Salva didi

When I was first brought here, I had no idea what work I had to do. How could I have known? Once I discovered what it was I felt like killing myself, or someone else. 

Pale shafts of morning sunlight flooded the stone-floored room, casting long shadows against peeling yellow walls as we sat, cross-legged, on the dusty floor. A cacophony of sounds rose upwards from the narrow, crowded gully beneath us; loud horns, the growl of fast moving motorbike engines, the hammering of metal upon metal from the multiple blacksmiths’ open-fronted shops, yet all were somehow muffled by the weighty stillness that bathed Salva’s words.

She placed her attention back on the sewing machine in front of her and began to spin its mechanical wheel. It made a rhythmic clicking sound as the needle moved up and down, up and down, as the deep purple salwar beneath it inched a little closer to completion.

How did you discover? I asked her.

The clicking sound stopped, and she drew the cloth away from the machine.

They put a lot of make up on me. Short clothes, too. I’d never worn these kinds of things and I didn’t want to, but when I protested I was forced. The clients would come in and sit there. Whenever they came closer and tried something with me, I’d hit them a lot. How was I supposed to know what they were there for? But then obviously the poor guys would complain as they’d paid money, and later I’d pay for it. I was beaten very badly. The malik [brothel owner] would say, “You were brought here for this work. I’ve bought you… now you have to do it”.

As Salva spoke, my eyes were drawn to the deep scar that traced its way in a peculiar kind of U-shape all the way around the top of her left arm. I wondered which of the many beatings she had endured had resulted in this particular injury. Did you ever try to run away?

Lots of times. Whenever I got a small tip from a client, I’d hide it in whatever small secret places I could find in the kotha [brothel], but I never managed to get away. They beat us terribly if we tried.

Did anyone ever die from the beatings?

Many girls have died that way on GB Road. But it’s our fate. What can I do if God wants me to live like this?

Salva is a curious mixture of the rough and the smooth. It is rare to find her without black kohl swirled in thick lines around her large dark eyes and her full lips painted red; striking against her high cheekbones and long charcoal hair. Her voice and manner can be coarse, almost manly at times, yet her plump, curvaceous frame, coupled with what can be no more than five feet of height give her an endearing, slightly dumpy look. She took another pause from her sewing, and continued. 

We were very poor. My father worked as a wage labourer, doing odd jobs like cutting grass or sowing crops on other people’s farms. He would earn Rs20 or 30 a day. He could barely run the household.

When I got a bit older I went to Kolkata to find work. I began doing household chores for a family of ten people. They’d pay me Rs150 per month, but I needed more money. After a year I started to look for better work. I found work with other families, and managed to raise my earnings to around Rs700 per month. But it still wasn’t enough.

One night, I was going to look for my uncle who also lived in Kolkata, and I met this guy. He talked to me very nicely and told me that the work was good in Delhi, and said I could earn around Rs3000 per month working in houses. We came from such poverty that I was very tempted by the offer. It was a lot of money for us, so I thought I should go to Delhi. He was an agent, but I didn’t know it then.

How old were you then?

I don’t know, I guess 16 or 17.

Did you ever get any of the earnings that he promised you?

Never. Nobody gave me any money. I was sold twice here. It all went to the maliks [brothel owners]. They must have earned a lot out of me, but I don’t really know how much. Around 25-30 men would come each day back then. Even if the rate had been Rs100 per customer, it would have added up to Rs3000 per day, but I know it was more than that.

GB Road, Delhi’s largest red light area, was less than 100 meters away from us, radiating outwards from New Delhi metro station as a long row of old, dilapidated buildings. By eleven in the morning customers would be starting to trickle into its 77 brothels, and Salva – who could only manage leaving for an hour or two at most – would soon have to return. An estimated 3,500-4,000 women work here and many, like Salva, were tricked and then sold into the area at ages as young as 12 or 13, where they were forced to work under conditions of bondage. It has been 15 years since she first arrived here, many miles from her home in rural Bengal.

How did you even begin to deal with your emotions? I asked her.

When there was sorrow in my life I would cry, and whenever there was happiness in my life, I would laugh. What else could I do? You have to deal with both. Both come to you in life. I’ve been very angry with God at times — when I’m troubled, and when there’s no way out.

