My Rendezvous with a Pimp

True Crime

My Rendezvous with a Pimp

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

take frantic notes before my meeting with Amit.

Women’s Cell / Ahire Sir tracked trafficking ring / now transferred to income tax / case of missing minor girl – Panvel / Sunny arrested in Andheri / Amit takes over…

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I scribble on for two pages but still I’m not ready. I know that Amit is the new pimp in town, who has taken control of the Sakinaka area in suburban Mumbai, after his boss, Sunny, was arrested in a raid. Sunny, who boarded girls from Bangladesh in tiny rooms all around Chakala and Sakinaka, was well known to the police until he made the mistake of forcing a minor girl from a middle-class family from Panvel into the ring. After the raid was done and dusted, Sunny was released for ₹5 lakh offered under the table, with strict instructions to go underground. That’s when Amit took over.

Amit now runs the flourishing business with a roster of 200 girls, while his boss, who has two Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act violations against him, stays on the low in Mulund these days. The police and the NGO, which works with rescuing minor girls, know all about Amit, but they are not arresting him yet because Amit has unwittingly become a source of information for them.

Gopal, who works with the NGO, has befriended him under the guise of a fellow pimp. He has been pumping him for leads on minor girls in Mira Road, his old haunt. Gopal is now taking me with him to meet Amit to pump him for more information. I am a decoy planted to get Amit to open up under the promise that I can help him get on the internet to expand his business.

After an hour of frantic note-taking in the back of a hot car, the backstory is finally clear in my head. I am nervous as hell. I have never met a pimp, much less in the guise of a “madam” who knows how to work the internet for business. Gopal is using me as bait in this give-and-take business, to build yet another connection with Amit. The more he appears to help Amit, the more Amit will help him with minors.

Now that the story is ironed out in my head, I nod at Gopal, who makes the call.

***

The rendezvous is at 3 pm at Vaishali Bar & Restaurant in Andheri East. Amit is running late because his bike has a puncture. When he walks into the dingy bar, I’m surprised. Amit is a lot younger than I expected. There is barely a shadow of a pubescent moustache on his lips. He sits down, looking distinctly uncomfortable. I have worn a white salwar kameez and large sunglasses for this meeting, hoping to channel the “high-end madam” that I am supposed to be. I have no idea if I am pulling it off.

Amit is quiet for the first 20 minutes. To him, I look and sound different from the people he meets. He’s not sussed me out just yet so he keeps looking away, refusing to meet my eye.

Gopal offers him a drink. He demurs at first. Gopal has told me that the key to getting anywhere with these guys is to engage them with food and booze. If they agree to drink with you, they will open up and Gopal needs Amit to open up to me. He has three raids planned this month and Amit will be his source. I push Amit for a beer. He says he will have one if I have one too.

My beer sweats in front of me as Amit chugs his. Then, without warning, he whips out his mobile phone and starts showing me the girls he has.

Amit orders a Budweiser Magnum. When he asks for a plate of masala papad on the side, I know he’s bought my story. As Amit begins talking about his plans, his eyes shine. The girls, he says, are all ready, available at any hour and in any corner of the city. He begins to convince me in earnest about the viability of his business plan by telling me about prices of the shacks he rents where he keeps these girls, the number of clients they can service a day, the potential that can explode only if he can get online. He speaks as if he is talking about ball bearings and high-efficiency assembly lines. He is using Six Sigma language for sex trafficking and I feel a shiver in the hot, sweaty bar.

When he finishes, he looks at me expectantly. Gopal nudges me under the table and I snap out of my mute horror. I quickly pull out words like SEO and Google ads and analytics, gleaned from snoozy meetings at work, and Amit slips into a contemplative silence.

My beer sweats in front of me as Amit chugs his. Then, without warning, he whips out his mobile phone and starts showing me the girls he has. They are slim, fair, and aggressively dressed, in Lycra tops and jeans, most of them shot against backgrounds of hotel rooms and inside fancy cars. Some of the girls are pros at making love to the camera; others look like college kids… disarming in their self-consciousness. All the photos are selfies.

My finger lingers on the one who is excitedly trying on a new funky hairband. She’s young, wholesome. I wonder what her story is. What all their stories are?

