Mafia Queens of Mumbai, Page 7S. Hussain Zaidi
Gangubai openly advocated the need for prostitution belts in cities. She is still remembered for a speech she gave during a women’s conference at Azad Maidan. A meeting had been called in support of the girl child and empowerment of women. Women from several leading political parties, NGOs and other organisations had been called. Gangubai, too, had been invited to extend help in promoting literacy among prostitutes. The organisers had asked her to speak on the condition of women in brothels. However, when she was called to the podium and introduced as the ‘president of Kamathipura’, she was greeted with a lot of suspicion. Gangubai, dressed in a white cotton saree, sensed their animosity. Gangubai had been nervous when she ascended the stairs to the podium— she had never really spoken in public before this. She had rehearsed her speech several times during the day, yet standing there in front of such a large crowd, she felt absolutely unprepared. Even as she came closer to the microphone, she could hear murmurings among a section of the crowd. But the crowd’s behaviour only made her more determined to prove her point and all of a sudden, she became less nervous.
Gangubai stunned her organisers and the audience with the opening line of her speech: ‘I am a gharwali (a brothel madam) not a ghar todnewali (home wrecker). Several people among you look at this title as a stigma on womanhood but it is this stigma that has saved the chastity, integrity and morality of several thousands of women.’
The crowd grew silent. Gangubai continued, ‘Unlike other cities of India, the streets of Mumbai are far safer today. You will rarely hear of an incident where a girl is sexually assaulted on the roads. I don’t want to take away any credit from the city’s administration but I also firmly believe that the notorious women of Kamathipura should be partly credited for this.
‘We are only second to the legitimately married gharwalis (housewives). By giving ourselves to the carnal pursuits of men, we are doing a big favour to all the women in society. A few handful of women who cater to the physical needs of men are actually protecting all of you from being attacked. These women help blunt the bestial male aggression, which is something that cannot be done in my hometown in Gujarat,’ she said. ‘You might think that we enjoy doing what we do. Believe me, it is not easy for us. Most of us are forced to do this because we have families to look after. It shames me to learn that society looks down upon its very protectors. Just like the jawans of our country, who fight endlessly in the battlefield so that you remain unharmed, we prostitutes too, are fighting our own batdes every day. Then why the difference? Why is a jawan rewarded and given national honours, while prostitutes are insulted and treated like pariahs? Give me an answer.’
The crowd listened to Gangubai with rapt attention. Gangubai, on the other hand, seemed like she was in a trance, overpowered by very strong emotions, ‘Nobody will have an answer,’ she said, ‘because you all are responsible for creating this question in the first place. The only solution to the problem is by treating sex workers as equals. The day you manage to do this, I will believe that society has achieved “women empowerment”. If an orthodox city like Hyderabad can name its red-light area Mehboob ki Mehndi (the henna of the beloved), why does “Kamathipura” draw expressions of disgust in this so-called “forward-looking” city of Bombay? Before I end, I would like to draw one last parallel. We all keep at least one toilet in our homes so that we do not defecate or urinate in other rooms. This is the same reason why there is a need for a prostitution belt in each and every city. I’d like to make a humble plea to the government to allow red-light areas to co-exist in society.’
The crowd was immediately on its feet and applauding thunderously. Nobody had ever spoken for the cause of sex workers so convincingly.
*The gharwali elections is followed by the bade gharwali elections. While the gharwali usually has an entire floor to herself with forty pinjras or more, the bade gharwali has an entire building under her jurisdiction. Every bade gharwali has a few gharwalis reporting to her. The command was thus decentralised and Gangubai was at the helm of this structure for over sixteen years.
A MOTHER MALIGNED
angubai’s speech was reported widely in several regional newspapers and she rose suddenly to stardom. Several ministers and journalists visited her, impressed by her courage in fighting the system and trying to decriminalise prostitution. She now surfaced as a force in society in her own right.
