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Home > 2021 > GB Road: Love in the Labyrinths of Carnality! | Sujit Chakraborty

GB Road: Love in the Labyrinths of Carnality! | Sujit Chakraborty

Friday 2 July 2021

by Sujit Chakraborty

INVESTIGATION

Pushed into a ‘punishment assignment’ by a terrible editor, who wanted the writer to get trapped in a sex racket, he found depths of humanism beyond anything anyone had seen or heard. A life-changing true story

It was a narrow, dark and steep staircase that rose straight up from a mirthless street. The uniformed policeman paused a bit after climbing those first thirty odd steps. I stood next to him. Then he turned left and started climbing a few more steps till he came outside a very large room. He went inside, then came back and told me to enter the room.

There was only one chair standing inside the room, for all the women sat on the ground. All eleven of them. Most of them were dishevelled. Some wore their petty-coats tied loosely to their chests, with their rather unsightly legs exposed. Three of the women were wearing the chemises tied to their waists, and soiled old towels loosely thrown over their breasts.

They dared me with their looks and cheeky smiles, with red betel leaf juice smeared over their teeth.

They dared me with their looks and some giggled.

Tumhare jaise bahut atey hain idhar,” smirked one of the ladies “Sab kehetey hain woh patrakaar hain (All of them claim to be journalists). Sab salaa muft kay chakkar mein rehtaa hain (All of them come for a free f**k). 

The policeman who had shepherded me there had told them the purpose of my visit, but they obviously did not believe that story. The ‘story’ was that I was trying to do a story for my magazine on the children of the prostitutes living in Delhi’s sex street, Garstin Bastion Road, or GB Road.

One lady came carrying a steel tumbler with a sherbet in it. Some of the women were looking at me from the corners of their eyes. They dared me... to drink the sherbet. It was a challenge. There was a chance it could be laced with some intoxicant. But I quickly decided that I had to drink it. I did. It was lovely, with something aromatic in it, but a natural drink, not artificially flavoured.

Tumhare jaise bahut atey hain idhar,” smirked one of the ladies (There are many like you who come here, she said.) “Sab kehetey hain woh patrakaar hain (All of them claim to be journalists). Sab salaa muft kay chakkar mein rehtaa hain (All of them come for a free f**k).

***

I was actually on a punishment assignment. I knew my editor was a married man who was having a good time in office with his secretary. That was okay, many editors do that. But what I did not like was seeing the girl sitting on his lap inside his chamber one afternoon. For me, an editor’s chamber was a temple, and I saw that temple soiled.
It was not my fault, really. He himself had called me in. By way of a bribe, he had even offered me some whisky. My crime was that I refused the drink. My disdain was very apparent on my face.

The next day, he called me again. The woman was that afternoon sitting on the armrest of his “throne”. And that is when he ordered me to do a story on the children of the sex workers of GB Road.

I realised that it was a trap. He hoped that I would go to GB Road, and the police, in one of their regulation raids, would arrest me as a customer and I would be defamed for life. My budding career would be nipped.

But somehow, the prospect of doing such an unusual story was quite exciting to me. I decided to get into it.

It was, in fact, quite troublesome, to put it sweetly. It started on a Sunday afternoon, as I reached GB Road. And right away, the contradiction was clear and striking. From the first and second floor balconies and verandahs, barely clothed women smiled down at you, gesturing for the men to dare go up.

On those balconies you could see only women, completely care free, cheeky, almost jovial. And on the street, you could see only men, lascivious, tense, uneasy, most of them sweating. They were waiting and weighing, craving to go inside but scared too.

Under the arcades of the old stretch of colonial-time buildings were rather messy, unkempt shops selling hardware, sanitary tools, car spares and such other items. The shopkeepers could not bother about the women in the verandahs or the hungry men squatting on the streets. It was just routine for them.

I walked up the street and came to a staircase. Climbing ahead of me were two college students who had mustered enough courage to try it out. At the head of the staircase, a door opened and four garishly dressed women stood there. As soon as the two students came within their reach, eight arms flashed out for them, and then they panicked.

