I opened the door of our Drop-in Centre and found a short-statured dusky woman, who had her pallu wound around her face, as if it were band-aid. And this kids, is how I met your…I mean, my best friend – Azzli*. In the beginning of the fellowship, new to the whole, “Ye community kya hai? (What is this ‘community’?)”, I was in extreme hurry to meet the people from my community of sex workers.
My fellows elsewhere were uploading gorgeous pictures of people from their communities and I was feeling left out. Would you believe it? I had already met two community members and did not know about it. Why? Simple, when you’re a sex worker, the first thing you tell a boy much younger to you and seemingly not from Kutch, is not that you, in fact, are a sex worker.
Enters Azzli! “Arre yaar, mere loveriya ka bhi naam Anees hai!” (Goddamn, my lover’s name is ‘Anees’ as well!), she exclaimed after I told her my name. She repeated hers. Atop a chair, sat in a very Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi pose. Azzli, was not someone you could win with. Azzli, was not someone you could possibly have a straight conversation with. She had a knack for innuendos. Everything had to inadvertently lead to sex.
Azzli was a reserved person. For whatever that she wanted to avoid, she would simply lead the conversation elsewhere to the next sex-joke of the year. She was becoming a cherished friend. Work had become fun. She would take our team to brothels, introduce us to other sex workers, would often do the talking and convince them that we are not some aeri-gaeri sanstha but that we mean to work with them and learn. Hardworking and passionate.
She had become close to me. She opened up about her daughters, about her migrating, her marriage, sex work and how she entered it, about her ‘loveriya’ Anees. Azzli had a pattern. She would (sex) work through the clock for two weeks and then chill for the coming 2-3 weeks. Once she went underground, there was little you could do to reach her. We had, sort of, become accustomed to her monthly ritual of vanishing.
At the end of January, she vanished and we did not think much of it. You know, the usual? But there was a news flurrying around in the community – “Mammu Maasi has bought a such big gold necklace!”
One of our community members went to check and it was not looking good. Mammu Maasi had bought a necklace, but this is not her necklace. This belongs to Azzli. Shocked, the community member called us up and told us she does not have the right feeling about this. We tried reaching out to Azzli, but, of course, she is underground. So we called up all the brothels in Kutch that we knew of. Where in the world is Azzli? Nowhere.
We went to the goldsmith to ask about who had mortgaged the necklace. Yes, it was her, but when? 1st February. Where is she now!? He did not know. Who had come with her? Visha-ben. We immediately took off to meet Visha-ben. Meanwhile, a news from a community member reaches us that Visha sold off Azzli to a Thakur in a village near Mehsana, Gujarat.
Azzli was trafficked and we do not know the channel through which the entirety of these events was orchestrated. Visha, however, was weak-willed. She gave up and confessed. A police-scare is at times enough to do the trick. We still could not contact Azzli, but we learnt her location. A small team took off to Mehsana in the middle of the night. This is our only lead for now and we cannot let go of it.
Miracle! Azzli called up while we were on our way. She was safe and fine, although she had been drugged, kidnapped and trafficked. And now, she was back with us and then with her family. Safe (?). We cannot file a police complaint as this divulges Azzli’s identity as a sex worker. However, her husband found out and she was locked inside her house. Did we really win?
She relays a message through a friend to the office staff – “I cannot come to office; I have to stay grounded until things in my family cool down. I am safe, do not worry. I needed money, I agreed to be sold. Do not go to the police. I am fine. Love to all, Allah is just.”
She is still scared and unsafe, but all we can do is trust her with it. A few months go and we pass by her house. She sees us from her balcony and acknowledges us. A glimpse of her bright sunshine-smile was all we needed to see. During the second-wave of COVID-19 pandemic, we distribute a relief ration kit to her family and talk a little. I cannot reveal I know her. So, we just smile from a distance. It is so painful looking at her. I introduce myself again and tell the family that I am from KMVS. And that’s it, I leave for the next family.
It is December now. Months have passed and I keep wondering what she is doing, what she is up to, how she is. I have decided that I want to pursue higher education and so my fellowship term ended in October. I was leaving but I received a call – “Aneesh-bhaiyya! Please chhoti office aa jao” (Please come to the Drop-in Centre). I tried to dismiss them saying that I have a lot to pack and still have work to finish.
“Aneesh. Main Azzli bol rahi hu” (I am Azzli)
I hurry to the Drop-in Centre. There she is, my bestfriend. My arms go sore from hugging her. I am not sure if she is comfortably breathing. I jerked a tear or two, I’ll admit. I hope she has not risked anything to come here. I ask,
“Theek ho na?” (You’re okay?)
She says with utmost sincerity. I know, all is not well. But I know, this is not the end for either of us. We are friends. Friendships are the two loops of infinity. I will miss you, and I love you. Take care, Azzli.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality