21/12/2014 3:01 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Finding Love in Delhi's Red Light District

"The clients would come in and sit there. Whenever they came closer and tried something with me, I'd hit them a lot. How was I supposed to know what they were there for? But then obviously the poor guys would complain as they'd paid money, and later I'd pay for it. I was beaten very badly."

Hardik Gaurav

"Once I discovered what I had to do, I felt like killing myself, or someone else," said Salva*. She placed her attention back onto the sewing machine that stood in front of her and began to spin its mechanical wheel. It was soon making a rhythmic clicking sound as its needle moved up and down rapidly, the deep purple salwar beneath it inching a little closer to completion.

"How did you discover?" I asked her. The clicking sound stopped for a moment as she paused to respond.

"They put a lot of make up on me. Short clothes, too. I'd never worn these kinds of things before and I didn't want to," said Salva.

"The clients would come in and sit there. Whenever they came closer and tried something with me, I'd hit them a lot. How was I supposed to know what they were there for? But then obviously the poor guys would complain as they'd paid money, and later I'd pay for it. I was beaten very badly."

We were sitting on the floor of a sparsely furnished room, pale shafts of morning sunlight casting long shadows against its peeling yellow walls. I couldn't help but notice the deep, U-shaped scar that marked the upper part of her left arm. "Did you ever try to run away?"

"Lots of times," she replied. "Whenever I got a small tip from a client, I'd hide it in whatever small secret places I could find in the kotha [brothel], but I never managed to get away. They beat us terribly if we tried. Many girls have died that way on GB Road."

Like many of the 3,500 women who live and work in Delhi's largest red light district, GB Road, an agent had lured Salva here at the age of fifteen with the promise of a salary over four times higher than the best she could find in Kolkata. It wasn't until she reached Delhi that she discovered it was not housework she had been brought here to do.

It has been fifteen years since that time, and despite the fact that Salva is now free to leave GB Road if she wishes, she has, until recently, had neither the means nor confidence to do so. Six months ago, she encountered Kat Katha, a community of young volunteers who have made it their mission to empower the GB Road's women and children. Since then, her outlook has begun to change.

Sewing classes are one of the many ways in which - through Kat Katha - women like Salva are starting to learn new skills and create opportunities for themselves to leave the area should they wish.

Gitanjali Babbar with one of Kat Katha's children.

"Girls can come into the profession at ages as young as 12 or 13," said the organisation's 28-year-old founder, Gitanjali Babbar. "They are locked into these places and even if they fight to begin with, after a few years many have accepted this as their fate. They don't feel there are any alternatives."

Kat Katha's basic yet lovingly decorated rented space just behind GB Road, in which we were sitting with Salva, has also become a school for 16 of the children who live within the brothels, where they come for classes six, and sometimes seven, days of the week.

Many more women are connected to the "Kat Family" - as they call themselves - through their repeated visits to the brothels, where they not only take classes, but are also developing a number of additional programs to provide health services and legal rights education to the women.

"We want to see that every woman and child on this road does not live the life of a puppet, that they have a life of their own choosing," said Babbar, explaining their choice of 'Kat Katha', or The Story of Puppets, as a name.

A Parallel World

GB Road (Garstin Bastion) lies in the heart of Delhi, connecting the city's new and old railway stations with its long, dusty carriageways. Hidden inside its ramshackle three and four-storey buildings lies a parallel world. Unseen to most, it flickers in the haggard, painted faces of women long past their best, who sit at the base of murky stairwells and call out for custom. It is also hinted at in the upward gazes of men, young and old, towards red-lipped women who stand at barred windows, beckoning them in.

It was in early 2011, while working with India's National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), that Babbar first visited GB Road. "I knew it existed, but I could have never imagined it was this bad," she said. "When you see human beings living this way, you start questioning everything."

Conditions within the area's 70-odd brothels are largely cramped and squalid. As you climb their dimly lit stairwells, bench-lined rooms peel off to the left and right, housing collections of women dressed in a variety of threadbare salwars, saris or tight western clothes. At times, they are shockingly young. In the most popular kothas, such as 'number 64' - known for its beautiful Nepali girls - men, young and old, move between the various floors in almost unbreaking lines. Some come alone, others in rowdy groups. They are often high, sometimes violent; at times brazen, at others sheepish.

A child from Kat Katha and a volunteer's child play with marigold petals on Diwali. Image by: Hardik Gaurav

"Some see up to forty clients a day, all in these incredibly small, dirty booths," said Babbar. "You feel like you'll get an infection just looking at them; they are so bad."

At 8 percent, HIV rates in the area are over 26 times the national average. And the women suffer from a host of other physical ailments, including skin infections, lung problems, malnutrition and additional sexually transmitted diseases. The majority of these problems go untreated - the women are unwilling to leave the brothels or unable to afford adequate medical treatment.

It is not just the women's physical health that is impacted by life in GB Road.

"By the time they have been here for a few years, many are suffering from mental health issues," said Babbar. "Depression, anxiety and insomnia are very common."

Fatima, now 38, lives on tiny balcony that perches over one of the gullies behind GB Road. Open to the city's harsh elements, she shares a single, rattan-slung cot and one blanket with her 11-year-old son, Atif. Their clothes hang on a few rusty nails that have been hammered into the wall. Fatima was trafficked into one of the kothas here from a small village close to Bangalore at the age of 13. Today, she has to take medication daily to control her moods, which can swing violently.

A collection of Kat Katha's children play snakes and ladders at school.

"When my mother gets angry, I run and hide," said Atif, who was one of the first children to start coming to Kat Katha. "I'll go anywhere until it has passed."

