The Dust of Sonagachi

Preface: The dust of Sonagachi is highly coveted by artisans who make statues of the Hindu goddess Durga. Each year, a celebration takes place in Kolkata, India, called the Durga Puja. The dust is not just an important ingredient to make the statues--it's also a mandatory one, and any statue made without it is considered inauspicious.

Like the golden tree it is named after, Sonagachi has branches that curl and twist and capture. As the largest red light district in Kolkata, India, with over ten thousand prostitutes working every day, Sonagachi  catches whomever passes by: pedestrian, john, peddler, missionary, capitalist, holy man, change-maker, and tourist alike.

It caught me.

I had been working near Sonagachi for a year, but walked by without noticing it, my mind distracted by my own daily sorrows. I had found a volunteer job at an orphanage run by the nuns of Mother Teresa's order a few blocks away,  and by the time my shift ended,  I was often too exhausted to pay attention to anything at all.

But one night as I was returning home, I noticed that one of the large buildings that I passed by each day was actually an adult movie theatre. Sweaty men lingered in groups, eyeing women who giggled and rubbed up against them. Merchants displayed bags of sticky candy and fried dough rings tied up discreetly in pictures of airbrushed movie starlets half-clad. Blankets were spread out, covered in plastic penny toys, perfume, red underwear and gaudy trinkets, manned by enterprising families while their children slept.

It was then that I saw the glittering alleyway to the side of the theatre, one of the entrances to Sonagachi. Strings of lights lit up groups of women brightly dressed: sari sequins shining, eyes smashed with kohl. Groups of men walked arm in arm, laughing and spitting red betel nut juice on the sidewalk.

Suddenly a woman ran out from the alley towards the main road which was heavy with traffic, a blur of pink sari and gold bangles. She stood in the center of the street, blocking cars, her clothes torn,  beading broken, hemline stained. Her eyes glassy, her mouth moved silently as  her arms flapped uselessly like a flightless bird. A woman followed her and led her away, back into the alley. And just as quickly as she had come out of that hell, so she was captured by it once again.

Standing on the sidewalk, I lingered, waiting. Hoping she would come back.

That night I left the windows open to my room, allowing the acrid fumes from the burning barrels of tar set out in the cold months to burn my eyes and fill my room with soot. Yet with the windows open and the city air filling my lungs, I somehow felt closer to that woman who had run out into the street. The smoke was a strange comfort too, making the city seem less lonely and harsh. Tonight, we would breathe the same air, she and I.

One early evening several days later, I decided to visit Sonagachi  in search of an NGO that reputedly did good works there. I suppose part of me hoped for a miracle, to see that woman again. I'd heard about such places, but I'd never been anywhere near a brothel. Part of me wanted this dark side of the human experience to be untrue.

Walking into the alleyway, I was surprised to find it much like other parts of Kolkata: garlands of marigolds and tuberose decorated shrines, doorways carefully swept, children playing a game of cricket. But I kept walking, and as I left the outer shell, the scene changed. Women stood grouped in doorways, a single wooden bed of pallets behind them. Young girls sat on rows of crates, looking dull and drugged.  Men stumbled drunkenly, leaning in towards the women, and I was both surprised and ashamed that there were many tourists among them. Woven in between were sad little shops, smelling of hashish.  It was a grey place, a greyness that covered walkways, the men's faces, and the women's ashen glances.

I began to walk more quickly, faster and faster, stumbling over stones, trash and uneven pavement. My mouth dry, my vision blurred by tears, I was overtaken by a deep melancholy as I realized I was very lost in this dark place. Each street I took seemed to end farther away than where I had begun, and I had given up hope of finding the NGO I'd come to visit.

I just stopped. I stood there, my face red and wet with tears, the crazy American tourist. But I wasn't quite American, and I wasn't quite a tourist: I'd been living in Kolkata for a year, far from the Westerner hotels, in an edgy neighborhood. I'd  spent my days in the orphanage or visiting hospitals and grim places, watching a battle for self- respect and life itself. Yet despite daily exposure to poverty and difficulties of every kind, I was ill prepared for Sonagachi.

The sound of women yelling loudly distracted me from these sights and feelings, and I turned to look down a tarp covered alleyway, where a small group of women were shouting at several men. Despite an entire year of Bengali lessons, I understood very little, except it seemed as if the men wanted something, and the women didn't want to give it to them. One of the men spit on the women, and a crowd began to gather. The men moved back, shouting, and ran past me, throwing what seemed to be small packages wrapped in newspaper in the street as they ran.

Without thinking, I automatically reached down to pick the bundles up, and as I gathered them the crowd rushed towards me. The people were wildly gesturing, everyone talking at the same time, asking me where I was from. I was shaking and wondering what they would do.

 One of the women who had been shouting at the men came out of the crowd: small and wiry, with almost black skin, wearing a bright green sari. I reached out towards her to hand her the parcels, and her small hands lifted in a Namaste. She took the bundles from me and then handed me one, pressing it into my palm so forcefully that it hurt.

