Call it sex work or slavery, prostitution tends to be viewed mostly in one dimension.
Call it sex work or slavery, prostitution tends to be viewed mostly in one dimension. The girls and women who fill the brothels and sex clubs around the world are often thought of as nothing more than that: just prostitutes, not individual characters, people with their own lives and dreams.
Ruchira Gupta, the founder of the organisation Apne Aap, is known worldwide for her work among women who have been tricked, trafficked or fallen into prostitution. It has taught her a lot about humanity. In a stroke of creative genius, she put together a book about such women and girls in Indian storytelling — and the men in their lives, for better or worse.
Gupta’s work over the years has made her a strong opponent of a mostly Western-based feminist tendency to see these women as “sex workers” who choose this as a profession that has advantages over the grind of factory work or domestic servitude in the households of the better-off. She took on UN Women, a relatively new United Nations agency formed to advance women’s rights, over its decision to drop the world prostitute from its publications — and indeed asked her not to use it when she spoke after receiving an award in New York last year. She was defiant, and she prevailed. UN Women has had to reconsider it language. With the average girl trafficked into prostitution in India between nine and 13 years of age, Gupta says, the notion of choice is ludicrous.
“As an activist, organising women and girls suffering from inter-generational prostitution in red-light districts and caste ghettos, the reality I saw was very different,” she writes in the introduction to River of Flesh. “I witnessed prostituted women struggle to access even their most basic needs — food, clothing, shelter and protection from violence. I saw women live and die in debt bondage.”
Ruchira Gupta’s guide in selecting 21 stories from across pre-Partition India was Rakhshanda Jalil, a literary historian and writer best known for her short stories and her book on Delhi’s often overlooked corners of history, Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of India. The result of this collaboration is a collection of tales in 12 languages, translated into English for a global audience. Gupta has been on a nonstop book tour, from New Delhi and Kolkata to New York and beyond ever since the book appeared. It has struck a chord.
Some of the authors in this collection are well known international names, such as Kamala Das, Premchand or Amrita Pritam, and others would be less familiar. Their stories, however, can be universally understood in human terms. There are abusive men, drunk and stinking, whose violent sex acts destroy bodies and souls. There is a girl who yearns for a doll from a customer. There are widows, abandoned women and women whose hearts have been broken by separation from their villages and families. Women who ache for their children, those far away and those who have come with them into brothels to live in one small room with mothers who are fiercely determined to guard their innocence as best they could.
One of the most poignant stories is Kalindi, by Manisha Kulshrestha, a Rajasthan-born feminist and acclaimed writer. Her story about a fictional mother and her young son is told largely through his memories as he looks back later from adulthood: “The word ‘customer’ was a dreaded one for all children my age who lived on that street. A vampire who would throttle women. Once in his grasp, women would scream. A vampire who, if he didn’t turn up, the rotis in the house would run out; and if the rotis didn’t run out there would be no vegetables or curry to eat them with.” He remembers his mother as “different from the other women of the alley . Even when I was a child I was pleased by how determined, how strong she was”.
By night she served “customers” but by day his mother looked for any daytime job that would help her pay to send him to school. But he became angry that she would not tell him where she went every day. She seemed to vanish. One day, on a whim, he skipped classes and followed her. He found her in an art college, posing naked for students. The spectacle shattered him, and he wondered how different this really was from prostitution. Not for her. It was a steady job with good pay, so that he could continue his education and they could always have food. Moreover, she felt she was doing something useful for a professor who valued her and the students she came to know. She had discovered, if only for a few hours a day, a different life in a different world. Then it was back to the brothel in the evening.
Barbara Crossette is a former New York Times chief correspondent in South Asia