No Fault of Their Own
Helping the families of prostitutes in Kolkata’s red-light district
By Loren Seibold
Our visit to Kolkata coincides with Holi, a spring festival celebrated by throwing handfuls of brightly colored chalk dust at your friends. Everywhere we look we see smiling people with red, pink, blue, or green hands, faces, and clothing. A few are stretched out on the warm pavement, sleeping off last night’s party.
Social worker Urmi Basu abruptly turns into an unusually long, narrow alley. We follow, stepping around a trickle of sewage. On each side are rough wooden entrances, like stable doors; behind them families in windowless, single-lightbulb rooms. Laughing children are running past us, playing happy games. “This is where the prostitutes live,” Urmi says.
We are in the heart of the Kalighat, one of Kolkata’s oldest neighborhoods. Its name comes from a famous temple of the goddess Kali here, one of the holiest sites of the Hindu religion. It is a crowded, busy neighborhood.
And it is also the heart of Kolkata’s sex district.
There is, though, nothing sexy to see here—none of the splashy false-eroticism of Amsterdam or Soho. Sometimes a high tide sends a foot of water from a nearby canal (mingled with roaches, trash, dead animals, sewage) into streets and homes. The children play in it like a wading pool. This is a place of desperate poverty, and it is no coincidence that Sister Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying is here. Customers here are poor men: rickshaw drivers, manual laborers.
The widespread acceptance of illegal prostitution seems out of place in this morally stern, family-oriented culture. Yet we shouldn’t be entirely surprised: in all cultures (and our own faith) we observe that in the presence of high moral standards there is great potential for hypocrisy. “Most of these women had no choice about working here,” Urmi explains. Some were raped, and once violated (though through no fault of their own), can’t return home. Others are widowed in a culture that considers widowhood a disgrace. Many, the youngest, were kidnapped into sexual slavery.
At the end of the alley we thread our way through someone’s meagerly furnished kitchen and up a square tower of steps. We emerge onto an unrailed roof, lined with humble dwellings.
We’re surprised to also see up here a large, new rooftop building. Through that door we enter another world. Each evening, before they go to work, the prostitutes of the Kalighat bring their children here. We see rows of beautiful, smiling children sitting at long tables, eating a wholesome meal. A physician stops by for the sick, and helpers tutor those who attend school. Those who need baths or haircuts get them, and when their homework and chores are done, they drop down on the floor, like children anywhere, to watch videos.
This is the Kalighat’s New Light Center, a refuge for the children of Kolkata’s prostitutes.
Journey to Kalighat
How did we find our way here?
In early 2007 I was invited to travel with a group of pastors and church leaders across India to inspect one of Hope for Humanity’s most creative ministries: a nationwide network of church-connected adult classes to teach Indian women to read, using the Bible as a textbook. (See the December 2007 Adventist World, “Empowering Women in India.”)
When I told her I was going to India, our friend Karen Kotoske immediately asked, “Are you by any chance going to Kolkata?”
Karen, a Seventh-day Adventist from Palo Alto, California, United States, is the founder and director of Amistad International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization. For many years Amistad worked exclusively among Mexico’s Huichol Indians in partnership with the Inter-American Division.
A few years ago a couple of Karen’s acquaintances invited her to meet a visitor from India. Urmi Basu is a stylish, well-educated, upper-class Indian woman who ministers to the families of Kolkata’s prostitutes. Over dinner, Urmi told Karen about the New Light Center, as well as an anticipated project called Soma (pronounced SHO-ma) Home, a large house outside the Kalighat district to which she could remove the prostitutes’ teen daughters before they were forced into their mothers’ soul-destroying work. Although Urmi does not work from a base of any religion, Karen was convicted that Urmi was doing a work of mercy that Jesus wanted done. Amistad quickly raised money to help establish Soma Home.
“So if you go to Kolkata,” Karen told me excitedly, “please visit Urmi Basu and her centers for the prostitutes’ children!”
And that’s how I found myself on the other side of the world, leading a group of Seventh-day Adventist pastors down the street of a red-light district between rows of prostitutes!
It wasn’t until I returned home to Ohio (United States) that a plan began taking shape in my mind: I now had friends in India who were teaching women to read, and others who were providing services for the families of prostitutes. What if we took our reading classes into the Kalighat?
I wrote Hepzibah Kore, the leader for the literacy schools in India. It might be possible, she said. She hadn’t done anything quite like that before, but if we would raise the money, she would try. Hope for Humanity liked the idea, too. Urmi Basu was willing to host the classes in the New Light Center.
Now we needed money.
One Sabbath morning I went up to my church balcony to talk to my audiovisual operators. A Sabbath school class meets there, and as I passed, the teacher, Don Scriven, interrupted his lesson to ask, “Pastor, is there something you need?” I really hadn’t thought of mentioning my idea to anyone yet, but God had provided an opening. “What would you think,” I asked, “about taking on a class mission project of your own?”
“We’re having a class potluck after church today,” Don said. “Come and tell us more.”
That afternoon, Don’s Sabbath school class promised to raise enough money to start a reading school in the Kalighat. Another class joined them a few weeks later. In the following weeks I called several pastor friends who had toured the New Light Center with me, and they promised to pitch the idea in their churches.
In our first round of literacy classes, the prostitutes who attended were joined by Urmi’s helpers, poor and illiterate women (some of whom have themselves escaped the sex trade) who may be able to serve as teachers for future classes. A second class nearby, also hosted by Urmi, teaches dalit women—the so-called “untouchable” caste. Hepzibah Kore has classes in other parts of the city, too.
Our goal for the women of the Kalighat is modest: to help someone without a future find one because she’s learned to read. Long ago, when a prostitute was thrown at Jesus’ feet, Jesus said to her accusers, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” It was a reminder that in God’s eyes, the distance between the worst of us and the best of us isn’t as great as we suppose. We are all sinners—some blessed more, some less. And shouldn’t those of us who are blessed more help those who need more blessing?
Amistad International: http://www.amistadinternational.org; 1-650-328-1737.
The Worthington Adventist Church: http://www.worthingtonsda.org.
Loren Seibold is the senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Adventist Church in the United States.