* The book is not an edge-of-the-seat murder mystery — but somehow it does not matter
* All the characters are a nondescript shade of a muddy brown puddle. Throw a stone and you get a splash of their life as an insight
* Das, however, holds up a mirror to the face of middle-class morality
“Fingerprints and clues and body lines only worked in American television serials or when someone high profile gets murdered and the Central Bureau of Investigation led probes. It wasn’t going to happen for some whore in Shonagachhi.”
Of course, it did not happen.
A crowded brothel in the red light district of Shonagachhi in Kolkata. A sex worker who is brutally murdered. Police personnel who don’t care. An oily pimp named Rambo. Paan-chewing fat madams. Blonde Russian women. Sleazy babus who wear fake designer sunglasses. Social workers who wear expensive cotton clothes bought from art deco bungalows. A wannabe poet who dreams of history but writes erotica and is hopelessly in love with a prostitute.
The story has all the stereotypes possible, but surprisingly none of them seem in-your-face obvious. They effortlessly weave themselves into the crowded alleys of Shonagachhi that has been hit hard by demonetisation and into the shiny hotels on Park Street before they take you into the sleazy underbelly of one of the biggest moneymaking industries of today.
The book is not an edge-of-the-seat murder mystery, and it is only halfway into it that the reader even begins to find a semblance of motive for the murder. The isn’t even proper closure or answers to all the questions, but somehow it does not matter. A Death in Shonagachhi is a slow-burn that gives you a peek into the lives and minds of each character, none of them black or white or grey. Rather, all the characters are a nondescript shade of a muddy brown puddle. Throw a stone and you get a splash of their life as an insight.
However, it is not the gory murder or the predictable lives of the sex workers nor the slightly filmy climax that lingers on in the back of your mind after you have finished the book. The essence lies in the smaller details.
Lalee, (you can’t exactly call her the protagonist, she is just one of the main characters in the book) was sold by her father and entered the sex trade as a 10-year-old. While this is the kind of backstory that has been part of innumerable books and the reader may be numb to it, there is the scene where Lalee, as a child sex worker who has already been sent to several men, still doesn’t understand what attaining puberty means and rushes to her madam, terrified at the sight of her bloodstained underwear. The madam laughs, teaches her to fold a cloth, and sends her to that very night to “someone who likes blood”. It is an account that punches the reader hard in the gut.
Trilokeshwar Shau — ‘Tilu’, the writer of the bestselling Sister-in-Law series of erotic novels, is so deeply and hopelessly in love with Lalee that he wants to rescue her with marriage. However, he makes the judgmental observation about Victoria Memorial being full of pimps and prostitutes after dark. It doesn’t surprise the reader, for even a regular brothel customer is conditioned to think a certain way. Das, however, holds up a mirror to the face of middle-class morality.
And then the book raises questions that hardly have answers. Is the ‘raid, rescue and rehabilitate’ method where sex workers are given sewing machines and pickle making classes in small windowless buildings, the answer? Or is it the ‘unionise and educate’ route where they are allowed to work, armed with condoms and awareness? Or perhaps the answer is to ‘leave them alone, they don’t need you and your savior complex’, the way to be.
Author Das says she wrote and rewrote the book over six years. These years of painstaking effort and research are reflected in the sensitive manner in which each character has been fleshed out in this impressive debut novel.
Anamika A is an IT professional based out of Coonoor