Light from darkness
One sex worker's struggle for freedom
By Mary Kenney
The teenager had run away from home. Her father was a heavy drinker who beat her, her mother and her siblings. She was tired of it. Carrying a bag filled with clothes and silver anklets to sell, she boarded a train destined for Hyderabad, one of India’s largest cities.
Her excitement withered as she stepped onto the cement platform. The crowds pressed closer. She was scared, and she told herself she belonged at home with her family. She resolved to catch the first train going back and scurried to the information desk near the station’s main entrance. She asked a man behind a thick glass window how to go home, and he told her the next train to her village would leave around 3:30 p.m.
That was five hours away. She turned away from the window, and a handsome, well-dressed young man approached. He spoke Telugu, her first language. Hindi and English are India’s official languages, but most Indians learn languages native to their home state first, then tack on more if they are able to go to school.
The man told her there was no need to wait in the hot, crowded station. He lived nearby, and she could stay with him for a few hours. He promised to bring her back in time for her train. Charmed, she agreed, and they left together in a rickshaw bound for his two-room house. At the time, she was 18 or 19, she isn’t sure.
Once indoors, the man locked Akshaya in a back room. He and his friends raped her.
Any IU freshman who has experienced both fear and elation arriving for the first time in Bloomington has felt echoes of Akshaya’s account. But the lives of IU freshmen unfold in a familiar pattern of classes, tests and career planning. Akshaya entered her new life with nothing but her clothes and a handful of dreams, which were shattered by the smooth-talking stranger.
For the next several months, two or three men raped her each day. Afraid she would run away, they would not let her leave the house. They finally let her outside after those first few months, but only so she could start earning money for them. They told her she would become a prostitute. She said no and begged them to let her go home, so they beat her.
When she wasn’t meeting customers, Akshaya was kept locked in the room with no phone. She had to ask for a drink of water or to use the toilet. She tried to run away two or three times, she can’t really remember. Each time, the man or his friends would wait at the bus and train stations nearby. They dragged her back and beat her with belts, leaving lumpy bruises and slicing into her skin. She gave up.
To American readers, Akshaya's story is horrific. In India, social workers say it is wretchedly common.
A round scar from one of many beatings is visible on her wrist as she tucks a strand of smooth dark hair behind her ear. Some of the scars on her arms are pale, some dark, some lines, some circles.
It has been five years since Akshaya was first enslaved, and now she sits in a chair in a small office above an ice cream shop talking about those early years.
The way she is dressed today screams of her former work. Indian women call it “chamki,” the Hindi word for glitter, an equivalent of “bling” and considered gaudy. She wears delicate pink eye shadow over almond-shaped dark eyes framed with slightly arched plucked brows. Her deep red sari is sewn with quarter-sized sequins in the shape of flowers and whorls – more sequins than most middle and upper-class Indian women would wear. As she gestures, her wrists clink with dozens of red and crystal bangles.
She leans back in the plastic chair when she finishes a sentence, and the tassels hemming her sari click together. She listens to others speaking, and a smile splits her face, pressing her eyes into crescent moons and showing off small dimples.
Like many people throughout India and across the world, Akshaya heard about the vicious sexual assault in New Delhi in December. Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old medical student, died in the hospital after she was gang raped and beaten by several men. Their trial is underway. In the days since her attack and especially following her death, protests sprouted throughout India. Women marched in the streets, demanding protection.
Akshaya walked in one such march, more to support her friends than to confront women’s treatment in India. When pressed, she admits the Delhi rape case confuses her.
There is no trace of malice in her voice, only curiosity, as she asks a question in Hindi. Why did so many people protest that young woman’s rape and beating, she wonders, but when sex workers are murdered, no one says anything?
Akshaya isn’t angry, just confused. In India, many women are taught to stay indoors after dark, go out only in big groups and stay in well-trafficked areas. If they don’t follow these rules, some consider it probable that they will be sexually assaulted, possibly murdered. She simply doesn’t understand why one murder gained more attention than all the rest.
She is far from the first person to notice this disparity. Jaya Singh Thomas is a project manager at a nonprofit organization in Hyderabad that helps former sex workers.
“One girl was raped in Delhi, and the entire world stands up,” Jaya Singh says. “Thousands and thousands are cheated and killed every day, and no one says anything.”
Some women now have power and choices. As its economy continues to grow, India is increasingly modernizing, especially in its major cities. The lives of many women in this rapidly changing society are shifting, but some, like Akshaya, are left behind.
