It all started with the onset of the Hornby Vellard Project in 1784. The low-lying marshy areas opened up to habitation and the kamathis, or labourers took up place to make a living and thriving in the area. No one clearly remembers the date or year when Lal Bazaar, as the area was formerly called, turned into Kamathipura and the buzz of the daily construction labourers were replaced by the chaos of prostitutes. What Shakuntala Tai remembers though is that Kumadevi was one of the early settlers of the red-light area. Fair skinned, light eyed, curls on her head that snaked all the way up to her slender waist, a perfect nose and “Mind you”, said Shakuntala Tai, ‘’a perfect nose in a woman symbolizes the status of her birth. One look at Kumadevi and you’d know she was born into wealth.’’
Shakuntala Tai had been the only daughter of a construction site worker who lost his life to tuberculosis. Leaving her to fend for herself, she stayed put in her one room tin house and witnessed the change in the area. Kumadevi arrived with a man she called Uncle and took residence in a dilapidated building in the area. What struck Shakuntala Tai about her is, first her beauty and then the richness of her clothes. A richly clad woman was new to the area and its inhabitants and Kumadevi dressed to make her presence felt. A week or so into her arrival, began the re-construction of the forsaken building into a palatial prestige. Three storied and lattice worked balconies, the staircase snaked all the way to what seemed to be the heaven’s in Shakuntala Tai’s eyes. The re-construction led to the hiring of many kamathis from the area but no one was privileged enough to see Kumadevi in person. Completed in a span of one year, the newness of the structure shocked its nearby commoners. All throughout, Kumadevi stayed put, brandishing herself as the hottest topic in the area, not easily visible to common eyes and alluring to the gossip hearers. Shakuntala Tai saw her though, saw her every day. Till she died, she didn’t know whether Kumadevi showed herself on purpose at one particular time, every morning, as if she knew Shakuntala Tai was watching. Through the tiny window of her one room hovel, she saw Kumadevi feeding the pigeons that flocked to her verandah. No one else claimed to have seen her do so and Shakuntala Tai, considering herself privileged, kept this secret rendezvous to herself.
A year later, when people were only beginning to get used to the aura called Kumadevi, the three storied building was inaugurated amidst fun fare and fireworks. No one from the area knew the people who arrived that night. Decorative carriages with turbaned guests, richly clad in silk and velvet made their way into the house. There was song and dance all through the night. The celebration came to an end in the wee hours of the morning and that is when the awe-struck people of Lal Bazaar saw her waving at her departing guests, standing tall in the lattice worked balcony. Fresh rumors began to do the rounds thereafter. Some called her a witch for they had not witnessed a beauty such as herself, almost celestial. Kumadevi hired a retinue of girls to run the place. Slowly, some of the neighbourhood girls began taking up work in her building. They came back with stories of abundance and richness. Commoners in the area just couldn’t get enough of her. What though was her means to such extravagance, no one spoke of. Some whispered, she was the widow of a rich man who had made a new start in life, while others spoke of her as a witch who indulged in black magic to keep her household running. Wayward mouths on streets wagged, ‘’he aali aahe tari kuthun,’’ which simply meant ‘’where has she come from?’’
Soon one thing earned notice and further intrigued the commoners in the area. The crude, young girls, employed in her household began to show signs of having cultivated the art of etiquette, good manners, decorum and courtesy. Most noticeable among these changes was their knack for conversation, especially with their male counterparts, which was suddenly studded with repartees and appropriate use of witticisms. Something was definitely changing.
To Be Continued in Part 2….
Another six months passed this way and Kumadevi continued her daily ritual of feeding the pigeons and making herself visible to Shakuntala Tai. One evening, when the building was decorated like a newly wed bride, a carriage halted before it and out emerged a tall Englishman, guards by his side. He entered her kingdom and walked out only sometime later the next day. Fresh rumours arose. Kumadevi had the support of and run the place hand in hand with the British. Soon enough, something else happened. All the hired girls did not return home one night and thereon stayed put in the building. Concerned parents flocked the gates of her house to take their daughters home but all of them, mind you, all of the thirteen girls refused to return home with their parents. By then, two strong guards were posted at the gate without whose permission one wasn’t allowed to enter its premise. Music and dance filled the evenings loud enough to be heard for miles on end. There was laughter and banter and a few other cries too, forbidden cries that were crushed within the four walls of the rooms they were uttered in. Virgin bodies drew rich men in flocks and her business reached a new crescendo of luxury and absurdity, absurdities going as far as to claim that until a person had association with Kumadevi, he was not a polished man!
Two years into her arrival and her building was hailed as a full-fledged house of sin and the sinful. More and more virgin girls poured into her building, girls so poor that they preferred this to their animal like conditions on the streets. No one was forcefully asked to stay, no one, such was the glitz and glamour of the life within the building that girls gave in easily, some rumoured to have run away from their homes to live in the dream-like affair.
One evening everything changed though. A turbaned patron, some had seen him firstly on the day of the inauguration and thereafter on multiple occasions, dragged her by the hair, tearing her clothes and slapping her as he pulled her into the streets. People stood and watched the fall of the celestial beauty, many among them happy that the place would finally be torn down and their daughters would return to respectable lives. She screamed and shouted but no one dared to stop her torturer. He screamed as he beat her, ‘’I gave you everything and you dare to sleep with that English bastard, you cunt!’’ She begged for forgiveness, but her patron would have none of it. He beat her till her lifeless body lay sprawled like a bleeding dog. He spat on her, cursed her again and got into his carriage and rode away. The area was wrapped in pin drop silence till one voice cursed the men standing silently and walked forward.
Shakuntala Tai picked up her lifeless body and moved it into the house. Girls swarmed around her bed as Shakuntala Tai got to dressing her wounds. Soon after, the British gentleman arrived and peace was restored in the area. The guards were instructed to guard the building zealously and the girls told to stay locked in. Two days into the nursing, and by this time, Shakuntala Tai had garnered a motherly affection from the girls, Kumadevi passed away and Tai was pronounced the new madam. She was already sixty by then. She learnt the ropes of the trade and continued the business to the best of her ability till she passed away in her sleep and on her eightieth birthday. By then there were many other houses of this kind in the area. The entire sprawl had occupied its reputation of the ill-repute, run by the ill-repute and for the ill-repute. Street-smart pimps and dallas had made their appearance thereby reducing the tehzeeb-e-tawaif to simply a randi!