It was 1:05am when we boarded the train for Virar. After attending a wedding, we were going home from Andheri to one of Bombay's suburbs.
My nine-year-old daughter and I boarded the compartment reserved for ladies. I was a little wary of getting in there, as I thought it would be empty. But I found some 15 women in it. I was happy. The last thing I wanted was to travel in a deserted compartment and get mugged.
As the train left the station, my daughter lay her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. Around us the ladies were talking in loud voices.
"Aaj kuch kamai nahin hui, sirf paanch sau rupiyah miley [I did not earn anything much today, only Rs 500]," said a lady in black sari. She had quite a lot of jewellery on.
"Business down hai," said another with long gold earrings.
"These days the police harass us a lot," added a third, wearing a pink salwar kameez. "If they don't get their payoffs on time, they raid the place!"
From the conversation that followed, I learnt they all worked in bars, either as waitresses or dancers.
I had always been fascinated by the lives of such women. I did not know how to start a conversation with them. But to my good luck, the girl sitting opposite me smiled. She asked where we were getting down.
"Vasai," I said. "Where do you live?"
"Mira Road. Where are you coming from?"
"From my cousin's wedding," I replied. "And you?"
"From work," she said, adding softly, "I am a dancer."
She was around 20 years old. Where was she from? Jaunpur in UP, she said. And she has been a bar girl for two years now.
"How did you get the job?"
"Our neighbour in my village works as a waiter in the bar," she replied. "He told my parents about good jobs in Bombay, which pay very good salaries.
"We are six brothers and sisters and I am the eldest. My father is paralysed. My mother used to work in a factory for Rs 1,500 a month. I stopped going to school as my mother could not afford to pay my fees."
"Did you know you would have to work in a bar when you came to Bombay?"
"No, my neighbour said I would have to serve food in a restaurant, and it was a decent job in Bombay. I had never been to Bombay or to a restaurant before. So I did not know what kind of a job it was.
"I started working as a waitress, serving food and liquor. Because I was young and pretty [she was very fair], they asked me to learn dancing... After I finished my training I started dancing in the bar."
"Are you happy with the work?"
"No," she said. "I don't like it sometimes because men try to touch me and ask me to go out with them. They promise to give me good money."
"Why don't you go back to your village, earn a decent living, and get married?"
"I can't," she said. "I am not educated, I do not know any other trade. If I work in a factory I will earn 1,500 or 2,000 rupees a month. What can I do with that amount? I have to educate my younger brothers and sisters so that they have a decent life."
"And what about you?" I asked. "What about your life?"
"I don't know. Whatever God wishes will happen."
"Are all these ladies dancers and waitresses?" I asked.
"No. Some also go out with their customers. Like that lady in the black sari there."
What a life, I thought. Just then the train reached Mira Road. The girl said a hurried goodbye and got down.
A month later, I happened to see the movie Chandini Bar. It gave me an insight into the lives of waitresses and dancers. My thoughts flew to the girl on the train.
Society is a witness to their plight. But it does nothing, except turn its face away.
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