Sunday morning. Partially clouded, but no rains. I was half asleep when the phone rang. I dragged myself out of bed. It was my younger cousin, "Are you free later in the day?" She had fixed an appointment with the children of sex workers at GB Road (officially, Swami Shradhanand Marg!), Delhi's red light district. She was working on a documentary. "Wait for me at the Rajiv Chowk metro station in Connaught Place at 3." Before I could argue, she was off the airwave.
Later, she told me about the short film. It centred around the kids of sex workers, how they live their daily lives. (Do they live a daily life? Or, is it just about survival against all odds?)
The documentary team had already met them once and needed someone along to avoid unnecessary attention - the unwanted gaze. We got off one metro station later, took a cycle rickshaw and soon found ourselves in GB Road, among several women in dingy ghettos inviting men into their kothas.
We went to Kotha number 50. A strongly-perfumed middle-aged woman dressed in a bright red sari berated us for being so late. My cousin apologised and we followed her up a long flight of stairs passing through dark rooms where women were preparing lunch, chewing on paan, smoking cigarettes, cracking jokes with the ‘customers' and flirting. Despite this bonhomie, a stale decadence and a tragic aura haunted this place, as if it was a black hole with no window of escape or hope.
On the third floor, we entered a room where a group of children in bright dresses sat on the floor. They jumped up with joy. "What have you brought for us," they asked in a sing-song chorus. They were children only that their world was so starkly different, and their mothers' lives seemed eternally condemned. They shouted out their names and greeted everyone.
A woman with an infectious smile entered the room. She made the children sit in a row. The ‘games' started. Picture games. Clap your hands. Sing a song. The kids seemed terribly excited, especially dark Kunu, a four-year-old girl. Black-eyed Kunu, who only knew Telugu, had her eyes glued on a big box of crayons. Lakshmi, about six, barely spoke. The ‘silent one' wandered all around with a biscuit in her hand. Holding it tight. Refusing to eat it.
Most of the children were Muslims, while the rest were from Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Drawing sheets, pencils, crayons and water colours were distributed. They began to draw, most of them with pencils. Only one boy, Sonu, chose water colour. So what are your favourite colours? Since Kunu could not pick a colour, or point out in Hindi, we gave her the entire box of crayons. She picked up an obvious pink.
Suddenly we realised that Lakshmi -the ‘silent one'- had all the attention of Aftab, an eight-year-old. If the women of the house were to be believed, Aftab was in love with her. He adores her. They all laughed out loud at Aftab, who was trying in vain to lift Lakshmi. The room was filled with the raucous laughter of middle-aged women, but neither Aftab nor Lakshmi could understand a word of it.
Meanwhile, Sonu sat alone in a corner, busy painting something that looked like a house and a tree, using the boldest colours. I asked him why he chose water colours. "I have grown up," he said. "I prefer water colours over pencil or crayon." Once Lakshmi was gone, Aftab started painting too, and much to everyone's disbelief, he painted quite well.
Colours flew zigzag, up and above the sky, around the rising sun, beyond the fish and the roses, across the old hill next to the village hut with a tree, with a full moon sharing space with stars and birds. This was not a red light area. This was fantasy unleashed, of a childhood in exile, condemned in innocence.
Later, I met Iqbal, father of Aftab, and Irshad, who runs an NGO that works withwomen and children. He is active in Allahabad and other towns and villages. Seeing Aftab paint so well, he decided to capture the moment and as soon as the camera was out, the children became actors and models, smiling and striking poses. So, do they go to school? Irshad said the schools these children go to are of no use. They are dilapidated ‘sarkari' schools run by NGOs who don't care too much about studies. Said Irshad: "Only when there is an official inspection, the teachers decide to come and hold classes. Therefore, we decided to ‘homeschool' these kids. There is a teacher who comes and teaches verses of the Quran to my children. All I can say is that my children are no less than others who go to regular schools." Seeing Aftab paint, I too was convinced that homeschooling' had done wonders for him.
While most other children were done with their paintings, Lakshmi and Kunu were busy scribbling on blank sheets with different colours. Aftab's piece of fantasy stood out while the rest experimented with a synthesis of collage and lines. Soon, a woman came and said it was time for the children to go. "Pack up," she said. But the children wanted some more fun. They formed a human train and started to run in circles with Aftab holding Lakshmi's hands. We all had a hearty laugh and told the children, "We will come back soon with exciting gifts." A woman helped us out of the labyrinth as we hailed a rickshaw.
Back into the so-called mainstream, far away from that ghetto, where flesh is sold and resold and girls and women are forcibly trapped through an organised network of human trafficking, dingy room seemed closer then we could ever imagine. Like an uneaten biscuit. Like the sing-song chorus. Like a bird in flight. Like innocence trapped in an eclectic painting.
This is the sixth of the 12 part series