In September 2011, Babbar left her job with NACO. Though she was no longer obliged to spend time on GB Road, her visits continued almost unremittingly. "I just knew that I wanted to understand the situation more," she recalls. Even when she moved to Agra, a city two-and-a-half hours away, she would return each weekend to spend time in the brothels, where she would sit and "just talk" with the women.

On one particular visit, a brothel owner who still associated her with NACO shouted at her angrily, saying, "Why do you keep coming here? All you folk ever talk to us about is condoms and sex. You never ask us what dreams we have, or if we want to do something else with our lives."

Shocked by these words, Babbar began reflecting on them. When she returned to GB Road a few days later she asked Asha, a sex worker she had become close to, what it was that she most wanted. Her instant response was, "I want to study".

Before long, Babbar was giving classes in the brothels and drawing in a growing number of friends to help her.

Building a Family

Salva is one of 40 women who have begun some form of skills training with Kat Katha since that time, three of whom, including Asha, have now left sex work entirely. Four to five times a week, Salva comes for a few hours in the early morning to learn stitching.

"I didn't trust them in the beginning," she confided, as she continued to spin the wheel of her sewing machine. "I used to think 'what would I do if I go to the school. I could stay here instead and earn some money.' But now I feel that at least I can learn something, and become something."

While Salva was drawn to the opportunity to learn skills, there is something else about Kat Katha, she says, that she really values. "In other places, people would ask for money before teaching anything, but the good thing about this place is that they don't."

"They teach us other good things as well. They guide us. I got to know so many great people here. When I came here I discovered all this - I didn't know it before. Even though we are so inferior to them, they still greet us with folded hands. That tells us something about their humanity. They show us a lot of respect," she continued.

For 28-year-old Ritumoni Das, another of Kat Katha's founding members, the distinction is simple. "We are creating a family, not running a project."

The importance of building close relationships is essential to breaking down the stigma these women and children feel, she says. "You can't just take a girl out of a brothel. They have this belief in their mind and heart that they belong to a community that is not acceptable. Until they can overcome that belief, it is very difficult for them to leave this world, even if they have the money or skills."

Indeed, one is as likely to find the volunteers visiting their didis ("sisters") in the brothels, sharing food and conversations with them and celebrating birthdays and festivals, as one is to find them giving classes.

"Now I feel that at least I can learn something, and become something."

This Diwali, as dusk settled and lights began to sparkle across the city, I joined the children and a large collection of volunteers in lighting candles throughout each of the area's brothels, to celebrate India's festival of light in dark times. Amongst a heavy stream of clients, we handed out sweets and hugged each of the women, one by one.

"No-one from Kat Katha asks me where I am from, nothing. I am just treated as myself. When the volunteers eat, they eat with us and share from our plates. They treat us like sisters," said 26-year old Maya, who has recently started taking Hindi classes at the school.

"We are treated as real people: a human being with a heart and a soul. There is no labelling of us as sex workers or sex workers' children," added Rekha, whose eight-year-old son has been going to Kat Katha for classes over the last year.

Many of the children who attend classes are beginning to notice changes within themselves, too, since becoming part of the 'Kat Family'. "I feel happy when I come here," said Varun, a bright and generous fourteen year-old who was one of their first students. "It's a nice place and I find love here. I thought I wouldn't become anything and would never amount to much, but now I want to be a photographer."

Kat Katha's efforts in GB Road have not been without challenges. In the last two years, they have had to move premises six times. The reason is almost always the same. The children are not a problem. The landlord and neighbours just don't want sex workers anywhere near them.

"I want my daughter to neither know what I do, nor be affected by my past."

Volunteers have also received threats from brothel owners, political parties, pimps and even the police over their engagement with the women. Yet over time, even these have begun to decrease as their presence has become increasingly accepted.

"Everyone needs someone to talk to," explained Das candidly, putting this change down to their non-confrontational, inclusive approach.

To date, the volunteers - of whom there have, at different times, been over 150 - have built relationships with 48 of the road's brothels and over a thousand of the women. As they continue to grow, they are aware that they will need to build more structure into what has been a rather fluid form.

"We have been rather uncoordinated, just responding to needs as they have arisen. Now we are trying to formalise things," said Das. This includes expanding the number of courses that are available for the women, better organising their growing cohort of volunteers and setting up a hostel for the children outside the area. It also involves finding a more reliable source of funding.

"We want to reach each and every woman and child on this road," said Babbar.

Despite the long road ahead, Babbar is content with the start that has been made. "We aren't reaching every woman, but in the last two years, we have been able to go into so many brothels and make connections; going with the feeling of a family."

For Salva, her encounter with the Kat Family has been a turning point. As she got up to leave, her phone ringing with ever more frequency as clients began to get impatient, she folded up the purple salwar she had been stitching into a tidy bundle.

Ritumoni Das with one of Kat Katha's children.

"This time when I go back to Bengal, I'll never return to GB Road. I'll work from home, open up a small tailoring shop there, provide for my daughter's studies and stay with her," she said. "Maybe I'll just earn Rs50 per day, but at least I can buy my groceries from that. I want to live with wisdom now. I want my daughter to neither know what I do, nor be affected by my past."

As I watched her stout, curvaceous frame slip down the steep stairwell and into the crowded gully that lay just behind GB Road, I realised that alongside the classes, the safe space, the health services and all else that Kat Katha is beginning to offer here, what is perhaps of the greatest value is, quite simply, their provision of love.

*The names of all of the women and children in this story have been changed to protect their identity.

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