The invisible ‘sex worker’

Veena Venugopal | Updated on: Feb 26, 2016




A diverse and incisive anthology of Indian stories featuring prostitutes

At some point in the last decade and a half, prostitutes became ‘sex workers’. In the new, politically correct world we aspired to live in, this was seen as the politically correct thing to do. With that one stroke, in our minds, we ‘upgraded’ the prostitute, brought her out of the gaudy sari from behind the railway station and consigned her someplace, which we couldn’t quite describe, yet we knew gave her ‘agency’, and our permission for her illegal, yet moral right to do with her body as she pleased. It is this agency that human trafficking activist and writer Ruchira Gupta questions in her introduction to the book River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction . “I was told that some women choose prostitution over marriage, that they find freedom from patriarchal structures in prostitution, that college girls prostitute themselves for the sake of consumerism — to buy shoes, lipstick, bags, clothes perfume…” she writes, “ I saw little ‘agency’ in their lives.”

The book, a collection of 21 stories including 14 translations, depicts stories of various kinds of prostitutes from various points in time in modern Indian history. As anthologies go, River of Flesh and Other Stories is a veritable treasure trove of good Indian writing. From Ismat Chughtai to Premchand, Kamala Das to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Saadat Hasan Manto to Amrita Pritam, there are as many distinctly drawn accounts of prostituted lives as there are sexual positions in the Kamastura. There are stories of rage, of regret, and even of reformation. Yet, as Gupta rightly warns us, agency is hard to find.

Kamala Das’s ‘A Doll for the Child Prostitute’, the opening story in the book, starts with a 13-year-old Rukmani being taken to the brothel by her mother, herself a former prostitute. The pre-pubescent, debuting prostitute is an excellent foil that Das uses to describe the life within the walls of a kotha , inhabited as it is by the lovelorn and the cynical, by the modest and the shameless. Rukmani herself becomes the favourite of the local inspector, the one who allows the kotha to run in return for free services. Das writes wryly about love, abandonment and death. Once his dues are paid by her services, the inspector describes to the child prostitute a new doll that had come into the market; one that closes its eyes when laid down and says ‘mummy’ when her stomach is pressed. When he eventually brings her the doll, Rukmani forgets she is a prostitute and is all child, repeatedly jabbing the stomach and making the doll call her ‘mummy’, reminding the inspector of his own granddaughter. “I do not feel like playing with a woman today,” he tells Ayee, the brothel madam, when she presses him to go with another woman. “Something has died in me today,” he says. The inspector’s remorse, however temporary, is a rare occurrence in the book. In Baburao Bagul’s ‘Woman of the Street’ (translated by Shanta Gokhale) and Niranjana’s ‘The Last Customer’ (translated by Ashwin Kumar), the prostitute is dehumanised: the customer only seeks her services and often does not even see enough value in her to honour her with the payment due to her.

Not all stories are dire, however, and in not all stories is the prostitute right at the centre. Qurratulain Hyder’s ‘Ancestry’ is a marvellous story of Chhammi-bi, who was born in a middling zamindar family at Shahjahanpur and is betrothed while still a child to their neighbour Ajjoo Bhai. Chhammi-bi’s otherwise predictable life goes through the stresses of a cholera epidemic, the Partition, as well as Ajjoo Bhai’s reluctance to give up his life of leisure and settle down to stable husband-hood. When he comes back after living up a storm in Lucknow, it is with a prostitute-turned-wife. Chhammi-bi lives through the indignity until her stubbornness-induced penury takes her to Delhi and eventually to Bombay, where she becomes the spiritual guide in an upmarket brothel. In Hyder’s deft hands, Chhammi-bi’s transformation, along with the deteriorating morality in a newly free country, is a delight to read. My other favourite, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Heeng Kochuri’, lovingly translated by Arunava Sinha, is the story of a gluttonous young boy who befriends a prostitute in the neighbourhood only because her customer brings home delicious heeng kochuris . It’s a story that brings to mind the ethos and innocence of a pre-liberalised India, where it was possible for young kids to wander about the neighbourhood and impetuously accept treats from strangers.

It is telling that all the stories in River of Flesh are set in the past. As we have progressed to a more sexually permissive society, sex in literature, especially popular literature, has been reduced to accounts of self. It feels as though now that we are allowed to talk in some detail about our own sex lives, there is no interest in recording the lives of sex workers. (Mayank Austen Soofi’s Nobody Can Love You More is a notable, non-fiction exception). This marks the second, more powerful, wave of marginalising prostitutes. In the past, we merely turned our heads away from them. The rivers of flesh still flow all around us. But now we have learned to convincingly pretend they don’t exist.

Published on January 20, 2018

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