Mark Godfrey

Kicking Stigma Through Football - The Children of Sonagachi

Mark Godfrey
Kicking Stigma Through Football - The Children of Sonagachi

On November 12th, two teams from Kolkata's Durbar Sports Academy debuted in the I-League. Both teams are comprised largely of the children of sex workers from Sonagachi - India's and one of Asia's largest red-light districts. Underneath this topical theme is the larger story of identity, of self-respect, of ambition, and of relationships. It is the story of a group of sex workers willing to do anything, including selling their bodies, if their children can have a decent shot at life; an NGO fighting to give these sex workers a semblance of dignity even as they carry out their trade; and a group of children chasing a dream of a life where they are known for their accomplishments on and off the field, and not for their antecedents as children who don’t know who their fathers are.

BULBUL RAJAGOPAL has extensively interviewed their mothers and spoken to the NGO while photographer VAGMI PATHAK has shot extensively in the playing field and in Sonagachi itself.

Sumita Biswas (name changed for anonymity) squeezes past the gaudy pandal, the impromptu stage that has sprung up at the end of one of Sonagachi’s claustrophobic alleyways.

Kali, one of Kolkata’s favourite goddesses now on her annual visit to her people, sits in state, indifferent to the blinding colours of the draperies, the migraine-inducing fluorescence of the lighting and the Bollywood ditty Chaiyya Chaiyya that blares out from supercharged speakers.

India’s largest red-light district – a sprawl of impossibly narrow alleys squeezed between hundreds of multi-storey brothels, home to an estimated 11,000-plus sex workers – is putting on a show for the annual Kali Puja. Overlaying the gaud and the glitter is a dizzying cocktail of aromas – the pungent tang of fish cooking in mustard oil, the smoky smell of frying potatoes, the fruity notes of soap water from where kids bathe in the streets, the noisome stench of spilled garbage.

A series of rhythmic thumps cues a football that bounces onto this scene, a gaggle of shrill young boys in hot pursuit. Sumita’s face splits in a searchlight-bright smile. “Here are our kids,” she says. “They are all young footballers playing for the Durbar Sports Academy.”

Sumita has two children of her own – Vijay, 17 and Deepika, 14 (names changed to protect their identities) – but when she says “our kids”, the possessive pronoun is an embrace that enfolds the dozen or so youngsters kicking the ball along the confined alleyway with precise skill.

What was once a pastime for the children of Sonagachi has morphed, under the aegis of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), into a much larger picture. The NGO, which works to erase the stigma associated with sex workers and their offspring, saw in football a means by which Sonagachi’s young could forge an alternate identity. But it was only after Sumita and the other sex workers got behind their children and encouraged them to play that the notion took flight.

“I know every mother will say she is proud of her children playing the game – and so well, too,” says Sumita. “But I genuinely feel I’m the proudest of the lot.”

 An aerial view of the football field at Baruipur.

An aerial view of the football field at Baruipur.

Vijay has been playing football with his friends since age six. Sumita realised over time that there was more to it than a kid kicking a ball; her son had talent, and deserved a chance to hone his skills. “Every parent works hard to provide opportunities for her kids,” she says. “I know my job is looked down upon, but I will do whatever I have to, to give them a better life.”

The pursuit of a better future has led Sumita through a world of pain. When her husband abandoned her twelve years ago, Sumita, then 23, found herself with two very young children on her hands. When an older woman offered her a job as a cleaning woman, she grabbed at what she thought was a lifebelt, and found herself forced into sex work. “She would take half my pay for herself,” Sumita said. “How was I supposed to live like that? Somehow I put up with her for a year and a half, for the sake of my children.”

Sumita stayed on for the sake of her children until one day, a colleague spoke to her of DMSC, and she came under its sheltering umbrella. Headed by public health scientist Dr. Smarajit Jana, DMSC had by then completed a decade and a half of its fight to normalise and socially secure the existence of sex workers and their children. A school with an attached hostel had been set up for the children at Baruipur, on the outskirts of Kolkata. The in-house Sports Academy organised football teams as a means to give the children a shot at a ‘normal’ childhood. Durjoy and Deepika joined the school when they were barely six, and grew up within the tree-lined confines of the hostel and its adjoining football pitch.

Sumita slips past the boys and walks into a cemented clearing, where the eye is naturally drawn to Sumit Das, a flamboyant 13-year-old with fading crimson streaks in his cropped hair, kicking a football around with focussed intensity. Sagar Das, a tall 17-year-old with a blood red tuft of hair, intercepts the ball with ease, dribbling past his younger playmate with an easy agility.

