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The first time I went to a red-light area was to interview Nimmi Bai in Old Delhi. She was the first sex-worker to contest the Lok Sabha election ( in 1991) and she stirred quite a media buzz. I was visiting several years after her defeat to do a follow up story. Nimmi Bai was asleep and other women around her were in various stages of comatose. They must have been in their late 40’s , though they all dyed their hair black. Their second floor kotha was a derelict ding pregnant with an eerie silence. This was in stark contrast to the other kothas inhabited by younger girls. The latter were dens of brisk activity, bright lights, bollywood music, edgy pimps and lots of crude laughter.The older the sex-worker becomes, the bigger their plight. Very few amongst them become a `Kotha walli’ who not only supervises the functioning of the kotha but also in procuring new girls. Most of the older sex-workers however make no money. They have no customers. Some of them suffer from AIDS and all of them live a lonely neglected life. I visited the kothas several times over the years and realized that the moment the sex-workers cross forty 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 for their sound bytes anymore. In the red-light districts of India the elderly are relegated to the lowest hierarchy. With no livelihood they are expected to clean, wash and run errands for the younger women in the kothas if they want food and shelter. Most of them suffer from many venereal diseases but they have hardly any money for treatment or medicines.
Occasionally a drunk rickshawalla clambers up to their dark neglected hovels. But any other potential customers are snatched from their doorsteps by pimps who promptly escort them to the younger girls.
Some of them are single mothers with children to look after. Some however have none and their only joy is watching Ekta Kapoor soaps on television.
The ageing sex-workers believe their misery is all because their profession is not legalized. They believe they cannot fight for their rights unless their job has some validity. Sex workers usually clam up the moment you take out your spiral and pen. I realized picking up a camera would be so much more difficult. Deeply distrustful of the NGO’s , the media and the police, it took many visits just to win their confidence. But their trust was not guaranteed. Sometimes they would let me photograph them till late in the night but other times I was looked on as a suspicious intruder and asked to leave even before I took my first shot.