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The scholar who grew up in Mumbai's red light area

Last updated on: April 22, 2013 18:46 IST

The scholar who grew up in Mumbai's red light area

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Abhishek Mande

Born in Mumbai's infamous red-light district, Shweta Katti has won a scholarship to the Bard College, New York. Abhishek Mande narrates her story.

Shweta Katti is warming up to the media attention she's been receiving lately. She has had a long day but has agreed to meet me at a coffee shop for what must have been the nth interview she's giving in the last 48 hours.

It is close to 10 in the night. Katti isn't here yet; though the two young ladies who have all but adopted the 18-year-old are sitting in a corner, having a pizza.

Robin Chaurasiya, an American of Indian origin, and Trina Talukdar, along with Chaurasiya's partner Katie Pollum, run Kranti, a non-governmental organisation that works towards the rehabilitation of girls from Mumbai's red-light area.

Shweta Katti is one of them.

Katti was introduced to Kranti when she was looking for a place to study for her Class 12 exams. Over the year and half since she's been with them, she has become the face of the NGO, travelling around the country, addressing conferences and promoting Kranti.

More recently, the 18-year-old was listed by Newsweek as one of the 25 under-25 women in the world to watch out for. The list includes women like Malala Yousafzai, who have battled adversity to become symbols of resistance.

This, however, is just one of the reasons why Katti has found herself at the centre of media attention over the last few days. The other is that she has only just heard from New York's Bard College, who have accepted her as a student for the coming semester.

They've offered her a $30,000 scholarship that covers her tuition fees for the year, as well as half her accommodation cost. If Chaurasiya is to be believed, this would make Katti the first girl from Mumbai's red-light district to travel to the United States for education.

She will begin her term at Bard in September this year.


Image: Shweta Katti, the teenager from Mumbai's red light area who has won a scholarship to Bard College in New York
Photographs: Courtesy Kranti India

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Life hasn't always been easy for Shweta Katti.

Even as she prepares to be part of the prestigious college that counts numerous journalists, authors, poets and critics amongst its notable alumni, Katti hasn't forgotten her past. If at all, she seems aware it is the reason why she has got this opportunity in the first place.

Katti is surprisingly open about her past.

She talks extensively about her life in the Pila House area, Mumbai's red-light district, her abusive father and the circumstances of her birth.

She also speaks of her experiences in the past year, during which she's taken a break from her education -- travelling, sharing her experiences and educating women about gender and sexuality in villages as far as Nepal.

In the time that we spent together, it seemed to me that she enjoyed talking about herself -- not in a vain or a pity-me-because-I'm-poor manner but simply as a matter of fact, almost as if you'd tell someone about an average day at work.

Katti's life, however, has been very different. Pain and abuse have been part of it for as long as she can remember before she emerged triumphant. This is stuff movies are made of, a fact I suspect she doesn't miss.

Katti is a love child and doesn't hesitate to admit it.

"My mother had an affair with a man whose marriage was arranged. She is a devdasi, so she couldn't marry him. But she wanted a pyaar ki nishani (a symbol of their love) and that's how I was born," she says, rolling her eyes in a manner that makes me imagine her chiding her mother half-jokingly.

It would, of course, be years before she would discover this truth.


Image: The flat from which Kranti operates. Seen here are German volunteers teaching the girls to sketch, paint and sculpt.
Photographs: Courtesy Kranti India

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Robin Chaurasiya remembers a very different Shweta Katti. She recalls meeting her at the office of Apne Aap, an NGO that works with children in Mumbai's red-light district.

"We were told she had potential. When we met her for the first time and asked what her goals were, she said she wanted to study and become a chartered accountant."

Soon, Katti was part of Kranti, which currently runs out of a rented flat in Mumbai's northern suburb, Kandivali.

The flat is home to a handful of teenagers including Katti and a fiery, 20-something Kranti employee called Bani Das who pretty much looks after the day-to-day running of the house.

Das used to work for Rescue, a shelter for young girls rescued from brothels in the city. This is where she met Chaurasiya, who was volunteering for a few months. Not happy with the way Rescue worked, she joined Kranti soon after it started.

Chaurasiya says shelters like Rescue focus on getting the girls married or teach them to sew or make papads and pickles. The girls eventually ended up working in canteens or in the hotel industry as janitors.

Hoping to make a bigger difference in the lives of the girls they touched, the duo started Kranti, which means Revolution. "The idea is to give them as much opportunity as we would have liked our children to have," Chaurasiya says.

