“What’s the rate in your brothel?”
Karan* recalls that question from six years ago with a blank look on his face. He remembers losing his calm and hitting out at that classmate from sixth standard. That was his last day in school.
“They (the school authorities) rusticated me. No one listened to my side of the story. I walked out and never went back. I am not proud of it but I surely don’t regret it,” he says, now 19, without an iota of resentment.
And where did he go? Back to that same brothel. To his mother.
Today, the young, strapping teenager says that amid the chaos around him, he has found peace. His life’s no longer about the past, it’s the future that matters. And a dream — that of becoming a professional photographer.
“This year, I’ll also fill up the forms to appear for the senior secondary exams,” he says with conviction.
Karan still stays in the same brothel on Swami Shradhanand Marg – more popularly known as GB Road, Delhi’s red light district – with his 40-something mother, also a sex worker. What Karan calls home is a first-floor room with a cramped verandah on the left extending to a caged balcony and another tightly packed room to the right, where a group of ‘sisters’ look down at the road, inviting the male stare. The walls are painted blue, and on one side is a huge frame of Lord Shiva, dressed in a garland of fresh flowers. There are four other children who stay in the same brothel, kids of other sex workers, whom he calls his ‘family’.
As Karan narrates his story, two boys walk in, both a little over 20. “Kaun ja raha hai (who’s going?)” asks the ‘madam’. A woman, in her 30s, accompanies one of the boys to a dingy room. Karan’s mother follows to check if it’s all ‘settled’. Karan lives with this reality each waking moment of his life. Earlier “it was difficult but now it is what it is,” says a well-grounded boy, wise well beyond his years, who has firmly decided to cross all the hurdles life throws at him and move on.
Karan belongs to a community in western India where girls are traditionally expected to engage in prostitution. But things are changing now, he says. His mother’s younger sister opted out of the ‘family business’. “She is now happily married, with two children. More than my aunt, I am happy for her children. They will not get to hear — ‘you are a brothel kid’,” says Karan with a self-consoling smile looking at other kids walking around the brothel.
Life was a constant battle for Karan up until a few years ago, a trauma he thought he’ll never be able to overcome. He had friends who accepted where he came from, but there were more of those who would taunt and tease — constantly. “I have been asked ‘what’s the rate’ so many times that I have lost count. I used to feel angry and shattered and helpless because I never knew how to respond. But now I have become stronger. I have learnt to deal with this question.”
“Today, I have the courage to look into anyone’s eyes and confidently say ‘I am making something of myself, I am doing something for my own people’,” says the 5’9ft boy with a clean-shaven face, wearing a fighter’s attitude like a medal.
Those were also the days when Karan was struggling to come to terms with life. “I would wander the streets all day and come back home drunk,” he remembers as he looks back in time he is not very proud of but considers inevitable. He did manage to get a job as an electrician nearby which lasted only till a fellow worker came to know where he came from. “No matter how many lies I tell, the truth is bound to come out… that my mother is a sex worker and I have come to accept it gracefully,” he says with a look of anticipation that society stops looking down upon the whole community.
He believes that was the time, a little over three years ago, when he finally turned to an old friend, the camera. He still carries a camera with himself all the time, albeit a different one. “I was eight when I first held a camera. An old Kodak model that my uncle had. I guess I discovered my interest in photography early in life,” he takes out his newly gifted camera and starts flipping through the pictures.
“Kat Katha changed my life,” he says showing pictures of an event he had covered for the NGO dedicated to working for GB Road’s sex workers. It was also the first big step towards achieving his dream of becoming a professional photographer, for which he would “do anything”; when he was given a Nikon digital camera by them in 2013. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was the first camera I could call my own. Earlier, I used to try hard to take good shots on my mobile phone. When I received this, I took my friend to Udaipur and went on a clicking spree,” he says, laughing. The camera represents his ticket out of the life he’s lived. Karan is not ashamed of his roots, but he dreams of a different life — the one he now sees through his camera lens.
This January 9, his birthday, he received a Canon DSLR camera from his uncle, brother of the man he calls ‘father’. His mother is not officially married, there’s nothing on paper, but Karan says his father takes good care of his mother and her family. They have an ‘arrangement’, he says, a “love story” that he has never asked his mother about.
He seems happy and content now. His day starts and ends working for the NGO and various other projects he has endeavored to be a part of. Amid the conversation, he receives a phone call. He takes out his phone and says ‘Hanji kar dunga (Yes, I’ll do that)’ and later cheerfully explains how he remains occupied all day and how his life has changed in just a couple of years.
These days, it revolves around the camera. For two months last year, he interned with Delhi-based photographer Nitin Upadhye. He didn’t go on assignments but was happy to learn the basic techniques, something he “thoroughly enjoyed”. Now, he learns photography from Hardik Gaurav, the man behind The Storygraphers, a group of professional photographers. He was also a part of People For Parity, an NGO working against gender-based violence among the LGBTQ community. “I discovered that I wasn’t the only one struggling with societal acceptance,” he says.
And now that he has found a way forward, he is helping others do the same. Already, he has been earmarked as a “Change Leader” by Community the Youth Collective (CYC) for bringing change in the society around him, a tag he says boosts his sense of self-esteem and confidence, inspiring him to do more.
Recently, he also met the Deputy Commissioner of Police, along with other Kat Katha members, to request the deployment of more female constables on GB Road. “The meeting was successful, six more women have been deployed there,” he says, with a proud smile. “These interactions have broadened my perspective towards life and have motivated me to do something I can be proud of.”
His mother, meanwhile, hopes her son will make something of himself. Karan has plans for his mother too. His eyes well up with tears as he says, “I know a lot of brothel kids who have left, leaving their mothers to rot. I love my mother too much to do that. I want to get her out of here eventually. I’ll take her far, far away.”
*Name has been changed.