Learning Love in Delhi's Brothels

March 20, 2020

Gitanjali Babbar
Apr 23, 2024

Photo credits/Volunteer Images

[Editor's Note: In January 2024, over 200 people gathered on sacred soil of the Gandhi Sabarmati Ashram for a night immersed in Stories of Heartivism. The spirit of Gitanjali Babbar's talk stirred many hearts in the process.]

It's an honor to be here, standing here and sharing this journey. I will be speaking in both Hindi and English. I don't know when, what, which language will come through me, so please bear with me. In all our sessions, we have been discussing that, when did you get the intimation to share? I tell you, I got it four days back and still I couldn't prepare. So it hardly matters how many hours or how many days we get, because when you come here and when you hold the mic, it just flows. So thank you so much. It's an honor, again, to be sharing with all the people about the life, which I have got as a gift and I've been living for the past 13 years.

Kat-Katha, that's the name of the organization. It was never a plan in my life to start an organization because, I was not good in Maths. I was not good in English. I was not good in Hindi. I was not good in economics, or any subject. So then I chose to become a journalist because I thought that, there, I will only be listening to stories and I will have to come and present in front of the television. I would not need anything. It was stupid of me. :) When I got into that course, I realized there is so much academics here, also. But I didn't know what life had in store for me.

In my college days, everybody was getting recruited, and they were getting into good firms. I saw this poster saying, "10 schools, 10 headmasters, 1000 children and you. Will you be that you?" And something just shifted inside me and I said, we have been talking in our college about bringing a change and here this poster is asking me, will you be that you? So, that's an opportunity and let me just go.

All my friends were telling me, "You have no clue which organization is this ? You don't know what they do, and you're just going and sitting in that interview!"

I said, "Let me just go."

That was the first time I heard my heart. I went there, I sat, I cleared the interview and somehow the person who took my interview, she was very stubborn that you have to come for this fellowship. It was a two-year fellowship in a village. I'm a Delhi born girl. I've never been to village in my life. For three months, I said let me complete my degree, I have to submit my films, and then I will come and join. For those three months, she made sure that she sent me all the funny videos, all the happy moments, so that I don't change my mind. I didn't, I couldn't actually, even if I wanted to.

My father was very upset with this fact that I'm going to a village for two years, but that all happened and I went to that village. That time, I was very much interested in working with the transgenders community, the eunuch community. I was always very curious to know why they are treated differently. Why, when they come in our houses to bless us, my mother asks me to just stay inside. When they pass by the road, everybody just roll up the windows. And why they look so different. I always used to have these questions and even in village, I got this opportunity to make many transgenders as my friends. I just started calling to my home because there I was the boss. My mother was not there, my father was not there, so I could just invite them home, and we used to have chai and they used to just tell me stories about their lives.

When I came back, I want to work with transgender community, no matter what, and there was only one organization in Delhi at that time, National AIDS Control Organization, which was offering me a job and they were working with transgenders. That's how, my introduction to my karmabhumi happened. Because when I started working with the transgenders, one of the projects was to go in the brothels of Delhi and also work with women sex workers. Being a Delhi girl, even if you talk about a red light area in your house, your parents were like, what are you saying? What brothel, how will you go to the brothel? Why will you go to a brothel? You belong to a decent family and all those things, right? You can't even talk about a brothel.

So, the first day when I went to the brothel, I told my father, "I'm just going to a nearby office." And when I went there, I took a tuk-tuk rickshaw and I didn't know where to go. I asked the rickshaw driver, can you take me to brothel number 5220? And he scanned me. I couldn't see what he was trying to see, but maybe he was just trying to see that why on earth a girl is coming herself to be sold in the brothel, because that's not what happens. Every girl is being forced there, she doesn't even know where is she landing to.

I went there and on my very first day I said, "I want to go inside the brothel," and my staff member said, "You can't go. We don't allow young girls to go." But I had the badge of an officer, so I said, "I have to go no matter what." So, seven men they took me inside the brothel like bodyguards. It was very uncomfortable, to go in a place where only women stay, and you, as a woman, go in with seven bodyguards.

When I went up there, I sat. So they have this big room -- the very first room where all the girls sit in a circle and then the client comes, and he finds which girl he wants to go with. He picks up the girl, and then they go inside. In eight minutes, they come back, the girl throws something in the dustbin, and then she comes and sits back again waiting for the other customer to come and find her. I was sitting there, and just looking at this for an hour. I was not in the position to ask any question to them and I just came back with a very heavy heart and I didn't know what to do.

