[Photo Courtesy: Dipti Mehta]

The sound of jingling bells and childish laughter is what draws Paula Anderson into a shadowy brothel and deeper into the illuminated world of a young girl’s charismatic dreams. This is the domain of Rani, the shining Mumbai teenager in Dipti Mehta’s one-woman play, “Honour,” also one of the plays featured during last week’s first-ever South Asian International Performing Arts Festival.

“Honour” is a story shared between storytellers: Anderson, an American journalist, is staying ten days in one of Mumbai’s “F**k Lane” brothels to gather research for her upcoming book. While Anderson is the narrator, the story of prostitute mother Chameli and rebellious daughter Rani is told through snippets of conversation and fourth-wall confessionals. Mehta masterfully embodies five characters as she whirls across the stage through several accents—a performance that earned her the SAIPAF’s coveted and esteemed Best Actor award.

Mehta, whose plays are inspired by the social issues around her, wanted to not only share the realities of life as a sex worker, but also their overlooked humanity.

“Sex workers are people like us: they are smart, intelligent and capable,” she said. “Life just didn’t offer them the same opportunities that it did the rest of us.”

Rather than getting lost in a sea of incomprehensible numbers, Mehta wanted to put a face to the 2.4 million men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking every year. More specifically, Mehta wanted to show what life in the brothels was like for children.

“I want people to see what it is like for these innocent children that are denied basic education simply because they do not bear a father’s name,” Mehta said. “Their destinies are written while they are still in the womb, and that is not alright.”

When a woman’s reputation is all she has to protect and define who she is, claiming power of this identity–even if it means being a prostitute–becomes a source of power in a sex worker’s often involuntary, impoverished situation. Chameli raises Rani with the knowledge of how to please men, but Rani and Paula’s naive hope for the girl’s identity outside of prostitution grows bleak with the weight of Rani’s circumstance.

Chameli’s gritty history as a prostitute—sold into the trade at 13 years old by her own father—makes her easy to judge on the surface; but her protection of Rani and Sham, her former pimp’s son, make a person that is typically shamed one of resolute character. However, the stigma of being a “whore’s daughter” follows Rani wherever she goes, preventing her from being seen as one of the Bollywood darlings she admires.

Rani’s choices have always been made for her by her mother—but on the eve of her adulthood, Rani has the choice to follow her dreams or her mother’s wishes: fight or flight.

Dipti[Photo Courtesy: Dipti Mehta]

Mehta explains her selection in the play’s title, which relates to the Indian and universal ideas of what constructs a woman’s “honour.”

“As it goes in India and many other countries, a woman is only respectable if she is a virgin until married, then she is the “honour” of her husband’s family,” Mehta said. “But then, if they were to lose their virginity or get raped, they have lost their honor.”

A woman’s “honour” (her sexual purity) then becomes equivocated with her worth as a human being.

“Why is it that a woman’s honor has to do with her vagina? And the act of sex, may it be consented or not,” Mehta said. “Sex is simply a biological phenomenon, but the negative stigma around it and how it is looked at is simply shocking.”

The question of which woman retains her honor throughout the play begs the question: who is the one selling herself?

Mehta’s play attempts to shed light on this hypocrisy: “A prostitute makes money when someone pays her, this ‘someone’ is usually a member of the so-called normal society, yet it is the prostitute who is condemned and the customer bears no guilt from the society,” she said.