NEW DELHI – The yellow fog hangs close to the ground. It clings to the palate with a taste of exhaust gas and latrine. Lonely bike rickshaws emerge from the mist and are swallowed. It is one o’clock at night on GB Road, New Delhi’s infamous Red Light District.
The street is teeming with activity. Crowds of workers loading goods on to double parked trailers. Judging by the advertising signs, GB-Road specializes in the trade of car parts, but behind the facades there is another world. The houses are deep beehives that contain hundreds of khotas, brothels.
The word “brothel” has connotations of garters and lace-up ankle boots, possibly mixed with imagery from TV series that purport to take place in 19th century Whitehall, Reeperbahn or Hell’s Kitchen. There we meet beautiful, independent women and men who are willing to use violence to advance progressive social views.
It is pastiches that speaks volumes about our own times and nothing about the times they purport to revisit. The narratives are conditional on the misery depicted no longer exists in the West. Anyone who is interested in reality should visit Garstin Bastion (GB) Road a visit.
GB Road connects old and new Delhi. The first time I heard about it from the Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi. His work to combat modern slavery consists in freeing children and women living in informal serfdom. For in the most densely populated country in the world, humans are often cheaper than machines.
On GB Road, girls in trouble apply red lipstick, which is India’s version of red lantern, and are sent off to live their short life in the hive cells. As Satyarthi put it: “This is also ‘traditional’ Indian culture.”
GB Road is one of the world’s oldest red-light districts. Its history goes back to the Mogul era. Prostitution has a long history in India. The book History of Prostitution in Ancient India links organized prostitution to the Hindu temples and points out that Mahabharata, the indispensable work in Indian literature, mentions a total of 42 sex workers.
This form of ‘devadasi’ prostitution must have been inferred with some social status, but when the Muslim moguls subjugated the Hindu kingdoms of Northern India, the temples fell into disrepair and the temple prostitutes set off on the journey that ends in GB Road.
Dangerous at nigh
The British colonialists later limited and consolidated prostitution in Delhi to this one street. No one uses the new street name that was introduced in 1966, Swami Shradhanand Marg. All Indian men are familiar with GB Road, it is the country’s most notorious address. This is partly due to the fact that GB Road is a dangerous place, where attacks occur – even killings – in a country where violent crime is uncommon.
Along the concrete fences, faded “Missed posters” recall young men who were last seen last on GB Road. Another reason GB Road is dangerous is that many of the prostitutes have HIV. I talk to a cell phone salesman named Suresh, who has a store just below a khota. Suresh thinks it’s an ordinary street – by day. The sex-workers always pay on time. “They are nice enough. What they do for a living does not concern me.”
The customers are dhaba-servants, truck drivers and day laborers. In a country where many men never will make enough money to marry, GB Road is the only place where many of them ever experience physical love. In the west, it is common to stamp the prostitutes and their customers with the “victim” and “perpetrator” labels. This is one way to look at it, but it does not help us to understand GB Road. This is proletarian prostitution; men who do not own anything other than their labor who buy sex from women in exactly the same situation.
GB Road is a remnant of ancient India in a continent of rapid transition. The country has only recently developed a genuine internal market for goods and services and is increasingly opening up to free trade. The country’s economy is among the fastest growing in the world. And thus a culture changes. India has long been big enough; ancient enough to remain different. Ways of production, dress, religion, philosophy, yes, even prostitution – were until recently fundamentally different than in the West.
In the 2000s, globalization came to India. The country’s economy has grown by about six percent a year, but the added prosperity clusters in certain states and certain social groups. In 2017, the World Bank pointed out the absence of a broad middle class to drive growth and absorb the country’s impoverished majority. Of a population of 1.3 billion, only 267 million are middle class, according to the National Council of Applied Economic Research. By comparison, 180 million Indians live in hardcore poverty.
