It has now almost been a month since myself and a few close friends were on a five-hour train ride to Murshidabad, with Kerry + one of the most iconic women of Freeset.
North of Kolkata, this district is one that is known to have a few issues surrounding trafficking of young girls to larger cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata. Desperation, corruption, and trickery, are just some of the ways in which this occurs, and each just as heartbreaking as the next.
When we arrived in Berhampore, it was nearing 11pm and our legs were stiff from minimal activity, but we were greeted with an abundance of bike-rickshaws (seems much more humane compared to man-drawn rickshaws you find here in Kolkata), and a car to take us to our hotel; the girls get the hotel, the guys share Kerry’s flat.
Air conditioning that we don’t use, and a tv we can’t understand, I would feel more comfortable back at the flat where a ever-evasive rat scrounges our kitchen at night, and red-ants find their way into your bed, but these luxuries are too enticing. As soon as we lay our heads to sleep, the quiet night is deafening… I always thought this was an expression, but I couldn’t sleep – first my heartbeat blasted in my eardrums, yet soon the ringing took over. After living in an intruding, loud city for nearly 10 months leaves me feeling like I have been standing next to a speaker at an insane, teen-crowded music concert, unable to hear over the sudden silence.
The next morning we are up by 6am, out of the hotel by 7, and heading a further 100km north to Farakka, to where we visit and cross a barrage (dam) over the Ganges about 16km from the border of Bangladesh, which diverts some water from Bangladesh into the Hooghly River. Near to this area, as we retrace our way back over the barrage, is a popular truckies area, as most goods vehicles use this country-side road, and soon Kerry begins to point out the make-shift shelters constructed of bamboo + tarpaulin, that line either side of the road intermittently. Not homes, as I first believed, but ‘room’s that women can hire to make some money from their bodies. As traffic has built up, and there is little sign that we are going to move anywhere in a hurry, Kerry invites us to jump out of the jeep and join him as he walks along the road, and we are invited to numerous ‘shacks’ – because this is basically what they were – for some cha and to talk. The women are so kindly, and it never ceases to break me knowing what goes on in these rooms, and what will continue after we leave.
After we have filled our bladders with tea, we jump back in the jeep to head to a smaller township where there is a small brothel area (comparing this to 10,000 in Kolkata alone) of 300 women. First we stop into a small area where the people earn their income by rolling ‘bidis’ (cigarettes), and even the children partake in this labour. Beautiful, timid faces peep out from doorways, curious of us, and quickly warm up to our presence .. soon we have a small crowd of children surrounding us, and follow us in wanderings through the areas Kerry knows. Occasionally I will catch the eye of one of the children, and he/she will smily shyly, and fall back a few steps, while up ahead Kerry gets a sly look on his face, which intrigues the kids, and they know what’s coming… suddenly he reaches to his side and play-frightens them. Their pearls of laughter encourage him, we are all giggling, and watching for the next ‘attack’, and each time it arrives, their eyes widen, their smiles enlarge, their laughter heightens, and they love him.
Due to frequent light showers and drizzle, there are few customers in the brothel area when we later reach it, deterred by the miserable weather (which I secretly love). A few connections have been made on previous visits, and we are invited into some of the women’s hired rooms; we sit down on the beds – this slightly unnerves me, because I know what they are used for. At one point I am uncomfortably aware of a few items of clothing draped over the partition between two rooms, and a pair of mens shoes at the foot of the neighboring stall. Think of a public restroom, where there is a gap between the dividing walls and the ground, as well as above – this is a very similar set-up. I try to block out what I know must be going on a few metres from me.
We stop to say hi to a girl who couldn’t be over the age of 16, who we find out has a 5-month old baby. In her eyes, there seems to be a distant stare that you might see in someone who is in a very dark place, is broken, and might not be able to see much hope, yet is still able to smile and welcome us. Her smile seems detached from her eyes though… such a haunting contrast.
Further on, we chat to three girls who have each been in the trade for less than 6 months, who still have light and hope in their eyes, which ignites when we mention what business we are in, and that there are places where their income doesn’t have to be accompanied with shame.
