Even gods don’t mess around with us whores,’ the madam at Sonar Gaaon broke out into cynical laughter. ‘Where the fuck were your gods when we were being bought and sold; beaten and turned into what we are! Screwing apsaras, those celestial nymphs, our worthless fornicating gods, each one of them. Now go.’ She stepped back and slammed the door.
Millions buys sex in the narrow alleys of Sonar Gaaon, a vast red-light district in East Bengal. The place is considered to be a wholesale market for paid sex. And like all market places, altercations are routine and manage to fetch a curious audience.
The story of Sonar Gaaon revolves around a spectrum of issues that are pertinent to sex workers in India. Debutant author Nilendu Sen, through lively writing and thorough knowledge of the subject discusses these and puts in his research conclusions. Sen explores the broader interconnectivity of issues that affect women in prostitution. Its objective is to reach a wider audience consisting of both women who have been initiated into prostitution and those outside the sex trade.
The book takes on the responsibility of countering the negativity that has come to be associated with any mention of sex workers in the country.
In an almost Bollywood-ish introduction, Sen very vividly describes the scene as Dr Joy enters the popular red-light area. A wild group of men and women, drenched in colour, looked frightening to him. Washed in liquor, some were beating at dholak while others were dancing to the lewd lyrics of a popular Hindi song.
Who’s Dr Joy? He could be a film star had he not been a doctor of community medicine. Brought up by a padre amongst tribals known for their unfettered sexuality and simple existence, Dr Joy is raised to be free of any preconceptions of conventional morality so that nothing would hinder him from being of service to fellow human beings. Yet for him, his awesome looks are a constant reminder of his unknown parentage and the reason for his guilt ridden resolve to stay celibate. He arrives in Sonar Gaaon, to help a trade union of sex workers fight the HIV virus and runs into a welcome that gives him a view of the topography that he would have to negotiate. He is molested and mauled by the very people he has come to help. Yet, as he finds help and shelter, he begins to understand the inverse morality that dictates the behaviour of Sonar Gaaon and its inhabitants. In the dirt and squalour of that wholesale market for paid sex, where violence, apathy and hatred are obvious and manifest, Dr Joy begins his bizarre discovery of many stories of love, empathy and sacrifice. However, when his own furtive love story culminates in a sexual crescendo he is confronted with the moral baggage that he has carried all his life. He is torn.
The book is an interplay of dramatic situations – a story of fierce battles between good and evil. Except that in Sonar Gaaon it is often impossible to discern between the two. This extremely readable book defines its characters well and pays attention to the various activities of prostitutes as they interact. The subject is immensely complicated but in Sen’s hands, clearly defined.