River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction

Edited by Ruchira Gupta

Speaking Tiger

Pages: 256

Price: Rs 350

As per Ruchira Gupta’s introduction, those outside the world of prostitution often speak about it in conceptual terms, but here are some distressing facts:

Ice is used to physically “break” pre-pubescent girls and introduce them into prostitution.

They are put through a process known as “seasoning”, in which they are beaten, starved, drugged.

The girls are raped by eight to 10 male customers every day.

This is the inarguable reality of prostitution.

But then there are theories. That prostitution is empowering. That it is a livelihood choice among other unequal choices available to women. That it should be defined as work and prostituted women should be called sex workers.

When Ruchira Gupta, an anti-sex trafficking campaigner, saw mutilated bodies and other horrifying signs of physical violence — she wasn’t sure if those who championed the cause of “sex workers” genuinely wished them well or were merely protecting the status quo.

The River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction, edited by Ruchira Gupta is a collection of 21 short stories all of which have their protagonists playing the prostitute, or are influenced in some way by the world of prostitution. The book boasts stories from such renowned writers as Munshi Premchand, Puthumaippithan, Manto and Qurratulain Hyder among others.

Putting together an anthology with 21 stories on such a theme is no easy task, but the selection made by Ruchira Gupta’s is spot on. This could have been a sob-tale fest with really depressing stories having characters that are even more depressing. Instead, Ruchira decides to focus on not just the depressing aspects, but on stories that gives us a window into a woman’s psyche.

“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 comes from being the oppressed,” Gupta writes in the preface to this book.

While Premchand’s heroine prostitutes herself to shame her husband, Saadat Hasan Manto’s heroine murders her “pimp”, knowing that she will be caught and punished. Indira Goswami’s heroine walks out naked from her lover’s coffin. And Amrita Pritam’s concubine sings at her lover’s son’s wedding in the presence of his wife and family.

Gupta, a professor of journalism at New York University, is also the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-sex trafficking organisation. She has helped more than 20,000 women in India exit the prostitution nexus.

Many of the girls trapped into this ominous web are forced to stand on the streets for long hours to attract customers for themselves or for other women. Most of them suffer from sleep deprivation and insomnia. Some have internalised the violence inflicted on their bodies to such an extent that they deny having faced any.

“The physical and mental consequences of the repeated body invasion that prostituted women face is so extreme that these girls and women suffer from higher rates of psycho-social trauma than even war veterans,” Gupta writes in her book.

In one story, the Dalit writer Baburao Bagul describes the dehumanising way in which a shopkeeper treats a low-caste sex worker who tries to earn money to visit her sick son. In another story, Indira Goswami’s heroine is seen living in abject poverty to honour the promise of marriage made by her high-caste lover. Amrita Pritam’s heroine comes from a tribe that’s known officially as a “Denotified Criminal Tribe”.

A lot of these stories are translated from their vernacular versions, but there is little or no loss in terms of the social message delivered here, and that is owing largely to the exemplary work of multiple translators.
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the famed Bengali writer, describes the friendship between a low-caste prostituted woman and a Brahmin child. And Kamleshwar’s protagonist is a low-caste woman, whose very body begins to rot from her illnesses, and yet continues to be exploited.

The title of this book has been drawn from a story by Kamleshwar. It’s a story where men live off the earnings of prostituted women. Women in Saadat Hasan Manto’s story “The Hundred-Candle-Power Bulb” also thrive on prostitution.

In other stories such as “Market Price” by Nabendu Ghosh and “Kalindi” by Manisha Kulshreshtha, men depend on women for their very existence.

The systematic abuse by customers, pimps, brothel-keepers, lovers, husbands and recruiters is documented in the 21 stories that are presented in this book.

Some tales are chilling. Like that of the 16-year-old Kani, a rag picker, who was forced into prostitution and was found dead on the road for “The Last Customer — a vulture”.

Others are subtle. Like Qurratulain Haider’s “Ancestry”. It’s about Chhammi Begum, an upright woman born into a zamindar’s family who ends up as a domestic help in a “madam’s house in Mumbai”.

“As she was still pondering whether to welcome her guests with tea or water, the fat man wearing gold buttons and diamond rings inquired brusquely: ‘Where is Madam?’ Chhammi Begum knew well that in English, ‘Madam’ meant ‘Begum’. She replied: ‘Madam has gone out.’ ‘Where have the wretched chokri log gone?’”

A lot of the stories are translated from their vernacular versions and there is little or no loss in terms of the social message that the story delivers and this is owing to the exemplary work of multiple translators. In addition, the fact that many of these stories have probably come out anytime in the last 75-100 years also shows how little has changed in contemporary society.

A prostituted Indian woman was typically a common occurrence in many of the Sanskrit tales including the ones by the celebrated writers such as Kalidasa, Bhasa and the like. It is usually that of a courtesan in the court of a king, a performer of arts or a woman who takes to the oldest profession in the world by choice. A lot of these tales end up showing the woman in a good light (for the most part) and it is not typically seen with contempt, both in terms of the setting of the story and of its character. However, a gradual shift occurred in the portrayal of the woman as a prostitute later on, and the profession itself began to be looked on with scorn. The circumstances that led to the person becoming a prostitute is not something that everyone pays attention to, but the ridicule is something that everyone contributes.

Each of these stories has a lot of soul in them making this anthology a compelling read. Now the hope is that this book will bring about some change in our social attitudes.