Long before G.B. Road had 5,000 sex workers operating from 116 brothels, there was a beautiful young dancing girl in Chawri Bazar, Nasreen, who was the craze of Delhi in the pre-Partition days. One had occasion to meet her in 1978 when she had became a shrivelled old woman, standing with a marigold garland on the steps of a kotha.
People venturing upstairs paused to look at her and hurried to attend the mujra. Only one man stopped to listen to her and he happened to be Peter, intent on doing a story on the tawaifs for The Times, London. His companion was this scribe.
The first thing Peter did was buy the garland from Nasreen, who seemed pleased at receiving a price 10 times its value. He then got her in the mood to relate her story in a scenario reminiscent of the wedding guest being stopped by the Old Mariner in Coleridge's poem. Only the characters were different.
And this is what she said: “When I was a girl of 14 I was kidnapped by a man who happened to be a young neighbour in my ancestral village in Dholpur. He posed as my lover and promised me great things in Delhi where, he said, girls like me were in great demand to work as maids in the havelis of the nawabzadas.”
“We arrived by train at Old Delhi station, from where he took me to a hotel in Fatehpuri. The whole night he forced (himself on)me. The next day three men arrived whom Ahmed, my companion, introduced as karimdars of the nawabzadas. They looked me up and down. My screams for help were muffled with tight slaps and deep pinches and, in any case, nobody in the hotel was interested in finding out what was happening. It was the year 1930 and tongas ferried people to and fro. After the assaults I was made to smell a handkerchief and I lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes I was in a chandeliered room, with two middle-aged women peering at me with great interest. It was only later that I learnt that it was the kotha of Haseena Jan in the locality of Chawri Bazaar.”
“Here I was forced to entertain a dozen customers or more everyday. Refusal meant beatings and solitary confinement without food for days. Having lost everything due to the treachery of that rogue Ahmed, I eventually became reconciled to my lot. Slowly I started earning more than all the other kotha girls because of my youth and beauty, which people compared to the full moon. For 25 years my popularity continued and after that came a decline. There were fewer customers and the earnings were less. The owner's daughter had succeeded her and she cared two hoots for me. But I remained there till the age of 50, catering to the whims and passions of depraved old men.”
“After that no customer was interested in Nasreen Jan and I was made to look after the new girls who arrived from Morena, Agra, Firozabad, Aligarh, Etah and Nepal. They confided in me sometimes about their troubles but I was not in a position to help them. Then came a day when I was kicked out and could do nothing but beg from customers coming to other kothas. I continue to do so and you find me in the condition I am in today.”
The Times man gave her another Rs.100 note and climbed up the stairs with the old woman's blessings following him all the way up just like she wished the girls there the fragrance of spring meadows. That toothless hag must be long dead but her memory is still vivid in one's mind. She did not complain, she did not mention the diseases she had been infected with and she did not bemoan her lot; just accepted it as the result of her youthful folly for which she paid by selling 10-rupee garlands. May she rest in peace!