Hina Alam used to work as a journalist in Hyderabad and currently lives in Bloomington after doing postgraduate work at IU. She has a deep understanding of how women are treated both in Hyderabad and in Bloomington, and she is able to draw comparisons. In India, she says, if a woman wears jeans or a tight top, men often view her as available. Even Hina, a respected professional woman, carried safety pins while she lived there. If a man made a grab for her chest or backside, she jabbed him with a pin.
Though American women have the freedom to show more skin, stay out later and become friends with more men, Hina points out that sexual violence still courses through American society. In the United States, it is a quieter suffering. In India, she says, the problem is so blatant that people are forced to face it.
In a busy part of a city nearly 8,500 miles away, Akshaya is asked what she knows about American women. The question embarrasses her. She admits she’s jealous of the freedom women have in the West.
In the U.S., she has heard, women don’t have to be home before dark. They can leave the house alone and feel safe. They can go with friends to see a movie, as the victim in New Delhi did, without fearing what happened to her will happen to them.
American women can do whatever they want, she says. She smiles, a little sadly, and looks away.
Akshaya’s bracelets play soft music as she gestures. Her voice rises in volume and pitch, and she leans forward in the plastic chair. She’s talking about why she couldn’t escape. She’s remembering the beatings.
The pimps attacked Akshaya frequently, though they never broke bones. They needed her to keep working. Her customers hit her, too, and the pimps didn’t mind. When men paid for her, she belonged to them, no restrictions. She remembers a time a man took her to a wooded area, stripped off her clothes and told her to do things to him she wasn’t comfortable with.
Her voice is flat, and she rubs one hand against the opposite arm as she speaks. Akshaya refused to do what he asked, and he whipped her with his belt. He shocked her with a Taser, she says. She returned to the pimps’ house bleeding and aching. The pimps did nothing.
They charged Akshaya's customers between 1,500 and 3,000 rupees, equivalent to $30-60, per customer, and she got to keep 100, about $2, of it for transportation to and from the house. She met customers everywhere from five-star hotels to dirty hovels. Some treated her like a girlfriend, buying her little gifts and food. Many others treated her like property they didn’t mind breaking.
Two years passed in a long cycle of more customers, more beatings. A police officer was the first person to offer her a chance to escape, though not through legal means. The officer had been her customer two or three times, and he asked her to live with him. He would take care of her, he said, and he promised to pay the pimps each month so they would leave her alone. The pimps agreed to the deal, and Akshaya finally moved out of the locked bedroom.
The officer had always been kind to her, but he didn’t stay that way. After another year or so, the officer told Akshaya he didn’t have the cash to support her.
The families of Hindu women traditionally pay a dowry as part of a marriage deal, though the practice was outlawed in 1961 and is slowly dying out. When Akshaya mentioned marriage to the officer, he laughed at her. His parents could get him a wife with a hefty dowry, he claimed. Akshaya had nothing to offer.
The officer made her return to prostitution. Akshaya began to work in the area around the same railway station where she’d disembarked years before and been overwhelmed by the crowds. Now she solicited them. Her clothes drew eyes, some disapproving, some curious and some interested, and she waited for men to approach her.
Women from a nonprofit agency approached her while she looked for customers in that station. They were giving free HIV tests in a van outside. Akshaya didn’t know what HIV was. They explained, and she agreed to a test. Akshaya was healthy. She told them about her profession and how she’d become a sex worker.
For the next few months, they tried to persuade her to abandon her work.
“How long will you be able to do this?” some asked. Though she was in her early 20s, she would grow old, they argued, and she wouldn’t be able to work anymore. She would have nothing. How would she live?
She didn’t have an answer.
The organization that counseled her in those days still works with sex workers in Hyderabad. Its name is Chaithanya Mahila Mandali, or CMM, a string of Telugu words that mean “light from darkness,” “women” and “group.”
The words are both a message and a retelling of the founder’s story. Jayamma Bandari, called “amma,” or mother, by many of the women in CMM’s shelter, explains it calmly in many retellings. Years ago, her husband sold her into prostitution. She turned to a nonprofit similar to CMM for support and was hired to generate and coordinate plans to help sex workers. Jayamma established CMM as a clinic and shelter specifically for women and children who have been victims of prostitution. As with Akshaya, CMM employees and volunteers try to identify prostitutes throughout Hyderabad and convince them a better life is possible.
It is not an easy task, as the city’s demand for sex workers remains high. Hyderabad is a crossroads. Many highways that connect north and south India intersect here. Natural disasters, like droughts and floods, drive people from the East and West into the city. Corporations have sprouted throughout Hyderabad in the last decade.
The people at CMM say Akshaya is doing much better. She’s built a life that hasn’t included sex work for the last six months. Still, her friends have reason to worry. Too many people are ready to see Akshaya as a paper cup you crumple up after you’ve drained it. A used woman.
