Supply Demand

Life in the capital’s expanding market for high-end sexual commerce

01 April, 2012

ON THE EVENING of 26 December, Polina, a young woman from Ukraine with a round face and large green eyes, was celebrating with six of her girlfriends—expats all, mostly models and hairdressers. A Christmas tree glittered in the corner of her apartment, and a Ukrainian spread of potato pancakes, beetroot soup and chicken sausage was laid out on the table, next to a few bottles of red wine.

The apartment, on the first floor of a new building in a South Delhi colony, had the feel of a posh college hostel, with white marble floors and two large bedrooms, each of which had two bunk beds. When I arrived, two of Polina’s roommates were padding about in their nightgowns; one was drying her hair. A widescreen LCD television was mounted on one of the white walls, and a few of the women were watching the movie Outsourced, a romantic comedy about an American call-centre manager who moves to Mumbai; they laughed through a scene that featured the protagonist’s uncomfortable first encounter with an Indian public toilet.

It was Polina’s 24th birthday, and the television was soon switched off in favour of some anodyne dance music as candles were lit on her birthday cake. She took a deep breath before blowing out the candles, and laughter filled the room. A few minutes later, while the girls were still eating their cake, Polina’s mobile phone rang. Her responses were brief—“Yes, yes, okay”—and she stood up as she talked and began to walk away from her half-eaten piece of birthday cake, from her friends who had stopped laughing. She walked out the door and briskly down a flight of stairs, into the back seat of a Honda City waiting near the curb. I followed her outside, and she rolled down the window. “GK two,” she said to me. “I text you the address.”


After about 30 minutes, the Honda City arrived in Greater Kailash II, and stopped next to a cigarette shop in M-Block market. A young man in a long overcoat, who had come in a black Ford Endeavor SUV, stood leaning against the cigarette kiosk. The man driving Polina—a tall fellow with long wavy hair and a Bluetooth earpiece—rolled down his window and waved to the man in the overcoat, who walked over to the car. “Take a look,” the driver said, and the young man peered into the backseat.

“Excellent,” he replied. “Is she coming with me?”

“No,” the driver said. “I’ll drop her off.”

Polina spent the first night of her 25th year with three different men. First, two hours at the Taj Palace Hotel with a visiting Sri Lankan businessman—who had dispatched the young man in the overcoat to check her out; and then two hours with a builder from Mumbai at The Lalit hotel; and the rest of the night in another room at The Lalit, with a man about whom all she could recall was that he wore diamond rings and had a gold tooth.

The following evening, she was back at her apartment, reclining on a sofa in a pair of baggy pink velour trousers, with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders; her light brown hair was tied back, with a few strands falling onto her cheekbones. On the wall behind her hung a framed snapshot of Polina visiting the Taj Mahal, striking the classic tourist pose—the one where you pretend to pinch the top of the dome between your fingers. “Today is my holiday day,” she said; she typically sees clients only three or four days each week. “Tomorrow, I’ll work.”

Polina is a high-end sex worker—an escort, as she prefers to say. She works with a Delhi-based escort agency, whose hastily-designed website promises customers a “girlfriend experience” with a woman “who is an absolute delight”; two hours with one of the agency’s models costs R20,000, while an entire night retails for R30,000. (“Escorts in Delhi are available at very cheap rates, just give us chance to serve you,” the site adds.) The contact page lists a number for someone named “Peter”, but the man who manages the stable of 20 female and five male prostitutes goes by three other names, none of them his own. If the caller is an Indian man, he is Robin; if it is a westerner, he calls himself Dick; and for Indian women, he is Azam Khan.

At the beginning of 2009, Polina left her hometown of Sumy, a small city of about 200,000 on the banks of the Psel River in northeastern Ukraine, and came to Delhi with her boyfriend, who wanted to find work in the Indian fashion industry. A psychology graduate—her studies had focused on treating drug addiction among teenagers, she said—she hoped to do face modelling in Delhi. (At about five feet, three inches, she figured she wasn’t tall enough to walk the runway.) She had heard promising things about fashion photographers in Delhi—“that they shoot world-class portfolios at cheap rates”, she said. But she had a difficult time adjusting to life in the megacity: she didn’t find any work for the first four months, and then, in her fifth month in India, her boyfriend left her and moved to Paris.