In the 1950s and ’60s, commercial sex workers occupied the western strip of Kamathipura between Suklaji Street, Manaji Rauji Street and part of Foras Road from Alexandria Cinema up to the point where it met Jairaj Bhai Lane. At the time, sex workers did not cross Manaji Rauji Street or pass through the central and eastern areas of Kamathipura as people in the area did not like it. However, children attending the municipal school at the junction of Kamathipura 7th Street and people visiting the several temples located in the west of Kamathipura had to pass through the brothel areas. Further, St Anthony’s Girls’ High School, built in the early 1920s, had its entrance from Bellasis Road. The school building at the rear overlooked Kamathipura 14th Street, which was then inhabited by over 250 sex workers, who could also be seen from the upper floor of the building.
Early in the year 1960, authorities of the St Anthony’s Girls’ High School as well as locals living in the vicinity of Kamathipura, wanted part of the red-light belt evacuated because they felt that sex workers could have a negative influence on the minds of young students. The school authorities cited that prostitution could not be carried out within two hundred yards from an educational institution. A strong movement picked up against the presence of the red-light zone. There were constant agitations and meetings with the civic authorities; but both parties refused to budge from their position.
When the anti-prostitution sentiment swelled, sex workers sought Gangubai’s help and she successfully spearheaded the movement against the evacuation of sex workers from the belt.
Her political connections apparently also won her an appointment with the then prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, at his residence in New Delhi. Once again, Gangubai made history by becoming the only local brothel madam to secure an appointment with the head of the country.
Not much is known about the last years of Gangubai Kathewali. Most people remember her for her gold-bordered white sarees and gold-buttoned blouses. Gangubai loved flaunting her collection of gold jewellery. She also wore gold-rimmed glasses and had an artificial gold tooth. She was also the only brothel keeper of her time to own a black Bentley car. However, it is still not known how she managed to accumulate so much wealth in her lifetime.
While she never got married, she is said to have adopted several children who lived with her in her small room in Kamathipura 12th Lane. Most of them were either orphans or homeless. Gangubai took a keen interest in bringing them up and ensured they received a good education. Of all these children, only one, Babbi, lives in Kamathipura today.
A social worker from the area who was initially sheltered by Gangubai, describes her as ‘the queen of Kamathipura’. ‘Even today, framed pictures and statuettes of Gangubai are there in the brothels of Kamathipura. Ask anyone about Gangubai and they’ll direct you to a framed picture of hers in their room. They may not have known her but they have surely heard of her,’ she said.
Gangubai’s goodness is, of course, just one side of the coin. A former restaurateur in Kamathipura, puts it aptly. ‘It is not like she was all milk and honey. We mustn’t forget that she was running a brothel at the end of the day. It is not easy to have thousands of woman working for you ... there was surely a dark side to her that people have chosen to forget. You cannot prosper in this business otherwise.’
According to Babbi, ‘Ganguma began her day reading the Gujarati newspaper Janmbhoomi and sipping her tea at 6 in the morning. This was followed by breakfast, after which she played cards next door. She was a hard-core gambler and gambled almost daily. She had many vices—she smoked bidis, drank Ranichaap and chewed
paan. She also hobnobbed with several journalists and ministers. Gangubai died of old age some time between 1975 and 1978. Soon after, effigies of her were placed in the brothels of the area.
Today, Kamathipura 12th Lane, which was once said to be the richest lane in the area, is a shadow of its former self. In abysmal contrast to its former glory, there is nothing much to see here these days, except for hand-carts, stray dogs or ordinary people engaging in petty work. The lane, which used to be lined with Ambassadors, Mercedes and Bentleys, is now filled with cycles and rusting scooters. Unlike the other by-lanes, 12th Kamathipura has only a brothel or two and it is certainly a far cry from the time of the iron-willed Gangubai.
