Reema came from a very poor, orthodox family in Calcutta. Her misfortune was being born a girl. She sensed early on, as children do, that she was a burden to her family. And as she grew up, she was made aware of it in no uncertain terms. She was quite illiterate. Her father, and even her mother, begrudged the very little they had to spend to feed and clothe her. She had no happy memories of her childhood at all.
When she started getting her periods, she was put out of the house for five days every month. She was unclean. No one cared what happened to her. Her mother would come out and give her some food, mainly leftovers, and disappear inside the house. Sometimes she could smell a fish curry being cooked – a treat for relatives who had come for a visit. If she got some at all, it was the worst piece, floating in watery gravy.
One day – one of ‘those’ days – a woman came up to her and asked her to go to Bombay with her. She would work as a domestic servant – be part of a family and well looked after. She agreed. Anything was better than her current existence. No one wanted her; no one cared what she did. They would be well rid of her and wouldn’t have to spend any more money on her or have to get her married off. And Bombay, she had heard, was the city of dreams. There were filmstars there, rich and famous people. She would have an exciting life.
So at the age of just 13, Reema found herself in Bombay. The job turned out to be a nightmare and she found herself on the streets. Overnight, the girl became a woman. She had to sleep on the road so a woman took her to a place, with rows of beds – a brothel, though she didn’t know what it was then. The woman gave her a sari to wear and after a few days, asked for it back. She kept shouting at her, telling her to give her the sari. “But I have nothing else to wear,” Reema said. “Go to a man, get the money,” the woman said.
That’s how she became a sex worker, and began to live in the brothel. She had to pay Rs 50 a day to the brothel keeper just for her bed or she would be thrown out on the street again.
She took to brown sugar, used to have it with beer. It became a strong addiction. In addition to servicing clients, she had to put up with abuse from people within the brothel. In particular, there was a man they called ‘baap’ who used to beat her. He was also trafficking in drugs.
When Reema was 20, she met a young man who was also a pimp, but somehow different, more caring. She fell in love with him, desperately and passionately in love.
Being in the grip of drugs, she was in and out of hospital. Then she heard about Sankalp and went through their rehabilitation programme. She went in for voluntary testing for AIDS. She was negative. She was in the clear and could start life all over again. They gave her a supply of condoms and advised her to always use a condom.
But she was in love and lost her head. She didn’t use a condom with him because he didn’t like it. She was in love and ready to do anything he said. Now there were not ‘men’ she was sleeping with, but one man whom she loved. She never thought she would have feelings like other young woman. It was a deliriously happy feeling. Even when they quarreled, it felt normal. Imagine, they were like other couples. Quarreling over silly things, being jealous, then making up.
After some time, Reema was back at Sankalp. This time she tested positive. Life does strange things. When she was at most risk, she was clear. But now she was HIV positive.
With medical treatment and daily counseling, Reema felt motivated to give up drugs even at this stage. She gave up drugs completely and forever. But by now Reema had become too weak to go in for anti retro viral treatment, which takes a heavy toll on the body. Meanwhile she was also diagnosed with a malignant tumour. Her health began to deteriorate day by day.
Sankalp got her admitted to the Kalamboli Jyoti Terminal Centre in New Bombay and paid her expenses. The sisters at the centre were kind and cared for her, gave her medicine for the pain. Till the end she remained a remarkably poised and dignified woman, with not a word of reproach for the lover who had most likely given her AIDS.
At the centre, Reema found pleasure in small things…doing a bit of sewing and light work when she was up to it. Traces of the attractive young woman who had come from Calcutta were still visible in those large-set eyes and high cheekbones. She passed her last days in dignity and also made some friends at the centre.
The Sankalp team visited her regularly. They had known her over the years and she had become more than a ‘case’. Sankalp was the only family she had now. She was a human being who had nothing to give but in a strange way she gave because she was bearing her illness with so much courage.
Reema died on August 16th, 2005. She was 39.