Outside the court, she was among the prisoners who were herded into a bus that would take them back to Tihar jail. “She is pretty. Looks like she comes from a good family. Who is she?” a woman asked, “Why is she in jail?”
“She is a pimp.”
“Oh, how unfortunate,” said the woman, “Why did she have to do something like that?”
Moments earlier, Sonu Punjaban had stood in front of a judge in a crowded courtroom, almost pleading. The accused had been branded a dangerous woman. An exploiter. A fallen woman. Supporting herself against a wall, she tried to avoid the gaze of those who sat in the air-conditioned courtroom—lawyers, witnesses, victims and spectators. Her hands were limp in the policewoman’s grip. The judge sat diagonally across from the accused on a high platform. In her exalted state, the judge didn’t even have time to look at the accused as she rejected her bail plea. Parole was out of the question. In the courts, all Sonu Punjaban alias Geeta Arora ever got were dates.
In the bus that shielded its occupants from prying eyes with barbed wire over its windows, she sat at the back and stared into a parking lot.
I called out her name: “Sonu.”
The bus started moving.
“Put my name on the list of visitors allowed to meet you in prison.”
“What’s your name?”
I said it aloud, thrice.
For days after that hot afternoon in July 2011 when I first saw her, I kept checking with the prison if I could meet her. “She has six people on her list,” I was told, “You are not one of them.”
Sonu Punjaban stands accused of being a pimp, of running an organised sex business worth several crore. At the hearing, the last rows of the courtroom had her mother Veena and young lover Arun Thakral in attendance. The latter, a wiry man in his early twenties with a bony face, sat watching Sonu. He used to work for her, driving her car and ferrying girls to clients. He had been arrested along with his former employer, but was later released on bail.
Sonu wore black sweat pants that fell slightly below her knees, leaving her calves exposed. Once upon a time, she was a high-maintenance girl, lining her eyebrows, suffusing her lashes with mascara, and painting her lips a deep shade of red. Here, in the courtroom, her lips looked chapped, her eyes sullen, and she hadn’t shaved her legs in months. The rigours of prison life were evident.
She had been undergoing a drug rehabilitation routine behind bars, and spent most afternoons asleep in her cell because of medication. “Cocaine,” a police official said, “She’s an addict. It is a lonely life in there. Substance abuse is common.”
Sonu wanted to be home for the birthday of her son Paras, an eight-year-old whose school fee receipts were used as evidence of her comfortable financial status in the chargesheet filed against her by the Delhi Police. She couldn’t go.
“What I do doesn’t make me who I am,” she told the male police official questioning her, “I cannot be defined by my trade.”
The night that lay before her was long and dangerous. At the Mehrauli Police Station, she knew she had to keep her wits about herself. In her anxiety to stay alert, she needed endless cups of tea and cigarettes, if just to steel her nerves for the confession she was about to make: of being in the sex business.
No matter what she said, the police would use it against her. Under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), a harsh legislation adopted by Delhi in 2002, a confession made in police custody would be admissible as evidence in court. And, to the police, hers was an ‘organised crime’.
Sonu’s hands trembled as she reached for yet another cigarette held out by a police official through a grilled iron door. On the other side of the grill sat Kailash Chand, who’d played a role in her arrest.
It was a sting operation that got Sonu nabbed by the Delhi Police. On the evening of 2 April 2011, the Mehrauli station got word that men working for Sonu Punjaban had been spotted pimping women. In response, the police sent in two of their men, sub-inspectors Kailash Chand and Narpat Singh, who posed as sex customers. They were offered two women for Rs 5,000 each. For rooms, it would be an extra Rs 2,000 per room. The two women, Khushi and Rashmi, were seated inside a black Scorpio. But Chand and Singh said they wanted to see more women. They were taken to an apartment in Anupam Enclave, where the men met other women on offer. At one point, Sonu Punjaban walked in, looking both imposing and charming in a shirt over a pair of jeans. Chand slipped out, sent police officials waiting nearby a signal, and they mounted a raid that saw four women and four men arrested along with Punjaban.
At the police station, Chand ensured a steady supply of cigarettes and tea for Sonu. He would’ve liked to provide alcohol too, but was not sure. Sonu spoke, he listened. She spoke at length, and her statement was recorded and annexed to the chargesheet. All it would take to invoke MCOCA was prima facie ‘proof’ that the accused ran a criminal syndicate, in addition to at least two specific charges ‘in the nature of organised crime’. What went against her was her past record: she had been arrested twice before, under the Immoral Traffic Prevention (ITP) Act.
