In the depths of Kolkata…
I am a blessed soul. I have been given opportunities, hand over fist, to expand my consciousness, to connect with my sisters all over the globe, and to actively pursue stillness in the nosiest of places. India. Sweet mother India. I am heading back for my third time this year, though that was never my intention, and there are few things I crave more than the vibrant colors, foreign smiles, and polite namastes.
We, at The Village Experience, work with Off the Mat, Into the World to develop their annual Global Seva Challenge. Each year, yogis from across the United State commit to raising $20,000 for the cause. Last year, collectively, sacred activist from across the world were able to raise over $1,000,000 to fight human trafficking in Kolkata. I journeyed with a group of 20 pracitioners that were able to meet their goal into the depths of the red light districts in February, and this is my story.
The vivid memory of the Bow bazar drop-in center will haunt me for as long as I live. Bow bazar is one of the many red-light districts sprinkled across Kolkata. We journeyed from our air conditioned tour bus into the depths of the district – walking past brothel after brothel seeing the vacant faces of the young women I have only dared to read about. Their bright lips and skeptical eyes scream panic and indifference in the way that extreme contrast weaves its way throughout all of India. I felt as though I was on a movie set, and I have never felt so removed from my own experience.
From the men smoking their cigarettes, glaring at me in a way that made me want to jump out of my skin, to the emaciated dogs hungrily grazing the piles and piles of filth lining the streets – I was removed. Then, we approached the center.
Apne Aap funds these centers in various high-risk areas around the country. Typically, children stay in the room with their mothers while they are forced to commit unspeakable actions. I have read that it is the equivalent of $1 for sex with a condom, and $2 for sex without. The youngest of the girls would have been locked up in the brothels we passed, raped nearly 30 times a day by the same men that will go home to their powerless wives. These drop in centers have a noble purpose – to give the children of the women a relatively safe place to go while their mothers are working.
As we approached the center, we went through an alley and were escorted into the room by what appeared to be a security guard. We then entered a 15X15 room packed full of young children on the floor with their school work. We sat and listened as the children went around the room introducing themselves to us in English, and I looked to my right to see one of our passengers allowing the tears to fall down her face. They offered us a Bollywood dance – putting the entirety of their tiny hearts into expressing themselves through the music, and I remember the faces of pride as we offered them applause as they finished.
Of the thirty children in the room, I recall only three of them being girls. Looking around, I couldn’t help but wonder in terror – where are all the little girls?
This was just one of the many afternoons I spent in Kolkata. Most of the time, I was dancing, laughing, and learning with young girls who have found love and community in these centers. There are several facilities that house and protect the girls, so that their pimps are not able to steal them back into the underworld. The majority of the funds raised supported these centers, basically orphanages, for the vulnerable girls. We were also able to support Kolkata Sanved, a dance therapy program, Apne Aap, an advocy and protection agency, Sanlaap India, a center housing the girls immediately after they have been rescued, among others.
Playing with the girls, I would be in a moment of joy – connecting with their beautiful innocence in a pure and loving way. Suddenly, my mind would be interrupted by the thoughts of what has happened to this child and the pain and loneliness they must feel. There are no words.
In Yoga, we are taught that we are one. Sitting in the comfort of my living room, I was able to make these girls separate – those girls, in that far off country, with these strange and foreign circumstances. There is something that washes over you as you hold THAT girl to your chest. You are ignited, furious, peaceful, wounded and determined.
I am still working on processing this experience. There are so many complexities in my line of work. I want to connect, to heal, to understand, and to love women from all across the world. At the same time, I want to connect, to heal, to understand and to love myself. Svadyaya, or self-inquiry, is a continued practice for me in my work abroad. I must work from a divine place in my heart and resist the ego-driven attachment to outcomes that haunts my dreams. I am still learning, and every day I am thankful to those wise and beautiful women I encounter out in the world that laugh at me lovingly as a I stumble through their culture and do my best to learn, love, and heal.