Sunil and I would walk together. If it was a busy public road, we would walk holding hands through the fields which would lie bare after the harvest. He would be there constantly, looking after me, “Don’t step on that kutti; look out for that ridge!” I would be wearing very cheap, locally-made plastic footwear or slippers made from rubber tyres. I was not in the habit of wearing fashionable footwear. And since my journeys were night trips, I didn’t have much sense of fashion either.

Sunil would lead me as if I were a little child of three or four years. He would walk ahead tap...tap...but in between, would throw instructions behind for me to follow: “Watch out, that ridge is new, it is slushy with mud!”

I was used to working in the fields, planting and harvesting before I started sex work, whereas he had never even seen nellu! He didn’t even know which tree rice grows on! Yet, I enjoyed that thrill of walking, obeying his instructions. I felt very free. A sense of exhilaration.

Taking me away and seeing me back safely with the full payment made, and at the same time freeing me from all the responsibilities...I would be brimming with joy.

That must be love.

While with him, it was not possible to sleep for long. I would remove the upper mundu, fold it neatly and keep it aside. This is the garment which displays the complete purity of the body to the outside world. So, the clean upper mundu creates the impression that you are “clean”. I would hitch up the underskirt as well and lie down on his lap to take a short nap. We didn’t have another place to sleep. It was not possible to think of stretching our arms and legs while asleep. Our bodies would become covered with mud. Usually Sunil wore a lungi when he came at night and I slept on his lap. The lungi was a dark-coloured mundu and hence would conceal the dirt and my dress wouldn’t get dirtied.

His constant complaint was that it was impossible to remove the spot where I put my head in his lap at night. Those days, we never used shampoo to wash hair. Hair was washed using Chandrika soap. I would find a place to wash my hair and then put oil in it. This oil and dirt would leave a round patch on his lungi. When he recounted the scolding he got from his sister while washing clothes, he would forget how he used to praise my hair. “It’s a wild forest that you have on your head, no wonder the lungi is spoiled!” – that long curly hair he so intensely desired in his wife, nothing would be remembered, and instead a wild forest would have suddenly sprung up!

I would get mad, and really blast him. “What did you say on that day? My hair was very beautiful!” He used to caress my hair slowly, “What long hair, and how beautiful! You don’t have any lice in your hair. My sister’s hair is full of them.”

I would get angry, “Do you know how to pick lice from hair? If you pull like this, no lice will come out. This is not how lice are picked.” The next quarrel would be over that. When he found himself defeated, he would say, “Ooh! Who wants to listen to you in the middle of this night?”

Those days, I would often become sad; the thoughts of my kids used to fill my mind. I was unable to see them as and when I wanted to. After talking about something or the other, I would tell him, “Eda, my mind is feeling very heavy!”

Those were the days when arrack was available. He usually brought a small bottle of 100 ml arrack in his pocket or in his lungi pouch.

Even after wrapping the upper end of his lungi or mundu around the waist, there would be some loose end which could be folded up and tucked into the waist to make a small cunning pouch which was where people kept their valuables in those days. If I was not in good spirits, I would drink that at the beginning itself. Otherwise, even if I saw the bottle, I would not feel like having it. Then he would enquire, “Why is the person who normally guzzles it down without mixing it with water, not looking at it today?”

“Eda, my mind is not feeling well. I haven’t been able to see my kids for some time now. And I don’t have any money with me either.”

“Why do you have to bring up such things when we are going for something good.”

“A very ‘good thing’ indeed! Is this a good thing?” I wanted to ask him. But then the question would hang damp on my mind alone, and I would smile deep within. “Is it that you alone are good?”

Usually, very good clients never came to me. Because I have certain conditions. Very rarely some clients asked for oral sex. In the beginning itself, I would make it clear that I wouldn’t do it. My next condition was that I wouldn’t be available for any amount less than fifty.

However frequent or familiar a client might be, it was my custom to take the money as soon as we reached the place. Even with Sunil, it was so. Only those who want to cheat us keep it for the last. Something similar to being seen off at the railway station. Remember how the ticket would be given to us on the platform itself with an instruction to keep it safe.

Sunil too gave me the money as soon as he met me. Not a fifty-rupee note, but five notes of ten rupees! Sometimes he would take out four ten-rupee notes from the pocket and then start searching the lungi pouch, then the shirt-pocket and finally the last ten would be found in the purse and handed over to me. All this time, do you know what would be going on inside my head?

“Will he give me the full fifty? We have become pretty close acquaintances. I won’t be able to bargain with him if he gave only forty.”

Then even if we got fifty rupees after wandering around and working for the whole day, forty rupees would be easily spent and only ten could be kept aside for the kids. If he cut ten rupees, then there would be no money saved that day. In the darkness of the night, he would not see the tension and disgust on my face.

Sometimes the assumed aristocracy inside him would rear its head: “What to do? If it is a home, people like you won’t be able to live there!”

The message could not be missed. It was “people like you”. The ideology was laid bare. He, a very good, well-to-do, person and, I, “a woman like that”.

Once after watching a movie, he started talking about the costume in the film: “Che! The heroine in it was wearing only a breast cloth. I felt rather odd.”

“Why, did you feel like that seeing me?”

Podi, I felt disgusted seeing that. People in the cinema field are bad.”

“So being ‘well-dressed’ is a measure of class and quality. And what are we doing? Is this not bad?”

Even if I had ten times more questions in my mind, I would keep mum. It was on the days that he came to me that I had good sleep, peace of mind, and nice journeys. But the questions never left my head.

Excerpted with permission from Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker, Nalini Jameela, translated by Reshma Bharadwaj, Om Books International.