NEW DELHI Sushma looks as if she's in her late forties but she's not sure about her real age. Her name isn't real either, just the one she goes by in New Delhi's red light district.
She is among the many women, men and children living and working in brothel number 300 on Garstin Bastion Road, known as "G.B. Road," in the city's old quarters who are documented by Mayank Austen Soofi in his new book, "Nobody Can Love You More".
Soofi offers readers a glimpse into how sex workers interact with customers, often aggressively and crassly, and the more regular aspects of their lives, including cooking and praying.
Soofi spoke to Reuters about his book and the sex workers who he now calls his friends after spending three years with those he describes as ordinary people living in an extraordinary world.
Q: How did you first meet the people working and living in Delhi's red light district?
A: "When I first started going to G.B. Road, I had no intention to write a book on the place. A friend told me there's one particular brothel and the owner is looking for somebody to teach English to the children. So, that's how I got into G.B. Road. Otherwise it's very difficult to get access to it, unless you're a customer of course.
"I think the red light district itself is a dying idea. Now you can get sex on the Internet and hook up with people. I think maybe after 20, 30 years, G.B. Road will become extinct. I thought before this world disappears, I should do something about it, I wanted to understand it and that's why I wanted to write."
Q: Did you have any misconceptions about people involved in the sex industry that were shattered once you got to know them?
A: "I realised that our ideas of the prostitutes and the customers are so much influenced by popular culture, be it novels or films. And then you realise that these people are like our neighbours and even our own families, but you realise that the people might be ordinary in some sense, but the world they are living in is extraordinary because it's centred around sex."
Q: As well as documenting the relationships the sex workers have with their customers, you write about more mundane aspects of their lives. Why did you think that was important to cover?
A: "A prostitute is not just a prostitute. Sometimes writers turn people into circus performers to create interest for the reader. I didn't want to do that. That's why in the first chapter, Sushma, she's cooking food for me and herself, she's smoking a beedi (an Indian cigarette wrapped in a leaf), she's going out to buy vegetables, and she tells me about her mother. This to me means we can get a better sense of her character. She is not just a commodity. She's a full-fledged human being and so many things make up a person."
Q: In your book, the sex workers come across as strong, independent women. Is that a fair description?
A: "Many of the sex workers I met are doing this work out of their own choice. They are very independent in their lives. They don't depend on men and I feel some of them feel like they are more free than many housewives in other parts of the city."
Q: Towards the end of your book, you question whether the people you've met have been truthful with you. Do you think you've managed to produce an accurate portrait of life inside brothel number 300?
A: "I don't think you'll be able to get a hundred percent accurate portrait in anything but I interacted with so many people and saw so many things and heard so many things. I'm not sure if each and every story which these women shared with me were true or factually correct, but what's important to me is that I only wanted to write what they think is their story and what they are comfortable sharing with the world."
Q: You met dozens of people while working on this book. Who did you like interacting with the most?
A: "One person I really cherished my time with was (a sex worker called) Roopa. I was so amazed by her story. It was such an uncliched story. Her story begins with a cliche that her husband beats her and then she ran away to Delhi and became a prostitute. Usually that's the end of the old life and a new one begins for most of these sex workers. But she chose to revive her marriage and stayed in touch with her husband. And just when I was thinking that her relationship with her husband was revived and she's back with him, she becomes cosy with a man from Kashmir.
"To still be able to live and feel like a proper person, to still continue to live with past relationships and still find new ones, not to lose hope in life, that's such a beautiful thing and that's what I learnt from Roopa."
Q: Do you still visit the brothel?
A: "Yeah, I do. I was last there two, three days ago. This book is not a conclusion of a part of my life. These people on G.B. Road and in number 300 are friends and are friends irrespective of my book. My friendship and relationship with them continues in a normal, natural way." (Reporting by Atish Patel, editing by Tony Tharakan and Elaine Lies)