Polina decided to remain in Delhi, but she was devastated by the breakup. She had befriended one of her neighbours, a South African woman who worked as a model, and she slipped into the city’s upmarket party scene. “Partying with friends, just clubbing and all,” she said. “We took lots of drugs—cocaine, LSD, ketamine.” But after a few months filled with alcohol, cocaine and one-night-stands, she was desperate to get out of Delhi. “It was too much,” she said. “I wanted to go to rehab and go home and forget everything that happened here.” She was nearly broke, having spent almost all her savings in her first few months, and she needed money to pay for a month-long drug de-addiction programme so she could return to Sumy clean.

“I tried working as an independent escort,” she told me. A bartender friend helped her put an advertisement in the newspaper, and she was quickly deluged with phone calls. But she only wanted to sleep with “good-looking, fun-type men—men who are clean, and have clean teeth”, as she put it, laughing, and these proved difficult to find. Her friend and neighbour, the model from South Africa, mentioned Polina to a pimp based in Mumbai, who sent her to the man who calls himself Azam Khan.

In her first week, Khan booked her three times, for a total of R70,000. He says he helped her get into rehab—and declined to take his cut from her first three jobs so she could pay for treatment. By the time she came out of the recovery programme in early 2010, she started to reconsider her plan to leave India, tempted by Khan’s suggestion that there was good money to be made as a high-end prostitute in Delhi, particularly with the Commonwealth Games—and thousands of free-spending tourists—coming to the capital later that year.

Selling sex, Polina said, turned out to be far less onerous than she had anticipated. “The first time I was nervous. But after I did it, I was like, ‘Is this it?’,” she recalled with a nonchalant shrug. She agreed to stay, and to keep working with Khan. Through most of 2010, business was slow but steady—two or three clients a month—and Khan was still working mostly as a tour operator.

All that changed when the Commonwealth Games began. Newspapers reported that the small army of athletes, coaches and managers in the Games Village burned through thousands of condoms—and the sexual appetites of visiting spectators, at least according to Khan, were nearly as intense. In response to massive demand, Khan tripled Polina’s fees, to R90,000 for one night, and she was booked solid for 12 consecutive days. He made so much money during the games that he decided to go full-time into the sex trade, scaling back his other work and adding 20 more escorts to his newly established agency in the next four months.

“The demand was so high that I saw agencies sending shit to their clients,” Khan recalled when I met him at a South Delhi coffee shop. “I had the best girl, and I was only taking a 20 percent cut. I thought, enough of this nonsense—let me start my own.”

Soon his business was booming. Khan bought himself a new Hyundai Santro and a widescreen TV, and rented a new apartment in South Delhi. To keep the women looking their best, he sent them to work out at fitness clubs. He gave them money for makeup and new clothes, he said, and purchased an assortment of sex toys, lubricants and erotic novels for his escorts. (In response to my question about this last item, Khan explained that the reading material was mostly used by the Indian escorts in his employ, as a study aid for English-language pillow talk.) He instructed them on the range of services they were supposed to provide, which he recited for me without prompting in rapid succession: “massage, blowjob, handjob, touching, licking, French kissing, full, no-rush session, softcore, hardcore ...”


Like many other purveyors of luxury goods and services to the capital’s wealthiest residents and visitors, Khan’s outlook is bullish. The only real obstacle to growth is the sporadic attention of the city’s police, whose crackdowns on upscale prostitution tend to alternate with long periods of apparent indifference. In April 2011, police busted Sonu Punjaban, a famously aggressive female pimp whose operation catered mostly to middle-class Indian clients, and whom police described as the reigning kingpin of Delhi prostitution. In the wake of the raid on Punjaban, Khan said, he became “more cautious”—turning down clients who hadn’t been referred by regular patrons, or sending one of his employees to check that prospective customers were genuine. But these were minor worries: “Lack of clients will never be a problem here,” he said. “The clients always come.”

