The community park was filled with plainclothes police recruits standing at attention. Shoes and sandals scuffed the ground, not quite in unison at the shouted practice parade orders: about face, at ease, forward march… I watched as I walked by.
“Hello! Come here please,” said a voice.
Just outside the parade ground fence sat two men, both Indians. The first looked young, shy and quiet. The second, a slight man with greasy hair and a sparse mustache, was waving me over and grinning.
I was on my way to the gym, running shoes and water slung in a bag over my shoulder, and not out to visit or make conversation. But, reminding myself that building intentional contacts and relationships is not based on convenience, I crossed through the gate anyway, and walked over to talk.
The conversation proceeded in a stumbling blend of broken English and Bangla. “What is your country? What is your work? Where do you stay?”
The mustached man introduced himself as Vijay. He was a dokan wallah, he said, selling medicines near Howrah.
“So what brings you to this part of the city?” I asked.
“This one is from my village,” said Vijay, slapping his friend on the back. “This is his first time in the city, so I am taking him to Sonagachi. You know that place? Maximum famous place.”
I nodded. “I know the place. It’s a bad place.”
They were customers. Two among the thousands of men who walk the lanes of Sonagachi in packs every day. The village friend, like many, looked shy and a bit scared. Vijay looked hungry, and I didn’t like the gleam in his eye.
“You are here alone?” said Vijay. “You are not bringing any girlfriend?”
“Yeah, it’s just me. I live with a family though.”
“No. You can’t be alone. Everyone from your countries comes in two. They travel all around India and stay together. Sleep in the same rooms. Have the sexes.”
“Well,” I said. “Not me. I’m here in India alone.”
“So you are going there then, eh?” said Vijay, smiling wickedly and gesturing suggestively with his eyebrows across the street, to the main lane of Sonagachi.
“Not to buy girls. I’m here to help the women in Sonagachi.”
“There are so many girls there. Whatever you want. You just pick one and pay some rupees and they are taking off the clothes and just laying there and you can do whatever you want with them.”
“No. Because I follow Jesus, I don’t go there and buy girls. I don’t think it’s right.”
“What is the way for ‘flocking’ in America?” (“Flocking” isn’t quite the word he was going for, but I didn’t correct him). Vijay’s eyes were widening and his eyebrows getting higher with excitement. “I saw in American movie they were doing like….”
A full body pantomime commenced, complete with sound effects and crude hand gestures. The conversation only went downhill from there: My repeated insistence that I was here to help the girls in Sonagachi, not to be a customer. Vijay brushing off the words and insisting that I really could get “whatever I wanted.” My attempts to communicate that following Jesus made me want to change the Gach, not use it. His attempts to elicit a verbal ‘how-to’ of the American style for “flocking.”
The conversation was going nowhere. And I was getting angry. This guy oozed sleazy – from his greasy drooped mustache to the predatorial grin and waggling eyebrows. It would have been almost comical, cartoonish, if I didn’t know the very real meaning of his actions – if I hadn’t met the women from the lines, talked to them and walked their lanes, played with their children. And yet here he was, an unashamed customer of Sonagachi. An oppressor. An exploiter of the very women I was here for. Taking his friend for a night in the red light, unaware or not caring of the deep scars and hurt he was bringing to the women enslaved on the line.
I wanted to speak truth into his life.
I also wanted to kick his ass. Probably more than the whole speaking truth thing.
About the time I found myself weighing the pros and cons of punching him in the throat, I made myself turn and walk away – Vijay calling after me “But please, just tell me the way for flocking in America!”
Conversations with customers are hard. Every time. And there seems to be no real handbook on how to handle them well.
These are men who come in and out of Sonagachi from all around the city, not neighbors who you’re building sustained relationships with. And when they come to the Gach, the only thing on their mind is the sex they’re about to buy, and that’s all they want to talk about. There’s a theme I’ve heard occasionally of: “The men need to be changed too!” And it’s true. But what does that look like? How do you stand FOR the oppressed and standing AGAINST the oppressor, but simultaneously be trying to build relationships with the oppressor? How do I dedicate myself to bringing freedom to a woman who is forced to sell her body 10 times a day, and then go have a casual conversation with one of her rapists?
I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions. And for me, wired the way I am, its difficult for me to wrap my head around trying to change evil relationally, rather than simply fight it. I don’t like it.
A week later, some friends and I were taking a morning photo adventure in Kolkata –the Hooghly River, the Train Station, and finally the flower market beneath the Howrah Bridge. The flower market is beautiful and chaotic – wagonloads of color stretched out in the open air on tarps and in stalls. Bright orange and yellow and red flowers strung together or arranged in tiny bouquets to be purchased and offered to the gods at a temple. Nearby stalls sell spices in brightly colored wicker baskets: masalas and chilis and peppers and turmeric, and the air bears that distinct Indian scent of spice and floral sweetness mingled with the rot of the river and piles of trash and sewage from the nearby railroad slum.
It was there, taking photos under the Howrah bridge, that I saw Vijay again.
“Hello!” Again a voice from the corner of my periphery, standing up and spreading his arms wide. The same mustache. The same grin.
“Hello,” I answered, taking a second to recognize the face in the dim half light, and then taking a few more seconds to think about the improbable odds of seeing this man again. One man in a city of 15 million, and I had run into him twice in a week.
“You are remembering me! Come have tea!”
“I’ve already had tea today,” I said, scrambling for how best to approach the situation.
“Ah,” said Vijay with a smile. “But not my tea. Sit.”
Vijay pulled out a cracked plastic box for me to sit on. He introduced me to his friends and scampered off to bring back cups of hot, sweet cha. And we sat under the shadow of the Howrah Bridge, in the dust and between the flowers, and we shared tea and talked.
At one point he pulled up a banged up small set of plastic drawers, no more than 3 feet high and 1 foot wide, and opened them to show me their contents: lotions and soaps, condoms, a few hygiene items. This was his “medicine shop.” These plastic drawers were his livelihood.
We talked about his home in the nearby slum, his dokan, his friends. They loved the fact that I was trying to learn Bangla, and that I liked their tea. He was kind and friendly. Genuinely hospitable. It was strange.
Then Vijay asked: “So, are there places like Sonagachi in America? Places for ‘flocking?’”
Aaaaand we’re back…
“Yes,” I said slowly, “But I don’t….”
“I know, I know,” he said. “You don’t go there for the girls.”
Well, if nothing else, at least he remembered that. That’s something, isn’t it? Maybe something, even something small, does last from those conversations.
The thing that got me with this experience was the humanity that emerged in Vijay the second time I met him. After our first conversation, I was left with just a residue of evil and a desire to destroy it warring with everything I’ve been told about loving my enemies. But the second time, under the Howrah Bridge, I saw the human being behind the evil – a very broken, sleazy human being, but human and made in the image of God nonetheless.
It’s easy to put the customers of Sonagachi into a box that only contains raw wickedness, to dehumanize them into a faceless, conscienceless enemy – but even the oppressors are broken people in need of freedom and redemption. That doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty of horrendous crimes, or that we shouldn’t try to stop those crimes and the system that perpetuates them. We should. We must. But it does mean that we need to recognize the brokenness and need on that side of the coin as well.
As long as culture and society and sin permit the exploitation of women, places like Sonagachi will continue to exist. We can build businesses to give women jobs, dignity, and freedom from the shackles of the trade, but as long as the customers remain unchanged, the trade will continue as supply meets demand. True, lasting change demands the redemption and freedom of both the oppressed and the oppressor.