Mumbai: As a white man, Corban Addison acknowledges he took a risk entering the brothels of Mumbai pretending to be customer but he was determined to make his novel about sex trafficking as authentic as possible.
Your overall assessment of the trafficking problem in the city?
Unfortunately, sex trafficking is thriving in Bombay. Experts estimate that there could be as many as 500,000 women in prostitution in Bombay. Of those, 40 per cent are children, all of whom are, by definition, trafficked into the trade. A large percentage of adult women in prostitution are also trafficked into the trade by force, fraud or coercion. Typically, the victims are young women and children from villages who are recruited by traffickers through the fraudulent promise of work in the cities. When they arrive - often by train - they are sold to pimps and brothel owners and forced into prostitution in any number of different venues, from the more traditional "cages" and "welcome" brothels of Kamathipura and Falkland Road to beer bars, dance clubs, friendship clubs, slum brothels, and flat brothels scattered across the city.
Corban Addison was determined to make his novel about sex trafficking as authentic as possible.
How much of the city is there in your novel?
When I set out to write A Walk Across the Sun, I wanted Bombay to be a kind of character in the story. The book is not "about" Bombay, but much of the story is set there, and I wanted the Bombay scenes to be as authentic as I could make them. I spent weeks immersing myself in the city, and I tried very hard to include the colour, texture, and flavour of the place from the idyllic Hanging Gardens atop Malabar Hill to the wild thrill of the local trains at rush hour to the dirty warren of gullies in Kamathipura where thousands of children are prostituted daily. I have had the privilege to travel widely, and Bombay is by far the most fascinating city I have ever visited.
Any background reading?
Before writing my novel, I read a number of books that are either about Bombay or set in the city, including Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Breathless in Bombay, a short story collection by Murzban F. Shroff, and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Unquestionably, the most helpful was Suketu Mehta's masterpiece. I read the book while in Bombay and it brought the place alive in a rich and multi-dimensional way.
Could you go into brothels incognito as a white man?
As a western male, I was a suspicious face on M R Road in Kamathipura. If not for the assistance of an Indian guide, I would never have been allowed to enter a "welcome" brothel, let alone a number of them. The brothels I saw were on the higher end of the sex industry and catered to a more middle-class clientele. I did not see the notorious "cages" with my own eyes; to do so, my guide assured me, would have been extremely dangerous. The "welcome" brothels I saw were invisible from the street and accessible only with the permission of the malik the brothel owner. The brothel lobby was a small square room with overhead lights, couches and mirrors. The madam sat on one couch and my guide and I on another. Meanwhile, the malik brought out some of his girls for us to assess. They stood under the lights, waiting for us to make our selection. I will never forget the faces of those girls when I declined to make a purchase - or the feeling on shaking the brothel owner's hand.
Is this a problem without a solution?
When I was doing my research, I heard that the focus of prostitution had shifted from the more traditional red light areas of Kamathipura, Falkland Road and Grant Road to beer bars, friendship clubs and flat or bungalow brothels. This shift was partially a reaction by pimps and traffickers to the increasingly visible and effective anti-trafficking operations by the Bombay police and the CBI, often aided by non-governmental organisations like the International Justice Mission.
You had been connected with that even before you came?
Yes, the International Justice Mission is an international human rights agency with offices in many countries around the globe. Their team in Bombay focuses on assisting the local police and the CBI in rescuing minor girls, assisting public prosecutors and providing aftercare. Most of IJM's staff in Bombay is Indian, and all of them are heroes in my mind. Their work is hard and dark, but deeply rewarding.
What about East European girls?
In 2009, I did not run across any Eastern European girls, but since that time I have heard that such trafficking is happening. It does not surprise me in the least. Girls from countries like Moldova, Romania and Ukraine have been trafficked to cities around the world, including many cities in the east.
What are your favourite memories of India?
Some of my favourite memories from India are conversations I had with Indians. I met a lovely Indian couple on the train from Chennai to Bombay. They treated me like a guest. In addition, I met an erudite gentleman in Bombay who took me and a few friends to a gymkhana. Over dinner at a roof-top restaurant, we chatted about his family, his faith, and his impressions of India and the West. I learned a tremendous amount from these conversations.
Did you meet any "celebs" in Bombay?
I didn't meet any famous people in India. All of the people I met were either in the human rights community or ordinary Indians I befriended during my stay. In addition to visiting the brothels first hand, I spent a lot of time with investigators, lawyers, and social workers. I also read everything I could get my hands on. I met many lovely people in Bombay whom I would consider friends. While in the city, I got to know South Bombay and the suburbs of Bandra, Juhu, Santa Cruz and kalina quite well. All of this served to inform my story. I also took a weekend trip to Goa, which I used as a backdrop for a number of scenes in my novel.