The police were determined to put Sonu Punjaban behind bars. According to a source, BK Gupta, Delhi’s Commissioner of Police at the time, was keen on curbing prostitution in the national capital, a campaign that had seen raids on Uzbek pimps and sex workers as well. Apart from Sonu, the other pimps booked included Ichadhari Baba, her biggest rival, and Kamaljit, a high-end pimp who was arrested in 2005 and is now out of jail.
Sonu told the police that after her father’s death in 2003, all her earnings came from the flesh trade, which she first entered as a sex worker and later as a pimp. All this was part of a chargesheet so vast that it had to be filed in a thick binder. “We will see to it that she doesn’t get out so easily,” said a police official, “We have done our homework.”
Chand, the investigating officer on the case, saw no remorse in Sonu, only defiance. That’s what made him sit outside the cell through the five nights she spent in police custody, listening to her story and arguments against the moral high ground of her detractors who saw her as a criminal, a woman who used sex to fund a lavish lifestyle.
That phrase, ‘lavish lifestyle’, was part of a police press release that listed various sections of the ITP Act under which she had earlier been picked up. A few years earlier, she even had a murder charge against her, but the case was eventually dropped.
Chand wanted to understand “the criminal mindset”, as he called it, and a part of him was surprised to see how she justified her “sins” to herself. “Prostitution is public service,” Sonu declared, “We provide an escape route, a release to men. We also help women realise their dreams. If you have nothing else to sell but your body, you must do it. People are selling something all the time.”
Sonu gave up prostituting herself a few years ago, and had a business model with most girls on contracts who charged on the basis of the number of clients they serviced. Some of these girls were university students who needed extra cash to sustain a flamboyant lifestyle, others were full-time workers. Details of this were found in a diary the police recovered from Sonu’s apartment.
She also had several women working on monthly wages, like Rashmi, whose husband would beat her up, force her to have sex with him, and refuse her any money—which she needed for her child’s education, as Sonu told the police officer. “And why shouldn’t she?” she asked, “She had no degrees, no capital, only her body to sell.” Like any other industry, prostitution needed to be run efficiently, she reasoned, and unlike many other industries, it had a conscience—for it offered a refuge to battered women.
Sonu had rebelled against conventional views of morality long ago. In a world where opulence and indulgence dictated everything, to her mind, lust and love were legitimate masks for commercial activity. It was an attitude that held a charm of its own.
“She is pretty,” as her lover Thakral said, “I like her. The day I saw her, I fell for her. I am a pimp. We are from the same world. I am not going to get a good girl, anyway. I get bored without her.”
Chand seemed no less struck by Sonu’s beauty—her well-defined brows, black sparkling eyes and fair complexion. “She is beautiful,” he said, and then began talking about detainees under interrogation in general: “You give them what they want, fuel their addictions, and they are ready to talk. But you have to wait and watch for the moment they reach that point where their weaknesses start overpowering them and they would be glad if you offered them a cigarette. In return, they tell you everything.”
At 30, Sonu was already an old hand in the business. At one time, she had been madly in love with her first husband Vijay, a small-time gangster and car-jacker who died in a police encounter in 2003. An old photo album of hers had a picture of him against the backdrop of mountains. “If he hadn’t died, Sonu wouldn’t have become what she has. She wouldn’t have destroyed herself,” according to Sonu’s mother, “I found her crying once and she told me how she became a sex worker. There were all these blue pills she used to take. Paras’ birth had been a difficult one. She was a drug addict by then. I have brought up the child. She didn’t even breastfeed him. She wasn’t able to. But she used to come regularly to meet her son, brought him toys, sweets and took him out for movies.”
Sonu Punjaban was born as Geeta Arora in 1981 in Geeta Colony, an unauthorised East Delhi housing colony. Her grandfather, a refugee from Pakistan, had settled in Rohtak in Haryana, and her father Om Prakash moved to Delhi, started driving an autorickshaw, and took up a flat in Geeta Colony on rent. Geeta’s elder sister Bala was married to one Satish, alias Bobby—Vijay’s elder brother. One day Satish and Vijay murdered a man their sister Nisha was having an affair with, and were arrested. When Vijay got out on parole in 1996, Geeta married him. He jumped parole, and was killed seven years later in a police encounter in Uttar Pradesh, according to her version of events.