THE OLDEST PROFESSION IN THE WORLD has taken innumerable forms in its long history on the subcontinent. But in a city like Delhi, in the time before liberalisation, prostitution was largely conducted in and around unofficial red-light areas, where women with foul tongues and harsh voices whistled from the balconies of run-down buildings. Such places catered mostly to the needs of lower-class labourers: rickshaw walas, cart-pullers, coolies and other men who worked with their own bodies. Upscale prostitution was all but invisible, restricted to the very richest and conducted entirely by word-of-mouth recommendation.

The acknowledged pioneer of the high-end sex trade in India was a man named Kanwaljit Singh—known as the “Cadillac Pimp” for his extravagant taste in automobiles—who launched the country’s first posh professional escort business in Delhi in the late 1980s. By the middle of the next decade, according to police, Singh had more than 100 prostitutes working for him, and his operation was raking in more than R1 million per month. Others naturally followed in his wake, and as liberalisation and growth reshaped the economy of India’s big cities—creating a demand for high-end entertainment, restaurants and ‘wellness’ services—prostitution became another profitable niche in the growing market for luxury goods. Saree-clad streetwalkers were still prowling beneath the Moolchand flyover, but Kanwaljit Singh and his peers represented a larger and larger slice of the pie. The next turn was the rise of the “foreign escort”: an influx of girls from Russia and the former Soviet states, commanding higher prices and increasing the profits of their Indian handlers—who ferried the women from five-star hotel to five-star hotel, booking three or four clients in a night. By 2005, when Kanwaljit Singh was finally brought down by Delhi police after nearly two decades in business, officials estimated the size of the capital’s high-priced sex trade at R5 billion.

Far from the heights of this world of glamour and possibility, people from small towns and rural areas continued to pour into the city, hoping to find some space and sustenance in the chaos of the expanding metropolis. Many succeeded in doing so: guarding an ATM, delivering a pizza, answering phones at a call centre, serving drinks at a bar or food at a restaurant—playing their own small part to help meet the growing needs of the moneyed middle-class consumer. Azam Khan was one such outsider, who lifted himself into the ranks of the relatively well-off by selling them elegantly dressed men and women.


In 2001, at the age of 21, Khan left his hometown of Lucknow and moved to Noida, where he enrolled at a computer training institute that offered a one-year diploma for R100,000. He borrowed the money from his father, a retired policeman, and he planned to pay it back after finishing the diploma and landing a job in the IT sector in Delhi. But two months into the course, the managers of the training institute disappeared—along with the fees paid by Khan and his classmates. Determined to repay the debt to his father, Khan shifted to Delhi in search of work, and soon found himself standing in Connaught Place every morning, selling package tours—Dharamsala, Shimla, Goa—to foreign tourists. Until that point, he had hardly travelled outside of Lucknow, and he enjoyed the new job, which came to include accompanying the tour groups on their journeys, during which he stayed in decent hotels and ate and drank for free.

“I was very shy,” Khan recalled. “I would sit in a corner and watch them dancing.”

One summer night, in the woods outside Dharamsala, Khan got drunk with a Brazilian girl in a tour group he was travelling with. They talked for hours, and that night he lost his virginity. “I fell in love with her,” he said, laughing out loud. “I couldn’t do anything—no work, no interest in other girls.” But she left India a month later, and Khan returned to his routine.

In late 2007, Khan met a Mumbai-based travel agent who was looking for someone to accompany his clients in Delhi. He liked Khan, and offered him the job. But at the end of their meeting, the travel agent asked if Khan would also be interested in “satisfying male tourists”—an additional service, the travel agent added, that would pay about R20,000 per night. So it was that a few weeks later, Khan found himself standing outside the arrivals area at Indira Gandhi International Airport, holding a sign with the name of a wealthy Frenchman. During the day, Khan showed him Delhi’s sites, and at night, he did the deed.

