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Asia Taboo Travel

What is Sonagachi?

The most popular photo I have taken in all my travels is one I took at Sonagachi. What is Sonagachi? Sonagachi is the is the largest red-light district in Asia. The number of sex workers varies depending on who you ask. Probably around ten thousand. 

I am always curious about extremes of all kinds, the largest and smallest things, the oldest and the newest. Anything -est. And so I take a stroll through Sonagachi one evening.

What is Sonagachi? Some people live and die there. And me, I’m just taking a stroll. Just a walk through. Never been before and I may never be there again, because I’ve never been a sex worker in this lifetime. I’ve never paid for sex in this lifetime, but I’ve paid for sex in this lifetime, if ya know what I mean.

But seriously, I need to make clear that I have the privilege of curiosity. I’m not judging anyone for buying or selling sex. I’m just noticing what I’m noticing. 

It’s calm, quiet, but tense. It’s not a fun party place.It doesn’t have the drunken revelry vibe of the Bangkok red light districts. It doesn’t have the seedy lumping together with every other vice that you find in so many of the European red light districts. It’s a normal Kolkata neighborhood with food venues and carts, clothing stores, and barbershops.

A normal neighborhood against which enormous, ignored amounts of sex trafficking are happening right in front of me. I am all for the rights of sex workers to consensually sell whatever services they want. What is Sonagachi? Sonagachi is something different. It’s huge. It has everything.

Though there’s nothing overtly disturbing that happens during my visit, I can see something uneasy and traumatized in the looks in the women’s eyes. Many of them are not there by choice.

But some are.

Kolkata feels like something out of a movie to me. A period piece. It’s intense and a striking example of the failures of colonial design in a city. Horrible traffic, broken streetcars, stupid flow. Everything cluttered. Patterns of human movement that have evolved around an old design. The British loved to poorly design pompy intersections in their territories. 

The streets are so filled with manual transportation in Kolkata that it creates traffic for vehicles. It’s almost faster to walk, and also faster to move items from Point A to Point B when they are more maneuverable. Kolkata is filled with heavy loads of goods carried on push carts or pull carts or on heads or in arms. Methods that haven’t changed in thousands of years.

India is a land of unique traditions and customs anyway, each area of the country has their own. I am grateful this leads to regions having their own food as well. Bengali food is my favorite of all the regions in India – probably mostly because the cuisine doesn’t really make it out into the US and Europe. Spicy, tropical, delicious, often made in a street kitchen.

I stay with a lawyer in a marble clad penthouse apartment overlooking the city. Lavish Bengali dinners are served each evening. The servants outnumber the family. DH and my host make deals over tea Iran to India and India to Iran.

The tea grown by my host’s family is called “ant head tea”, because the leaves are curled tightly and it looks, well, like a bag full of ant’s heads. Persians and their tea.

The flower market is an overwhelming Kolkata experience, crowds of people selling flowers. Brilliant garlands. Flowers for home and business. Flowers for all reasons in all permutations. All taking place alongside and under piers and the Howrah bridge, stretched against the shoreline of Hooghly River. Bursts of color and shouting businesspeople delight the senses, but I also see the desperation. It’s there in most markets.

One day I am dragged into the Kali temple by a guide who wants money I tell him I don’t have from the getgo. I’m pushed through the experience, thick crowds of people. Rituals. Goat sacrifice right in front of me, and I’m anointed with blood. I won’t pretend to understand a vegetarian religion with animal sacrifice. They apparently feed the goat to the poor.

I’m crushed from all sides by a throng of people trying to get closer to the Goddess. Somehow I make it out intact.

I think of Mother Teresa. What compelled her. Deathbed conversions that became such a Big Deal that people were diverted away from actual medical care through her canonical pyramid scheme of missionary machinery.

There are places that consume and admit me, that integrate me into their own. Then there are those that force me to look at them from such a distance I’m never sure that I’m actually there. And then there are places like Kolkata, that graciously show me in, but that I will never fully understand, and they know that and I know that. 

Bengali Kolkata

I dance through the city with humility and a smile, and it bows and curtsies at me along the way.

And so, my walk through Sonagachi is as curious to the denizens as they are to me. What is Sonagachi? There’s something homey and friendly about it, as far as Red Light Districts go. And yet still, the strict gendered agreement is hard to take. What is Sonagachi? It’s an open air market where men are the buyers and women are the sellers. 

What is Sonagachi?

The familiar shame of the men, who avert my eyes when they see me, for the most part. The bravest among them jokingly offer a price. As though any woman who comes to this neighborhood deserves to be rated thusly.

The women aren’t aggressive. They’re not entirely passive, they will call out, but mostly they just shoot coy looks and wait for the customers to approach them. Some seem anxious.

India is the most violently sexist country I’ve been to. There is something viciously contradictory in the sexism. I’ve built a guard against a sexism that shows up in USAmerica and Europe. In India, sexism has its own flavor.

Two words: Acid attacks.

What is Sonagachi? I think of acid attacks and Mother Teresa as I walk through Sonagachi. I think of rich and poor, old and young, and how no matter what people just like a good fuck and how Sonagachi and the world is skewed to give that to men, but not women.

India has a haughty, lofty, enlightened, app-enabled, futuristic streak that drags back into the oldest profession in places like Sonagachi. A land of contrasts.

What is Sonagachi?

This world is double-faced

One side covered with silk, the other naked

On the one hand, the hedonism of blind wealth

On the other, bodies sold cheaper than bread

On the one hand lies Sonagachi, on the other Chowringhee

This world is double-faced

—Sahir Ludhianavi 


Another story about India

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