When you first went back to visit your family, after six years, once you had got away from here, why did you come back?

She laughed wryly.

I’m in the dirt now; why not at least earn some money from it?

So you do earn money for yourself now?

Yes, but these days I have fewer customers, maybe two or three in a day, sometimes less. How much I get depends on luck. Sometimes it’s Rs200, sometimes Rs500, sometimes Rs1000, sometimes Rs2000. The malik gets a commission, but I keep the rest.

I have to leave this place, to do something and earn now. I want to do something that furthers me, that can help me get out of here. I have to take care of my kid.

Salva’s tailoring teacher, Renu-di, leaned in and carefully corrected her stitching. “You need to double stitch it along here, to make it stronger”, she said, pointing to the row of small stitches that ran along one edge of the kurta.

Kat Katha, the community of young volunteers that have created this space of learning just behind GB Road, have been building supportive relationships with the women and children who live here over the last two years. Renu-di’s sewing class was one of the many ways in which women like Salva are beginning to learn new skills and create opportunities for themselves to choose to leave the area, should they wish.

I didn’t trust them in the beginning. I used to think ‘what would I do if I go to the school. I could stay here instead and earn some money.’ But now I feel that at least I can learn something, and become something.

In other places, people would ask for money before teaching anything, but the good thing about this place is that they don’t. They teach us other good things as well. They guide us. They tell us what is good and what is bad. I got to know so many great people here. When I came here I discovered all this – I didn’t know it before. Even though we are so inferior to them, they still greet us with folded hands. That tells us something about their humanity. They show us a lot of respect. I like this very much.

For the last six months, Salva had been coming here at least three mornings a week, to spend an hour or two learning to tailor clothes. She isn’t usually able to come for longer. I asked her if it was hard to get away, to find the time to come?

When I come to Kat Katha, I simply forget the time. It’s not like I like what I’m doing. I just do it to earn money. But I can’t stay here for too long even though I want to, because business waits and my customers will go away. The malik tells me not to stay for longer than two hours. It’s ok, whatever it is I come here and I get to learn something. If someone gives me cut cloth, I know how to sew it. I know that much. There are certain things I can’t do, but I am here, and I ask for help, and they give me help.

Her phone rang loudly. Kaun hai” [Who is it?], she said.

There was a pause.

No, I don’t have time”, she barked in her mock-serious voice. She was talking to a client. Another pause.

If you force me more on this I’ll come and beat you”.

She hung up the phone emphatically, looking up at us with a grin. Renu-di chuckled. There was always a lot of laughter around Salva, even when she was saying the saddest of things. One couldn’t help but laugh when she laughed too.

So what are your wishes now? What do you hope for in your future? I asked her.

What can be my wishes? When I was a child, my mother was killed, and that’s when all my wishes were killed. I couldn’t even go to school. I’ve never lived for myself, When I was a kid I had to give it to my father, and now finally that I’ve started earning for myself, I’m setting up a home. What is there for me to think about life, I have nothing to think about. The time for thinking is over.

But you are going home soon, to start a new life and be with your child?

That’s true. I get the most happiness out of being with my kid. And what use is it talking about all the problems and difficulties you’ve faced in life? The good things always take a long time to come. The bad times seem like they are always here.

This time when I go back to Bengal, I’ll never return to GB Road. I’ll work from home, open up a small tailoring shop there, provide for my daughter’s studies and stay with her. Maybe I’ll just earn Rs50 per day, but at least I can buy my groceries from that. I want to live with wisdom now. I want my daughter to neither know what I do, nor be affected by my past.

Salva had to go. Her short time at Kat Katha each morning always seemed to end too soon. The phone calls had started coming more frequently, and she was becoming agitated. She gave me a hug goodbye, and had soon disappeared down the stairwell, headed back in the direction of GB Road.

A few days later, I returned to see her again. There she sat, attention keenly focused on the sewing machine in front of her, this time a child’s small pink dress beneath the needle. It was for one of the children who also came to the school each day. We called for some of the hot, milky chai that was brewed throughout the day by the chai wallah whose small, open-fronted store faced the street directly beneath us. It arrived, poured into a small collection of white plastic cups: sweet, creamy and beautifully spiced. As we sipped on it, and Salva took a break from her sewing, I asked her what she felt was most important in life.

