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‘Unpleasant eyesores’ – Sleek and modern Bangalore is ashamed of its sex workers

In 'Urban Undesirables', Neethi P. and Anant Kamath talk about the city's vibrant libidinal character and sex work industry.

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India’s Silicon Valley, a garden city, a modern metropolis, a global city, the future city, a pensioners’ paradise – but a sex workers’ city? While the list of sobriquets for Bangalore city is endless, the last one may seem the least likely and might even raise shudders of revulsion. In one of the earliest conversations that we had when gathering the material for this book, a retired street-based sex worker, the moment she heard what we were exploring, remarked with eyes tightly shut and arms stretched over her head:

“Oh Bangalore? Just sex, sex, sex everywhere!”

While this could have easily been passed off as just brash mockery from a woman whose body and spirit, like tens of thousands of others in her guild, has borne first-hand the grit and lechery of the streets of this metropolis for decades, little did we realise that she was quite accurate in her feisty statement. It slowly unfolded to us that her pronouncement applied to Bangalore’s streets and public spaces so much more than it did to so many other cities in India, because while sex workers in cities such as Mumbai or Kolkata are associated mostly with ‘red-light areas’, the whole of Bangalore city is one.

Cities like Bangalore are reminiscent of a hackneyed Dickensian condition: the best of places, the worst of places, bringing hope, bringing despair, capable of liberating, capable of overwhelming, offering solace, offering turbulence, a heaven, a hell, where one can gain everything, and where one can be left with nothing. City spaces are the stage upon which street-based sex workers encounter these clashing conditions, perhaps all of them within the course of a single day.

All of us claim our romance with the city spaces we regularly traverse, along with the bus stops we wait in, the traffic signals we cross, the benches we occasionally sit on, the eateries we enjoy and the businesses we engage in. When elbowing through the rabble of KR Market, or while stumbling upon countless faces in Majestic, or even while strolling by the shimmering emporia of MG Road, the ‘decent’ people who claim Bangalore as rightfully only theirs would not be able to (or would not choose to) see street-based sex workers. However, the truth is that street-based sex workers are actually everywhere in Bangalore, sadly unacknowledged as integral actors among the dramatis personae of a city that desperately exerts to glitter on the world stage.

The purpose of this book is not to document a linear chronicle of their life and times, if such a thing were at all possible. This is an account of the experience of the street-based sex workers of Bangalore – male, female and transgender – with respect to the city’s sweeping changes over the last three decades. During this period, that is, from the early 1990s, city spaces in Bangalore have steadily been forced to transition from being collages of urban commons to parcels of urban commerce. Street-based sex workers have for long been an integral part of the city’s human tapestry as a subaltern informal workforce, countless in number, probably numbering more than software engineers in this ‘IT Capital’ or pensioners in this ‘pensioner paradise’. But they have been consistently denied their place in the city and have been systematically losing their tracts of life and livelihood due to the spectre of urban transition that has haunted and sprawled through the public spaces of Bangalore. Street-based sex workers claim the city to be as much theirs as do software engineers, factory workers, shopkeepers, food vendors, teachers, lawmakers, the police and other ‘decent’ people. However, multi-layered and perpetually tormenting vulnerabilities in their operations, even threatening their very existence, have not only dispossessed them of their
positions in the city landscape they have dotted for decades but also disregarded even the existence of a story of city change from their viewpoint. Their image and experience of the city have been muted.

Also read: Sex workers welcome SC order against abuse, but fear of police runs deep

The aim of this book is exactly to present this story. It is about a people who seem invisible in a city but are omnipresent and have experienced the city’s metamorphosis in their own distinctive way, which needs to be proclaimed for all to see and understand. We trace the locus of spaces and the menagerie of actors around street-based sex work that construct their material and social experiences. We bring out the ordeals of Bangalore’s overwhelming transition through textured accounts provided by the voices of female, male and transgender street-based sex workers themselves. Five dozen street-based sex workers in Bangalore, in eighteen months of conversations, provided torrents of narratives of the theatre that their Bangalore is and of the actors in that theatre who frame the human cartography around street-based sex work.

Abstaining from generalisation, this book focuses on the particular places, the lived experiences, structures, relationships and the many ecosystems around street-based sex work. We redraw, rewrite and relook a city from their eyes, their feet and their minds. For the last three decades or so, the meaning of ‘public space’ has undergone a dramatic change, alongside the very definition of who ought to constitute the ‘public’ in a city like Bangalore. Public spaces have been recast as accessible only to those legitimate individuals and social groups who fit into the imagined city and do not pollute its image. Street-based sex workers, who have been a ubiquitous and integral part of the human landscape of Bangalore, are seen as unpleasant eyesores in a city conjured up as ‘sleek’ and ‘modern’, a setting which only certain kinds of people can claim the right to.
In the revanchist construction of the vista that is Bangalore, these serious immoral
blots are to be conveniently pushed away and their existence is to be denied
altogether. The saga of struggle continues for street-based sex workers in this
city, not only with regard to their traditional crusades of identity, individuality,
citizenship and continuing health hazards but also in their battle to claim their
right to their city.

We chart out the experience of urban transition in Bangalore from their standpoint, which is quite a contrast with what generally constitutes mainstream conversations around city change in Bangalore. Often – conveniently, lethargically or deliberately – Bangalore is misunderstood as an IT city at its heart, while in reality this is but only one layer of a metropolis that is a miscellany of multiple layers of work- and spatial ecologies. We draw out the loci of the city’s transition by plotting the expected and unconventional elements in their cityscape and trace the rivulets of narratives of their tempestuous experiences in getting to grips with the dramatic and jagged transformation of Bangalore city. We bring out the dismal intersections that undergird their life and work and introduce the roles of the myriad actors and agents that both facilitate and scorn their existence in the process of envisioning and unravelling the realisation of a city. We also present their strategies of empowerment and response to all these, their migration to digital platforms and the vagaries within those new spaces, and the struggles to reclaim their city.

This excerpt from ‘Urban Undesirables’ by Anant Kamath and Neethi P.has been published with permission from Cambridge University Press.

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