No work is ever small, said someone I don’t know, but what I do know is that they would surely have a different opinion when it came to sex work. Admit it, however broad-minded we become, sex work is one of those untouched topics which will never enter our horizon of modern views.
The Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela is the life story, or better a compilation of several anecdotes with wicked humor, of the author, trying to change the way we look at these women, and hoping to bring some freedom and dignity in their lives.
Nalini, a girl born in Kerala, to a working mother and a communist father tells her story. Starting from the early memories she has of her home, her brother, her parents, she opens up about how she was made to drop out of school at the age of 9, despite having a keen interest, how her mother lost her job and was forced to take rationed food allowances from her sister-in-law under whose influence her father was, how she went to work at construction sites and clay mines at that tender age so that she could support her mother and siblings, how she ran away and entered into a marriage alliance of convenience with the first man who helped her and had two children with him before he died a couple of years later, leaving her at the mercy of his mother and sister who demanded she pays for the children’s upbringing and how she had no option but to enter the sex work.
Nalini goes on to describe her life as a sex worker, her initiation, her clientele, the love-hate relationship with the police, the brokers, the company houses, her third child Zeenat and her acceptance of her mother’s career, the 12 year sabbatical from this life when she married for the second time (again an alliance of convenience), the part conversion to Islam, her inclusion in his business, the abandonment by him, the subsequent struggle with finding work and safe life for her pre-teen girl, poverty, misery and the ultimate falling back into the trade.
What follows next is a series of memories, Nalini’s journey from a destitute to recognition when she started with social work under the organization called Jwalamukhi, all the while doing what she did, sex work. Her reputation as a speaker for the rights of sex workers took her to various cities across India, and multiple times to Thailand. She began her growth as a person from her and undertook photography and shooting classes before her first documentary brought her accolades. She then decided to write her biography. Today, she is an activist-cum-sex worker speaking up for the marginalized section that she belongs to, working for them to prevent STDs, abuse and exploitation, and fighting for their rights to a decent life.
I’ve always been intrigued about prostitutes, or sex workers if I may say as per the book, ever since I chanced upon them when I was a young girl, an early teen to be precise. I had gotten up to answer the nature’s call and found these women, all decked up, sitting on the road, opposite to the house I was in, in a city which boasts of having India’s largest red-light area. Then, I didn’t know why these women were there, in that manner during that time of the night, but I do now. Several years later, during my higher studies in the city, once again I found myself staring at these women, this time at a different location while traveling on a bus and making merry during the festivities. By then, I had known who these women were and what did they do, but I never felt the disgust which usually others do when confronted with them. In fact, the more I tried to look away out of respect for them, the more I was drawn towards them. It was then that I realized that I needed to know whatever I could about them, the what, how, why, when, and moreover, the who.
So, when I chanced upon this book, I couldn’t stop myself from putting it into my cart and waiting for the price to drop, and a few months later, voila, I literally had a free deal here! The moment it downloaded on my precious little kindle, I started turning the pages, like a kid who would gulp the ice cream fast in hopes of getting another one but didn’t, I too did the same thing, and now am all the more ravenous and empty-handed (I’ll probably buy another book on the topic soon enough)
Narrated in the first person, the language uses simple past and present tense. Lucidity is an underlying current in an otherwise rugged and raw narration, bringing out the scenes in a very realistic manner, like the way one would speak to another. All throughout the book, I felt I was reading Nalini’s answers to some interview questions, only the questions were missing. It was like reading someone’s personal notes, disconnected, not a story but a compilation of events over the period of their lives. At times, the characters were in so much abundance that I lost track of who was who. I still continued, without bothering to look up those lost names, because for me Nalini and the events mattered more than the others who were a part of it.
The episodes spoke more about other aspects of her life, a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a businesswoman, rather than her experiences as a sex worker. The little of her career which she spoke narrates the harassment at the hands of the police, thugs, and the discrimination she and her co-workers face these days as compared to earlier when their work was not considered disgusting. Her descriptions of her early life bring across the reality of women seeing work as work, whether it be clay mines, household chores, or sex, the moral differentiation didn’t exist. What mattered was the money and not the means by which it was acquired. It was only during the later stages that the sex workers were looked down upon as filth and dirt, someone who despite being an integral part of the society were unacceptable.
Although the book didn’t turn out to be as I had expected, I really liked the way Nalini’s personality comes across as a fiery one, before she even began with her career as a sex worker. Her ability to embrace and accept who she was and what she did with grace and without any guilt struck me the most. Her struggle to attain the rights of her people is something I feel about too, decriminalization of sex work. Like her, I too believe that both the parties involved play equal roles, in fact, the client is more important because, without them, the workers wouldn’t even exist! And due to this, it becomes necessary to let the sex workers enjoy their freedom and live a life of dignity, after all, no work is small, and when it is the only means of livelihood left as an option, they are not to be blamed.