“Who copied whom with the hairstyle?”, I ask in jest. Sumit bristles. “I did it first,” he says, with a young teen’s sense of wounded pride. I laugh, and hear it echo from behind me. Sumita, Anita Das and Shefali Ray are a few feet away, watching this byplay with amused indulgence.

As I walk towards them, I notice that all three women sport the vermillion streak, a sign of the married state, along their centre-parted hair. Shefali notices my look. “Well, we all have many husbands, so to speak,” she says through a wry smile. The sex workers of Sonagachi apply the auspicious mark to signal that they not only have children, but also that their biological fathers are alive, if anonymous.

 Sumita Biswas (name changed for anonymity) leads us through Sonagachi.

Sumita Biswas (name changed for anonymity) leads us through Sonagachi.

Shefali is unapologetic about what she does for a living. “It is because of my sex work that I earn money,” she says. “And the money goes into my son’s education. Today Sanjay, my son, is playing football; it is happening through my money, my job. He knows what I do, and because I see the job as normal, he does too.”

Sumita tears up at Shefali’s words. “My children do not know the nature of my job,” she says. “My son certainly doesn’t, but Deepika is slowly putting two and two together. She hears ‘sex worker!’ and confronts me with it. I rubbish it, of course.”

Anita and Shefali come together in a show of camaraderie, shushing Sumita, soothing her with reassuring pats. Anita spots the cheap rubber ball bouncing towards her, with Sumit, Sagar and others in pursuit, and deftly kicks it back to them. “See? I can also play,” she smirks. “Visit the other kids on their home ground,” she tells me. “Their games are killer.”

These ‘killer’ games are played out in the Durbar Sports Academy. Here the balls are better, newer, the ‘COSCO’ labels printed in black glistening as they roll out onto the expanse of the lush green field, wrapped by metal fencing. From one strand of the fence hangs three plastic bags brimming with hard-boiled eggs, dry roasted nuts and bananas.

Sonali Deb and Gita Mondal (names changed for anonymity) lean against the fence, their eyes on the boys in their many-coloured jerseys dribbling footballs under the watchful eyes of two coaches. “When Tarun called me up from the hostel to tell me that he has joined a football team here, I didn’t understand why, at first,” says Gita. “I had heard horror stories of kneecaps breaking, and I never want that to happen to him. But I saw him play, and now he’s off to the I-League.”

The league is a prestigious professional men’s football league in the country, rivalling the Indian Super League in popularity. This year, Durbar’s Under 13s and Under 15s have qualified for the league starting in November.

 On the football field at Baruipur.

On the football field at Baruipur.

Gita’s eyes are fixed on her son as she reminisces of how, after working in a Sonagachi brothel from 2004 to 2008, she left the district and found work as a housemaid. “I really wasn’t cut out for that life,” she says of her sex work. “No one in my family or neighbourhood knows of my past.”

Sonali, the more joyful, outgoing of the two, chimes in: “Oh! Same here, but mine’s a love story.”

Fourteen years ago, when her child was just a few months old, Sonali’s husband went out for work one day and never returned. “I was always curious about how well-off a close friend of mine was. She kept her house well, her three kids were well groomed and in good schools,” Sonali recalls. “One day, when we were taking a walk, she led me to a different neighbourhood and that is where she let me into her secret, she told me she entertained men.”

At the time, Sonali was staying with her sister, whose mother-in-law made her feel unwelcome. Sonali took her friend up on the offer of sex work. “But I only lasted a week”, she laughs. Days into her new job, Sonali met her “true love”: a wealthy client who proposed marriage with the caveat that she leave sex work in return for his that he would not solicit anymore.

“My ‘madam’ was furious,” she recalls with glee. “She demanded my entire earnings from him on account of me ‘stealing’ a well-paying client.” In a scene straight out of a B-movie, Sonali’s new-found love confronted her pimp, and whisked her away in an autorickshaw. The two have been married for almost seven years now, she says, and have a child together, a daughter.

“See that girl there, with the long hair wearing the red and blue jersey, juggling the ball? That is my first child, Sweta; she plays for Durbar’s first ever girls’ team.”

