After her husband died from jaundice, Priya* chose to become a sex worker to fund her children’s education. Through the last 15 years, she has lost count of the number of men who have sought her services for sex, and sometimes, just her company to drive away loneliness. “Some men are really bad; a few pay just after having a conversation,” she tells me in a dimly-lit parking lot, waiting for clients on the eve of our country’s Independence day. As soon as police patrol cars drive by, she retreats into the darker corners.
The only one who spoke to me without asking for money, is Priya. Every night at 8 PM, the 46-year-old comes to her spot at Birbal Road, a two km-long upscale 'pick-up lane’ in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. With over 10 pick-up points, the street extends from Defence Colony Flyover Market (where Indian sex workers position themselves), to the MCD Hospital Road (the preferred spot for Afghans, Russians and African sex workers).
“The African males keep to themselves. My best friend is a she-male who stands near the u-turn,” says Priya. Her daughter is a nurse, and her son is studying to be an engineer; both funded by her earnings of around Rs 1 lakh (she typically charges Rs 5,000 for a session). They, of course, don’t know what she does for a living. “This is a prime area, safer than other places. Today is a slow day, though.”
In this area with upscale homes and shops and a generous sprinkling of Shiva temples, the building guards, drivers and shopkeepers blend in with the atmosphere. They often help sex workers find prospective clients and vice versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
In the middle of my conversation with Priya, three women (one of them a pimp) arrive in a rickshaw. “Your brother has died today and you’re picking up clients? Curses to women like you!” says a fat, very angry lady. Priya tells me they just want her spot. Her brother had indeed died after a long struggle with cancer. “There are no grieving holidays in my business,” she says, before walking away to talk to the driver of a car that slows down.
However there are some who aren’t part of this support circle. Madan Kumar, an auto driver, who operates in the area is not a fan of his ‘immoral’ passengers. “They would sometimes sit in the rickshaw and leave without paying. You’d rather give up the money instead of creating a scene.” Neither is Mohammed Bilal, 29, who works as a helper at a travel agency in the area. “Why can’t they earn a living decently? What can I say, Dilli hai hi raddi jagah (Delhi is a useless place).”
The neighbourhood vegetable seller, though, is happy with the booming business. “More people coming here means I sell more vegetables. Even they are trying to earn their bread and butter.” He tells me that most rickshaw pullers in the area act as pimps for a fee of Rs 100-Rs 500, depending on how rich the client looks. A rickshaw, with a girl in heavy make-up and dyed hair, keeps circling, slowing down at intervals to lure male passerbys.
Karuna Rakheja*, a social sector worker, lives on a top floor apartment in the locality. She said female residents walking alone at night risk being mistaken for a sex worker. “It’s funny. If a car stops by me, I politely tell them it’s a mistake.” She doesn’t feel unsafe, but asks her office for a cab when she comes home late. “Once my two college friends came by car to return some money they owed me. After they gave me the cash, I caught men glancing at me suspiciously.”
A rickshaw puller, Amarendu, offered to ferry me around the block and help me meet other sex workers. “The Afghani girls won’t talk to you. I will take you to a friendly one around the corner.” The ‘friendly one’ asked for Rs 1500 for a conversation. I tried to concentrate on the clients, but no cars would stop for me.
A guy on pink scooty negotiating with a woman tells me he lives in the street next to this one and works at an IT company. “I was just having fun with her. I have three girlfriends who I can fuck whenever I want. Why’d I go for a prostitute?” he explains.
On one end of the pick-up lane is Defence Colony Flyover Market, where a late night crowd of mostly men throng the busy eateries to take home food and beer, gulp down shawarmas and ogle at a motley group of transgender and female sex workers.
Aruna, a transgender, said money is the sole motive for an everyday fight with the cops, the pimps and the often-violent clients. “We don’t have the option not to earn. In our line of work, it comes with adjectives like randi (prostitute) which everyone keeps throwing at us.”
Her friend, Radhika*, was robbed and raped two weeks ago, when she went with two clients in an SUV. “Three other men joined later, gagged me and had sex with me at knife-point. They took away my new Samsung J7 and my wallet,” said Radhika. She didn’t go to the cops as she felt “they’d just laugh and do nothing”. I went to their third friend, a young woman with red, clearly intoxicated eyes. “Tell me about your day?” I asked. She just sobbed uncontrollably in response. At this point a patrol bike came by. “You’d do this is on Independence day? Do you have no shame”? The trio ran as their life depended on it.
As the clock struck midnight and we entered our 72nd year of independence, the pick-up lane was empty. Men in their fancy cars, scooters and cycle rickshaws kept passing by, disappointed. The police vehicles with blaring sirens and red-blue lights kept patrolling. It was a bad day for business.
*Names have been changed at request.
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