Author: Mayank Austen Soofi
Publisher: Penguin Viking (Penguin India)
Price: Rs 399
Genre: Non Fiction / Society / Anthropology
‘Nobody Can Love You More’ by Mayank Austen Soofi is an attempt to bring out the ordinariness in the extraordinary lives of the women of GB Road, the notorious red light area of Delhi. The author is gently probing, deeply observant and extremely patient in following the lives of sex workers of kotha (brothel) number teen sau (300) for three years. The best thing about this book is that though it keenly observes, it never judges; neither does it seeks pity for those women. It never interferes in your own inferences as a reader.
The author started going to GB Road to teach English to Sabir Bhai’s (a brothel owner) children. The children lost interest in English after a couple of months but Soofi found himself “fascinated by the ordinary aspects of the lives of people who, I think, have been shepherded by circumstances into living extraordinary lives.”
Kotha (brothel) number teen sau houses the malik, Sabir Bhai and five women – Sushma, Fatima, Phalak, Nighat and Sumaira (and Mamta and Roopa for some time). Soofi finds it easy to talk to the elderly Sushma who talks about her experiences, her distant past and her dreaded future, her ‘working hours’; and even cooks for him.
In the stories of these women, are the reflections of several others who are cooped up in the dingy brothels (80 of them) in 42 buildings of GB Road. There are chapters on the lives of sex workers, their children, the brothel owners, pimps, people connected to the sex workers or GB Road like shopkeepers below their brothels, priests and caretakers of a temple and a Sufi shrine, people who knew about the evolution of these brothels over the years, and so on. Each chapter starts with a black and white picture that sums it up.
Although the author is repulsed by the idea of eating food, drinking water or sharing meals there, because of the filth and lack of hygiene; yet he understands that he cannot expect them to open their hearts to him if he does not even agrees to share food. He admits that sometimes it was suffocating and depressing to be part of lives of those people; his own life was in complete contrast to their’s.
The lives of sex workers are surprisingly ordinary. They cook, pray, raise children, fight among themselves, earn money and have ‘working’ hours. They do not behave differently anywhere except at the place of their trade and during their ‘business hours’. They are modest in places of worship, and like any other customer when in a shop.
It is interesting to find out about the evolution of kothas over the years. Earlier rich and royalty used to be their patrons. The nautch girls were associated with courtesy, etiquettes and sophistication. Things took a dramatic turn after independence, and more importantly after Emergency. Over the years, the condition of kothas deteriorated. Now the red-light districts are full of dingy, dirty, tiny cells where women sleep with strangers for a measly sum of Rs 100-200 and a constant fear of losing youth. Their mannerisms are crude and in-your-face.
What stood out for me was how their daily routines were effortlessly entangled with the conversations with Soofi. On one hand Sushma talks about her past, while she cooks dal for him and also wonders how he can have just boiled dal. Also, in the scene where Soofi is conversing with Roopa and Nighat, they behave like any other ‘shopkeeper’. When they get customers, they go with them, return in a couple of minutes, take the money, ask the customers to come back again, and join back the conversation with Soofi – all with matter-of-factness.
It is also ironical how this section of society generates intense curiosity and yet behaved as if they do not exist. For example, the shopkeepers below these brothels say pointedly that they have nothing to do with those women; they never talk or wish each other on any occasion. Also, as Hasan Khurshid, the ‘legal’ journalist points out that they were told to never look up while crossing GB Road because it brought shame to be found looking at those women.
The cover page is impressive; and it suitably teases you with the hints of what lay inside the book. The image of cheap cosmetics and ornaments with the blurred image of a woman on the cover page, and a green locked door with jasmine gajra on the handle reeks of a brothel.
Nobody Can Love You More is a remarkable work of non fiction that handles a sensitive subject delicately, while at the same time offers an intimate commentary about the lives of women of kotha number teen sau and their surroundings.
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