“I was scared on the first night,” Khan said. “But he was more interested in talking at first. After some time, when it happened, I felt strange. I was a little sad. But he was a nice guy—he paid me well. He still emails me.”

Now in his 30s, with dark skin, gelled hair and a shaved chest, Khan has paid off the debt to his father, and plans to buy him “a big house”. He has no regrets about his chosen profession; to the contrary, in fact, he’s evidently proud of his success. In conversation, at least, he stresses the importance of a certain decency in his trade, and his desire to keep the unemployed models and air hostesses who work for him safe and secure, as if he were a surrogate parent rather than a pimp. He says he takes a 20 percent cut from the prostitutes who work for him—“I used to take 30,” he said. “They happily give you 20 percent, but if you ask for more they don’t like it. And then in the end you earn it because of them.”

“We are very open-minded here,” he continued. “I don’t like to say that I am their boss. The fact is, they are my boss—they pay me, I don’t pay them. I’m just like a salesman.” Khan said he makes about R30,000 each month running the agency, a figure that struck me as a considerable underestimate. “There are a lot of intricacies and expenses in this business,” he responded. “I have to take care of a lot of things—I pay the rent for three apartments, I pay for all the cars and petrol, I have to pay my other employees”—who answer the phones, drive the women to meet customers, and also arrange bookings on their own. The amount still seems far too low: with more than 20 prostitutes working for him, it seems likely that Khan’s monthly income—even after his expenses—is easily more than R100,000, and two or three times that in a good month.

He told me he has diversified into the business of supplying attractive women to nightclubs and private parties, where they work the door, or sometimes just stand around as hired guests. But demand for such services is still low, Khan says, and the potential for headaches is large. Last year, he says, he sent one of his escorts, a Russian woman, to a party at a farmhouse outside Delhi. “It was my friend’s party,” Khan said. “He sells Enfield bikes, he has a lot of money, so he paid her R20,000 just for standing at his party for four hours.” A week later, she disappeared—to Mumbai, it turns out, with a Bollywood director she had met at the party. “My escorts have good personality, good height, and they all have the dream of getting into modelling. So when they meet some random Bollywood guy at these parties, they offer them jobs and they get taken,” he continued, grimacing like a man betrayed. “I did a lot for her. I gave her good contacts, and handsome men. But she forgot. What can you do?”

Honesty and discretion, Khan says, are the keys to success in his business. To be honest, he told me, means delivering what you promise to the client—“to provide an actual 21-year-old, not a 40-year-old pretending to be 21”, he said. He allowed, however, that he cheats a little bit when it comes to customer requests for women of particular nationalities: passing off a Russian woman as English, a Naga as Korean, or a South Indian as Brazilian. This deception clearly irks him, and he offered a defensive explanation. “You are forced to lie,” Khan said, with a bit of exasperation. “Because people have weird tastes, they ask stuff like, ‘Does she speak Arabic? Do you have a Spanish woman who talks in Spanish while doing it? Any Japanese girl who screams?’ Now you tell me where can I find such women?”

FOR OBVIOUS REASONS, it’s difficult to determine the precise number of women in Delhi participating in what Khan called “this new experiment”—the increasing presence of foreign women doing sex work in the capital. There is no single department in Delhi Police with responsibility for investigating prostitution, and estimates from the police, which are often cited in the media, are themselves therefore unreliable. A police source recently quoted in The Times of India claimed that in Delhi there were 3,500 prostitutes from Russia and the former Soviet Union alone; the same article reported that the foreign ministry had instructed its embassies in four former Soviet states to carefully screen all tourist visa applications from women between the ages of 15 and 40. Both the foreign ministry and the Indian mission in Ukraine vigorously denied this claim, though not before a group of women’s rights activists climbed onto the balcony of the Indian ambassador’s residence in Kiev and staged a topless protest.

