I followed Murthi and Rama as they led the way through the alleyways along Jalan Peel and Cochrane, to the kongsi settlement they called home, conveniently hidden away behind the massive new shopping mall built recently in the area. The kongsi where they lived, along with countless other migrants from all over, was much larger and more expansive than I had imagined. It was so well concealed from the view of the highways and main traffic routes that it would be almost impossible to notice unless you accidentally happened to stumble upon it while aimlessly wandering the area. I remember this area vaguely from a long-ago period of my life. It was close to where my primary school, S.R.K Jalan Peel (Peel Road) used to be, a small but busy little public school that no longer existed. Where my old school used to be now stood another gigantic Tesco supermarket and parking block.
As I followed the two young South Indian men towards the migrant settlement they now use as their temporary homes, I felt a strangely discombobulated being in this area after more than two decades – it used to be a largely Malay kampung area, with small, rural-like attap houses lining the rows of unpaved roads and small food stalls lining the streets as on walks past. I remember the very spot – a bus stop – where I used to stand as an eight year old waiting for my father to pick me up from school each day. This is a very different place now. The kampung is all but gone to be replaced by the migrant kongsi, the ramshackle slum-like assemblage of tents, camps, containers, abandoned vehicles, and all manner of other impermanent spaces that poor, largely undocumented migrants call ‘home’. Or at least, a temporary place to sleep and rest at night.
I was glad to be wearing shoes this evening – the paths were rough and unpaved, with muddy potholes everywhere. The kongsi was quite crowded, and lively even at 2 am on a Friday. The men far outnumbered the women, at least those who were out and about, standing and engaged in conversation or crouching down and sharing supper with one another. The only women who were up at that time were the Indonesian and Rohingya migrants who were entertaining the men and providing sex services. The women generally don’t live in the kongsi, but in the brothels and rented flats located close-by along Jalan Cochrane. It was late, but this tends to be the best time for the women to be out providing their services around here, as the police would largely be done with their random raids and the migrant men would likely be up and about anyway.
Muthi and Ram had just returned from the area nearby, called Jalan Rantai, that was famous for being one of the major hotspots for cheap sex-services provided by largely Vietnamese and Chinese women. The two men were not there seeking companionship or sex – they had actually been working, moonlighting as a lookouts and security bodyguards for some of the pimps who ran many of those brothels. I met Murthi in 2013, when he had been working at a convenience store nearby. He still works at the convenience store, but as he know needs to find a way to return to India after his permit expired, finding other sources of income had become essential for him. Murthi is 38 now, and significantly thinner and less healthy than I remembered him. He seemed to have aged much more than the four years that had passed from our last meeting. Another from Tamil Nadu, Murthi and I used to have conversations about family, food and relationships during that earlier period, often while he was off work and enjoying his late evening meal at a mamak stall, which I would always buy him in exchange for the conversations.
Murthi is very different from then. He was still relatively pleasant in demeanor, especially towards me, still using the affectionate term thambi (little brother) when speaking with me. But his old sense of humor and wit was no longer as prominent. He spoke less, and was more abrupt and curt with his responses – not to me necessarily. The change was alarming. When I had reconnected with him yesterday, at the convenience store, he had been happy to see me but was angry about something which he did not mention. He asked about the research, and if I had been able to make something good out of it. He then had suggested that we meet later in the evening in order to ‘show me something I’d never imagine’. We didn’t speak much that time, but he had quickly mentioned that he had started moonlighting in different places and had moved to stay in a kongsi rather than a shared flat which he could no longer afford. It was nothing he could control, he had said.
I was surprised that Murthi was now working as a guard and lookout at Jalan Rantai. The place was a den of sexual slavery and forced prostitution. Murthi said that his friend Ram, another Indian migrant, had relied upon some of their local Indian connections to find this opportunities, which didn’t pay much, but was certainly better than nothing. It was close enough to where they lived that a walking commute in the later evenings were not bad, perhaps even pleasant. Murthi asked that I meet him at 2 a.m., close to when his shift would be done and he would be going back to his living quarters in the kongsi. When I arrived at Jalan Rantai, the place was awash with pedestrian and vehicular traffic – it looked more like rush hour at 8pm rather than two in the morning. Cars were backed up waiting to find available spots to park. Men, young and old, of all ethnicities and races, ‘cruised’ by on foot, motorcycles or cars, while many sat at the numerous open food courts, being entertained by the young women from Vietnam, China and Philippines. The area was even busier and hectic than when I visited years ago.
Murthi and Ram’s work involved standing and patrolling the open air parking spaces along the street where lines of young women stood waiting for customers to greet them. The two men were part of a much larger group of informally employed protection, meant to provide assistance to any of the girls if they were to be visibly harassed or mistreated by visitors – which happens regularly. They were also there to make sure that the girls are paid and do not try to make underhanded deals with clients that might involve taking revenue away from their pimps and hens. In this regard, Murthi and Ram were visibly uncomfortable each time they approached a girl that had just finished with a client to make sure she had gotten the correct payments and was not holding back any extra side income.
“See, brother, this girls are also being smart, which I understand. If they can make a bit extra money, and charge a little bit more than the rate set by the pimp, why wouldn’t they? You see how pretty some of them are, men will definitely pay. My job is to stop that from happening, and make sure the girls don’t tell higher prices to the customer. Otherwise, if they are caught doing that, then the girl can get into serious trouble, with the pimp. But, when you think about it, their lives are already so difficult and sad, why wouldn’t they try anyway?”
