An excerpt from Gayatri Jayaraman’s “Who me poor? How India’s youth are living in urban poverty to make it big”.

Trading sex for money drugs and gadgets The untold lives of Indias urban youngsters
Features Book Excerpt Tuesday, July 25, 2017 - 16:27

In the office of the Police Commissioner of Mumbai, spokesperson Dhananjay Kulkarni says the police are keeping their hands off the party circuit, because what’s going on has shifted to the sphere of the voluntary. Legally, the police knows young people everywhere are putting sex on the table in exchange for money, alcohol, drugs, gadgets like the latest iPhones, and expensive holidays or free meals, even places to stay, but won’t and cannot do anything to stop it. Former Chief of Police and Chief of Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorist Squad, Rakesh Maria says he’s been screaming it from the rooftops for as long as anyone would listen to him. “Young people everywhere come to Mumbai on their own, and are drawn into a lifestyle beyond their comprehension. Their parents don’t keep tabs on them, they have no relatives or elders or seniors who know what’s going on in their lives, and they are exchanging sex for money, for alcohol, for gadgets, and drugs. These kids need their parents.”

While Maria has been flogged for his sentiments on the subject, for getting all moral police, quite literally, about it, pub owners through the city tend to agree with the viewpoint. “Every day I see young people come to the bar and negotiate terms and be led away for exchanges they don’t even realise have serious implications, forget on health, just on them psychologically,” says the owner of a high-end Bandra pub. Every day, he says, young people line up with maxed out credit cards, over-order drinks, and stagger out completely inebriated with people they just met an hour prior.

“Sometimes you overhear them negotiating and it’s not a nice thing to witness, but we don’t really intervene because it’s mostly just an arrangement between two people.” A prominent Santacruz politico and businessman says several young women, once sucked in, end up on an informal listing of ‘available girls’ that gets spread by word of mouth. “These are largely girls who are willing to go along with sex for the money, a list that gets passed around via Whatsapp,” he says. Meeting points are as simple as messaging a car number on a specific road, into which women jump in after alighting from their rickshaws or cabs, and are taken to someone’s home, or a nice hotel. “It’s simpler for many of those seeking a night out because it’s fresher—almost like dating, not like a sleazy hook up service. Most of the girls are working professionals, well educated, independent, English speaking and many businessmen are willing to fork out a little extra for that. It’s nice to spend an evening with them; you can actually have a conversation. They are also very clear they don’t want involvements, so it’s not messy. It’s just sex. It’s just money. It’s just a gadget.”

Insiders in the pub and nightclub circuit say it’s a short step from a free drink to the ubiquitous cocaine, and many of the drugs du jour that currently do the rounds. The overwhelming need to be in with a happening clique quickly becomes social currency that is all too easy for the vulnerable to be sucked into in the name of keeping up with the times.

The other side: Being propositioned

S Rajan, Australia-based NRI visiting India

In Dubai, a couple of months ago, I entered what I thought was an Indian restaurant for dinner. Turned out to be a ‘club’ playing Bollywood numbers and a lot of young ladies dancing on stage. Before I could leave, I was hustled to a seat by a smooth young pimp. On the other side, a heavy had me boxed in.

It was early, about 7ish, and there were no other customers about. He began the pitch and despite me repeating I was just after dinner, kept saying ‘ek baar baat kar ke to dekho sir, aapko kaun pasand hai’ (speak to her once and see sir, you might like someone) etc. In the end, just to get out of it, I spoke to one of them.

This girl was very well-spoken and groomed. She soon twigged I wasn’t a mark and opened up a bit. Turned out to have just started working, the demographic you write about, on a ‘two week vacation’ with her friends. It also helped that there was no other prospects about I guess! Reading between the lines, this is apparently commonplace among the aspirational classes who want it all and now, especially battling the high rents and costs of urban India on a low salary.

The pimp returned and started offering deals. Just for some perspective, he began at 8,000 AED per night and dropped it to 6,000 AED before I put a firm stop to it. Even assuming the girls made 1,000 AED out of it, a ten-day effort could gross them about Rs 1.8 lakh. I can certainly see the temptation there for the aspiring. I soon made my excuses and left. Now, I wouldn’t be judging those forced in either through trafficking or true economic hardship, but this girl appeared to be in it for the bling which made me reflect on how materialism has overtaken some, hopefully not the majority.

While this trade is as old as the hills itself, this was my first ‘live’ encounter albeit accidental and left me more than a little saddened.


“I traded sex till I bought my iPhone”

Shruti Sharma, 24, Mumbai

Yes, I have used sex to buy myself an iPhone. We live in an age of Tinder so I really don’t think anyone is in a position to judge me. Single people, married people, straight people who are overtly gay, all kinds of people are having clandestine affairs and one night stands, so puhleez, spare me the moral judgement. I live in Versova in Mumbai and I work in IT in an MNC in Andheri East which hires a lot of young people like me for coding, web design and content. Almost the entire office is in the same age group so there is a lot of partying and hanging out we do together. Which means there are drinks flowing, and with all the taxes, even a split bill for drinks is a minimum of Rs 3,000. So yes, my starter salary in my first job is Rs 35,000 but I cannot actually live off it if I have to live at all. I am from West Bengal, and most of my friends here live with their families. I have rent and commuting costs because I am not used to these trains so I tend to take a cab or rickshaw from Versova to Andheri East whenever possible. So, obviously, what I can spend on is less than what I can afford. We have a canteen so that covers my food costs reasonably. I have never starved, but I cannot afford the costs of a good phone. One way we try to save money on drinking costs is attending house parties, sometimes of a friend of a friend and so on, so it’s not always people we know directly. I was at a party once and someone asked if I’d sleep with him. People are quite upfront about these things these days and we were also a bit high. So I said ‘Yes, will you pay me?’ kind of jokingly, but he asked ‘how much?’ I didn’t really know how much to ask because it was my first time exchanging money, so I just asked for Rs 5,000. I got it on the spot in cash out of his wallet. He put me on to a couple of his friends and I know you’ll get judgey and all but these are all my kind of guys, the kind of men I would date if I met them randomly on a dating app, without really knowing them, so what’s the big deal? Some of the men I’ve been with are still part of my extended social circuit. I see women putting out in return for a fancy dinner at a posh restaurant all the time, so I really don’t catch the hypocrisy. And we used protection and everything. I bought my iPhone by the end of the month. Maybe it was the thrill of it. I don’t do it for money now, but I do occasionally sleep with a guy if I like him in return for him paying for drinks and meals. I think it’s empowering for me to own my sexuality but I also think it’s important to know when to stop.

Excerpted with the permission of Bloomsbury from the book ‘Who me poor? How India’s youth are living in urban poverty to make it big’ by Gayatri Jayaraman. 

You can buy the book here