"Food and clothing is fine but the real question wasn't being addressed -- how does one work on developing their talent? Over the course of a year, we spent close to $5000 per child that includes extra-curricular activities, counselling, movie screenings, plays and travel."

This doesn't necessarily go down well with their sponsors, some of who have dropped out. On the flipside, with its focus on fewer girls, Kranti has managed to widen their worldview in a way that few NGOs can.

Katti, for instance, has taken a break for a year from her education and travelled extensively, addressing young women in Nepal, Jharkhand, Bengaluru and Goa.

"I basically talked to them about gender and sexuality," she says, prompting me to ask what she understood by these terms.

She falters at the beginning, perhaps because she's taken aback by the suddenness of the question, but soon explains exactly what she told women wherever she went.


Image: Shweta Katti with Katie Pollum in Srinagar. Katti has been travelling around the country addressing young women and men
Photographs: Courtesy Kranti India

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Shweta Katti speaks better English than many young people her age who come from more privileged backgrounds, but occasionally has to go back to Hindi, a language she's most comfortable with.

"Aap kaise pehchanoge kaun ladka hai aur kaun ladki?" she tells me, recollecting a conversation she had in Nepal with a bunch of young women and men between the ages of 13 and 18. "How would you identify a girl from a boy?" she asked the group.

The answers were predictable.

- Ladki ko achchi figure honi chahiye (Girls must have a 'good figure')!

- Ladkiyaan khaana pakati hain (Girls cook meals).

- Ladkiyon ke baal lambey hotey hain (Girls have long hair).

- Ladkey kaam par jaatey hain aur paisa kamate hain (Boys go to work and earn money).

- Ladkey handsome hotey hain (Boys are handsome).

"I asked them if it was a bad thing if women didn't cook or men grew their hair (did it make them effeminate)? I don't think they liked that idea a lot," she laughs.

"I tried to tell them that men should also work around the house and help raise children; that it was alright for a man not to be masculine. The thing is, people have very rigid ideas about how women are supposed to behave and look (and what is expected of men), which causes problems."

Katti grew up in a world that was, and continues to remain, skewed wildly in favour of men. Her grandfather ran a brothel and died penniless after selling his 'business' and leaving her grandmother pregnant with her mother.

Explaining her rather confounding family tree, Katti says, "My grandmother worked as a cleaning lady in a brothel. She never was a prostitute; neither was my mother. When she was young, my mother fell really ill and, at the insistence of her friend, my grandmother sent her back to the village." 

That was the last her mother saw of school.

Katti tells me that her mother was a devdasi -- she doesn't explain how she came about to be one -- but insists that she never indulged in, as she puts it, 'sex work'.

"(My mother) was never involved in that," she says. 

After she returned to Mumbai and started working in a factory nearby, she fell in love in a man called Suresh Hosmane. Soon after, Katti was born.

Years later, her mother met another man who was willing to give her and her daughter shelter.

That man was Ravinder Katti, whose name she now carries.


Image: Set to take a plunge: Katti in Srinagar
Photographs: Courtesy Kranti India

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For most of her childhood, Shweta Katti grew up thinking the man in the house was her father. But something didn't feel right.

"I never got the feeling I was his real daughter," she says. "I was dark; he was the fairest man I knew."

There would be fights everyday; he would return home drunk, abuse and beat up her mother, her sisters and her... And there were the frequent remarks that she wasn't his child.

"I would ask my mother what he meant, but she'd always brush it off. When I misbehaved and he was angry, he would make me sleep away from the rest of them."

As she tries to explain the arrangements, choking a bit, I picture a loft over a brothel with an unwashed curtain separating the living area from the area where business is conducted with Katti curled up in a corner, possibly near the steps leading to the loft.

For about half a minute, none of us speak.

"That was my only world. It's only when I think of it now..." her voice trails off and the scars of her past slowly begin to show.

In less than five minutes, Katti has gone from being a girl who looked like she had no care in the world to the child who walked into Kranti, exhausted and broken.

***

Sex wasn't something Shweta Katti associated with love.

She tells me she'd been made aware of it when she was in the sixth grade at the tuition classes run by the NGO, Apne Aap. But it wasn't until one afternoon, when she was heading to the loft, that she caught a fleeting glimpse of it through some billowing curtains.

"I was disgusted!" she recollects.

It would be a long time before she'd be able to articulate her feelings that went from disgust to fear and, much later, to sympathy, thinking of the women around her who had to do this all their lives.

It was one such woman who jolted Shweta Katti from her complacency. 