Early on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Akshaya pushes through throngs of people on the sidewalk toward the glass windows of a roadside restaurant. She is no longer overwhelmed by the crowds, as she was five years ago. Still, as she enters the dining room, she glides left and right to avoid bumping into anyone. She hunches her shoulders and keeps her head down, as if she’s afraid of being in someone’s way.
No one stares at her as she heads for a back table. There is no scarlet letter marking Akshaya or her past, and today she is dressed more modestly in a red and yellow scarf and top and dark gray sneakers. Her shiny dark hair is held back by a jeweled clip. She’s wearing one purple bracelet on her left wrist and a watch on her right.
She orders water but has to be convinced to eat lunch. She wants to lose weight, but she reluctantly agrees to share a few vegetarian curries and a plate of flat bread called roti. After someone else orders for her, she checks her phone a few times. She’s seeing if she has any messages from Venu, the man who fills her life now.
When asked to describe Venu, Akshaya grins and looks up at the ceiling. She says he’s a little chubby and lightly smacks her stomach, laughing as she adds, “Like me.”
Venu, a young businessman, met her after a friend gave her his phone number. Assuming he was a customer, Akshaya agreed to meet him at a bus stop. She got into his car, and for half an hour he asked her about her life.
Akshaya grew irritated.
“I have to go,” she insisted. “I have a customer.”
Venu told her to forget about the other customer and gave her 1,000 rupees.
Akshaya doesn’t know exactly what drew Venu to her. They met again about one month later, talking on the phone in the interim.
After a few months, Venu and Akshaya moved into a rented apartment together. They plan to marry, though they haven’t set the date. They see Telugu movies together, go grocery shopping and sometimes stay home and watch television. He spoils her with gifts, such as a white scooter that gives her the freedom to explore Hyderabad alone. She cooks food with less kick than she would like because he hates spicy food. Their relationship is light-hearted and sweet.
Jaya Singh and Jayamma are bothered by one aspect of it, though. Venu is already married and has a child.
It is not unheard of in some areas near Hyderabad for men to marry two or three women, Akshaya says, so her family did not think this arrangement was odd. She isn’t bothered by it, either, and Venu assures her it will be legal. Marriages after the first are not recognized by the law, however. Regardless of what Venu tells her, many will consider Akshaya his mistress rather than his wife.
Jayamma, Jaya Singh and her friends at the shelter are counseling Akshaya to be cautious and think about all the possible outcomes of her relationship with Venu. CMM offered Akshaya a job helping with office work or identifying sex workers in the city. But Venu wants her to stay home and gives her whatever she needs. CMM offered her a fallback, but she refused to take it.
Venu and Akshaya visited CMM together early in their relationship. Jaya Singh asked him if he was planning to stay with Akshaya long-term. Venu said yes.
Jaya Singh shrugs. “Well, so did the police officer.”
Akshaya says she will never be a prostitute again.
She doesn’t wear makeup while she’s at home, and her dark eyes aren’t quite as prominent. Her smile dominates her features, instead. In a marked contrast to her usual shy walk – head down, shoulders up – she practically skips from the living room to the kitchen.
She has reason to be happy. Venu is home early today, sitting in the living room watching television while she cooks.
Baby, her three-month-old miniature Pomeranian, is still damp from a bath when Venu arrives, and Akshaya bounces from patio to tiny kitchen to living room, trying to cook and entertain all at once. Baby wriggles around her feet, nibbling her toes, and Akshaya admonishes her half-heartedly.
Venu came early today to bring her groceries, but he generally visits her from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. every day. Venu eats a late lunch with her but goes home to his wife and child for dinner and to sleep. Akshaya sleeps in a double bed alone, with Baby in a basket nearby. The walls of her bedroom are decorated with posters of babies sitting on grass, in costumes or just smiling. Akshaya loves children. She and Venu talk about having one boy and one girl.
Akshaya has vague plans for her future. She has thought about opening a small business decorating and sewing parts of saris, but it’s a possibility that has barely blossomed in her mind. She is content in her domestic haven with Venu, and she has little motivation to change it. Venu has offered to supply the capital to open the shop. She plans to design and decorate fabric for a sari for herself. If people admire it, she’ll start making clothes for others.
Her dream is tenuous. She has to rely on many assumptions about Venu’s intentions and her own talents to make it feasible. But even unsteady plans are better than years of not looking forward at all.
Mary Kenney, a senior in the School of Journalism, is studying abroad in Hyderabad. Workers at CMM introduced her to Akshaya, who gave permission to publish her name and photo. A Hindi translator helped Akshaya and Kenney speak to one another.