The 21 Indian short stories in the anthology River of Flesh and Other Stories: The prostituted woman in Indian short fiction are about women who are pushed into the most exploitative and sexualised work without choice and agency. The qualifier – prostituted – in the title, not the sanitised ‘sex worker’, a dubiously empowering term much favoured by NGOs and policy makers for its political correctness, reflects the position taken on the issue.
The stories, from 12 languages, lay bare the violent, volatile, crude and crushing experience of women in this trade of carnal transaction that reeks of violence and inequity. Competent translations from Hindi, Bengali, Konkani, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Assamese, Punjabi, Odia, Urdu, Tamil and one original short story in English (by Kamala Das) give the anthology its pan-Indian heft and credibility.
The editor of the anthology, Ruchira Gupta, categorically states in the introduction to the book that the notion of agency for prostituted women is an absurdity. Prostitution can never be a choice as some feminist discourses claim, she asserts. She refutes the possibility that prostitution is in any way linked to women’s control over her own body and sexuality, or offers a ‘choice’ for earning a livelihood in the Indian social and moral context.
Sex-trafficking is now been identified as one of the major transnational issues, requiring international regulation and legislation. In this context, radical abolitionists and liberals arguing for women’s control over her body and sexuality present the most dominant interpretations. The liberals see a role for women to exercise their agency in choosing to deliberately sell sex as a commodity in a legalised market. They argue that prohibitory prostitution laws violate women’s basic human right to control their bodies, lives and work. The radicals view prostitution as the most violent system of gender oppression, one that completely destroys a woman’s agency. Decriminalisation of commercial sexual exchange brings the women’s body and its market value under a regulatory framework, which is patriarchal in nature, and the prostitute fall prey to male buyers’ demands, normalising oppression. Radicals argue that though liberal demands of decriminalisation and commercialisation promise a certain kind of agency, this is not possible given the prevalent market forces. The real cause of exploitation being oppressive patriarchy, supposed improvements in conditions of prostitution within existing oppressive patriarchal structures fail to address the root cause of repression.
Gupta is someone who shares this stance. She has spent more than two decades in research and activism in the field of human trafficking and prostitution and is the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO which works on women’s rights and toward abolishing human sex trafficking. As a journalist she won an Emmy Award for a documentary on sex trafficking called The Selling of Innocents. She is the recipient of many global awards including the Abolitionist Award by the British House of Lords, the Clinton Global Citizen Award for Commitment to Leadership in Civil Society, and the 2015 NGO CSW/NY Woman of Distinction Award.
According to Gupta, prostitution is synonymous with lack of choice. She debunks notions of moments of agency in prostitution or in being prostituted, saying: “I saw little agency in their lives”. Her position and conviction is also shared by the late social activist and writer Mahasweta Devi, who said, “whether Manto or Chughtai; Premchand, Kamala Das or Kamaleshwar… all describe the life and struggles of prostituted women as violent, lonely and full of relentless exploitation and abuse.”
The systemic sexual oppression is evident in the anthology which includes Jnanpith or Sahitya Akademi award winners as well as younger, lesser-known names. The anthology becomes a kaleidoscopic rendition of homelessness, shattered dreams, sleepless nights, wounded bodies, pus, blood, pain and trauma of women exposed in fractured frames. As we read, one author after the other, the piling on of harsh realities so carefully and compassionately composed through fiction is a discovery of the experiences of women who produce pleasure without claiming any for themselves.
The term ‘prostituted women’ seems inadequate to understand the multitude of experiences, contexts, social settings, attitudes, behaviours and interpersonal connections. Not all the experiences in the short stories could be termed prostitution. In many cases, it is women’s sexuality that encounters male aggression and objectification, played out in the domain of intimacy and coercion. In stories like ‘Market Price’ (Nabendu Ghosh, Bengali), and ‘The Kept Woman’ (Subodh Ghose, Bengali), breach of trust between the man and woman leads to sexual violence. In ‘Market Price’, a woman is robbed of her gold and abandoned by the man who had promised her marriage.
This anthology features some women authors who can be collectively called ‘representative’ of Southasian writing on gendered marginality, women’s experiences and sexual agency. Many of these writers remained rebels in their lives threatening middle-class morality with their choice of themes such as women’s sexual desire. Amrita Pritam, Qurratulain Hyder, Kamala Das and Ismat Chughtai – all included in this anthology, affirm this in varied ways.
Kamala Das’s ‘A Doll for the Child Prostitute’ is about young girls sold into prostitution by broken families even before their bodies are ready for the act of sex – the age highlighting the complete lack of agency. Playing hopscotch, Sita and Rukmani pause when one of them is sent to customers, and resume their game once they leave. The collusion between prostitution and the police also emerges when we see the inspector protecting the brothel in exchange for intercourse with some of the new girls.
In Baburao Bagul’s ‘Woman of the Street’ (Marathi), a middle-aged, hungry and despondent Girija’s story is a heart-breaking account of severe exploitation as she is denied payment for the act of sex. In ‘The Last Customer’ (Kannada), Niranjana tells the story of the deaf and mute Kani, whose body is treated as a public place where anyone can come and help themselves without the need for anything in exchange. In ‘The Hundred-Candle-Power Bulb’, Saadat Hasan Manto, in his symbolic bare and stark prose tells the story of a room flooded with electric light where the man forces the woman to sell herself, leaving her sleepless for days. The climax of the lack of choice culminates in a violent end, which shocks the reader.
