My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Malak, His Wife "Our Real Story" 
- Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Chennai

March 15, 2006 

Nalamdana, a Chennai-based NGO that works on HIV & AIDS related issues among other things, had brought VAMP (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad), collective of women in prostitution in Maharashtra and Northern Karnataka, to Chennai to present their spectacular production 'My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Malak, His Wife.' Thanks to NGOs Point of View and Sangram, the play could be put together by Divya Bhatia, the director. All the actors were sex workers (women and transsexuals), their siblings and children. It was staged on 11 and 12 March at Alliance Francaise, Chennai. The play certainly left a mark on the minds of all those who watched it. This mark, I am sure, will prove to be an indelible one. I am convinced I was not the only one there going through a range of emotions - joy, anger, sadness... I turned around now and then to see Sahrudayas with their faces inadvertently registering a series of emotions. 

It started off with an evening scene - a sex worker getting ready for a rendezvous with her 'lover,' a rickshaw puller; moved on to show how she has to reconcile that romance with having to attend to a customer, just minutes away. But no melodrama. That's her job. She does it. Then come in all the other characters, a couple of transsexuals, the Gharwali - the woman who runs the house, several other sex workers, the siblings, the next-door paanpatti walah, the harassing policeman, the Gharwali's Maalak - her protector, his wife -- a cocktail of characters!   

The 'actors' unravelled for us a typical 24-hour routine in the galli (street). Being paraded into the nearby police station by the local policeman, being rescued in time by the Gharwali's malak, having a gala time dancing like Madhuri Dixit and Aiswarya Rai, cursing Bollywood for depicting them in stereotypical ways, handling the local goonda, commiserating with the refugee sex workers from Goa whose houses have been run down by the Goa State Government, consoling one of their own when she breaks down as her lover-boy rickshawalah  vanishes for good with the money that she has loaned him, wiping the tears and attending to the next customer - all these had been beautifully knitted together. The voice of a young girl, the daughter of one of the women, formed the single backdrop for the entire action. 

The cast, most of which could neither read nor write any language, had worked for over one and a half years on this. They all had learnt Hindi just for this. They had taken time off their work to do workshops on acting, learn a new language, rehearse and put together this as an attempt at speaking for themselves. It was with great pride and dignity that they gave us all a glimpse into a day of their lives. There is no dearth for problems. They are certainly struggling for a space in society. But they are not miserable. There is plenty of joy in their lives that sees them through even the toughest of times. 

In their interaction with the audience after the play, these women in prostitution made it very clear that it is rather unfortunate that we, the so-called outsiders, are unable to see them for what they are - communities of people who do similar kind of work, like the academics, the IT professionals, the social workers. Our moral frames of reference, they say, are rusted.  

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is a Bharatanatyam dancer and a senior disciple of Chitra Visweswaran. He is a research scholar at the University of Madras