The Secret Life of a Sex Worker Mom

People

The Secret Life of a Sex Worker Mom

Illustration: Akshita Monga

R

aksha wakes up every morning with a familiar knot in her stomach. As she moves around her small one-bedroom house in Chennai, waking her son up for school and attending to household chores, she wonders, like every other day, whether this will be the day that her double life will finally come to end.

As the morning unfolds in the cramped kholi in Rani Anna Nagar, her son asks her – Will you be back by lunchtime or will the clients keep her busy? Akshat thinks his mother works too hard. She has climbed up the ladder from a door-to-door sales girl for detergents to a driving-licence agent, and now a real estate broker. It’s not been easy doing it alone, being a single mom. Raksha’s husband abandoned her when their son was barely two.

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Now, packing biscuits into his snack box, Raksha smiles back and tells Akshat that she would be home and there would be hot lunch ready for him when he’s back from school. After he leaves, Raksha gets busy making Akshat’s favourite sambar in the kitchen, but then the phone rings. It’s an old client; he asks for her availability in the afternoon. Raksha sighs. She’s not in a position to turn him down. A lot of her clients went into the pious Sabarimala mode during Diwali and she didn’t manage her quota of three customers a day. Every rupee counts, especially now that her teenage son is keen to take up a computer course that will cost a whopping ₹1 lakh.

She reluctantly leaves the sambar half-cooked. This is not the first time. Her heart breaks a little thinking of Akshat’s dejected face.

Raksha begins to dress up hurriedly. She drapes a green silk sari over a low-neck blouse and adorns her hair with mogra flowers. She carefully applies a subtle pink on her kohl-laden eyelids and fills her lips with a shade of deep red. She’s not young anymore and must work at keep herself attractive.

On her way out, Raksha bumps into an aged neighbour, who is heading to the temple for her daily puja. Raksha asks her to keep an eye on Akshat, in case she gets delayed, which happens a lot. All the neighbours in the society are very helpful. They appreciate that Raksha works hard to make ends meet.

Raksha zips off on her red two-wheeler for the appointment. As she reaches her friend’s flat, where she conducts her business, she hopes the client will be quick and be done in an hour. He’s an old timer, so she isn’t expecting any unpleasant surprises and more importantly, no problem with payments. Outside the door, she touches up her red lipstick, puts her phone on silent, and checks her handbag for a packet of condoms.

Raksha’s friend opens the door and signals to the pot-bellied middle-aged man who is sitting on the sofa, impatiently jiggling his legs. Together, they walk into the bedroom and lock the door behind them.

***

Raksha has been a sex worker for 15 years now, but nobody other than those in her close-knit circle of sex workers, clients, and pimps know what she really does for a living. Outside this murky world, she’s a diligent single mother.

Raksha does not subscribe to the stereotype of a sex worker. There’s no invitation on her face, no over-the-top makeup, no lingering on streets, and there are definitely no scuffles in seedy hotel rooms. During the hours that Raksha is not working, she is your everyday Chennai housewife, keeping her house in order and bringing up her child.

It’s hard to keep lying to a teenage son about the anonymous calls that she receives, her odd work hours, and the bruises that sometimes appear on her body.

Raksha does not bother playing victim, as she tells me her story. She was not pushed into the flesh trade. She took it up simply as a more lucrative option than door-to-door sales. One day, when she knocked on a door, the man in that house promised her a well-paying job. He asked her to meet him in at a friend’s house in Kodambakkam, a residential neighbourhood in Chennai, by noon. The job at hand was apparent. Raksha took the decision in a split second. “The perks of the profession outweighed the obvious ramifications. On my first day, I serviced three customers and I took home in pay and perks in one day what I made in a month. It came down to the maths,” she says, without any regret in her voice.

Raksha was 20 years old then, her son was two. He was too young to ask any questions about her life. But now things are changing. It’s hard to keep lying to a teenage son about the anonymous calls that she receives, her odd work hours, and the bruises that sometimes appear on her body. Her son is older, wiser, and chides her when she has to step out of the house for work at ungodly hours.

As Akshat grows, so does her fear. Each outing with him is fraught with tension. There have been a few occasions when she has run into her clients. She gives them an awkward smile but never stops to talk, preferring to disappear into the endless crowd of the city. To date, no client has called out to her, but all it’ll take is one chance meeting for her life to be blown to bits.

Raksha focuses all her energies on ways to keep her two lives separate. On an outing with Akshat, Raksha prefers to hop into an autorickshaw – it offers more privacy than the two-wheeler. She pays her friend one third of her income to use her apartment. When acquaintances from her line of work, sometimes transgenders, come calling home, she has a ready alibi. Akshat and her neighbours are convinced that Raksha doubles up as an NGO worker. The NGO story comes in handy when she has to attend to clients late into the nights.

Raksha’s life is riddled with lies. Even her partner is clueless about the dark side of her life. He was a former client, who took a liking to Raksha and made her an offer to become his mistress if she gave up her job. Now he stakes her out every month with a fixed amount and visits her often. To anyone who asks, she says he is her husband. The arrangement works fine for both of them and the going is smooth, except for the times when he insists on answering her calls and the person at the other ends blurts, “Why haven’t you shown up yet?”

What follows then is a familiar cycle of anger, accusations and swearing on her son and by God that she is not into prostitution, which she duly does. The idea of God does not trouble her too much she says. She’s more troubled by the idea of having sex again when she comes home after a day of work “My partner often asks me why I don’t talk to him much or get intimate. I’m in no mood for intimacy or even romance. By the end of the day, I’m spent, and the thought of sex repulses me.”

For the most part, Raksha doesn’t mind her life. She has made her peace with the choice she made 15 years ago. Once in a while, when a customer is nasty or the cops misbehave, she bitterly regrets her lot in life. She was once detained by the police in her early 20s. “They kept nagging me and asking if I had performed oral sex and ordered me to demonstrate it using a lathi. There was no escape. But when I put the lathi in my mouth, a cop struck the lathi a hard blow, breaking two of my teeth. To this day, I find it difficult to chew. I can’t spend thousands on a dentist.”

Now in her mid-thirties, Raksha has no fear of cops. Even her neighbours are easy to hoodwink. And while she prays that she can keep her secret from her partner, her son finding out is the sword of Damocles that hangs precariously over her head.

One day she knows it will fall.

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