“Nobody Can Love You More”, a recent book on Delhi’s red light area, explores well the destitution of the sex workers

Life in Delhi’s red light area hardly arouses general interest as those who live in it are just left to their miserable fate. But a book, Nobody Can Love You More (Penguin) by Mayank Austen Soofi, takes us behind the walls of G. B. Road, named after a British civic official. “There are 80 kothas in 42 buildings in it” and you can imagine how the numerous sex workers, exploited by pimps and harassed by policemen, who live in them pass their time. But Soofi, as peculiar as his name, which combines Hindu, Christian and Muslim nomenclatures, saves you the bother of letting your imagination run riot. He introduces you to the people who run the kothas (bordellos) and those who earn their livelihood in them. There is Sabir bhai, one of the few males in a realm dominated by madams (Chakla bais) who dominate the lives of the girls over whom they virtually have the power of life and death. Known also as “maliks” (owners), they graduated to that stage after a long grind as dancing girls-cum-sex workers themselves, though not all end up this way. The unlucky ones become mere wretches, begging for a living after losing their youth and beauty. Disease, hunger and loneliness amidst acute poverty is their ultimate lot; and when they die they get the pauper’s funeral.

Soofi, who started life as a hotel steward and has authored four guidebooks earlier, has researched the rise and fall of some of the prostitutes. There is Sushma (real name Shireen) who sleeps till 11 p.m., and she goes down one of the corridors of the area at 3 in the morning to look for customers. There’s a woman called Khala (maternal aunt) and another named Fatima, Sushma’s companion. She is older, feeble and has sunken eyes but she too must find customers to survive. However, her condition is not so pitiable as that of Sumaira’s, who’s been ill for years and is no longer able to sleep with fun-seekers. “To make herself useful, she does odd jobs for everyone else, like getting bidis, beer, milk, vegetables or chai (tea) and cigarettes.” Sushma smokes 502 Pataka Bidi and gets a kick out of it.

Sabir bhai got Sumaira X-rayed. “The doctor says one of her kidneys has disintegrated.” As she sat blank-eyed by Soofi’s side, Sabir bhai said she did not have long to live. A big contrast to her are the other women of the kotha — Sushma in a light-blue salwar suit, with a shawl wrapped around her, talking to someone, perhaps a customer, on her mobile phone and Phalak. The future does not look so bleak for them just yet. Still their world is far removed from the glittering one of courtesans of the times in which emperors like Jahandar Shah and Mohammad Shah and poets like Ghalib found enjoyment.

There are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and even some Christians among the motley group of sex workers. One has a blond son sired by an American. The Christian one says that when she dies she would like to have a decent funeral conducted by a padre and be buried in a Christian cemetery. Her conversation is laced with a smattering of English and she keeps evoking Jesus Christ. Rajkumari is from Maharashtra, often busy reading a Marathi Bible. She first married an African, who fathered a girl. Her second husband was the father of a boy named Sunil. Both the husbands are dead but she has only good words for them as they even cooked for her. Phalak (firmament) has the most romantic name but with no stars in her life, except perhaps the fair tiny-tot, Imran.

Soofi has lived with the G.B. Road girls at all hours of the day and night, not as a customer but as a keen observer, who has preserved both his dignity and virginity in a cesspool of lurid emotions. Though well-written, with great sympathy and understanding, the book ends rather abruptly. Also, most of the pictures are dark and drab. Colour photos would have added to its appeal.