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The Short Skirt
Shakhnoza and Naaz were close friends and belly dancers from Uzbekistan. When their badly mutilated bodies were discovered in the capital, investigators suspected a money-related feud. Shakhnoza’s mother Shukurova and her two sisters, Zamika and Nadira, can’t believe she’s dead. They are camping in a tiny flat in Lajpat Nagar looking for justice and an answer to the many questions the murders have raised—the trafficking mafia, prostitution, exploitation. “We’ll find the truth. We will help police solve the case,” says Nadira, who can converse in English.
It’s not going to be easy. In many cities in India, the white flesh trade is now a lucrative business. And young girls from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) dominate the domestic prostitution racket in the cities, as also the social landscape of the nouveau riche. They are paid fixtures at birthday parties, marriage receptions, commercial events, rave parties, even at private dinners at the ubiquitous farmhouses. It seems everyone has a story or two to tell about their ‘white woman’ encounter, like the one that was dancing in a martini glass, or serving drinks in diaphanous tunics. They are clearly there to add the sex quotient, dancing, entertaining, even playing host. Now the line that divides these activities with prostitution is very thin. In some circles, they are even gaining respectability. For last year’s Navy Day celebrations in Delhi, two Uzbek women performed a belly dance for 20 minutes and charged Rs 4,00,000. A senior naval officer justified the expense saying: “There’s nothing bad about it. Belly dancing is an art form.” They are also hired and supplied by India’s leading event management company Wizcraft. A senior executive, Michelle Rocha, responded to an Outlook query by saying: “The girls are hired in Delhi.” Even the Uzbek embassy refused to comment.
While organisations like the Navy may be just navel-gazing, this fetish for the white skin has bred a multi-pronged racket. A white woman can charge many times more than a local girl and there’s a rate list for every demand, depending on the looks, age, needs of the client, venue, duration, number of people and nature of activity. There’s even a rate for selfies with a bikini-clad blonde: Rs 2,000. And there’s no dearth of supply to meet the demand. An IB official estimates that there are some 5,000 girls from CIS countries in India, almost all here on tourist or medical-related visas. They are clearly all not just belly dancing. And a lot of it happens with the authorities looking the other way. Former special commissioner, Delhi police, N. Dilip Kumar, is forthright, “Organised crime cannot sustain itself without the complicity of enforcement agencies. An upright officer is attacked within the system if he or she creates hurdles.” The system facilitates organised crime and works at all levels, from arranging visas to protection rackets.
Each day, there are any number of classified ads in the leading dailies offering ‘Russian massage’. The asking rate here could be anything from Rs 15,000 per hour in the afternoon to Rs 1,00,000 for the whole night. ‘Russian’ refers to anyone from the CIS region. One of the capital’s leading pimps is ‘Choudhury’, and he operates in south Delhi. Officially, he’s an instructor in a posh gymnasium and dabbles in modelling. His most trusted ‘Russian’ is Diana, an Uzbek from Tashkent. She has many names, and lived in Delhi and Mumbai for three years before she left for Tashkent some time ago. She’ll be back again soon.
Diana is in her early 30s and is typical of the kind of women who have taken over the flesh trade in the more affluent sections of Indian male society. She first arrived in Delhi with two cousins and a friend on tourist visas. They were part of a group of a dozen girls her age. They stayed in crowded Karol Bagh with a middle-aged woman from Tashkent who had Indian citizenship and was called Auntie. There are some 50 “aunties” in the capital today. They play friend and guide to these girls, luring them into prostitution. Many of these girls are here to earn money to pay off debts back home. Once they arrive, they hand over their passports to the auntie for ‘safe custody’ and she organises assignments. Like Diana, they go through a two-day orientation programme where they are told how to deal with Indian men. They are advised to say no to coercion or roughness. Even personal hygiene can be a strong enough consideration to refuse contact. They are given a safety kit, they carry pepper spray, premium condoms, and some carry a small knife as well. They move around the city in yellow-black cabs. The driver is a confidante, and they are usually accompanied by another man who waits in the car, in case of trouble. Their earnings are repatriated directly to their families back home. All their local needs are met by the auntie.
Diana realised the money paid to her family was a minuscule part of what she earns. So when she met Choudhury, she branched out. On her second visit, he helped her rent a house. Getting out of the organised cartel and dealing with an Indian pimp directly is lucrative, but it lacks security—Shakhnoza and Naaz paid with their lives. A large share of the earnings (60 per cent) now came to Diana, in addition to a monthly salary (Rs 15,000) and free digs. She made big money and was motivated to come back again and again. Tashkent now was just an annual sabbatical.
Nowadays, Diana visits India with her boyfriend, Roger—a college dropout from Tashkent. They stay in an urban village in south Delhi in a small apartment. They want to secure their future by making some quick money; buy a house in Tashkent in the next two years. Roger, a lanky, bespectacled man with shoulder-length hair, and Diana make a great couple. Just that one is in the flesh trade, the other in the leather trade. On an average, she would meet two clients a day. On weekends, it’s as many as six meetings. She says she has so far ‘interacted’ with over 200 men here, intimately. A dozen are regular clients. One of them, a 37-year-old bachelor, is emotionally attached to her, has even offered to marry her. She told him about Roger. He was perplexed, a prostitute in a relationship? “It’s impossible,” he told her. Roger never calls her when she’s at work. He considers her liaisons with other men a professional requirement. Diana put me in touch with two other girls, Svetlana, 24 and Ruby, 33. Dressed in tight black trousers, Svetlana first came to Delhi two years ago with her father; now Diana is her local family. Ruby lost her virginity at the age of 17 to a distant cousin. This went on for two years before they were caught in the act one night; she was banished to India.
The girls have a fair idea what to expect from men just by looking at them (see box). While Svetlana finds it difficult to converse in English, Ruby is reasonably fluent. Their Hindi is quite bad, mostly restricted to curse words. Their regulars are mostly rich college brats. The white girls are a nice diversion for them. Svetlana lived for six months in Lajpat Nagar during her first stay in ’13. She would spend the afternoons in a flat in Kalkaji where men would arrive after work to relax in the company of a white woman. Ruby would often join Svetlana. One of the houses is actually run by a Punjabi couple with two teenaged children. There are four rooms in the house, three bedrooms with attached showers. “The wife would do the collection, charges are Rs 1,500 per hour,” informs Choudhury. She’s a mercenary in a sense, he says, forcing the guests out by 3 pm, before her children got back from school. Swetlana says it’s a watch-the-clock activity there, the men are always stressed, distracted by their phones. She particularly remembers a tall, fair man with a pot belly; he would visit during extended lunch breaks every other week. “I would sit by his side while he loosened my dress. He would tap my breasts like dialling a number on a smartphone,” she remembers fondly. Most times he only wanted to talk about his problems, his separated wife, his only daughter—a budding writer who’s pursuing a degree in an Ivy League college in the US.
For women like Svetlana, the work is the same, only the location and country have changed. They originally operated in Dubai and moved to India when the UAE started to crack down on such activity. The murder of Shakhnoza and Naaz has now added an unwanted dimension to this cosy underground club that has become an integral part of the Indian urban landscape.
By Mihir Srivastava in New Delhi