Sonia Faleiro reads the poem Soon from AIDS Sutra, written by Vikram Seth.
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi reads the story Hello, Darling from AIDS Sutra.
MAARNE KA, BHAGANE KA
(Beat Them, Kick Them Out)
The sari smells of dried blood. I bring it up close; imagine what it must have been like for Savita that night. She was waiting for a train home, when three railway policemen dragged her off the platform, kicking and slapping her for distributing condoms to other sex workers. Her red glass bangles speared her wrists. Blue cotton soaked up her blood.
Savita is physically assaulted by a policeman about twice a week. She pays hafta, bribes, as often. What most women would consider rape is, for her, 'free sex'—the price she pays to avoid arrest or further harassment.
When a policeman's demands become excessive, Savita will change her site of work. Hiding in the shadows, making herself inaccessible to the police, she also makes herself inaccessible to the HIV prevention efforts of outreach workers who provide her with free condoms. Savita receives as little as Rs 30 (75 cents) for sex. She will go without condoms if she must pay for them, placing herself at risk of acquiring HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. Unable to identify its symptoms, and with no access to a health clinic, she will stay untested and continue to work without protection.
The Bombay police are not alone in their mistreatment of street communities. Nor is their role in the spread of HIV new—the link has been documented since Bombay's first known AIDS cases in the late 1980s. It is only now, however, that the police have begun to question their behaviour. This is not about ethics. For if sex workers are victims of the virus, so are their partners. These include policemen.
At 5'10, with a heart-shaped face and wide cheekbones, thirty one year old Savita is a head turner. She is aware of this, accentuating her beauty with gold earrings and liquid eyeliner that give her the appearance of an old time movie star.
Like me, Savita is a migrant, but from Karnataka. We arrived in Bombay around the same time, four years ago. Although she admits it with less reservation, we are here to make money. And she is doing her best. She speaks Marathi, the language of her customers. She is fluent in Hindi. She has also learnt new words to label herself with. If she talks to me when she has not encountered the police for at least 48 hours, she may call herself a 'sex worker' and 'social worker', terms she has been taught by the NGO where she works part time. Otherwise she refers to herself as 'randi'—a Hindi word so disparaging it has no English equivalent. Neither whore nor hooker, prostitute nor tart.
One day, I went to meet Savita at Good Luck, a shabby café in Oshiwara, where we drink tea and share bhelpuri. A policewoman walked up to our table and said to her, 'I know what you are.' Savita looked her in the face. 'I'm not that anymore. I'm a social worker.' The policewoman smirked. She bent towards Savita. 'Rand,' she whispered, and calmly walked away.
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956 (ITPA) is the primary statute that deals with sex work in India. It was meant to curb the recruitment, transport, or sale (defined as trafficking) of women and children for sex, and to punish the trafficker and financial beneficiaries. It criminalises neither sex work nor sex workers, but makes solicitation in a 'public place' illegal. While ITPA is meant to rein in trafficking, not voluntary sex work by adults, police have greater success arresting women like Savita. Traffickers are part of complex cross-national webs that are nearly impossible to break, and given the evidence needed, rarely convicted. Arresting floating sex workers, however, satisfies demands from senior officers to fulfil a set quota. They address complaints from the public, upset by their presence in the neighbourhood.
Now, Savita knows the inside of a cell the way she does the order of spices on her kitchen shelf. She recounts the humiliations—constant and innovative. If she asks to use the toilet, she is told, 'Drink your urine.' So she carries an empty bottle with her wherever she goes, and fills it up before she enters her cell. If she starts her menstrual cycle, she tears off a piece of her dupatta, a garment meant to shield a woman's modesty, and places it in her underwear. The next day, she replaces it with another piece of her dupatta.
Long after she has been released, these memories keep Savita awake at night. Her head pounds as fast as her heart. Given a choice between silently accepting a policewoman's abuse—'Cocksucker, why is it that dogs find work, but you cannot?'—and courting arrest by standing up for herself, she will choose silence.
Savita is also vulnerable to the Bombay Police Act (1951), which governs the state force, and describes its powers. The act is broad and vague, and outlaws everything from frightening cattle to letting loose a horse. Section 110, or 'Behaving Indecently in Public', has been used by the police to great convenience, and as a supplement to ITPA. It makes 'behaving indecently' an offence, punishable with arrest and a fine of Rs 1200 ($30). The definition of 'indecent' has been left to the discretion of the arresting officer.
