Sex workers are free in four respects. We don’t have to cook for a husband we don’t have to wash his dirty clothes; we don’t have to ask for his permission to raise our kids as we deem fir; we don’t have to run after a husband claiming rights to his property.
Fiery outspoken and often wickedly funny this candid account of one woman’s life as a sex worker in Kerala became a bestseller when it was first published in Malayalam. Nalini Jameela who takes her name from both Hindu and Muslim tradition worked as a child in the clay mines. She has been a wife mother successful business woman and social activist as well as sex worker at different stages of her life. This is Nalini Jameela’s story told in her inimitably honest and down to earth style of her search for dignity empowerment and freedom on her own terms.
It was in 2001 I decided to write an autobiography. This decision had a context. I had this habit whenever I spoke I would slip into descriptions of my own life quite unwittingly and go on and on. And people like Paulson and Maitreyan my colleagues at Jwalamukhi would often ask me why stop was the one who wanted the story maitreyan suggested I write an autobiography. To tell you the truth I didn’t have a clue about the difference between the two.
Then once during a discussion about a video workshop at Maitrayn’s house he told me again. You should definitely write your autobiography you should I said that tough pick up speed in writing a letter goes missing. And when I ferret out the letter the idea I was trying to express has vanished that was the trouble in the first place.
The suggestion however was put to me many times and it was in 2003 that I finally decided to write the autobiography During a discussion about organizing the festival of pleasure Rajasekharan a member of our support group gave me a tip about how to write an autobiography write one page every day he said I could get up early in the morning and write. Short notes would do for a start. Later we could have someone expand them.
I did try to start as he had advised many times but I couldn’t move beyond a few sentences. I am Nalini was born at Kalloor near Amballor. I am forty nine years old. I wrote this much in a notebook. And then a client happened to read this. That led to my losing him. I’d told him that I was forty two. My first attempts to write were blocked by this incident.
After this I got a school child to write for me while I was at Beemappalli. That kid used to read Mangalam and Manorama magazine that lots of people read. But nothing worthwhile came out of this. And so it was also given up.
By this time any people had heard I was planning to write my autobiography. So I Gopinath approached me in 2004 at the Keral Social Forum at Thrissur and offered to write my autobiography by taking we had more than twelve very detailed interviews on tape. Unfortunately many of those cassettes were lost and he had to rely on his memory to rewrite most parts.
In our eagerness to see the book published we did not give ourselves enough time to make it perfect. That’s why I decided to write a revised autobiography. A group of friends volunteered to revise it keeping my style intact. I’m truly grateful to them they’ve put in such hard work and to Gopinath who helped me to shape my autobiography into a book for the first time.
Many asked me if it was right to make such revisions I don’t know if there are rules about these things that apply to everyone around the world. Even if there are and I happen to be the first person to change those rules let it be so! After all when I started sex work I didn’t go by custom! When I spoke with the publisher Ravi D.C he agreed to bring out the revised edition. I want to do everything to make my autobiography match my standards and style. I’m thankful to everyone who has helped me; special thanks to Gita Krishnankutty for reading this book and suggestion changes.
Nalini Jameela came into the public view in Kerala in 2005 when her autobiography, Njan, Laingikatozhilaali, was published in Malayalam and become a controversial best seller. The book went into six editions in one hundred days and sold 13,000 copies. No less an authority than M. Mukundan one of Kerala’s most powerful literary figures condemned the book as a prurient money spinner. The controversy deepened when Jameela decided to reject the first version and prepare a second version which she authorized as the authentic one.
The furious debate around the book and its author in which ‘inadvertent alliances’ between voices from the conservative right and some feminists were formed evoked memories of an earlier controversy over a woman writing her story. This was in the early 1970s and the controversy had been about the reveling autobiography written by one of Kerala’s finest literary authors. Madhavikutty (Kamala Das). However no two authors could be so differently located. Madhavikutty was born into an aristocratic Nair family was the daughter of an eminent poet in Malayalam and the Niece of a prominent intellectual. She was already well known as a short story writer in Malayalam and as a poet and writer in English when Ente Katha appeared. Jameela came from a lower middle call lower caste family was removed form school at nine and worked as a laborer and a domestic worker before becoming a sex worker. Later she became an activist and a filmmaker but was not very well known outside a narrow sphere.
