a minor had been found just that day, and before I knew it, I was led into a closed room.

A child who looked no more than twelve was sitting on a bed, closely hugging an NGO worker. When she saw me she cringed, hiding her face in the worker’s sari. It was obvious she was frightened to death by the sight of a man. I quickly turned and rushed out of the room. It appeared there was no place to send her, because the parents who had sold her into the trade would not want her back. It was the same problem with children – what to do after you save them – though in a different context from what I had seen in Imphal, with Danny.

I learnt that there was both altruism and a dose of savvy business thinking in the saving of children at Sonagachi. With a certain type of man, a youngster, especially a virgin, would command a much higher price than would the regulars. Keeping children out also reduced competition.


Sonagachi taught us much about what to do and what to avoid doing. Sonagachi had kept HIV infection levels among its sex workers at single-digit levels, a remarkable achievement in a brothel setting. Kamathipura and other large brothel areas had not managed to do that. Sonagachi was proof of how powerful community involvement is in HIV prevention. We saw how communities of sex workers– traditionally treated as helpless victims by many prevention programmes – can be empowered to be the prime agents of change. In the process, they can organize themselves to deliver services safely, address the root causes of their vulnerability, and develop an essential self-esteem. The importance of community was the single biggest learning for us from Sonagachi.

The criticism of the Sonagachi model is that it has never been replicated anywhere else, even in brothel settings. One reason then was that the programme was not well documented. There was very little by way of standard operating procedures that NGOs and governments could use elsewhere. The other was that it was excessively personality-dependent– Jana’s. It seemed that behind the scenes he had a hand in every decision, big or small, and his word was final. I learnt that charismatic leaders need to make themselves obsolete, and not behave like benevolent dictators, if communities are to sustain on their own.

The most crucial difference was that Sonagachi, like Patpong in Bangkok, was largely a long-established brothel area. Aggregation of dispersed street sex workers, which is the main challenge facing HIV programmes all over India, was much less of an issue in Sonagachi.


Brothelized sex was only a small part of sex work. In most places across the country it was practised mainly on the street and to a lesser extent in homes. In many cases the sex worker was moving from place to place. The key question was how to bring these women to a single point that was not a brothel, a challenge we will come back to later in this narrative.

We were discovering that the main challenge in HIV prevention in India was the fact that sex workers were effectively invisible.


Ashok Alexander spent seventeen years with McKinsey and Company in New York and India before leaving it in 2003 to take up the building of an ambitious HIV/AIDS prevention programme in India for the Gates Foundation. That venture, Avahan, has been internationally acclaimed for its pivotal role in containing the HIV epidemic in India. He currently nurtures his own NGO, the Antara Foundation, which works in the field of maternal and child health in rural Rajasthan. A Stranger Truth published by Juggernaut Books, is his first book.


Excerpted with permission from A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India's Sex Workers by Ashok Alexander, published by Juggernaut Books.

Do You Like This Story?
Other Stories