In today’s world writers are increasingly encouraged to “write what they know” and dissuaded from taking on perspectives that are not theirs – at least when writing characters of lesser power in terms of race, class, caste and so on. Does writing from these perspectives create problems of appropriation, or is it necessary to usher in greater representation? There are a variety of arguments made by either side.

In her debut novel, A Death In Shonagachhi, Rijula Das’s writing immediately evoked this debate in my mind by plunging the reader into Shonagachhi, the well-known red light district of Calcutta. It did, however, become immediately indubitable that Das had done her research. The book was born from years of critical research that focused on the connections between public space and sexual violence. Das enters this world boldly – if the writing itself is not contentious enough, the story doesn’t shy away from the contemporary debates that sex work is embroiled either.

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, the novel is worth reading for its refusal to succumb to tropes. Whether it is the genre of the murder mystery, conventional ideas of love and romance, or the figure of the helpless woman who requires “rescuing”, Das seems cognisant of what is expected of her and unwilling to give in. She toys with these ideas but sets them in the real world, where they rarely play out according to script.

The non-existent saviour

Are the women of Shonagachhi in need of “rescue and rehabilitation” or can sex workers be respected as workers in their own right? Deepa, a character working for a Sex Workers’ Collective, argues that the rescue-raid-rehabilitation model delegitimises the profession of sex workers, their right to unionise and fight for labour rights. “This is where they have made a life, had children, had marriages even, fed themselves and their families.”

The person she is arguing with replies with scorn. “These people want the battered women of Shonagachhi to stay there so they can look forward to more murder and sexual slavery – and for some among us, playing the part of saviours is more important than saving anyone,” comes the response. Das never quite provides us with a definitive answer to this debate.

Either way, the notion of a “saviour” is just that – a fanciful notion. Das takes us through a range of perspectives to construct the world of Shonagachhi, and each character fails as a hero.

Samsher Singh, the police officer, is disinterested in even trying. “He liked the films where the hero was a good cop, and there had been many of them. Once he even took his wife to a ‘first day first show’, braving the torrid storm of his mother’s moods for weeks, but he had no desire to be like them.”

Tilu Shau, diligent customer to Lalee, the sex worker he has fallen haplessly in love with, certainly wants to play the role of the hero. Although his sincerity is admirable, he is treated with mostly contempt – even by Lalee.

The flitting narrator also allows us to see characters through one another’s eyes – rather than through an objective, omnipresent narrator. This is fitting since Shonagachhi is woven through an intricate web of inter-relationships; one pierced with power dynamics and disparities.

Samsher Singh observes of Deepa, “Her clothes were plain, but Samsher knew that kind of plainness. It sold at a premium in small, palm-terraced boutiques that displayed their wares on reclaimed antique furniture in old art-deco houses, shunning anything as crass as a shop.” There is no one character that transcends this web and no one who can straightforwardly unknot it.

An abundance of antagonists

Although there is no single hero in this book, when it comes to the villains it may be apt to say there is an abundance. This is the other way in which Das subverts the murder mystery genre – the tension that is released with the unmasking of the murderer is never guaranteed. The issue is not simply one of discovering the culprit, but of holding them accountable in a world where the life of a prostitute is treated as negligible.

Villains seem to exist in every crevice of Shonagachhi, and so the book holds you in a constant clutch that is relieved only with humour and moments of unexpected warmth. Das’s narrator is wry, funny and indiscriminately mocking. No character is faultless. However, what becomes evident is that when the girls of Shonagachhi are not victims, they are villainised by others.

“When the fingers are pointed, they will turn towards the girls of the red-light district. It’s not for nothing that they put them in one corner, in these floating towns where they can remain among their own folk and not be a part of ‘normal’ life.”

It is a consequence of this that we get characters who are chillingly unafraid. In a moment of rare clarity Samsher Singh observes that it is the victim of a crime who is often forced to hide away, when “logically speaking, if it’s those guys who committed the crime and have an FIR filed against them, they should do the hiding, no?”

It is the same forces which send a victim into hiding that try to erase the lives – and hence, the deaths – of prostitutes. A force that tries to censor. To project images of decency and normalcy, while going any length to protect the powerful and their misdeeds.

One of the characters reflects on the relationship between the city and its red-light areas – the tendency to designate and try to contain them. They turn into zones to be “avoided, denied, visited or went on a dare to. But for someone like him, the entire city was something that happened between whore pits, which were indeed more numerous and proliferating than those normal people knew or suspected.” Despite their pervasiveness, these zones are made taboo. If you do not identify yourself as one of the villains, you might at least identify yourself as part of the problem for a tendency to avert your gaze.

Multiple main characters

Despite all of this, Das’s tone is not one of guilt-tripping or moral policing. Every character takes their own feelings very seriously, even if some experiences are objectively more harrowing than others. Each perspective is accorded importance and provided space.

Every character has their small redemptions, too. Samsher Singh, though he is not immune to bribes, also has a soft spot for his new wife. Tilu Shau’s love for Lalee is not lacking in sincerity – and the two share surprisingly tender moments, even if it is not the love of cinema. Lalee herself is perhaps the most multifaceted character – weathered and tough in moments, emitting sparks of softness in others.

Although some lives are made to seem smaller than others and some deaths pushed to peripheries, ultimately, we are all the central characters of our own worlds. Das seemed to point to the very real struggle of co-existence between characters that have all cast themselves as the main character. How do we scrape for power, who do we disregard in this process? How can we make space for each other?

Although we might never fully inhabit someone else’s world and escape our own heads, the book demonstrates a variety of ways humans engage with the world around them. It seems to ask – what characters do we want to be for one another?

A Death in Shonagachhi: A Novel, Rijula Das, Picador India.