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The many faces of Delhi's red light district.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Early in 2009 I Googled GB Road, Delhi's red light district, and got a shock of my life. The search page showed me sitting between two prostitutes!
What if Mummy Papa see this picture? They're a god-fearing couple living in a grey-coloured trans-Yamuna apartment. How would they understand that I had visited the kothas, a few months ago, just for the sake of reporting? That I had simply done a story, clicked a few pictures and it's that which is circulating in the net.
If such a scene ever arises, let my parents know that GB Road is more than just its first-floor kothas. It has Connaught Place-like corridors, Purani Dilli-esque havelis and even a HDFC bank - tucked right next to a Madame's establishment.
GB Road also houses a branch of the labour union Bahrtiya Mazdoor Sangh, plus a temple, a mosque, a school. In case you need a water closet, GB Road, as I'm told, happens to be India's biggest market for bathroom fittings. It's easily accessible, too: just a minute walk from the New Delhi railway station (Ajmeri Gate side); just next to the Anglo-Arabic Model School.
Despite having such 'respectable' trappings, GB Road, officially named after a sage – Swami Shraddhanand, is unable to get rid of its 'red light' tag. How could it? After every few shops, there's a signboard warning, "Beware of pick-pockets and pimps."
Besides, you see the ladies opening soliciting men for emergency love from their windows upstairs.
But a category of men whom they never bother are the shopkeepers downstairs. Watching these traders carry on with their business under the garlanded portraits of their black-and-white ancestors is rather odd. Do they know that just above their showroom is going on the business of the world's oldest profession?
How do these two universes live together?
Most shopkeepers refused to talk. Finally, one agreed. Dressed in a muddy-brown coat-pant and speaking in a perfect Eton school accent, he, however, refused to give his name and refused to talk about the ladies. Instead, he started discoursing on, of all things, Pearl S buck's novel The Good Earth.
My attempt to steer the talk to GB Road's red-light stardom offended him. "Shopkeepers are the most honourable people of our society and we have never touched, never talked to these women," he said. "The women, too, never come to our shops."
Maybe he was right. A few months ago I had gone... well, upstairs to a kotha and there the women had talked of freely moving around the city – Sitaram Bazaar, Connaught Place, Mehrauli and also, Golcha Cinema – but not the bazaar downstairs.
"Most men who come to GB Road instinctively raise up their head to look at us but these men are never the shopkeepers," said one of the women I talked to. "We, too, never make a pass at them."
So here we are. The shopkeepers and the sex workers manage to exist next to each other only by pretending that the other doesn't exist.
And yet, there is one bond that unites these two worlds – the children of the sex workers. One afternoon I saw three little school students, big heavy bags bending their backs, walking hands-in-hands. An elderly shopkeeper beckoned them with his fingers and offered toffees. The children giggled, took the surprise gift, said 'thank you', giggled again and went hobbling straight before turning right and disappearing into an unlit staircase – to upstairs, to a kotha, to what must be their 'home'.
The flag of the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh
A strange red light district
My GB Road buddies
Outside in the corridor
Inside a showroom, upstairs is a kotha
Your bank next door
Not just another bazaar
Beware of 'pimps'