Falkland Road by Mary Ellen Mark

Altamont and Falkland Roads are just a couple of miles away from one another in downtown Bombay. However, they seemed to belong to different worlds. Magnates, celebrities, and ambassadors live in the upscale residential neighborhood around Altamont Road. Less exulted is the area around Falkland Road, also known as Kamathipura, one of the largest red-light districts in the world.

Frequented by lower classes since the days of British rule, the area remains a brutal epicenter of abuse, exploitation, and sex trafficking even in independent India. Laws and diktats of the authorities stopped outside the so-called Fuckland’s labyrinthine network of brothels, warrens, and cages. It was overcrowded with women, from 11-year-old girls to 65-year-old ex-madams. The street is lined with old wooden buildings, which had prostitutes in their windows in the viewing cages on the ground floor, and on the steps. Girls were kidnapped from their families in rural villages. Desperate families who didn’t want female offsprings sold them off to brothels. Pimps preyed on young and attractive beggar girls. Girls were forced into prostitution and into cages to prevent them from escaping. Neglect — and worse fates — awaited children born to prostitutes within the district.

To this world arrived Mary Ellen Mark in 1968. She would go on to become a humanistic portrayer of the society’s harsher corners — street-gangs, runaway children, psychiatric patients — and the scenes she witnessed in Bombay haunted her. Viewed as an interloping foreigner, she was unwelcome and the reception was downright hostile. She remembered:

Each time met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water and pinched me. Crowds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book; another time I was hit in the face by a drunken man. Needless to say, I never managed to take very good photographs.

After several attempts to take photographs there – ‘the women threw garbage and water and pinched me’ – she returned ten years later in October 1978 with an assignment from Geo’s American edition.

Her initial approach was simply to wait; Mark spent days sitting in cafés, pacing the streets before finally being invited by a madam into her brothel-room for tea. That meeting began a friendship, and Mark was soon able to photograph freely. She stayed in the district for two months, befriending prostitutes, pimps, madams, and transvestites alike. Photos, taken in vivid colors in dramatic contrast from Mark’s black-and-white usual, showed filthy mattresses surrounded by filthier walls. (Geo’s editors wanted the story in colour – breaking with traditional documentary representations of this kind of subject).

When Mark returned home, Geo considered the pictures too raw, repulsive, sensual and disturbing for its American audience, and refused to publish. The story was picked up by Stern in its September 10, 1981 issue, and also subsequently published in American Photographer and the Sunday Times Magazine. Mark also released it as a book: Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay – a haunting chronicle of abject lives that the New York Times called, “intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning, and more seductive in its passionate mix of colors than in its offerings of flesh”.

Many others followed Mark’s footsteps to document the district (see a great modern expose here). The area had survived to this day, although many whose lives Mark documented didn’t, as AIDS took its toll in the following decade. Due to increased awareness, international aid organizations were allowed to set up anti-trafficking shelters and children’s homes. There are estimated 20,000 sex workers in Kamathipura .today — although down for its dizzying heights (of 50,000) in the 1990s. Now the area is overlooked by gleaming skyscrapers, and the area’s recent redevelopment plans mean Kamathipura’s days might be numbered. However, the unholy network of pimps, madams, and traffickers will simply move somewhere else, with their cages and virgin auctions.

(Most of the photos from the book are on her website here).

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