Literary Shelf

The (Un) Desireable 'Other'? - II

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The novel Salaam Aakhiri opens with glimpse of the dark and 'sinful' lanes of Sonagachi the most notorious redlight area of Calcutta, bringing the readers face to face with "the stock exchange of bodies" (Salaam Aakhiri) waiting to be claimed by prospective customers. It is a world that is not  regulated by the usual societal norms and practices for living and being. It is an 'insulated space' where  the male sexual identity gets defined through the literal ownership of another human being's body or to use Stoltenberg's phrase through "the eroticism of owning"(401). It is a state of affair that reinforces and sexualizes women's subordinate status and invades and destroys her real self.

The narrator accompanied by Sukirti, a freelance journalist and an employee at a stock broking firm visit this "stock exchange of bodies", a thriving but murky world of pimps and violent customers, where female bodies are traded everyday:

This is the mysterious world of the prostitutes, bearing the burden of centuries. A world swathed in revulsion, where body is a temple and its inhabitants, the priests of the body, a world that arouses a strange sense of mystique. There is a commotion around, a different history to each hovel of every alley …where each night not only bodies but also souls are stripped and disrobed… Here one can encounter life at its ugliest and the most horrifying because there is no fear of social mores,propriety or tradition (Salaam 13).

On the entrance to this dark and dingy world stand eight-nine 'on-line' whores, as if carrying an invisible signpost of 'For Sale', wait for the clients. Standing at the crossroad of darkness and hope, wearing gaudy makeup and cheap trinkets, they are only bodies, female bodies waiting for some other body. In discrete Hindi, these whores are called 'line wallis', women gone bad, 'fallen women' who have drifted from the path of virtuousness and propriety. They are "a use and throw object for some, a spittoon for others, a means of time- pass, a chewing gum and a guinea pig for others".(41) They exist as 'filthy gutters' and their marginal status cannot be denied. Quoting from Montaigne in The Second Sex, Beauvoir says:

The kings of Persia were wont to invite their wives to join them in their banquets, but when the wine began to excite them in good earnest and they felt impelled to give reins to sensuality, they send them away to private apartments, that they might not make them partake of their immoderate lust, and caused other women to come instead, toward whom they did not feel such an obligation of respect. (6)

There is an ongoing international and feminist debate on prostitution and consent. The liberal critics represented by Ericsson (1980) believe that:

If two adults voluntarily consent to an economic arrangement concerning sexual activity and this activity takes place in private, it seems plainly absurd to maintain that there is something intrinsically wrong with it (1980:338-9).

And what the prostitute sells is not her body but sexual services; thus 'the kind of relationship that exists between prostitute and customer is one that we find in most service professions' (1980: 341-353).

Arguing against Ericsson, feminist theorists such as Carole Pateman (1983) contend that prostitution should not be regarded as a 'free contract'; it is a form of slavery because 'the prostitute cannot sell sexual services alone; what she sells is her body' (1983:562). In short, most feminist theorists have argued that consent to prostitution is impossible. For radical feminists this is because prostitution is always 'a coercive sexual practice'. They claim that under worldwide conditions of male domination and endemic male violence, women are forced into prostitution sex and no real consent is possible. Others simply suggest that economic coercion makes the sexual consent of sex workers highly problematic if not impossible.

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

But whether consensual or coerced, the fact remains that women who participate in the sex industry because of the "sexist social pressures, abuse histories, economic needs, and other factors and other factors" are victims of a system that is "seriously oppressive, abusive and harmful-to oneself and /or to a broader group of which one is member (e.g. women)" (Whisnant, 2007, p.23). Troubled with the conflicting opinions of 'some women choose', or 'do they really choose?' the journalist in Sukirti cannot stop herself from interrogating a prostitute and is shocked to find that extreme poverty and hunger can force a woman to surrender her body to strangers. It is important to remember that a prostitute is also a woman and as a woman it is extremely difficult and painful to dishonour herself.

Dishonoured by the society, disowned by her family, and painfully aware of all odds stacked against her, a prostitute still nurses a faint hope to reclaim her life and honour by discarding her identity as the 'deviant other':

Every evening as the day comes to an end, a dream flutters in their eyes, a smile brightens up the face eagerly awaiting a miracle to occur , each day hoping for something incredible to happen… something wonderful …something unexpected that would suddenly transform their lives . Envisaging a lover among their customers… may be a benefactor, to rid them off their tedious and dark existence. But, contrary to their hope, when nothing of this sort happens for these 'glowing embers of bodies', as the night gradually fades, their belief in the inevitability of their destiny becomes more pronounced - that, all the journeys of their life would be undertaken along this sinful path, that no convoys of light, - that could return the joy and happiness of their lives-shall ever enter these dark lanes. So, the next day,  with their remaining breath they once again welcome their customers wearing false smiles on their tired faces. 

