The Night People of Old Delhi

The Night People of Old Delhi

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: The Night People of Old Delhi | Tags: , , |

The Night People of Old Delhi

                                                             by I. M. Shankar (1954-86)

    [I fished this out of my old traveling companion’s papers. Contact me for more details on this amazing writer and dear friend who left us far too early.]

When you visit Gaston’s you should come by way of Chandini Chowk, the street of jewellers and silversmiths, once reportedly the richest street in the world.


By day Chandini Chowk is one immense, heaving juggernaut of hu­manity. Men struggle with pushcarts, hauling reams of paper and newsprint to Nayi Sarak, the stationery bazaar; others go mysteri­ously by, weighed down with blocks of salted ice or balancing caged birds on beams. Among the pavement vendors you can find boys in skull-caps peddling Victorian porn, alongside clutches of chickens and goats being readied for the butcher’s knife. Holy men linger near the fruit juice stalls, jewelers and sweet merchants play cards, panhandlers and pickpockets study their prospective patrons, and men surrounded by swarms of dizzy flies scratch themselves or pray as taxis and rickshaws desperately honk their way through the narrow street.


Meanwhile Gaston’s, at the west end of Chandini Chowk, is just an­other quiet Old Delhi street, not unduly crowded, its few stores calmly dispensing merchandise, with a couple of pavement dwellers huddled beside their belongings and a few tired men yawning and stretching themselves. Brothels tend to wake up late, and by day they are ordinary places, busy with the chores of cooking, cleaning, and preparing bodies and souls for the night.


The calm of evening, around half-past six or so, is a suitable time to set out. Chandini Chowk has quietened down, the hubbub of the day is over; the fra­grance of fried parathas lingers in the air, tinged with auto exhaust. The crowds still hang about, but people are more relaxed; a man carries a bird with a broken wing to the Jain Bird Hospital, and an old mullah gazes rever­ently at the inscriptions in front of the house of Ghalib, the city’s illustrious poet. The Sikhs are in full form as they emerge from the Sisganj Sikh Temple, adjusting their turbans and searching thoughtfully for their shoes and slippers.


A little thoughtfulness is not out of place here, for Chandini Chowk is a street rich in memories. Sisganj was erected on the very spot where the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded for refusing to con­vert to Islam. Further down you pass a forlorn police station marking the site where British residents exchanged pleasantries while watching the muti­neers of 1857 being hanged. Near Jama Masjid, the magnificent Friday Mosque, lies a warren of smaller streets where the sinister Nadir Shah, invading from Persia, bared his sword and an­nounced the beginning of a massacre, eliminating nearly a hundred thousand men, women, and children in a single afternoon.


Gaston’s is best visited on a full stomach. For dinner, I would rec­ommend Kareem’s or Jawahar’s, the most succulent of Old Delhi’s meat houses. They’re both around the corner from Jama Masjid, and you can feel the presence of the mosque close by, of crowds entering and emerging. A plate of well-skewered shish kebabs laden with spices and herbs followed by a piping hot murgh masala, and you’re ready for action. After dinner there are several other distractions possible, a tobacco- and cement-laden pan  from a storekeeper sitting in a tiny store surrounded by mir­rors, or a soothing cup of hot buffalo milk served in a small clay pot which is simply dropped to the ground when empty.


Of course, dropping something does not mean that it ends there. The street is littered with shards of glistening pottery, lying there in the dust like relics from some long-lost civilization. A horde of other creatures rush to lap up what’s left – ants, a few aggressive cockroaches and beetles, stray dogs and even a bandicoot or two hurry past your feet to scavenge those last few drops. And there are other creatures too, eyes which watch you hopefully, legs which hurry beside you. “Paisa sahib, ek paisa sahib!” – a little beggar boy or girl or perhaps even a blind woman may accost you as you stroll away.


