Gimme red

Veena Pradeep
This book tackles a controversial subject in a matter-of-fact and intelligent debate.
Those who pick up Nalini Jameela’s autobiography seeking voyeuristic delight, be warned. The book is a big let down on that count. Despite being a sex worker’s autobiography, it is anything but prurient. Candid, yes. Explicit, no. On the contrary one will be struck by the intelligence and pragmatism of a little educated woman, who chose to take up sex work to make both ends meet.This is the revised version of Nalini Jameela’s first autobiography, Njan Laingikatozhilaali, published in Malayalam in 2005, which she felt was not perfect enough. In her foreword, J Devika who translated Nalini’s work into English talks about Njan Laingikatozhilaali selling like hot cakes in Kerala, while those from the literary intelligentsia came down heavily on the book which had created a public furore almost similar to the one created when Kamala Das wrote her revealing autobiography in the seventies.

Nalini’s voice is strong and unrepentant, that of a woman who knows what she is doing and not that of a victim forced into the trade through guile. Though she initially took up the trade as a young widow to feed her two children, in later life she tries to find dignity in the work she does.

For her sex work is a profession like any other. And if it paid better than, say, domestic work, why not opt for it, is her argument.

Even when she associates herself with Jwalamukhi, an organisation working for the rights of sex workers, she learns to make documentaries and travels widely to show her documentaries on sex workers, she does not give up her trade.

Her penchant for convincingly arguing her case is exemplary. Listen to this; “Some writers have been asking— isn’t sex an elevated experience, to be enjoyed with sensitivity, can it be sold? We are taught, ‘The treasure of knowledge is the greatest of treasures.’ Now, if we ask the teacher to give us this wealth of knowledge for free, will he do it? No. He needs a salary… So what’s the great sin if the sex worker asks for remuneration?”

Decriminalise sex?

And again, “We demand that sex work be decriminalised. This does not mean establishing licenses … By ‘decriminalising’, what we mean is this: if two people want to have sex by common consent, if this is in no way a nuisance to others, then it should not be questioned. This is particularly important in Kerala, where there are no brothels.”

Her writing is characterised by wry humour even when she talks of loss. Of a client she says, “The directions continued even in bed: don’t snore, people who snore aren’t good, so be careful.
“And then when he fell asleep, he’d emit gargantuan snores, which could well compete with the Pandava Bheema’s fearsome battle-cries.” 

A determined, self-willed woman, who hates playing the victim, she marries thrice but has no qualms about dumping two of her husbands when she feared her self-respect was being eroded. And this when her third marriage had lasted 12 years and had given her daughter a sense of security.

Sparing no one, not even feminists— “It’s women who strut around, thinking of themselves as progressive who often behave the worst”. Nalini Jameela’s is a voice that one cannot easily dismiss.

The autobiography of a sex worker
Nalini Jameela
Westland Books Pvt Ltd
Rs 150
pp 143


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