Garstin Bastion Road, Delhi’s red-light district, has many aspects. It has Connaught Place-like corridors, Old Delhi-type havelis, and even an ATM, tucked right next to a Madame’s kotha.
GB Road houses a temple, a mosque and a school. It is said to be India’s biggest market for bathroom fittings. It even has its own ruin — the Ajmeri Gate. It is easily accessible: a minute’s walk from the New Delhi railway station, next to the Anglo-Arabic Model School.
But these are not the images the mention of ‘GB Road’ normally evokes. The vision that arises is that of prostitutes and pimps. The stretch is not on the tourist itinerary, though it’s a walking distance from touristy areas such as Chandni Chowk. “I've never been to GB Road,” says William Dalrymple, the author of the Delhi travelogue City of Djinns, “I didn't venture beyond the Ajmeri Gate.”
If you take a walk there, the scenes that greet you would be surprisingly ordinary — shops, migrant labourers, rickshaws, cars, pull carts, bikes, bins, chaat-wallas, women in sarees, in burqas.
You would also see some men craning their neck upwards. Follow their eyes. There are the grilled windows on the floors above the shops; bare arms coming out, gesturing passers-by to come in. The women behind these windows are the sex workers.
One day I made an eye contact with one of them and went up. On the first landing, two women were blocking a doorway. One bit her lips and invited me in. I went to the second landing, and entered a kotha.
Inside, benches were arranged in a hall on which sat the women. Lolling around on the floor were their children. One wall had framed portraits of Lakshmi, Hanuman, Jesus Christ, Guru Nanak, and the shrine of Mecca. One of the ladies escorted me out to the balcony to show the views.
Down was the familiar GB Road. Far away the lights were blinking on Paharganj’s hippy hostelries. On the right, the Viedeocon tower. Far left - Connaught Place skyscrapers. Opposite the balcony — a theka. Parked nearby — a medical van of the Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, which provides free medicines to the area’s residents. Further ahead — a kotha, which, the lady said, is known for girls trafficked from Nepal. There were two mosques on the back lane.
With such a ‘normal’ world around, don’t the sex workers get tempted to flee GB Road? “This life is my choice,” she said before pointing out to dalaals on the road.
“How can you make out they are pimps?” I asked. “You can't. They look like you,” she said.
These pimps are the woes of many a sex worker. Instead of getting them clients, they block the access to kothas and often harass and loot clients. As a result, many customers are afraid to go up, and the prostitutes lose their business.
During the Mughal-era, there were five red-light areas in the city. After the 1857 revolt, the British closed all except the one at G.B. Road. In 1965, it was renamed after Swami Shradhanand, a social reformer. That hasn’t changed the character of the place. GB Road has around 96 kothas. Each kotha has its own ‘family’ of prostitutes. Most come from desperately poor villages spread out in such varied regions as Nepal and Karnataka. Some are runaways, or have been duped by lovers and sold here. Then they condition themselves, or are forced, to the life of a sex worker.
A section of men who work in GB Road but never meddle with the kotha women are the shopkeepers downstairs. Watching these traders carry on with their business under the garlanded portraits of their black-and-white ancestors is rather odd. One shopkeeper refused to give his name and refused to talk about the ladies. “We’ve never touched, never talked to these women,” he said. “They never come to our shops.”
The lady later escorted me to the roof upstairs to show the Delhi-6 skyline. There were pigeons, kites, and the Jama Masjid dome — familiar sights, but it was strange to see them in a place that is either talked about in hushed tones or referred to in dirty jokes, as if it’s something fictitious. But GB Road is real. It’s there.