Not Like Most Young Girls is a book of 18 short stories inspired by the lives of some of Mumbai’s male, female and transgendered sex workers. Over 40 students from St. Xavier’s College, Wilson College and T.I.S.S. participated in FACES, a short story writing competition organised by Aastha Parivaar, a federation of community-based organisations and F.H.I (Family Health International). The finalists interacted with sex workers and this book is a product of those interactive sessions. Some stories are fictional and are merely inspired by the lives of the sex workers, while others are true accounts.
Aastha Parivaar is one of the largest umbrella organisations in the country that caters to the needs of sex workers. On average, they help 10,000 sex workers eke a better living. And while the organisation does not rehabilitate them, their goal is to teach them to live with dignity, show them alternative means to earn a living, and free them from stigmatisation. They encourage them to enrol in government schemes, teach them how to invest, and assist them in opening bank accounts so that they can learn to save. They also teach these women vocational skills to compensate for the fact that they do not have an education.
The story below has been written by Sohini Lahiri of TISS who was also the winner of the competition.
Dear Taslima Apa
(Following is a letter being written by the imaginary protagonist of this real-life story to Taslima Nasreen, a renowned Bangladeshi feminist writer and activist, who is in exile from her country at present on alleged incitement of communal sentiments and obscenity through her literary works and seeking asylum in India)
Dear Taslima apa,
How are you? I am fine. You do not know me perhaps. My name is Nazma. I live in the big, crowded city of Mumbai. One face among many faces. I was born a Muslim like you. Forgive my ignorance but are you still a believer in Islam? Or have they thrown you out of it like they keep threatening in the newspapers?
I ask you only because I am not so sure about myself. Not that Allah will ever disown you as long as you have faith. It is all those men who sit and pretend to be god as they pass judgement on our fates...be it in the role of husbands, policemen or maulvis. Now see, what is all this I have started saying? ! I have to focus, really. It’s just that sometimes overcome by emotions, I get carried away. You must still be wondering who I am and why I am writing to you. You must think I am mad. And you will think I am madder still when you find out that I have never read a single story or poem written by you.
Still I am writing this letter to you today. Recently I have joined coaching classes in English writing and grammar. It had been one of my secret dreams for a long time – to be able to speak with the world in English. Our last lesson was on writing letters. For homework, our teacher gave us a letter to write in English to anyone we like. so I am writing this. At first, I thought and thought about who I should write to. Nobody in my family understands English. Some of my friends who can read in English, know of me already, in bits and pieces. That is when I chose you. We both share the same religion by birth, yet our lives are very different. So I feel I need to tell you my story..and that you will understand. Because are you not a Muslim woman like me too? A fallen Muslim woman??
I was married away at the tender age of thirteen or fourteen. My husband lived in a city far away from my place of birth. You did not get my favourite freshwater ilish fish in those parts. The stomach of the fishes swollen with one thousand tasty eggs, their skin shining silver-purple, their mouth opening and closing, trying hard to breathe and their ripe soft flesh waiting to be eaten, a prostitute of the seas.
I was not too keen on marriage. But who would listen to what I think anyway? Could such a little girl, even think? I did not have a brother. My sister and I were liabilities to our parents, got rid of, in exchange of a nominal mehr. My father was a coolie, my husband a blackticketeer at a cinema in Bhiwandi. Both of them came home drunk and beat up their wives. My mother’s man kept another woman. Mine sold off all the jewellery and furniture when he lost his money in juaa. My mother accepted it. I could not.
In fact it was my sister’s neighbour who first promised me ‘work’. I was glad. But who would give work to a young girl who had never been to school? What could I do well? She told me it was work in a factory that made steel utensils. She said it was an evening job and that lots of girls of my age worked there. She also said I did not have to be educated for the job. I followed her in blind faith. She asked me to get dressed. I did. She asked me to get into a car. So I did. She took me to a dance bar. Women were dancing there and men were running around, attacking them and embracing. The music from some superhit Hindi film song came to sound in my ears like the noise of steel utensils dropping. In the scary red light of the place, all the women looked the same, much as though they had been produced in a factory, cast in the same mould, all to be sold for the use of eating, drinking or serving. In this steel factory of mine, I would go every night, standing and staring foolishly till a customer came and took me away to one of the hotel rooms above. All I got paid was a small fees, while the woman who had brought me there earned for herself a bigger amount as commission. The only time I made good money was when we were sent on trips to Bangalore, Goa and other places for work. Still, I was never angry on her. I knew that she had a large family of six children and a sick, old father to maintain.I had perhaps realised even then that she was a victim just like me. There was perhaps only a bit of regret in my heart – had she only told me in advance, if only I had not been so believing always, if only I had been strong enough to leave the place immediately that night. If only…
But I stayed and made a pact with fate. Sealed and delivered, my night-time package pushed from the tiny room to another, my hell on earth. By morning I would go back into my role as a dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning and sending money to my husband who kept abusing me for my job, yet would not refuse the cash. I bore him three sons though he never gave me any satisfaction in bed. As I made my customers happy by night, I tried to reduce the pain and guilt by thinking of him; still he would suspect me of ‘sleeping’ with his nephew and never gave up a chance to me for my ‘work’.
One day, I took courage and left him. Apa, tell me why does only a woman’s life have to be full of farewells and sacrifices? Right from the time she is a little girl till she becomes a mother or mother-in-law, she is taught to give in and give away all that should be hers. They say giving only makes you greater. What if I do not wish to be great? Why can’t I be human for once? In fact if sacrifice makes a woman, then my act of foregoing my man should only make me more womanly. Apa, you are well-read and educated. Maybe you can make some sense of all this. You must have had to give up a lot in life. Your freedom, your birthplace, your honour. Our lives might not have been so different after all.