Now it seemed as if she had taken over the crown of thorns form Madhavikutty who had once been disparagingly referred to as the queen of erotica. There were further differences; Madhavikuuty chose to withdraw her controversial autobiography after many years of struggle, calling it a fictional account Jameela chose to reclaim her autobiography by producing a second version which she felt was satisfactory. She risked commercial failure and public disapproval in order to correct her image. For Jameela a successful autobiography was her way of establishing herself as a public person, while testifying to the oppression of sex a public. She could not simply withdraw the first version she had to rewrite it.
What was striking about the debate however was that it failed to recognize the fundamental challenge the book had raised to the dominant feminine ideal in Kerala. This ideal of the procreative disciplined family centered feminine enshrined within the Malayali new elite had taken shape through wave after wave of social and community reformism in the 20th century. Njan Langikatozhilalo exploded this ideal appearing as an oppositional voice in the Malayali public. The Veshya the prostitute figure was marginally present in early 20th century Malayali reformist discussions in the shaping of modern Womanhood as its abhorrent other. However the poor laboring women’s presence was even more marginal Jameela’s text actually made this voice audible.
Like the Bhrtya, the female laborer of the classical Sanskritic typology the narrator of this story performs different kinds of labor productive reproductive sexual; Indeed Jameela indicates that sex workers are an unstable group. One reason why her work appeared shocking was that it challenged dominant images of decay as the inevitable culmination of s sinful life Instead if highlighted the ordinariness of sex-work strenuous exploitative and demeaning work situation quite invisible to kerala educated elite. That the boundaries dividing workplace home and the place of sexual labor are quite unclear emerges in Jameela’s insight that the threat of sexual violence is equally the bidding in all these disparate work places. About her initiation into sex work, she says. The moment she mentioned needing women I understood that this had to do with using the woman the way the husband does.
Jameela’s autobiography reveals the exclusion of the dominant home centered, self controlled feminine ideal and challenges the prostitute stereotype. In her very title she calls herself a laingkatozhilalai a sex worker claiming the dignity of tozhil a word that can mean both labor and profession in Malayalam. Jameela does not seek direct entry to elite womanhood. She rejects the description of herself as a prostitute as defined by the forces of morality but this is not done so that she can claim a description that would situate her in the community of women. That she choose a description defined by labor indicates the distance between elite centers notions of Womanhood and the female laboring poor in Kerala.
Jameela’s jettisoning of the anonymity that helps her in her work upsets stereotypical expectations regarding biographical writing by sex workers. She mentions in her introduction that her attempts to note down personal details ended in her losing a client once he learned her real age! Thirdly Jameela’s inserts a domestic into her life narrative complicating the image of the public woman considerably Stereotypically domestic rhythms familial love and relationships are perceived tobe absent form the life of the sex worker her life is expected to be essentially a series of sexual adventures.
Yet Jameela’s narrative has no explicit description of sex when it is discussed she employs amusing analogies. She includes a series about being a wife mother and devoted member of her husband family, long accounted her relatives by marriages her daughter’s marriage he son-in-law. But the foregrounding of the domestic here does not obscure the public life that Jameela states as her choice within given circumstances nor does it idealize the domestic or conceal the tension of negotiating between the two next beauty however through her characterization of sex and as counseling and therapy and claims to possessing expertise, she appropriates the former into the latter. And when Jameela advocates difference rather than sameness between the sexes it is on entirely different ground.
In short Jameela’s autobiography rejects dominant Womanhood not only by relating the hitherto untold story of the marginalized laboring woman subject but also by not seeking to be defined within the home centered category of Women. Indeed she seeks a revaluation of sex and work as a professional activity thus bidding for a public knowledge based identity. Jameela also upsets stereotypes and complicates the boundaries between the domestic woman and her other by writing in an elaborate domestics into her narrations central to this text is the figure of the public Woman who is clearly distant from the dominant domestic ideal but also lives a domestic life and aspires for the (largely masculine) role of the knowledgeable expert.
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