There's an undying curiosity about sex work. We have seen movies where a prostitute is a central figure. People have reported conversations with what are often described as 'high-class call girls', and with others, photo-essays about squalid red light districts. In the recent past, we've had a best-selling autobiography, The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, by Nalini Jameela. And now there's Nobody Can Love You More – Life in Delhi's Red Light Districts by Mayank Austen Soofi. This one traces the lives of those who live and work in Kotha No. 300, in GB Road.
Since Soofi has entered their space as a curious documenter, and not posing to be a client, his view is a gently sympathetic one. The sex workers cook, eat, have children, switch bosses, take lovers, go to temples, buy knick-knacks, wear salwars and sweaters. Much of the book is devoted to descriptions of living quarters, and clothes.
Perhaps, this was necessary. It's ironic that though it's called the 'flesh trade', society fails to see sex workers as women of real flesh. Women who need clean water, spectacles, medicine. Women who need men to hold and not for money.
That said, some passages read like an amateur exercising new writing muscles. One of the things that made me wince – especially in the beginning – is the author's tendency to state the obvious. We know this as a place of shadowy figures and marginal lives. Soofi describes walking down to No. 300 at night, for he wants to experience it as a customer would. But he ignores everyone on the street. This is precisely the sort of scene one expects – it already exists in our collective imagination. Yet, whenever he's offered an opportunity to actually investigate an area of great darkness – a minor, a foreign woman – the writer turns away and flees.
There's little attempt at organizing information, so our understanding of the history of GB Road remains fractured. The writer allows himself to follow a staccato pattern of narration. What this does is tear away the reader's eyes from a theme just as one gets involved.
However, Soofi has succeeded in introducing us to individuals rather than an unsorted stereotype. He introduces us to Sushma, at a point in time when he's acquainted well enough to hang out on with her on a terrace. In due course, we are allowed into Sushma's personal life – if indeed, she tells the truth, as the writer himself wonders. Nighat is a woman with the morality of the mainstream gnawing at her heels, so that she is unwilling to go down to solicit customers on the street, but is not averse to having someone else bring a client 'upstairs'.
The author has limited himself to telling us what his subjects allow him to know; perhaps less than that.
The 'Upstairs' is what the red light district is, for GB Road also has rows of shops and other businesses at street level. Soofi tried conducting interviews but appears to have failed to access their minds or indeed the true nature of their prejudice.
Some asides would have made for fascinating reveals if pursued – a white man, the father of the child Imran, insists on kicking supplicants after he gives them money. It holds the promise of a deeper truth about our attitudes to money and abuse. There is a section on religion, which also promised to be revealing – women who have no reason to trust in any kind of god continue to appease all. But those deeper conversations do not happen.
Dropcap OnThere are interviews with pimps, and of course, there's the mysterious Sabir bhai, who runs No 300. The man will not reveal much of his own past, but a dark picture is hinted at. I wish the writer had dug around until a fuller portrait of Sabir bhai – newly religious, former addict, husband and father, major beneficiary of kotha – emerged.
It is unfair to demand that a book should be something it is not, but the joy of reading non-fiction lies in its promise of uncommon knowledge and insight. There are corners in this book that glow with insight – such as seeing the link between police harassment during the emergency and the fall in the fortunes of the sex workers in GB Road.
What this book does offer is a gentle, ruminative view of a poor brothel. The author has limited himself to telling us what his subjects allow him to know; perhaps less than that. It is a sensitive portrait and as far as the writer himself is concerned, an honest one. But lack of a reporter's instinct ensures that we do not know much about the political, religious and gendered forces that create places like GB Road, and force women into a hopeless spiral, whereby they might feed their parents or siblings or husbands, but die lonely and impoverished.
As a reminder of their humanity and their vulnerability, Soofi's book is worth a read. And yet, it seems that the black-and-white photos sprinkled through the book do a more efficient job of tugging at the heartstrings than the text. Perhaps because they capture everyone from a distance, giving the illusion of no lenses, no authorial eye. Faces are not presented to the camera, smiles are not offered. It is possible to imagine that we were taken there by an invisible breeze blowing through GB Road.