A moment ago, she was smiling. Now, she is crying. “Why these tears, Rani*?” The eight-year-old girl shakes her head. “It’s her mother,” says Saajid Bhai, the owner of kotha No. XX, one of the 96 establishments on GB Road, Delhi’s red light district near Ajmeri Gate.
Like other children, Rani studies in a school, plays at home, and fights with people of her age. Her nose is pierced; her frock has orange flowers. She likes pakodis; she hates bananas. She can recite the English alphabet; she can count from one to hundred. Her mother, sex worker Aneeta, has high hopes from Rani. “I’m waiting for her to grow up so that I can live off her earnings.”
The reason why Rani is crying is that her mother has been told to move out from Saajid Bhai’s kotha. Aneeta is an alcoholic and fights with other women of the kotha when drunk. She has decided to shift to a neighbouring establishment. Rani is unwilling. “There, both mother and daughter will have to live in a small room fit for a single bed,” Saajid Bhai says.
Most women in Saajid Bhai’s kotha don’t want to let Rani go. “But who are we to snatch a child from her mother?” says Zeenat, a sex worker.
In the night when Aneeta gets drunk, she usually gets into a fight with her daughter. “Ek din tu bhi r***i banegi (One day you too will become a w***e),” she would say. Rani would reply, “R***i, tujhe mein jhaapad mar doongi (W***e, I’ll slap you).”
In the political dynamics of the kotha children, Rani doesn’t count. “She’s a bhikhari (beggar),” says Zia, a cheery child of another sex worker. The girl is usually ignored and is asked to join in a game when there are not enough players. But Rani is also loved. While her mother sleeps during the day, she is taken care of by her co-workers.
As part of her PhD thesis on human trafficking in South Asia, Anupama Singh, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, comes daily to the kotha to interact with the women. Sometimes, she helps their children with subjects such as Maths or assist them in drawing. “I remember the two sketches Rani drew,” Singh says. “One had a doll looking out of a window. That was very insightful. In GB Road — most women solicit customers by waving their arms from the balcony windows.”
The other sketch was the curious combination of a fish and a man. The man was Rani’s biological father. A labourer in Chawri Bazaar, he occasionally comes to meet her. Once, he had taken Rani for fishing to a lake outside Delhi. “Perhaps the memory stayed with her,” says Singh.
What is Rani’s future? “Most probably she will follow her mother,” Zeenat says. Saajid Bhai’s theory is, “GB Road is a daldal (marsh). Once you get into the Red Light, it is very difficult to get out.”
* All names were changed to protect the identity of the people in this article.