Literary Shelf

The (Un) Desirable 'Other'?

A Cultural Reading of Prostitution
in Madhu Kankaria's Hindi Novel Salaam Aakhiri

Of late, the concept of 'Other' has been a major preoccupation with the Postcolonial theory and practice. The figure of the 'Other', hitherto silent and effaced, has made claims to speak, indeed to speak back, disrupting the realm of politics in radical ways: thus women, 'natives', minorities, deviants, subalterns, now claim to speak as 'Other'. Both epistemologically and politically, therefore, the 'Other' has become central to our contemporary concerns, in the academia as well as the larger world. Drawing on the life histories of the sex workers of Sonagachi, the largest redlight area of Calcutta, India, the present paper focuses on this dimension of radical otherness - physical and symbolic - associated with prostituted bodies.

The paper is take off from Madhu Kankaria's novel Salaam Aakhiri (in Hindi) which she attempts to dispel any misconceived notion we have of these 'fallen' women who are forced to lead a life of sexual servitude and devaluation in a morally corrupting, exploitative urban underworld. The title of the novel may be loosely translated as 'the last salute', 'farewell' or 'goodbye' to a life that gone bad, a female body which is not celebratory but offensive, ridden with infectious and diseases. The reason for selecting this text lies in its urgency, its effective use of multiple genres of reportage, documentary and fiction in a manner that lays bare the deeply entrenched psychosocial impact of sexual slavery and exposes the 'tolerationist' attitude of the consumerist society and the State.

Contrary to its name, Sonagachi or 'the Golden Tree' is Asia's oldest and largest brothel which becomes alive with commercial sex workers, pimps, and clients when rest of the Calcutta goes to sleep. Located on the western fringe of Calcutta, Sonagachi is a maze of narrow lanes with ancient, rotting tenements rising up on either side. Thousands of sex workers transact and deliver 'goods' in crammed and dingy spaces. A section of the commercial sex workers in Sonagachi may appear to be empowered, articulate and capable of advocating for better work conditions, access to health care, and a pension. But there is another side to the story which is revealed by Madhu Kankaria's interaction with the brothel's inmates. A plethora of conflicting human emotions of anguish and hopelessness, passive acceptance and rejection are at play when she records the lives of these 'fallen women' to be used as raw material for the novel, keeping in mind and respecting their wishes of confidentiality.

A writer whose forte is to give voice to the voiceless, Kankaria's works are crucially concerned with articulating the suffering of  subaltern/marginalized classes and communities. Her first novel Khule Gagan ke Laal Sitaare (2000) represented the atrocities perpetrated on the student revolutionaries of the Naxalite movement by the state machinery. Situated at a significant moment of the history of  contemporary India, the novel not only offers a counter perspective to the official history of the movement but also explores the causes behind its failure. In Salaam Aakhri, on the other hand, Kankaria discloses the lived experiences and individual stories of women's sexual enslavement and their sufferings, which often remain unspoken, unspeakable and overlooked by the dominant sociocultural system and attempts to reclaim the marginalized discourse.

At the very outset I would like to make a couple of submissions:

As the subject of prostitution is neither new or nor unexplored, the theme of the paper may appear familiar or commonplace; I do not make a claim about the novelty or uniqueness of the subject matter. However, the novel is significant as it sensitively captures the 'Otherness' of the prostitutes through their 'lived experience'. 

This paper is not about those who in the full knowledge of their action have freely taken up commercial sexual activity but about those underdeveloped children and women who were forced into sexual labour against their will. Various factors such as gender discrimination, economic coercion, and human trafficking lead these women and girls to this "commercialized vice".

The novel is based on the author's actual visits to Sonagachi and her interactions with the inhabitants incognito. Therefore, for the enlightened readers and worthy critics, it is more of an observation on prostitution from a perspective other than the intellectual one. 