For two, three nights I couldn't sleep, and then I went back to the brothel and as an officer, you have to ask them questions whether they're using contraceptives, whether they're taking all the medications and everything. I started doing that. This one lady, she came to me and she said, "Do you use contraceptives? What about your relationship with your boyfriend?" And I was taken aback.

I mean, I was like, "How can you ask me this question?"

And she said, "How can you ask me this question?"

And that was it. Actually, how can I ask her this question? She's of my mother's age. How can I just barge into her room just because she's a sex worker or just because she's living in a brothel. That doesn't give me the agency to go enter into her life and ask her all these personal questions. They were all gathered there, 5-7 women and they just started abusing me, in a way. 

They said, "What do you guys -- you NGO people -- think? That you can just enter and ask us anything, and we are here to answer you? I'm earning, I have been sold, I have been trafficked. Rather than doing something, you're coming and asking questions and you're clicking my pictures."

That had something, some message for me.

I came down crying, and then this another lady who shares my name -- her name is Gita -- she followed me. She knew there was something; I was very hurt. She came and I was just standing downstairs and crying. And she said, 'Don't cry. People like you have come many, many times in our lives." And she made me question the whole term 'love'.

After that, even today, I'm figuring out what love is. We are talking about love here, right? Like we use the word love. Love is such a heavy word. If you say, "I love you," what does that mean?

Because those women who stay there, men have gone to their village, when they were little girls. They tell them, "I love you. Will you marry me? And I will take you away from this poverty. Will you come? Will you hold my hand?"

And that girl, in love, she says, "Of course."

And she comes out leaving her family, and the same man gets her to the brothel, and sells her. These women share with me that they were actually negotiating in front of her, what will be her value?

And she said, "I'm crying that you love me. You married me. I have children with you, and you're selling me here."

She said, "I don't know ma'am, what happened to him, where the love was."

Here, I have no answer to her, because I've only heard love as a beautiful feeling, as a beautiful expression -- as a promise, as a gift. When you say, "I love you" to someone that's a gift, which you give. This gift was taken away from her and that time, all those women said, "You are also going tell us that you love us. We are not going believe you, because you yourself don't know what love means. If you want to serve us, come everyday. Come everyday, no matter what. Have lunch with us. Teach us, but don't ask us questions."

And that was it.

I was like, yes, I can do that. So I just went back to my NGO people, and I said, "Listen, I am going to teach them. I will not come here again." I asked my friends to accompany me, because in a brothel, it's always unsafe. And I just started going there -- to one brothel. There are 77 brothels. The other 76 brothels are still anti me. They don't know me, but this one brothel became that photo with the heart, which we saw in our retreat. I think that was the opening for me in that brothel. From then on, I'm still figuring out what love is. Whenever we talk about love, and whenever I look at those women, I still wonder what love is. 

I'll tell you one story. We have a very beautiful home. It's beautiful not in the sense of infrastructure, but beautiful because all the women from the brothel -- those who want to leave the brothel -- they come and live. We call it dream village.

There is one woman. I was just reflecting on her yesterday. Her name is Sima-didi, I'm sure she'll be very happy that I'm sharing her name in such a big gathering, because she always feels that she can't do anything in life. In Sima-didi, I've seen love from her eyes -- the way she loves the woman who bought her 30 years back. That woman killed her daughter in front of Sima-didi. Even today, when that woman falls sick, Sima-didi goes from Dream Village to take care of her. We always tease her, 'Why do you go back? She has done some magic on you." 

She always says, "No madam. Whatever she has done to me, it was her karma. If she has bought me, she has fed me also. She has treated me when I was sick. So now, when she's old, it's my responsibility to take care of her."

I think that's love.

I was just thinking about what I have to practice in my life. My little dog was coming to my heart. Her name is Magic. And you know how dogs are? You can do anything to them, scold them, but every time you go back to them, they just love you like anything. And that's what my intention standing on this ground. No matter what my didis [sisters] tell me, no matter what the women tell me, I want to be that magic in their life. And I want your blessings. Thank you.

Gitanjali Babbar is founder of Kat-Katha. This talk was part of the Stories of Heartivism evening during the 2024 Gandhi 3.0 retreat.

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