A breeze comes in, lifting your spirits. As you walk on there will be faces you recognize, film stars gazing down from the billboards, as well as foreign residents like Vera the Czech junkie standing there resplendent in blue eye-shadow and velvet jeans, looking desperately for a fix, or Tom, a blind, blond American stumbling by with his stick on his nightly excursion from his semi-permanent room at the tiny Hotel Metropole. But tonight there’s no time to stop for chitchat. After a brisk walk, you ar­rive at Ajmeri Gate, the southwestern gate of the old city. Right next to it a rather desolate street beckons. Inscribed on a slogan-scarred yellow wall, beside a faded family planning billboard, is its new Hindu name, Shraddhanand Marg, a street named in honor of a Hindu saint. You have reached Gaston’s, formerly Sir Garstin Bastian Road, known to high and low as GeeBee Road.


At this point there is a further transformation in the surroundings. The sewers become invisible, releasing only a faint odor, stray dogs turn into pairs of glistening eyes, and people walk by possessed by night thoughts.  The road seems to reel with its load of ancient houses with tiny staircases, above which you hear a mysterious jingling. In the lamplight the houses look dilapidated, with those ubiquitous walls of crumbling cream which characterize eighteenth and nineteenth-century dwellings in the heart of every Indian city. But there are crowds gathering at the foot of those steep staircases, and in the verandahs above girls with flowers in their hair lean out into the night, calling, giggling, suggesting the prospect of a happily transplanted houri heaven.


Although Gaston’s is of Victorian vintage, Chandini Chowk itself goes back to the reign of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj. Poets and prostitutes have plied their trade in this quarter for a good four hundred years. These days, however, things are somewhat more tense than before, owing to terrorist violence and police raids. You need to keep cool, but don’t whistle in the dark – pimps will be watching you from every corner, some huddled together snig­gering or smoking dope, others catching your eye with a jaded, va­cant look. You will also see a few look-alike blue-jeaned foreign tourists, chattering and pointing with vicarious pleasure.


You pass swiftly by these tourists and touts and stride up the stair­case towards the source of all the excitement and commotion. A door opens onto a brightly lit room with walls of faded green plaster, and then you are suddenly surrounded by cocktail chatter. There are crowds of bright faces around, groups of bell-bottomed youths with Elvis hairdos, as well as several heavy-duty bouncers. People greet each other fondly, smiling at the colleague from work who sits calmly sipping tea with the ladies. They have the jaunty confidence of those who know they are here just for a visit, and that when the night is over they will be back in the world outside. There’s Himmat Singh, clutching a beer-bottle; he’s grumbling as usual about his day as a clerk in the Home Ministry. And there’s Sanjay Sharan, inhaling deep from his joint after a long day at Lintas, the ad agency. Also present are visitors from the Delhi University Student’s Union, along with a number of B. Com. degree aspirants from Dyal Singh College, young men so hard up that a mere look from a girl on the University Special bus will be enough to send them scurrying to their hostel rooms to play with themselves.


The girls enter one by one, with a slight flourish. There is a moment of silence followed by clapping and appreciative com­ments as each freshly made up young woman demurely takes her place. A woman’s eyes meet yours briefly – perhaps it is Razia, or Helen, or even Mumtaz herself! The musicians nod their heads and slowly begin their work. The rhythms pick up pace, and then an older woman smiles and starts to sing, in the ululating voice affected by playback singers. The dancers are gen­tle, inviting sympathy; hennaed feet patter away and then advance with a jingle, limber bodies clad in thin saris move smoothly in circular patterns across the floor. Their faces are ghostly, densely powdered; their breasts usually small under tight-fitting blouses; their waists are bare, the sari worn low, riding right above the pubis. The girls come together, then drift apart, patterns form, then dis­perse, fingers reach out in supplication, and then withdraw. The music casts a spell upon the senses, inviting the soul towards lib­era­tion; the sitar speaks of loneliness and delicacy; variations follow, each more insistent, gently provocative. Heard melodies are sweet, unheard ones even sweeter. You are aroused, joyfully awakened into a region of sweetness and light. The ego is to be discarded, the beautiful is present right here, must be surrendered to, ecstasy is possible, even in sordid settings.