Once a woman's ownership rights over her body are stolen, the body becomes foreign, separated from 'self'. The body becomes a tool, a weapon, a burden to drag around. It can be used for profit or further abuse. Some victims feel betrayed by their bodies and turn to punishing them. The body can be abused with alcohol, food, starvation, self-mutilation, and even death.

In popular perception of prostitution it is the sexuality of a prostitute that invites attention. My paper seeks to take up a "realistic" and not "romantic" representation of prostitution, to use Rajeswari Sunder Rajan's (1999) terms, who makes a distinction between the two as follows: "the realistic mode stresses the work of prostitution, the romantic, the sexuality of the prostitute".

In the light of the above submissions, I shall investigate through a close reading of the text as to how prostitution operates as a 'sexually political practice' that treats women as '(Un)Desirable Other', as a 'space to be invaded', destroys their freedom and induces them to collaborate with their oppressors. Further, drawing on the ongoing debate between the liberal and the radical feminist ideologies and a demand for their rights as sex workers (propagated by various women's organizations), I shall argue that their specificity as paid labour does not restore their dignity but commodities them still further.

Moreover, supporting Sheila Jeffreys' (2007) argument who puts prostitution as "a harmful cultural  practice", I wish to maintain that this degrading practice should not be seen as 'ordinary work' or  'women's choice' as many have claimed it. Finally, my attempt would be to show as to what extent Madhu Kankaria's novel Salaam Akhiri is successful in writing the body of prostitute.

Before pursuing these gendered assumptions, however, it is necessary to locate prostitution within its historical and cultural context.

Historicising Prostitution in India

The figure of the sexually available woman, the prostitute, the courtesan, and the whore has invited sustained interest, in all languages and cultures. Universal cultural texts have variously defined prostitutes as women who are merely promiscuous and even those women who marry for financial security or those who receive cash or gifts for sexual acts. The prostitute is a victim; she is denied sexual agency, a voice, a place in history, and an identity as an autonomous woman. The prostitute's social or subject position is constructed through often contradictory terms: "she is simultaneously dangerous and pathetic" (Pullen 2005), "a victim of society, a spectacle of vice for society",  (Anderson, 2002); she is both an object of desire and ridicule /abuse. She belongs to "a minority group that remain(s) excluded and separated in abstraction as well as in actuality from the realm of civil society" (Ghosh,2004, 107). These 'outcasts' of society have been depicted and understood variously: sometimes they have been called "a necessary social evil, at other times, a stigma, a by-product of 'stronghold' of the family and even as a dark and filthy 'gutter' to be used by the civilized but duplicitous society to dump in it its muck of sexual fantasies and frustrations" (Salaam Akhiri, blurb). Therefore, it is argued that prostitution is anti-social and should be eradicated.

Yet, others have maintained that it will persist in society regardless of the opinions of authorities and ideologists, and therefore should be controlled or regulated by law.

Commenting on the sidetracking the issue of prostitution by political leaders, Madhu Kankaria says that prostitution never became a social issue in even in the nationalist discourse in India during the pre-independence era. Because they are sexually compromised, prostitutes are excluded from sympathy and the potential for reform by self-regulation. The state maintains "a "tolerationist' legal approach" (Ghosh, 2004, p.106) towards prostitution. Even the Indian feminist movement is less inclined to consider issues related to prostitution among principal struggles including domestic violence, dowry deaths or sati. Sukirti, who is the narrator in the novel and also the voice over of the writer, offers a significant observation on this urgent issue in connection to the above mentioned argument:

In our history, a number of social reform movements such as abolition of Sati system and widow remarriage took place, but no one came forward even today to enforce the prohibition of prostitution. Perhaps because the problem of sati system and widow remarriage were problems of the respectable and elite class only…Our patriarchal society did not consider prostitution as a problem at all, for it was considered essential and inevitable like the dirty drains that are meant to carry filth. (Salaam 106).