When a member of the legislative assembly, for example, is expected to visit, the station's senior inspector will want the adjoining roads clean. In a ravenous swoop, sex workers who had for months been standing on that road as the police passed by will be arrested for 'behaving indecently'. The women do not protest or argue. Fine, jail, judge are their equivalent of my newspaper, laptop, library.
On occasion, Savita cannot pay the fine of Rs 1200. It is as much as she earns in a week. A policeman tells her, 'Then suck it.' She gives him oral sex.
As brutal as Savita's experiences are, male sex workers (MSW) and men who have sex with men (MSM) argue that theirs are more so. That policemen derive greater pleasure from exploiting their vulnerability to the law.
Like their female counterparts, MSWs work for money. They may not be homosexual. MSMs, on the other hand, cruise for masti, pleasure. Societal bias against homosexuality forces them out of their homes, plunging them into the darkness of unfamiliar streets. They are of all ages; some are educated and trapped in marriage. Their sexual trysts take place in cruising areas that are poignant metaphors for their marginalisation—abandoned parks, public toilets.
Social prejudice against homosexuality is endorsed by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, entitled 'Of Unnatural Offences'. It criminalises even consensual sex between adults, making sodomy punishable with a fine, and imprisonment up to life.
Banning sex between consenting adults is as likely to succeed as banning alcohol, another reality, and some would argue, natural impulse of adult life. Prohibition did not convert 1940s Bombay into a city of teetotallers. People drank in secret, in remote areas. They endangered their lives with spurious alcohol. They also laid themselves open to the abuse that is now emblematic of the relationship between police and sex workers.
Section 377 was enacted by the British in the 1800s, a reflection of an existing law in England. While it has not been amended in India since, by 1967, the British decriminalised homosexuality.
Like Savita, Ashok is an outreach worker. Educated about HIV/AIDS, outreach workers are a link between street communities and NGOs. They distribute free condoms, and offer access to health services such as HIV testing.
To Ashok, being an outreach worker is an achievement as precious as his own life. It dulls some of the horror of living off the streets. When he is explaining to other sex workers, his peers, how HIV is contracted, the twenty eight year old appears taller than his 5 feet 5 inches. He wears an air of temple gravitas.
His friends call Ashok 'bevda', alcoholic, and that is telling for they drink too, and with an uncontrolled relish. It is not a problem, he assures me. He has no other vices. He does not smoke, chew tobacco, or have unprotected sex. He must have something to calm him, if he cannot have someone to hold him.
An MSW like Ashok, awaiting customers in a park, is approached by a well-dressed young man who asks, 'Chalta hai?' (Coming along?) Ashok replies in the affirmative, and the two walk out holding hands. Waiting for them at the park entrance are three or four policemen in plainclothes, one of whom immediately grabs Ashok by the groin, and squeezes. 'Arre handsome,' he smiles as Ashok screams in pain. 'I hear you're sweet as jaggery. Can I have a taste?' Ashok is not expected to answer. His wallet is snatched, the money immediately distributed amongst the police and the young man, who in Bombay street parlance is known as a 'smart boy'—a person blackmailed by the police into doing this specific job. If Ashok is carrying his bank card, he is driven to the nearest ATM and forced to empty his account.
Ashok will not register a complaint. If he did, his elderly parents would receive an anonymous phone call revealing to them the truth of their son's sexuality and employment— secrets he holds close as fear, as carefully as a knife.
MSM and MSW are not only targets of blackmail and extortion, but also sexual assault. Those I have spoken with cannot say if their tormentors are homosexual. One AIDS activist believed sexual violence was meted out as punishment. 'Female sex workers may be pursuing the world's oldest profession,' he told me, 'but male sex work is a cultural glitch policemen cannot accept. It outrages their concept of masculinity.' At a police HIV/AIDS sensitisation workshop this February, a group of inspectors in their thirties were asked their opinion of homosexuality. One young man scorned, 'Humko nahin mangta. We don't want it. As long as there are women why should men have sex with men?'
Ashok maintains: 'Those who rape us are gay. They pretend to punish us while pleasing themselves.'