They wanted to run down. They begged for mercy. They pleaded that they did not want to “do anything”. In fact one of the two managed to escape, almost pushing me down the stairs. But the first of the two was grabbed by his collar and dragged inside. As one of the four women vanished inside with her prey, another woman came in and filled the gap, so there were again four women. A wall.

Somewhere behind that wall, I realised was my ‘story’.

Perhaps in was clear from my face that I had not come for sex, which is why the women did not attack me. I asked them for the house of Maya Devi, the president of the Dancing Girls’ Association, the official term for the prostitutes. The women showed me the door opposite theirs and I knocked on it.

The door opened. I requested to meet Maya Devi, but was immediately sent back. She would not meet me. I climbed down the staircase and on the street, I lit a cigarette. This won’t work, I realised.

***

Right in the beginning of my assignment, I had decided that I would only visit the ladies around lunch time. I felt that evenings being their busiest work hours (though some really hungry beasts did not spare them in daytime either), I should not disturb them or keep them from earning their daily incomes.

So the next afternoon, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of going to GB Road directly, I reached the Kamala Market Police Station, located just outside the sex street. From there you could see the Delhi office of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the ramparts of the sin street.

Kamala Market Police Station was in those days — I am talking about late 1980s — was a large place with very large policemen (almost none below six feet) and with equally large, forbidding lathis, or canes. The office of the head of station, it was said in those days, had several such sticks laid out as ‘interior decoration’, the thickest of them having written on it, ominously: “Haseena maan jayegi” (The beauty-queen will love this.) It clearly marked the misogyny of the police force, but that was the social reality.

Once at the police station, I explained to an enquiring officer the purpose of my visit. He showed me towards a room and said: “Pehlwanji se mil lijiye (Meet Pehlwanji),” and went off on his errand. ‘Pehlwanji’ was a moniker due to the officer’s huge structure and his past reputation was a wrestler. As I entered the room, which had a bed, two uniforms, a belt and two berets hanging from nails in the wall, and two pairs of shiny brown shoes with mustard coloured socks pushed inside them.

As the fan lazily whirred above from the ceiling, a cauldron of a belly bobbed up and down above the lungi. Pehlwan was into his afternoon siesta.

Presently, he awoke and after washing his face and noisily cleaning his mouth and nose, he came and sat on the bed. “Hanji, batao. (Okay, now tell me)”.

I told him, not hesitantly but albeit, with some apprehension that he might not believe me. But a man who had been for years breaking the bums of hard core criminals knew when a person was not lying. Still, just as a matter of routine, he asked me for my photo-identity card that read “Press”.

Then he called a junior officer and asked him to take me to one of the kothas (brothels). And that is how I had reached the large room with just women in it. Women who started with derision, suggesting that I, like many others before me, had come for free afternoon ‘fun’ (I leave out the cruder name for it) in the name of being a journo.

***

But as I sipped the sherbet and started talking to the ladies, I realised that one by one, they went inside and returned properly dressed, either in their saris or salwar-kameez suits. I felt being swept to the crest of a surfing wave-ride of dignity: they had accepted my story. And now they would unload theirs and those of their children.

Caught in an absolute fascination with these ladies, I went to meet them every afternoon. Soon the word had gone around in GB Road of a strange man who would not look at them below their chins. 

And it was just about then that one slightly older man entered the room, much to the loving gaze of the ladies. The man was wearing a Pathan suit, though crumpled. His mop of unkempt grey hair and his depressed cheeks betrayed both age and a certain paucity of means.

And one of the ladies told me: “Aap Khanna saab hain, humarey bacchon ke papa. (Meet Mr Khanna. He is the father of all our children.) The father of the children of eleven sex workers?

My head turned a bit, my knitted brows revealing to the ladies my perplexity. One of the ladies, the one sitting on the floor closest to my chair, started giggling uncontrollably and rested her chin on my knees. “Bataungi... bataungi...sabb bataungi, sabr kariyen.” (I will tell you... wait, tell you I will, just hang on.)