At the time of Vijay’s death, Geeta was pregnant. She gave birth to Paras in the family’s Geeta Colony second-floor flat, a dingy two-room set where her son and mother still live. “If she was making so much money,” said Veena, “we would have been living in a better place.”
After Vijay’s death, Geeta became friendly with his friend Deepak, a vehicle thief who too was killed in an encounter in Guwahati. According to the police, she had been tipping them off about her lovers’ crimes, an accusation she denied. “She had many lovers,” said Chand, “She lives life to the fullest. She spent a lot of money on her lovers.” Once Deepak was killed, she moved in with Deepak’s brother Hemant, alias Sonu, a criminal who killed a man in Bahadurgarh he suspected of a role in his brother’s death. She was arrested in that case but later released. In 2006, however, Hemant was killed in an encounter. “She had a criminal mind. She liked adventures,” in Chand’s assessment, “Her lovers were dangerous men.”
Vijay’s death, which left Geeta without financial support, had been the turning point not just in her love life, but also career. Her father had passed away. Bala’s husband was in prison, her two younger brothers had no jobs, and the family was hard pressed for money. So Geeta, who had studied only till class seven, joined a beauty parlour. By the account of her confession, it was while working as a beautician in Preet Vihar that she met a colleague named Neetu who introduced her to the easy money of the flesh trade. She found herself working for a woman called Kiran as a prostitute, and came across pimps in Lajpat Nagar, Vasant Kunj and Safdarjung Enclave. With the money she earned, she bought a Wagon R and Maruti Alto in her mother’s name. Later, she bought a Santro.
It was only once she turned pimp herself that Geeta adopted Hemant’s other name ‘Sonu’, affixing it with ‘Punjaban’, as an identity for herself. It was a name that conjured just the image she wanted. As her business thrived, she soon had fleet of cars for the purpose.
Going by other parts of her confession, though, she was already running a sex racket while living with Hemant. By 2005, a year before he died, she had set up brothels in various parts of Delhi, and had other pimps in charge of these outposts: Bobby Chakka, Pooja, Pradeep, Azad, Govind and Nagma alias Ariba, who came from Saudi Arabia and later became her rival. ‘I knew them all and met them personally, but in this business, we don’t give out too much information to each other. It is strictly professional,’ Sonu’s confession reads, ‘Once I got a hang of the business and had made my own clients, I set up my own brothels around 2005.’
Sonu had set up her first brothel in Paryavaran Complex in B block, Sainik Farms, and then rented apartments in Freedom Fighter Colony, Malviya Nagar and Shivalik for her work. Four years earlier, she’d bought an apartment in Anupam Enclave in Saidulajab in Delhi in the name of Sanjay Makhija, an old friend. Throughout her career, she had Raju Sharma alias Ajay as an accomplice. He had once been her cook and later became her driver. He also worked as a pimp and was arrested twice.
The mastermind of the operation was Sonu. She understood her market well, and had a clear sense of exactly who her services were best aimed at. It was not an elite operation she was running. She couldn’t use the internet. With her limited education, she knew she could not snag upmarket clients looking for a ‘girlfriend’ experience or an escort as arm-candy for a party. Sonu’s girls were not the kind who clients could whisk off to farmhouses and have them pour drinks and make polite conversation. Yet, she had more than just raw sex on offer. Her girls were never shabbily turned out. They were usually well-groomed.
Sonu’s two previous arrests, under the ITP Act, have returned to haunt her. She was first arrested on 31 August 2007 under Sections 4, 5 and 8 of that law. She got bail, but was booked under the same provisions in November 2008. When she was arrested in April 2011 as part of the Mehrauli raid, she had already been booked for the same offence twice—which is one of the preconditions for invoking MCOCA.
The others who were arrested along with her have been released, but Sonu remains in judicial custody. Meanwhile, her lover has left. And she seems aware that she might spend a long time behind bars. “When she returns, she will return to an empty house,” sighs Sonu, speaking of herself, “Her lover is gone. Her son would be a teenager then. A childhood lost and a youth spent… is MCOCA justified in her case when others are walking free?”