THE NEW WHITE FLESH TRADE
BY MIHIR SHRIVASTAVA IN THE INDIA TODAY
Lola, 22, is a tall girl with high, thin eyebrows on a slender face. Her features are sharp but her eyes are uninterested, fixed at a painting on the wall of the coffee shop, as she tries hard to explain, in broken English, why she is in India. Clad in a too-tight pink sweatshirt, faded cream shorts and shiny red boots, her right hand bearing a cocktail ring which she keeps twisting nervously, her blue nail varnish chipped, she seems a far cry from her alluring nocturnal avatar as one of the Capital’s high-priced prostitutes. She speaks of how she came to work here two-and-a-half months ago. Her boyfriend TC, not Tom Cruise, she clarifies, momentarily showing signs of life, joined her last month. Both are clear about what they want from their lives–enough money to buy a house in Tashkent, their hometown in Uzbekistan.
One of five siblings who grew up in poverty, Lola’s mother is dead and her father was abusive. For her it’s just another job. There are no regrets. “It was TC who did all the running around for me, got my papers done and put me on a flight to Delhi,” she says.
Lola is not alone. She is part of a growing army of fair-skinned prostitutes, about 3,000 of them in the Capital and about the same number in the other parts of the country. They are from Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan, all of which are part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Replacing the earlier favourites, imports from Nepal, and charging 40 per cent more than Indian prostitutes, they are changing the rules of the game, feeding on the Indian fascination for white skin and the greater openness with which they can promote their sexual favours, through classified advertisements in newspapers and professionally-designed websites.
That the fascination for white skin is transnational is evident from the string of recent arrests. Last year, on December 10, a Delhi-based hotel manager, Shanker Mishra, was arrested in Rajkot along with an Uzbek prostitute in her late 20s, Ragini, a native of Tashkent. Initial investigations revealed that Mishra would provide women to cash-rich traders and garment exporters in Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Indore.
A little earlier, on October 30, another sex racket was busted in Mahipalpur, Delhi, where three women of CIS origin, Aslefya, 23, Sonya, 25, and Roma, 27, were arrested following a scuffle between a few pimps and locals in front of a guesthouse, 365 Inn.
In July, the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police arrested two CIS prostitutes when a decoy customer was sent to strike a deal with them. The pimp, Goldy, came with the two foreign women in a car. They were here on a six-month tourist visa and had been in the Gulf before coming to India; with their stay here governed by a Rs 1.5 lakh contract for each girl for one month. The women will be deported soon.
But it’s quite likely they will be back, admits Joint Commissioner of Police, Crime, Mumbai, Rakesh Maria. “The prostitution racket involving CIS women is very well organised. The Indian pimps are in close touch with their counterparts in Dubai and CIS countries,” he says. It’s the culmination of events that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and gained momentum with the entry of young CIS women into Dubai, transforming it into a major centre of prostitution.
According to an article in The New Yorker in 2008, an “almost perfect recipe: mass immigration, mass transience, a tremendous concentration of money and anonymity, and a robust demand for labour”. But a crackdown in Dubai in December 2007 when 240 people were arrested and in May last year when 2,713 prostitutes were detained as well as the deportation of 228 Uzbek women from Thailand recently, ensured that many women moved south, a process hastened by the meltdown.
“The odds were against staying in Dubai,” says Nagina, a 27-year-old Muslim from Samarkand who was in Dubai till a month ago. She escaped the police but many of her friends are in jail for illegally entering the country on false passports. She doesn’t like to go to a bar to meet a client as “it is against my religion”. But prostitution? “They need our services and we provide it,” she says. Or take Roma, a 25-year-old from Karshi, Uzbekistan, who ran away from a violent father when she was 17. She was sucked into prostitution and sent to Dubai where her travel documents were confiscated. She is now a veteran with seven years of experience and this is her third stay in India. She lives in a three-storey flat in Delhi, atop a spiral staircase. It’s a big living room with bare orange walls, a dressing table with lights and a smorgasbord of cosmetics. As she settles down in a couch to talk, the only sign of her profession is a roommate who lies huddled in the bedroom next door, sleeping in mid-afternoon, working off the effects of a late night. As she flicks the ash from her cigarette, Roma says, “Only the best survive. The pressure to do well is so high. I learned English and have been to the US and Europe. I am okay with this life.”
