Short Story - Story of a Prostitute
Story of a Prostitute is an inside story of a woman who spent her last 15 years in the streets.
I can make out a dark basement with no windows, and it’s more like a lion’s cave, more fear than life. The only source of light is a bulb by the bed which hangs overhead from a long cord. ‘Niru Singh’ wraps the light bulb with a shining red plastic bag; the harsh light becomes red and soft. It’s said that a woman’s skin looks best under this kind of light. Wrinkles, spots, scars, all dissolve with light.
Niru Singh is a 38-year-old sex worker at a station near GB (Garstin Bastion) Road, Delhi. She is about 5.6 feet with a mature look. She has straight jet-black hair dyed with black ink and a curvy figure. A single mattress takes up half the space of the room. All day long, she is either lying or sitting on the bed — waiting for customers — or pleasuring them.
In this small, renovated hostel from an old filthy house, lives thirty to forty more like her, the oldest of them is already 52 years old. The locals call this place a “Randi Khana (Sex station)”. The customers are usually local old men or middle-aged migrant workers from out of town. The price of every transaction varies between 100 to 1500 Indian Rupees. These impoverished sex workers face the risk of fines, diseases, violence, and even discrimination for such a small income.
“You can tell if they have a disease or not”- Niru said rubbing the back of her left shoulder.
The Area where ‘Niru’ lives, comprises a population of over about 10,000 people, with forty to fifty leisure & massage parlors, and about fifteen hostels involved in sex-business.
The hostel where Niru works is a long, narrow Street behind a bustling shopping Market. As soon as you enter the door, the light is gone, and the room is filled with the scent of smoked firewood. There are three floors in the hostel, each floor has 9 separate rooms, divided by wood planks, with small openings for ventilation covered by posters.
No ID, no deposit, just 150 Rupees, and a woman can book a room for business. The good-looking ones with some luck can receive over ten customers a day like a production line and make seventeen thousand Rupees a month (including all the shares given to organizers and sex station owner which is about 65% of the total income). But there are also women who receive no customers for the entirety of a day.
“Still, business here looks good, the sex station owner is even making use of the basement now — and has built simple rooms on the roof,” Niru explained, glaring outside the little opening of her room’s door, "customers here are regular and quick."
The customers who come here are long-suffering men, migrant workers without wives who come only after they can no longer suppress their needs and urges, and generally finish their business in about 5 minutes.
At noon on June 14th, 2013, an old man wearing a white sleeveless undershirt groped for the handrail as he climbed upstairs. There were two small holes on the back of his vest He placed his hands behind his back, and walked back and forth checking out one by one the rooms that had their doors open. A middle-aged woman lying on her bed with a blowing fan seemed to his liking and the bargaining began. “How much? Not carrying disease, are you?”
Suddenly the Sex station owner shouted: “Time to fetch your water!”
The girls who were asleep, upon hearing this, all collectively “came out of their caves” each carrying a large bucket. The corridor soaked in full of commotion. This is the noisiest time of the day. Here, there is only one bathroom on each floor and hot water only available at certain times, twice every day at eight or nine o‘clock in the morning — and two o’clock in the afternoon. After the water had been provided, the sex station owner locks the tap. No wonder it’s sticky everywhere: the walls, the floor, and the bed.
Niru fetched the water and returned to her room, covered the mouth of the bucket with a newspaper, so the water could remain cold for whole day use. Many of the girls don’t really clean themselves up.
“Their messy hair and stinky body make them sexier”, according to Niru.
Niru is considered one of the tidiest ones; her room stays neat and tidy. She can’t afford to buy a soap — so all the cleaning depends on a bucket of water and a mixture of white and pink salt — kept in an empty Coca-Cola plastic bottle placed in a damp corner of the room — next to a ”Mirinda bottle” holding medicinal liquor which she drinks whenever she has a stomachache.
There’s some rice in a black jar, which she says is because the hostel has the population of mice and “they might eat it”. She cooks for herself in the basement by burning the lumps of wood collected from the dump next door by the Sex Station owner’s house. There’s no air circulation, so once the cooking starts, there’s a lot of coughing.
In order to keep their customers coming, most of these women here don’t use condoms — just to give them first-hand experience and to completely satisfy their visitors. Niru Singh sometimes uses them, and sometimes don’t, and in her own words — “you can tell if they have a disease or not”, her simple trick for detection is that those who appear clean probably don’t carry any disease — but must be cautious with those in shabbier clothes.
