I thought about Falkland Road for ten years. I had gone there in 1968 on my first trip to India. I went back on each of my succeeding trips.
Falkland Road is lined with old wooden buildings. On the ground floor there are cage-like structures with girls inside them. Above these cages the buildings rise three or four stories, and at every window there are more girls – combing their hair, sitting in clusters on the windowsills, beckoning to potential customers. They vary in age from eleven-year-old prostitutes to sixty-five-year-old ex-madams.
At the same time it is like any other busy lower-class street in Bombay. All day long there are enormous traffic jams, with horns constantly honking, hundreds of taxicabs, and unwieldy two-story buses. Vendors sell brassieres, fountain pens, magazines, and medicines. Water-carriers haul goatskins filled with water into the houses, unloading them from a huge tank truck parked on the street. And always in front of the three movie houses there are long queues of men waiting for the next show to start. (Movies are an important part of Indian life.)
And then there are the customers walking up and down the street, surveying the girls. The customers range in age from thirteen to seventy-five. Some are handsome and some grotesque. They are lower-middle- or lower-class Indians – the area is too poor to attract foreigners, though once in a while some Arabs come by in long white robes. (Arabs are considered very important because they have money and will sometimes even rent a girl for a few days.) The cage girls do everything to attract the men: they beckon and shout and grab at them; sometimes they pull up their skirts and make obscene gestures.
For ten years I tried to take photographs on Falkland Road and each time met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water and pinched me. Crowds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book; another time I was hit in the face by a drunken man. Needless to say, I never managed to take very good photographs.
In October of 1978, I decided to return to Bombay and try somehow to enter the world of these women and to photograph them. I had no idea if I could do this. But I knew I had to try. The night before I left I had a vivid dream: I was a voyeur hiding behind a bed in a brothel on Falkland Road watching three transvestite prostitutes making love. I awoke amused and somewhat reassured. Perhaps my dream was a good sign.
Once in Bombay, I started out by just going to the street. It was the same as always – crowds of men around me and the women alternately hurling insults and garbage at me. Every day I had to brace myself, as though I were about to jump into freezing water. But once I was there, pacing up and down the street, I was overwhelmed, caught up in the high energy and emotion of the quarter. And as the days passed and people saw my persistence, they began to get curious. Some of the women thought I was crazy, but a few were surprised by my interest in and acceptance of them. And slowly, very slowly, I began to make friends.
My initial friends were the street prostitutes, who were the first to approach me because they are the most free and least inhibited. That is why they are on the streets and not inside a brothel – they are too independent to accept the restrictions imposed by a madam. When they find a customer, they take him into a cage or to a bed in a brothel room rented out by a madam in return for half their fee. Some madams will also allow them to wash and change inside their house. At night these prostitutes sleep out in the street with the beggars. Sleeping in the street is not a disgrace in India – many people prefer to sleep outside – but the fact that they are entirely alone and have no one at all to care about them is the sign of their true homelessness.
Soliciting in the street on their own, these women are often arrested, and without a madam to pay their fine, they have to go to jail. They are often sick with fever and hungry. Many of them have boyfriends who are pickpockets and who, when they are not in jail, beat the girls and take their money. These girls only have one another; they form close friendships and are very protective of each other. Their favorite refuge and meeting place is the Olympia Cafe, the largest and most beautiful cafe on the street with its mirror-lined walls, and full of potential customers. It also became my favorite place on the street, and it was here that I made friends with many street girls.
I spent hours there, drinking tea and listening to qawwali (Muslim religious verses) and Hindi film songs on the juke box. My companions were Asha, seventeen, Mumtaz, seventeen, and Usha, fifteen. Asha is one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen. Her parents are dead. She has a boyfriend, Ragu, a local pickpocket who is constantly in and out of jail. Once Asha disappeared for four days. I found out that she had been arrested for soliciting. I got one of the local men to bail her out. Whenever I came to Falkland Road at dawn, I would see Asha curled up with one of the other girls, sleeping in the street. I would wait until 8 a.m.; then I would wake her, and we would have tea.