As the hunting ground shifts from Dubai, the CIS women, often referred to as “night butterflies”, find India easier to work in. The classified advertisements in newspapers are easy to spot, printed by the dozens every day, five lines each costing Rs 1,800, giving mobile numbers, the option of paying by credit card and dropping cryptic hints of “body massage” assuring “full satisfaction”. Translate what that means: accompanying clients on long drives, having sex with them during the lunch hour in pimp hideouts around commercial hubs or in designated safehouses, and playing host at ‘stag’ parties where they serve alcohol and food skimpily dressed. All this for prices ranging from Rs 8,000 to Rs 30,000 depending on the duration.
It’s difficult to miss them, whether it is five-star hotel lobbies, elite clubs or farmhouses. They come here on tourist visas for three to six months and stay with ‘aunties’, women from CIS countries, who act as mediators between agents in home countries and pimps in India. The women are paid on a daily basis.
In Delhi, for example, over 150 Indian pimps host them and some of them have four to five CIS women on their payroll. The pimps pocket the money from clients, as payment for their upkeep as well as promotion. Call at any of the numbers advertised in the newspapers and they are quite blunt. “She will do all you want,” says the male voice at the other end. “Trained handling” means the client will relive his “wildest fantasies”. And when they say “full satisfaction guaranteed”, they mean “the girl will do whatever the clients wants, in the way they want, with great ability”. Some even promise to refresh clients with world class ‘blwoiob’ (blowjob) ‘ser'(vice), the misspelling deliberate to avoid trouble.
Some get poetic, luring clients with phrases such as “indulge yourself in the most electrifying experience of your lifetime with our bewitching masseuses” or proclaiming that carnal pleasures can be sublime, “where mind and soul entwine together in heights of pleasure”. So says a classified ad aimed at older customers. The idea is all are welcome, from the cash-rich entrepreneur to the high performing salesman, who gets sex as a bonus.
There is an even easier option, the Internet. Google ‘escort service’ and the name of the city where you intend to access the services, and voila, the choices pop up faster than Roger Federer’s serves. Professionally designed websites offer a host of services and a detailed rate list. Again, all it requires is a call to the given number, the time of requirement, and the specific service.
“Whether for pleasure trips, business occasions, corporate events, functions or dinner dates”, “especially handpicked to provide the highest level of service possible with professionalism, integrity and discretion assured at all times for the discerning gentlemen,” declares one website. Clients can book their services from anywhere in the world, can even outsource the planning of a fun-filled holiday to them. Payment is to be made in advance and clients are given the convenient option of paying by credit card.
Declares one website, “For gentlemen who would want to move beyond the confines of the hourly session, I offer these exclusive getaway packages,” to the scenic towns of Nainital and Shimla in summers and to regal Jaipur and Agra in winters. Yet another tells its prospective customers, “My favourite pastime in the field of the adult industry, always has been related to couples, including lesbian or bisexual female couples and groups of people.”
Their skin colour is their biggest selling point. “Sex with light-skinned women is aspirational,” says Pramada Menon, a Delhi-based gender activist. The CIS women agree. “Indians are so conscious of their colour and ours,” says Sarah, 27, from Tashkent, who has been here now for five months on a tourist visa. So much so that Indian women find it difficult to counter the ‘white cult’ that is taking over the premium flesh trade. Indian women have to be hard-sold. So if it’s an Indian woman, the advertisement reads: she is a ‘Punjabi’ (read intense and fair), ‘model’ (slim and beautiful), ‘airhostess’ (suave and smart), ‘hygienic’ (clean), ‘broadminded’ and ‘sober’. Broadminded assures clients that the women will play out their fantasies, while ‘sober’ indicates that they will be professional about it.
“East European girls have a different look and they are exotic for Indians as much as Delhi girls are unusual for Americans,” that’s a recorded voice playing on Vivek’s phone–he operates in an upmartket neighbourhood of the Capital and has four CIS women on his roster. “Most of our clients have gained money recently and want new girls every time,” he adds.
CIS women also offer anonymity. “For our older, wealthier and regular customers, it is not about sex but courtship,” says Feruza, 32, an Uzbek woman. “They want somebody to give them an honest hearing and like the way we pamper them. Language is an issue but we can talk them into relaxation. They like that they are in command and that actually helps them surrender to us,” she says. Ask Nitin, who runs a computer hardware business at a commercial complex in Delhi. He is in his mid-30s and is married with children. For him, the once-a-week sexcapade is an addiction he cannot do without.
