Love and Longing at GB Road

Chinki Sinha , Indian Express
New Delhi , January 23, 2010

She stood in the window, her bleached streaked hair arresting the rays of the setting sun in its messed coiffure, and looked down at the street. There were pimps pacing up and down the corridors, smoking, and haggling for a higher rate for her body, there were women with bulging stomachs, wrinkled noses, at an age where a man’s face sort of empties as they met their gaze, and then there were pretty young things who stood in similar windows anticipating, and preying.

At Garstin Bastion Road, or Swami Shradhanand Marg, the name given to the famous red light district in city’s capital in 1965, the around 1,000 prostitutes were getting ready for business, a few hours before the auto parts shops lining the street downed their shutters. Then, it would be their domain, and only customers looking for their favorites would saunter in, gaze in the windows, up the narrow, dingy staircases and counted their money, deciding the limits of their bargain.

The girl, her cheap silver earrings dangling from her ears, and her lips painted loud pink, was searching, scanning the streets till her eyes rested on a young man, who wore a triped shirt, and jeans that had too many zip pockets, and sported longish hair, streaked like hers.

And he looked back at her from where he was standing, squeezed between cars, a little nala behind him, and started to sing, pausing to address her, and blow millions kisses her way.He called her Preeti.Preeti only smiled, and turned away, then looked at him again.

That’s love and longing at GB Road where according to those who live and work there in closet size rooms, where smell of sweat and flesh linger in the doorways, love is what they can’t let in. Because that corrupts, they said.As we waited for Charsi Bai, one of the kotha malkeens, we looked up, dissecting the smell and all, at the landing of the staircase. A woman looked down at us. We were intruders, and we didn’t come looking for what they were offering.She disappeared in the maze of rooms inside, and another one stuck her head outside. Her eyes, pumped with cheap mascara, and her eyelids smeared with bright bronze shadow, looked past us, tumbled upon the streets. At that hour, there weren’t many buyers around.

Because it is illegal to solicit, the women never came out. Their pimps, and there were plenty of them – young boys from Bihar , old paunchy men who chewed betel leaves and spat everywhere, moved around, eyeing the passersby.
One woman stood at the landing. She was annoyed. The business in GB Road is not booming anymore. The rates range from Rs. 100 to Rs. 500, but then the usual customers, the rickshaw pullers, the students, couldn’t pay them a ton.

Recession and its after effects – the beautiful up market prostitutes from Russia , Dubai and other countries – are on sale, too. Why spend on us – smelly, irritable, with no sophistication and always clamoring for a tip – when you can save and get the best, she said. There are girls from Andhra Pradesh, who were rounded up by the state police and dragged and put in a van and deported to their villages last year and have come back since, there are the fair women from Nepal who are modern, wear fashionable clothes, and there are the Rajasthanis.

According to Suraj Singh, who has worked in one of the hundreds of shops that function in the 20 buildings of GB Road for 27 years, the place has remained unchanged. The women maintain their distance and shop owners respect them. “They call us “bhaiya” and we don’t have any problems with them ever. But it is sad to see them being exploited sometimes,” he said. “The day the Andhra Police came and dragged 179 of those girls out, we felt bad. They had children with them, they were crying but they just put them in a van and drove away. Some people come and sell their wives and you hear the commotion, and the wailing. It’s sad.”

In one of the kothas, in what looked like a small reception area, more than a dozen women were waiting for their turn. The young ones, with their plunging necklines, and fluttering eyelashes, ran to the landing, whispering, adjusting their hair. This was their moment. They had to make the most of their youth before diseases claimed them. It will be a while before they paid off their debts to the naikas, the women who purchased them. The air was abuzz with anticipation, and competition.

A middle-aged woman, with thick glasses, wrapped in a shawl, was waiting, too. Once, when she was in her prime, she had her lovers, her loyal customers, too.“My life is spent now. All over the years I did the same thing. There’s no respite,” she said.There were other women, too, who huddled under the parapets of the old buildings, begging. Their days are over. They were members of the kothas, then became housemaids to the younger queens, and then when they couldn’t do that, they descended those staircases and were out on the streets.

They won’t tell you their sad stories. There’s no time for that sort of nonsense because at the end of it, what’s the use of repeating it all.There’s no time for love because love leads nowhere or here to the brothels, Rishi Kant, an activist with Shakti Vahini, an NGO working for the sex workers’ , said. “Every girl has a love story. Puja was a girl who fell in love with her customer, a young man of 25 years. It lasted for 6-7 months and then she realized he was abusing her, drinking off her earnings,” he said.

So, love in the air is an infection they guard against. Preeti went inside. The young lover stood alone, waiting for her to reappear. Like him, many young men, college students, others, come to the infamous road in the mornings, looking up at the windows, for their imagined lovers, and wait for the evening. If they have the money, they can go in and ask for her. She can’t turn back then. Or they will stand under the window, singing songs, and live under their lover’s glances.

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