The casting system is often highlighted as the major brake on economic development. But its importance is exaggerated. In the encounter with modernity, Hinduism has proved to be as malleable, almost, as Christianity. Wealth increasingly replaces cast as a status marker. Religion as a daily ritual has become less important in cities. Caste-signalling attire is for the poor and special occasions, Sadhu’s and other holy men are being out-competed by tele-evangelists. Seeing modernity transform and consume an ancient civilization is an awe-inspiring sight.
“Fuck?” The man slipped from the shadows and up the side of me and whispered the word in the manner of cannabis-vendors outside any European central train station. Since I do not immediately respond, he mobilize the emergency reserves in his English vocabulary. “You. Want. Fuck? ” GB Road is the low-end. Here is sex trading at the most basic level: sexual intercourse for 100 rupees, about a dollar. The condoms are of poor quality. The UN has estimated that five percent of GB Road prostitutes are infected with HIV; Indian sources operate with figures as high as 40 percent.
The only way to get in is to feign interest. I am led into a stairway that is narrow and dark, up stairs, where the shoulders scrape against the walls on both sides, and through corridors with green painted iron doors close to each other, still higher up. It is dark and the air is saturated with sweat and estrous. Finally, I am sent into a cell that is one meter wide, with a bunk nailed to the wall. The walls are full of photos of pinups: Madhuri Dixit, Shilpa Shetty and Aishwarya Rai. What do I want – a kashmiri, a Nepalese? The sweaty faces are too close. I want out.
I am deeper into GB Roads guts than I bargained for. The hope of coming to interview sex workers was naive. The girls are locked in behind the green doors – it’s not a salon, not a place where you can stay in the background and observe. I’m saved by the dead. A man carries a thin body wrapped in a white layer while he lights up in front of him with an iPhone. Four silent women shuffle after. I use this as an explanation for having lost my desire and quickly follow the procession. Angry words from the agitated pimps, exasperated about being cheated out of their commission follow me down to the street.
The sexual paradox
Our modern culture is at once sexualized and puritanical. While the sexual revolution in the 1970s created a predominantly positive outlook on sexuality, #metoo has taught us that sex is potentially traumatic. Claire Berlinski writes in The American Interest: “In reality, we have a law violation that is followed up with a quick and draconian punishment, but which lacks a clear definition.” The campaign has largely focused on the perpetrators. At the same time, they often have unclear accusations and assumptions that the accused is guilty of giving sex a bad reputation.
Andrea Dworkin was one of the 1980’s most famous feminists. She believed that freer access to pornography would mean that men would see women more as sexual objects. Dworkin believed that internet porn would lead to a rape epidemic. We don’t hear much about Dworkin’s theories anymore. Mostly because she was wrong. Another feminist, Naomi Wolf, inverted Dworkin’s argument: She claims that women are outcompeted by porn and that the porn tsunami paralyzes the male libido: “Today, naturally naked women are nothing but bad porn.”
Research may indicate that she has a point and that the cause is physiological. Once, the sexologists believed that the individual’s sexual triggers were inherent. Recent research has shown that the human brain is more malleable than previously thought. Psychiatrist Norman Doige argues that frequent use of pornography redirects the pathways in the brain that control excitement. Porn triggering dopamine, and the more dopamine triggered, the more activity and impulse are entangled in the brain. The visuals overshadow odours and human touch as excitement triggers.
For a long time, it has been thought that sex is something fundamental human – not the same as abstract rights to be interpreted – no, something immediately meaningful, an impulse beyond language and rationality, an intense private human activity. Sex can be denied or celebrated, but connects us all because we are human. Unlike most other mammals, man cultivates sex not only for reproductive purposes. One of the silent, heavy tendencies of our time is that less and less sex is being had.
Externally, we live in a sexually liberated time. Western culture is sexualized. The prevalence of the contraceptive pill changed the social standards and enabled “the sexual revolution”. The result was an ever-increasing acceptance of sex outside of marriage and the kind of preferences that in the past were termed collectively as “perversions”. In 2017, Jean Twenge, Ryne Sherman and Brooke Wells published research suggesting that Americans on average have 15 percent less sex than they had in the 1990s. The decline includes all age groups but afflicts the young the most. The number of sexually active teenagers has decreased by 40 percent since 1991.