Ram, Murthi’s friend, is slightly younger but has been working as a lookout for a bit longer. He is also from South India, and was originally working as a restaurant worker before ill-fortune befell him and he had to seek different alternative sources of living. Ram can’t return to India, just like Murthi, until he is able to secure sources of funding and repay the huge debts that he was saddled with. Together, the two men lived and worked side-by-side, though there seemed, from an outsider’s view at least, very little warmth between them. They rarely spoke to one another and often ignored the other’s presence, but Murthi tells me that Ram was like a brother to him, a comrade, and he is mightily loyal.
“We’ve suffered together, this past few years, and whenever we needed help, the only person we turn to was one another. That’s a special bond, Tamil-born. We both had to leave our homes to come here, and then after working here we also couldn’t afford to pay the rents, so we decided to find a new place to stay, and new opportunities to work together. If we don’t protect each other’s backs we’ll drown. That’s for sure.”
We walk together towards one of the makeshift shacks which were barely more than pieces of large plywood arranged together along with half-cement, half-concrete blocks and covered with corrugated metal that was Murthi’s living quarters. It was small, just enough for him to have a tiny stove, a sink and tap connected to an exposed pipe leading behind the construction (and presumably to a water main), a stack of boxes and a reed mat on which he slept. Murthi kept a small fan next to his bed. The mosquitoes were awful and unbearable, it was a small wonder how anyone could get any rest or sleep in such an exposed space. I was still struggling to process how dramatically Murthi’s life had changed , and for the worse. Murthi’s living quarters was hardly that. It was small, cramped, and offered little protection from the mosquitoes, heat and dust from outside.
There was a smell of wet cement and mud that permeated the area, along with smells of food being cooked on parafin stoves. And cigarette smoke. It wasn’t hard to breathe, but certainly took a bit of adjusting to. I had to resist the urge to constantly rub my eyes due the irritation. Murthi invited me to sit with him in his little room. There were no chairs, so we sat cross-legged on the floor. He took out his phone, checked for messages and put it next to his sleeping mat.
“Have you had dinner, brother?” I asked, worried that I was impinging upon his time. He shook his head.
“We already had our meals before going to work, little brother. Otherwise we won’t be able to stand around working on an empty stomach. It’s mostly easy work, but sometimes it can be quite hard to stay awake and pay attention.”
“Have you ever had to deal with anything serious or bad at that job?”
He thinks for a while. “A few times… there’s always some over-eager or nasty idiot who tries to pull girls into cars or refuse to pay and bully the girls, and then we have to step in. At least three times, we had to stop a guy and take him to side streets and whack him up a bit because of what he was doing. Usually too drunk to care, but this is the nature of the area we work in. A couple of times, there was a police raid, and we had to quickly rush to get the girls all back inside and in their rooms. That was the scariest moment, when the cops are trying to find the girls and catch anyone who might still be engaging. Sometimes, we have to grab and push out the guys who are with the girls at the time, and that can be difficult and embarrassing.”
“How’d you end up with this job, brother?”
“Don’t ask… I’ve had really bad luck, but some of it was my own fault. Two years back, without telling me, my mother had gone to the same agent that had borrowed money for me to come here in order to ask for more money to help build a new house for my younger brother and his wife. They didn’t tell me they did this, and then when I found out through the agent, they had already taken and used a big chunk of money telling him that I will be able to pay it off because I am working in Malaysia. But you know how hard it is for me to try and pay the original loan off anyway? Now on top of that they borrowed a lot more money and the agent is charging even more interest on it. And they had taken it using my name, brother! But the problem is that it was also my fault because I had been lying to my family, by telling them everything was okay and I was making good money here to help them. They must have thought it was no problem for me if they took an even bigger loan. By the time I found out, the agent told me that I would have to pay more than twice what I was paying each month in order to meet the minimum for the loan. I was desperate, little brother, so I had to stop paying the rent for place I used to be staying, and had to pick up new jobs just to be able to make the monthly payments.”
“How many jobs are you working?”
“Four currently. In the daytime I still work at the convenience store, but after that in the evenings I do different jobs, including this late night shift (in the red light district). I’m also working on and off as a stall vendor in the evenings for a pasar malam (night market) nearby, that’s only two times a week.”
“Is it enough to be able to make the payments?”
“Not really, but I made an agreement with the agent to extend the time on the loan so I can take longer to pay it off… from 5 to 10 years.”
“I’m sorry, brother… did you ever speak with your family about this?”
“How can I? You know well, you’re also an Indian man – we can’t tell our parents and our younger siblings that we’re struggling and that we can’t afford to take care of them. If I tell my mother what the truth is about my situation, she would be badly heartbroken and might commit suicide. I can’t let that happen to her. She thinks I’m doing well, and she’s very proud that both her sons are okay. If I told her the truth, then it would crush her. I can’t tell anyone else either. It’s shameful, little brother. What can I tell them? That I work as a bouncer for khozhi (slur for sex-workers)? What will they think?”
“How’d you find out about this job?”
“You know there are always those young Indian boys who like to spend time around this area and near where I work… these boys from the gangs mostly, coming from the slums. I knew one or two of them and their families, because they would come to the restaurants and the shop sometimes, and found out through them that there was this type of work. Mostly it was very young boys who did it – they would ride motorcycles so they could go after anyone who tries to cheat or bully the girls. But the pimps also wanted more steady protection and these boys were too unreliable. They would spend more time smoking and chit-chatting then actually working, so they started hiring us to the job. The pay is not bad, which is why I decided to take it.”
“And how did you find this place to stay?”
“This? Ram brought me here. He has been living here a bit longer than I have, so he knows what it was like for those of us who have no choice. He told me that there were places like this all over the city, especially close to construction sites, where a lot of workers stay. He suggested that I should come to this one because it was emptier and had basic things like water. It’s terrible, you can tell. I would much rather be back in my rented room, which wasn’t that much better, but that’s not really possible anymore.”