‘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 fit; 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 traditions, worked as a child in the clay mines. She has been a wife, mother, successful business woman and social activist as well as a sex worker ‘1at 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.
I Try Out Writing
It was in 2001 that 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 with this chatter, why not write it all up as a story? Paulson 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 Maitreyan’s house, he told me again: ‘You should definitely write your autobiography, you should!’ I said, that’s tough for me. It’s difficult for me to write, just when manage to 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 discussion about organising the ‘Festival of Pleasure’, Rajasekharan, a member of our support group (he works for the magazine Savvy), 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 couldn’t move beyond a few sentences. ‘I am Nalini. Was born at Kalloor near Amballoor 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 only 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, magazines that lots of people read. But nothing worthwhile came out of this. And so it was also given up.
By this time, many people had heard I was planning to write my autobiography. So I. Gopinath approached me in 2004 at the Kerala Social Forum at Thrissur and offered to write my autobiography by taking down what I told him. I agreed, and in a year’s time, 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.1 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 suggesting changes.
Nalini Jameela came into public view in Kerala in 2005 when her autobiography, Oru Laingikatozhilaliyute Atmakatha, was published in Malayalam, and became a controversial bestseller. 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 authorised 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 ‘revealing’ 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 Kotha appeared. Jameela came from a lower-middle class, lower caste (Ezhava) family, was removed from school at nine, and worked as a labourer 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 from Madhavikutty — who had once been disparagingly referred to as the ‘queen of erotica’. There were further differences: Madhavikutty 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 testing to the oppression of sex workers in 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-centred feminine, enshrined within the Malayali new elite, had taken shape through wave after wave of social and community reformism in the 20th century. Oru Laingikatozhilaliyute Atmakatha 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 on the shaping of modern Womanhood as its abhorrent Other. However, the poor labouring women’s presence was even more marginal. jameela’s text actually made this voice audible.
Like the Bhrtya, the female labourer of the classical Sanskritic typology, the narrator of this story performs different kinds of labour — 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 a ‘sinful life’. Instead, it highlighted the ordinariness of sex work in the lives of the poorest women, its place alongside other strenuous, exploitative and demeaning work — situations quite invisible to Kerala’s educated elite. That the boundaries dividing workplace, home and the place of sexual labour are quite unclear emerges in jameela’s night that the threat of sexual violence is equally forbidding 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 exclusions of the 3ominant home-centred, self-controlled feminine ideal and challenges the prostitute-stereotype. In her very title, she s herself a Iaingikatozhilali, a sex worker, claiming the 2 ritzy of tozhil, a word that can mean both ‘labour’ 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 chooses a description defined by labour indicates the distance between elite-centred notions of Womanhood’ and the female labouring 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 inserts a ‘domestic’ into her life-narrative, complicating the image of the ‘public woman’ considerably. Stereotypically, domestic rhythms, familial love and relationships are perceived to be absent from the life of the sex worker (a ‘public woman’) — her life is expected to be essentially a series of sexual adventures.
Yet jameela’s narrative has no explicit descriptions of sex; when it is discussed, she employs amusing analogies. She includes a series of stories about being a wife, mother and devoted member of her husband’s family, long accounts of her relatives by marriage, her daughter’s marriages and her 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 tensions of negotiating between the two. Next,Jameela does link sex work to the production of pleasure and beauty — however, through her characterisation of sex work as ‘counselling’ 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 labouring woman-subject, but also by not seeking to be defined within the home-centred category of Women. Indeed, she seeks a revaluation of sex 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 domestic into her narrative. 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’.
Pride, Prejudice, and Worse
Jameela’s entry into the public world was through the reorganising of sex workers by NGOs as part of the AIDS prevention campaigns. Sex workers began to assert themselves publicly, for instance, when the Malayalam film Susanna 2001) was released. indeed, the sex workers’ identification with Susanne seems linked to the fact its chief protagonist s highly endowed with Womanly qualities and engages in multi-partner relationships — making a bid for inclusion. The emerging differences between the sex workers and prominent feminists/radicals were already apparent, and would worsen later.
Jameela’s feminist critics regard her narrative as the neo-liberal Veshya’s voice. Certainly, jameela’s liberalist pronouncements on sex work, the liberal disembodied self that underpins it and her male sexual need’ argument may be critiqued. But the anti-patriarchal charge in defining the prostitute as a radically disembodied ego, as not just a body, but its owner, cannot be simply denied. Critics often imply that jameela is essentially a saleable body masquerading as the owner of one. Her salvation from bodily-ness, then, lies in a variant of reformism, in rescue and rehabilitation that would transform her into a mind-centred Woman under the supervision of superior ‘minds’, possibly feminists: hence the heavy moralism of jameela’s feminist opponents. Nor do they reflect on why commercial domestic work, which is equally exploitative, onerous and sometimes involves bodily services, does not carry social stigma.
Jameela has appeared as a ‘victim’, as a passive tool in the hands of neo-liberal reformers; in contrast, liberals have emphasized her ‘agency’. This allowed for the obscuring of the voice of the Bhrtya, who is neither the ideal Woman, nor her Other — the Prostitute — but a third, for whom either of these terms or their opposition makes sense. The unflinching focus on jameela’s sex work obscured her class position as a poor labouring woman. For instance, researchers have observed that poor, labouring women in Kerala increasingly work harder to ‘marry off’ daughters with substantial dowries, perceiving this as a survival strategy in the face o - direct capitalist oppression. jameela’s own attempts to ‘marry off’ her daughter has close similarities with such attitudes.
The constant accusation made by her critics in their zeal to depict janieela as an ‘unrepentant sex trader’ willing to ‘let her daughter pursue sex work if she chose it’ obscured her challenge to the prostitute-stereotype. It ignores her admission of intolerable working conditions in sex work and her reluctance to encourage her daughter to take up sex work. It was never conceded by her critics that the conceptual and moral oppositions that structure elite society may not make sense to the non-elite. jameela’s statement continued to be read within those very oppositions. The key — and incorrect — implication was that jameela allows her family to be open to sex trade — and therefore her claims to be part of the domestic are annulled. The statement attributed to her had been culled from her replies in a question-and- answer pamphlet published by the Sex Workers’ Forum in 2003, which was clearly impatient, if not dismissive, of the socialist critique of globalisation. Interestingly, this has been appended to the first version of her autobiography (which she subsequently rejected) to achieve a seamless unity between her life and the Sex Workers’ Forum’s political statements, in effect effacing her as an individual and a writer.
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