Sleeping with white women is an aspirational goal for many Indian men, for which they are prepared to fork out large sums. It is a task made easier by the hundreds of prostitutes from Central Asian Republics and Ukraine who frequently fly down to India. Here’s the story of one of these women and her experience working here.
Anya sat on a large couch with a floral chintz pattern, playing blackgammon with a friend. She tapped her cigarette and looked up at me with piercing blue eyes, slightly upturned at the corners, a sign of her Kazakh-Mongol heritage. She was tall and gangly, with a mop of windswept blonde hair and had a fragile yet steely air about her, like a porcelain doll which had taken a fall, shattered into tiny pieces, and been glued back together with the cracks visible.
A flamboyant Punjabi gent called ‘Tony’ had taken me to her Mumbai apartment. I had met him while researching a film on the white flesh trade in South Asia. He called himself her caretaker.
She was a professional escort, one of the thousands from central Asian countries like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan, who travel to south Asian boomtowns like Dubai, Mumbai, Delhi, Goa, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad to ply their wares. The women are usually labelled ‘Russian’ for the sake of convenience. Sleeping with white women is an aspirational goal for many Indian men, and they are quite willing to fork out large sums of money – up to the equivalent of 1500 USD — to spend a night with them, considerably higher than the going rate for Indian women.
The prostitution issue had escalated to the point where the Indian embassy in Ukraine was asked to screen ‘suspicious’ visa applications from girls between the ages of 18-40. This action led to crowds of topless activists assembled outside the embassy, waving flags and protesting the stereotyping of Ukrainian women as sex workers. It was one of the more intriguing manifestations of runaway globalisation.
Laconic at first, Anya opened up after hearing about my escapades in Latin America. She listened in rapt attention as I described the three hellish days I spent in a local Mexican jail before being rescued by consular officials. I was interviewing a group of narco-traffickers for a documentary, when the local cops, the Federales, acting on a tip, gatecrashed our little party and handcuffed everyone present, including myself.
On her arrival in Mumbai two years ago, Anya was taken to a plush apartment in the suburb of Andheri, where she was housed along with two other girls from Kiev and Tashkent. A heavyset woman from Ukraine known as ‘aunty’ ran the operation. Aunty had started at the lower rungs of the trade and slowly clawed her way up the ladder. She had been living in India for over a decade and was now married to an Indian man. She had about twenty girls, maybe more, housed in separate apartments all over the city. Tony was her fixer and a local partner.
The girls were ferried to five-star hotels around the city to service well-heeled clients from the corporate world and entertainment industry. When the opportunity arose, she supplemented her income by moonlighting as a model-cum-Bollywood extra by day. She had signed a yearlong contract that took care of her bills in India and paid for the upkeep of her ageing mother and her younger sister back home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She hoped to buy them a house where they could all live together someday.
“The girls are like Lakshmi”, said Tony, “they take care of me, and I make sure they get what they need.” He considered himself as a partner and protector of the girls and would not hesitate to rough up customers who manhandled his charges.
He had come a long way from his hardscrabble beginnings as an enforcer for extortionists running a protection racket in Mumbai. Pimping had been good to him. After a few years in the business, he was able to afford a one bedroom flat in a respectable suburb, where we had our first meeting.
One of Anya’s regular customers had developed feelings for her and brought her expensive gifts, things he knew she liked. He paid good money for Anya to accompany him on short holidays to Goa. He was a smart, educated guy in his mid-forties who ran a successful online business, and on one occasion had even proposed marriage to her. She kept him at bay, saying she needed more time to make a decision.
He would often cry after making love to her, struck with pangs of grief at the memory of his wife and young daughter who had been killed in an automobile accident a few years back. He had taken to remedy his grief with drink and drugs.
Occasionally she accompanied him to wild parties thronged by rich Indian kids, fashion models and Bollywood starlets, amped on coke, hash and ecstasy. The two of them ingested whatever was on offer and lost themselves in the flashing strobes and pounding bass rhythms of electronic dance music.