“These women have an element of professional detachment. They are here for a few months and you don’t know whether you will ever see them again. They are not interested in you beyond the task well done,” he says, comparing them with their Indian counterparts. “But the Indians want your number. They give theirs, want to know what I do and how much I earn. Then they go on about how they belong to a good family too but have been forced into prostitution by some compelling circumstances. That is so irritating.”
Shrugs Shruti, a 19-year-old college girl who doubles as a call girl and is on the roster of two pimps in Delhi, “If Indian men are looking for white women for their novelty, white men are interested in us. They give us generous tips.” But why do white women attract so many repeat customers? “We cannot do things that white women do with Indian men,” says Shruti huffily.
CIS women dress well, wear immaculate make-up and carry the best accessories. They also play nice enough to have some men in their thrall. Roma gives the example of a 35-year-old married businessman, who offered to marry her. When she refused, he would insist only on her, paying extra for her services. “Aunty wanted me to meet him more often as money was coming thick and fast, but I stopped because he was getting emotional about the whole affair,” she says, adding on second thoughts, “but it is not a bad idea to get married after all.”
The ‘aunties’ are the key to the business. Usually heavily-built, manicured, made-up, chain-smokers, they pronounce their verdict with the authority borne of years of handling pimps, visa agents and police officials. “I tell my girls to come back if the clients get rough. They can call me any time even when they are with the clients. If they don’t like something, they can stop right there,” says one aunty. Four of them have formidable reputations. They have their areas of domination but their areas of operation overlap.
With names like Svetlana, Diana, Nafisa and Sweta, these aunties have never been prostitutes themselves but are cashing in on their strong Indian connections. The fathers of two aunties were diplomats stationed in India 20 years ago; another has a KGB background. For them, it’s not a racket but a business. Says an aunty, dressed in a long black skirt, a thick bead necklace nestling in the V of a cleavage-popping white T-shirt, “More then 20,000 girls have come and gone from India in several lots over the past two years. Most were from CIS countries and have done well for themselves.” The numbers are lower than in the UAE and Dubai, she adds.
These aunties are careful and so are the women. Unlike their Indian counterparts, they always carry a pack of flavoured condoms. Cleanliness is an issue and they insist that clients take a shower before going to bed with them. They have a dress code for bed too: red and black lingerie from the best brands. Sometimes the aunties insist on sending Indian prostitutes first. Only when she gives an all-clear signal is the client allowed to sleep with a white woman.
In order not to attract undue attention, only two girls are lodged in one flat each in areas close to busy neighbourhoods. They wear Fabindia clothes by day, have a fetish for leather garments at night and sport dark eyeliner at all times. “That’s our fashion statement,” says Bessica, 27. The mother of two has been in India for four months after her jobless husband persuaded her to come here. “I was in the UAE and Dubai before I came to India. The girls of my generation do feel the pangs. We are spiritually dead,” she says.
Most of the women come directly to aunties to pay off loans their family took back home. “It is according to an informal contract between the family and the agent back home where the girls are required to stay overseas for three to six months to pay off their debt by making themselves available for prostitution,” says Mashhura, 28, who belongs to Buxoro in Uzbekistan. Some come back to make money for themselves and get in touch with Indian pimps like Vivek who maintains four such ‘freelancers’ and pays each Rs 10,000 per day for their period of stay. They sometimes end up working 12 hours a day, meeting six different clients, as pimps make Rs 35,000 a day, which includes the police cut, their stay and other expenses.
Rajiv, 30, a pimp in Delhi, has six such women in his list. He calls prospective clients to his home and gives them one of his rooms. His wife, a tall woman in a salwar-kameez, who listens to him negotiating from behind the curtain of the living room and often walks out to tell the client sternly, “the price is fixed.”
The number of CIS-origin prostitutes in India is growing. Four hundred prostitutes are expected to arrive in the Capital during the Commonwealth Games to be held later in the year. “We know there will be great demand for women then and special arrangements are being made, like renting safehouses. Some Indian pimps are even buying flats,” says Avita, 30, who came here with her cousin from Tashkent.
Insiders also say that some girls are brought to India as part of dance troupes. These women perform group dances in revealing clothes, mostly at private parties. According to Rishikant, a 32-year-old activist who works for the NGO, Shakti Vahini, and has rescued more than 1,000 girls in the last decade from prostitution, “Their number has increased significantly in the last one-and-a-half years.” He explains that the police are aware of the problem but can do little as senior officers are involved.
