The first time I heard about Nalini Jameela was perhaps a year ago, in a newspaper article. There was a photograph of her -- she has a pleasant face, not a young woman's face, but pleasant, thoughtful and somehow questing. Maybe the tilt of her head, the gaze directed upwards was deliberately posed to give that impression.
But what caught my attention and caused me to clip the item out of the paper -- NOT something I do often -- was that she is a sex-worker, living and working in Kerala, who had written her autobiography and got it published.
Now her autobiography, originally in malayalam has been re-published in English, by by Madras-based WESTLAND(I'll post a link here when/if I find one). I picked up copies at my friend (and Westland editor) Nilanjana Roy's home and speed-read my way through the book last night. It's not long -- 143 pages -- and its translation doesn't feel right -- but I would say it makes complusory reading.
It is, in many ways a shocking book -- NOT because of what it says about the life of a sex-worker but for what it reveals about the lives of so-called "ordinary" Indians. Jameela's story is one of extraordinary resilience -- but how can I use this word "extraordinary" without qualifying it? Alongside her story, like the bystanders whose faces enter the frames of photographs of filmstars posing in public places, are all the others with whom she interacts. They are all equally resilient, long-suffering and strong -- surely as extraordinary, if measured against the yardstick of the lives we read about in novels or learn about through movies. Against the backdrop of Jameela's account, however, "ordinary" and "extraordinary" cease to have much meaning -- she shows us that the huge majority of "ordinary" people have "extraordinary" experiences, in which case they are no longer extraordinary in the sense of unusual, but merely the norm -- the norm that is never acknowledged on its own terms, the norm that is pixelled out of the record by the "India Shining" mythologizers.
Jameela's life and the lives of the huge majority of those amongst whom she lives -- not just sex-workers, but the tradesmen, the rickshawallas, the policemen, the small hoteliers -- are marked by unrelenting insecurity, hampered by such extremes of heartlessness that it is really difficult to understand how they can bear to face up to their realities -- yet the very fact that they do, is a clear indication that it is I who am mistaken, as I judge these lives against the smug certitudes of my own (and of others like me).
The malayalam edition of her book was snapped up -- 13,000 copies were sold in the first 100 days, according to the introduction of this book. It is not a salacious book -- no-one reading it, I believe, is likely to get any cheap thrills from it. To some extent, I miss the spice that has been (I think deliberately) left out. Then again, I can see that a book like this needs to be super-decorous in its appearance and the language of its presentation, in order to avoid being driven underground by its subject-matter. How ironic that less provocative books -- lacy fictions built on middle-aged fantasies -- are decked out like scarlet ladies, while this one, about and by a scarlet lady, looks as meek and saintly as a vegetarian recipe book!