It was a startlingly brash and gaudy new reality for Anya, a far cry from her sparse childhood in the insular Kazakh town of Almaty. She learnt to zone out of the perfunctory sexual encounters with a cocktail of alcohol and various pharmaceuticals.
One day she invited me to a party held at the residence of a wellknown socialite. I agreed to accompany her and picked her up the next evening in my rented car. Upon arriving at the villa, a valet took the keys and drove the vehicle to the parking area. We walked through the large foyer and looked around at the sprawling, opulent space, teeming with the city’s glitterati. I spotted a fair number of westerners in the mix, some who were professionals, chatting up potential clients on settees and diwans scattered around the hall.
A tall, waifish man in his forties, with hair slicked back in a ponytail, wearing a wine red leather jacket and silver sneakers came up to introduce himself to us. He was the son of a prominent hotelier, clearly gay and uninterested in her feminine wiles, but eager to strike up a conversation with me. I told him I was a writer and filmmaker based in the US and introduced her as an interior decorator who travelled to India frequently on commissioned projects.
We sat down on a deep brown patent leather sofa, next to a dreadlocked British DJ and his girlfriend. Ricky pulled out a slim silver case from his jacket and cut thick lines of white powder on a dinner plate. It was high-grade Peruvian flake cocaine procured at great expense and effort, he declared proudly to no one in particular.
He rolled up a hundred dollar bill into a cylinder and offered me the first hit. I declined politely, saying my sinuses had been acting up and snorting fat lines of coke was probably not advisable. “I just want to make sure you’re not a narc,” explained Ricky, saying he had been lured into a trap and busted by an undercover cop a few years ago. His father had to pull strings and pay a hefty bribe to get him released from jail, where he had languished for a week. Anya reassured him with a wink, saying she had ‘checked me out’ and I was indeed who I claimed to be. At this, he relaxed a bit, bent forward to snort a line and passed the plate around.
He then launched into a passionate homage to a guru he considered his guardian and saviour. His mother had introduced him to the godman at a prayer meeting in Mumbai a year ago, where for the first time he had experienced moments of unconditional peace. He described it in florid terms as a state of ‘no-mind’ in which mental constructs and memories fell away, to be replaced by the ‘eternal bliss of the Here and Now’.
I enquired politely if the spiritual high was better than coke and booze, at which he laughed nervously and gulped down the remnant of the whiskey in his tumbler.
Something clicked in Anya’s head at that moment. Maybe it was the knowledge that she was at the tail end of her contract and free to explore other avenues, combined with the heady euphoria that accompanies a potent narcotic. She requested our new friend to take her to meet the guru and asked if I would be interested in joining them. I agreed on the spot. Ricky, in his coke-fueled enthusiasm, punched his PA’s number into his phone, ordering him to book us on the afternoon flight the next day.
Anya called aunty to inform her that she was going on sabbatical, on a long-deserved break from work. The woman objected at first, saying she should work a few more months to ‘save up’ for the trip, but finally relented on seeing that her mind was made up.
We got to know Ricky a lot better on the flight. I could tell Anya was relieved to be in the company of a man who had no interest in her body. He was happy to have a pair of patient listeners, as he spilt his guts about his bitter experiences as a young gay man in India, his first sexual encounter at college, the many that followed it, and the shame of having to constantly hide his orientation from the world.
He was drawn to the guru from the moment he laid eyes on him at the prayer meet in Mumbai. They locked eyes for a brief electrifying instant, and from that moment on he was hooked. ‘Baba’, as he was called, had accepted him into the fold without judgement, with all his flaws and defects. In return, Ricky had donated generously to his charitable foundation.
