Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mission Delhi – Aarti, GB Road

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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Mission Delhi – Aarti, GB Road

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

A moment ago, she was smiling. Now, she is crying. “Why these tears, Aarti?” asks The Delhi Walla. The eight-year-old girl shakes her head. Wiping off her face, she struggles to give a faint smile but starts crying again. “It’s her mother,” says Saajid Bhai*, the owner of Kotha No. XX, one of the 96 establishments on GB Road, Delhi’s red light district.

Like other children, Aarti studies in a school, plays at home, and fights with fellow children at the kotha. Her nose is pierced; her frock has orange flowers. She likes pakodis; she hates bananas. She can recite the English alphabet; she can count from one to hundred. Her mother, a sex worker called Aneeta, has hopes from Aarti. “I’m waiting for her to grow up so that I can live from her earnings,” she had told me one evening.

The reason why Aarti is crying is that her mother has been told to move out from Saajid Bhai’s kotha. Aneeta is considered a risk. She is an alcoholic. She shares her living quarters - a tin shed on the kotha’s rooftop - with her daughter and a Nepali lover. The man survives on Aneeta’s whiskey. Sometimes, they have violent fights in which he slashes her arms with a shaving razor. But they always patch up. What made Saajid Bhai give an ultimatum to Aneeta was when she discreetly started robbing her customers at knifepoint. “If they complain to the police, we all will be in trouble,” says Saajid Bhai.

Aneeta has now decided to shift to a neighbouring kotha. Aarti is unwilling. They have lived there before. The establishment is very small, crowded and extremely filthy. The residents don’t take a shower for many days. The food rots on the floor. Toilets are seldom cleaned. “Here, Aneeta has the roof to herself,” says Saajid Bhai. “There, both mother and daughter will have to live in a small cabin that is fit for only a single bed.”

Most women in Saajid Bhai’s kotha don’t want to let Aarti go. “But who are we to snatch a child from her mother?” says Zeenat, a sex worker. After a pause she says, “Don’t get duped by the girl’s innocent looks. She is as shayani (cunning) as her mother.”

In the night when Aneeta gets drunk, she usually gets into a fight with her daughter. “Ek din tu bhi randi banegi (One day you too will become a whore)”, she would say. Aarti would reply, “Randi, tujhe mein jhaapar mar doongi (Whore, I’ll slap you).”

Searching for the mother, I go upstairs to the roof. Aneeta is peeling potatoes for the dinner. Her man is lying on a mat. It’s the twilight hour. In the distance, Connaught Place skyscrapers have started blinking their electric lights. “Soofiji, do something about Aarti,” Aneeta says to me. “Teach her good English.”

In the new kotha, Aarti’s mother would have to entertain her customers on the same bed in which her daughter would also sleep. “Can’t you let her stay here?” I ask. “But how can I live without my child?” Aneeta asks. Just then the lover starts fiddling with her kurta. Aneeta turns and give repeated kisses on his neck.

“Earlier, Aarti would sleep upstairs with her mother and that Nepali man,” Saajid Bhai says. “When Aneeta would go out at midnight to get customers, Aarti would be alone with her stepfather. Fearing that he might do something wrong with the girl, we asked Aneeta to let Aarti sleep in our floor with other children.”

In the political dynamics of the kotha’s children, Aarti doesn’t count. “She’s a bhikhari (beggar),” says Zia, a cheery child of another sex worker. The girl is usually ignored and is asked to join in a game when there are not enough players. But Aarti is also loved. While her mother sleeps during the day, Aarti is taken care of by the kotha’s other sex workers. They give her food and also a little bit of attention.

Is Aarti crying because she fears that she might not receive the same treatment in the new place? Since she is shy around me, I call Anupama Ghosh, a research fellow in Delhi University. As part of her PhD thesis on human trafficking, she comes daily to the kotha to interact with the women. Sometimes, she helps their children with subjects such as Maths and drawing. “Aarti remains a little reserved,” says Ms Ghosh. “She maintains a distance from other children. She doesn’t take initiatives in drawing lessons. But I remember the two sketches she drew. One had a doll looking out of a window. That was very insightful. In GB Road, most women solicit customers by waving their arms from their balcony windows.”

