BOOK EXCERPT

In a new book, Nalini Jameela breaks taboos and writes about her romantic encounters as a sex worker

An excerpt from a new book by the activist, sex worker and author of the path-breaking ‘The Autobiography of a Sex Worker’, which was published in 2007.

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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.