The ashram was a sprawling complex built on a large parcel of land, situated in the foothills of a mountain range considered sacred by the residents. Upon arrival, we were escorted to our lodgings, a simple but comfortable room with a large balcony facing the densely forested hills surrounding the ashram. Ricky rolled a joint to help take the edge off the bacchanalia of the previous night. An attendant brought us plates of steaming vegetarian food and told us to rest and prepare to meet Baba after the evening satsang.
It was Anya’s first time at an overtly religious event. She had refused to attend prayers at the local mosque back home, despite the remonstrations of her pious mother. Having spent a considerable length of time at the Osho Rajneesh ashram in Pune in my twenties and stints at Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and northern California, it was familiar territory to me. In the crowd of about a few hundred people, we spotted a few dozen westerners, their eyes closed, gently swaying to the guru’s vocal undulations.
Baba sat erect on a large settee, mounted on a marble pedestal with gold trimmings. He was tall and imposing, with long flowing hair and a beard. He was articulate and erudite, fluent in English as well as the local dialect, which he dipped into periodically. On boards outside the hall, attendees were reminded ‘You Are Complete. You are Whole. You are Blessed’.
The jargon was new, yet it seemed to make perfect sense to Anya, like something locked away in the inner recesses of her psyche. She said it felt like a homecoming of sorts and was enveloped in a feeling of deep calm and stillness she had not experienced before.
When we were finally taken to meet him, it was like a reunion of old friends. “Where have you been all this time?” he said, beckoning her towards him. They hugged for a good minute. Ricky slid up beside them and gazed adoringly as the Baba ran his hands through his hair and stroked his face. As Baba’s eyes fell on me, Ricky explained I was a friend of Anya’s from the US, visiting India for a few months.
On hearing that I worked in films, he rolled off a list of Bollywood stars who had passed through the ashram, claiming to be on intimate terms with all of them. A famous actress had been his attendant before she ascended to dizzying heights of stardom. “See what the Baba’s blessings can do for you!” he declared proudly.
A few days later, Anya was summoned to Baba’s quarters. There were two other Caucasian girls in the room when she entered. They were both Americans and introduced themselves as ‘Padmini’ and ‘Rukmini’. He beckoned her to come and sit beside him. “Have you found what you are looking for yet?” He asked with a big smile. She explained that she was still getting used to life in the ashram and the daily routine. “Surrender yourself to the rhythms of this place. Immerse yourself in karma yoga. Don’t think too much. Learn to control the monkey mind”. At this last comment, the girls broke out in peals of laughter.
“Did I not show you how to tame the mind-monkey?” he asked the girls. They both nodded vigorously and giggled again. “The mind is like a monkey, jumping from one branch to the next, never still, never at peace,” he declared. “To find true peace, one must learn how to control it.”
Baba told her that all the residents were assigned daily duties at the ashram. Anya was assigned to his detail; she along with two other inmates was to look after his residence and personal requirements. She quietly accepted her new role as his housekeeper.
I stayed at the ashram a few days longer, attended daily meditation sessions and soaked up the vibe. One day Padmini accosted me after a yoga class, saying she had acted in a couple of indie films back home, offering to send me links and headshots, I agreed to look at her headshots which turned out to be an assignment she had done for a ‘barely legal’ adult website. The next day, she offered a ‘Tantra session’ to help ‘open up my chakras’ which she claimed were blocked. The massage would ‘liberate my ‘Pranic energy’ to circulate throughout my body, leading to heightened spiritual awareness and enhanced cognitive function. She normally charged five hundred dollars for a two-hour session, but said she would make an exception in my case by slashing the price by fifty per cent since I was in dire need of healing. I regretfully declined the generous offer, citing scheduling conflicts and lack of time.
Ricky had returned to Mumbai earlier, saying he had unfinished family business to attend to. Then it was time for me to leave as well. I had grown quite fond of Anya, and we hugged as I boarded the taxi that would take me to the airport. It was the last time I would see her.
