The first time I went to a red-light area was to interview Nimmi Bai at GB Road, a 5-minute walk from the New Delhi Railway Station. Back then, in 1991, as the first sex worker to contest the Lok Sabha election, Nimmi Bai had stirred up a fair amount of media attention.
When I visited several years after her defeat for a follow-up, she was asleep, and the women around her were in various stages of being comatose. They must have been in their late 40s; and they all appeared to have dyed their hair black. Their second-floor kotha (brothel) was a derelict place. This was in stark contrast to the other kothas inhabited by younger girls. Those were dens of brisk activity: bright lights, Bollywood music, shrewd pimps and crude laughter.
I visited the brothels several times, realizing over time that the moment the sex workers reach their mid-40s they are virtually done for. The clients don’t come to them, their families don’t want them, and even the media doesn’t care about their sound bites.
In the red-light districts of India, older people are relegated to the lowest rungs. They are expected to clean, wash and run errands for the younger women if they want food and shelter. Many of them suffer from venereal diseases, but with no clients they have little money for treatment. Occasionally, a drunk rickshaw-walla might clamber into their rooms. But other potential customers are solicited from the streets by pimps who escort them to the younger girls.
Some of these women are single mothers with children to look after. Some, however, have none, and they spend their days watching Ekta Kapoor soaps on television. Many believe they owe their misery to the fact that their profession is not legally recognized; they believe they cannot fight for benefits or pension unless their jobs have the required legal trappings.
As a journalist, I’ve seen sex workers clam up the minute you take out your notepad and pen. I realized that pointing a camera would be far more difficult. Deeply distrustful as they are of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), media and police, it took many visits just to win their confidence. Their trust, however, couldn’t be taken for granted.
Sometimes, the women would let me photograph them till late into the night. At other times, I was looked on as an intruder and asked to leave even before I took my first shot.
These images were born somewhere between those extremes.
Sanjay Austa is a photojournalist based in New Delhi. These pictures are from Forty and Done, Austa’s ongoing project.
Text & Photographs by Sanjay Austa