Sweta’s nimble feet, in fluorescent orange football shoes that stand out amidst the inexpensive shoes of the others, shepherd the ball down the pitch. On catching sight of her mother, the teen lets out an embarrassed yelp. “What are you doing here? Oh God, this is so embarrassing.” This draws a laugh from her mother. “Why don’t you just go play? Coach will yell at you again.”

Sweta hangs around for a bit longer. “I plan to make it to the national team,” she says, her air of supreme confidence diluted by a sudden fit of the giggles.

 The all-girls team practices

The all-girls team practices

The ninth grader is a Cristiano Ronaldo fan; her teammate Deepika is “a jabra [hard-core] Messi fan. I always fight with her over this,” Sweta says. “We place bets when we watch their matches. Loser has to pay with chocolates. Of course, she never does,” she grouses.

Sonali had no reservations about her daughter’s desire to play ball and is supportive of Sweta’s ambitions. “I am very lucky that way,” Sweta says. “I will happily train my younger sister when the time comes, but I will never force her to follow in my footsteps.”

Sonali, in common with the sex workers of Sonagachi, believes that their children can kick the stigma of their profession through football, but the larger community is less optimistic. Ramesh Raja runs a clothes ironing shop in the heart of the red-light district and has been watching the children play football in its streets for over a decade. He is unimpressed. “You know what their background is, right, where they come from?”, he asks, low-voiced. “You will enjoy writing your story much more if you focus on working lads who play football for leisure after a good day’s work. Look at these boys, look how they run around all day, they only play football.”

Biswajit Majumdar, the Durbar coach, differs. His teams, he points out, are no longer comprised entirely of children of sex workers. “We have expanded to include children from the neighbouring localities. It is our way of integrating the children of sex workers into the rest of society. The parents of these other children know who they are, and are respectful of our cause, and of how much effort these kids put in, on the field and in the classroom.”

He notices Sweta hanging around listening to the conversation and demands why she is not out there practicing. “If the other girls haven’t come yet, go practice with the boys,” he says. Sweta is team captain, and one of the prime movers of the push that led Majumdar and Dr. Jana to form an all-girls’ team. Her mother applauds the strictness of coach Majumdar. “It means he cares. Otherwise, these kids will go astray. As soon as they are back home for the holidays, the books go untouched, and don’t get me started on the TV. We would always prefer to watch our own children play rather than some random match on TV.”

 The all-girls team practices

The all-girls team practices

TV is clearly a sore subject with the players – the hostel TV broke down during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, much to their disgust. Now there is only the set in the coach’s room, used to screen football recordings. Earlier that day the kids had watched Newcastle United play Watford in the English Premier League, with coach Majumdar pausing the game every once in a while to point out some technique, or a skill shown by a particular player.

The first time Gita and Sonali saw their children play a proper match was via YouTube. A recording had made its way onto the video platform, and neighbourhood boys watched on their mobile phones. “One fellow recognised my Sweta,” says Sonali, “and he immediately ran to me with his phone.”

The upcoming I-League is the focus of interest in the run up to the tournament. Hopes run high, as Durbar’s teams have already made ripples in the international youth football circuit, with the Under 16 team having gone to Denmark to play for the Dana Cup in 2016.

“We get a lot of offers from leagues around the world to come play – the UK, Brazil, Portugal, and even Denmark again, this time for the girls’ teams,” says Majumdar. “But we don’t have funds, so we have had to turn them down all the time. Our international trips occur very rarely, if we manage to scrape together enough funds.”

Such disappointments notwithstanding, the dreams fostered by the mothers and chased by their children flare bright. “Everyone dares to dream, especially for their children, and so do we,” says Sumita. “We have that right.”

Her son, a recent graduate of Durbar’s school and its football team, now works as a water carrier in his neighbourhood but his hopes are set on joining the DumDum Cantonment team, where Sumita has set up home in order to protect them from the sordid reality of her work in Sonagachi.

 A Durbar footballer practices in an alleyway of Sonagachi while a sex worker looks on.

A Durbar footballer practices in an alleyway of Sonagachi while a sex worker looks on.

Back in the cul-de-sacs of the red light district, Shefali calls the squabbling duo of Sumit and Sagar to order. “You both play excellently, hebby khela (great game)!” she says, with a maternal affection clearly not reserved only for her own brood.

The bickering stops, the boys converge on the ball, Sagar kicks it deftly down the lane. The game begins once more.

WORDS: BULBUL RAJAGOPAL @BulbulR96

PHOTOS: VAGMI PATHAK @vagmi_pathak