Title: Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District
Author: Mayank Austen Soofi
Price: ₹ 319 (on Flipkart)
My first serious attempt at reading non-fiction.
You need to run with the flow, right from the beginning. It feels like one is being thrown into the deep end, so questioning the style or the author’s choices is futile. Soofi is like a guide, and as a reader, it’s your job to see GB road as he shows you. You follow him through the corridors of various kothas, always returning to number teen sau (300). You sit by his side on the steps with Roopa and Mamta as they tell him their stories, while calling out to customers at the same time. In between the pale watercolours of the women that Soofi’s words paint, you learn about Delhi’s red light area — the shift from Chawri Bazar to GB Road; the death of traditions associated with ‘the world’s oldest trade’ and the mundane aspirations of the inhabitants of the kothas.
The GB Road world is different, but not (just) because of the ‘sleaze’. There are different meanings of terms like family, religion, love and compassion — these exist but are far removed from our traditional understanding of the concepts. So you have Sabir Bhai’s pride when he speaks of his ‘fair’ son Imran, Fatima’s explanation of why she prays to Jesus, Guru Nanak, Lakshmi and the framed portrait of Kalyar Sharif Sufi, and the fierce sense of protectiveness the women have for the abandoned child of a run-away ‘colleague’.
The book is as much about the men at GB Road as it is about the women. The kotha maliks, husbands, sons, pimps, preferred customers, shopkeepers, temple priests and neighbours — they’re all connected to these women in real ways, and their stories help Soofi present a clearer picture of what is often considered dark and depressive lives of these women who live ‘outside society’.
The fragmented nature of the conversations have to be accepted for what they are. Searching for context, or an explanation, will only leave you frustrated. The writing is not harsh or crude (except for cuss words); the photographs are not pornographic. Instead, the writing is fluid and gentle — it is not intrusive. The pictures interspersed throughout the book are gritty, raw and real; not polished and tampered with. They capture simple elements of the lives of the kotha inhabitants — the tin boxes of make-up and tubes of Fair & Lovely; the posters of Bollywood filmstars like Aishwarya Rai, Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor; the silhouettes of the women as they wait for customers in the kotha balconies; and a pet rabbit.
Soofi’s book breaks through our stubborn assumptions of the lives of sex workers. Yes, many have been forced to enter this life through deception, but the book focuses more on what happens after rather than lingering on the deceit or sadness of why these women are here today. At no point does the reader feel that they are better or above any of these women, and it is this feeling that Soofi manages to create through the entirety of the book. It is educative without being judgemental — a balance that must be commended especially when the book is about a topic like this one.
(Review also posted on Goodreads)