The canvas of her remarkable life is replete with numerous anecdotes and stories that have now become lore. One of the most legendary Gangubai tales is an apocryphal story, still narrated with pride and great authority by the sex workers of Kamathipura. This incident hasn’t been documented or written about, neither is there any existing proof to confirm its authenticity. Its credibility can only be weighed by verbal evidence, as the story seems to have been passed down through word of mouth for over four decades and is one of the few thriving memories of Gangubai. In a private meeting with Pandit Nehru, she explained to him the importance of the red-light area in Mumbai and the need to protect it. Gangubai is also said to have convinced and impressed Nehru with her wit and clarity of thought. During the meeting, Nehru asked her why she had gotten into the business when she could have easily landed herself a good job or husband.
An intrepid Gangubai is said to have thrown a proposal at him. She told him that if he was ready to make her Mrs Nehru, she would be willing to abandon her business for good. Nehru was taken aback, and reprimanded her for having dared to talk to him like that. But a calm Gangubai smiled and said, ‘Don’t get angry Pradhan Mantriji. I just wanted to prove a point; it is always easier to preach than practise.’ Nehru remained silent.
At the end of the meeting Nehru, who had bluntly rejected her second proposal, conceded to Gangubai’s first demand and also promised to look into the matter. Following the intervention of the government, the movement to displace the sex workers died a quick death. Gangubai’s argument that the school had been built a century after the prostitution belt had come up, made her a clear winner in the batde. ‘Were the concerned authorities blind when they built the school?’ she queried.
Gangubai had won the day, thus saving thousands of sex workers from financial desperation, not for the first time in her life.
shraf had been feeling uncomfortable since morning. She’d woken up earlier than usual because of a bad dream: she couldn’t really remember what she had dreamed, only the vague sense of it being something bad lingered.
Her cup of tea lay cold, untouched, as did the eggs and toast sitting in front of her. She tried to skim through the newspaper but nothing could distract her from the sense of unease she was feeling. She decided to go and meet an old friend and was in her bedroom getting ready, when she heard a loud knock on her front door.
In the past, she had opened her door to all kinds of men: from policemen to thugs holding menacing weapons. Most times, they came with bad news. Today, she wanted to see none of them.
Yet, being the only person at home, she gathered courage and opened the door to find her neighbour, panting, as if he had come running from his house.
‘Mehmood bhai has called from Dubai. Come quickly, he said he will call back soon.’
Hearing Mehmood’s name, her restive gloom lifted. She put on her chappals quickly and rushed out of the door towards her neighbour’s house, leaving her own home unlatched.
She reached their house in less than a minute but had to wait for five minutes before the phone rang again. When it did, she picked up the receiver and was about to say something, when the line on the other end went dead. She put the receiver down and sat quietly in anticipation of another call. It was ten minutes later that the phone rang again. She picked it up. This time, she could clearly hear the person on the other end. He had a husky voice, and since it was an international call, he sounded louder than usual—it was Mehmood. The last time she had heard from him was ten days ago.
‘Jaan, I will be back this evening.’ he said. ‘Please come to the airport ...’
Ashraf was thrilled. Somehow he must have sensed her unease, her anxiety to see him, she thought, despite the distance. After a brief conversation that lasted barely a couple of minutes, he hung up, giving her the flight details. An overwhelming feeling of happiness gripped her. She rushed back to her own house to get ready to meet her husband, Mehmood.
A strikingly attractive young woman, Ashraf had fallen in love with Mehmood when she first met him at a friend’s wedding. When, some time later, Mehmood went on to ask her to marry him, she hadn’t hesitated for a moment before she said yes. In the five years they’d been together, his one aim had been to make her happy. Ashraf had grown up in a rigid, conservative family and she embraced the freedom that marriage to Mehmood gave her. She travelled with him and lived the life of a queen. Her love for him knew no bounds, and even a brief period of separation hit her hard. The only problem Ashraf had with Mehmood was that she was unsure about what it was he did for a living.
