Meet the prostituted woman in Indian short fiction

All the stories in this anthology ‘reveal the low self-esteem, incompleteness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-hatred that comes from being the oppressed’.

It was his love for education that drew Murli Naskar to Calcutta. His father and mother were not his natural parents. They had tried hard to rid themselves of the malignant growth that Murli Naskar was, through one dodge or another, and had finally succeeded.

But, upon arrival in Calcutta, he quickly concluded that education was not the be-all and end-all in life. He had no funds for hostel expenses, textbooks or notebooks. It’s quite possible that, like thousands of other boys, he too could have passed the Bachelor of Arts examination and got a clerical job, or found work as a schoolteacher and lived out his remaining years like a cowardly nincompoop.

But Girja Shankar, a Sonagachi pimp, took him under his wing and saved him from such a pathetic existence.

The two had met in a local train and, afterwards, Girja Shankar had brought Murli to Sonagachi and arranged for his upkeep in Mehndi Lakshmi’s room.

Exactly one week later, the cops picked up Girja Shankar and took him away. Girja Shankar used to collect a weekly “take” from the whores for the police station in-charge, Gaya Prasad.

Mehndi Lakshmi told all this to Murli Naskar. Mehndi Lakshmi was getting on in years and rarely managed to snare a client. Even so, in the whole of Imam Baksh Lane, she was the most popular trick because she could play the role of an elderly aunt and also service clients.

To atone for her sins, she had covered the four walls of her room with posters of gods and goddesses. Helping educated boys like Murli Naskar was her other hobby; so, with the help of a curtain she divided her room in two sections.

In his part of the room, Murli Naskar would read the works of Nietzsche and Rajneesh Acharya. He would steal these books from a library in Gol Park and after he was done with them, he would sell them to a Sindhi bookseller in Free School Street who dealt in used books. In the other part of the room, Mehndi Lakshmi carried on her trade, cooked, read the Ramayan, or primped herself for her imaginary husband, Nawal Purohit.

“Nawal Purohit?” Murli would ask. “If he is alive, how come he is not with you?”

“What the hell do you know?” Mehndi Lakshmi would respond. “You’ve read a few books and now you fancy yourself a preacher? Eat your words, Murli. Not only is he alive but there is no finer carpenter in all of Mandir Haat.”

“How odd!” Murli Naskar would say.

Whatever he’d have read of Nietzsche would be scattered to the winds. All sort of thoughts would keep him brooding and scratching his head until it was time for Mehndi Lakshmi’s clients.

Then she would pull aside a corner of the curtain, flash a grin at him and say: “Your eyes are getting tired, Murli. Perhaps you should go and watch TV for a while.”

Murli Naskar would gather his books and leave the room. And on occasions like these, he would be ensnared by the black-and-white TV that was on all the time at the cigarette-vendor’s shop on the street corner. Here, all the over-age whores, the young women who were yet to get into the racket, defunct pimps and idling johns, would all cluster around in a motley crowd. Here, a cool breeze would course its way through the narrow alleys. People would spit or direct jets of betel-stained spittle at the walls. Or they would listen to the harangue of some petty politician. That is to say, here too, life would go on as it did on any other busy street.

The only difference was that in respectable neighbourhoods people are acutely aware of their wickedness, but everyone had a clear conscience here. Everything was out in the open and the whores plied their trade diligently, like day-labourers. The pimps had their homes and families and the johns felt obliged to return to their world of respectability.

But Murli Naskar was a misfit here. So he took shelter in the students’ politics of Surendar Nath College. He took up a political banner and flashed his dagger in the middle of tram tracks. He learned how to make bombs and, by cutting off the ear of a Congress Party minion, he made it possible for the man to gain fame as “Earless Gopal”. And when it was time for the final exams, Murli took to sleeping late and long.

Often Mehndi, unable to find another spot, would wrap herself around him and go to sleep. In a kind of a dream, Murli would keep pushing Mehndi away. But, after having serviced countless clients, Mehndi would not have the strength to respond. She wouldn’t wake up until the sun had crept past the window, come around and fell on his face, heating it up. When she did wake up, she would feel sorry for Murli Naskar. She would make tea for him, hand him his toothbrush, and curse him.

“Did you come here to get an education or what? I thought I was atoning for my sins. Sins my ass. In the end, you too will turn out a pimp. Come on, Murli, hurry up. Finish your education and get lost. I have a lot of other matters to attend to.”

“Like what?”

“Don’t you bother yourself with that! Just finish your education and get back to decent society. Many a dolled-up girl is waiting impatiently to bear your child.”

Murli would burst out laughing. Well, this is all right, he would think. When these whores don’t hesitate to bear children, why should the girls from respectable families hold back? Respectable families – he chuckled again. These whores primp and preen too, hang icons of deities on their walls and celebrate marrying imaginary husbands. The only difference is that in respectable homes, where the woman is the wage-earner, it must be difficult to distinguish between the wife and the husband.

Murli Naskar was disturbed by Karl Marx’s theory on the concept of the absurd relationship between men and women. He understood prostitutes, but wives – what the hell! He felt sorry for them. For all that they do from dawn to dusk they never get even a fourth of a reward for their labours. In fact, they often don’t even get enough to eat or to buy enough fabric to cover their nakedness.

The whores of Sonagachi would often tell the johns who took too long to finish: “Hey! You think I’m your wife? Get lost, bum, it’s time for me to meet other clients!”

Excerpted with permission from the story ‘God Forsaken’, Siddique Alam, translated from the Urdu by Javaid Qazi, from River of Flesh: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction, edited by Ruchira Gupta, Speaking Tiger Books.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.