At 5pm on Tuesday, a group of four men in their thirties climbed up dark and narrow stairs to a mezzanine floor on GB Road, just when busy evening time was about to start for the residents of the Capital’s Red Light area. In these quarters, men are welcome, because men mean business here, literally.
But, of course, not these men.
Armed with sheaves of papers, questionnaires, pen and other paraphernalia and sporting badges that proclaimed ‘Census of India’ these men were there to ask some uncomfortable questions to the inhabitants of the kothas and count them as vital statistics in the government’s grand scheme of things.
The women, however, had no time for such exercise.
“What nonsense is this?” was their first reaction as the census group consisting of enumerator, master trainer, superintendent and an assistant — government school teachers —otherwise entered block number 42 across a police assistance booth on GB Road.
For the uninitiated, Garstin Bastion Road in central Delhi near Ajmeri Gate is one of Delhi’s oldest prostitution hub.
Known as Swami Shraddhanand Marg since 1965, it is also famous for its huge market of machine tools, sanitary products and hardware. But the rooms on top of the shops with tiny windows opening to the main road and girls of all ages peeking out for clients make GB Road the landmark that it is.
“We have come to ask you a few questions. We don’t want anything else,” said Manish Sharma, a teacher with the nearby Atmaram Sanatan Dharm School.
“Madam, this is very important for the country,” Sharma said as women, crowded in a dimly lit hall with bright pink walls, looked anything from bored to uninterested to mildly amused.
After 20 minutes of cajoling, when Sharma and his colleagues went into several hyperboles about the goodness of census, the ice began to melt.
“All right, be quick. We haven’t got all day,” said Shanno, 55, one of the oldest women there. And just like that, the GB Road quarter opened to let a sneak peek into its world.
“I came here from a place near Bangalore a year before Indira Gandhi was killed. I have spent my entire life here,” said Shanno.
Standard census questions like “are you looking for work?” or “are you married?” or “what do you do for a living?” meant nothing to the respondents here.
Collective giggles rang out at some questions leaving the officials red-faced.
“Of course we are not married. What kind of a silly question is that,” asked Rekha, 55, who came from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, 30 years ago.
The question on caste, too, did not find any takers. “We pray to the Almighty because it is difficult to survive in this trade without God’s blessings,” said a 25-year-old from Bharatpur, Rajasthan, who did not want to be named.
“We did have a caste in our villages, but that has never mattered here because we only have each other for family,” she added.
Right from the staircase, the walls are plastered with posters of deities. Many refused to be interviewed as business warmed up. Wearing loud makeup and cheap dazzling clothes, girls with clients kept going in and out of the rows of doors to small partitioned rooms, each the size of a toilet, at the far end of the halls. The enumerator carried on scribbling and his peers kept eyes fixed on the questionnaires.
It was on the question of children that their eyes lit up. Many, if not most, said they have children.
“I have three kids. Two are away studying and the one is just three years old,” said 37-year-old Salita. And just like that, all of a sudden, there seemed to be a lot of children there. A whining toddler kept getting passed around from one girl to another while a boy of around 10 kept on studying in one of the rooms, uninterested as girls keep walking in with clients. The walls bore signs of wild graffiti in crayons, like any household with children would have.
“The children will go to college one day and then get respectable jobs and get their mothers out of here. Then I will make a new voter-ID card that doesn’t say GB Road against my name,” Salita says as girls keep walking in with clients. Until then it’s business as usual on GB Road.