They call it the Road. It starts at Ajmeri Chowk, a few metres from the New Delhi Railway Station and ends at Lahori Gate. It’s here that Farah came with her four-year-old daughter and another waiting to be born. She had boarded the Kerala Express, sat in a “chalu dibba (unreserved coach)” from Tirupati railway station, Andhra Pradesh, and got off at New Delhi. She was then about 28 and it was her first time in the city. She was glad Sharada was with her. She knew so much more, spoke Hindi, lived in the big city and would now help her find a job at the sari showroom where she worked. Instead, Farah ended up on the Road, GB Road — Delhi’s only red-light area.
That was six years, seven years ago. Farah has no patience with dates. Who remembers dates when there are so many and when they all seem the same? Waking up around noon, wearing make-up and standing at the landing of her kotha (brothel) under dimly-lit bulbs, waiting for someone to walk up. Hoping someone would choose her over the younger girls, hoping she can make some money to be able to bring up her children.
“I’ll do anything for my children — achhe se rakhoongi, kahin bhi rakhoongi. Iss line mein nahin ana hai, bas (I’d keep them well, anything to make them stay away from this line),” she says. It’s this resolve that led her to file a police complaint against Sharada, who she accuses of taking away her second child and selling her to another sex worker, Pyari, on GB Road.
Last week, the Delhi police traced the child, now about seven years old, and Pyari to Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. Pyari claims she adopted the child from Farah and has adoption papers to show for it. The police say they are verifying the papers and will present them to the court if Farah approaches it for custody of the child.
GB Road or Garstin Bastion Road is said to be named after a British collector, Garstin. They still call it that, but sometime in the 1960s, it was officially renamed Swami Shradhanand Road after the social reformer and Arya Samaj missionary. That didn’t change the Road. Every day, the Road lived its parallel lives, neatly sliced into the ground and upper floors of the grimy, run-down buildings that line its either side. On the ground floor are the auto traders and the hardware shops, their wares hauled in an endless loop onto rickshaws and tempos that clog the already congested road. As they wait for the road to clear, people in cycle rickshaws and on two-wheelers steal a glance at the windows on the first and second floors where women in 85 kothas wait behind the windows, an invitation for passersby to walk up the dark stairs.
As Farah sprints up the stairs to her “room” in Kotha No 49, she does so with practised ease, the pleats of her purple sari bunched up in her left fist, her pointed heels deftly sidestepping the middle of each step that has caved in from centuries of use. After a quick tour of her room that’s teeming with about 20 girls, most younger than her, she sits down to talk.
She was never Farah. That’s the name she got on the Road, a necessary rite of passage for every girl who comes here. “If I ever leave GB Road, or die, the name will go to someone else,” she says.
Farah, the youngest of five sisters, was only 11 when her parents died. So she moved from her “mud house” in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh to live with her third sister. Over the years, her sister got her married off to a farmer and soon, she had her first child. She was pregnant with her second when her husband died of snake bite. “I had to work for my children. I couldn’t have moved back to my sister’s home,” she says. So when a neighbour introduced her to his sister Sharada, who worked in Delhi and who offered to take her to Delhi, she readily agreed.
Farah is uncomfortable talking about the past, flinching at questions, eager to move on. “Why is any of this important? Can’t I simply talk about my child?”
Farah says that as soon as she reached Delhi, and GB Road, she knew Sharada was a pimp and that there was no getting away. “Where could I go? I was pregnant… No, I never tried to run away. You can’t just run away from here. There are people posted outside every kotha and they watch your every movement,” she says.
Eight months pregnant then, Farah says she spent the next few days simply “watching and learning” the ways of GB Road. Soon, she got used to watching, being watched. “I knew this is what I had to do for my living. But I didn’t want my children to grow up here,” she says. Sharada got Farah’s elder daughter enrolled at SMS Centre, a home on GB Road for the children of sex workers that’s run by the non-profit Society for Participatory and Integrated Development. The child was later moved to an affiliated hostel and school in Gurgaon. “I would talk to my daughter, visit her. She was in school, studying. I was happy for her,” says Farah.
Two months later, Farah delivered her second child at the Giridhari Lal Maternity Hospital on GB Road. “I brought my child back to the kotha. Aur kahan jaati (where else could I have gone)? My baby was with me for the next five months. Then, Sharada told me children aren’t allowed in kothas, that there could be raids and we will be in trouble. I didn’t know any better so I agreed when she said I would have to give her to an ayah. Sharada then brought a woman called Pyari to me, asked me to hand over the child to her and pay her Rs 5,000 a month as expenses. She said I would get my child after six years and that, until then, I could meet her whenever I wanted to.”
Farah says it didn’t take her long to realise that she had made a blunder. “Don’t you see children on GB Road? They all grow up here. They study at the centre, nobody gives them away like I did. I was young, new, didn’t know a word of Hindi. Abhi bhi mein Hindi aise tutla tutla kar bolti hoon (I still struggle with my Hindi). The only thing I did right was to insist that while I gave the child to Pyari, they get a photo clicked. I have never seen Pyari after that,” she says.
That photo is the only “proof” Farah has of her child. She doesn’t have hospital records, doesn’t remember the date she delivered her baby. “Sharada handled everything for me. I trusted her, gave my thumb impressions whenever she asked me to,” she says.