Another reason cited is that prostitution in India is founded upon the ancient erotic tradition that does not prohibit it but accepts it as a part of social structure. In the Vedic texts there is reference to this practice and as early as 4th century was controlled by the state regulation as prescribed in the treatise on state polity the Arthsastra. The signs of prostitution are visible in the erotic classic Kamasutra, the roopajeevas and nagarvadhus or the royal courtesans in ancient India, the sacred temple dancer devdasis, the courtesans of the Mughal courts and the nautch girls of the British Raj. During the Mughal era in the subcontinent (1526 to 1857) prostitution had a strong nexus with performing arts.
Mughals patronized prostitution which raised the status of dancers and singers to higher levels of prostitution. Even during the British era prostitution flourished the famous Kamathipura a red light area in Bombay was built during this era to entertain British troops.

During 19th century in Bengali literary texts and popular fiction, prostitutes were depicted as sexually deviant women or patita against the construct of ideal Indian woman as bhadramahila. Thus, "the prostitute's opposite was the bhadramahila, the 'goddess' and 'mother' of Indian nationalism" (P.Chatterjee, 1990, p.248). The term 'patita' or the 'fallen woman' was invented by the society to imprison them in their pigeonhole" (S. Chatterjee, 1998, p.88). In her well known work The Making of Colonial Lucknow 1856-1877 Veena Oldenberg (1984) points out that during the colonial period the tawaifs or courtesans were considered the highest in rank in the hierarchical division of prostitutes. They were accomplished in music and dance, excelled in politeness and were patronized by the ruling class and the gentry. Common whores catered to the labour class and the common citizens.

With the British intervention in Awadh and the exile of Wajid Ali Shah after 1857 the world of the courtesans and dancin  girls underwent major changes. As a result of the loss of court patronage, "the tawaifs found themselves living in the same bazaar area with other regular prostitutes and whores" (Dang, 1993, p.175). The colonial presence further deteriorated their condition, the courtesan, once considered the epitome of manners and etiquettes, gradually turned into prostitutes. With the growth of cities and the emergence of the new class, population increase, prostitution became more widespread. Prostitution became a kind of social exploitation and prostitutes soon became destitutes.

In Bengal prostitution began in some form or the other in 1690. Before the arrival of the British, the nawabs began the custom of offering young girls along with expensive gifts for the entertainment of the Portuguese traders and travellers. Many of them became mistresses of the famous traders and English governors. Even during colonial times, Calcutta had acquired the dubious distinction of the city of prostitutes, whores and bais with the chief patrons of the brothels being the Bengali babus. The regions of Sonagachhi, Kalahaandi and connected areas in Bangladesh and Nepal have a long history of commodification and exploitation of female body. During that period, there was not a single locality where at least ten houses of prostitutes could not be found. With every passing year their number in Calcutta went up.

However, with the advent of colonialism, there was a perceptible change in the situation of the prostitute. In pre-colonial times, her activities were never made illegal but now, the Colonial administration brought prostitution under penal laws in order to protect British soldiers from venereal diseases. Prostitution could not be prohibited as it catered to the sexual needs of the British troops and other functionaries of the administration. But they tried to control it through the Cantonments Act, the Contagious Diseases Act, and the Lock Hospital Act and so on. These controls led to harassment of the prostitutes. Not surprisingly, neither the British administrators nor the Bengal bhadralok social reformers tried to restrict the activities of those men who frequented the brothels.

The prostitution continued from ancient and medieval India and has taken a more gigantic proportion in modern India. Recent statistics on prostitution reveal that over 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes in Sonagachi, Calcutta's largest red-light district. Often forced into the trade by poverty, abandonment or the rampant trafficking business which forcibly transports young girls from Nepal and neighbouring Bangladesh, they come from all castes, but have been pushed down the social scale to  Sonagachi, a seedy landscape of narrow alleys. The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 (ITPA), the main statute dealing with sex work in India, does not criminalise prostitution or prostitutes per se, but mostly punishes acts by third parties facilitating prostitution like brothel keeping, living off earnings and procuring, even where sex work is not coerced.  

Continued on Next Page 


More by :  Dr. Madhu Singh

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