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Rena has two names. One Hindu, one Muslim. It’s an old trade practice, nothing to do with the rising xenophobia in recent years. “We do it for our lovers," she explains, “to account for their religious sensibilities." Rena used to see up to six clients a day at Raipur Escort Service, any one of whom could turn into a lover. “And as you know, humein apne customers ke hisaab se chalna padta hai. Warna customer nahi aayega (We have to go along with the wishes of our customers. Or they won’t come back)."
Rena is a sex worker. She lives in a red-light complex in the Raipur Grant Road area, in a run-down building that houses over 750 sex workers. When the nationwide lockdown began on 25 March, their customers all but disappeared. Hindus and Muslims, both. Over the past three weeks, however, Rena has got her trade back on track. The difference is, sex is not as frequent. And now, it’s over the phone.
“I got the idea from a saheli (friend) in the neighbourhood," she says. It was 15-20 days into the lockdown. Most sex workers were struggling to make ends meet. A few NGOs had stepped in, offering food, groceries, medicines and counselling. But the community was scared about its future. “We found out this coronavirus spreads by touch and thought, yeh to AIDS ka bhi baap aa gaya (this is worse than AIDS). The condom had helped until now but what do you use for this? A raincoat?"
One afternoon, she saw her saheli dressing up and putting on make-up. “She said I get calls, I want to look good for them. Then I listened to her when she was on the call. She was talking dirty. I started laughing. I never had to talk to people. They would only ask me to do things: press here, touch there."
But times were hard. Coronavirus cases in Raipur were showing no signs of plateauing—they still don’t. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who form a chunk of the clientele, had left for their homes. Rena, a migrant herself, like most sex workers Escorts Service in Raipur, used to send money to her family in Jabalpur every month. As her earnings dried up, her family started feeling the pinch too. She decided to give phone sex a try.
“(After the lockdown) I would often get calls from my regular customers asking me how I was if I missed them. I would usually not engage. But I said one day, ‘I do. Do you?’ He said, ‘I even touch myself thinking of you.’ I said, ‘Why don’t I help you help yourself?’"
They agreed on a price. She called him back only after he sent her money via Google Pay. Three weeks on, phone sex has become part of Rena daily routine. She also offers a video chat—for a higher price. But before coming on, she covers her face with a dupatta, so no one can record her in the act.
She charges ₹1500 for a regular phone call and ₹2000 for a video chat, both lasting up to 30 minutes. Usually, it’s only with clients she trusts. On average, she services two-three clients a day during her business hours: 5 pm-4 am.