The Road has its hierarchies. Every kotha or brothel has its owner, a malkin who lets out her rooms to sex workers. Almost all the sex workers have “controllers” or nayikas, mostly women like Sharada who introduce other women — girls like Farah, desperately poor, thrown into the deep end — into the trade. The money she earned — Rs 300 for “one sitting” during the day and Rs 1,100 between 2 and 6 am — had to be deposited with the nayika, who, in turn, paid half of it to the malkin as room rent. Women like Farah get to keep no money themselves, but their food, accommodation and medical expenses are taken care of.
For the next few years, Farah says, she kept asking Sharada if she could meet her child and each time, she would be told to be patient. “She had a different excuse each time — Pyari is away, travelling, has moved out of GB Road… I told her all I wanted was to see my child. Just once.”
And she did. “Because I kept pestering her, Sharada agreed to let me see the baby. That must have been a year and a half after I gave her away. Sharada brought her to one of the inside lanes. Pyari wasn’t with her. “I played with her for half an hour. My baby came to me, par chali bhi gayi (but she went back). I haven’t seen her after that. When they took her away, she didn’t cry. Usko kya pata. Bahut choti thi. Itni choti (What does she know? She was this small),” she says.
The infant who had been bouncing on her toes lets out a piercing wail and Farah shuffles around in her plastic bag, takes out a milk bottle and hands it over to her “partner”. “This is our daughter,” she says. Her partner claims he quit his job as a mechanic to help Farah in her battle to trace her daughter. “Once we get the child, we will leave the Road. Where? Kahin bhi. Yeh duniya bahut badi hain (the world is a big place),” he says.
The man says he is from Bihar and would frequent GB Road — “Un dino, mera dimag ghuma hua tha (Those days, I was wayward)” — but fell for Farah and decided he would take her out of GB Road. To start with, he says, he paid Sharada a lakh to “release her” from the kotha.
After that, Farah says, she pulled her elder daughter out of her Gurgaon school and took her to Andhra, where she now lives with Farah’s sister. On September 9, she says, she confronted Sharada. “She and the kotha malkin Aruna locked me up, threatened and beat me. Sharada even said I never had a child.”
“That day, I walked out and decided to fight for my child. I came to this (SMS) centre and the didi here helped me file a case. Who knows what she will do with
That is Farah’s version. The Road has many versions, starting with the legality of prostitution in India. “It’s not illegal, it’s not legal,” says Lalitha SA of SMS Centre, who helped Farah file her petition with the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) and the Kamala Nagar police station. “By law, anyone above 18 can engage in a sexual activity if it’s without force. So in that sense, prostitution is not illegal. Almost 90 per cent of the girls who come here are forced into it, but over time, they start believing this is what they are fated to do. At least they get to earn money and feed their families back home. But brothel-keeping is an illegal act, so is living off a sex worker’s earnings. That’s what her partner is doing. But there is nothing that’s black and white here,” says Lalitha as she works on her laptop. Outside, Farah’s partner paces up and down, the baby perched on his shoulder now delightfully tugging at her father’s hair.
There are more versions. Up another flight of grubby stairs that lead to Kotha No 71, where Sharada and Aruna live. In a tiny room that has a single bed, a fridge, an almirah and a ladder that leads to an opening in the false ceiling, Sharada rattles off her side of the story. Her hand raised as if she were taking a pledge, she points to the goddesses in gilded frames on the walls and says they are watching over her. “Iss mata rani ki kasam, mein jhoot nahin bol rahin hoon. Yes, I brought Farah here after her husband died. We are from the same village. I openly told her this is what she would have to do. She is lying about the rest. She never delivered a child here. I am scared of Farah. The police harass me every day,” she says, adding that it was a fight over money that turned ugly. “I lent Farah Rs 30,000. When she said she was leaving this kotha, I asked for that money and she started spreading these lies. Wouldn’t I have left the Road if I had done something wrong? Par hum kahan jayenge? Jab tak Road hain, hum hain (Where can I go? We exist because of the Road),” she says.
After the police produced the child and Pyari before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) office in Mayur Vihar, Sushma Vij, chairperson of the central and New Delhi zones of the CWC, says she called in Farah too for questioning. Vij says Pyari produced the adoption deed that had Farah’s thumb impression and the CWC decided that till the court decided the custody of the child, she would be with Pyari. The CWC report lists the reasons for sending the child with Pyari, among them, that the child is now “attached with her adopted mother”, the “child’s biological mother is in the same profession (prostitution)” and thus, declared Pyari to be “a fit person for the child.” “She is a smart child. We asked her who she wanted to be with and she said she’s happy to be with her adopted mother,” says Vij.
“What else would she say? She has been with Pyari all her life. But until now, Sushma kept saying that I was lying about the child. Now that they have produced the child, what does she have to say?” says Farah. The DCW has promised her legal aid if she chooses to move court.
As she walks down the Road, she suddenly loops her hand around this reporter’s, a rare moment of vulnerability. “Please, bura mat maniye. Don’t write much about him,” she says, pointing to her partner. “If we ever get out of GB Road, get married, I don’t want people to know that we once lived here.”