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.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.