Asha hates being a prostitute, but she doesn't know how else to survive. She dreams of being a servant. I asked friends of mine whether they would hire her, and they told me that, while they themselves wouldn't mind, their other servants wouldn't tolerate her being in the same house with them. Asha charges ten to twelve rupees to customers – a much higher price than most of the other women in the street. She told me, "I wouldn't do it for less. It's not worth it. I don't have to: when people see my face, they will always give me some money for food." Once she said to me, "What kind of a god is this to give me this face and then to put me in these surroundings?"
The next group of people I got to know on Falkland Road were the transvestites. It is in their nature to be exhibitionistic; seduced by the sight of me pacing up and down with my camera, they ultimately came out and asked to be photographed. The transvestites tend to live clustered together in a block of cages and small brothel rooms right next to each other. My closest friend in that community was Champa, a transvestite madam. Like all madams – female as well as transvestite – he doesn't solicit customers for himself, but like many madams he does have a very close relationship with a boyfriend, Yamin, a taxi driver who is very handsome and very masculine. Champa and I drank beer, and he let me photograph him dressed as "an English lady". He introduced me to other transvestites, and I would arrive early in the afternoon to photograph them putting on their makeup and their elaborate dress for the evening. I learned that many of them are eunuchs, castrated at an early age. Most of their customers are homosexual and seem to find their fullest sexual satisfaction with transvestites.
Champa also has some female prostitutes in his house. One of them is Munni, fifteen years old, small, and beautiful. She was once a beggar on the street, and I think she chose Champa's house because transvestite brothels allow more freedom than female ones. Champa told me, "She is like a daughter to me."
It was much harder to get to know the cage girls on display on Falkland Road. They are considered very low class by the interior brothel girls and suffer abuse and ridicule from customers and other prostitutes. At first glance many of them look outrageous and obscene as they pose and gesture from behind their bars, with their madam sitting on the step in front like the keeper she is. But as I got to know them, I saw that many were very beautiful and all – even the most seemingly aggressive – very vulnerable.
Fatima, a madam, allowed me to stay with her and her girls for several nights. She sleeps on a huge bed with a bright cover on it in the tiny front room of her cage. Most of the socializing is done in this room. It is separated by a curtain from a very small, dark back room with two beds in it, both with curtains around them; behind the beds is a cement drain and an enormous vat of water. In this space her three girls work, sleep, and bathe.
Fatima's sister is also a madam. She has a cage across the street. One night her sister brought one of her girls to Fatima, who dressed her up in an expensive blue burqa and sent her away. I learned later that a pimp from a more expensive area in Bombay had come to Fatima's sister with a commission from an Arab customer who was willing to pay a lot of money for a girl from a good Muslim family. So the pimp had come to the cheapest street in Bombay to find a three-rupee girl with whom to cheat the Arab.
Fatima's favorite girl, Abida, had once been rented by an Arab for a week. Fatima showed me a studio photograph of Abida with the Arab. She is nineteen years old, very attractive, and very successful with customers. A merchant on the street was in love with her and he wanted to take her away. There were terrible fights between Abida and Fatima, since Fatima didn't want her to leave. Abida couldn't decide what to do. About two weeks before I left Bombay, Abida disappeared. When I asked Fatima where she was, she was silent. One woman on the street told me that Abida had been stabbed, another said that she had run away with the merchant. I never found out what had happened to her. Three days later Fatima sold her cage and left. Her two remaining girls were sold to another madam, who took over the cage and repainted the interior a bright blue. I never saw Fatima or Abida again, and I felt I shouldn't ask any more questions. There were many secrets among the women on Falkland Road.
The most elite brothels on Falkland Road are the interior rooms that rise above the cages. They are not in the same class as the numbered houses in other areas, but on this street they are the best. At first when I visited them I was embarrassed and felt like an intruder. Whenever I climbed the stairs, the women would run out of the hallways into their rooms and hide behind the curtains, and a madam would start screaming at me. I decided to concentrate on one house, in the hope that the people in it would get used to me. It was right next door to the Olympia Cafe, and I felt I could always run down and take refuge there if necessary.
