River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman edited by Ruchira Gupta encapsulates poignant and emotional stories of women, whose entire existence is entrenched in prostitution. The compilation of 21 stories has writings of renowned authors from undivided India which include – Saadat Hasan Manto, Premchand, Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder, Amrita Pritam, Kamala Das, Kamleshwar, Indira Goswami, Siddique Alam and several others. Gupta in the introduction to the book aptly explains, “Over the 21 stories in the collection, a system of abuse by customers, pimps, brothel-keepers, lovers, husbands and recruiters is delicately uncovered.”
She mentions that during her research, constantly she came up against the word ‘agency’ – understandably social constructs enforced on women who are driven towards prostitution. “All the stories reveal the commonalities among the inequalities of women across our sub-continent. All reveal the low self-esteem, incompleteness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-hatred that come from being the oppressed. All the stories show the limitations of ‘agency’. Women attempt to equalise power by exercising the only ‘agency’ they have, the power to destroy the self – and others who resemble the self,” writes Gupta.
A touching tale A Doll for the Child Prostitute written by Kamala Das, depicts the lives of women at a typical kotha in Mumbai, run by Ayee. It narrates the story of 12-year-old ‘child prostitute’ – Rukmani – and the inmates who live with her at the brothel. The redundancy of a prostitute’s life is beautifully captured, as Das through one of the characters, who is shunned by the system, explains: “When youth goes away, every woman becomes an object of ridicule.” With children being forced into prostitution, Das explores a deeper social evil – gender disparity – “Perhaps the mistake they committed was that they got born as girls in a society that regard the female as a burden, a liability.” Rukmani oscillates between playtime with her co-worker and friend Sita, with sexual transactions with clients, mostly the Inspector saheb, who takes a special liking to her. The inspector promises to get a doll for Rukmani, who in turn calls him papa.
The story then traces the lives of women who endure the pitiful, penniless existence at the bordello.
Baburao Bagul’s Woman of the Street describes the life of an ageing prostitute, who has lost out on her clientele. She yearns to be with her son in her village, but is penury-struck. “Her body had no energy. Her walk had no spring. Her heart was despondent. Inside her, sorrow simmered. She tried hard to lessen it, but it only grew. She had lost her mind with the telegram and nothing would bring it back,” writes Bagul in the story, describes the woman’s state-of-mind. It’s a deeply moving story which traces her exploitation, as after she finally manages a customer who doesn’t pay her after having sex with her. Manto’s The Hundred – Candle-Power Bulb traces the despondent life of a prostitute who murders her parasitic and exploitative pimp.
Premchand’s The Murder of Honour is a soul-stirring, violent tragic tale that shakes you up. Describing the life of an earlier happily married couple to a sparing one, Premchand traces their relationship which is overcome by disgust stemming from infidelity. “The extreme nature of that utter humiliation had killed even the desire for vengeance,” writes Premchand, describing the protagonist - Zubeida’s despair when she is brutally beaten by her husband’s mistress for abusing her.
Kamleshwar’s River of Flesh invokes the macabre of prostitution-infested lives of these exploited destitute women, who strive to survive. The protagonist Jugnu lives a dreadful life in cramped dingy room where she entertains her customers. Her agonising existence is juxtaposed with a pus-filled boil that exemplifies her sufferings.
Qurratulain Hyder’s Ancestry delves into the life of Chammi Begum who hails from an aristocratic Pathan family. Engaged at an early age to her “dearly loved cousin” Ajjoo bhai, she dreamt of a perfect life together. While tragic circumstances at home didn’t allow their union, and after the death of most of their family members, Ajjoo bhai went to Lucknow to settle property disputes. When he returned home he had married a courtesan – Kallo. The irony in Chammi Begum’s life is highlighted beautifully as she spends a lifetime despising Kallo, but the latter half of her life is spent while ignorantly starting work at a high-end brothel in Mumbai, as their bua.
Indira Goswami’s The Empty Box, describes the life of the protagonist Toradoi who is obsessed with a wooden, black box which is actually a coffin. “This wooden box really was marvelous. Lying inside it, Toradoi felt as though she was sleeping with the lover she desired so passionately,” exemplifies her attachment to the lost beloved by sleeping in the box.
While in a rather delightfully light-hearted read, Ismat Chughtai in The Housewife masterfully captures the dilemma, which the central character- Mirza, faces when he marries the courtesan-maid - Lajo. Mirza initially is struck by the sheer disgust of the idea of marrying her, “God forbid! The nikah is a scared rite. How can it be associated with a prostitute like?” writes Chughtai. Eventually Mirza’s passion consume his reasoning, as her marries Lajo and then the story takes reverses the narrative, leading us right back to how their relationship began.
Melodiously interwoven and engaging, Amrita Pritam’s The Shah’s Harlot delves into the life of Neelam, who was the Shah’s official keep. “... Known for her mellifluous voice”, Neelam is invited to sing at the Shah’s son’s wedding, and then the story carves out the complex relationship between the Shahni and Neelam.
Each tale explicitly etches the lives of women bonded in shackles of prostitution, inflicted with depreciation from the society and also the self. Each story is a leaf from a woman’s life, filled with sorrow and the struggle for survival.