The Durex Global Sex Survey shows a similar trend. The study also reveals that in India, the highest sexual debut age among the 39 countries in the survey, 19.8 years on average. And this, despite the fact that since the 1990s, Indian popular culture has moved from the ban on kissing on film to the sex-comedy The Dirty Picture (2011). Here too, a more relaxed attitude towards sex seems to be accompanied by less copulation. It is made possible by the technology. India shares fourth place (with Sweden) on the list of “countries with the most traffic” on Pornhub’s 2016 list on consumers of internet porn.
Down by the river
Down the street, the body – a woman of indeterminable age – is washed on the pavement and placed in an ornate rickshaw called “Hitler” painted on the back, flanked by Indian swastikas. The man jumps in to hold the body upright. GB Road consumes youth, it is a place where life – with the words of Thomas Hobbes – is “nasty, brutish and short”. Young people get old quickly here. Not just the prostitutes. The men who work on the street on GB Road also work themselves into an early grave. They work for 12-hour shifts and sleep under thin blankets on the sidewalk under the brothels.
The ones able to save a thousand dollars, can buy a burial plot, otherwise the crematories in Dwarka await. For the very poor, the last rest will be a nocturnal journey followed by an illegal burial in the sand on a river bank such as the Yamuna River south of Delhi. That’s where the rickshaw is heading. Mayank A. Soofi has written the book No One Could Love You More, about the women on GB Road. In this he describes an arrangement where the women pay “rent” of their cells at about 80 rupees, which makes it necessary to have at least two customers each day, year round.
The deceased had little money, she sent it all to her son’s foster family. I stay with the four mourners. We sit on the sidewalk around a small bonfire made of a crushed wooden pallet. The time is now two am. There are more customers in the street, and the youngest of the women soon disappear with a rickshaw cyclist. Aadhya, a little woman in yellow salwar dress, speaks a little English. She says that the woman named Pari had a disease and that she wasted away quickly short. She was neither young nor old. “32 years, maybe 35?” Her husband man had abandoned her. “A bad man, he drank.” Pari came from Nepal and had no family in Delhi. “We were her family,” says another, covering the face with the hem of her saree when I ask her name. The conversation ebbs out.
Sex and modernity
We sat in silence for a while. I had many questions, which – considering the context – were all inappropriate. All eyes were on the fire. After a while, a well-dressed Sikh with almond eyes and mild voice asks for my attention. He informs me with the vote of the butler that I must go now. »Some elements have become angry. You are not here for a real reason. If you stay here, I cannot guarantee that you will not be stabbed with a knife. “I am tired and unable to judge whether or not there is a real threat. I call Uber and ask to be picked up.
While waiting at the roundabout at the end of GB Road, a police car stops. A cop goes out and asks politely if he can help with anything. “This is not a gentleman’s place. Come back in daylight. ”I bid him a cigarette and was allowed to call him Captain Kumar. He works on GB Road. I ask how long to go before closing all this misery. He answers: “It will be shut down by tinder.” Prostitution is not illegal in India; but running a brothel is. The Indians have taken to the Internet with enthusiasm, and Kumar claims that the new technology will now disrupt prostitution. “GB Road is only for those who do not have a smartphone,” he says. “But in ten years everybody will have one.”
Modernity is the power that moves us away from GB Road, from the inhuman premodern world. But the world we build is not necessarily more human. Pornography is inhuman; Its function is to provide sexual satisfaction through an impersonal surrogate. With its making of the human desire, pornography is a rival to physical closeness. We do not yet know whether this trend has affordable costs or whether we are in the process of turning our backs on yet another of our species’ mitigating circumstances.
Published in The American Interest 27.05-2019