With lockdown norms easing, sex workers have resumed business in Delhi’s Swami Shradhanand Marg. But workers worry as physical distancing is impossible in this trade. Hemani Bhandari reports on the situation of the women during the lockdown and the efforts they are taking to protect themselves now
It is a little past 7 p.m. and 45-year-old Sonia wonders how the evening will play out. She is dressed in a nightgown and a mask. Her make-up box containing brilliant shades of lipstick and an array of mascaras lies open in front of her. Sonia is not sure how many men will turn up today. In Kashmiri building on Garstin Bastion Road (GB Road, now renamed Swami Shradhanand Marg) in New Delhi, business is listless in COVID-19 times. Most women left for their native villages once the nationwide lockdown, announced to contain the spread of the virus, was imposed on March 25; only a handful have returned several months since. The building used to heave to loud music, now it has fallen silent. The world’s oldest trade faces its toughest challenge from a 21st century pandemic and the end is nowhere in sight.
Sonia is one of the courtesans, or ‘tawaif’ as she calls herself, who lives in ‘kotha 5217’, also known as Kashmiri building. All the women of this kotha are trained in the classical dances and music. They take pride in carrying forward the legacy of mujra performances, the dance of courtesans which originated in Mughal courts. But this year has been particularly difficult for them. With the number of COVID-19 cases steadily rising across the country, the laughs and songs of the night are a faint echo of the past.
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An hour later, two men climb up the paan-stained staircase. They wear masks around their neck. There is a whiff of alcohol in the air. The women, who are decked up in their shimmering outfits, are not wearing their masks. But they all possess masks, they say. The women say no camp was set up to test the sex workers for COVID-19. Whoever wanted to get a test done went for a test on their own.
A bottle of sanitiser is kept on one side of the room. One of the drunken men pulls out a ₹100 note and pushes it into the golden blouse of the woman nearest to him. It is impossible to practise physical distancing in this trade.
“I feel scared all the time but what can I do? This is my work. If I act on this fear, I won’t be able to earn. I am not trained to do anything else,” says the woman in the golden blouse.
The staircase goes up to the second floor. In a hall sits Saloni. She returned to Delhi on August 17 as lockdown norms were slowly eased. She is wearing denims and a white tee. The hall, which by 8 p.m. generally starts filling up with men holding cigarettes in their hand and carrying a bottle of alcohol in their pockets, is empty. Saloni’s soft voice echoes in the hall and for a brief moment, it creates the illusion that there are many voices.
By now, Saloni would have been ready, mostly in a saree, but today she starts dressing up only a little after 8:30. “Kitna soona lag raha hai yahan. Accha nahin lag raha (It’s so empty. It doesn’t feel right),” she says.
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Priyanka, who stands close to her, agrees. She feels a sense of loss too. The 40-year-old woman has been working here for the last 22 years. She has two teenage sons who are both aware of what their mother does for a living. “They’ve accepted it,” she says. Priyanka learnt dancing here at the kotha. “I don’t know when things will become normal. I am just waiting,” she says. By normal, she means no sanitiser, no masks, no virus.
As of now, there are only a handful of customers. They are quite apprehensive too. “But masks and sanitisers are the only solution we have,” says Saloni.
It’s impossible not to have close contact in this profession, says Priyanka. “I can’t die hungry. I have to feed my family after all. The most we can do is not allow people who have visible symptoms to come here.” By visible symptoms, she refers to coughing and breathlessness. She has gleaned this information from television.
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“The women don’t indulge in sex work inside the kotha here. It’s an elite place. Customers come and take them in their cars, mostly to hotels, after making prior appointments,” says a 36-year-old tea seller working near the building.
In the present scenario, it is a guess how the women will conduct themselves should they choose to leave with a customer.
In contrast to the kotha, where there are mujra performances, are the brothels. Here, women are slowly getting back to the trade after the pandemic hit their pockets. It wasn’t something they had anticipated or could prepare for in advance. Their daily earnings dwindled and slowly disappeared as the nationwide lockdown kept getting extended.
“In the last 25 years that I have been here I have never faced such a situation,” says Pooja, a native of Rajasthan who lives in a brothel right opposite Kashmiri building. Her parents in the village pushed her into sex work, she says, and now she doesn’t want to get out. Since the lockdown, Pooja has been making her ends meet and taking care of her teenage son with her meagre savings. Local NGOs have been providing rations once every 15 days.
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The sex workers haven’t yet figured out how they’ll save themselves from contracting the virus. But they have their “own ways,” they say.
For instance, at one of the brothels on the road, the kotha in-charge, or ‘madam’, as she is referred to, is Kamla. She says she doesn’t allow any “riff-raff” and people who don’t “look hygienic” to step in. Just then, a lean man climbs up the stairs after gazing at one of the women standing by the window. He is welcomed with a liberal spray of sanitiser. “This is a must,” says 23-year-old Devika.
For money, which is hard to come by in these times, they will eventually succumb to what the “customer demands,” says Kamla. But women like her are hopeful that the COVID-19 situation will get better and they won’t have to worry while coming in close contact with their clients. “As of now, we are encouraging only known customers and accepting the ones who look clean,” she says.
But in a trade where close contact is an absolute necessity, how do you save yourself from the constant threat of COVID-19? “You can’t,” she says plainly. She is aware of the occasional brawls that break out even now when the women insist that men wear condoms. The fear from the virus will induce some sanity in the business, she hopes.