The other sketch was the curious combination of a fish and a man. The man was Aarti’s biological father. A labourer in Chawri Bazaar, he occasionally comes to the kotha to meet her. Once, he had taken Aarti for fishing to a lake outside Delhi. “Perhaps the memory stayed with Aarti,” says Ms Ghosh.

According to Saajid Bhai, the labourer feels for his daughter. Then why can’t Aarti’s mother move into the hovel of this man? “She can’t. He lives on the pavement,” says Saajid Bhai. “Secondly, once a woman has got used to the freedom of a kotha, she is unable to live in the society.”

When I had earlier asked Aarti about her dreams, she had remained quiet. “Aarti is not a confident child,” Ms Ghosh says. “When you talk to this girl, you wonder if something wrong has happened to her.” I again go to Zeenat. She is putting on a purple lipstick for the evening. “What is Aarti’s future?” I ask. “Who can say,” she says. “She will either become somebody or will go into the line of her mother.” Asked the same query, Saajid Bhai says, “GB Road is a daldal (quicksand). Once you get into the Red Light, it is very difficult to get off from here.”

I then look for Aarti. She is standing alone in the balcony. By now she has stopped crying. “What do you want to become when you grow up, Aarti?” I ask. Her cheeks turning red, she says, “Kuch nahin (nothing).”

* All names except that of Aarti has been changed to protect the identity of the people in this article.

[This is the 15th portrait of the Mission Delhi project]

Is she crying?

Mission Delhi – Aarti, GB Road

Don't look so sad

Mission Delhi – Aarti, GB Road

Mummy's darling

Mission Delhi – Aarti, GB Road

Aarti during some other day

Mission Delhi – Aarti, GB Road


prachi said...

it is heart rendering, youR article, Aarti's story and story of so many such children and women.

M.Rag said...

Very heart touching. Mayank please do something for Aarti. There is also an organisation "Salam Balak trust" for such type of childrens. Please! do not let her go on the path of her mother...BABA kabhi to kuch kiya karo khuda ke kilye...

Bhopale said...

Thanks Mayank ... amazing post.

Anonymous said...

You know Austin human greed is always compress your good man inside you.like aarti's mother.Right now she is not able to understand about what you talking. Future for her is playing , moving here and there etc. but now this is what we have to decide her FUTURE .

Rajiv.zeevie said...

dil hila diya yaaaaaaaarrrrrrrr.kya hum kuch kar sakte hain fr these type of children.niece piece of work sooofi bhaaaiiiii.jeete raho.GOd bless U.

mao said...

My heart breaks :(. Bechari Aaarti. Once upon a time, maybe Aneeta was a little Aarti too.

grant261 said...

Very moving story, Mayank. It reminded me of a book and film entitled "Born into Brothels."

The children were given cameras and documented their lives. I read recently that one of them was accepted into a photography program in NYC.

I hope Aarti's story has a happy ending.

Anonymous said...

thought provoking article

Toolika Wadhwa said...

why did you not want to protect the identity of this young girl? you dont think it is as important?

Anonymous said...

aww..she's such a cutie..i pray that she'll make it out someday and go on to bigger and better things. god bless her and her mother..hopefully the mother will get out of her abusive relationship soon before it's too late. No man is worth it if u he's capable of abuse(be it physical, mental, or sexual).

ankita said...

hey, your article is disturbing, it's horrifying to imagine her life.She may lose her virginity even before she realises her being a virgin once. Wonder how many Artis are out there. Growing up knowing you will be doing it one day surely takes courage.only if she could escape it. i wonder could she n the millions like her .............

Anonymous said...

thank you for the very touching article and moving photos. unfortunately in revealing this beautiful little girls identity, you have made her more valuable to those who exploit children. many of those featured in "born into brothels" became targeted and further exploited after the film to raise awareness was released . . . can we raise awareness/help without making the vulnerable even more so?