Number 12 Falkland Road is typical of the other brothels. Three or four stories rise above the cages on the first floor. One enters through a wooden door and mounts steep wooden stairs. Directly to the left is a small brothel room; farther down the hallway is a landing with three more brothel rooms. Each room is a separate "house" with its own madam and her own girls. The madams normally own anywhere from three to ten girls, with five about the average. The girls go only into the hallway. They never enter rooms other than their own, or go upstairs or downstairs, or – apart from visits to the doctor or brief errands –go out into the street. During the day they stay in their rooms, cook on the floor, sleep, sew, play with the children. It is all very much like normal Indian family life.
Saroja, a madam, has two rooms on the third floor of this house. Since my attempts on the second floor had been so frustrating, I felt inhibited about climbing up another story. But Saroja said to me, "Welcome. Come on in."
Saroja is twenty-six years old but looks forty. Like all madams, she has complete control over her girls. The relationship is one of master and slave but also of mother and daughter. The girls worship and fear their madam. One night Putla, Saroja's youngest girl, allowed a drunken customer to have her for only three rupees. Saroja grabbed her by the hair and pounded her with her fists. Putla didn't utter a sound. The other girls stood by and watched silently. Five minutes after her beating Putla was ready for work again, her face washed and her dress changed. Later that night I saw Putla embracing Saroja and giving her a back massage.
In Saroja's house all the sex takes place on two beds with brightly patterned curtains around them. In the same small room there is another bed used as a waiting bench for the girls and their customers. At the end of the narrow room is Saroja's bed, a dresser, and a window overlooking Falkland Road. The girls from Saroja's house, along with the girls from the other brothel rooms, solicit customers at the doorway and in the hall. Sometimes there is a bit of competition among them, but there is also a strong feeling of solidarity--especially when it comes to protecting one another against the customers.
At the beginning of the evening, when the first customer arrives, the madam blesses each girl. At the end of the evening she divides, fifty-fifty, the money that each girl has collected and placed in her own little wooden box with a small lock on it that hangs on the wall. At 1 a.m. the lights are turned out and the "all-night" customers come in. To spend the night with a particular girl they pay from thirty rupees on up (ordinary customers pay five rupees). One night while I was there the police came into the house and arrested several girls for soliciting in the hallways. The madams went out to bargain with them, and one Nepalese madam hid me under her bed until it was all over.
I don't mind paying money to the police," she told me. "After all, they have families to support too." I felt very safe under her bed: safe and protected and accepted.
Saroja had been kidnapped from her village in South India at the age of twelve and taken to Bombay. She worked as a prostitute, gradually saving and borrowing enough money to have her own girls and become a madam. She told me: "My dream is to have my own house – a bungalow like the numbered ones on Foras Road, with separate rooms for my girls. I could have a refrigerator and sell alcohol and cold drinks. I could have a guard in front to keep the police out. I could have a better class of customers – even foreigners."
Saroja is very attached to her girls. One of them, Kamla, fell in love with a waiter and ran off with him. Huge tears fell from Saroja's eyes, and all the other girls wept too. One day Saroja told me about one of her girls: "Rekha is actually my daughter. I had her when I was thirteen. See how much we look alike. She just got her period one year ago.
When the girls get pregnant, it is up to them whether they have the baby or not. Abortion is legal in India, and there is a local abortionist who is also a sex-change doctor. He told me: "I can't understand why men go to prostitutes. I have only one woman, my wife. I say to men all the time, 'Don't put your cock inside a dirty prostitute – if you make love with your wife and close your eyes, it is all the same.'"
There are many children running in and out of the brothel rooms. In the same house as Saroja there lives a beautiful twenty-two-year-old girl, Sharda, with her two sons, Yellapa, eleven months old, and Mari, three. Mari is an extraordinary child. He is beautiful, intelligent, and sensitive. He is in love with Saroja, and she adores him. He spends hours sitting on her bed, and when she has a headache he rubs tiger balm on her temples. When he has fever, which is often, he sleeps with her. One of the brothel jokes is for Saroja to say to Mari: "What does Putla do? What does Kamla do? What does Rekha do?" Mari answers by making a fucking sign with his fist, and the whole house roars with laughter. Whenever Saroja or one of her girls is upset, Mari is upset too.