The most important thing is education. But to study you need money, so that means money is also necessary. And to be able to earn money, you also need a good upbringing, a mum and dad who will guide you – give you the right advice, raise you in the right way.

This is very important, because when you are young, you have no idea what is good or bad, right or wrong. You have to be taught everything. Kids need love, education, and to get educated they need money. It’s very important that they learn. If they don’t have knowledge they won’t go anywhere in life.

So if you could change things, how would you? What would you ask the government to change?

What are they going to know about us? They don’t listen to us. They don’t care about us. They don’t listen to the poor, only the rich. They don’t help the poor.

So then what if you had power yourself? What if you became chief minister? What would you do then?

Eh Bhagwan! [Oh God!] She cackled. It can’t be!

No, really! Try! What would you do to change things? After some time, she responded.

Well, all I would do is, whichever human is facing difficulties I would remove them. I would help those who have nothing to eat or drink, who have no money. People with money can do anything. Poor people can’t do anything. But, she said, pausing for a moment, poor people are happier in their hearts. Poor people are very happy, even happier than rich people.

Can you tell me more?

Rich people carry so many tensions! They are always thinking about how to move onwards and upwards in life, about their next step and how to make a bigger move. They don’t sleep because of these churning thoughts. A poor person doesn’t think like that. Although they have so many more problems, nothing to eat, not even dal, vegetables or rice; although we can’t afford clothes for our children, even if we just have Rs200 after a day of hard work, even if inside we might have a lot of sadness, we still manage to stay happy inside ourselves.

What doesn’t a rich man have? Money will get you everywhere. But there’s no place in this world that runs on love. Now what kind of place would that be? Even if someone helps you when you have nothing they expect something in return later, when you’re in a better position. That’s how the world works. At the end of it, that is not a free world, it is not a free world that would run on unconditional love.

She paused for a moment, twisting the gold coloured ring that was wrapped around her middle finger distractedly.

But what do I know. I’m just an insignificant person who wouldn’t know better than to sign her own death warrant if she was handed it.

I disagree. I think you’re very wise.

She smiled, softly this time.

So if you could do something to help the situation in GB Road, what would you do?

What can you do to GB Road? It’s a place where there is so much difficulty. So many people come and visit these brothels that if they didn’t, maybe the rapes and molestations that happen in Delhi would increase. Other people don’t even realise how many people come to GB Road. If they weren’t here, children’s lives wouldn’t be wasted and they would be living in their own homes.

If I had the power to do something, I would free the ones that are here by force, and let the ones that do this work out of their own will do it.

We spoke for a while longer, and after some time I asked her, Salva-didi, do you mind if I share your story? I think it would be really important for people to hear your words. I promise I’ll change your name, so nobody can know who you are.

Yes, why not. You can share it. Just like I told you, whatever you do, don’t take my photo. Someone did that once and put it on the Internet, and I cried for days. My family doesn’t know what I do. No one must know.

As she returned to sewing the small dress that was positioned beneath the machine’s needle, I promised I wouldn’t. A few moments later, she stopped again, this time to ask me a question.

So, she paused, what are you going to give me for telling you my story? Am I going to get a gift?

She was grinning widely.

I’d love to give you a gift! What would you like?

She chuckled heartily, and grabbed me sideways into a warm embrace.

I was only joking! I don’t want anything!

No but I want to give you something. What can I give you? Anything!

Just give me love, she said, and got back to her stitching, as matter-of-factly as she did everything else, a smile playing at the edge of her mouth.


Elements of this interview appeared in a story about Kat Katha’s work, published by the Huffington Post.    


3 thoughts on “Salva didi

  1. Hey Anna, i don’t have words to express how i felt while reading the story of our favourite Salva didi… i could imagine her saying all this and smiling:) We are with her from years and its so beautiful that she opened up with you, even when there was a language barrier…this article gave lot of hopes, as it clearly says that Love has no language:) Thanks for putting love on paper through your words:)


    • Thank you, dearest Gitanjali. It was such a moving experience to get to know Salva didi; to discover her warmth, love, humour and wisdom. That you feel she was able to communicate across what could have been significant barriers makes it all the more meaningful. I guess there aren’t many that Love cannot break.


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