Several months elapsed. One day, I received a worried email from Ricky asking if I knew of Anya’s whereabouts. I informed him I hadn’t seen her since leaving the ashram. He called a few hours later, sounding agitated. The ashram had lodged a police complaint against her, claiming she had absconded with a large amount of cash and jewellery. Nonplussed at hearing the news, I hung up, saying I would contact him if I heard anything.
I could not get her out of my head after the call. I wondered what had gone wrong and where she was now. Would she ever get any relief from her blighted existence?
A few months later while visiting family in India, I called Tony on a hunch. Surprisingly, his number had not changed. There was a momentary silence as he assessed the situation. Clearly, he knew why I had called and asked me to meet him at his apartment, the same place we had first met.
“Hello, my friend, long time,” he said opening the door.
He sat me down on a couch and brought tea and biscuits from the kitchen. “I hope you are making good money in America. Or better you coming back to India” he said with a smirk. “Everyone making good money here”.
He did not waste much time in getting to the point. Anya had called from Dubai and told him everything. Evidently, the godman was a serial womaniser and had a history of sleeping around with women at the ashram, promising them liberation in return for sexual favours. Anya had succumbed to his overtures at first, and over time had become one of his favourite ‘attendants’. But she had put her foot down when he offered to share her with other Swamis and business associates.
He threatened to report her to the authorities and have her dumped in an Indian jail, “where the cops and inmates would each take turns till there was nothing left of her”.
Some months earlier, in an unguarded moment, as they were lying entwined on his giant bed, the Baba told her about a private stash he kept in his prayer room, right under an idol of Lord Ganesha seated on a rat.
Fearing for her life, she walked into the inner sanctum one night as he lay sleeping, and scooped out handfuls of chunky jewellery and several thick bundles of cash, placing them in a rucksack. She then snuck out and hopped into a car arranged by a sympathetic inmate. They drove non-stop to Mumbai city, stopping only for meals, gas and toilet.
Her besotted paramour in the city helped her liquidate the jewellery and had the stolen cash converted into US Dollars. It had worked out to a substantial amount, even after paying off the middlemen. She travelled by road, crossing the Nepali border into Kathmandu and from there had flown out to Dubai a few days later.
In Dubai, she had started a new life and now worked as an executive assistant to a corporate honcho. She was in a relationship with an NRI businessman who was madly in love with her. They were planning to have babies and move to America eventually.
“She will be richer and happier than both of us”, said Tony as he finished recounting his story. “I knew there was something special about her when I first went with aunty to pick her up from the airport. All her customers were secretly in love with her. But she only offered them her body, never her soul”.
The thought of Anya being liberated from her sordid fate was a happy one. It was tempered with the thought that she was one of the rare few lucky enough to climb out of the morass of their circumstances. Only recently I had heard about two Uzbek belly dancers found brutally murdered on the outskirts of Delhi.
Almost a year later, a story caught my eye on a news blog. On closer inspection, it turned out to be about the godman. He had been charged with blackmail and extortion and was currently in jail awaiting trial. No further details were provided.
From bits and pieces gathered through the grapevine, it appeared that the Baba had been pimping out male and female inmates at the ashram to politicians and businessmen, and having them secretly filmed while in flagrante delicto. The footage was used as leverage to get lucrative deals approved. The operation had invariably placed him in the crosshairs of some powerful people. He would not be seeing the light of day for a very long time.
Outwardly it seemed like Tony, and the Baba, were both guilty of a similar crime. However, Tony had no pretensions about his job, and nor did the girls. It was a business transaction like any other, with terms negotiated in advance. On the other hand, the godman was using his ‘spiritual’ persona to prey on vulnerable human beings dependent on him for emotional succour.
Are there any real heroes or villains in this world? Or are we all exploiting each other in myriad seen and unseen ways? Could those of us sitting on a relatively privileged perch afford to pass judgement on those engaged in the dirty business of survival?
Most of the time, nothing in life made sense, but once in a while, people got what was coming to them. Karma is a bitch, I thought, as I walked out into the bright heat of the afternoon sun.
Featured image used for representational purposes only