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The life of the Silenced

Unable to earn five rupees a day, Nalini Jameela, a young widow stumbled into prostitution. She went on to become a leader of the Sex Workers’ Forum. Her autobiography — candid, defiant, the first of its kind in India — has become a bestseller in Kerala

By Minu Ittyipe

Documenting the Victim: Jameela has made two short films portraying the life of sex workers
 
Rosechechi promised me Rs 50 if I spent time with a senior police officer. It was a farewell gift for him. After the officer finished, his driver wanted to sleep with us
I am 51 years old. And I would like to continue to be a sex worker.” This is how the candid and defiant opening statement in Nalini Jameela’s autobiography in Malayalam, Oru Lymgika-thozhilaliyude Atmakadha, goes. It at once throws a challenge at society’s double standards — harsh on prostitutes and soft on the clients. Nalini Jameela, who is the coordinator of the Kerala Sex Workers’ Forum, reveals her sordid story with no trace of compunction. Within 10 days of its release, 2,000 copies (published by dc Books) flew off the shelves as Keralites lapped up the first autobiography of a sex worker in the country.

Nalini was a 24-year-old widow when she entered the profession to feed her two children. At that time she did not think about the repercussions of her act. She writes, “I was earning Rs 4.50 at a tile factory near Trissur. My mother-in-law served me with an ultimatum to either give her five rupees a day to look after my children or leave the house. I recounted my woes to a friend, who introduced me to Rosechechi. Rosechechi promised me Rs 50 if I spent time with a man. The first thought that came to my mind was that my children would be looked after for the next 10 days. So I went with her to Rama Nilayam, a guesthouse in Trissur for vip politicians. There was a senior police officer there. It was a farewell gift for him as he was getting transferred. When he asked me to remove my clothes I refused. I could not bring myself to stand naked before him. Rosechechi pacified him saying that I was from the villages and it was the first time that I was doing it. When he heard this, he was thrilled. After the police officer finished, the driver wanted to sleep with us but we refused.”

Nalini’s first foray as a sex worker gave her an inkling of the double standards she would face in this line of work. Next morning, when she left the guesthouse with Rosechechi, a police jeep picked them up and took them to the station. Nalini was given a beating. She screamed out in pain and anger, “The police are there to sleep with us at night, and beat us during the day.” The force of the beatings only increased. The question she asks to this day is, “Why wasn’t the guesthouse raided when we were there? Why did they wait untill we had left the premises, to arrest us?” She points out that there had been many instances like this when they got picked up afterwards so that the clients could be protected.

It didn’t stop with the police beatings either. Hearing of the incident her family decided to banish her from the area forever. “I was told by a friend that I would be chased away, so I left the place and never went back.” With her back against the wall, no place to stay and no job, Nalini was compelled to rent a house along with Rosechechi and continue in the trade. She managed to send money secretly for her children, through a friend, to her mother-in-law.

Nalini’s story, which is retold by I.Gopinath also traces the formation of the sex workers in Kerala into an organised forum that now meets openly to discuss their problems and demand their rights. What is also interesting is the change in society’s attitude towards prostitution over the years. In the early years of her profession Nalini seemed to be happy in the so called “company houses” in Palakkad district. “I was lucky that they were not like the brothels of Mumbai. These houses were old tharavads where only a few women resided with a bodyguard and a broker in charge, and I was able to live comfortably.”

Nalini describes those tharavads. “There were some cows at the house. On the pretext of buying cows, brokers would bring clients. While the value of the cow was decided outside, the clients would come into the house and the actual business would take place. The cow business was only a front. Even though people knew the truth, they never bothered us.”

Gopinath, a CPI(M) activist-cum-journalist, who has spent many years working for the upliftment of sex workers, both in Mumbai and Kerala, comments, “ The culture of Kerala has changed rapidly in the 80s and the 90s. A prudishness associated with a convent upbringing has spread through Kerala and sex is considered a sin. People do not have any tolerance towards sex workers. To cite an instance, when we organised a protest against waste dumping by the corporation in Laloor, near Trissur, sex workers were also invited to join the march. The other marchers refused to walk with them. We had to send the sex workers back.”

To escape the life of prostitution Nalini married twice more but she had to return to it time and again for her survival. Her third marriage lasted for 12 years and it was her entry into prostitution for the third time that saw Nalini actively work in the Sex Workers’ Forum. With the help of a social worker, Maithreyan, she was sent to Thailand for a video workshop for sex workers from five developing countries. There she was given a camera, and her first eight-minute documentary One day in the Life of a Sex Worker evolved. In 2003, she was commissioned to do a second one, A Peep into the Life of the Silenced. She now wishes to do a feature film.

Nalini points out that one of the most pertinent problems facing society in its fight against aids is the way it addresses the target group. She says that the Partnership for Social Health, aids cell, focuses only on the lower income group. “Our clients also come from the middle-class and the higher income group. Because they are not targeted we have problems convincing them to use condoms. They just refuse to use them.” According to Nalini, there are about 8,000 sex workers in Kerala and all of them are aware of aids.

She says today she has the freedom to choose her clients. Her youngest daughter and son-in-law give her moral support. “When my daughter was 17, I entered this field for the third time. I had to tell her what I was doing. Even if she was apprehensive about how society would treat her, she understood why I chose to do this. We had no other means of living. My third husband had taken another wife and for three years we begged around temples and mosques.”

Paradoxes abound in the small state of Kerala — a sex worker who had no freedom of choice because of her economic conditions, today speaks about the other freedoms that she enjoys. Even as the media revels in the glossiness of sexually tinted advertisements, and serials portray empowered women, the reality is pretty skewed in Kerala — it is not safe for women to go out alone after eight at night, and the sex scandals that rock the state compete hotly with serials on a regular basis. Nalini says that sex workers seem to have more freedom than ordinary women in this progressive state. She asks, “In Kerala, can other women walk alone on the road as bravely as we can? To some extent, sex workers have more freedom in matters of sex as compared to the ordinary married woman who has to take her husband’s beatings and abuses all her life. The sex worker has the freedom of choice not to go with a client that she does not like.” Perhaps there is some truth in her reasoning.

 

July 30, 2005
 

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