In Andhra generations of Indian families have been involved in the sex industry and from which few girls escape

Sex and the sari by Kiran Desai

In March I travelled to coastal Andhra Pradesh, to the delta region of the Godavari river. On the streets of a village we drove through, I noticed an overabundance of beds. Beds being delivered, new old beds, makeshift stage set beds, cheap beds being varnished in the sun, mattresses in the dust. Around this strangeness of beds proliferating, village life seemed as benign as Narayan’s Malgudi stories that had created my idea of what it meant to be Indian in this world, in the sweetest incarnation possible. Little shops for cigarettes and sweets; cows wandering; men riding cycles on their way to the banana market by the river’s edge, bananas tied to the handlebars, their colour macaw shocking-green and yellow, green and yellow, the greenest green and the yellowiest yellow. Sound of water pouring into pails, out of pails. A jeep going by with some policemen poking their heads out. This world was normal.

Except it was really entirely something else.

The women getting children ready in tiny shorts and mini-ties on elastic bands were all sex workers. The children with their homework were the children of men who stayed five minutes for a “shot”. The cycle rickshaw men were pimps who’d found extra business when auto rickshaws drove down their income, the gas station men were also pimps, and so were the dhaba men. A 20 per cent or 30 per cent cut. The lorry drivers, the coolies were clients. Others in the street were “brokers”, some 300 of them. Men coming back with groceries were “temporary husbands”. The old lady at her gate was a brothel madam, haggling over the price of girls she was buying from desperately poor parents. Coloured Christmas stars over bungalows revealed a missionary drive to save the fallen. The policemen were slowing down, hoping to catch someone soliciting. They’d let her go again in exchange for free sex.

Say “Peddapuram”, and every man grins. This is a village of “high-class” sex workers from the Kalavanthalu subcaste, hereditary courtesans and temple dancers famous for their elegant beauty. Almost every family is involved in the trade.

They trace their lineage from the days when they were protected by royalty, priests and landowners, all the way downhill to a franker prostitution as patronage crumbled in a modernising India of another shade of morality. “There is still a lot of money in this dhanda (business).” The price of a high-class sex worker in Peddapuram: all the way from Rs 200 ($5) a shot, and Rs 1,500 ($37) for a night, to Rs 1,000 ($25) a shot, Rs 10,000 ($250) for a night; depending on beauty, fairness of skin. “Shot” always said in English, with movie swagger. All ages were sought after, from teenagers to “auntys”, for younger men feel safer with “auntys”, explained a sex worker. And, guffawing hard: “Those policemen are smiling at you because they think maybe you’re a new girl with lipstick on especially for them.”

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