Closed notebooks, open ears. And hearts, in our case. I was interviewing a group of sex workers in Delhi, scribbling everything they were saying into my black-bound diary. Even though this was during the pandemic and we tried to stay safe, at some point the masks came off. Theirs to be able to share details of their lives , mine to convey trust – that I was being sensitive to their revelations.

The act of writing was both a bridge and a marker of distance.

When our time together was over, the coordinator who had organised the meeting asked me if I could drop one of them home. It’s on your way, he said, introducing me to her. Her name meant boundary in English. We smiled at each other. She hadn’t been present in the group I’d spoken to. But as we sat in the car, we forgot our contexts. She told me about potential clients wanting to see the faces of sex worker before finalising an arrangement, and how this worked in today’s tech-driven times. I ventured to ask her intimate details about her work. She shared it all. We spoke about love. I drove slowly. Her eyes were beautiful. Heartbreak.

My hands were on the wheel. I wasn’t writing anything this time. She showed me old photos of her lover, still on her mobile. I couldn’t possibly put all this into the story – it felt like I would be crossing a line. Crude, even. So, I wrote...

Listen to Shalini Singh read the poem

Kohl -rimmed eyes

Away from the closed room of glare
of black and white views that stare.
Away from words brazen or scared
Not on a paper glossy and bare.
Nor in ink that would smear...
Out on the open road,
you let me into your world
of naked colours, with care.

What it means to be a young widow,
what it’s like to love an army-man,
to have a lover who flexes but false hopes,
keeps the safe world far away,
and trades dreams for limbs
and limbs for money.
How it feels to be buried alive
in someone else’s digital hive
and live on a fictional romance anew each day.
“I had young mouths to subsist,” you say.

The setting sun glistens on the golden nose ring
and kohl -rimmed eyes that could once sing.
Cheap cold cream summons desire
in a weary body raw.
The dust blows, the night falls
it’s yet another day
of loveless labour.

Shalini Singh

Shalini Singh is a founding trustee of the CounterMedia Trust that publishes PARI. A journalist based in Delhi, she writes on environment, gender and culture, and was a Nieman fellow for journalism at Harvard University, 2017-2018.

Other stories by Shalini Singh
Illustration : Priyanka Borar

Priyanka Borar is a new media artist experimenting with technology to discover new forms of meaning and expression. She likes to design experiences for learning and play. As much as she enjoys juggling with interactive media she feels at home with the traditional pen and paper.

Other stories by Priyanka Borar