My fiancee, her friend Tashi, and I were discussing cultural differences over Thunderbolt beer and dumplings in a cheap Delhi hotel room–specifically, the kinds of differences where one culture sees a taboo or problem where another sees absolutely nothing wrong. Such differences jumped out frequently during my stay India, such as locals finding the idea of sharing a western toilet seat with a string of strangers before them unappealing and Western visitors like myself hesitating to get into auto-rickshaws with drivers clearly too young to hold legitimate licenses. This conversation inevitably drifted to prostitution.
I insisted I’d never been inside a brothel. My fiancee’s friend Tashi was skeptical. A Tibetan refugee who saw prostitution as a great benefit to young men in a culture in which women generally refused premarital sex, Tashi guessed that Western men had the same urges as Tibetan men, we were only more secretive about it. He seemed to suspect I was maintaining a certain appearance for the benefit of my fiancee sitting next to me. When convinced him at last I had nothing to hide, he assured me he would help. “Before you leave India,” he said, “you need to have the full tour.” Offering himself as my guide, he asked if I would be interested in seeing a brothel from the inside.
I responded in favor of the idea to be agreeable, being sure to schedule the tour for “sometime.” All my experiences in America with planning for “sometime” had really meant “probably never.” I didn’t expect Tashi’s full tour of India would ever become a reality. That was an unfortunate cultural misunderstanding. For Tashi, “sometime” meant the next morning.
I didn’t understand at first why my fiancee held back as Tashi led me toward a dark unmarked stairway in a deserted market on a Sunday. I was confused, failing to comprehend our objective in an idle marketplace. I only realized that one business, the one we were heading to, was still open after I asked my fiancee if she was coming with us. She looked at me as though I’d asked her the most ridiculous question I could think of.
Women on the stairway pinched our arms on the way up, adding to my disorientation. The pinches hurt. They weren’t playful at all: these were serious pinches and had no obvious purpose. The women bore expressions signaling only contempt submerged in apathy.
The brothel itself was, if anything, a little less erotic than the pinches. As far as sanitation, it was not a place I would have considered pulling down my pants. A smiling young man combed his hair in front of a mirror. The women looked bored. One of them, a plump woman with a friendly face, gave me a shy sideways smile. It occurred to me that the presence of a farangi was making her self-conscious. I knew I was conspicuous, the most visible person in the room.
We were soon interrupted by a call to Tashi’s cell phone. I followed him to a corner, where a jolly older matron of the brothel unzipping his pants and reached in while he talked. I appeared to be the only one who found that in any way unusual. Looking away awkwardly, I was confronted by a room occupied by two goats. American friends I told the story to later tended to get the wrong idea about the goats. I’m fairly sure the brothel owner was also the owner of two goats, and as it struck me at the time, an unused room in the brothel was a reasonable place to keep them.
I suggested we leave when Tashi finished his phone conversation. I was satisfied that I’d had the full tour, and even grudgingly appreciated it. Tashi had shown me an experience truly off the beaten path, one that brought me face to face with a taboo. For the first time, I’d seen prostitution as something real, as a part of life rather than a dirty rumor. An old man smoking on the stoop high fived Tashi as we returned to the bright light of the empty market. My fiancee, waiting for us outside, was eager to hear my impressions. She wanted to know if the women were pretty, if I was tempted. “You thought about it, right?” she asked. I hadn’t. She had nothing to worry about.