internet culture

A Pakistani comics artist imagined Mumbai’s red-light district and gave his heroine kung fu skills

An amateur writer attempts to explore the world of brothels in a foreign city.

Chunri was born and raised in a brothel and, as the writer of her story puts it, “her birth was not a result of two people celebrating love”. Written by Baber K Khan and illustrated by M Basit Ansari, the comic book Chunri: The Dancing Death is the story of a girl pushed into prostitution, who finds inspiration in Bruce Lee and then fights her way to freedom.

Khan sets his novel in Mumbai’s Kamathipura district, the red light area that has captured the imagination of many novelists and filmmakers. The comic opens at a lavish bar called, quite simply, Mumbai Bar. The protagonist is based on a sex worker Khan once met in Lahore, Pakistan.

“Most of the times, whenever I heard or asked sex workers about what brought them into this trade, the answers were lack of education or employment opportunities and how they tend to earn well in this line of work,” said Khan. “But one day, a beautiful prostitute told me about herself, that her mother was paid to bring her into this world. That’s how the entire brothel has been run for generations. All of them were paid.”

Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.
Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.

Khan was also inspired by photographer Sandra Hyon’s photo project on the Bangladesh’s Kandapara Brothel, which has existed for 200 years. Since his own interactions with sex workers had been limited to those in Pakistan, and his inspiration came from a photo series on a brothel in Bangladesh, why did he choose Mumbai for the novel?

Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.
Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.

“I have no idea about Mumbai,” confessed Khan. “I still don’t. Maybe I get a few things wrong but that doesn’t change the larger message of Chunri. I don’t know how, but it was Mumbai from the get-go... deviating from everything the way I had imagined it felt like losing the charm of the story. Maybe it was because of my many Indian friends or the Bollywood influence that made Mumbai more relatable in my head. Still, I searched some more and read more and turned out, Asia’s first and second largest red-light district are both in India. The human sex trafficking, the red light districts, the paid pregnancies, these are very real in South Asian countries.”

The lack of familiarity shows: Khan’s Mumbai could be any city and Chunri could belong to any nationality.

Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.
Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.

It is apparent that Khan wants to create Chunri as a superhero-like figure, which is why the artist feels the graphic format does justice to his story. “This is the age of superheroes,” said Khan. “People are drawn to them and while most superhero stories have to show suffering in order to be compelling, they aren’t real. Chunri’s story exists in the real world, perhaps making her a hero may inspire people to see how awful social injustices are in our society.”

In the comic, Chunri is painted as different from the other women living in the brothel. The one thing that separates her from the crowd is her obsession with Bruce Lee films and the hours she spends imitating martial arts moves she sees on TV.

Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.
Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.

One night, a customer engages in what could be described “aggressive foreplay”, against Chunri’s consent. She ends up killing the man, who also turns out to be a member of the mafia. From there, the comic book follows her journey through the streets of Mumbai, as she becomes something of a vigilante and uses martial arts to get her out of sticky situations.

Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.
Chunri, written by Baber K Khan, art by M Basit Ansari.

Khan’s attempt at creating an imagined world, the language, the locale remains at a superficial level at best and Chunri’s story ends up becoming even more confusing once cross-border relations between India and Pakistan come into play.

The central problem is that while Khan attempts to treat the story of Chunri with a light touch, the issue of sex trafficking itself is anything but light. According to Australia-based human rights group Walk Free Foundation, over 18 million people are victims of modern slavery in India. “Such persons are often engaged in domestic work, construction, farming, fishing, manual labour, forced begging, and in the sex industry,” according to a Qz report.

“People can take it as entertainment, a new superhero spawn,” Khan said. “I have tried to show her internal struggle and basically highlight the message that there is a hero in all of us, we just need to uncover it.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.