Cut off from their families, society and devoid of all dignity and honour, 'a World Bank of tolerance' - these are the line wallis! Illiterate, underdeveloped, immature, soul less, narrowminded like the winding lanes and by-lanes, are thousands of linewallis! (18)

Initially for the Sukirti, it was difficult to have access to the memories of suffering and anguish of the prostitutes. Quite often they would reveal a lot about themselves to her, but many times they evaded the issue, and also, frequently sidetracked. But many of their heart wrenching stories revealed their unaccountable miseries. One thing was certain: they could never forget that they were once daughters, sisters, wives or mothers. Remembering was an act painful for them, their destiny clung to them, and they harboured no hope to return to their families for fear of dishonouring their families. So, a prostitute in her tear soaked voice requests Sukriti not to visit them anymore.

Of late, an alarming trend of increasingly younger girls being trafficked into the sex trade is being witnessed. Madhu Kankaria's novel takes up this horrific phenomenon of trafficking in women and children and their coercion into prostitution.

The trauma of such child victims who are brought to the brothels by procurers and seasoned for prostitution is unimaginable. The narrator cites the case of Noori, a young girl of fifteen or sixteen brought to the brothel. Still untouched, not yet deflowered -she looked "terrified like an animal tied up and brought to the slaughterhouse" with eyes like "frozen slabs of iceberg". Ironically, women who have themselves been repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse often turn into agents of victimization and exploitation. It is not unusual to find characters like Meena Madam, with a troubled history of her own sexual abuse, threatens and coaxes these trapped young girls to accept their fate as soon as possible. The writer realizes that "It is the irony of a prostitute's life that she can endure the agony of her life only by watching others turning into prostitutes" (29).

As an exploitative practice of providing sexual access to women, prostitution commodifies feminine sexuality, maintains women's social and economic inequality and destroys their identity. It entails "the systematic deconstruction of an individual woman's beliefs, feelings, desires and values" (Giobbe, 1991). The word prostitute does not imply "a deeper identity; it is the absence of identity: the theft and subsequent abandonment of self. What remains is essential to the job: the mouth, the genitals, anus, breasts...and the tag" (128). At this point it would not be out of place to quote from Taylor Lee's memoir:

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. (Lee 2007:59)

It is ironical that a man's desire to purchase sexual service is considered 'normal' and 'harmless' but the woman who provides it is considered "immoral, unclean and criminally culpable by traditional conservatives, and despicable but harmless by sex liberals" (D.A. Clarke 2007:187). However, possessing a woman through "eroticism of owning" is a strategic ego boosting exercise, a game of power politics that involves "conquering" a woman and playing with her honour and dignity in return for money. The prostitute then acquires the identity of a 'sexual object', a 'tradable commodity' or 'sexed bodies for hire' (Barry 1999:97).

Ironically these 'hired' women are, at times, expected to show attachment to their buyers. The attitude of 'emotional indifference' or frigidity towards her client is shown is honestly expressed by Gayatri, another prostitute, whom Sukirti visits:

They expect us to shower natural love in exchange for money. They expect us to satisfy their male ego by satiating their physicality through "real" love. Do you know, what ninety out of hundred men ask me after having done 'it'?' Do I love every customer in the same way?' and I just feel like laughing at their naiveté. (104)

The female body is viewed as being sensuous, mysterious, and exotic and always the 'desirable other'. But, the body of the prostitute /sex worker, once a source of livelihood, becomes an affliction to her when it is ravaged with venereal and other sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, like her counterpart in the Victorian era, she is thought to be a contaminant, spreading venereal disease and sexual immorality to middle-class women. Moreover, their unwanted pregnancies, terminated unhygienically by untrained quacks, often become fatal and lead them to their death. Salaam Akhiri traces the journey of some such prostitutes who are claimed mercilessly by painful and untimely death.

The novel identifies the various factors that expose prostitutes to various contaminating and communicable diseases thus jeopardizing their heath, but the writer raises a very pertinent question: can a prostitute who is stigmatized for ever, finds her life in complete mess ever think of protecting her health and her life? Quite often hatred for men turns her to avenge herself at the cost of her own life. Kankaria cites the example of Reshmi, who refuses medical help because she was "preserving this gift of devastation and death for the man who made me a prostitute. If I don't find him, I'll take my revenge from all men, I'll transmit this disease to all those who come to us"(186)….As she spoke her topaz eyes glinted with wild fire. Her lips trembled; the veins in her neck became swollen and blue. Thus turning her disease into a lethal weapon targeted against men, she feels empowered.