Once you leave the dancing girls you are among the boudoirs, little windowless cubicles furnished modestly with a bed, a small dress­ing table or mirror, and a pitcher of cool water. Beyond lie the living quarters, a jumble of rooms and annexes filled with unseen voices. The verandah looks out into a courtyard; from the building opposite the kohl-rimmed eyes of children peer through dimly lit window slats at the visitor. Down below, old women are squatting in the dust, intermittently conversing or fanning charcoal fires. There are several stores on the premises, a tea-shop, a panwallah, and a man selling polyester fabrics under a tube-light, all of them fairly busy with customers. You can hear a buzzing from the crowd at the foot of the staircase; it is as if you have wandered into some nightly feast or celebration. From upstairs, the building seems to lean dan­gerously to one side, suggesting the possibility of being permanently trapped inside an overcrowded ark.




The protocols involved in visiting Gaston’s houses are simple. In the entertainment phase Anuradha in her purple salwar kameez will bat her eyelids, make as if to perch on your lap; Rehana, short-haired and gamine with enormous gold earrings, will stroke your cheek softly and whirl away; and the resplendently ban­gled and bejeweled Helen will stare at you with languid eyes, stylishly blowing clouds of smoke into your face. You move away coughing, wondering how much longer the farce will go on; but there are others who get their kicks from this sort of thing. In the audience you can find men unused to social intercourse with women, whose in­teractions with the opposite sex may have been limited to quiet dis­course with female relatives. Any brazenness in a woman tends to overexcite these young men, and they soon find themselves ex­ploring uncharted waters, reaching out for jeweled fingers, feeling their way awkwardly, like hesitant ballroom dancers, towards a du­patta or waist. The girl spins away, laughing a cold and mocking laugh. But soon, money is of­fered, and de­pending on the girl and the customer’s appearance, an offer might be clinched on the spot. Under the harsh scrutiny of pimps, there is rarely much bargaining.


After the payment is made – which the girl immediately pockets, tucking it into her bodice or waistband – she takes the man’s hand and leads him away; the victim follows, rather sheepishly. Watching her colleague disappear with a well-heeled young man, a girl who has been rejected in the selection pro­cess may pout a little, as if slighted, and make a few scatological comments; but soon she too has her turn and whisks away some other lad. All evening they come and go, these couples, paired smoothly together in the dancing rooms, and then wandering off to bed with the foolish fondling ges­tures of honeymooners.


The women come from all over, drawn from the poor across India. There are those who have been kidnapped, sold by their parents, bartered by their husbands; there are runaways and street children. Some are born to it, suckled here at Gaston’s and then groomed by their own mothers for the profession. Their education starts early – the little ones begin dance lessons almost as soon as they can walk, learning the languid, salaaming style of the dancers of the courts. By the age of seven or eight the most promising ones have already been singled out by the music tu­tor for voice training, and by the onset of puberty they will have begun earning their keep.


However, in some of the cheaper brothels all the training in classical arts goes to waste: the younger, poorer clientele come in clamoring for disco tunes and topless belly dancing, and the classically trained dancer may end up groveling grotesquely on the floor beside an empty bottle of Vat 69, with their younger sisters emulating them with rambunctious little twists of their hips. These el cheapo joints are easily identified, for their most common musical emanations are familiar songs from the Bombay film Pakeezah, a monumental tear-jerker about the life of a courte­san, memorable for its flowery Urdu dialog and a richly orchestrated repertoire of film songs and lamentations, the most popular of which, “Inhee Logon Ne” has become something of an anthem for prostitutes throughout India. 


Like the world outside, the brothel life can be quite orderly, even monotonous. There are arguments now and then, and a pimp may occasionally thrash one of his whores; but there is little desire to break free, to change one’s destiny or to exert any influence over the world outside; there are no violent possibilities for bloodshed and escape. There is instead a sense of tremendous lethargy and inertia, a fatalism rooted in historical ex­perience. There is a sense that the brothel is the real world, from which there is no escape in this lifetime. The activities of the household, the rituals of life in the old city – these are the things which seem important, rather than professional or material success. The brothel lives remind one of the lives of the aged, each day filled with exactly the same events as the one previous, quiet lives led in the shadows.


