Sunday, September 30, 2007

Nalini Jameela

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!


gt said...

please provide link that depicts book's english translation availability.
on another note o wise 1- can u please explain why in general prostitution is considered a crime in society? if i meet a girl at a movie or restaurant and we go back home and burn out the sheets - its ok - but if i pay her for it - its regul8ed? i presume that the kinds of problems nalini and her cohorts runs into are because of the system? moral issues? its a criminal activity so you got to pay for it but if its love (ha!)or mutual attraction then you don't? as usual - i just dont get it. can u enlie10? gt

Marginalien said...

I asked NilRoy about the web-link and she said, Alas it will be a couple of weeks yet. However, I bought 10 copies of the book with the express intention of giving away copies to frenz. So ... just send me your terrestrial address by e-mail, gt and I'll airmail it to thee! (this service is only available to frenz whom I have known for 30+ years. Sorry!)

As for your second qwestchun ... ahhh! Therein lies the stuff of countless PhDs!! I believe the canonical explanation is that both men and women despise those who sell their sexual services -- because of the potential threats to the stability of the reproductive nest. Men impose sanctions on women whose multiple male partners, may result in progeny being supported by unwitting step-fathers; women pour scorn on other women whose sexual services have the potential to cause interruptions in the domestic bonds they (wives, i.e.) require in order to raise their children efficiently.

As for burning out the sheets with non-commercial lovers -- I suppose you DO realize that in India (and elsewhere) ANY extra-marital sex is frowned upon??

It's a tangled web all right ... I have an Oz friend who got it exactly right, I believe, when he made a perticularly cynical observation regarding prostitution: "When a man pays a woman after having sex with her it's not really for the service ... it's to make her go away -- i.e., to terminate the relationship cleanly, once the sex is over."

gt said...

aha! sobellyniceofu4thekindoffer. i have e mailed my address to you. merci.
your monsieur oz does indeed have a viewpoint that is succinct and unique. from a male perspective then you pay her to get rid of her after sex...... and i do s'pose a direct corollary is that - else you better be married to her and pay her to not go away by providing for those little blighters? i guess thats why a lot of us feel that marriage is after all just legalized prostitution. and i guess we would really enter murky waters were we to follow this ozian thinking through from a female's perspective huh? anyways 2 end with a li'l st8tment i once heard - no man has to work harder for his money than one who land up marrying for it! best gt

Marginalien said...

Dunno where you sent your addy -- it's certainly not appeared in any of my e-mail inboxes ...

If you post it here, it won't appear on-line until I read it as e-mail -- then I can delete it without posting your terrestrial coordinates for all the world to see ...

Marginalien said...

-- oh, oh WAIT! Yes, it's there, in Le Hotmail Addresse. All rightie, matey! One commercial lady's bio-data will wing it's way towards you within the next 24 hrs!

Sharanya Manivannan said...

Just got back to India and saw a short Q+A with her in Tehelka. Was very intrigued by the article, which described her as a "sex worker, writer". Must defo check the book out.

gt said...

miss mp - much delight at receiving book and more so with your kind note. i do have a terribly intense week ahead and will try to get into the nalinisque amour and report back. btw i will be in matrabhoomi end of november for 3 weeks. am still unsure about whether i need to get into gurgaon - in which case - if you are around and willing - would love to hook up too. more l8r - but thanQ thanQ. you can't imagine with how much pride and delight i am showing the book around - and oh, accidentally letting the note you wrote "slip out" and showing it off to nearby kith and kin. if you see a spike in your popularity suddenly - you might know where to trace it back to! royalty welcome! best gt

Marginalien said...

Glad to hear the international postal network is still reasonably efficient -- sorry it's taken me so long to acknowledge your msg! I've been travelling -- took a train for the first time in AGES, from Delhirium to Madness ... *snicker* ... arrived last night, feeling a bit deflated coz it was a COMPLETELY BLAND AND FRICTION-FREE journey!

I notice that one of my comments above provides an example of the world's most nerdy of common punctuation errorz -- it's instead of its. Oooh yuck. I HATE when that happens!

gt said...

on a philosophical note then -

its "its" when it belongs to it
and its "it's" when "it is"


DileepRaj said...

I am DileepRaj, resident editor, Penguin malayalam. Hope the extrctbelow will be of interest to you..
this is a descriptive portion of a paper presented at Hyderabad Central university
on October 4th [ in a seminar on 'Translation and Transformation"] by me.
The paper was titled " Who is a writer? "
Nalini Jameela came to the public attention in Kerala when her autobiography became a best seller.There was an uproar as DCBooks , the major mainstream publishing house in malayalam published it. Incidentally , I was working as editor in DCBooks then though not directly involved in that project.Nalin was a friend much before I joined DCBooks.
Everybody, [ rightists and feminists alike ] thought that her story was fiction and the real 'author' was the person who transcribed it. Surprisingly, Nalini hereself came to my home one day and complained that she was completely upset to see the published version.She wanted to revise it thouroughly.
Both of us went and spoke with Ravi DC [ incidentally that was her 'first' encounter with the publisher!!] . The actual situation was more complicated than we expected it to be.According to the agreement signed, the rights of her autobiography was with the person who transcribed it! Ravi DC agreed to bring out the revised version and Nalini got the rights back after paying 25,000 rupees out of her royalty to I. Gopinath, the transcriber. One wonders whether any other 'author' will be treated in a similar manner.In public's view, she can't have any political or heoretical dilemmas.
After reclaiming the right, we ie; five of us worked as a group and prepared the new version out of fresh interviews within one month. Her decision to rewrite the autobiography also created much controversy.
She mentions in her introduction to the revised versionn that she did try to write it herself, but couldn't move beyond a few sentences. She wrote this much in a notebook. ' I am Nalini. Was born at Kalloor near Amballoor. I am fourty-nine years old." This ended in her losing a client as he learned her real age after accidenatlly reading it! Thgus lack of 'a room of one's own without cliends' foiled her attempt at becoming an author.
Couple of weeks ago, when the English translation was released in Delhi, Nalini respnded to questions about authorship in an interesting way. most of the reporters refused to accept somebody who gets her autobiography written by others as an authentic author.Answering questions about her next literary venture Nalini sarcastically replied: You just mentioned how can I be an author. Therefore ,it will take time for me to write the next book. Let me become an author first!!"