Monday, October 19, 2009

City Neighbourhood - GB Road, Delhi-6

The Delhi walla's pretension in writing makes me want to lodge a bullet in his balls - Blogger Nimpipi, the woodchuck chucks
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The World of GB Road

The Capital's red light district.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Gastion Bastion Road, Delhi’s red-light district, has many aspects - colonial-era corridors, old havelis, and even an ATM, tucked right next to a Madame's establishment, kotha, in local slang. GB Road houses a temple, a mosque, a school. It is said to be India's biggest market for bathroom fittings. It even has its own ruin – the Ajmeri Gate. GB Road is merely a ten-minutes walk from Connaught Place.

But these are not the images evoked by the words ‘The World of GB Road.’ The vision that arises is that of prostitutes and pimps. The stretch is not on the tourist itinerary, though it’s a walking distance from touristy areas such as Chandni Chowk. “I’ve never been to GB Road,” says William Dalrymple, the author of the Delhi travelogue City of Djinns, “I didn’t venture beyond the Ajmeri Gate.”

However, The Delhi Walla have ventured beyond the Ajmeri Gate many times. Search this blogsite and you would find more than one article on GB Road. There is something about this place which draws me there almost each evening. Make no mistake. There is nothing even remotely charming about GB Road. It is not glamourous like, say, that of Amsterdam's red-light area. It is dirty, stinky. It is dangerous to walk in there. You have to be careful of pimps who could suddenly surround you and take away your belongings. Once a butcher's knife was put on my throat and my iPod shuffle taken away. When there, be very careful.

Yet, all said, the scenes that greet you in GB Road are surprisingly ordinary- shops, migrant labourers, rickshaws, cars, pull carts, bikes, bins, chaat-wallas, women in sarees, in burqas. You would see some men craning their neck upwards. Follow their eyes. There are the grilled windows on the floors above the shops; bare arms coming out, gesturing passers-by to come in. The women behind these windows are the sex workers.

One day I made an eye contact with one of them and went up. The stairway was dark, the stairs steep. On the first landing, two women were blocking a doorway. One bit her lips and invited me in. I went to the second landing, and entered into a kotha. Inside, benches were arranged in a hall on which sat the ladies. Lolling around on the floor were their children. One wall had framed portraits of Lakshmi, Hanuman, Jesus Christ, Guru Nanak, and the shrine of Mecca. One of the ladies escorted me out to the balcony to show the views.

Down was the familiar GB Road. Far away the lights were blinking on Paharganj’s hippy hostelries. On the right, the Viedeocon tower. Far left - Connaught Place skyscrapers. Opposite the balcony - a theka. Parked nearby - a medical van of the Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, which provides free medicines to the area’s residents. Further ahead - a kotha, which, the lady said, is known for fair-complexioned girls trafficked from Nepal. There were two mosques on the back lane.

With such a ‘normal’ world around, don’t the sex workers get tempted to flee GB Road? “But why?” the lady said before pointing out to dalaals on the road. “How can you make out they are pimps?” I asked. “You can’t. They look like you,” she said. These pimps are the woes of many a sex worker. Instead of getting them clients, they block the access to kothas and often harass and loot the clients. As a result, many customers are afraid to go up, and the prostitutes lose their business.

During the Mughal-era, there were five red-light areas in the city. After the 1857 revolt, the British closed all except the one at GB Road. In 1965, it was renamed after Swami Shradhanand, a social reformer. That hasn’t changed the character of the place. GB Road has around 96 kothas. Each kotha has its own ‘family’ of prostitutes. Most come from desperately poor villages spread out in such varied regions such as Nepal and Karnataka. Some are runaways, or are duped by lovers and sold here. Then they condition themselves, or are forced, to the life of a sex worker.

The lady later escorted me to the roof upstairs to show the Delhi-6 skyline ('6' is the postal code for the Walled City and GB Road falls under it). There were pigeons, kites, and the Jama Masjid dome - familiar sights, but it was strange to view them in a place that is either talked about in hushed tones or referred to in dirty jokes, as if it’s something fictitious. But GB Road is real. It’s there.


Mohd. Raghib said...

Be Honest and tell. What takes you there. Why didn't you do something good for them.

Magnus Linde said...

Lovely piece, Mayank. Mohd Raghib, Mayank does kind things for those families but he is too modest to write about them here.

Gora Firanghi said...

The Delhiwalla has provided another sterling example of what he does superbly well, portraying those on the margin. He engages the poor, the outcast, and the social lepers, persons often seen and preferably overlooked and deliberately ignored. He describes them in the context of their mundane lives, not as exotics or denizens in a sideshow. Thankfully his portraits are free from self-righteousness, condescension, and judgment. Likewise they never demean with cloying mawkishness. Rather he portrays his subjects respectfully as peers, fellow Delhiwallas, existentially neither worse nor better than anyone else. The result is an engaging and fascinating entrĂ©e into a realm his reader, this one at any rate, is afraid to enter alone. It is a place one is wont to avoid—if for no better reason than pride, the deadliest of the deadly sins. Thus unsuited by temperament and conditioning to go it alone, we need a trusted guide through the urban wilds. Thankfully, we have Mayank to lead us.

Rajiv said...

waalllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh nice 1 but pic is old :P

pata nahi kahaan kahaan nd kab kab ghus jaate ho ,miyannnnn
lage rahoooooooooo:D:D

Katyayni said...

Lovely Photographs. Really shows the underbelly of Delhi. Nice!!!

Anonymous said...

I came to hear about GB road a few years back in my Indian History class and since have always wanted to check it out(cuz i'm curious and like going to places that i normally would never get to go to or would go to). But it would be stupid of me to try considering the fact that i'm a woman and have coincidentally been mistaken for a "nepalese woman" several times by my fellow Indians. It's bad enough that a local Delhi...or should i say, "pure Indian" guy mistook me for a hooker when i was 13 years old and returning from the passport office.And no, i wasn't wearing anything trashy. Just the usual jeans and t-shirt. As much as i love India. I'm happy to be away from all that ignorant mentality and free of blatant discrimination. Having said that, i know not all my fellow Indians think & act that way. But yea, in my experience most do. Just saying it like it is.No offense.

Anita Anand said...

Nice piece. I vistited GB Road yesterday, for the first time too. Tomorrow I will go to the homes of the sex workers. I iwll write something as well. Thank you for the well described peice.

Mohd. Raghib said...

Hey Mayank I read your article in Saturday's "Hindustan Times" on Page II. Nows it seems that you are doing something good for them. ;)

Anonymous said...

lovely pics and good information.....

bhakti anand said...

i think its truly amazing how you bring out so much in your writing n help me to see the other side of a coin..