Amit’s girls are scouted from Bangladesh for the price of ₹1 lakh each. He tells me that he recovers that money within a few months of their arrival. They obediently hand over ₹1000 as his commission for every job. I ask him if the new girls he gets ever protest – quickly adding that my clients don’t like that kind of drama. He says no, the girls he works with are done with the crying. And even if they’re not, how long can they cry for, he asks, as he bites into the papad.

Outside, the traffic rushes, the sun blazes, and the surreality of this conversation begins to sink in. I stare into the blinding afternoon, biding time until the bile in my gut settles down. Then I take a deep breath and look at this kid again.

Amit is a kid who hasn’t come to a reckoning with the work he does. He’s been given fairly large shoes to fill, and Amit looks like a guy who intends to fill them or die trying. To become an adequate successor to Sunny, he’s replaced the faces and life stories of these girls with numbers and targets that he’s determined to hit.

As I slip into a dazed silence, Gopal takes over. He nonchalantly asks Amit about the age of the new batch of girls. Gopal has cultivated Amit for two years now. At their first meeting in a bar in Ballard Estate, Gopal bought him round upon round of drinks. When a very drunk Amit got up to go to the bathroom, Gopal fed his mobile number into Amit’s phone. The golden rule in their trade is to answer only known numbers. When Gopal called him a couple of days later, Amit had no clue who was on the other side of the phone, but because the number was saved, he agreed to talk business.

Amit tells me to drink my beer as he pours himself another. I take a bite of the papad instead. It’s surprisingly good. Gopal brings up a highly lucrative client – a client who will pay ₹12,000 for a minor. Amit shakes his head. “No, no minors,” he says. “Under-18 has become tough. Too much lafda.”

Gopal applies more pressure, bundled in with a dirty joke or two. “Madam’s internet clients,” he tells Amit, “will also pay more for minors.” Amit sees the logic of what Gopal is proposing and I nod at him encouragingly. “Yes of course, my clients like young girls,” I say, dying a little bit as I say it.

“What kind of girls,” Amit asks suddenly. “What kind of girls do you usually keep?”

I’m not prepared for this question but it’s a valid one. In this business, photos of your girls are your currency. He’d shown me his, now it was my turn. I look at Gopal in panic. Gopal quietly takes a bite of the masala papad. I can see that he’s kicking himself for not having anticipated this question and planting photos on my phone. I have split seconds to act. I cannot screw this up. Amit is too important to Gopal’s work.

I open the photos folder in my phone. There are pictures of my son kicking his football, my dog waiting for bread, the leftover Diwali lights in my garden, and the housecat sitting threateningly near the fish tank. There are no girls. I flip wildly. I need girls. I enter and exit folders, moving up and down my timeline. I can sense that Amit is starting to wonder what’s taking me so long. Finally, all the way up in my “Moments” folder are pictures of the New Year. There are 13 of us, all looking terribly drunk. I scroll through some more. In the same album are pictures of my cousin and two friends grinning happily into the camera. Young, lovely girls. I send a quick note of apology to the heavens and to the mothers of these girls and thrust the picture at Amit for a few seconds.

Amit is not very impressed. He has prettier girls, he tells me. Good, I say feebly, still shaking.

Now that Amit has established his superiority in the business, he becomes chatty. I’m suddenly someone who he doesn’t need to be intimidated by. He tells me seven new girls are coming in later in the week and they need to be put on the internet quickly. He wants a “top” website and there should be commission structures in place for both of us. But all this will have to be done when he comes back. He is going to his village in Jharkhand for his grandmother’s death and to meet a potential groom for his sister. Amit is devoted to the women in his family.

The bottle of Budweiser Magnum is over. As we ask for the bill, Amit lights a cigarette, offering me one. I take it. It’s a Gold Flake chhota. Not my brand but we smoke in companionable silence. Gopal and I exchange a look over the cigarette smoke. It’s time to wrap up. As much as Gopal wants to, he won’t prod him for minors again. Gopal will follow this afternoon drinking session up with another and then another, and in time he’ll get the names he’s after.

We leave Vaishali Bar & Restaurant and stand outside in the hot sun, but I’m still feeling cold. The chill, I suspect, will take several days to go. Gopal’s arm is around Amit’s shoulder, as he asks Amit if he’s managed to collect enough for his sister’s wedding. “No, but I will. The new girls will help me.”

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