People stare at you differently in Murshidabad, especially in the small villages we pass through, or stop for a hot cha to warm us up. Not like in Kolkata, where locals are more accustomed to visitors with pale skin and our usually greater height – they have had many opportunities to form collective opinions of our presence, and while we do encounter some who are genuinely excited we have chosen their city to explore and live in, or are wanting to strike up a casual conversation, others look at us with reproachful eyes, some have lust behind them (I live in the outskirts of the red-light district – many men who pass through this area are there for a reason), and others have had experiences with Westerners that might not be in our favour. This is a very vague generalisation, and doesn’t account for the entirety of Kolkata (just my personal experiences), as some are purely curious. Yet when the eyes we make connections with in Murshidabad hold us in their gaze, we can see they are not accustomed to seeing such pale skin (usually I am pretty much see-through, so pasty! Haha), or foreigners just in general, so we hold them captivated with their curiosity, and soon a crowd might form around us. And usually I’d feel uncomfortable in that situation, but there I felt so safe, and could even hold the gaze of a person here and there and not become unnerved by it.
The villages were my favourite places to be in, as we were warmly welcomed, the air was fresh, and we were miles and miles away from a larger community. We stopped to walk around a rice-field, and I had my first encounter with it up close – pretty cool to see where it originates from! It’s so peaceful out there, with light drizzle cooling our cheeks, surrounded by a luminous green of the rice fields, and the smell of clean air. The soft mud we walk through here and there, reminds me of home and growing up in the countryside of Kapiti Coast, where as children, we were much more ‘ferral’, and wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the concept of sloshing through mud barefoot.
We enjoyed a lovely lunch on both days, at local food joints, where it might cost you between Rs. 20-30 for a large plate of rice, dal + veg (that Erika and I had to share on both occasions, due to the volume of rice). I have grown to be fond of eating with my fingers, so it was a great opportunity to practice this – I feel that I’m getting the hang of it pretty well now.Our last few stops included visiting land where we were explained it’s vision – it was incredible to allow my imagination to see what is to come – and before we headed to the train station for our journey back to the City of Joy, we stopped in to visit the Hazarduari Palace, which is translated to ‘The palace of a thousand doors’. It was not as grand as the Victoria Memorial externally, yet within its walls, the history, art, and artefacts captivated me. Especially two large rooms with a throne in each, both accompanied by giant paintings hanging above them, that show the ruler sitting in it, surrounded by his staff, in the same room that we were in. It was very surreal to be in the exact room, looking at the same throne and statues as the one we looked at in the painting.
One traveller down (he had fallen ill, and had to be taken to hospital for re-hydration), we waited at the platform for our Kolkata-bound train. One little boy who would have been about five, held my hand tightly, and gestured with his hand to his mouth in the way I have seen far too many children do before. I make sure to acknowledge his presence, squeeze his hand kindly, and hold eye contact with him, yet tell him I will not be giving him money. When I look up at Kerry, I ask if it is ok for me to buy him food rather than seeing him run off with money that might end up in someone else’s pocket. He leans down to the boy, and asks him where is mother is, and he points across the tracks to the opposite, empty platform, where we see her, a few other women, as well as a couple of younger children. “Ki kete chai?” he asks the child, “What do you want to eat?” Just one thing. Cake. And not just any piece, but a big piece. So I lead him over to the cha stall, where a lady sells large pieces of fruit cake, and I ask for two. I hand the first to him, and he excitedly grabs it, and turns to walk away, before I grab him, and hold out the other piece – his eyes are so large at the surprise of two pieces of ‘big’ cake. He happily runs over to the edge of the platform, proceeds to shout at his mother to come and get him, and performs a little dance of excitement.
Honestly, that was the most emotionally confusing moment for me – I was warmed to see him happy, yet I could taste the sickening feeling of saddness… no child should have to be so happy because he has two pieces of cake, because he had to beg to receive it, because his hunger might be temporarily stemmed. We watched as he fairly broke up and handed out his gatherings. Most children of five back home wouldn’t want to share a piece of cake, they’d want it all to themselves, and would make a fuss if they didn’t. I’m sure the boy would want it all to himself, but already he has the maturity and understanding of what he has to do. His mother waves and smiles to us. Do I feel like a better person because of it? No. Because it is just a few hungry stomachs I have deposited a small amount of food into, and the next day they are going to be just as hungry as the day before. No matter how many times we give food to people who are in need, we still feel just as bad as if we ignore their outstretched hands.
The train-ride is mostly uneventful, and Nate, myself, and Erika take time to reflect on our trip, speak of our ideas for the future in missions. We are interrupted by a man who sings karaoke, and later by a flautist, so I watch as Erika and Nate occupy themselves with a drawing game.
We finish the journey off with walking across train-tracks in the darkness, to reach the Dum-Dum metro station, and I beckon our local companion to sit with me, which she does promptly with a smile, and which makes me happy, as she’s a hard one to get a smile out of.