Through Reshmi's resistance and her appropriation of her diseased body as a tool for revenge, the novel offers a powerful critique of the sexual oppression that goed unchecked in the name of prostitution. Sukirti wanted to say:

Don't talk about a meaningless thing as revenge that would spring from the seed of your own destruction …..Instead, take revenge from the system, talk of changing that system which makes someone a prostitute and the other, a perpetrator....  Unfortunately, the woman who stood before her was "a volcano that had been reduced to ruin-devoid of possibilities and hope. For whom, if there was any purpose and meaning to life at all, was to return the suffocation, the stench and the murkiness that the society had bestowed upon her, because the day she came of age, society had marked an expiry date on her, and now she had completely lost faith in the philosophy of karma and its consequences and in life. (188)

The discourse of domesticity constructs marriage and the family as the norm of behaviour thereby presenting the figure of the prostitute as abnormal or deviant. In contrast to the chaste, submissive and devoted wife, a prostitute is thus, categorized as abnormal, sexually wayward and deviant. Her body is not celebratory but undesirable and offensive to her. As one of the most maligned and misunderstood segments of the society her physicality is misconstrued and misrepresented. Reshmi recollects how a journalist had interrogated her on the issue of a prostitute's sexuality.

In a condescending tone she had stated that

"the society looks down upon you with revulsion but in return you do get enough sexual gratification. Where is that available to respectable ladies like us?" To which Reshmi had answered that offering one's body to strangers makes us loathe our own bodies" (188)

Supporting the view that the prostitute was seen as an agent of putrefaction, literally and figuratively, and perceived as Corbin notes 'as a putrid woman' whose body smelled bad, Reshmi further says:

Have you ever seen a rotten banana? Our bodies are exactly like that. Only… its foul odour has not reached the top. I am sure God does not exist, had he been there my condition would not have been like this at the age of thirty four …... You ask me not to talk of revenge, but is my mukti possible? I am certain that if I don't avenge myself, the stink of this dirty name will never leave me, not even in my next birth… (189)

Since Helene Cixous gave the call "Write yourself. Your body must be heard" in 1975, there have been continual attempts to sort out what it means. The continental feminists such as Wittig, Helene Cixous, and Gayatri Spivak talk about "l'ecriture feminine" which roughly translates to "writing the feminine body." They argue that the only way to move women from a position of objectified servitude to a position of full subjectivity is for women to write the truth of their bodies. In Salaam Aakhiri Madhu Kankaria has successfully articulated the female body of prostitutes as (Un)Desirble 'Other' in a language that is typically her own. In the role of an interventionist writer committed to the cause of social transformation, she has traced the lives of the prostitutes and has brought their experiences into sharper focus.


Writing on a sensitive and controversial issue like prostitution requires a great deal moral courage and commitment. In the 'Preface' to her novel Madhu Kankaria mentions how difficult it was to write about the dark and 'sinful' world of flesh trade. To quote:

Here, every step in writing was fraught with challenges. One had to encounter the prickly questions and the whiplashes of obscenity and immodesty, the restrictions of samskara and culture. There was also the question of 'disrobing' the language. A continuous struggle with the self was- what should be the permissible limit for the writer? As the world of the whores was unveiling itself layer by layer before my eyes, I was haunted by the question - to what extent should the writer lower herself in the depiction of the ugliness, apathy and horror of this world. The realization also set in as to why the writers in the West used pseudonyms to write on this issue….. (Kankaria, 'Preface' vii)

She further says:

In order to arrive at the truth behind their lives as prostitutes, not only one had to make innumerable visits to their sordid world but also had to win their trust, which at times became life threatening. No prostitute ever wants to disclose about herself, not even at the cost of their lives. The fear of dishonour, the apprehension of revealing the nature of their work clings to their mind and soul especially among those who come from rural areas or those who are part time or 'flying prostitutes'.(ibid)

The representation of prostitution in Indian texts is largely viewed, as Rajeswari Sundar Rajan has rightly observed "within the sharp polarities of "realism" and "romanticism". Madhu Kankaria's Salaam Aakhiri is one such novel that crystallizes the dark world of the prostitutes with all its abuse, misery, and ugliness and contextualises it within the broad frame of the Indian socio-economic structure. It acknowledges the world of prostitution in its entirety - the grinding poverty that leads women to this sinful occupation, the abject sexual enslavement of women, the life threatening and often fatal diseases ravaging the prostitutes' bodies, the pimp and policy brutality, and the increasingly controversial issue of prostitutes' children who seem to have no future. Talking about how the novel took its present shape, Madhu Kankaria makes a candid confession in her interview with a leading Hindi literary journal:

Actually the world of lust and sin that was gradually unfolding before me, layer by layer, had by now transformed all my preconceived notions of virtue and sin. The numerous visits to the redlight areas brought about some radical changes in my perception. Now, even the most sinful woman does not appear evil to me. Whatever I saw and felt was so complex and diverse in nature that it was well nigh impossible for me to cast it in the shape of a conventional novel. (Vagarth April 2004)

Prostitution remains a serious problem and a cultural evil. Studies of modern prostitution have focused on the role of the state, whether prohibitory or regulatory within its framework. Madhu Kankaria has justified the necessity of the abolition of prostitution on the basis of its coercive nature - either by individual coercion or by economic necessity. She supports the view that "prostitutes are desperate women whose judgment is clouded by the unjust economic deprivation in which they find themselves… The choice of prostitution is not an authentic one." (Stolba, 2000).

