The minute I finished reading, "Nobody Can Love You More - Life in Delhi's Red Light District" by Mayank Austen Soofi, I knew I had to interview him and ask him the questions that were lingering in my head. So here you go, a crisp and short interview with the man:
1. What prompted you to write this book? Who or what sparked the idea?
The reason why I wrote this book was because I wanted to understand the world of GB Road, to make a sense of it, and that I could have done only by writing about it. That's how the book entered this world. I initially found GB Road very mysterious. It's such an extraordinary place, but each time I'm in kotha no. 300, everything seems so ordinary: the fact that you make money by pretending to make love to men... as a person growing up in a middle-class household, it is such a strange thing to me, but here to most women I met, it is just work.
I have a feeling that GB Road will not last long in its present form because of many factors including that the concept of an exclusive red light area to serve the carnal needs of the city is becoming extinct. Since I did not come across any book on the area, (indeed, I have not come across any narrative non-fiction on any red light area in India), I felt I must try to capture the sense of the place before it is too late. But perhaps the biggest urge to write this book was because I wanted to make a sketch of the people who became my friends over the years.
Q. At some points in the book, while reading it, I got the feeling that you were sort of stuck between two worlds. Was that the case? Who then was the real Soofi? Did it matter after a point in time?
I did not feel stuck. It's just that over the time, I started feeling more at home in GB Road than in other places in Delhi. I'm not saying people in say, Hauz Khas Village, where I have an apartment, are less kind, but in GB Road, I felt I was among my own folks. The several worlds in a red light, in any red light, are of very unstable foundation. A woman is in this kotha today, in another tomorrow. Her lovers quickly change, not because she is not loyal, but because that's the nature of things there. It's very sad in the kothas, but there are also happy moments. And funny moments. Its life lived in grand film-like style. And yet the people somehow manage to retain the finer aesthetics of their feelings. I feel at home in the kotha. I read there, I write there. I watch TV.
Q. After finishing the book, did you at point try disassociating yourself with the memories of visiting GB road? Do you often meet the people mentioned in your book?
The book is just an extension of the relationships I have made in GB Road, especially in kotha no. 300. I go there almost every other evening. I recently presented a copy to the women there. I must add that I regularly meet the people I have written about in the book not because out of a sense of obligation or some such guilt-ridden emotion, but because I like their company, and they like mine. I will never intentionally disassociate myself from the memories of GB Road. May be after 20 years, I might be a different person living in some other city and may not think of GB Road as intensely as I do now. But that's how life flows. Isn't it?
Q. As a reader, there were times I laughed. I cried and most of the times I just let whatever I felt wash over me. Did that happen to you as well as a writer and an observer?
Yes, I laughed many times. You too did? That's nice. Sometimes I would be sad. Sometimes, I felt scared for the people there. But I never cried. See, this is how the world is. And let me tell you: GB Road, or red light areas in other cities, do not have an exclusive right over tragedy and pathos. I think I have met less happy people in other Delhi neighbourhood.
Q. Emotions are at the core of this book (subtly so). How easy or difficult it was for you to segregate your emotions and sometimes look at the situation objectively? Did that ever happen at all?
I am incapable, I guess, of looking at situations objectively, if that means segregating my emotions. I cannot function without my feelings. I see, I feel, and then I am motivated to write. Everyday I write small pieces about loves and lives in my Delhi website (thedelhiwalla) but I only write when I feel for what I'm going to write. For instance, I love writing about monuments, not because I fancy history or I have academic inclinations concerning Lodhi-era architecture, but just because, you, know, I have a taste for old buildings. I am very emotional about people whom I have written in Nobody Can Love You More.
Q. What are your literary interests? What are you reading at the moment?
You know I live surrounded by about 30,000 books, though I always carry The Book of Job (translated by Stephen Mitchell) with me, no matter where I go. I find solace in it the way Sikhs find in Guru Granth Sahib and Tuesday Hindus find in Hanuman Chalisa. But at the moment I'm focusing on just one author: Marcel Proust. I have to read all the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I'm in the third volume. Marcel is changing my life.
Q. Tell me something about yourself as a writer. What do you feel like writing about? What is it about Delhi that makes you want to capture in words?
I write about anything that moves me... that makes me feel. In the past, it has been the honey and fig ice-cream in India International Center, a tree in Deer Park, a woman beggar in Matia Mahal Bazaar, a library in Vasant Vihar, a tombstone in Nizamuddin East, a poem by Cavafy... I can go on and on.
Actually, it's not Delhi that makes me write. I think if I were to live in Rampur, I would still have written the same way. You know, it is the people. They make the place. I love monuments, you see, but I get involved in them because they tell me stories of people, past and present. Tomorrow I may move to Paris or Pathankot but I won't stop writing.