Ashraf did not like the men her husband hobnobbed with and the way they referred to him—his associates called him Mehmood Kalia because of his dark complexion. She took offence at this, and it had added to her dislike of these men. When she complained to Mehmood about what they called him, he affectionately said it was a non-issue. Again, when she conveyed her apprehensions about his working with them, he merely told her not to worry. But he would never explain what his work entailed exactly; what he did, where and with whom he went, was something she was completely ignorant of.
The clock on her dressing-table struck three as Ashraf slipped the last of her gold bangles on her arms. Mehmood would be at the Santa Cruz airport in an hour. She hurriedly picked up her handbag and headed out for the main road at Nagpada. She had already decided to take a cab instead of a train to the airport.
She managed to reach the airport by 4 p.m. People around her were carrying placards, flowers or small gifts to welcome their loved ones. Ashraf looked down at her bare hands and felt guilty. But then she knew that Mehmood was not a materialistic person and that nothing on earth would match up to the happiness he’d feel on seeing her.
She waited patiently, scanning the crowd every time a group of people emerged from the arrival area. She glanced again at the two police jeeps parked right behind her. They’d been there when she’d come, and though she had a faint idea about her husband’s poor track record with the cops, today, she tried hard not to read too much into it.
Forty minutes passed but there was still no sign of him. The police jeeps were still parked in the same place but she couldn’t see any policemen, so Ashraf didn’t feel too concerned.
Finally, a little before five, the sliding doors of the Arrival section opened and she saw a burly, dark man come out along with other people. A black bag hung from his left shoulder. Ashraf broke into a smile and went closer to the railing and tried to catch his attention. His eyes searched for and finally found her in the crowd. Ashraf had just begun to take a few steps towards him when abruptly Mehmood disappeared in a group of men.
Ashraf saw one of the men who had surrounded Mehmood fire two to three gunshots in the air. The Arrival area broke into chaos; people started running helter-skelter in fright and the group of men managed to disappear in the crowd. Ashraf looked for Mehmood in the pandemonium but couldn’t spot him. Even as the crowd grew more chaotic, she refused to move, hoping her husband would emerge from the crowd, hold her tight and take her away. Ashraf continued to look for him, when, from within the crowd, she noticed a few men with service revolvers accompanied by cops. Immediately she turned around, only to see that the police jeeps, which had been standing behind her all this while, were missing.
br /> Over the noise of the crowd, she thought she heard faint gunshots from the parking lot. Her heart pounding, she began running towards the parking lot. The car park was a sprawling area but she immediately spotted several policemen huddled together at one end. Just then, one of the jeeps that had earlier been parked behind her, went past her, along with an ambulance, out of the airport. Determined to find out Mehmood’s whereabouts, she ran towards the policemen.
When she reached them, she saw a pool of blood near a parked taxi. The cops were preoccupied with drawing white markings on the ground. She froze. She did not know what had happened and how to react. All this while, Ashraf still hoped that Mehmood, who she had seen standing, smiling at her, only five minutes ago, would come and reassure her that he was fine. But there was no sign of him.
She overheard one of the policemen say that the man who had been shot had been taken to Cooper Hospital. Ashraf hailed a taxi and directed it to the hospital. However, when she reached, both the reception and the hospital staff were unaware of any patient who had been admitted with gunshot wounds. They asked Ashraf to instead inquire with the Andheri police station. Ashraf had led a protected life so far; but now she steeled herself and went from station to station in the area, trying to find out where her husband was. Finally, a policeman directed her to J.J. Hospital. At J.J., her worst fears were realised: she was told that a man named Mehmood Khan, a wanted gangster, had been shot dead in an encounter at Santa Cruz airport.
Ashraf knew this was a lie. Mehmood would not have been able to carry a gun past airport security—there was no way he could have been armed. She asked to see the body immediately, with the small hope that perhaps it wasn’t her Mehmood, after all, that they were talking about. One of the nurses led her to the morgue. She entered the dimly-lit room and began to tremble when she saw the wrapped bodies. Her legs shook in nervousness; she wished she did not have to witness this all alone. Pitying her, the nurse held Ashraf s hand firmly and took her to a body.