"For you", she said, in perfect English.

"No, no, n-n-no thank you." I stuttered, not wanting to accept anything. I tried to give it back to her, but she pushed it back into my hand.

I stood looking at my palm and the mark of her nails. I was worried that the packet contained money--some exchange for services rendered--and if so I did not want it. But the package felt soft, like bread flour, and I began to worry it was some sort of powdered drug. What was I doing here?

I had no time to think further about it, for the woman grabbed my elbow and seemed quite determined that I go with her. Her tiny hands in a vice grip on my arm, we walked for several blocks until I realized she was guiding me out of Sonagachi. Once we were out on the main boulevard, she flashed me a grin and then raising her hands in a Namaste once more, she turned and disappeared.

Once back at the orphanage, I told the nuns I might have been given a package of drugs. Together we opened the parcel, and unfolding the envelope, saw that it was not drugs but...dirt. Fine dirt, as fine as baby powder and colored like ground mace. Dust.

Thank God.

But why give to me? What was it for?

"It's blessed. It's sacred dust, called punya mati. It's from the nishiddo pallis, the Forbidden Territories. They use it to make the Hindu statues for the Durga goddess," one of the nuns  explained.

Forbidden Territories? Punya Mati? I had a world of questions.

It took a few weeks before I'd managed to answer any of them.  I discovered that people went to the prostitutes' homes once a year and asked the women to give them the dust from their front steps or courtyards. The prostitutes were supposed to respond to the request willingly, and give it as a gift. Even a miniscule amount of this material--the punya mati--was considered holy.

There were various theories about the origins of this tradition, depending on who I talked to. Some people said it began long ago when courtesans were honored, or adversely, that it was a way of including one of the lowest groups in the society in the celebration. Others told me that the dust was considered virtuous because the men who visited the prostitutes left their virtues "outside the door". But my favorite theory was the that the Durga goddess was actually the Divine Mother, and that this tradition might be connected to some long forgotten fertility ritual from a more matriarchal culture.

Nonetheless, this year the women of Sonagachi had rebelled. They had refused to give their dust to anyone who asked for it-- and they weren't giving out any blessings, either. The news was full of stories about the rights of the sex workers, who were using the need for punya mati to make their demands known: the artisans could have the dirt, if the workers could be granted more rights by society. Meanwhile, people had taken to trying to steal the soil or buying it on the black market, and there were even stories of Hindu priests impersonating johns in an attempt to get some dirt!

Perhaps this was the reason for that altercation I'd seen while lost in Sonagachi.

As the Durga puja approached, mediation talks began and a compromise was made: the women of Sonagachi had a few demands met, and in exchange, their dust would be available.

Inspired by hearing so many reasons why the Durga goddess statues might require punya mati, I set out to try to find the famous artisan enclave that made the statues themselves.  Named Kumartuli, it was the oldest artisan community in all of Bengal, the reluctant brother of its sister, Sonagachi.

There was no defined entrance to the place, yet it was easily found, for it strained and pushed against its walls, spilling sculptures onto the street. Kumartuli's marker rose from the sidewalk, a headless goddess in her humble beginnings, made of straw, cow dung, cow urine, and the precious dust of Sonagachi.

She was impossible to miss:


The straw statue marked the artisan neighborhood of alleys and side streets, and I found myself drawn inside. Sheds and lean-to buildings huddled together, flimsy and faded. The smell of paint and chemicals overwhelmed my nostrils, and clay dust hovered in the air without settling.

Everywhere there were statues: armless, legless, sitting, standing,  kneeling. Any direction I looked, there was the Durga goddess: breasts bare, arms outstretched, her thick thighs interlocked as she stared back at me with enormous eyes. Large sheds and tents lined the walkways, where the Durga got her first coat of paint, her airbrushed curls, and her base goldenrod skin. And deepest within the artisan workshops, her features and clothes were hand painted in a dazzling lacquered display: pink, red, black, and silver. Here was the goddess in all her forms.

I began to walk to Kumartuli each afternoon while the children at the orphanage took a midday nap. I longed for sleep, too, but more than that I longed for peace of mind. I wanted that quiet that comes with looking at something with astonishment and joy.

The artisans began to expect my arrival, and if I was late, they would exclaim, "Your chai was waiting!"

I drank my chai perched on tables in their art studios, watching them work, making the world more beautiful. The craftsmen left me alone, and each day my hour of respite would be silent except for the sounds of their machine and tools.

One day, after I'd been visiting almost everyday for six months, one of the craftsmen asked me, "What brought you to Kumartuli?"

I didn't even have to think about it: I knew exactly what had brought me to Kumartuli and to the Durga goddess herself.

I replied, "It was punya mati--the dust of Sonagachi."

Amy Gigi Alexander