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Neela

The dusty lanes of Suryakollam follow the slow course of the tarry river below. It’s close to noon — a man wearing a lungi stands by the water brushing his teeth. The whitewashed mud-brick houses and thatched roofs glow in the hot sun. Cloth doors hang listlessly in the heat. A vintage Bollywood tune mixed to reggae booms through the air, adding unexpected festivity — unexpected because Suryakollam is the local red-light district. I’d assumed that a red-light district in India would be a sad sort of place.

Neela was waiting for me on her front step, her dog Kennedy was sitting beside her. With his silky white hair and slender fox nose, he was a strangely opulent dog to find in such surroundings — but that was part of Neela’s, and perhaps Suryakollam’s, enigma.

Once we were inside, she began her story.

***

Many years ago, when she was seventeen, Neela left her family and village in search of work. She arrived in Vellore in the dark, penniless. A woman who saw her alone at the bus stop let her sleep on her verandah for the night with the promise of work the next day. The following morning she was taken to a house to work as a maid.…

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