Lean rickshaw pullers wait for passengers on dusty alleys illuminated by the evening sun. Loud women in front of vegetable baskets bargain with customers in the small market square. Children in school uniform gather for another round of games before returning home. Peddapuram is just another island of houses in the vast paddy-field green on the way from Rajahmundry to Samalkot, until Parimala Jyothi tells me there are more than 1250 commercial sex workers in the 10-square kilometer town.
The counselor with CHANGES (Community Health Awareness and Natural Green Environment Society), an NGO creating awareness on HIV/AIDS since 1999, also told me that 200 odd women carry the dreaded virus and many suffer from sexually-transmitted diseases - a byproduct of the pleasure industry of Peddapuram. Though there is no marked red-light district in the town, lascivious guests are welcome anytime in almost all houses in two of the 24 wards of Peddapuram municipal corporation.
Peddapuram’s prostitutes, who patiently wait with a smile in front of their houses, call themselves Kalavantalu, which means artistes. They claim their lineage to a glamorous breed of singers and dancers who performed in front of temples and palaces. They are the vestiges of a
royal system which patronized Devadasis, servants of god, who married the deity and entertained the pious. Andhra Pradesh banned the practice by law in 1988. Neighbouring Karnataka had done so in 1982. If Devadasis are dedicated to Maridamma in Andhra, it’s the Yellamma cult that keeps alive the tradition in Karnataka.
Nagu, aged 32, is a Kalavantalu. She no longer entertains guests. She goes around the town talking to her former colleagues about the traps of the trade. As a peer educator with the NGO, she claims she has saved many lives. Her daughters study at the local school. There is a Lutheran English Medium School in the town, where the British East India Company set up its base as early as 1847. The SRV College was established in 1967. Women who once looked at prostitution as their only means to livelihood don’t want their children to follow suit.
Afzar, aged 30, is not a Kalavantalu. The pretty woman from a village not very far away came to this infamous town with her children after her husband deserted the family. While the natives flee for other towns to erase the taboo of the town, Peddapuram’s infamy as a prostitution hub attracts new entrants to the flesh trade. It’s easy to get customers here throughout the year. More over, prostitutes are not second-class citizens in this town, where every second house is a brothel.
HIV/AIDS NGO workers classify sex workers into three: brothel-based, home-based and mobile, the most dangerous virus carriers who cater to high-risk random pickers like truck drivers. Brothels are gradually vanishing thanks to police raids. Stil there are a 100 of them. The luxury houses, run by a veteran ‘madam’, are often accused of human trafficking. Behind Peddapuram’s inviting alleyways lurk super pimps, who smuggle girls to the sex-starved streets of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Home-based sex workers, the ordinary women of Peddapuram, have many patrons. Rich farmers, affluent merchants and even urban professionals have their favourites among them. The hostesses are adept at singing and dancing and the art of convincing every customer that they are in love with them. Perhaps they really are. These women don’t intimidate potential customers like their counterparts in Red Street and GB Road. They are ready to cook for them, sing and dance for them.
But Peddapuram is not a town of families. Most of the Kalavantalus, who can afford to, have left the stigmatic town behind and set up houses in bigger cities like Kakkinada and Rajahmundry. There they lead a normal middle-class life, ensuring good education for their children. They return to the town when regular customers ask them to. For them Peddapuram is just a workplace. Those who have completely shed their past cloak sell their houses or rent it to their neighbours to receive guests.
Thanks to volunteers like Nagu and Afzar, sex workers have a greater awareness on the threats of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Government agencies and NGOs are actively promoting condom use. They claim most of the sex workers now insist on condoms. These agencies also run clinics for affected sex workers. They have been largely successful in weaning away HIV positive women from sex work by providing them alternative employment, mostly with the organization itself.
Nagu and Afzar know that their children’s only chance rests in good education. But many of the children in Peddapuram are doomed before birth. A 1000-year-old culture is hard to counter. Most Kalavantalu women still want their daughters to follow the peculiar rituals of the community. Soon after she become fertile, the girl is dressed like a bride and paraded before the lustful eyes of landlords and merchants who have come to sleep with the virgin. Sleeping with a virgin on the first of the Ashada month brings long life and good fortune, they believe. The highest bidder will own her for the night. There have been reports of auctioning of minor girls coinciding with the Ashada carnival dedicated to local deity Maridamma, as latest as 2005. Now police and other authorities aver the practice is gone for good.
It is not only the girls, forced into unmarried adultery, who are exposed to associated health risks. HIV positive mothers pass on the virus to their offspring. The Samalkot-based St Paul’s Trust has identified 72 of the 1600 children in 13 mandals of East Godavari district, where Peddapuram is located, as HIV positive. The Trust has started to find alternative means to livelihood to sex workers through microfinancing. The Trust offers loans from a thrift fund of Rs 60 lakh at 12 percent interest. It covers around 2000 women.
Solutions are not easy to come by in an overgrown village, where sexual encounters come for a variety of prices from Rs 10 to Rs 10,000 or more. While the high-profile ‘madams’ find it too hard to resist the lure of easy money, their not-so-lucky counterparts continue to rent their bodies to keep it alive. Given the density of prostitutes in the area, it is not easy to find alternative employment for them all. The current conditions of a community once admired for their beauty and charm as well as their artistic abilities, is summed up by Nagu: “We used to perform at ‘record dances’ at local festivals. Now the police have banned it, leaving us with no option but to sell our bodies.”
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