To the police, prostitution appears to represent a kind of minor nuisance: a crime that becomes serious only when you do it too well for too long. “We have bigger problems to deal with—rapes, murders—and prostitution comes under soft crime,” said Joy Tirkey, an additional deputy commissioner in the crime branch of Delhi Police. In fact, to have sex for money is not technically illegal in India: the law only prohibits a series of related acts, including soliciting customers in public, having sex with a prostitute in or near a public place, and arranging transactions between prostitutes and clients. A prostitute who conducts her trade privately, independently and voluntarily, in other words, is within the bounds of the law, though not necessarily immune to arrest or prosecution.

To make matters more difficult, as several police officials observed, it’s nearly impossible to prove a prostitute or a pimp guilty unless they’re caught in the act of negotiating a transaction. “You can’t just arrest these women while they’re doing their grocery shopping,” as Tirkey put it. Foreign prostitutes arrested in police raids are summarily deported, but as the business has grown more sophisticated, many pimps have begun to arrange paper marriages between their women and Indian nationals. “In

paper marriages, the husband is someone like a salesman at a local kirana shop,” Tirkey said. “Once the visa issues are sorted, they start living like normal people—they feel like they are free, and they go out to shops and malls without nervousness.” Last year, Tirkey shut down three agencies that employed 16 women from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine; their handlers had circumvented the visa problem by operating a kind of rotation—bring a girl for six months, and then send her back and replace her with another woman from abroad.

To break up a prostitution racket, the police basically have one tactic, which requires sending a team of three officers—one decoy customer, and two shadow witnesses, who observe the deal being done. After the decoy arranges the liaison, he pays the pimp some money in advance, and arranges to meet the prostitute elsewhere. When the decoy arrives for the rendezvous, the two shadow witnesses and a dozen or more policemen barge in to arrest the pimp and the prostitute.

For a “soft crime”, this kind of bust is a labour-intensive undertaking, which may be why the police rarely bother until a pimp or racket has become too big to ignore. Such was the case with Kanwaljit Singh. After 18 years in business, more or less undisturbed by the police, he had become “badse bhura badnaam”, as one police officer told me—not a big criminal, in other words, but an infamous one. “His image was that he could do anything and get away with it,” the officer said.


When I met Ashok Chand, a deputy commissioner in Delhi Police crime branch, to talk about the evolution of prostitution in the capital, he eagerly recounted the story of Singh’s rise and eventual fall. Singh, the son of a government accounts officer from Allahabad, graduated with a degree in English from Kanpur University in 1980. Three years later, he moved to Delhi, where he worked as a supplier of automotive parts to the Delhi Fire Services; after this business failed, he met a prostitute who provided him with unspecified financial assistance, and he soon decided to try his luck as a pimp. By the end of the decade, he was running India’s most successful prostitution racket, renowned for its ability to lure beautiful actresses, models and bar dancers into the trade. Singh’s commitment to secrecy formed another part of his legend: it was said that he never spoke directly to a client, and he was reputed to have close contacts among powerful senior politicians, whose patronage further helped protect him from police scrutiny. By the time the police raided his operation in 2005, Singh had expanded his business overseas—to Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore—and his client list was supposedly a who’s who of Indian high society.

“He could get any girl,” Chand told me, in an awestruck tone. “From Bollywood actors to top models, he had the best women.”

When the police finally decided to go after Singh, they snared one of his close associates in a sting operation at the Taj Palace Hotel. The associate gave up Singh, who was arrested the next day at his mother’s residence in Noida and taken to RK Puram police station in Delhi. A senior police officer who was present when Singh was brought into the station told me that Singh was so arrogant he refused to drink the tap water he was offered—he demanded mineral water and a Diet Coke. “His attitude was, ‘damn with police investigation—I will be out of here in a day or two,’” the cop recalled.

Under interrogation, Singh displayed a similar cockiness. “He only said, ‘You guys have no evidence against me,’” a junior officer involved in the investigation recounted. But at that point, Singh was mostly right. Beyond the confession of his associate, there was no hard evidence to demonstrate that the most notorious pimp in India was guilty of running a prostitution racket—a fact that helps cast some light on the difficulty of proving a legal case against anyone accused of doing so on a far smaller scale.

