'When I'm big, I'll leave this place'
We bring you an extract from Nobody Can Love You More by Mayank Austen Soofi.
Blogger and author Mayank Austen Soofi is out with his new book. Set in Delhi's red light district of GB Road, Nobody Can Love You More offers insights into the life of sex workers and their children.
By way of an excerpt, we bring you this passage from the book:
A moment ago, she was smiling. Now, she is crying. 'Why the tears, Aarti?' I ask her. The eight-year-old shakes her head. Wiping her face, she struggles to give me a faint smile but starts crying again. 'It is her mother,' says Sabir Bhai.
Like other children, Aarti goes to school, plays at home, and fights with her peers in the kotha.
Her nose is pierced; her frock is printed with orange flowers. She likes pakodis; she hates bananas. She can recite the English alphabet and she can count from one to a hundred. Her mother, a woman called Aneeta, has hopes for Aarti. 'I'm waiting for her to grow up so that I can live off her earnings,' she told me one evening in the verandah.
Aneeta, who arrived in teen sau number three weeks ago, does not talk to me much. She keeps to herself. She does not have a good rapport with the other women in the kotha. They say that she fights frequently. Sometimes she is violent with customers. I'm asked to keep away from her.
Now Aarti is crying because her mother has been told to move out from the kotha. Aneeta is considered a risk. She is an alcoholic. She shares her living quarters -- a large alcove next to the door that opens to the roof -- with her daughter and a Nepali lover. The man lives on whiskey that Aneeta pays for. Sometimes, they have violent fights during which he slashes her arms with his shaving razor. But they always patch things up.
It was when Aneeta started robbing her customers at knifepoint that Sabir Bhai gave her an ultimatum. 'If they complain to the police, we will all be in trouble,' says Sabir Bhai.
Aneeta has now decided to shift to number 307. Aarti is unwilling to make the move. They have lived there before. That establishment is very small, crowded and extremely filthy. The women there don't shower for days. Food rots on the floor. Toilets are seldom cleaned. 'Here, Aneeta has the alcove to herself,' says Sabir Bhai. 'There, both mother and daughter will have to live in a small cubicle in which only a single cot would fit.'
Most women in Sabir Bhai's kotha don't want to let Aarti go. 'But who are we to separate a child from her mother?' says Phalak. After a pause, she says, 'Don't get duped by the girl's innocent looks. She is as cunning as her mother.'
In the night, when Aneeta gets drunk, she usually gets into a fight with her daughter. Aarti's response to her 'Ek din tu bhi ri banegi (One day you, too, will become a we)', was 'Ri, tujhe mein jhaapar mar doongi (You we, I'll slap you).'
Searching for the mother, I go upstairs to the alcove. Aneeta is peeling potatoes for dinner. Her man is lying on a mat. The hushed laughter of a woman can be heard from some far distance.
'Soofiji, do something about Aarti,' Aneeta says. 'Teach her good English.'
In the new kotha, Nighat told me, Aarti's mother would have to entertain her customers on the same bed in which her daughter would have to 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 tugging at her kurta. Aneeta turns and plants several kisses on his neck. I go down to the verandah. Sabir Bhai is squatting on the bench.
'Earlier, Aarti would sleep upstairs with her mother and that Nepali man,' he says. 'When Aneeta went out at midnight to get customers, Aarti would be alone with her stepfather. Fearing that he might do something to the girl, we asked Aneeta to let Aarti sleep on our floor with the other children.'
Among the kotha's children, Aarti does not count. 'She's a beggar,' says Masoom, Sabir Bhai's eight-year-old son. The girl is usually ignored and is asked to join in a game when there aren't enough players. But in a way Aarti is also loved. The women in the kotha take care of her when her mother sleeps during the day. They give her food and also a bit of attention.
Is Aarti crying because she fears that she might not receive the same treatment in the new place?
One day she showed me two sketches she had drawn. One had a doll looking out of a window. It was easy to guess from where she got the idea. In GB Road, most women solicit customers by waving their arms from their balcony windows. The other sketch was a curious combination of a fish and a man. Aarti identified the man as her father.
Later Sabir Bhai confirmed that Aarti's biological father, a labourer in Chawri Bazaar, occasionally comes to the kotha to meet her. Once, he had taken her fishing in a lake outside Delhi. Perhaps the memory stayed with Aarti.
According to Sabir Bhai, the labourer feels for his daughter. Then why can't Aarti's mother move into this man's house? 'She cannot. He lives on the pavement,' says Sabir Bhai. 'Also, once a woman has got used to the freedom of a kotha, she is unable to live in society.'
I go to Nighat. It is only today that I learnt she is Phalak's real sister, and that is why the children call her Khala. Nighat is putting powder on her neck for the evening.
'What is Aarti's future?' I ask.
'Who can say? She will either become somebody or will go into the line of her mother.'
Sabir Bhai says, 'GB Road is a quicksand. Once you get into a red light, it is very difficult to get out.'
I 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).'
Extracted from Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi's Red Light District by Mayank Austen Soofi with kind permission from Viking Penguin.
Image: Nobody Can Love You More offers touching insights into the life along GB Road, Delhi's largest red light district
Photographs: Mayank Austen Soofi