"Mujhe pata hai ki ye sawaal thoda chut**a hai lekin tum itni raat ko aise akele roads pe comfortably ghoom kaise leti ho?" (I know this question is a bit stupid, but how can you roam around on the roads so comfortably at nights?)
"Mujhe pata hai ye jawaab thoda chutiya hai lekin humaara to kaam hi raat ko hota hai na." (I know this answer is a bit stupid but our business takes place at night only.)
"Of course. Lekin tum tab bhi to safe nahi ho na? Kaun kis mood se road pe ja raha ho, ye kisko pata." (Of course. But you're still not safe, right? No one knows who's on the road, and in what mood they are.)
"Sir, ye Bombay hai. Dilli nahi." (Sir, this is Bombay. Not Delhi.)
It was quite a night, I have to admit. It's been almost two years ever since and I dare say that I haven't enjoyed my beer even remotely as much as I did on that night. What I have written above is an excerpt from a once-in-a-lifetime conversation I had with a sex worker in Mumbai. And, it may or may not sound clichéd when I say this, she was one of the nicest human beings I'd ever met in my life.
This was during mid-October of 2015. I was in Mumbai attending a client conference for a multinational PR agency I was working for at that time. Since attendance was more of a formality than a necessity, I was the only one who'd flown down from Delhi. There was another reason why I was here: the conference was on a Friday evening and hence I could spend my weekend getting to know the city of Mumbai better.
I pursued my higher studies in Pune, hence many of my friends work in Mumbai. One of my closest friends has been a resident of the city since he was born, but he was holidaying with his girlfriend in Bali during that time, so basically I had an entire flat in Tardeo and a spare car at disposal for a weekend.
The conference was lengthy and boring but finally came to a conclusion at around 10:30 in the night. I could've stayed back to socialise over drinks but I just couldn't look at those stoic corporate faces anymore. Drinks were certainly on my mind though, so I just let my car be at the venue (Taj Mahal Palace Hotel) and instead took a short walk to the "legendary shady bar" Gokul, nearby. My friend had specifically urged me to visit this place. Since it was a Friday night, getting a seat was a task. I decided to wait in the psychedelically-lit corridor inside the bar, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Only a couple of minutes must've passed when the waiter asked me if I would want to share a table with a woman. I obviously said yes and the waiter led me to a small table in the corner where I could see a woman sitting alone with an Old Monk quarter and a half-finished peg. "May I sit," I asked her and sat down when she replied in the affirmative.
I ordered my staple beer and started making small-talk with this seemingly interesting woman. All my conversation with her was in Hindi, but I'm sharing the translated version here for ease of understanding.
"Thank you for letting me sit here."
"My pleasure. You could've spent an eternity waiting for a single table at Gokul."
"That's true. But don't you feel awkward drinking with a male stranger at such a place?"
"There's nothing wrong with this place! I come here pretty often."
"Wow! And always alone?"
"No. In fact, today is my first time alone... well, that too not really. I was supposed to treat a friend. But she got busy at work at the last moment, so she asked me to go ahead with a promise that she would join me latest by midnight. That's when I saw you standing alone. So, I thought I could treat you meanwhile. Anyway you didn't seem to be a Mumbaikar either, so I presumed you could be interesting company."
"Wait-wait! I have so many questions! First, why would you treat me? Second, a meeting at midnight? Third, why is your friend working so late? Fourth, how could you know I'm not from here?"
"First, today is my birthday!"
"Woah! Happy birthday to you! I will definitely not refuse a treat now. Go on..."
"Thank you! Second, we're used to that in our job. Third, even I work at night. Fourth, in my profession it's very easy to make that out."
I was starting to get a whiff of what she was. But I continued to act normal and asked, "If you don't mind my asking, what kind of a job do you do?"
"If I told you, would you still accept my treat?"
"I am a call girl. And so is my friend. My name is Tanya, and hers is Jane."