Sankar Sen, former director of the National Police Academy, believes the only solution to abuse is a written complaint. 'NGOs only talk about the problem,' he argued. When asked to whom the complaint should be addressed, Sen's answer was revealing. 'No one at the station,' he said. 'We must appoint people who liaison between the police and NGOs. That's the only way violence-prone officers can be tackled.'
Savita and Ashok are treated like criminals even when they are innocent of wrongdoing—sitting in a café with friends, for example—not just when they perpetrate the crime of solicitation in public. It is no wonder their frustrations flow fluent as sweat. Or that they blame the police for all their problems—a bout of gonorrhoea, missing a six monthly HIV test.
For them both, sex work is frail armour against destitution. Unable to work on Monday because of police harassment, on Tuesday Savita will feed on tea. On Wednesday, she will accept more than her desired average of four customers, even after she is tired, or does not like the look of the man she is following into the shadows.
Savita's enviable beauty, I realised too soon, was poor camouflage for the basic characteristics she shares with most sex workers—illiteracy (or in her case, semi-literacy), poverty, and little chance of ever finding for herself a place, on the
streets and in society, that she cannot be beaten away from. Neither the law nor law enforcers recognise the vital connection between sex work and survival. The law enables police harassment of sex workers. The public, viewing them as vectors of disease and immorality, supports it. The majority of sex workers, like stray dogs, either accept their maltreatment without objection, or fail to realise it at all.
Now Savita refuses to speak with the police, an interaction that is, in fact, part of her job as an outreach worker. It would surprise her to know that some policemen feel similarly disempowered.
'If we arrest sex workers they complain,' Constable Anant Shirodkar,1 told me. 'If we don't arrest them the public complains. Either way, politicians complain.'
Politicians can suggest transfers for policemen—from high level commissioners down to constables on the street. This is done through the offices of the chief minister and home minister. Between July 1, 2005 and February 28, 2006, 170 recommendations for police transfers were made by politicians in Bombay.2 Up to 40% were passed.3
If a politician were to decide that safeguarding the morality of the youth was an election winning mantra, then he could, with the assistance of the police, ensure the harassment of young men in dance bars, and of couples exchanging cards on Valentine's Day. The Bombay Police Act is a useful tool for this purpose, for when 'indecent behaviour' is a matter of interpretation, a policeman could choose to be shocked by anything.
But it is not merely the enforcement of the law that has made the relationship between sex workers and the police contentious. It is also the criminal behaviour of some law enforcers. The demands for sex and hafta which directly impact the health of an estimated 100,000 sex workers in Bombay.
I wondered what this khaki-clad, imitation Ray-Ban-wearing lathi wielder thought of women like Savita.
'She has to eat, I know,' conceded Shirodkar, with a shrug. 'I feel sorry for her. I just don't want her to stand near me because I'll have to take her in.'
Actually, constables like Shirodkar will not arrest sex workers on sight.
Police stations would fill up too quickly; paperwork would pile up. This decision is taken by the station's senior police inspector, who is influenced by his boss, the deputy commissioner of police. He is answerable to the assistant commissioner; and he to the commissioner; and all of them, in some measure, to politicians.
When senior officers are sympathetic towards sex workers, or see no reason to add to their workload by arresting those who will, almost immediately, return to work, they will, unless there are complaints, ignore solicitation. If their quota of arrests looks as though it will remain unfulfilled towards the end of the month, however, Constable Shirodkar is sent out.
Either way, the threat of arrest gives the police enough leverage to extract what they will.
I asked Madhav Rao, a senior inspector at a platform on one of Bombay's busiest railway stations, the same question—his opinion of sex workers.
'Maarne ka, bhagane ka,' he replied. They're to be beaten, to be chased away. Then he scrunched up his face, in what I suppose was in imitation of a woman crying, and said, 'I tell my men to beat them on their bottoms, and send them packing.'
One policeman understood the sex workers' dilemma, but knew his duty. For another, duty meant assault. But in beating sex workers he not only acted on his personal opinion of them, he became, like sex workers caught soliciting, criminally liable himself.
Policemen's attitudes mirror that of the society from which they are drawn. If the average policeman comes from a small town or village where people generally equate sex work with promiscuity, disease, and lawlessness, then he will, unless his training teaches him otherwise, carry those sentiments to work.