Niru never had a gynecological examination. A gynecological examination costs about 800 Rupees, an amount she receives from three customers and risk being caught three times. When her body feels unusual (usually when she has swelling on her sexual parts), she takes a bus to another side of the city, she takes an infusion called “inflammation shot” which costs over 500 Rupees and is said to be an antibiotic injection — and as soon as the inflammation goes down, she immediately begins working again.
“Even if we die, our children must be brought up”- Niru Said.
Over the past five to six years, Niru has become accustomed to this kind of life. She’s very diligent. Her “working hours” are from 8:00 in the morning to 9:30 at night and unless there’s a situation requiring her to return home, she works all year without a break.
As time goes by, she’s gotten used to it, gotten numb about it. As she says — this kind of work “is just like going into the fields to farm”. You know you are working but you’re not sure about the yield- and if everything goes right — still — you make the best of yours public — in this case, her body.
Before taking up this profession, Niru lived in Himachal-Pradesh (India). She was born in a remote mountain area of Himachal-Pradesh — where there were only 9 families around. As a girl, she never went to school and to this day still doesn’t know how to write her own name. She got married when she was just 18 and had children, but her husband gambled, visited prostitutes and beat her regularly.
Thoroughly hurt by men, she took her two sons and left — didn’t get a divorce; they never got a marriage certificate anyway. In a strange foreign land (Delhi), she had to feed her children. So she worked in a woven bag factory, and also at a construction site where she carried bricks on her shoulders — from the first floor to the fourth — earning only a few hundred Rupees per month. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t feed her two sons enough. So, she sent her sons back to their father. She has been raped twice and had complained to the police, but no action was taken.
In the difficult times, she had thought: If her children hadn’t been alive, she would have just jumped into the river and died. She survived until she was 24-something - until one day a female fellow-lady came to Niru — and mysteriously said: “Come with me. I guarantee you’ll make big money”. So, Niru was taken into this so-called money-making land.
“It wasn’t until I was tossed into this small hostel, I realized it was by doing this [prostitution]…”, Niru whispered.
At first, it was insulting sharing her body for money. She would shun herself in the room for days together. She couldn’t find a job and she was even worried about the hostel and transportation expenses.
It was then that a government official appeared, willing to pay her a “high price”, who came every day and wanted only her. On the third day, Niru gave in. And she is still here after 10 years.
She says, “it doesn’t matter after a while — whether you want to work here or not — once you get here— you are not coming out of it”.
Believing they have no other ‘choice’ is essentially the mark shared by these women: “Shilpa” in room 209 rarely raises her eyes, and rarely talks to her customers. Some say her husband is dead, others say her husband gambles and visits whores. Her daughter lives in the country town with her dad, she is in fourth grade and has taken care of the home since she was little. The better behaved her daughter, sorrier Shilpa feels towards her.
Kamla has three children, and her husband was a traveling doctor. Later she told me what she meant by traveling doctor — ‘no clinic -he visited all his patients — she said.’ He is currently serving 10 years in prison for the death of a patient under his care. Her husband in prison repeatedly exhorted her: “Even if the sky comes down, our children must be brought up.
”Parvati Sharma is almost 45, and business is not good, always wearing a sullen face. Her husband had fallen for someone else, won’t divorce and still beats her viciously. Even now there’s a permanent scar on her left eye. She has a home she doesn’t dare return to.
This is a group of traditional, but impoverished women who have come from the rural countryside. To them, fate is like a heavy bat: domestic violence, dead husbands, husbands in prison… compelled by unrelenting family burdens and pressures; children who need money to go to school, money needed to build houses in the countryside, sick family members who need money to go to the hospital. No education, no skills, limited by age. This “profession” with almost zero requirements and eligibility has admitted them without any qualifications.
Niru Singh is illiterate. Afraid of having money stolen, every so often she begs a fellow villager to deposit all her savings into her bank account to send home. Her sons are her biggest hope. In recent years, the elder one has become a driver, gotten married and moved into the bride’s home in a rural Himachal Pradesh’s town.
She usually works in daytime, but in her moments of free time she finds herself crying on the phone to her younger son, worrying so much that she couldn’t sleep at nights, always a mess banging in her head and over time, her hair began to fall out due to depression, gradually she became bald. To avoid scaring away customers, she spent over 3000 rupees on medicines. She’d never thought that after eating the medicine, the hair that grew back would all be white. From then on, she began dying her hair into jet black. “It takes 40 customers to pay off a fine”.
