Kat-Katha in Delhi: A Safe Haven In A Red Light District

by Keay Nigel Tan, with Enxin Wong

As part of the USP Cultural Immersion Programme, Reuben, Enxin, Abigail and I came to India in July 2013 to study at the University of Delhi for one semester abroad.

Them

Students currently on USP’s Cultural Immersion Programme in India. Left to Right: Nigel, Enxin, Abigail and Reuben

India is truly one of the best places in the world to study the meaning and explore the beauty of cultural diversity. The list of fascinating things about Indian society is endless: its history; the numerous languages; the various (common and bizarre) ways of life; the different religions, sects, etc. Now, two months in, the whole experience of being here still feels pretty surreal. The truth is, the cultural shock never really goes away with time. Living here is a constant, daily learning journey, as we open up ourselves to the different experiences and the different people we meet along the way.

The first time we visited Kat-Katha, it was the 15th of August 2013, India’s Independence day. It was a public holiday for all, and the four of us were invited by a couple of Singaporean friends who are currently working for the Singapore Embassy in Delhi to the celebration party held at Kat-Katha. It was a hot and humid day, and the street was crowded and bustling when our car rolled into G.B. Road at noon. Little did we know that G.B. Road is the biggest red light area in Delhi.

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View of G.B. Road from the main classroom of Kat-Katha

Garstin Bastion Road, which most people refer to as G.B. Road, sits in the old city of Delhi. It runs parallel to the railways that branch out from New Delhi Railway Station, the second-busiest and one of the largest railway stations in India, which is less than 10 minutes’ walk away from G.B. Road. Both sides of G.B. Road are lined with shophouses just three or four stories high. Most of the ground floor shops sell hardware, such as automobile parts and other kinds of machinery, while several of them are workshops. These shops draw their shutters down at night, and the sex trade takes over. The second and third stories of the shop houses are where the brothels, or kothas, reside. Kat-Katha is located on the second storey of one of the buildings situated near the mouth of G.B. Road.

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Mechanical and repair shops line the ground level. Looking out onto G.B. Road from the dark windows and brightly colored balconies on the second and third stories, the sex workers would observe the happenings on the noisy street below and wave and call out to the men passing by.

Kat-Katha means “a story told using puppets.” Initiated by 26-year-old Gitanjali Babbar, a journalist-turned social worker, Kat-Katha is a ground-up initiative aimed at touching lives at the grassroots level. Its objective is to “enable and empower women working in brothels to fulfill aspirations that give them new avenues of sustenance, personal freedom, self-reliance and acceptance of their work and themselves.” Such aspirations include activities like arts and crafts, dancing, tailoring, weaving, and basic education. Besides serving as a haven for the sex workers working in G.B. Road, who are called didis (elder sister) by the volunteers, Kat-Katha also functions as a daytime school for the sex workers’ children. Kat-Katha occupies about one-third of the space on the second story of the building. The space is divided into four sections: The playing area, the office area, the main classroom, and a smaller classroom. To get to the small classroom, you’ll have to go past all the other three rooms in that order.

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Colourful wall mural painted by volunteers in the playing area.

For the Independence Day celebration, about 30 to 40 of us gathered in the main classroom—about the size of three single rooms of Cinnamon College combined together in a long, rectangular space. The celebration party began with a sharing session where everyone present, adult or child, shared about what freedom means to us. Thankfully, Gitanjali and other volunteers were there to help to translate the thoughts of the didis and the children to us.

Next, we had a sing-along session. A guitar was brought in and the small cozy room was soon filled with the sweet voices and the clapping of the didis, the children and the volunteers. Despite the sweltering heat and humidity in the crowded room, there was a sense of peace that was calming and heartening. Looking around and seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces, I felt honoured to be welcomed as a stranger, as an outsider. It was an intimate meeting of the people whose lives have been changed because of Kat-Katha’s activities. It was a celebration of hope and love, and of the relationships that have been forged through acceptance and faith in one another. Being immersed in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and support, tears welled up in my eyes. Here, we saw each other, not as different people from different walks of life, but as just human beings—each capable of loving, having fun and appreciating even the simplest joys in life. It was a beautiful and precious moment for me.

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In this picture of the playing area, the didis, the children and the volunteers gathered around to watch a special dance item by three boys.

Reuben and I returned to Kat-Katha several more times after the Independence Day party to hang out with the children. We are eager to learn more about the life of the didis and their children, and we hope to contribute to this cause in whatever way we can. We are currently in the midst of discussing with the volunteers how our visits to Kat-Katha could be more meaningful. For one, the idea of conducting an arts and crafts lesson for the children had come up; however, we are still unsure of when such a session can be slotted into Kat-Katha’s timetable. Nonetheless, exciting plans and ideas are being tossed around at the moment.

I look forward to sharing with you more of Kat-Katha’s happenings and the life stories of the people of G.B. Road. Stay tuned!

You can find out more about Kat-Katha at http://www.kat-katha.org.