India’s anti-trafficking law, the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls (Amendment) Act (SITA), 1978, aims at combating the commercialisation of the flesh trade (brothels, prostitution rings and pimping). Prostitution is not illegal. But in practice, SITA is not commonly used; instead the Indian Penal Code is deployed to charge sex workers with crimes such as public indecency or public nuisance, punishable with imprisonment up to six months or fine or both. If the sex worker is a minor, the client may get a sentence of seven to 10 years. But, given the overt manner in which the flesh trade operates, it cannot happen without the support of the police. Former police officer Kiran Bedi calls it the “collective failure of the whole criminal judicial system.”
Failure or not, the women don’t mind. “We get to travel, stay in new places and make friends. Yes, the money is good. But I like it here as well,” says Kate, 27, who was presented as a model to an exporter in Delhi with whom she would be travelling to Goa. She arrived in India about a month-and-a-half ago and has already been with 50 men. As she leaves, dressed in tight jeans and a brown psychedelic top under a black leather jacket, a white taxi waiting outside to take her to her 51st client, she shrugs her shoulders.
“I was deported from Israel last year. The next few days will be tricky. It’s Republic Day and security is tight.” It’s one of the perils of her profession. But one she carries off as easily as the Christian Louboutin high heels she bought online last year. It’s price she extracts for the pleasure she provides.
The cost of fantasy
CIS girls now dominate the high-end sex market offering sexual pleasure as leisure SERVICES TIME IN HOURS RATE IN RUPEES/per head One trip (sexual intercourse) Two 8,000 Two trips Two 10,000 Two trips Four 15,000 Unlimited trips Eight or overnight 25,000 Orgy (at least one girl per person) Eight or overnight 25,000 Escort service (travel outstation with the client, all expenses are met) Per day 25,000 Play hostess at a stag party Four hours 15,000 Posing as nude model for photography and sketching One hour 5,000 Payment is in advance/all credit cards accepted, cash is preferred. The websites guarantee confidentiality.
Inside the new trade
- Getting a light-skinned prostitute is rather easy. All one has to do is call one of the numbers flashed in the two dozen-odd difficult-to-ignore massage advertisements in the classified pages of leading dailies. The sales pitch starts as soon as the ad is mentioned. Then there’s the Net, where a search for ‘escort service’ with the city name yields pages of results.
- Most of the women come as tourists from the impoverished republics of the former Soviet Union, particularly Uzbekistan. Some are coerced while others get into this business voluntarily.
- The so-called ‘aunties’, CIS women who have been illegally living in India for several years, act as the interface between the women and local pimps. The aunties are local agents of a mafia back home and share up to 50 per cent of the profits.
- Most prostitutes are not paid; they serve ‘aunties’ under informal contracts that pay off loans taken back home by their families in return for services provided here. The contracts run for three to six months, during which up to a third of a prostitute’s earnings go repay family loans.
- Lured by big money, some women come back as ‘freelancers’. They then stay with an Indian pimp, who sometimes helps them get a visa. They also pay these women a daily fee which is usually between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000. Most women reinvest their earnings to make a profit; exporting leather garments is a favoured avenue.
- The pimps also make money by organising rooms for clients. Five-star hotels, farmhouses and guesthouses are hotspots, with smaller establishments bending rules to ensure anonymity. Official addresses are avoided.
- Some women aren’t prostitutes and others aren’t just that. As part of dancing troupes, they are called ‘belly dancers’ or ‘item girls’ and serve as hostesses and showgirls at parties.
- Lax visa rules make for a thriving sex trade. Joint Commissioner of Police,Crime,Mumbai, Rakesh Maria says, “The pimps in India, Dubai and CIS countries work in close coordination.” A secret report of the NSA had expressed concern over foreigners buying land illegally. Others have established guesthouses and restaurants.
- Only half a dozen arrests were made last year; there were no convictions. According to the law, soliciting or encouraging the exchange of sexual services for money is a sex crime and not prostitution. Sometimes these women are deported, but most of them come back.
- The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls (Amendment) Act, 1978, is toothless. Most arrested women get bail as soliciting is difficult to prove. This prompted the Supreme Court last month to ask the government to legalise prostitution, on a PIL filed by an NGO called the Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
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Mihir Srivastava IN THE INDIA TODAY JANUARY 21 , 2010 ISSUE
As Dubai goes into a meltdown, women from the former Soviet Union pour into India, providing sexual pleasure for a price.