What fantasies pour through the minds of customer and whore as they copulate restlessly in those dimly lit boudoirs? In a land where sexual needs are usually denied and the very ex­is­tence of the body challenged, the body’s secrets become precious in­deed. In their act of coming together the woman’s body remains essentially mysterious, sheltering secret crevices and inviolate al­tars; the man’s, more palpable, is still sensed through some distant pre-conscious haze. Between the male’s grunting and heaving and the female’s listless waiting lies a gulf that is bridged only in the deep­est un­conscious.




Mumtaz was from Hyderabad. When she was eight her father died, after which she was taken away by an uncle, who kept her as a slave and sleeping partner. Thrashed regularly, she ran away at ten to the railway station and traveled ticketless to Delhi, clutching a piece of paper with the address of an aunt in Old Delhi. As luck would have it, the old lady lived in Gaston’s, and couldn’t believe her good fortune, for Mumtaz was already an extraordinary beauty. After her education she was reserved for the most favored customers, taking on no more than three or four a night.


She was very sensitive and gentle, a woman who breathed softly, helping me into position, and when afterwards under the dim elec­tric bulb I would kiss her fervently on the neck, she would laugh, as if she understood me perfectly. Her body was perfumed with delicate scents, her skin laved with special unguents; her breath smelt of cinnamon, betel-nut and cloves, and her skin was soft, maternal, milk-like. Her presence in a room caused people to become quiet, al­most embarrassed by her beauty, not sure where to look. Her eyes, heavily ringed with kohl and powder, seemed to glisten with a kind of hurt silence. If she had fallen into the hands of the right people, she could have become a film star, the heart-throb of millions, but she was quite content with her lot, singing her songs in a sad child’s falsetto.  


Plastered against a woman’s flesh, pressed close by gentle fingers, the men of this dusty city become softer, almost childlike. But once outside, satiated but perhaps not fully satisfied, they return to their vulgar selves. When you emerge, there are men who come up to you and earnestly inquire how it has gone. “Kaisi Bhaiti?” – “How did she sit?” – is a fre­quently asked ques­tion, suggesting that the entire event is merely a matter of posture and fitting, reducible to details of mechanical adjustment. Some come out drenched in obscenities, laughing nervously and gathering their fingers in a circle, apparently hoping with this mystical sign to win recognition and approval. There are those who exit in some­thing of a narcissistic trance, humming love songs, comb­ing their hair, seeing themselves as irresistible Don Juans. Others, particu­larly the more bombastic university youth, come out bragging, or complaining ridiculously about having to wear condoms or about breasts not being bared on demand. You can see men staggering out struggling with guilt at various levels, married men with loyal wives and hungry mouths to feed, and first-timers from good families who worry about not having taken enough precautions, who, tormented by hypochondria and post-coital depression, head out as soon as possible to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.


The night walk back afterwards can be rather stimulating. I still re­call the sight of a fat businessman and his whore laughing innocently as they traveled down Chandini Chowk at 2 a.m. in the back of a cycle rick­shaw. These are the lucky ones, girls who get taken out for a night on the town, occasionally even to some party among the nou­veau riche in South Delhi. There are a few other stragglers, men re­turning from their haunts and the late night movie shows, a few pushers beckoning from the shadows, a couple of drunken youths walking home smoking beedis and bellowing film songs. People stop to refresh themselves at an all-night pan shop, or at the odd tea stall where you can buy buns filled with hot butter. A watchman stands guard outside the Jhaveri Jewelery Co., and in the Jama Masjid nearby a few night people are getting ready to sleep. Others are managing outside on the pavement, settling into cardboard boxes or inside giant tubes. The breeze comes in on nights like these, carrying the scent of the honeysuckle extravagantly named Queen of the Night, a smell which reminds one of the mysterious scents of a woman’s hair and skin, overlaid with the baby scent of Lakme Talc; a fragrance which mingles with the odor of horse dung and the earlier noted traces of auto ex­haust and fried food that have accumulated during the day.   



Old Delhi

The sitar’s chords cut the night

Strange music from the minarets

The sad sleep in their hovels

A whore-filled rickshaw sways homeward.


White curds, broken

On the pavement, piss and pan

A few bones outside Kareem’s

Meat House, a broken bottle

A strong dog scurries away.

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