One of the one per cent in 13 million.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A moment ago, she was smiling. Now, she is crying. “Why these tears, Aarti?” asks The Delhi Walla. The eight-year-old girl shakes her head. Wiping off her face, she struggles to give a faint smile but starts crying again. “It’s her mother,” says Saajid Bhai*, the owner of Kotha No. XX, one of the 96 establishments on GB Road, Delhi’s red light district.
Like other children, Aarti studies in a school, plays at home, and fights with fellow children at the kotha. Her nose is pierced; her frock has orange flowers. She likes pakodis; she hates bananas. She can recite the English alphabet; she can count from one to hundred. Her mother, a sex worker called Aneeta, has hopes from Aarti. “I’m waiting for her to grow up so that I can live from her earnings,” she had told me one evening.
The reason why Aarti is crying is that her mother has been told to move out from Saajid Bhai’s kotha. Aneeta is considered a risk. She is an alcoholic. She shares her living quarters – a tin shed on the kotha’s rooftop – with her daughter and a Nepali lover. The man survives on Aneeta’s whiskey. Sometimes, they have violent fights in which he slashes her arms with a shaving razor. But they always patch up. What made Saajid Bhai give an ultimatum to Aneeta was when she discreetly started robbing her customers at knifepoint. “If they complain to the police, we all will be in trouble,” says Saajid Bhai.
Aneeta has now decided to shift to a neighbouring kotha. Aarti is unwilling. They have lived there before. The establishment is very small, crowded and extremely filthy. The residents don’t take a shower for many days. The food rots on the floor. Toilets are seldom cleaned. “Here, Aneeta has the roof to herself,” says Saajid Bhai. “There, both mother and daughter will have to live in a small cabin that is fit for only a single bed.”
Most women in Saajid Bhai’s kotha don’t want to let Aarti go. “But who are we to snatch a child from her mother?” says Zeenat, a sex worker. After a pause she says, “Don’t get duped by the girl’s innocent looks. She is as shayani (cunning) as her mother.”
In the night when Aneeta gets drunk, she usually gets into a fight with her daughter. “Ek din tu bhi randi banegi (One day you too will become a whore)”, she would say. Aarti would reply, “Randi, tujhe mein jhaapar mar doongi (Whore, I’ll slap you).”
Searching for the mother, I go upstairs to the roof. Aneeta is peeling potatoes for the dinner. Her man is lying on a mat. It’s the twilight hour. In the distance, Connaught Place skyscrapers have started blinking their electric lights. “Soofiji, do something about Aarti,” Aneeta says to me. “Teach her good English.”
In the new kotha, Aarti’s mother would have to entertain her customers on the same bed in which her daughter would also sleep. “Can’t you let her stay here?” I ask. “But how can I live without my child?” Aneeta asks. Just then the lover starts fiddling with her kurta. Aneeta turns and give repeated kisses on his neck.
“Earlier, Aarti would sleep upstairs with her mother and that Nepali man,” Saajid Bhai says. “When Aneeta would go out at midnight to get customers, Aarti would be alone with her stepfather. Fearing that he might do something wrong with the girl, we asked Aneeta to let Aarti sleep in our floor with other children.”
In the political dynamics of the kotha’s children, Aarti doesn’t count. “She’s a bhikhari (beggar),” says Zia, a cheery child of another sex worker. The girl is usually ignored and is asked to join in a game when there are not enough players. But Aarti is also loved. While her mother sleeps during the day, Aarti is taken care of by the kotha’s other sex workers. They give her food and also a little bit of attention.
Is Aarti crying because she fears that she might not receive the same treatment in the new place? Since she is shy around me, I call Anupama Ghosh, a research fellow in Delhi University. As part of her PhD thesis on human trafficking, she comes daily to the kotha to interact with the women. Sometimes, she helps their children with subjects such as Maths and drawing. “Aarti remains a little reserved,” says Ms Ghosh. “She maintains a distance from other children. She doesn’t take initiatives in drawing lessons. But I remember the two sketches she drew. One had a doll looking out of a window. That was very insightful. In GB Road, most women solicit customers by waving their arms from their balcony windows.”
The other sketch was the curious combination of a fish and a man. The man was Aarti’s biological father. A labourer in Chawri Bazaar, he occasionally comes to the kotha to meet her. Once, he had taken Aarti for fishing to a lake outside Delhi. “Perhaps the memory stayed with Aarti,” says Ms Ghosh.
According to Saajid Bhai, the labourer feels for his daughter. Then why can’t Aarti’s mother move into the hovel of this man? “She can’t. He lives on the pavement,” says Saajid Bhai. “Secondly, once a woman has got used to the freedom of a kotha, she is unable to live in the society.”
When I had earlier asked Aarti about her dreams, she had remained quiet. “Aarti is not a confident child,” Ms Ghosh says. “When you talk to this girl, you wonder if something wrong has happened to her.” I again go to Zeenat. She is putting on a purple lipstick for the evening. “What is Aarti’s future?” I ask. “Who can say,” she says. “She will either become somebody or will go into the line of her mother.” Asked the same query, Saajid Bhai says, “GB Road is a daldal (quicksand). Once you get into the Red Light, it is very difficult to get off from here.”
I then look for Aarti. She is standing alone in the balcony. By now she has stopped crying. “What do you want to become when you grow up, Aarti?” I ask. Her cheeks turning red, she says, “Kuch nahin (nothing).”
* All names except that of Aarti has been changed to protect the identity of the people in this article.