City Neighbourhood – GB Road, Delhi-6

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The World of GB Road

The Capital’s red light district.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Gastion Bastion Road, Delhi’s red-light district, has many aspects – colonial-era corridors, old havelis, and even an ATM, tucked right next to a Madame’s establishment, kotha, in local slang. GB Road houses a temple, a mosque, a school. It is said to be India’s biggest market for bathroom fittings. It even has its own ruin – the Ajmeri Gate. GB Road is merely a ten-minutes walk from Connaught Place.

But these are not the images evoked by the words ‘The World of GB Road.’ The vision that arises is that of prostitutes and pimps. The stretch is not on the tourist itinerary, though it’s a walking distance from touristy areas such as Chandni Chowk. “I’ve never been to GB Road,” says William Dalrymple, the author of the Delhi travelogue City of Djinns, “I didn’t venture beyond the Ajmeri Gate.”

However, The Delhi Walla have ventured beyond the Ajmeri Gate many times. Search this blogsite and you would find more than one article on GB Road. There is something about this place which draws me there almost each evening. Make no mistake. There is nothing even remotely charming about GB Road. It is not glamourous like, say, that of Amsterdam’s red-light area. It is dirty, stinky. It is dangerous to walk in there. You have to be careful of pimps who could suddenly surround you and take away your belongings. Once a butcher’s knife was put on my throat and my iPod shuffle taken away. When there, be very careful.

Yet, all said, the scenes that greet you in GB Road are surprisingly ordinary- shops, migrant labourers, rickshaws, cars, pull carts, bikes, bins, chaat-wallas, women in sarees, in burqas. You would see some men craning their neck upwards. Follow their eyes. There are the grilled windows on the floors above the shops; bare arms coming out, gesturing passers-by to come in. The women behind these windows are the sex workers.

One day I made an eye contact with one of them and went up. The stairway was dark, the stairs steep. On the first landing, two women were blocking a doorway. One bit her lips and invited me in. I went to the second landing, and entered into a kotha. Inside, benches were arranged in a hall on which sat the ladies. Lolling around on the floor were their children. One wall had framed portraits of Lakshmi, Hanuman, Jesus Christ, Guru Nanak, and the shrine of Mecca. One of the ladies escorted me out to the balcony to show the views.

Down was the familiar GB Road. Far away the lights were blinking on Paharganj’s hippy hostelries. On the right, the Viedeocon tower. Far left – Connaught Place skyscrapers. Opposite the balcony – a theka. Parked nearby – a medical van of the Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, which provides free medicines to the area’s residents. Further ahead – a kotha, which, the lady said, is known for fair-complexioned girls trafficked from Nepal. There were two mosques on the back lane.

With such a ‘normal’ world around, don’t the sex workers get tempted to flee GB Road? “But why?” the lady said before pointing out to dalaals on the road. “How can you make out they are pimps?” I asked. “You can’t. They look like you,” she said. These pimps are the woes of many a sex worker. Instead of getting them clients, they block the access to kothas and often harass and loot the clients. As a result, many customers are afraid to go up, and the prostitutes lose their business.

During the Mughal-era, there were five red-light areas in the city. After the 1857 revolt, the British closed all except the one at GB Road. In 1965, it was renamed after Swami Shradhanand, a social reformer. That hasn’t changed the character of the place. GB Road has around 96 kothas. Each kotha has its own ‘family’ of prostitutes. Most come from desperately poor villages spread out in such varied regions such as Nepal and Karnataka. Some are runaways, or are duped by lovers and sold here. Then they condition themselves, or are forced, to the life of a sex worker.

The lady later escorted me to the roof upstairs to show the Delhi-6 skyline (‘6’ is the postal code for the Walled City and GB Road falls under it). There were pigeons, kites, and the Jama Masjid dome – familiar sights, but it was strange to view them in a place that is either talked about in hushed tones or referred to in dirty jokes, as if it’s something fictitious. But GB Road is real. It’s there.