River of Flesh and other stories: the Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction : Ruchira Gupta(ed). Speaking tiger, New Delhi. Rs. 350
Here is a book that begins with an aim of prescribing an Indian prostitute’s problems through pity. The choice of the title, which is a title of one of the stories in the book, as a representation of the collection of stories, relegates the whole collection to a simplified, moralistic view. It is telling of the editor’s and publisher’s condescending attitude towards prostitutes. By appealing to pity and sensationalization, it reveals the patronising disregard they have towards the complex varieties of voices from prostitutes.
In her introduction, the editor, Ruchira Gupta, begins by talking about the horrors that prostituted women and young girls undergo. She points to the fact that most of the women she has met had no choice and were forced into prostitution. She describes their abject conditions of living and the physical violence and rape that is inflicted on them. From this, she concludes that there is no such thing as agency in their lives, in the sense that women do not prostitute themselves. Two issues stand out in her introduction. One, by making an absolute claim that there is no agency in the lives of prostitutes, she has decided for them what their problem is. She also denies that prostitution is a livelihood choice and accuses people who fight for a recognition of sex work as people who accept women’s inequality as inevitable. There is no denying any of the grave and horrifying experiences of a prostitute. None of us can or should. However her absolutist claim to non-agency in a prostitute’s life is prescriptive. Agency for one, is not static and structures of caste, class and gender play a big role in the dynamics of agency and talking about it in a vacuum without addressing these structures is redundant. However, what is more problematic is her choice to omit any of the voices of the sex workers themselves, through which she silences them and decides what is best for them by not recognising their demands for sex work to be accepted as any other work. It is not for lack of available voices that this was done. The struggles of sex workers against criminalisation, their demand for delinking morality from sex work, their fight to be heard in the nexus of moralisation and health care are available in various documents including their manifestos. For her to have absolutely silenced these voices is telling of an elitist attitude that sees itself as a saviour of prostitutes rather than that of a partner in their struggles. While she argues that there is no agency in their lives, she has managed to further remove their voices in the book.
The second issue is her view of sex itself as a form of male dominance. She asks ‘When they say that women prostitute themselves, do they mean that these women have sex with themselves?’ Viewing it as a given that sex is an act that can only be done to a woman by a man removes an agentive role of a woman in the act. Furthermore it means accepting a dominant narrative that reinforces patriarchal myths of female passivity. In saying this, I don’t deny that sexual acts can be very much violent and patriarchal. However, claiming that women can only be a receiver of sex is detrimental to the voices of prostitutes who demand for the recognition of sex work and removing the aspects of morality from it. It is also harmful to the movement of women who are trying to reclaim an active role in sexual acts.
The stories she has collected, on the other hand portray the complexities of a prostitute’s life and experiences very effectively.
This collection represents a multitude of voices of prostitutes across the subcontinent and sometimes the voices of people who crossed paths with them or loved them. Not every story is a story of horror, and the characters like Lajo in “The housewife” or Ammalu in ‘Ponnagaram’ show the contempt towards the moralistic attitudes towards prostitution or a sexually unhinged woman. “Ponnagaram” ends with the line “You seem to go on and on about something called chastity. Ayya, this is what it is like in Ponnagaram”. On the other hand, we also read of the pain and trauma that prostitutes experience. The first story, ‘A doll for the child prostitute’ tells a story of an enslaved child prostitute damaged by a policeman. One of the common fears in many of these stories is the State and the Police. We often forget that the refusal to listen to prostitutes and their demands comes from a very moralistic attitude towards them. In this blindness, the state terror unleashed through policemen is often not raised, as was the case with the introduction of the book. The other source of violence is the owner of the brothel or the man who the prostitute owes money to. Instead of asking for the removal of prostitution, perhaps our focus should be instead on the institutions and structures that violate these women, institutions of the state, poverty, religion and community, caste, region, and gender. Interestingly, one of the stories in the book is a brothel owner’s letter to the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In it she pleads with him to take two young girls who she bought after they lost their families to communal violence in the process of India’s separation from Pakistan and its independence. This story focuses on communal violence as a cause of homelessness and uprootedness that led to these young girls becoming prostitutes, instead of prostitution itself being the cause of pain and the loss of innocence.
‘River of flesh’ has a panoramic and empathetic collection of stories that successfully demonstrate the pain, the torture, the horror and the trauma of a prostitute. It is also brings to light the disgust as well as confusion of a prostitute at the moralisation of what she is. At the same time, it also talks about communal violence, poverty and the police and their role as the cause, punishment and enslavement of women in prostitution. It is important that in the process of stating our stance, we do not become blind to the lived stories and demands of people who we talk about. The introduction to the book sadly silences the very stories that the editor has brilliantly collected. In taking positions on this extremely difficult topic, it is of utmost importance that we listen to prostitutes – their stories and demands, instead of telling them what their problems are.