'There's nothing romantic about the life of a sex worker'
Having written four alternative Delhi guidebooks, Mayank Austen Soofi explores unfamiliar territory in his latest work Nobody Can Love You More. Soofi, known for his popular blog The Delhi Walla, explores the lives and experiences of sex workers in Delhi's red light area of GB Road. In an interview with rediff.com's Priyanka, he talks about life beyond the city's ancient Ajmeri Gate.
Garstin Bastion Road in Delhi isn't one of those places you'd find listed on a tourist map. Home to about 5,000 sex workers, GB Road is Delhi's largest red light district.
In his latest book, Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi's Red Light District, blogger and author Mayank Austen Soofi attempts to paint a haunting picture of women who inhabit the place and for whom sex is a job.
Soofi made kotha number 300 his second home to write about the lives and experiences of those around him. The narrative of the book unravels through the voice of Sushma, one of its inhabitants. In his own words, it's 'not so much an anthropological account or a survey, nor is it about their mannerisms' as much as it is about 'their life, their emotions, their loves and their sorrows'.
Excerpts from an interview:
What is the significance of the title Nobody Can Love You More?
I can't reveal that, but it's in one of the chapters towards the end of the book (Nobody Can Love You More is also the name of the last chapter).
The title stuck me after spending my time and staying in kotha number 300 on GB Road for a considerable amount of time, and after meeting the customers, most of whom are decent people.
I wanted the title to be beautiful. Also, it has many meanings. It could be something a prostitute tells a customer, or a customer tells his pet prostitute. It doesn't have one truth.
What are your impressions of their lives? What troubles or worries them?
I have grown up in a huge family with extended cousins, and my stay reminded me so much of that. They are just so normal! And, at the same time, if a customer comes, she will go inside a room, have a quick session, come out of the room, wash her hands and sit down for a chat again. It is crazy!
Most of the women have boyfriends and are in relationships. How do they differentiate between sex for pleasure and sex as a profession?
There is a passage in the book where I ask the protagonist if she ever refuses any customer, and she replies that it doesn't matter if he is mota or patla ( fat or slim), he is just another customer; it is about making money.
Tell us more. Are they bitter, street-smart or a little sad, perhaps? What about their children?
Their life is like my life! They are not wealthy nor are they bitter. They are really nice people, not just street-smart, they are nice and caring. It is only because of circumstances that they are a bit cunning. You can't act coy, dull or shy.
They are deeply religious, they do pray. The general idea in all religions is that it (the sex trade) is sinful. It's so fascinating to me, how they manage to pray to their gods and go to their customers too.
The children might appear very different to you. They understand, after they reach a certain age, what their mothers are doing. There is a whole chapter about the children of GB Road. They go to school but they don't tell anybody where they live. The children who I have come into contact with have a dream; they want to work in an office building with air-conditioning and they want to wear a tie.
Image: Nobody Can Love You More offers insights into the life of Delhi's red light district
Photographs: Marina Bang
'Their sense of the world is very different'
Do some of the women harbour ambitions of studying?
They definitely used to look at photos in the magazines I used to carry -- not only the Hindi movie ones, but also the English magazines. One of them explained to me in great detail why she is a great fan of Shah Rukh Khan, because of the way he was portrayed in the movie Baazigar. Salman Khan is a big hit among the children. We gossip about film star lives, we b---h about corruption.
What are their views on corruption?
Their views are just the same as anybody else! They have views on FDI in retail also. They don't go to the malls or markets. They depend on vendors who come to them and sell Kashmiri sweaters, children's toffees, hair pins and everything else. Hence they have very strong opinions about FDI.
What about education, going to college?
You talk of education because you're (employed) and you have a different life. Their sense of the world is very different. They watch television and they have mobile phones. Life for them is mostly about Bollywood, in some sense. TV serials have a big impact on their lives. They even follow the lives of the characters; they follow the trends and fashions, just like so many other households do.
There is a line in the book that reads: 'You cannot trust anybody in the business, the wife doesn't trust the husband.' At the same time, they hide their profession from the people who know them. Doesn't that make life difficult?
It's a very edgy life, and there is nothing romantic about the lives they lead. Each day is a struggle for survival. They are like time-bombs and life for them might change completely the next day. All of us are like that, but they live on the edge.
What are they most scared of?
The scariest part is running out of customers. GB Road has many kothas. I had stayed in one of them, and understood life by staying there. But maybe life in other kothas is slightly different, maybe they make more money. I have heard they are wealthy and they charge more. So, we at kotha number 300 hear that there is air-conditioning and disco lights at some other kotha. It's like me staying in Laxmi Nagar and thinking of how it would be to live in Jor Bagh.
They are very vulnerable to sex diseases. Are they aware of that?
The women here might be illiterate, but they are very educated because of the world they are living in. They are very smart about AIDS; and they always use condoms.
Do they talk about life outside the kothas? And about life before coming to GB Road?
There is a whole chapter that deals with relationships, about their lovers and husbands. In fact, I realised after staying here for awhile that relationships, even if they had been abusive in the past, never really end. They go on and on.
I am quite sure most of them are genuine people, but, at the same time, I don't know how true their stories, which they have told me, are. I can't expect somebody to pour their heart out to me just like that. This book is an attempt to get a glimpse into their lives.
I am so grateful that they spent time and shared their lives with me. They don't want publicity, and so if they are sharing, they are being kind-hearted.
It was at GB Road that I realised the pull of the word samaj for the first time. It may seem very casual to us, but to them it is the lovely suburbs of Ghaziabad and Noida where people stay, where fathers come home in the evenings and it's always the same man who is the father, where mothers cook at home. There is nothing like that on GB Road.
Image: Mayank Austen Soofi is also the author of four alternative Delhi guidebooks
Photographs: Marina Bang