This Khanna-saab and one Masterji. Two men in an all-woman’s world. As the months went by, I realised how far men could rise above carnality. Meanwhile, the chin of the unnamed lady stayed affectionately on my knees, her arms gently folded over them. And none of the other women batted an eyelid. That affection showed this ‘girl’ was telling me that she could touch me, a man, without the fear of being devoured.
***

The months went by, and caught in an absolute fascination with these ladies, I went to meet them in one or the other kotha every afternoon. Soon the word had gone around in many kothas of GB Road that here was this strange man who would not look at them below their chins.

I had heard of one Chandralekha, obviously a very arty trade alias. She lived in a very plush kotha somewhere in the thousand-odd ones that the British officer Garstin Bastion had organised from the five or six hundred original brothels of Shahjahanabad, the former Mughal capital.

Chandralekha, as the story went, was a rare beauty and a lady of accomplishment. She played the sitar very well. She charged Rs 25,000 a single night. She would offer you some choice Single Malts too, but provided you were granted entrée at all. Her maids would interview you, check your credentials and cross check them, and if finally the lady deigned, you could have your evening of music with the paid muse, and paid in advance. No “only if satisfied” business.

But to me, much of the story seemed typically like Sharat Chandra Chatterjee’s “Devdas”. Could be true, could be marketing tricks. In any case, she was not my story. So I stayed with the ‘lesser’ women.

***

One such afternoon, I reached the second floor of a kotha. I was to meet Nusrat Bano. I was ushered into a medium-sized but well-appointed room that had a bed, and on it was sleeping a woman, all covered by a blanket that winter afternoon. From below the blanket, however, showed a beautifully manicured palm, with two gold rings on two fingers.

A portly lady soon entered the room and sat on a small divan opposite my chair. As soon as she entered, I started off in Hindi about my ‘story’ on the children of the prostitutes, but before I could end, the lady said in chaste English: “Just a minute. Let us get introduced first. I am Nusrat Bano, and you would be?” “Shock” is hardly the word that could describe my state then.

After introduction she asked me whether I’d like tea, coffee or a cold drink. Then she strained herself to erase the term “sex worker” from my mind. “We are dancing girls. There is no sex trade here. Prostitution is illegal in our country.” She also said that none of the ‘dancing girls’ will ever tell me about their children. “We can be public property,” Nusrat Bano said, “our children are not!”

At that moment, the girl with the pretty hand turned in her bed and moaned. “Bahut dard ho raha hain, beti? (Is it paining too much, darling?) There was hardly a whispered “Yes.” Then Nusrat Bano asked me” “Please see if she is running a fever.” I put out my hand and touched hers. It was warm, not hot as in a fever, but warm as in pain. But that touch did a magic: I had touched a ‘dirty woman’ without hesitation. That broke all the barriers.

“She is my daughter... actually, she is my sister’s daughter, but my sister ran away with another man, so I have brought her up,” Nusrat Bano said, releasing a deep, pained sigh. “It was her first night with a man yesterday, and the animal...”

The story was that Khanna saab too had — as a young man fallen desperately in love with just such a damsel in GB Road years ago. And he had forsaken his own society, and he lent his name to every such sex worker’s child who had to go to school. 

Nusrat Bano finally agreed that this was their real profession, but that they would not accept that in law, so they were ‘dancing girls’. Nusrat herself had been given a good education in an English medium school in Agra, but she was a beauty who had been sold off by her uncle to a brothel when her father died. And now she owned the brothel we were sitting in.

***

Over the days and weeks, I had become extremely friendly with two girls, Sona and Komal, in one of the kothas. Every late afternoon that I would leave their place, they would make me promise to come back the next day. And they always talked to me each sitting on my either side, their rams invariably slung over my shoulders. Between them, they were great friends. In their household, they ran the show for the “madam” who owned it.

One afternoon, as Komal had gone inside to fetch me some tea, Sona said sadly: “Bechara Komal... ek saal mein chaar baar baccha hua hain!” Komal had “given”, as Sona said, four births in one year. “But how? A woman cannot conceive more than once in about 18 months,” I asked. “Tum nahin samjhey,” Sona said (You don’t see what I mean.) Apparently, Komal had conceived four times, but on each occasion, she went for an abortion.

And then, Sona admitted to me that she herself was now expecting. Komal completed the story once she returned with our cups of syrupy milk-tea. “Isska ek ashik hai, saalaa,” (This woman — Sona has a lover.) And she is pregnant by him...and she will give birth to the baby and bring her or him up.

