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Noor Jahan got
700 rupees that night...

Work in Chaturbhuj Sthan begins at noon, but the rush hours are 4 to 7 in the evening. They close shop by 9pm. That evening in the red-light area was a maddening experience....

K hangi Patti is one of the five bylanes in Chaturbhuj Sthan and the most notorious one. Anu, a nautch girl of Shukla road warned us. "No, do not go there. They will pull you by the collar and force you in." We insisted we wanted to go and "see for ourselves". Anu suggested "safer" places. We insisted again. A concerned Anu covered her head with the dupatta (the muezzin was invoking the Allah) and said "hai rabba, not Khangi Patti". Mr Kameshwar Jha, the district welfare officer relented. And we left for Khangi Patti.

Must have been 6 pm. The photographer kept his cameras back in the bag, the car parked at a distance and we walked through the lane. The lane is dirty, the sewers overflowing, the doors ravaged by time, the narrow lanes bricked. Children still loitered around and one could see smoke bellowing out of some houses. Supper was being cooked.

We walked through the lane and most of the girls (there were not many women around) waiting for clients scurried in. Strangers are not trusted, specially those who look alien. There were men who were returning from the mosque after namaj. We looked for a place, a hide-out from where we could watch the happenings. The house of ananganwadi sevika was safe. We hurried up the stairs, it was getting late and our photographer knew he could not use the flash. Children of the family were warned. Do not say anything to anyone. Few bricks were missing from the parapet. And we peeped down.

Bang opposite was a single-storied house, and there stood four girls within an eight metre stretch. Two of them on the same verandah. The one in purple lehanga and pink blouse (her face was not visible) seemed to be the most aggressive one. Three men crossed the road. Looking towards the girls and gesticulating. Nothing happened. They walked past.

There were other men on the road keeping a watchful eye and a little girl from the house we had taken shelter in ran out. They stopped the girl in golden frock and asked aloud, "upar kaun hai?" The answer was inaudible. Soon after a lone man crossed the same lane. On our knees, we kept staring below. The girl in purple pulled him. She actually pulled him in. Within seconds he vanished. And we saw him walking fast, away from the woman and our sight. The other three girls there seemed more complacent. They just waited.

Suddenly this man in yellow trousers, maroon half-sweater and black muffler appeared. must have come from the lane which was beyond our ken. This time the girl beckoned and he stopped. She still stood on the verandah, now more visible to us and they talked. Was she bargaining? The gestures conveyed that much. The deal seemed settled. The girl came close to the man, very close. The next moment she was taking him in, her hand in his. One just heard the door close. With a thud.

It was getting dark and Khangi Patti was no longer safe. We hurried out of the lane. On the main thoroughfare, all one could hear was the clinking of the ghungroos , loud discordant notes and film songs at intolerable decibels. Harsh voices and loud music; men on the streets playing carrom, the girls waiting and strangers afloat. There were not many vehicles around. Most walk in into the jalsa ghar. Outside Roshan Jahan's 'showroom' (or 'office' as they call it,) was a jeep. We walked up the stairs. The door was closed and a sonorous song rent the air. Outside, pretty Roshan, all of 23 and a mother of two stood, guard. Her sister was entertaining the clients, there were five of them.

When the photographer insisted on clicking both of them, Roshan refused. The sister in her was protective about her younger sibling. "Let her be," she insisted. Roshan was ready to perform for us again. The men grimaced. "No. I will not charge anything extra", she pacified them. The four of them. The fifth one was snoring away to glory.

There was music, there was dance, there were clients. Roshan sang in between, breaking midway to catch breath. Two songs and lots of gyrations later she was sweating. That evening she earned Rs 700.

That was the nazrana. Roshan had been booked to entertain the baratis for a wedding in Mahua on February 16; The price: Rs 7,000 for the night.

Some houses away, Hamida, scrubbed fresh, waited. There were no takers that evening.

By 9 pm, Chaturbhuj Sthan mingles with the night. Calm and tranquil.

Tomorrow is another day. Oft-repeated.

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