City Book – GB Road, Inside Delhi’s Red Light District
Interview on Nobody Can Love You More.
[The above photo is by Helena Kaartinen]
Joanna Sugden at The Wall Street Journal‘s website talked to The Delhi Walla about his book Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. Click here to read it on the newspaper’s website, or see below.
Mayank Austen Soofi spent three years documenting the lives of people living and working in Delhi’s red light district. His book “Nobody Can Love You More,” which has just been published by Penguin India, is a glimpse inside the world of the women, men and children who live in the brothels or kothas on Garstin Bastion Road in Old Delhi.
The author tells The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time how he ended up writing about this area and how the experience changed him. Edited excerpts:
The Wall Street Journal: Your first encounter with the people who live and work in the brothel of number 300 GB Road was as an English teacher for their children. What drew you to teach there?
Mayank Austen Soofi: I wanted to gain an entry into the homes of women who worked in the red light area. So I happily accepted an offer to teach English to children at the brothel in kotha No. 300. There was nothing strategic about it except an eagerness to see that marginalized world from inside. I had no plans to write a book. Being a blogger who writes about Delhi and its people, I merely wanted to make sense of GB Road which, to be sure, was not just another neighborhood in the city. Soon I started visiting No. 300 every evening. After a few more months, I stopped being a tutor and become a part of the kotha’s extended family.
WSJ: How did your initial estimation of the lives of those living in the red light district change as you got to know them?
Mr. Soofi: Having grown up with middle-class sensibilities, I was fascinated by the women, principally because they had sex with strange men for money. I had encountered such people only in movies and books and imagined them as women who put on too much make-up and who too easily hurled swear words at each other. Either they must be cruel, I imagined, or battered. As I became friends with the kotha’s women, built strong bonds with some of them, I became a little less of a fool. I started seeing the richness of the women’s lives, which are as complicated as those who are not prostitutes and who don’t live in red lights. In other words, the women became ordinary. Of course, in a place like GB Road, it is impossible to forget that most people do not come here out of choice. At best, they have been shepherded by circumstances into living this life. At worst… well, we all know the horror stories.
WSJ: In the book you are very honest about your own struggles, frustrations and anxieties documenting the world of the kothas. What would you say was the biggest challenge?
Mr. Soofi: I fear I will sound shallow. But it was the khana (food). I thought I was just not made for food that was either too spicy or too oily. And the people in kotha No. 300 loved both. But I knew it was important to eat meals with them. The women had become my friends. They had accepted me in their home. They loved me, cared for me. I had also become fond of them. While waiting for customers, they would spend time gossiping with me. We would talk of films and songs and discuss the romantic lives of Bollywood actresses. There was no way I could have excused myself or pretended not to be hungry when it was time for lunch or dinner. Sometimes a woman would cook food for me that she remembered being made by her mother when she was a little girl in her village. There was so much love in those meals. I had to have their khana. Today, I can’t survive without oil and spices in my curries. I have been spoiled.
WSJ: Your book has a documentary feel about it. But at one point a shopkeeper underneath the kothas tells you that it ‘will never be an accurate portrait of your subjects.’ To what extent do you think he was correct and to what extent does it matter anyway?
Mr. Soofi: I have to be honest. My book can never be an accurate portrait about this red light district and its people. The reasons are simple: I do not belong to this place; I have not grown up here; my mother does not entertain new men every night; I have lived a sheltered life compared to the people here. I will be insincere to my reader if I pretend to feel the exact nuances of this life and claim to convey its truth in my writing. This is not an insider’s account. What I see and write is being filtered through a mind that has its own prejudices and (mis)conceptions. I made myself a character in this book so that the reader can get an idea of the author’s sensibilities and adjust his own impressions accordingly. But is a book less complete if it is not completely accurate? Who can accurately depict a world? A book written by a GB Road inhabitant, too, cannot be totally accurate. We all are captives of our sensibilities. We only see what we want to see, most of the time. Isn’t that the case?
WSJ: Throughout the book you are looking for the women’s real stories which prove elusive. At one point you ask, ‘What will they get from my book? Nothing.’ Can you expand on the dilemma you faced as an author and as their friend?
Mr. Soofi: Earlier, just when I decided to write this book and shared my intention with the women in 300 (after all, I would be writing about them), I had this guilty feeling that perhaps I was exploiting them. I struggled with that emotion. A writer friend told me that each time we decide to write about anybody – it could be my mother or the prime minister – we have already begun the process of exploitation. ‘But can you do it with decency?’ she asked. I then knew that I could do this book only if I make a sketch of my friends with respect and affection.
As for my doubts concerning the veracity of the stories I was told, I was not doing an expose on politicians here. My attempt was to make enquiries of this world through gentle persuasions. I wanted to record what my friends in the brothel wanted to believe in concerning their past and present, and which they did not mind sharing with the world.
WSJ: There is one particular episode which you deliberately and unabashedly avoid writing about for fear of compromising one of the women’s reputations. Do you think you lost your objectivity or where should reader curiosity give way to respect for the subject? Why did you decide to tell the reader you were leaving it out rather than leaving it out altogether?
Mr. Soofi: I was very certain about one thing while writing this book: the respect for my subject would be a bigger priority than the curiosity of my reader. Having said that, just before we went to the press, I decided to remove the reference you mention altogether from the book. But R. Sivapriya, my editor at Penguin, objected. I’m quoting her: ‘The reader enters into a compact with the author for full revelation. Of course, that never happens. But we readers choose to believe that it does, in every book. And we know it actually doesn’t, in every book. When you say what you say, the reader receives a jolt—an insight that all stories are constructed; that you choose to tell the story in a certain manner just as women in the book do. For me, it is revelations like these that bring an unusual and moving narrative truth, sophistication even, to ‘Nobody Can Love You More’.’
WSJ: Some of the most tender moments in the book are when the women of the kotha ask you about your life and encourage you to eat more and marry. How much did you let them into your world?
Mr. Soofi: As much as I entered theirs. It was a two-way process. I asked them the stories of their lives. They asked mine. Theirs are a part of my book. Mine are a part of their books.
WSJ: Toward the start of the book you talk a bit about the clash between your life in Hauz Khas village and the world of GB Road. This seems to bother you less as the book goes on – is that the case and if so why?
Mr. Soofi: You are right. As time passed, I bothered less and less about the cafés and galleries of Hauz Khas village. This is not to say that people there are less kind or more superficial or some such thing. It’s just that I got pulled into the world of GB Road. I found it more unusual, so more fascinating.
WSJ: Do you still visit the kothas and number 300?
Mr. Soofi: When I feel low, or just want to be myself, I go to 300 and sit with the women. We don’t necessarily talk. They wait for their customers, I read my book-of-the-day (currently, it is Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’.) When I feel sleepy, I shut myself in one of the rooms and take a nap. Sometimes, I watch TV with the children, or we play with their goats and rabbits. Sometimes, I do pushups with the boys. I’m also friends with some regular customers. This is a world in which I now feel at home.
Joanna Sugden is freelance journalist living in Delhi. Before coming to India in 2011 she spent four-and-a-half years as a reporter at The Times of London, covering religion and education. You can follow her on Twitter @jhsugden.
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