And that afternoon it was ‘off’ for them. Sona was pregnant. Komal did not feel like she wanted to moan under a customer that evening, so for a change, I stayed till late evening, and they enriched me with their stories. And that is also the evening that the mystery of “Khanna saab”, the universal father, surfaced.

***

Komal said Sona had a customer who was very nice on bed, very affectionate. He had fallen in love with her, and Sona could not escape his affection.

“I told him so many times to go back to samaaj and get married. But he does not listen. The lover boy was a rich man’s son and ran a petrol pump. But he would come every Friday and spend till Saturday with Sona. And he refused to get married in samaaj (civilised society).”

So they would have the kid, Sona said. “But what about the child’s future?” I asked. He or she would need to go to school. And those were times when a mother’s name was not accepted in schools as the only parent. Patriarchy demanded that only a father gave you legitimacy. “Lekin Khanna saab hai naa,” (But Khanna sahib is there), Sona said with great confidence.

The story was that Khanna saab too had — as a young man fallen desperately in love with just such a damsel in GB Road years ago. And he had forsaken his own society, and he lent his name to every such sex worker’s child who had to go to school. It was a very ill-kept secret. And it gave a meaning to fatherhood that I had not known could exist, and I realised that that was possible only in the dark chambers of GB Road, the depths of filial affection in a forbidden world.

And apart from the surname of Khanna, till the child went to school, and even later, s/he would be given tuitions by Sharma-ji, or “Master saab” (teacher). He came every evening after his own school duties were over and gave private tuitions to the children. He did not charge anything. Just that the ladies drowned him with affection and respect, and showered gifts on him every Holi and Diwali. And the gifts would invariably include a costly sari for Master-ji’s wife and sweets for their children.

“By the time I grew up, my mother had become a wreck, all skin and bones, and given her body to be eaten alive by these animals So, I decided to stay back and become a sex worker. How could I desert my Maa who had given her life to bring me up?”
I once went to the tutor’s home. His wife served me with some delightful snacks and coffee. She usually remained hidden behind her veil, but she did speak to male outsiders.

I had not the nastiness in me to ask her if “she knew”. But as Masterji and I were discussing the studies of the kids, she herself said nonchalantly, almost in a light banter: “One evening, he was teaching in one of the homes, and there was this usual police raid. They arrested him, along with some twenty girls and other men. But immediately, at least a hundred of the ladies barricaded the Kamala Market Police Station. They told the police that the cops could do what was right in law to all the other women and men nabbed that evening, but they would have to immediately release their children’s Master-ji. I was not worried, though he reached home very late that night.”

Like “father” Khanna, Master-ji also did a yeomen service, educating the kids. And some of them — those of the wealthier ladies like Maya Devi, president of the Dancing Girls’ Association were being educated in famous schools in Mussoorie and Shimla.

“We want them to get educated and settle in samaaj. Some of themeven go abroad and get settled there,” Sona and Komal told me excitedly. Then I realised why Nusrat Bano had warmed me that none of the ladies would want me to write about their children. Those kids were their treasures, and they hid them zealously.

And what about Sona herself? She had been born into that same kind of household. She too had been sent to school. But why had she not settled in samaaj? I asked.

With a wry smile, Sona said: “My mother had sent me to school. And then she wanted me to get settled in samaaj and have a respectable life. But by the time I grew up, say about sixteen or seventeen, my mother had become a wreck, all skin and bones. Now tell me, Maa had given her body to be eaten alive by these animals and was completely devastated. So, I decided to stay back with her in this home. How could I desert my Maa who had given her life to bring me up? How could I go back to a samaaj that had denied her everything in life? So, I too became a sex worker to stay with my mother, keep her alive and bring her some treatment. Now, there is no choice, but I had rejected the choice myself when I had it. And aaj main aapkey saamney hun (and now I am here as you see me!)

That evening I clumsily stumbled down the stairs. I remembered that my father had wanted me to become an IAS officer, but I had refused. I had fought with him for my choice of a career. So, who was more humane: Me or Sona?

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