As you enter GB Road, or Garstin Bastion Road, the streets are lined with hardware shops, chaat vendor and parked vehicles. The area is minutes away from Red Fort and Connaught Place. It houses a mosque, a school and a bank, and is India’s biggest market for hardware. But all of it is overshadowed by the first floors of the buildings.
By day, this area operates like any other place in the capital, but come night, and almost a hundred brothels start their trade. It’s as if two parallel worlds run here.
While the road was renamed to Swami Shradhanand Marg in 1966 – albeit only on signboards and papers, it is unable to get rid of its ‘red light’ tag even after all these years. And how can it when the first thing that greets you walking down the lane are the judgmental eyes of the shopkeepers and locals? The rickshaw drivers too will warn you that the place is not for “good people”.
It is difficult to decode the abnormality of GB road. During the Mughal empire, when tawaifs or the courtesans were held in high regard, hundreds of kothas were set up in Delhi. But when the British took over, the culture gradually faded away. And after the revolt of 1857, all the red light areas were completely shut down, barring GB Road.
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Moreover, the commercialism at the cusp of independence led to the shifting of the prostitution caves from the ground floor to the first floor.
Rajan Chandra, 57, who owns a plumbing supplies store, speaks rather reluctantly: “This is the way it works here. I am a very respectable man. Anyone coming here knows about the trade happening upstairs. In broad daylight, it might seem everything is absolutely fine, but by sunset, the place becomes shady.”
When asked about the kothas, Chandra shrugged and stated, “We don’t care about their business. Those women never come to our shops nor do we go upstairs. But the stereotypes haven’t allowed our business to expand. People are embarrassed to buy things in our market.”
Madan Singh (name changed), another shopkeeper, says that his family bought this shop in 1987 and life hasn’t really changed since. “I shut my shop at 6 pm as it is their dhanda time. Minutes after sunset, this hardware market turns into Delhi’s infamous red light district as men start thronging the area. They can be seen strolling around the streets and looking up at the first floors.”
He adds that the pimps try their best to get potential customers upstairs while the prostitutes simply wave their handkerchiefs from the balconies. Singh doesn’t want to talk about his shop because he believes that the two worlds are running very happily.
“I don’t know what people think of our shops, because this is the way we have been working for years. My kids are embarrassed to answer where their father’s shop is located, but I tell them to be honest because there’s nothing to hide. Everyone knows about GB road!”, he says.
Ram Chandra, a rickshaw driver in his sixties, says, “In recent years, the place has become more unsafe. In the afternoon, there are high chances of loot.”
It has been over a decade since Chandra started working as a rickshaw driver in the area. “The evenings are busiest here. One day, many years ago, I went upstairs out of curiosity. Upstairs, there were several men in the waiting area. The air was mixed with a whiff of cheap cosmetics and sweat. The minute I realized that this is a wholly different world, I told myself I do not belong here. I returned to my rickshaw instantly”, he admits.
“Respect is everything for people like us. Once you get in, there’s no escape. I don’t think that these women are bad, but that’s how everyone perceives their profession. Maybe when people become sensitive enough to understand them, they might earn respect”, Chandra concludes.
Aneesh Khan sells chips and beverages near Anglo Arabic school at Ajmeri Gate. After he is done with his work in the evening, Khan takes his bike and goes to GB Road with a big basket of refreshments. “People like munching on snacks while they wait. Lots of people come here in the evening, and I sell them refreshments which I otherwise couldn’t sell in the day”, he says.
“There’s a bizarre vibe here,” says Khan. “You won’t see any foreigners coming here to explore like they do the rest of Purani Dilli. Everyone comes on their own will, no one is forcefully brought here”, he adds.
Speaking about his business in the area, he says, “I have some regular customers here. Some women specifically demand cola and namkeen. So, I come here every evening.”
A pimp, who requested anonymity, says, “My friend told me there are many opportunities here. I met my boss (owner of a brothel), who told me that there’ll be no salary here. Instead, I’ll get money based on the number of customers I can bring every evening. I earn good money here, now.” He tells Patriot that when he is hungry, he convinces passersby “anyhow” to become potential customers.
The pimp, who has studied till Class 8, says that he can find customers by just looking at their body language. “Potential customers have a different walking style and their eyes are always searching for something on the stairs that lead to the first floor”, he elaborates.
When asked if his family, who lives in a village outside Delhi, knows about his work, he says, “Of course not. Who would tell their parents? I lied to them. They think I work at some shop in Purani Dilli. I send them money as I am the eldest son and I have to take care of my family. But that doesn’t mean I think my job is respectable. Needs and responsibilities can make you do anything; compromising on good values is a small price.”
Optimism in vain
Patriot got in touch with some locals who talked about the NGOs that have come up recently to help the sex workers.
One of the locals says, “There are several NGOs who work here, but we think they want publicity more than the betterment of these women. Kapde to dono ne utare, par izzat bas un auraton ki gayi samaaj mein (The man and woman, both were naked, but only the women lost their respect in society). A lot of people have talked and written about this, but not much has changed.”