Saroja and I became closer and closer. Sometimes I stayed in her house until the lights went out and the all-night customers came in. We ordered tea from downstairs and sat and talked. Once I went to a street fair with her and her girls.
One night I invited her to a restaurant. I wanted to take her someplace special, in another part of town. But as soon as we arrived I knew I had made a mistake. She was overdressed and felt uncomfortable and out of place. The only place where Saroja really felt relaxed was sitting on her bed in her brothel room.
Saroja never asked me anything personal. No one did. They wanted to know only my age, why I didn't wear a brassiere, and why I wasn't married. I think the reason I was finally accepted was that I was single – alone in the world like they were. One madam told me, "We are sisters. You and I are fated for the same life. Every night I say my prayers and I sleep alone."
Saying goodbye was painful. Saroja and I hugged, and she presented me with an enormous garland of flowers. We all cried. Mari came in, and he too started to cry. Women waved farewell from their windows. I went by the cages, and some of the women came out to shake my hand. Champa, the transvestite madam, ran across the street: "Send me a wig from America, sister, and every time I wear it I will think of you!"
One last tea at the Olympia Cafe. Asha and Usha and many other friends gathered around the table. I started to cry. "You shouldn't weep," said Asha. "You should say goodbye with your head up and proud and then leave." She walked me out into the street to find a taxi. "You'd better not forget me," she said.
I took the photographs on Falkland Road in the late 1970s. Documentary photography in magazines was different then. Certain magazines acted almost as sponsors supporting serious photography. I suggested Falkland Road to Geo magazine. They sent me to Bombay for three months. In the end, the photographs were not published in Geo because the editors thought they were too explicit for the American market. Their sister magazine in Germany, Stern magazine, published 13 pages instead.
Today, no magazine would sponsor a project like Falkland Road. The real everyday world is – for the most part – no longer seen in magazines. The only documentary photography we see is of war, disaster, and conflict. Most everything else has been replaced by fashion and celebrity photography.
Access to the explicit and personal world of Falkland Road would be much more difficult today. Because the world has been connected by the Internet and cable television and everyone is much more aware of the power of media. I often wonder how the women of Falkland Road would react to me if I approached them now. Would they be afraid to be labeled or sensationalized? Would they ask me for money? They never did before.
Falkland Road remains one of the most powerful and rewarding experiences of my photographic life. Not only because of its visual richness, but also because of my extraordinary friendships and adventures with these women. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the people that I met on Falkland Road. I wonder how many are still alive. This book was done a few years before AIDS became a known phenomenon.
Vicky Wilson and Robert Gotlieb at Knopf believed in the work and published Falkland Road, which was released in 1981. About a year after the book was completed, I returned to Bombay to visit Soroja, the madam who first welcomed me on Falkland Road. I brought a Falkland Road book with me to give to her. She had hit hard times and was living and working in a slum area that was much poorer than Falkland Road. She gave me a big hug. She looked thin and frail and very sad. It occurred to me later that perhaps she had contracted AIDS.
About 15 years ago, I again returned to Falkland Road with my husband, Martin Bell and the writer, John Irving. They were doing research for a film project. The street had changed a lot. It seemed much tougher and more dangerous. There were many more pimps around. We went into several brothels. Most of the people were too drugged to even notice us. No one remembered Soroja or knew where she was, but we did find the madam that I knew. (Pulabai, page 102). She remembered me fondly and talked about the very hot chicken biryani she made for me one afternoon long ago. She, too, had hit hard times. Her rent had increased, and business was not as good. She had lost a lot of weight and had red sores on her arms. The first thing that came to my mind was that she also had AIDS.
I haven’t returned to Falkland Road in 15 years, but the men, women and children I met there are always with me.
Reproduced with permission of Mary Ellen Mark Studio and Library. See the photos from Falkland Road here (advisory: some of the images involve nudity and depict sexual situations).
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