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A sex worker on living in Delhi's red light district.
[As told to Mayank Austen Soofi; pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi. No picture can be used, either in internet or in print, without the prior permisiion of the author.]
You will perhaps never invite me to visit your family. For I am one of the 4,500 sex workers who live and work at Garstin bastion Road, the city's red-light area. No pity, please. I have no objection to selling my body for the sake of roti. Besides, I have become used to this neighbourhood. My three boys were born here. The best friendships of my life were made here. My six co-workers live together like sisters. This kotha is my home.
G.B. Road has 20 buildings. Dark corridors with steep stone stairs lead to kothas (96 in all) on the first and second floors. Mine is on the first. I usually wake up around noon. The bustle starts an hour earlier when the shops downstairs roll up their shutters. They say it is Asia's largest hardware market. It could be true. Stores are forever stocked with pumps and paints, tiles and toilet seats. But what's there for us? No parks, no playgrounds, not even a beauty saloon. It is the pethi walla who brings nakhun-polish and lipsticks around midnight.
We face many problems here. The kerosene sold in the ration shop is so diluted that we are forced to buy it in black from Kamla Market. The sweepers demand a monthly bribe of Rs 500 or else they dump rubbish on our stairs. If latrines get choked, plumbers ask for Rs 2,500. We can't even complain to the authorities. There is always the risk of harassment.
While we entertain customers throughout the day, evenings are busier. We dress up, apply powder, body lotion, and lipstick; and stand out in the balcony. By then the thoroughfare has started teeming with cars, scooters, rickshaws and pull-carts. Men stare up at us while the women, passing by in rickshaws, throw discreet glances. Sometimes, when we spot photographers, we take out our sandals and threaten them.
G. B Road, of course, is a world of its own. But I can glimpse other worlds from here. Hotel Holiday Inn can be seen from our balcony. New Delhi railway station is 10 minutes away. Across the road is the Indian Railways Coach Care Centre from where firangi tourists secretly take our pictures. A theka stands next door. If a customer buys me a whisky bottle, we all share it. Dena Bank and HDFC Bank are down the lane but what do they have to do with us? We buy vegetables at Sitaram Bazaar, behind Ajmeri Gate. Niyambar meat shop sells good mutton.
There are two mosques in the back lane and a Hanuman Mandir in front. We celebrate all festivals. Have you walked beyond the mandir? Kothas there attract more crowds due to their fair-complexioned girls hailing from Nepal and Assam.
People say there were originally five red-light areas in the city, set up during the Mughal era. But the British closed all except the one at G.B. Road, which is named after a British collector. The name was officially changed to Swami Shradhanand Marg in 1965. It has now been 15 years since I moved here. I'm from a small village near Bangalore in Karanataka. We lived in poverty so I came here to support my old parents and younger sisters. There were other reasons, too. It is complicated.
G.B. Road had more life then. Our daily customers have gone down from 15 to 2. That we are growing old is not the only reason. A few dalals, in the payroll of wealthier kothas, solicit for customers in front of our stairs. Occasionally, they snatch the mobile phones and wallets of our regulars. When we ask these goons to go away, they dare us to complain to the police.
Nowadays we are able to get a good number of customers only on select occasions - like Republic Day, Independence Day, or during political rallies when men come visiting the city for a day or two. However, it is the immediate future that appears more worrisome. The government is bringing in a law that will class our clients as criminals. Who would then come to us? How would we earn? What would become of our children?
There's an MCD school here but I send my boys to the one at Minto Park. G.B. Road is a dangerous place and I don't want them to keep the wrong company while away from my eyes. Teachers are sympathetic and understand our problems. They have promised not to disclose our address to anyone. You see, my boys are always worried about their friends discovering where they live. Babu, my oldest, wants to be a maulana, and Chhotu a lawyer. I try to bring them up well. A tuition master comes in the evening to teach them Maths and English. The rest is up to their kismet.
Money is always a problem. Out of my monthly earnings of Rs 5,000, I spend Rs 1,500 on my children and another 1,000 on new saris and makeup items. The monthly rent of the kotha is Rs 500. I also regularly send a money-order worth Rs 1,500 to my parents in the village. But it becomes difficult to sustain your income as you grow older. Some women manage to save and start a new life outside G.B. Road but I will have to stay on.
It's My Life
We Face Many Problems
No Customers = No Earning
Our Kotha, Our Family
With the Author