I had expected that answer, but I was still taken aback. I was unsettled not because she indeed was a sex worker, but because of her nonchalance about it. It could also probably be because I had never really conversed with one before. It seemed as if all my perceptions about sex workers had suddenly gone down the drain. She was neither dressed gaudily nor was she foul-mouthed. She looked to be in her late twenties, just as old as I was, but her demeanour was a lot more confident than a woman of her age. I was definitely flustered, but I knew that I couldn't be in any sort of trouble unless I really wanted to be. Hence I decided to stay put for a couple of drinks more, until Jane came along. I had nothing to lose. Besides, she genuinely seemed like a decent woman.
"Do you still want to drink with a call girl in the night in an alien city," she asked me, jolting me back from my thoughtful slumber.
"Anything for a drink, Tanya," I pretended to be unperturbed. Mind you, I'm a terrific actor.
Talking to her was a breath of fresh air. The following hour must've been the quickest of my entire life. She told me that her pimp had granted her a leave on that day owing to her birthday, and it was ritualistic for her to celebrate it at Gokul because that's where she gets most of her clientele from. When I asked her how many leaves she could take, she told me that the birthday is the only "unpaid leave" in their profession. They are strictly asked to report for work especially on national holidays, because business is better than usual. She even had a boyfriend who lived in Dubai, for Christ's sake. She was quite a storyteller, and I was terribly engrossed in whatever she threw at me.
I had downed four pints of Budweiser while she was already halfway through her second Old Monk quarter when her friend Jane arrived. It was 12:15 already, but I was as fresh as a dodo. Jane was a petite girl, presumably in her early thirties with a disarming smile. She was dressed just as elegantly as Tanya, but had heavier make up on. I don't know the reason, but it could've owed to the fact that their profession didn't allow even a solitary wrinkle on display.
Although Jane wanted to sit for a drink or two, but Tanya insisted that we get out and eat instead. There was a halal restaurant serving fresh chicken curry right across the street. I was a bit tipsy so I'm not too sure but if my memory serves me decently, its name was "Bagdadi." While waiting for the food, I saw pictures of the restaurant owner arms-in-arms with celebrities such as Sanjay Dutt, adorning the walls of the place. Everyone knew the two girls there as well, and greeted them with genuine smiles that are usually reserved for regular customers.
Fast forward half an hour, and my opinion on Mumbai's culinary capability had completely changed. I had some of the best Mughlai chicken dishes that night. If you've ever met a Delhiite or are one yourself, you'd empathise with my staunch belief in the theory that there is no better chicken than in Delhi. But, by golly, you should all try this particular place.
The following hour was spent driving in and around the area. I was extremely cautious while driving because, first, it was my friend's car, and second, the Budweisers were still in my system. But the fact of the matter is, no police could've caught me that night; possibly because they were all familiar with Tanya and Jane. The women, however, showed me around with unconditional motives and unparalleled enthusiasm. They took me to a place close to the Naaz Cinema building on Lamington Rd. where I could purchase alcohol 24x7 and that too at no extra cost. (I regret not having bought any though, because I didn't want that night to end.) They even took me to a gorgeous place by Walkeshwar Rd., which they referred to as their "private beach". "This is where we spend the wee hours of the morning after work," they told me. I may not be the most qualified person to say this but if you haven't driven around in Mumbai in the dead of the night, you wouldn't really understand the popular saying "nobody goes to sleep hungry in this city." Unlike Delhi, Mumbai never really loses its sheen at any time. Women freely loiter on the streets in the nights without hesitation, and business at the roadside tapris is as hot as the tea in their vessels. It was an insane ride, and not for a moment did I feel even remotely uncomfortable with these women who were assumably just living the moment!
At about 2:30 in the night, Jane got a phone call from someone and that's when I dropped them somewhere near Girgaum. I got out of the car to hug both of them goodbye because I was aware that it was hardly possible for me to experience something like that ever again in my life. That's when Tanya thanked me for being responsible for her "best birthday celebration ever".
It was only a short drive back to my friend's place in the night, but I couldn't help but notice the beauty of Mumbai at that time. In fact, everything about the city seemed genial to me now. It was a completely different place, and it was only due to those women who played the perfect hosts to a Delhiite in a city he is traditionally supposed to dislike. Well, now I certainly do comprehend whenever somebody tells me that "Bombay is not a city, it's an experience."
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