While Singh was in custody, the police raided his residence in Greater Kailash-II, where they unearthed a trove of documents that would be used to prosecute the Cadillac Pimp. According to the senior police officer, these included a large number of prepaid airline tickets bearing the names of dozens of women who police presumed were prostitutes working under Singh. They also seized Singh’s telephone bills, which were rarely less than R200,000 each month. “Most of the calls were made to five-star hotels across India and overseas,” the senior police officer told me. “Here the point is that Singh had no business and no registered income—how did he pay such heavy amounts? We used all these details as police evidence.”

Singh was charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), a stringent law intended for use against terrorists and gangsters, under which the accused cannot get bail under any circumstances until proven innocent in court. Singh was the first pimp ever prosecuted under MCOCA, and likely among the first to serve five years in Tihar jail as an under-trial prisoner. When his case was finally heard in 2011, however, Singh had the last laugh: he was acquitted of all the charges against him on the basis of insufficient evidence, though the Delhi Police have appealed the decision, declaring they will fight the case until Singh is found guilty.


According to senior police officials, Singh has since moved to Mumbai, where, they say, “he is living a normal life with his wife.” “I think he has learned from his mistake,” Ashok Chand told me with surprising confidence. “After spending five years in jail, I don’t think he will be at it again.”

Still, Singh’s arrest had little to no impact on the booming trade in upscale prostitution, which continued to multiply while he sat in Tihar. The 300-odd escorts who worked for Singh drifted to other operations: some were recruited by Shiv Murat Dwivedi, known as Icha Baba, a self-styled daytime godman and nighttime pimp; others went to his rival Sonu Punjaban. After these two were arrested—in 2010 and 2011, respectively—the women in their employ simply scattered once again, this time to a wide assortment of far smaller operations. Police officials insist that no new heavyweight has arisen to take the mantle of Singh, Dwivedi and Punjaban. In their place are a proliferating legion of small and mid-sized outfits like the one run by Azam Khan, who told me that he can only aspire to have the kind of political protection that many, rightly or wrongly, believed Singh possessed. “Then,” Khan said wistfully, “the police can’t dare to touch you.”

FOR ALL OF KHAN’S PRIDE at his success in the sex trade, he seems acutely aware of the limits to the game: after a few years in business, he has no ambitions to expand his operations, and no deluded dreams of becoming a big player like Punjaban or Singh. He wouldn’t mind a little more security or protection from the police, he says—but the example of the big fish who’ve already been snared suggests that the safest path is to stay below the radar of the authorities. As he put it: “Small business, small tension.”

Above all, it may be that after having acquired the comforts of a middle-class existence in the capital, Khan would prefer to settle down into a more traditional life. “I am marrying a girl my father has seen for me,” he told me—a woman from his hometown, Lucknow. “I haven’t yet told her what I do here,” he confessed sheepishly, and when I asked him if he planned to do so, he simply said, “I don’t know yet.”

As for Polina, his number one escort, her goal is even more simple: to leave Delhi and return to Ukraine with enough money to live comfortably, though she admits it’s not quite clear how much money, exactly, that will require. “Money is important,” she told me. “I either want to be extremely rich—or I want to have a different kind of life, like to have lots of animals.”

“My childhood was very, very tough,” she continued. “It’s just that my dad was a very bad person. He was abusive, he used to beat us—me and my mother. Not sexual abuse, but physical.” Her father has since passed away, she explained, but her mother now lives with a boyfriend in Sumy. “They are in the telecommunications business,” she said. “Very boring. I have one sister, she works in a bank. She is also very boring.”

For Polina, money signifies a certain freedom and possibility—the things, she suggests, that she never had in Ukraine, and hasn’t quite managed to find in Delhi. “When I want to go shopping—I can just do it. That’s what rich means,” she said. “I find peace in shopping, and in travelling. And I want to share the money.”

“I know people who are very rich, but they are unhappy because they don’t know how to spend the money,” Polina concluded. “When I get rich, I will find happiness, and I will donate shitloads of money to organisations like PETA. I will be happy.”