Delhi is dust.
Polluted heat aching for monsoon.
The baby in the puddle cries as I walk away.
A rickshaw, all tinsel and paint, stutters down traffic choked streets. Poverty juxtaposes opulence. I am off the tourist trail, surrounded by labourers and carefully preened business men. Concrete overstocked shops extend down the street, in between each shop nestles a staircase. A few curious glances stray upon me as I get out and pay the driver, asking him to wait... just in case. This is Garstin Bastion Road: the street of prostitution.
My translator and I ascend creaking wooden steps, peeling paintwork whispering it was once red. An authoritative woman demands our purpose. Am I a tourist? Charity worker? Police? I say I'm a writer wishing to chat, and she bristles with disdain, attempting to bustle us back down the steps. Our reluctance raises curses, conjuring large and remarkably threatening men. Swift diplomacy involving wads of cash sees resistance, if not suspicion, evaporate. The woman silent now under the men's vicious glares. I am ushered down bare concrete corridors lined with what can only be termed 'cells', approximately two metres squared, containing a wooden bench at waist height attached to the wall by rusting chains. Some cells are open, others closed. I walk past one that has a fetid puddle on the crumbling concrete floor with a baby sat alone in the puddle, staring vacantly into nothingness. A cell is opened and we are gestured inside by a man with thick stubble and unreadable, vacant eyes. A look of anxious concern passes between my translator and I. We step inside, noting with concern the metal bolt was on the outside. The door clanks shut and I hover in fetid darkness, frightened breath anticipating the noise of the bolt sliding shut; minutes disappear like startled hours.
Light storms the cell and flitting figures settle like nervous birds upon the wooden perch. Slanted light illuminates three sari draped women, the eldest perhaps fifty, the youngest maybe fourteen. The child is called Pukka, there is a woman my age called Uskar, and the eldest doesn't want to say her name either through fear, experience, or both; she remains swathed silently in a scarf throughout the discussion, like a sentinel of dark secrets. It is Usker who spills, erupts, murmurs and wavers, but never quite cries her story to me.
Born in a small village in the Northern state of Bihar, Uskars' childhood was one of subsistence agricultural poverty, lacking education. Bihar is extremely poor, with over 37 million people below the poverty line. The World Bank describes Bihar as one of the most densely populated agglomerations of poor people anywhere in the world. Her father was drunk and abusive, her mother a shadow of a woman and her brothers violent and lazy. When she was fourteen a stranger arrived and 'fell in love' with Uskar, offering to take her away to a luxurious life in Delhi. They fled one night and the man became unfriendly, cold and aggressive. In Delhi Uskar was sold to a brothel. A girl has a certain status, respect and security in her home village; outside of this sphere a young village girl has no protection or safety and thus can be traded, like cattle.
They have sex in the cells with usually four to eight men a day, every day. The men include teenagers, old men, shop keepers, taxi drivers, road-sweepers, businessmen, off duty police and unknown 'wealthies'. Their average fee is 150 rupees (£1.60) for full penetrative sex, although for 50 rupees touch only can be bartered. The women know about HIV, AIDS, STD's. A charity education initiative existed at one time, although I guessed it had ended sourly given their tone. Access to condoms is not a problem, getting men to wear them is. Clients are often violent, drunk, drugged, or otherwise abusive, and the men who escorted me to the cell rarely intervene unless there is a refusal of payment. The local police are in collaboration, so do nothing.
I ask what her view on love is now and her eyes cloud, focus on some unknown middle distance. Love in the romantic Bollywood style has become absurd. She has a child called Aamaal (hope), and that is love. She wants to save enough money to send the child to school and lead a good life. I consider the baby I passed in the puddle combined with the demand for underage prostitution in India, and optimism dies.
The cell is infernally hot, sweat soaking us all. Wishing them well, not knowing what else to say, we sneak out the cell, running down the steps before the men knew we had finished. Minutes later I find myself seated in an air conditioned bar, sipping cold beer costing more than two days' earnings for Usker.
What can be done?
Who is to blame?
No clear answers emerge.
Many of the men involved in trafficking are also traumatised, poverty stricken and from backgrounds as relentlessly cruel as the acts they commit.
The Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM) created the Pan India survey of sex workers in 2011, and the International human rights institute of DePaul University College of Law research the dynamics of world sex trafficking. Most non-governmental organisations (NGO's) do not direct attention specifically at sex workers but assist them tangentially through AIDS, HIV and STD prevention programs of varying success. The UK Department for International Development (Dfid) made the decision to cut aid to India from the 1st January 2016, citing that India is now an affluent country. Maybe this cessation of aid should be questioned, for the support we gave was put to good use, and empowered women in poor areas like Bihar.
This article isn't a soapbox. I'm not preaching at you.
The experience leaves me at a loss.
I feel putting some contrite, conceited conclusion devalues Uskar's words.
It is a narrative of harsh reality, told by humans not so different from you and I.
Voices that deserve an audience.
Do with their story what you will.
But remember Uskar's name.
Know that she exists.
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