Unlike her grandmother, Katti's mother ensured her daughter went to school. But, like other children her age, Katti hated studying.

"I'd watch TV all day, never do work around the house till, one day, my mother returned and was furious to see me in front of the TV," Katti recollects.

Much drama unfolded till Radha, a sex worker neighbour of theirs intervened, sat Katti  down and explained to her exactly where she would end up if she didn't study.

That was all that was needed.

From that day, Katti worked hard. When the time came to change schools, she insisted on going to one that she knew was better. It meant taking on her stepfather, but she says it was worth the pain and tears that followed.

Every evening she'd go to a tuition class run by a local NGO, a fact that irked her father even more. "Woh un logon ke liye hai!" he'd bellow (It is for THOSE people -- sex workers).

She calls Katti her stepfather and Hosmane her 'real papa'. Hosmane died some years ago, long before she knew of the truth.

"My mother isn't married to him (Katti). But she wears a mangalsutra and I have two stepsisters (Katti is their father)," she says.

It would be years before Katti would know of her real father. Chaurasiya fills me in. "About six months ago, when we were trying to get her passport organised, we needed her birth certificate. That was when her mother told her the truth."


Image: Robin Chaurasiya with Trina Talukdar of Kranti
Photographs: Courtesy Kranti India

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Katti doesn't seem to have struck a lot of bonds outside of her circle. Her closest friend is Kavita Hosmane, her biological father's daughter from his marriage. "We were best friends for the longest time before we knew (we were half-sisters)," she says.

Chaurasiya tells me the day Katti learnt Kavita was related to her, she was on the top of the world. The fact that Ravinder Katti wasn't her father didn't bother her at all. 

School wasn't very pleasant; Katti spent a lot of time chasing away bullies who calld her names that cannot be printed. Though college was relatively quieter, it was also lonelier. 

During her stint at SNDT College, from where she completed her Grade 11 and 12, Katti tells me she rarely ever attended classes. She'd spend her time on the campus strolling along corridors or sitting under trees and reading books.

Sure, she made acquaintances (or 'hi-bye friends' as she likes to call them), but the scars from her past, the abuse from her father and the name-calling by her classmates, had put her off interacting with anyone.

Then, of course, there is always the matter of where she comes from. 

Chaurasiya tells me she doesn't necessarily open up about her past with everyone. "There are some places she feels safe, like in the NGO circles where she knows people won't (openly) judge her. But in other places like in the building we live in, she wouldn't ever let anyone in on her past."

The reactions have been varied. Most of them, Katti says, are 'okay with it' (though she isn't able to explain the term very well).

Again, Chaurasiya articulates it best: "When people read about her (going to the US), they don't see it as her achievement. They seem to think she just got lucky. When we requested our neighbours to give her references for her passport, none of them came forward. It was almost as if they felt 'why should she get the opportunity when my child can't?"

***

Katti says she has always wanted to go to the US "for as long as I remember".

As I try to understand her obsession with foreign education, Chaurasiya explains it probably has something to do with the fact that most of the good things that have happened to her have been because of foreigners.

"A large part of the reason why her education has been sorted is because of a British social worker who ran a programme for English learning and computer education," she explains.

The US trip has done wonders for Katti's confidence. She's been facing journalists and camerapersons all by herself and, says Chaurasiya, been doing a fantastic job. She's been telling them she hopes to return and work with sex workers.

I ask Chaurasiya if she believes Katti will return.

"I cannot say," she responds after a brief pause. "I don't think she will return immediately because giving her mother a comfortable life is her priority right now.

"She may take up a job and make money for a while, but I have a feeling she will probably return in the long run.

"Having said that, I don't see anything wrong if she doesn't return. Everyone has a choice of making what they want to of their lives."

***

At the end of our interview in the coffee shop, I was witness to a poignant moment. 

Robin Chaurasiya and Katie Pollum were in the midst of a serious discussion about Kranti's future.

Pollum explained to me that they were working on criteria that will help them select the next girl and not stretch their resources.

Shweta Katti had been listening in intently and offering occasional suggestions.

Days later, I ask Chaurasiya if she remembers what was going on in her mind at the time. 

She confesses she's had it easy with Katti, who has an educated opinion and views about life that few other girls from her background and age do. 

"(That evening) I couldn't help wonder how long it'd take for some of our other girls to reach that level of understanding and maturity."

Shweta Katti will leave Mumbai for New York on August 10 to begin a new life at Bard College. She hopes to graduate in psychology so she can return and help others like her.


Image: Katti, just before leaving for Nepal
Photographs: Courtesy Kranti India

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