It was a cold and shivering night on the last day of December in Anno Domini 1980. A young and frail woman in tattered clothes stood at the edge of the water of the Kumortuli Bathing Ghat on the banks of the River Hooghly in India’s Calcutta city. Close to her tormented bosom, she held tightly her three-day-old newborn baby. Ragini had taken the cruel decision of leaving her infant girl on the riverbank at the mercy of the Mother Goddess Ganges. She believed that a tortured and bonded prostitute should never raise a girl child. She thought that it was perhaps better for her baby to die in the river than grow up on the streets of Asia’s largest red-light district.
Located on the eastern banks of the River Hooghly in North Calcutta, between Sovabazar and Beadon Street, with hundreds of multi-storey brothels housing over fifty thousand Nepali, Assamese, Bihari, and Bengali flesh-workers, Sonagachi was like a small city within a larger metropolis.
In Bengali, Sonagachi meant ‘tree of gold,’ though no gold or any tree had to do anything with the name. A legend stated that during the early days of the city, a notorious dacoit by the name of Sanaulla and his old mother lived in the vicinity. The bandit was religious and benevolent, helping the poor and oppressed to the best of his abilities.
On the bandit’s death, his grieving mother heard her son’s voice coming from inside their hut, saying “Mother, don’t cry, I have become a Gazi” – an instrument of Allah, a servant of God who purifies the earth from polytheism and spreads Islam. The mother built a mosque in memory of her son giving birth to the legend of Sona Gazi. Thousands flocked to the mosque to be cured of various ailments or with prayers for a better life.
After the mother’s demise, the mosque gradually fell out of use and disappeared altogether. Though today one can visit the ‘Darga of Sanaullah Gazi’ here, experts say that the current structure is not the original mosque. Innumerable arbitrary renovations undertaken on the existing Darga further made it impossible to be identified as the original house of worship. Though the actual mosque perhaps did not survive, it is what gave the neighbouring ‘Masjid Bari Street’ its name while the dacoit turned saint Sanaullah Gazi or Sona Gazi’s name became Sonagachi – the name of the locality.
Thanks to the Portuguese, Armenians and other foreign sea voyagers, investors, entrepreneurs and explorers, several large markets and businesses operated in the neighbouring region of Chitpur much before the arrival of the British. Being a port district made this easily possible. Further, the locality standing on the edge of an ancient pilgrim road, which much later in history became Rabindra Sarani, attracted the multitudes. This constant inflow and outflow of pilgrims, buyers & sellers of various goods, sailors, foreigners, and business folks turned Sonagachi into a convenient pitstop to satisfy carnal fantasies.
A maze of streets, lanes, and bylanes of varying width intersected each other. Rows of unplanned and even illegally constructed houses with suggestive names such as ‘Prem Kuthir’ or ‘House of Love,’ on both sides of the roads, dominated this Labrinth of urban topography.
Skimpily clad over-decked women with tacky jewellery and cheap makeup covering the bruises on their skin hung their soggy bosoms from the balconies inviting potential customers and wobbly drunkards wading through the streets. Preying pimps tugged on passing men and lured them into the dimly lit rooms of the gloomy houses and dark alleys to haggle over the price for the right kind of gender and age to satisfy their unspeakable needs.
From pan (betel leaf) and cigarette counters to food stalls to shops of different kinds, everything was available 24×7 inside this mini-city of neon lights. From flower peddlers to drug pushers, from street swindlers to drunken brawlers, from cops to robbers, from males, females, to eunuchs, from gays, lesbians to bisexuals, one could find every type in this boiling cauldron of humankind. While the rest of the city slumbered with the setting sun and woke up at the break of dawn or slowed down for a holiday, the hustle and bustle in Sonagachi never failed to seize for a moment.
Here the life of a young cyprian was laced with unimaginable torture and atrocities. From the moment a girl or a woman was brought into one of these houses, her body was broken many times during the night and in the day by different men. This continued till she became accustomed to the sight, smell and feel of an unknown person and ready to satisfy any carnal desire with a smile on her face.
Here the life of a child was much worse than its mother’s, and that of a girl child was especially precarious. Exploitation and torture began at an early age. Ragini was one of those prostitute mothers unwilling to raise a daughter in this dreadful and filthy environment.