What makes this mirror image dangerous is that the police have the power to act on their bias.
A man like Rao, who equates illegal with immoral, will uphold the law with his fist. He will pass judgement on crime as well as character. He will, as happens often in India, administer justice outside the court. So a sex worker is arrested for selling her body, but slapped for being a bad woman. She is fined for solicitation, but raped because she is a whore and wants some. There is a dangerous zeal to this righteousness, and in pursuing it, Rao has become the criminal he should loathe.
But unlike Savita, who thought twice before revealing to me that she was a sex worker, or Ashok, who makes excuses for his work, Rao described his approach with pride. As though what he was doing was something we should all do.
Why was this? Why was Rao not afraid that I, in turn, would complain about his behaviour?
The answer, of course, is that Rao is a policeman. And as experience has taught those who have tested the force's clannish code of loyalty, one policeman will not readily file a
complaint against another.
Police maltreatment has instilled in sex workers a terror of authority. Ashok's friend Munir, a masseur who offers oral sex for a small extra fee, told me that the first time he tried to enter a police station, he was stopped at the door and asked to return 'tomorrow'. The answer did not change for a week. On another occasion, a policeman who guessed that Munir was illiterate asked him to write down his own complaint of abuse by a policeman—'Give me every detail,' he winked. Such a response would naturally discourage sex workers from approaching even potentially honest and honourable policemen.
Rao and those who extract hafta and free sex, know with the certainty of sunrise, that they will not face trial for their crimes. The possibilities this realisation present are staggering.
Solutions are necessary as much to protect sex workers as to safeguard the police. Sexual assault and liaisons with sex workers, combined with in the line of duty injuries, make the police more vulnerable to HIV than the general population.
The police I had spoken with insisted they no longer demanded 'free sex' without a condom, because they fear HIV. Sex workers interviewed for this piece refute this.
Rao had this insight for me: 'What if you gave a vaishya [prostitute] a condom? What if her bag got stolen on the train? What if the thief was a young boy who got hold of the
condom? Wouldn't he then go straight to the randi bazaar [market of whores] and have sex? Wouldn't he catch HIV? So how do condoms help regular people?'
If more men and women in the force share Rao's confusion about the role of condoms—that they cause people to have sex, and do not prevent HIV—then it is not just policemen, but society which is in jeopardy.
About 18% of female sex workers and 8% of MSMs in Bombay are HIV positive.4 If they pay the police with sex, or are raped, then HIV could enter the force, spread to partners, wives, and unborn children—the larger population.
Although no specific data supports this thesis, there have been two revealing reports. In 2004, a Joint Commissioner of Police told the media that 450 members of the almost 50,000 strong Bombay force were HIV positive.5 The figures appear low until one realises that the entire force was not tested, and the numbers collected haphazardly, over ten years. It is likely that only a small subset was tested, and that this estimate of 450 represents a very high infection rate. It places an undeniable question mark over the health of the rest of the force. That same year, 15 of 150 policemen tested randomly for HIV emerged positive.
There have been no reports since, and not one uniform examination. This is the approach of almost all government institutions in India. They believe that mandating HIV testing would lead to further stigma and discrimination.
Their concerns are not unfounded. In 1999, a young man was dismissed from the Karnataka police force after testing positive for HIV. He had passed the entrance examinations, but was yet to start work. Having sought legal assistance, he
was reinstated seven years later. In 2007, an HIV positive constable from Andhra Pradesh was denied a promotion to the post of sub-inspector after testing positive. His case is under appeal.
Even policemen who receive a measure of support from the force face problems. This March it was revealed that the police hospital in Bombay's downtown Nagpada area had, for over a month, been running short of Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART), the drugs which inhibit the replication of HIV.7 The 300 policemen who allegedly receive ART would have either had to interrupt their treatment—which is generally considered unsafe—or change hospital, compelling them to disclose their HIV status again. This is not a choice they should have to make.
