Horns of the traffic jam drown out
Her “$10 for blow job,
25 for pussy.” But the deal
Gets done, and the traffic
Rolls on into the City of Job
– Michael S Collins in Jump Cuts around the City of Job
The International House of Japan sits smugly atop a hillock, with Roppongi on one side and Azabu Juban on the other. It is a place where drooping diplomats, jaded journalists, wilting academicians and limping leaders gather to discuss nothing in particular, and then exchange notes with interlopers from elsewhere. Legend has it that during his visit to Japan, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was so impressed with the idea of a place devoted to the profundity of nothingness that he promptly thought up a similar place for New Delhi. In November 1960, Crown Prince Akihito of Japan laid the foundation stone of the India International Centre (IIC). Thus was created the embryo of the chattering classes of India’s capital city.
The Lodhi Gardens and the surrounding bungalows of the powerful give the IIC a distinctive setting. But the copy is nowhere near to the original when it comes to the colour and character of location. Azabu Juban is one of Tokyo’s more upscale residential areas, with a number of diplomatic missions, fashionable shopping streets patterned after Paris and pricey health spas. Roppongi Hills, the USD 4 billion mega-complex that the building tycoon Minoru Mori built to propagate his idea of self-contained compact cities within a few buildings, dominated the skyline until recently. But the Mitsui Corporation has now extended the horizon upwards, with its ultra-modern Tokyo Midtown hyper-complex, the tallest in town. However, more than these protrusions of prosperity, Roppongi is popular among foreigners for its nightlife. The mode of greeting for a foreign visitor at the I-House is often: “Have you explored Roppongi at night?”
Roppongi’s decorated alleyways and cobbled streets are lined with topless bars, massage parlours, ‘de-stress’ cabins, karaoke joints and watering holes where hostesses ‘entertain’ customers. Music and dance is always the main pitch of peddlers. “When music is used to guide and regulate desire, there is enjoyment, but no disorder,” said Yunji, a disciple of Confucius. For some strange reason, touts that accost unsuspecting visitors are often Africans, and their priciest wares involve ‘white women’, presumably guest workers from Eastern Europe. Foreign women working in the ‘entertainment industry’ – prostitution is illegal, but ‘compensated dating’ is tolerated with a wink – in Japan are known as japayukisan. Girls from Southeast Asian countries reportedly dominate the trade. The city government knows everything, but pretends to look the other way as long as nothing erupts as a law-and-order problem. Those who ply the oldest profession in the world are as much a part of the city as are its most recent entrants – career talkers masquerading as public intellectuals.
In the Marxist imagination, cities are centres of production, distribution and consumption, where markets for agrarian and industrial products, labour, capital, real estate, signs and symbols coalesce and create conditions for innovation, technology and exploitative manipulators. It is easier to turn cities into communist utopias than to transform villages, with their largely self-sufficient economies and almost autonomous societies. Commercial sex is considered a capitalist aberration that will go away once workers and owners become one.
It would be preposterous to call Lewis Mumford, the great American thinker of things in general, a capitalist analyst. He considered himself a socialist. But he used mostly commercial metaphors to describe the characters of urban centres. For Mumford, a city is a magnet, a necropolis (a living space resembling a cemetery), a container for surpluses, a mega-machine that performs designated functions with soulless efficiency, or a pentagon embodying the power complex of contemporary society. Sex is either implicit in his formulation of cities as magnets, or he chooses to ignore it altogether. It is said that when Minoru Mori was planning Roppongi Hills, he wanted gardens laid out in such a way that fireflies would be attracted to its environs. Fireflies have turned out to be evocative symbols of something else altogether.
|Hira Mandi dancers, Lahore|
Regardless of what planners, builders and administrators of cities think, sex as a business, a profession, a diversion or even sometimes an accomplishment, is a part of everyday life. A job for some and pleasure for many others, commercial sex and nightlife streets are integral parts of every major city in the world. However, Southasian cities treat nightlife districts with scorn. No respectable visitor would consider it necessary to include Hira Mandi of Lahore, Sonagachhi of Calcutta, Faras Road of Bombay, G B Road of New Delhi or Chaturbhujsthan of Muzaffarpur in Bihar as an unavoidable part of his (or certainly her) itinerary. Most Southasian cities are dystopian, and the absence of nightlife districts makes living even more difficult for those men and women practicing the oldest profession in the world.
Bride and prejudice
Under Nepal’s new government, one of the first acts of Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s home minister, Bam Dev Gautam, was to make life miserable for those involved in the dance bars of Kathmandu. Some operators in the trade certainly may have been what are often referred to as ‘troublemakers’ in Southasia, and they should have been handled accordingly by law-enforcement agencies. If trafficking of young ones was a problem, it should have been addressed according to the law of the land. But instead, the minister sought the easy way out – a blanket ban on what he considered immoral. At least on that count, the communist (but not Maoist) home minister of Nepal is no different from the Islamists, Hindutva-wallahs or Buddhist hardliners in Southasia. This is rather strange, because prostitution always had a respectable place in the life of Southasian cities.
Apsaras (nymphs) and urvashis (‘eternal virgins’) of the Vedic period may have been considered seductresses, but their existence is an inalienable part of descriptions of life in the ‘golden age’ of Bharatvarsha. Nagarbadhus, literally ‘brides of the city’, were considered, along with seers, soldiers, feudals and mercantilists, as part of the nobility during the Buddhist and Jain periods. Devdasis, like priestesses of Aphrodite, had a respectable existence until repeated temple sackings by invaders made them insolvent. The tawaifs of the Mughal era were accomplished courtesans, worthy of being instructors of tehjeeb – the art of refined living and respectable manners – to the royalty, nobility, merchant princes and army commanders rising from the ranks. Indeed, the stigma attached to the life of the night seems to have appeared only with the arrival of the British. And the Southasian ruling class is ‘brown sahib’ almost to the last man. Hence, this prejudice towards a profession that is often the only refuge left for young widows, divorcees, migrants and other poor women in general who lack education, skill, capital or connection to find any other work.
A few years ago, the court in Bangladesh ruled that prostitution was not a crime. But the decision failed to inspire the decision-makers of Dhaka to devise laws that would protect willing practitioners, or to prosecute those who exploit or lure unsuspecting jobseekers. Indian laws seem to have been intentionally kept ambivalent, with the flesh trade remaining a milk cow for policemen everywhere.
Prostitution has been around for thousands of years. Armies of the world have used and abused it. Fortunes have been built and destroyed in the flesh trade. Thrones have been abandoned, and crowns put at risk for the favour of courtesans. Making it illegal has not worked, in this part of the world or anywhere else; men and women always find ways to circumvent the law. As such, legitimising it is the only way of ‘regulating’ the trade, to make it fair for the sex-worker and safe for the patron and provider. Bangalore does not need to become Bangkok, and Kathmandu should avoid emerging as a Southasian Phnom Penh. But what is wrong in Islamabad aspiring to be Paris and Bombay dreaming of becoming Tokyo, where unaccompanied women can walk home from work in the middle of the night without fear of being molested or worse?
Calcutta is considered the safest city in Southasia for single women. Does that have anything to do with the relatively lenient attitude of the West Bengal government towards ladies of the night? Nepal’s Home Minister Gautam should be talking to his counterpart at the Writer’s Building, rather than to self-righteous moralists and closet saffronistas of the new ruling elites of Kathmandu.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.