In the silver light of the full moon night, the baby drifted away in a shoebox on the still and glassy river surface as her mother turned and walked away. Her slow-moving thin silhouette vanished into the dazzle of a filthy bylane.
While at Sonagachi, carnally starved men and flesh addicts ravaged on the feminine form, just in the neighbouring locality of Kumortuli, communities of potters and earthen craftsmen made mud idols of Hindu gods and goddesses to be worshipped at pujas and religious festivals all over the city. The two localities were twin colonies yet at the opposite ends of the spectrum of piety.
Just like the brothel colony, Kumortuli was also a maze of streets and alleyways, however, instead of flesh goddesses housed to be ravished, its windows, doors, and balconies displayed clay deities for religious worship. While at Sonagachi, men ventured to satisfy their certain physical needs, at Kumartuli they went for their religious creed.
The East India Company’s, decisive win over Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, opened the gateway for British colonisation of Bengal and India. Three years after the battle in 1760, John Zephaniah Holwell, the temporary Governor of Bengal, allocated separate districts to the Company’s workmen, such as Suripara – the place for wine sellers, Collotollah – locality to the oilmen, Chuttarparah – for the carpenters, Aheeritollah – vicinity of the cowherds, and finally Coomartolly – the porters’ quarters.
Initially, the porters of Kumortuli started by making pots and pans of clay from the mud of the river Hooghly. As the years passed, they gradually shifted to making idols of gods and goddesses, which were worshipped in the rich mansions and the communal Puja Pandals all over the city.
Bhokto Pal could see the dazzling silver moon in the heavens from under the surface of the water. As he ascended from the depths of the river during one of his nightly bathing dives, he saw the silhouette of a rectangular box drifting above on the glassy surface in contrast to the illuminated goddess Luna of the nocturnal sky. The nightly bathing ritual helped him cool down the burning flames of desire which flowed through his unsatisfied body.
The man was extremely shy and unimaginably ugly. In the past four decades of his existence, he could never sum up the courage to woo any woman’s hand. Further, his abhorring looks and crooked physiques did not do anything to help. Everyone pitied his unsatisfied life and mocked his ugliness. He longed to be with a woman but could not even muster the courage to visit any of the neighbouring brothels.
Disgustingly the closest he ever got to the female form was when he moulded idols of the goddesses. He was not religious but was utterly ashamed of himself when at times he felt the fire burning inside while laying and caressing moist clay to build a deity’s feminine form.
That night the forty-year-old bachelor idol maker from Kumortuli found a bastard infant girl from Sonagachi drifting in a shoebox on the still waters of the river Hooghly. He named her Lokhee after the goddess of wealth, fortune, power, prosperity, and beauty.
By the age of fifteen, the girl grew up to be healthy, beautiful, and always spotting a smile. Those who were kind and gentle loved and admired her. Those who were evil and lusty craved for her. A tempest of contradictions even raged inside Bhokto’s mind. He was uncertain about his relationship with Lokhee. On one hand, he had raised her as a father and on the other, he felt torn with jealousy when other men looked at her. He loved her, there was no doubt about that but whether as a daughter or something other, that even to him was not clear.
“Where is Lokhee Bhokto kaka, she has not come to school for the past seven days,” enquired one of the girl’s friends along with a bunch of other teenagers at the idol makers doorstep. “I don’t know where she is. The ungrateful wench seems to have left me and fled with some ruffian. Isn’t that what girls of your age nowadays do,” answered the sad and ugly man without looking at the girls while applying coats of clay on the human-size idol of a goddess.
Bhokto completed the idol of the goddess in just ten days. No one had ever known him to finish a deity in such a short time. It seemed he did not eat or sleep during the entire duration of sculpting. Like a mad man lost over the loss of a loved one, he just kept on working till the idol was complete. After a buyer took the idol away, Bhokto retreated into a life of melancholy and seclusion. He was not the same man anymore.
“Did you read this horrifying news in today’s paper? During an ongoing puja ceremony in a pandal not very far from here, the face of the goddess just broke and fell, revealing a dead girl hidden inside. The cops have arrested the idol maker,” said a prostitute to another while reading the newspaper and drinking her morning tea standing on the balcony of a brothel in Sonagachi.
Handing over the newspaper to her frail companion, she added, “the paper has even published a picture, and the weirdest thing is that the face of the dead girl encased inside the idol of goddess Lakshmi looks exactly like you, my friend.”
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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