Mumbai. ‘The city of dreams’. The great beating heart of the Indian subcontinent that daily absorbs a new wave of immigrants seeking a brighter future. The city skyline has reflected Mumbai’s growth and the towering skyscrapers seen from the Bandra-Worli sea link bridge (built at a cost of $240 million in 2010) are rapidly echoing Manhattan or Hong Kong. This is a mega city bursting out of its former colonial seams with a bang and containing some of the world’s most expensive real estate.
Right in the traditional centre of this metropolis is a maze of streets that tell of a darker side. Kamathipura, spread over five ‘lanes’, looks at first glance to be another typical impoverished and lively Mumbai neighbourhood. But it is, in fact, Asia’s second largest red light district, infamous as a murky hub of human trafficking and sex slavery. To walk through these lanes at dusk is to experience another world.
A smorgasbord of women and girls, from Nepali to South Indian, cluster on the streets, heavily made up, in flashing saris or tight blue jeans, united in their inscrutable expression and jaded stare. Cameras are not welcome here and a foreign visitor is eyed with both mistrust and disdain. Children and puppies play at the feet of the waiting women, like everywhere in India, life in all its raw beauty is lived on the street and there is little hidden away. Except that is for the new arrivals, freshly trafficked victims as young as eight years old who are brought with muffled screams from a passing taxi and locked into a steel cage for weeks or months until they are considered ‘broken’ enough to release with rape, starvation and beatings being the normal treatment. This is the silent story of Kamathipura. They are silenced victims.