“Find a rich man” is a popular notion among the girls, but the meaning of which refers to those old men who are willing to spend several thousand rupees on them every month. In fact, after food and rent, 100-rupee Station’s sex workers don’t make more than a few thousand per month. And the rent has increased regularly in the past few years, each room now costing 300–500 per day.
Even if they work 24 hours a day, there’s still an ever-present risk, one that threatens to take away everything they have in the blink of an eye — the police raid. Routine inspections are okay, as Sex Station owner has someone inside the police bureau who will be tipped if something happens.
When the time comes, the Sex Station owner is able to tell the girls to hide, turn off the lights and shut the doors, temporarily closes the business, reopens again after the police leaves.
"What I’m most afraid of is some bad guy ‘setting a trap’, Niru says.
Setting a trap means someone who comes pretending he’s looking for some action and gets evidence, then quickly calls the police, and when the police arrive and catch them on the action, there’s no way to run. Offending customers when business is not good — could all bring trouble. When being brought into the police station for the first time, it’s a 15-day detention.
The second time, it expels through labor for a year and a notice to the family or a fine of 10,000 rupees. 10,000 rupees for sex workers means she has to receive about 100 customers in order to pay it off.
Last Year , this happened to a thirty-year-old lady next room. She had bought a six o’clock afternoon train ticket to her hometown, washed her hair and gotten ready when suddenly a customer arrived in search of some action; she thought to make a little more money before leaving but ended up in jail. She came out three days later, apparently after paying 6,000 (Almost all her savings of 10 months). She packed up all her things and went back to her hometown and has never been seen again. Almost everyone has run into trouble. For these sex workers who have no money, a fine is much more terrifying than detention.
Some bite their fingers and rub blood on their underwear — while some simply risk their own lives, throwing themselves before trains trying to commit suicide.
Sometimes it works — One time, ‘Shilpa’ was caught on the scene and before anyone could react, she put one foot on the third-floor railing and threatened police that she’ll suicide, and the police let her go that time. She’s especially afraid of her son in government primary school — finding out these things about her. She always tells him: Mom works at a candy factory, a lot of candy, I eat them and eat them — and now I’ve gotten fat and loose. Niru has also been caught twice. She’s not good with words and not very daring, so she quickly paid the fine to free herself. The first time was about 6000 rupees, then a second time with 10,000 rupees.
“I’m afraid what if my son gets to know these things,”- Niru said.
Treating these fines is two months of wasted work. She thought she should have quit before and had gone back home. But who knew that in a moment of desperate need for money — she would return to this life.
Once again in 2011, Niru had something to worry about: Her elder son’s family had no money to build a house and she didn’t want her son’s in-laws to look down upon them; her younger son had gotten away from all the worries and became a driver, but as he’s reaching 20 years of age, what if he can’t find a wife because he has no money? She worried about these things over and over and decided to come back to work.
Nowadays the competition is fierce, you need to know how to flirt and provide companionship and knowing how to sweet talk is also a skill. Niru Singh says that she’s shy, too old now for this job and not good with words, so she’s moved to the basement where usually old people appear as customers and it’s easy to trap them.
To make things worse, she had an argument with one of her fellow villagers who got angry — picked up a brick and broke the middle finger of her right hand. The hospital treatment had cost her about 1000 rupees. The Sex Station owner talked to the fellow-villager many times, but the fellow-villager refused to pay even a single penny. Niru found herself tangled in yet another situation: Let it go and that’s another half a month of work gone to nothing. Here, if you seek revenge, more money would be spent going to court, and what if the police send her to jail instead?
June 2013 is a busy season, lots of new customers are appearing. Niru is in the basement dully waiting for business. Even though she’s moved some bricks to cover up the drain, the stink still comes up. In her doorway old men pass by from time to time, sticking their head in to take a look at the goods on offer.
Even though her right hand is permanently crippled, even though no one has any idea that when she can be arrested and taken away again. At this moment, a smile is on Niru’s face — telling me that when her daughter-in-law’s family gives birth to a new child this August — she’s going to go home to feed them and will never come back.
In many of India’s so-called hidden corners, commercialized sex is a common scene. Severe punishments and police raids have not made this “300 Rupees (4.4 US Dollars) Sex” business disappear.
(In order to protect the people involved, the exact locations are not mentioned, names in this article are also altered)