THE YELLOW Line of the Delhi Metro is a fascinating journey connecting multiple Delhis separated by space and time. Moving north from the high rises of Gurgaon through the glitz of South Delhi, then passing under the corridors of power of Lutyen’s capitol into the labyrinthine streets of the old city, it is a journey that takes you back centuries.
Mayank Austen Soofi’s latest book came out of many trips along this route: from Green Park, close to his home in the posh Hauz Khas Village, to New Delhi station, the point of disembarking for GB Road, Delhi’s red light district. The author of four ‘alternative guidebooks to Delhi’ writes about the lives and loves of the city’s prostitutes in Nobody Can Love You More. Like many other old Delhi institutions, however, the district is a decaying relic of Mughal and British times, where sophisticated courtesans have been replaced by Nepali call girls struggling to eke out a living. As Delhi goes elsewhere for its nocturnal fix, the area has become a fiefdom for police to harass its inhabitants at will.
It is a fascinating subject: artists, writers and photographers have been documenting daily life in GB Road, Kamathipura and Sonagachi for decades. These places make for touching stories of desperation, pain, love and community; of children growing up and old whores being forced into retirement. Soofi’s book has all of these, with the many stories of ‘teen sau number’, a kotha on the street, and its inhabitants.
Soofi, who entered the house as an English teacher for the children, is drawn to the human stories of Sushma, an ageing prostitute facing impending retirement with serenity; of Sabir Bhai, the philosopher maalik who trusts no one, least of all the girls who live and work in his house; of Rajkumari, the bed-ridden religious madam next door whose marriage to a Nigerian led to her being ostracised from an otherwise classless social structure; of the painfully self-aware children of the brothel who’d like a better future for themselves. A common thread tying all the stories is a disconnect with ‘society’, a world they left behind in order to survive and know they cannot rejoin. “GB Road is a quicksand,” says Sabir, and the people Soofi talks to are often surprised he would leave south Delhi to come talk to them.
ACCESS IS the primary obstacle for a book of this type, and Soofi is forthright about his struggles in getting his subjects to talk to him. Outside ‘teen sau number’, he is rebuffed by prostitutes, pimps, musicians and maaliks, and Sabir Bhai’s brothel often becomes a refuge from the world outside. His failure to get more human stories diminishes the book somewhat, and eventually makes the narrative tedious.
The major problem with the book is the continuous presence of the narrator at the centre of the story. There is no denying that Soofi knows the city, that he understands the dynamics, desires and distresses of the inhabitants of GB Road, but there is always the sense that perhaps this book is not about them. Like Suketu Mehta, Soofi nominates himself as the ambassador of the chattering classes to the underbelly of the city they live in but barely understand. That is well and good, but again, as with Mehta, the intersections between the two worlds in the book serve only to highlight his progressive credentials; how, while the rest of rich Delhi is wrapped up in its own world, he is going out among the great unwashed. Such a characterisation may be a bit unfair to someone who has spent years exploring all aspects of the city, but by ditching the reporter’s distance, he denies these powerful stories the chance to stand on their own.
Ajachi Chakrabarti is a Correspondent with Tehelka.