Today I work with an organization as a peer educator. My work is to meet ‘fresh’ girls brought to the area. I talk to them, and when they start to trust me, I help them with their rights, their health and other things. Sometimes I have even seen girls manage to escape or get out of the profession and lead better lives. Then they meet you and thank you and give you sweets to eat. Some even come back to the trade after some time. Then I feel sad. Sometimes the girls don’t want to listen to me. They shout at me and ask me to go away. I don’t say anything. I understand what they go through. As my husband says ‘ force does not work all the time. We have to let people make their own choice’. You wont believe how many Bengali and Bangladeshi girls are in the trade. And with each passing year the fresh girls who come seem to be younger and younger. Back in those days I could not speak properly in Hindi. I also did not recognize money. These were the reasons why I would get taken advantage of even more. My organization people are all very nice and helpful. I first met them during one of my shifts.
There was this very nice man who spoke to me and slowly showed me there was a way out. A way out of this into a life with dignity. Initially I was very suspicious. We had been told not to speak to any strangers because they might be informers for the police but later I realized it was only to stop us from escaping. Anyway, I had seen this man around earlier also. I have had a lot of customers, he definitely did not look like one. But he was also friends with some of the girls who came there. In fact one of these girls made me talk to him. He talked to me with respect and asked if I felt exploited and like a victim. I said I did. He also asked if I wanted a more respectable life for myself. By then I had run into huge debts. I told him I couldn’t afford to. He was patient and understanding. What surprised me was that he did not look like he was expecting anything in return. Instead he gave me the contact of a doctor in the area who he said I could visit for free checkup. He also invited me to their activity centre close by for the different sessions they conducted during the mornings work for women like us. I was quite interested. I went after two weeks or so. I was surprised to find some of my friends there too.
They were sitting and learning to stitch. Others were making posters on the topic of HIV. One of counsellors was sitting and talking to a young girl. She introduced me and asked me to do what I wanted. Honestly, I felt very happy and free at that point. Since then I try and go there as often as I can. Whenever I am there, I feel good within. I learnt tailoring there. Someone came to teach us drama. We performed it on Ganpati festival. Some of us who wanted to study, got together and with the help of the organisation started classes for us in Hindi. My friends told me that theis organisation was doing good work in the area. At first I was not an active member. After a year they offered me a job. I took it up and slowly stopped my first job. It has been five years now. From a trainee I am a trainer today. I can read and write in Hindi and am now learning English. I have married again. My husband, who is a Hindu works in my organization. I live in a ‘family area’ and all my neighbours do day jobs or own small businesses. They are very nice and helpful people.
My eldest son does not wish to keep connections with me; he says he is ashamed of me. But my two younger sons stay with me. One works in a garage (he just wont listen to me, he says that’s his way of helping his mother) and the other one goes to school. I am sending a photograph of the two of them with the letter. Hopefully one day we can all meet and you will get to talk to them. You could come over to our little one roomed house and I promise you, I will cook ilish for you. You must also like ilish. Afterall you are from the sacred land of Padma, the river that is so famous for its fish.I don’t know if anybody cooks it for you anymore. I don’t know which rivers fish you like more – Ganga’s or Padma’s. The fights between all the big people in our countries has made us so helpless that we cannot even have the land or the water of our choice. We have to take what they give us and be satisfied with it.
But I draw strength from you. Please do not give up, in front of those men, in front of those countries. We have our own jihad to fight. Everyday. Every moment. You inspire so many women by what you write and what you say and what you do. I think they have now started to feel the threat of your rise, so they want to cut you to size like their halal dinners by denying you a place to live in peacefully. Everyday, a fatwa comes out in your name, because maybe, a woman who had the courage to speak up needs to be destroyed again and again so that no other woman wants to rise. The newspaper article says that they are denying you something called ‘citizenship’. That is a big and new word for me. I don’t know what it means.
My organisation people told me it had something to do with the country you belong to and whether the government accepts you as one of its children or not. It does not accept us either. But that cannot take away our pehchaan from us. We are daughters of Bengal. We are women. We are proud of who we are. No? I feel all of us women, who have been ill treated or ignored should go up to the government and face it, however big and dangerous it might be. For how long will it pretend that it cannot see us? Some day or the other it will have to notice. We cannot be just mothers, wives and gods forever. We have to be our own people. Equal human beings with respect in society. For that we will have to forget all our differences and form one giant union, so big and powerful that it can shake governments, countries, religion, even Allah himself. You know, apa, sometimes I cannot sleep in the early mornings. Then I go for long walks along empty roads. I think of my childhood, of my village. Then I get sad. But after that I think of my life at present and the meaning it has – my caring husband, my children, my work and I realize that I have no reason to feel sad or angry about what happened to me. I am happy today.I have many fears that I cannot talk about to anyone else. But atleast I also have a dream – to save other girls from this deadly trap on nobody will fight to seek justice for us. We women only have each other.
I shall wait for your reply Taslima behen. I cannot believe I have written a whole letter. Before the letter reaches you my teacher will correct my spellings, grammar. But if something is still wrong, kindly excuse me. Hope this can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But on what address should I post this letter apa? Where do you live…?
With love, hope and strength,
Story by Sohini Lahiri