Late last year, the Karnataka State Police became the first in India to implement a workplace HIV/AIDS policy accepting that employees with HIV share the rights and responsibilities of other staff members. ST Ramesh, Additional DG of Police, Karnataka, has been an officer for 32 years, and was a seminal force in formulating the policy. 'You don't have to be a genius to know that AIDS is an important issue for contemporary society,' he told me. 'So although there hasn't been an empirical evaluation of the relationship between AIDS and the police, considering certain factors—the aggressive nature of the police, their high sexual drive, contact with sex workers, and above all their contact with blood—the policy was a logical step.'
In Maharashtra, NGOs, with government help, have started various programmes to deal with this issue. Two have been significant. In 2006, the state's six training schools conducted a pilot HIV/AIDS programme—sensitising the police to the disease. Its success encouraged Rakesh Maria, then Inspector General of Police Training, to conclude that it should be permanent. Maria acknowledged, 'The nature of our work makes us reach those groups that are vulnerable to HIV. Thus there is an opportunity for vulnerability among the force.'
That same year, sex workers across the state agreed that the solution to their harassment should not be left to its perpetrators, but devised by the sex workers themselves.
Radhika, twenty seven years old and small as a pixie, solicits three stations down from Savita, on the Central Railway line, and is one of those women. She is part of the Rapid Response System (RRS) created by an NGO to intervene in potentially explosive interactions between the police and sex workers. The project has 264 task forces in Bombay, and in each, five sex workers are responsible for the others in their neighbourhood.
Radhika gave me an example: 'There was a policeman who'd routinely take money from a woman I knew. One day, I caught him just as he was pocketing Rs 100 [$2.50], and asked, "Sir, why are you snatching food from her children's mouths?" The sex worker got scared and said, "Radhika, leave it." She didn't want to deal with him after I left. I replied,
"Why leave it? And don't you dare run away. We'll both stand here until this problem is solved." Then the policeman felt small. He said, "I just took money today because I caught her with a customer." The sex worker now became bold. She yelped, "Only today! Don't lie! Every time you see me you demand 100 rupees." People started gathering. You know what the policeman did? He quietly took out her money, and gave it back. We never saw him again.'
This system shames the police from breaking laws they are trusted to uphold. But it also attempts to heal a historically fractured relationship.
Radhika visits at least four police stations a month. She requests, in writing, permission to park the NGO's mobile health clinic nearby—to hold a meeting, of about ten sex workers, on the railway platform. They discuss everything: herpes, babies, the price of vegetables. Seeing her so often, realising that she causes neither extra work nor trouble, the police have come to accept her presence. A few trust her; they ask for condoms. Radhika also attends legal literacy sessions, arranged for by the NGO she works with. She has been taught that even 'a woman like me' cannot be taken into custody after 7 pm; she knows to ask an impudent constable for his badge number.
'Now here's a funny story about how these things help,' Radhika told me. 'Having enjoyed himself, a policeman refused to pay up. When the sex worker objected he said, "Get lost randi, or I'll arrest you." So you know what the woman did? Because she'd learnt that a policeman can be identified by his belt, she snatched it and ran away. The next day she went into his station and in front of him asked his senior officer: "Please ask your constable why he isn't wearing his belt today!"'
Radhika's confidence did not wilt in front of the men who had, for years, placed her life in jeopardy. Eager to introduce me to someone she liaisoned with, she strode ahead in four inch stilettos. At the entrance of the police station, she beamed 'Good evening!' in English, to a constable. He smiled and politely replied, 'Good evening madam.'
The previous night that same constable had seen Radhika with a customer. When their eyes met, she turned and walked away, leaving her amazed customer behind. 'If a policeman catches me soliciting it's his job to arrest me,' she explained. 'I can't tell him how to do his job, just like he'd better not tell me how to do mine.'
Radhika seeks peers and customers in the same neighbourhood. As an outreach worker, she wears a badge and a chic blue coat that suggest the quiet efficiency of a nurse. At nightfall, she will discard these accoutrements and stand beside buckets of red roses and blood orange gladioli by the flower shop outside the railway station. A man will sidle up to her and under his breath ask, 'Chalegi?' She will reply, 'That's why I'm here.' They will quickly negotiate a price, decide on a lodge, and move down the street.
The same policeman she greeted when we were together, who regards her as an activist, someone to fear, but also admire, must now see her as one of the neighbourhood's hundreds of sex workers asking for trouble.
It is a fragile, curious relationship. And yet, so far, it has worked, because the policeman and Radhika both agree that he has to do his job.
