The Big M
How a Delhi brothel turns a shrine by the day
Lamps flicker and form soft shadows. The walls have pictures of Gods of all faiths.
- Total Shares
I’m crossing the New Delhi Metro station to get to the red light district at GB Road. I’m heading there to further research my next film - Kotha No 22, a thriller, set in a brothel.
The crowded street is overflowing with traffic, and people shouting, “Madame, Paharganj?”. I can feel the heat of the intense Indian male stare.
I ask a man, “Bhaiyya, GB Road kahan hain? (Which way is GB Road?)”. There is a pause, as he weighs in on me, the question, and then finally the shape of my body… before his mind can go any further, I ask: “Bolo? Kahan hain? Jaldi karo! (Where is it? Tell me quickly”)”. He raises his hand and points to the left. I walk on, his stare trailing me.
Five minutes later, I’m on the street. The bifocal street, where a prosaic market for sanitary wares lines the lower section, and the upper is lined with women in windows. Below, where all men stand, and above, the women; below, where people condemn the “dirt”, above, and only above, women who welcome this hypocrisy with no judgment. For a few hundred rupees, they can make you feel at home.
One would think that this would be a safe street for a woman, but something about the prospect of paid sex seems to turn the shame filter off in men. I acquite the turtle posture: shoulders drooped, eyes to the ground, body with its full protective armour on. It doesn’t help – the stare fest is on. I hurry towards the school for children of sex workers, fielding myself from the stray body grabber.
Two steep staircases later, I arrive at the school. Run by Kat Katha, an organisation started by two exceptional women – Gitanjali Babbar and Ritu, it is a space for the children to both learn and let go. The love and acceptance that flows in both directions makes this a haven of sorts. Safe, warm, bright, noisy and smile-inducing.
While Ritu and the others teach children of various age groups, ranging from 21 to nine, Gitanjali sits with me. She beckons to Rajeev, a 19-year-old boy, who was born on this street, to come sit with us. He tells me, “I was lost and angry. They found me and brought me here” For Rajeev, Kat Katha and photography are a way out from what he thought was an unchangeable future.
Looking at his photography, I can sense the desolation of his experiences. They are so heart-wrenchingly deep from someone so young. I look at the images for a long time, till Gitanjali asks about the film I’m making. She also tells me about her own experiences and how she up this organisation. We then decide to go to the street.
This time, as I walk on the street with Gitanjali and Rajeev, the experience transforms. The ladies appear on the street and greet them loudly. An exchange follows about voter ID cards that need to be made, the fact that some children are not coming to the school, and Gitanjali wants to know why they're not wearing sweaters. It may be because it’s only three in the afternoon and the brothels are filling up. The women look busy.
Only a few stand on the street, most of them are upstairs, waiting for their pimps and madams to usher in the customers. Rajeev and Gitanjali are chatting with a lady, it is then when I notice Reeta. She looks 15, 18 or 25. I can't tell.
Her hair is frizzy, like it’s just been washed. She’s wearing pants and a long ill-fitting kurta. Her eyes look glazed and she’s staring into the distance. Her lipstick is dark and she’s muttering something under her breath. She’s holding the sides of her stomach and looks like she’s in pain. We make eye contact.
“I had a baby a month ago and they cut my entire stomach open,” Reeta introdces herself.
“My name is Madhureeta, where is the baby?”
“She’s sleeping… she stays awake at night and sleeps all day.”
“Why don’t you sit down... you look like you’re in a lot of pain.”
“I can’t, it hurts, hurts, hurts… and money, money, money.”
Gitanjali tries to find out about her pimp, but she keeps muttering “money, food, money, food”. The drugs are making her focus on what matters to her most at this moment.
The thought that a man around us will have sex with her sometime soon crosses my mind. I look around to see if any of them even care, but they all seem blinded by their male sexual urge. In the world we live in, it’s what's most important to them. Enough to pull underage girls from their homes and subject them to torture. No one can argue with that – men must have what they need. Reeta looks at me and then turns her gaze to the street filled with shuffling men.
A little further up is the entrance to the most sought-after brothel. Hundreds - no exaggeration - of men go up and down the stairs in a matter of minutes. Rajeev is against the idea of taking me in there. Gitanjali thinks it’s fine and we make our way up slowly, avoiding to be brushed against the droves that are making their way up and down.
As soon as we turn, the corner at the end of a steep dark staircase, we reach a brightly lit room with white tiles. The room has a sea of men dotted with a few women in blue, orange, red, yellow saris.
We get taken go the madam's room, which is empty and safe. On the sofa, a man is sleeping but wakes up as we enter, and lumbers out of the room. On the corner is an altar, covered with a red gossamer fabric; behind it, oil lamps flicker, forming shadows on the cloth. The walls of the room have pictures of Gods of all religions.
When the madam arrives, I can't help but feel that she does not meet any of the stereotypes you see prjected in Bollywood films. In fact, nothing about this whole experience of coming here does. The madam is a woman in her 30s, she looks calm, composed and pretty. She smiles at me. I immediately ask her about the altar. She says the women here pray twice a day. The oil lamps in front of the deities have never been extinguished, not once since she first saw them 13 years ago, and were burning so for several years before.
She grabs my hand and takes me for a little walk around the brothel. The walls are all lined with pictures of deities from all religions – no sexy pictures? We walk through the crowds of men waiting for their go. She gives me the grand tour while simultaneously asking the men to step back.
“See here are the men... they are waiting.”
Then to the men: “Step the hell back.”
She points at two small grimy cabins, which has a slim bed and used crumpled brown coloured sheets. The doors are open, and in one cabin, a man seems to have just finished, and the other man seems to have stepped in. The woman is readjusting her clothes: “See, this is where we do it”.
In the next room, a man is sitting and waiting, while the woman is undressing herself – "And this is another such cabin."
Besides the cabins is a bench, where about ten men are waiting. The men here are of all ages. While the women in the cabins barely notice us, it is the men here who try and avoid eye contact. They pretend as though we don’t exist. I can't help but notice the irony, this reversal of fate, from the time I stepped on to street and wanting to be invisible.
We make our way back through the brothel. It feels much like a multi-religious shrine with pictures of deities, flowers, incense and burning oil lamps that can never be extinguished. I tell the madam that, and she starts to laughs loudly. She seems happy at the thought.
Back at the school, the children have finished their classes. We all sit down to eat a late lunch. Plates are shared. There is much laughter. One of the children Google searches me and a discussion begins. But now the words are failing me. I feel an overwhelming urge to thank Gitanjali and Ritu for doing this work, but it is difficult to do so in a steady voice. As I prepare to leave, I find it easier to hug the children.
Rajeev accompanies me back to the Metro station. We talk about him, his photography, and his new found life. He points to a place, where the singing/dancing women will start work in a few hours. Below the shops are putting the pots and sinks away and shutting shop.
At the Metro station, Rajeev gives me a small heart shaped cloth broach, and says, “I have got so many gifts from others that I really feel like passing this on. I want to share as much as I can."
Irony, contradictions, duality all gush through GB Road like a river. Outside of GB Road, it flows below the surface, but flows all the same.