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Helpful customers, kinder police
During the pandemic, a handful of loyal customers are helping the women and the kotha. The caretaker of kotha 5217, Inderjeet, says a 65-year-old client who has been visiting the kotha since his youth has been helping the women. “He has been coming here for decades. He was a patron of music and was popular here. His entire family knows he comes here regularly and he considers this place his second home,” he says. During the lockdown, the old-timer called up Inderjeet and others at the kotha and asked them if they needed ration or money. He got them ration delivered too. “There are two businessmen in this area who are regulars. They took care of us monetarily whenever we needed help,” Inderjeet says.
An elderly man peeps into a room where a dance performance is taking place.
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Over the last few months, the police too have been trying to make sure the women working here are fed. Often called to settle local brawls in the past, policemen appear to have emerged as the saviours now.
A Delhi Police Assistant Sub-Inspector, who has been a beat officer here for over three years, is unhappy that the women have been given an informal nod by “higher-ups” to start working again. “Itne mahine bachi rahi hain. Ek do mahine ki baat aur thi. Bachi rehti. Inme se ek ko bhi corona ho gaya to bohot nuksaan ho jaega (They have remained safe for months. It was only a matter of one or two months and they would have remained safe. If one of them contracts the virus, it’ll spread like wildfire),” he worries.
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The Assistant Sub-Inspector talks of how he organised ration kits to be delivered twice a month for the women who chose to stay back. Ration kits typically involve some rice, lentils, oil, salt and flour. In a business where exchanging notes is a daily affair, the pandemic has dealt a cruel blow. Independent women are now at the mercy of others. Luckily for them, help has come from several quarters, including the police, who are not exactly known for their kindness to those less fortunate and lower down the social ladder.
The Assistant Sub-Inspector also recalls helping women working at the brothels by getting them married against the wishes of those who controlled their lives. He says, “The women may now sound like that they don’t wish to leave but most of them had been forced into sex work. Often, girls fall in love with a client and wish to go with them. They just want to be sure that they won’t be troubled after they leave, so they rope in the police. I have helped many such girls get married.”
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Most women working here have his number saved on their phones and call him in case there is a problem. “Most complaints used to be about drunken men creating a ruckus about money or forcing themselves on women. Often, the men take energy pills before coming here, which causes problems to the women,” he says. However, in the last five months, the only calls he has received are from women in financial distress.
It’s not just clients and the police who have helped the sex workers on Swami Shradhanand Marg. Three boys, all sons of sex workers, also tried to do their best during the initial months of the COVID-19 outbreak. Arjun Rathor (24), Kunal Kumar (19) and Aakash (18) were born and brought up here. When the lockdown was announced, they saw how their mothers and aunts were braving a financial crisis. They knew what they had to.
“All three of us reached out to all the NGOs and their members and told them about the situation. Thankfully, a lot of people came forward and helped us with ration, sanitary pads, and food from time to time,” says Arjun.
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In their early teenage years, Arjun and Kunal became volunteers at an NGO called Kat Katha which aims to enable women and children at brothels to study and realise their dreams. Arjun now works for an NGO called Change With One as a photographer. “The NGO I work for got us rations a few times and Kat Katha also helped us,” he says.
Kunal got in touch with an organisation which helped with sanitary pads. The trio also worked with the police whenever they facilitated ration distribution. “I could see that my mother and other women living in the brothel were facing a very hard time. This is the least we could do,” Kunal says.
Pride in the profession
Sonia’s two children – a 16-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter – live with her family in Rajasthan. The children don’t know what she does in Delhi. “According to them, I have a private job here,” she says. “One of my children is in school, the other in college.” A trained classical singer, Sonia has been working in the kotha for the last 20 years. She learnt singing from a school in Mandi House. A photograph of her holding a sitar stands in a corner of her room. Sonia shows it to every client who walks in. “This is our family tradition. My paternal aunt and grandmother used to be tawaifs too,” she says.
For Sonia, there’s a sense of ancestral pride which comes from the history attached to the kotha. It’s one of the most famous kothas on Swami Shradhanand Marg, and is considered “posh” in the trade. Touching her ears in obeisance, Sonia mentions historical characters who used to perform and sing. “Begum Akhtar saamne raha karti thi, Noor Jehan Begum saamne raha karti thi. Naseem Bano ki building saamne hi hai (Begum Akhtar, Noor Jehan, Naseem Bano… they all used to live across the street,” she says. “Hum mujre wale hain aur baki sab peshewale wale hain (We only perform mujra and others in the area indulge in sex work),” she says.
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Sonia is protective of all the young women who work here. She ensures that they don’t talk to ‘strangers’. She claims that no woman in this brothel has been forced to work here.
Preeti, 28, agrees. As she gets ready for the evening in her blue and gold sequined dress, she says, “I have come here on my own. No one has forced me.” She works out of the adjacent room.
Caregiver Inderjeet cribs about the change in attitude of customers and the women who live here. He talks of a more genteel past. His patrons are no longer alive and he is responsible for the safety of the women who have made Kashmiri building their home. Inderjeet prays that this too will pass. He hopes that business will pick up once the virus is taken care of by a vaccine.
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Saloni, 30, sits opposite Inderjeet. She says she learnt dancing here at the kotha when she joined about eight years ago. For her, this is a “family business”. She has a five-year-old daughter who believes her mother goes to “office”.
Just then Saloni receives a call from a friend who works here with her and who is at home. She has just delivered a baby. “Lockdown main sabki ladkiyan ho rahi hai… pata nahi aisa kyun ho raha hai (During the lockdown, all the women working here have given birth to daughters… I don’t know why this is happening),” she says. She does not sound happy. In a profession peopled with women, who do not always call the shots, the birth of a boy is what brings cheer to their lives. The future of a daughter remains as uncertain as the life of the mother who gave birth to her.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women