Sex work affords Radhika her livelihood. Outreach work, on the other hand, has given her a self respect whose value, for her, is above price. This confidence translates into a greater willingness to take care of her health, which includes taking precautions against exposure to HIV.
'Do you know how I feel to be called madam?' she asked. She lifted her scrawny arms high above her head. 'Ten feet tall.'
The HIV sensitisation programme in the state's police training schools is significant for different reasons. It will educate new recruits, some as young at eighteen, at a time in their life when they are evolving, and more likely to embrace new ideas.
Although the park we met in was crowded with picnickers, and Constable Ram Naik was in civilian clothes, his straight, unstrained gait, determined eyes and a sharpness that belied his snub nose, made it easy for me to pick him out. He had perfect teeth, straight and white; but one, right in the middle, was yellow as butter. Every time he smiled, it flashed, drawing my attention away from his words.
Naik and his siblings are the first generation in the family to be educated. His mother's signature is a thumbprint. A housewife, she spends her evenings sewing her youngest daughter's trousseau. Naik's father, a clerk in a phone company, relaxes beside her when he returns from work, switching between news channels for his pleasure, and soap operas for hers.
Perhaps because they did not have the opportunity to study, Naik's parents value education above everything else. The one bedroom in their ground floor apartment in New Bombay is not for the child who needs sleep, but the one who has to study. Everyone else lies outside, on the floor.
Growing up in the village, Naik did not watch Hindi films. He did not cheer the good cop of Zanjeer, boo the bad cop in Khaki. In the town nearby, the appearance of the police encouraged people to cross the road, respectfully doffing their khadi caps. The boy understood that the police had power. It was spoken in the bang of their lathis.
When Naik graduated college, his parents urged him to consider a government job. It offered stability, a pension. If he died, his son or daughter would be given work. Naik remembered the swagger of the police, his childhood wonderment at their uniforms, crisp as newspaper. He was young and athletic. He thought, why not? Had he failed recruitment, as did several of his friends, Naik would have returned to the village to grow wheat and vegetables on his family's five acres of field. A life as fragile as dust. Every eight hours the burden of debt forces a farmer in the district to commit suicide. When he visits now, his relatives preen in the glow of his success. They tease, 'Sahib, can I make you some tea?' Farmers his father's age converge for advice. School boys beg a look at the uniform he has brought along. He sees his friends, backs bent like curling leaves. He knows he should be proud of his achievement.
But this is not so. For from his first day in training, Naik has seen around him corruption deep as a well.
'Not smart enough to pass the recruitment?' he asks, staring down at his sandalled feet. 'Use your contacts to put pressure on the examiners. Want a holiday but don't want to lose pay? Slip a ten rupee note to the constable in charge of the attendance register. Running short this month? Demand hafta from your juniors.'
It has been two years. Naik suffers swings of mood—sometimes miserable, at other times resigned. His parents watch from the background. He is their only son, but they are afraid to confront him, worried of what the answer may be. On his days off he cannot stand to be around their anxious faces, and rides a bus downtown to attend free events advertised in the morning's newspapers. Seed exhibitions, flower shows—he is not discerning. In his civilian clothes he is anonymous, one of thousands pushing and shoving, and so he can stare at his peers as they smoulder in the heat of packed streets, idle along shop fronts, waiting for he knows what.
He recalls the policemen of his childhood. His wonderment appears a joke. 'What is this life I have chosen?' he asks himself.
Naik's parents urge him to get married. 'A wife will be company,' his mother says; she will take his mind off work. He isn't spoilt for choice. For young men from Naik's conservative social class, interaction, never mind familiarity with the opposite sex, is discouraged. He did not play with girls as a child, has scant occasion to speak with his female colleagues. At home, as mother cooks or watches television, sister stud-ies—conversation is limited.
So here is the irony. The women Naik knows best are the sex workers of Mahim whose streets he patrols. Some he calls by name—Asha, Lata, Priya—with a polite 'ji' appended, and they chat for a moment; nothing special, just a comment perhaps, on the heat. He knows where they hide when they have been tipped off about a cleanup, and that the loiterers will scatter like pollen when the sirens start their song. He can
recognise them even when they get off work; faces clean of makeup as they stroll for toys and trinkets, children skipping happily by their side.