However, till now no concerted efforts have been made by the society to enforce stringent laws to abolish this evil practice. In recent years, the exercise of providing them with the status of a common worker has begun equating their job as that of sexual labour. But, the whole issue of theprostitute being given the status of sex worker is debatable and problematic. Aggressive organized efforts are being made by current or former sex workers and their families and lobbies for the legalization of prostitution. For those prostitutes who enter prostitution by choice / consent such as the flying prostitutes and the call girls who enter prostitution to earn some fast cash, it's a different matter altogether. But, for those who become victims of trafficking and abduction, their problem needs to be genuinely addressed. However in both the cases of coercive or consensual prostitution the fact remains that

"When a human being is reduced to a body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is consent, violation of the human being has taken place. (Barry, 1995:23)

Prostitutes (in Salaam Aakhiri and elsewhere) are all victims of societal exploitation, sexual harassment and abuse. Does the status of a 'sex worker' given to them, liberate them and restore their dignity or further exploit them to satisfy exclusively male desire? As a response to this issue I would refer to what Kempadoo has observed:

"…sex workers who claim to have chosen sex work are victims of false consciousness" that is they "unconsciously internalize the dominant ideology" of oppression. And secondly, those who 'fight for changes in the sex industry- and not for its abolition', and who attempt to represent a different perspective, they are also subject to the charge of false consciousness" (Kempadoo: 1999).

Therefore the cultural practice of prostitution ought to be interrogated through a critical feminist lens that subjects women to sexual slavery and abject domination.

(Note: All the translations in this article are mine.)

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Works Cited

  1. Barry, Kathleen. 1995. The Prostitution of Sexuality. New York: New York University Press.
  2. Beauvoir, Simone De. 1989. The Second Sex. London: Vintage Books.
  3. Bell, Shannon. 1994. Reading and Writing and Rewriting the Prostitute's Body. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  4. Chatterjee, Partha. 1990. 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's question'. In Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (eds.) Kumkum Sangari and Suresh Vaid, New Brunswick.
  5. Chatterjee, Sumanta. 1998. Dangerous Outcast: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal.
  6. Clarke, D.A. 2007 'Prostitution for Everyone: Feminism, Globalisation and the 'Sex Industry' in Not For Sale, (eds.) Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. New Delhi: Aakar Books.
  7. Dang, Kokila. 1993. 'Prostitutes, Patrons and the State: Nineteenth Century Awadh'. Social Scientist, Vol 21, Nos. 9-11, September - November.
  8. Ghosh, Swati. 2004. 'The Shadow Lines of Citizenship: Prostitutes' Struggle over Workers' Rights'. Identity, Culture and Zenith Politics, Vol 5, Nos. 1 & 2, 105-123.
  9. Giobbe, Evelina. 1991. 'Buying the Right to Rape' in Rape and Sexual Assault III: A Research Handbook (ed) AW Burgess. New York: Garland Press.
  10. Jeffreys, Sheila. 2007. 'Prostitution as a harmful cultural Practice' in Not For Sale, (eds.), Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. New Delhi: Aakar Books, 386.
  11. Kankaria, Madhu. 2007. Salaam Akhiri. New Delhi: Rajkamal Paperbacks.
  12. Kempadoo, K.1999 .'Slavery or Work? Reconceptualizing Third World Prostitution', Positions 7, 1, 225-37.
  13. Lee, Taylor. 2007 'In and Out: A Survivor's Memoir of Stripping' in Not For Sale (eds.) Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. New Delhi: Aakar Books.
  14. Oldenberg, Veena. 1984. The Making of Colonial Lucknow 1856-1877. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  15. Pullen, Kirsten. 2005. Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder .'The Prostitution Question(s), (Female) Agency, Sexuality, and Work'. re/productions: Issue 2 April 1999.
  17. Scott A. Anderson 2002. Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy: Making Sense of the Prohibition of Prostitution. Ethics 112 (4).
  18. Stolba, Christine. "The Newest Dilemma About the Oldest Profession". Women's Quarterly. Autumn 2000, Vol 26.
  19. Stolten, John. 2007. 'Pornography and International Human Rights' in Not For Sale, (eds.) Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. New Delhi: Aakar Books.
  20. Whisnant, Rebecca. 2007. 'Confronting Pornography: Some Conceptual Basics' in Not For Sale. (eds.) Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. New Delhi: Aakar Books.


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