Even women with battered and diseased bodies are not spared as one sees in Kamleshwar’s ‘River of Flesh’. Impoverished Jugnu, who is paying off a loan, is preyed upon by men even after she is ill with tuberculosis and has pus-filled blisters on her inner thighs.
There are also women who are shown as providing sustenance to their dependants through prostitution. In Indira Goswami’s ‘The Empty Box’ (Assamese), Toradoi and Ammalu in Puthumaippithan’s ‘Ponnagaram’ (Tamil), women sell sex to feed their children and husband respectively.
Other stories stretch the premise of sexual exchange, exploitation and abuse further. In Subodh Ghose’s ‘The Kept Woman’, when people believe Prasad’s mistress Lata is his wife because of her virtuous behaviour and bearing, he feels cheated. Expressing an acute form of hypocrisy, he criticises the virtuous behaviour of the whore, because such modesty from her, he feels, is a travesty of the virtues of a real wife. He constantly ridicules her, demeaning her successful role-play of a wife.
In Nabendu Ghosh’s ‘Market Price’ the abandoned Chhaya is vulnerable to being prostituted after she is abandoned by Balram. In Manisha Kulshreshtha’s ‘Kalindi’ (Hindi), birth outside wedlock brings a whole set of problems and it is the son who humiliates the mother till her old age. These stories reek of social hypocrisies that hound a sexually active woman outside the realm of mainstream patriarchal protection. But as the woman has never been in prostitution as the son suspects, it is his suspicion and continuous disrespect that recasts her as a prostitute, not in reality, but in his imagination.
In ‘Ancestry’ (Urdu), Qurratulain Hyder adds other dimension to the understanding of ‘prostitution’. With a few deft strokes, she shows the gradual decline of feudal aristocracy and the rise of a bourgeois India through a woman Chhammi; Hyder narrates the story of the nation by mapping the survival of prostitution as a trade of strategy and survival against an inflexible aristocracy that has outlived its utility.
When Krishan Chander’s prostitute of Faras Road in ‘A Prostitute’s Letter to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Qaid-e-Azam’ (Urdu) wrote a letter to Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the letter did not simply describe violation called prostitution but touched upon the violent, irreversible history of this subcontinent that took birth through murder, mutilation, rape and massacre embodied in two girl children, whom the prostitute bought from the market. The letter exposes the absurdities of an independent nation and the logic of family when she asks both the leaders to adopt the traumatised girls, because it would be very difficult to rehabilitate them in her world.
The anthology is remarkable for the quality of the stories which spill out of the ideological straitjacket – prostitution or being prostituted – that its editor intends to keep them in. Lajo in Ismat Chughtai’s ‘The Housewife’ (Urdu) is a woman born in the streets without morality attached to her sexual body. This is the only story in this anthology that, in the typical understated mockery of Chughtai’s narrator, destabilises the possibility of a stable binary of male domination-female subjugation. Lajo, living in the margins of society, does not subscribe to the concept of sexual morality and does not believe in seeking refuge in marriage as the ultimate solution for destitution, solitude and sexual pleasure. Lajo, while not conforming to notions of prostitute and wife, shows the limits of both. But her character certainly expands what the editor proposes as a man-woman relationship and female sexuality in this anthology in the context of prostitution. Perhaps Chughtai is that unique, ironical voice who manages to problematise the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed and creates a space for perception beyond it. Lajo’s idea of sexual morality, as prostitute and wife, stretches theories of violation and agency as she never considers herself a victim of patriarchal oppression.
The stories also give glimpses into the systematic methods of brainwashing, indoctrination and physical control that are used against women in prostitution. From physical pain to verbal abuse to the very feeling of powerlessness, the prostitute’s scars may be external but the wounds grow deep roots inside.
Gupta says the anthology is an “attempt to de-normalize the efforts to legitimise the exploitation of women”. Her ideological position was evident in the recent debates over prostitution in India where Gupta was vocal for the abolishment of prostitution and criminalisation of the people who run this trade and not the women. Gupta, the radical, poses this anthology as an affirmation of her position. But literature, born out of various points in history, throbs with aesthetic and social concerns of authors from diverse backgrounds. The editor’s political standpoint cannot hope to pack in this diversity of voices.
The dates of the publication of each story should be added in the next print to help serious readers pin the context of its time and place it in the value systems and historical landmarks of the periods concerned. Also, currently, the bio-notes of authors and translators at the end are given alphabetically. It would help the reader more if the author and translator of each story were introduced as a pair.
But, overall, these are minor quibbles. This collection will be an important book for feminists, activists and researchers dealing with female sexuality and violence against women in Southasia. It will cater to a serious readership, induce compassion and perhaps clear-eyed political thinking and policy-making. This anthology is not about reading for pleasure. It constantly pushes the envelope where middle-class sweeping-under-the-carpet morality and hypocrisies of modernity are concerned.
~ Epsita Halder is Assistant Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University.