He tells me, 'The police think women have a higher sex drive than men. That's why they're in sex work.'
'And what do you think?' I ask.
'That they're not randis,' he replies. When he says it, he makes the word sound polite. 'Sure, some of them like having sex. Others make more money in a day than my sister would earn teaching for a month. But mostly, they're just very poor, pathetic people. And this talk of free sex? I would never. Not with HIV killing people like they were diseased cattle.'
'So what do you do?' I ask, my meaning clear.
He bites his lip. 'I read the Friendship Wanted pages in the newspapers. Every day. I have free outgoing calls on my cell phone, so one morning I called one of the numbers. The woman gave me a rate list. All kinds of sex. One person. Two. Massages!'
Disappointment sat on his face.
'Not friendship at all.'
Will you call again?
'Maybe,' he replies. 'That's better than taking what's waiting out there.'
'So this is how it will be,' Naik tells me. He will not torment sex workers on his beat, he never has, and when he sees policemen who do, his clear disgust sours their enjoyment. 'I can't stop them, but at least I can make them feel bad,' he says. It is the same with hafta, another whip that drives sex workers underground, even though he insists, 'there are reasons why we do these things'.
While many policemen take hafta because they can, some will say they have no option. A constable earns Rs 3500 (about $86) a month, excluding benefits. That is about half of what I earned at my first job out of college, at the age of twenty one. It is as much as a full time maid is paid. Economics aside, demanding bribes is as endemic to India's streets, as it is to the glass-fronted superstructures that look down on those streets. It is a culture upheld in the station itself, where some seniors demand hafta from their subordinates. Of every 100 rupees a policeman extracts from Savita or Radhika, 70 goes to his officers.
Statistics offer more insights. In Bombay, a policeman dies every 48 hours.8 He succumbs to heart attack, stress related illness, accidents. Or he kills himself. It was only this year that the city police started granting its lower cadres a weekly holiday. Although there have been improvements, even since the time he joined, Naik still works shifts of 48 hours. After 10 pm, it is said, the police start drinking; they claim the streets as their own.
One man. What can he do?
I ask Naik if he will quit. He thinks about it. Looks down. Then he asks me, 'Can you imagine how bad I feel coming home from work, when I replay all the things I have heard and seen that day?'
'And yet somehow when I wake up in the morning, I feel new. The way I did when I applied to the police. When I got in. I believed then that I could do some good. And I still feel that way. I still feel I can be different.'
On the surface, Naik is evidence of the fact that training and working within the law can help the police deal better with sex workers. It could reclaim Savita and Ashok's dignity, and Madhav Rao's integrity.
But change will not come easily. I know this as an outsider.
So I tell the young man a story about Ashok the MSW. It illustrates that no matter what position sex workers may carve for themselves as outreach workers, they are still at the mercy of the police, until the police decide it is time to change.
When I finish, Naik is silent. Around us the clamour continues, but, it seems, with greater clarity. Overfull buses honk, children scream with laughter, a woman giggles lovingly into her cell phone.
By the time we say goodbye, several hours later, after discussing other matters, Naik still has not responded to the story.
This is what I told him.
One evening, as I sat with Ashok and a dozen other sex workers, he recounted an incident involving a friend.
The friend was picked up in a park by a 'smart boy'. The policemen awaiting him were drunk. They took him to their station, to their colleagues who were also drunk, on anticipation and rum. He was stripped and shoved into an empty cell. The policemen formed a line. One after the other they forced him to give them oral sex. The friend begged them to stop. They demanded anal sex. He was bleeding, delirious. The policemen continued through the night. Not one of them used a condom. When the shift changed at dawn, there was a new line. Then one of the policemen had a 'good idea'. He stuck one prong of a wire into a socket, and with the other administered electric shocks to the'friend's' genitals. The cell, still warm with the smell of blood, now reeked of scalded fat and burnt hair.
Ashok's eyes filled with tears. I realised who the 'friend' was. I looked away. What I saw made me want to lower my head into my hands. The other sex workers were mirror images of one another.
'Yes,' said their faces. The nod of their heads. 'Yes, this has happened to me too.'
Excerpted from AIDS SUTRA: Untold Stories from India Copyright (c) 2008 Edited by Negar Akhavi. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.