Review - "Fifteen Lanes"

"Fifteen Lanes" by Susan J. Laidlaw 


Noor has lived all of her fourteen years in the fifteen lanes of Mumbai’s red light district. Born into a brothel, she is destined for the same fate as her mother: a desperate life trapped in the city’s sex trade. She must act soon to have any chance of escaping this grim future.
Across the sprawling city, fifteen-year-old Grace enjoys a life of privilege. Her father, the CEO of one of India’s largest international banks, has brought his family to Mumbai where they live in unparalleled luxury. But Grace’s seemingly perfect life is shattered when she becomes a victim of a cruel online attack.
When their paths intersect, Noor and Grace will be changed forever. Can two girls living in vastly different worlds find a common path?
Award-winning author S.J. Laidlaw masterfully weaves together their stories in a way that resonates across class and culture.Fifteen Lanes boldly explores the ties that bind us to places and people, and shows us that the strongest of bonds can be forged when hope is all but lost.


*I want to thank NetGalley for giving me the chance to sneak an early peek into this* 


Before I start with my actual review, I would like to talk about the author and what she does and how she came to write about this particular topic. Susan J. Laidlaw started volunteering with sex worker's daughters in Kamathipura (the largest red-light district in Asia) in 2013. She knows how hard lives for these girls are, how they are shunned, asked to leave their schools when it's found out that their mothers are sex workers - despite the fact that these women did not choose this fate. Most are kidnapped and later sold to brothels. 

"India is one country where human trafficking is an especially acute problem, with an estimated 16 million people currently believed to be victims of sex trafficking in particular. The complexities of India’s sex trafficking industry are laid bare in a recent study by Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation." (source)

So think about this: the population of India is approximately 1.31 Billion (as of Feb 21, 2016).16 Million of these 1.31 Billion are victims of sex trafficking. An those are the numbers KNOWN. 

The vast majority of these victims are women and girls, and about 40% are juveniles. Recently, the average age of sex workers has dropped from 14-16 to 10-14 (but sometimes even than that!), because the risk of transmitting diseases is believed to be lower. Only that now, victims are contracting diseases at even younger ages. 

"Most victims come from rural areas, over 70% are illiterate, and almost half reported that their families earned just about $1/day. Though poverty and a lack of education alone are not direct causes of trafficking, they do increase vulnerability. 78% of trafficked victims in the country are from West Bengal — one of the poorest areas in India.


Some trafficking victims have been priorly abused in other ways (such as through domestic violence or dowry harassment); some are sold into trafficking by family members or acquaintances; and some are tricked into exploitation, believing that they are heading towards a better employment opportunity when they are actually being transported to brothels. Natural disasters and military conflicts tend to increase the ‘supply’ of human trafficking, because traffickers can take advantage of chaotic situations to find more potential victims."  (source) 



"In South Mumbai’s red-light districts there are an estimated 100,000 brothel-based sex workers, most of whom are not there voluntarily. A high proportion of the women and girls working there have been sold into sex work, sometimes by a relative or trusted family friend; others are born into sex work.

Life within the red-light districts is incredibly difficult: poverty, drug & alcohol addiction, gambling, and violence are an everyday reality. These women live on the edge of society, frowned upon and ignored. It is estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of India’s sex workers are HIV positive. Due to a lack of education and severe poverty many sex workers continue to have unprotected sex." 

- The Sisters of Kamathipura (source)

 And since Devadasis are mentioned in the book as well, I'd like to talk a little bit about them too. Since I'm no expert, only source is of course just the internet, and I did find some interesting facts about the so called Devadasis:

"In South India, a devadasi (meaning servant of deva (god) or devi (goddess) ) is a girl "dedicated" to worship and service of a deity or a temple for the rest of her life. The dedication takes place in a ceremony (Pottukattu) which is similar in some ways to marriage. Originally, in addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women learned and practiced Sadir, Odissi and other classical Indian artistic traditions and enjoyed a high social status as dance and music were essential part of temple worship." (source: wikipedia) 


"Devadasi system is a religious practice in parts of southern India, including Andhra Pradesh, whereby parents marry a daughter to a deity or a temple.The marriage usually occurs before the girl reaches puberty and requires the girl to become a prostitute for upper-caste community members. Such girls are known as jogini. They are forbidden to enter into a real marriage." (source)


Like I said, I am no expert on any of this, so I'm of course not certain if any of this is true. 

"You might not know this word, but it’s an ancient religious practice that still ensnares young girls in India today into a life of sexual exploitation.

In India, devadasi means “servant of god.” Young girls are “married” to an idol, deity, or temple. These girls are often from the lowest castes in India—their parents have given them to temples as human offerings in order to appease the gods.

In the local language, they have a saying about devadasis: “Servant of god, but wife of the whole town.” In reality, they are sexual slaves, and devadasi girls are forbidden from marrying. And they have to earn their own income by begging in the streets.

India's government outlawed the practice in 1988, but it persists in south India, where there are an estimated 50,000 devadasis." (source)


Bollywood movies are probably the only movies I grew up watching (and they're still the only ones I watch, apart from occasional western movies), so my only knowledge of this particular topic is majorly based on them: Umrao Jaan, Mausam, Devdas, Chameli, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag and of course Slumdog Millionaire. 
But since I've finished reading "Fifteen Lanes" I did spend a lot of time looking into this a little bit and I found a documentary called "Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids" that I am going to watch after finishing my actual review. 

So now about the book: 

It is told from two different POVs, Grace's, an European girl who recently moved to Mumbai, and Noor's, the daughter of a sex worker. Grace struggles with being accepted and finding friends due to her shyness. Grace's world is shattered when she sends a topless picture of herself to a boy, without realizing that she's actually being pranked. So the next day her picture is circulating around the school and people call her names, she gets depressed and starts cutting herself. Whereas Noor struggles on a daily basis to keep up her family and protect her siblings, Aamaal & Shami. She scrapes money together to buy Shami, who was born with HIV, medicine, tries to hide Aamaal from the daily brothel visitors, while fearing for her own fate of becoming a sex worker. 

While part of me was annoyed by Grace, because her problems seemed so trivial compared to Noor's, what I really liked was that Noor never looked down on Grace or whined about her life. She kept on fighting and working towards getting out of this place. Although Grace and VJ, son of Bollywood legend Sanjay Patel, who is struggling with coming out, help, it is still Noor and people from her community who make all of it possible. Like Noor said: "If the future is not written like you want it to be, then you must write your own story" 

Laidlaw did an amazing job with this story and bringing these characters to life. She put a lot of thought and research into her world-building and managed to write an eyeopening and a pensive story. It made me angry at the world, made me cry and learn a lot. Closing your eyes and acting like there's nothing bad in this world won't lead us anywhere. It's time to get out of this bubble and change things. 




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