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.