Saraju’s solitary confinement without Lata seemed so unbearable that she would cry all day and refuse to eat. The walls of the room seemed to close in on her and choke her. Her wails could be heard all over the house. She would cry herself to sleep, wake up, remember what had happened and start crying again. The other girls in the household started feeling pity for her.
“Mashi, the new girl has stopped eating. Why don’t you bring her out of that room and let her help us with the housework?” Kanan, the seniormost girl in Shefali’s household, suggested to her. She had come to Shefali to hand over the agreed amount from her daily earnings at the end of the day.
“She’s still fresh and might try to run. I don’t have time to keep an eye on runaways,” Shefali said, irritated.
“Mashi, she will die like this. And even if she doesn’t, you will have a living skeleton to sell if you don’t let her out so that she can be among people,” Kanan spoke her mind and walked away.
“Huhh! Learn to speak with respect, you slip of a girl!” Shefali raised her voice, making sure Kanan heard her.
Shefali ruled her household of eight girls and three maids with a heavy hand. She didn’t allow anyone to question her ways or volunteer suggestions.
“Pushpa, bring me tea! Where are you loafing? Don’t you know it’s my teatime?” Shefali barked.
She had sent Kanan off, but Shefali was also getting a little worried about her new girl. It had been a week since she had sold off Lata. She had known Saraju would take it hard. The girl’s unending wails disturbed her. If she didn’t eat she would indeed grow thin and her depression would tell on her looks. That would affect her price.
After having her tea, Shefali walked swiftly to Sonamukhi’s house two lanes over. Sonamukhi, like Shefali, was a retired prostitute, one who had earned well during her prime, thanks to her long string of wealthy clients. She saved intelligently and bought her freedom from her owner. She had, using her connections with her long-time customers, bought a large house, which she successfully converted into a brothel. Shefali knew that Sonamukhi was on the lookout for a couple of new girls. She told her about Saraju.
The next day, Shefali took Saraju to Sonamukhi as planned. Sonamukhi felt pity for the frail Saraju, who hadn’t bathed or eaten in days. She could tell that the girl came from a respectable background and with a little work could become a good earner. She sighed as she prepared to brighten her face to greet her new inductee.
“My, my, what a pretty face... How fair you are, my girl! But what a pity that you look so ill,” Sonamukhi said kindly, lifting Saraju’s tear-stained face. “Didn’t they treat you well there?”
Saraju was startled at these kind words and broke down, covering her face with her hands. Shefali tried to speak up, to defend herself, but Sonamukhi signalled her to leave.
“Come, come, dear. Don’t cry now. There’s a good girl,” Sonamukhi put her arm around Saraju.
When the girl finally stopped crying, Sonamukhi led her inside and made her sit beside her.
“Saraju, I understand that you were not prepared for this life. You are a good girl from a good family and dreamt of getting married one day and starting your own family. But destiny had a different plan for you and you have to accept it. I promise you, if you listen to me, I will take care of you,” Sonamukhi said.
“What work do you want me to do? I cannot cook that well but I can sweep and mop the floor, chop vegetables, wash clothes...” Saraju said, still unwilling to believe that she would have to have sex with strange men.
“Stupid girl! Why should you do all that? You will have maids to do all that for you. You just have to dress up and entertain. I’ll teach you everything, don’t worry.”
“I don’t know how to sing and dance...”
“It’s not just about singing and dancing. I’ll get the other girls to explain it all to you. Now go up to your room and relax. Everything will fall into place.”
Sonamukhi was running out of patience and did not want to scold the new girl. She called some girls who were standing at a distance, observing Saraju and talking among themselves. “Take her upstairs, get her bathed and let her rest for some time.”
The first few days in the new home were a blur. She followed instructions in a daze, eating, bathing, sleeping as she was told to do. She noticed that the other girls got dressed up and then took different men into the rooms and closed the door. She watched the women get ready every day. Some of the women tried to draw her into their banter, but she flinched and kept to herself.
By the end of the week, however, Sonamukhi had started grooming the latest girl in her establishment. She could be kind, but there was a limit to her patience. After all, she was a very good businesswoman.
Saraju was cooperative enough when all she had to do was help the other girls get ready, try on new clothes, learn to dress herself. But when it came to learning the art of sex, she protested vehemently, still hoping that this was all a nightmare that would end. She was terrified at what was expected of her and loathed the goings-on in the household.
Back home in Jamtala, Saraju’s friends would sometimes tease her about her own marriage, even though her father had wanted her to study. They would warn her not to be so tomboyish – climbing the mango tree or diving into the pond to swim or fishing with her male cousins. Her mother had tried to teach her the different ways to chop vegetables for the various curries that she would have to cook in her marital home. Marriage and men to her meant a dreamy world of unknown excitement, a bit scary but definitely not loathsome. But she had only a vague idea about what happened between a husband and wife behind closed doors in private.
Parvati, a young woman in Sonamukhi’s establishment, was trying to teach Saraju what a customer would expect from her and how she should please him. Saraju didn’t want to hear it – she had her hands over her ears as Parvati tried to explain what she had to do. Sonamukhi walked in and slapped Saraju hard across the face.
“Stop your nonsense, girl, or I will chain you up and throw you in a dark room like Shefali did. I try to be kind to you and this is how you thank me!” she looked terrifying and Saraju was stunned at this change in her. All this time, Sonamukhi had been kind to her and spoken to her sweetly.
It took them over a month to prepare Saraju for her first night. When the night finally came, Saraju was trembling. Parvati reminded her to breathe and smile. When the middle-aged man clumsily groped her breasts, moaned and grunted and suddenly ejaculated all over his clothes and hers, she thought that this had to be the worst of it. She closed her eyes tight and pretended she was sitting on the banks of the pond listening to the birds chirping all around her. But, of course, there was worse to come. The man was soon ready for the second round. No amount of thinking of the pond protected Saraju from the pain of losing her virginity to this clumsy man.
Saraju’s virginity fetched Sonamukhi a hefty hundred rupees. The next morning when Sonamukhi gave Saraju her very first income of ten rupees, Saraju held on to it for so long that her fist became sweaty. When she finally opened her palm to iron out the note, she had steeled herself. Fate had played its game with her and she had to accept her new life. After all, what choice did she have?
She had to learn the ropes to survive and excel. Ever since she had stepped into Sonamukhi’s household, Saraju never tried to run. In the first few weeks, she had seen how a girl who had run away from a nearby brothel had been brought back by the police. The local police worked in tandem with the brothel owners. Saraju got to hear about girls who were brought back and denied food for days till they grovelled and begged for mercy. Girls were generally not beaten up for fear of ugly bruises that would reduce their price. Even customers were warned that if they had left a mark on a girl, they would be charged extra.
When Saraju first came to Sonamukhi’s household, she had been a terrified, crying mess. But slowly she developed a steely reserve that no one could penetrate. She was friendly with the other girls but held herself aloof. Soon she became Sonamukhi’s favourite. Even though the other girls teased her about being a chamcha, they also respected her.
Sonamukhi noted with satisfaction that she had not made a mistake by taking in Saraju. The girl soon became an expert and the men came back for what she had to offer.
Excerpted with permission from Not Just Another Story: A Novel, Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, Aleph Book Company.