For building the premise of sex-workers in Benares many literary pieces had delineated several tales. Zamindars and their consorts, atrophies of Baaijibaris over the time, the fate of their true love labours that was stamped to be illegitimates and many more. A graduate of TISS, social work was Atrayee’s profession. She talks about the sordid lives of sex workers, based on a real-life experience, exclusively for Different Truths.
A flock of squeaking birds flew home across the sky. In the bounds of dusk, awash in a melange of magenta, their silhouettes hardly made any sense to me. Sitting on a trembling boat, my innards were ducked in the cool breeze of Ganga and Badrichacha’s rustic hymns. It was my last evening in Benares. And before leaving I HAD TO see those fêted ghats.
“Didi from here you can see both the ghats.” Badri chacha uttered as he tied his boat’s stern to a bamboo that stood firm on an unnamed piece of an isle. Preoccupied with my musings I needed some time to tackle my surroundings.
Where was I? What was it? In the middle of nowhere, a piece of landmass hanging out; was it another bank of Ganga? Unexplored by humankind? Or was it new, moulded in the course of evolution?
“Is there a name for this bank too?” I asked, still analysing the array of bamboos and the unpopulated state.
“Ha ha ha!” Badri chacha laughed. “What to name it Didi? Sukhaa-nandan ghat… much like how we call lord Ganesha… Parvatinanadan?”
Eyeing my furled up mien Badri chacha had to relive the forlorn condition of Ganga. “It is a product of drought Didi…Ganga is no more the same…Things have been turning sour. But, we must not complain. Sometimes sour is for the good I guess. Wemajhis are getting better business for this. We can make tourists watch Manikarnika and Dashashwamedh ghat together… We make a lot of money these days due to this isle.”
A sudden lurid blow of conch obscured chacha’s words. And then, cadenced chanting of mantras and periodic pleas of Jai Maa Gange besides an intoxicating scent of camphor, incense, and flowers mingled with the air.
I was told by my guesthouse caretaker that only Badri chacha can show the most whimsical scene of Benares to me. True. I had never seen the fire so beautiful in my life.
Small golden blobs pranced on the aarti lamps in consort with the psalms; in the growing darkness, as if crafting a niche on those rebellious ripples and fearlessly mocking those twinkling stars. And then, there lay another crew of fire, set on anotherghat, glowering at the whole human race with its audacious blaze. Manikarnika ghat; where the fire was wrathful, merciless, charring the pyres, smouldering the dead souls out of every impurity, and as they say erecting their ladders to that so-called Moksha.
My indulgence to life was strolling between two ends; where one end celebrated a beginning, human’s tenacity to persist, and the other was liberating the same humans from all attachments; all emotions, letting the souls surrender to the immutable end.
The trip to this holy centre of India which was teaching me the very essence of life was not my first one. I had visited Benares before. Some four years back. Life had a different play running on its playhouse.
The year was 2006. I had just turned 25 that year. And, as an unpleasant birthday gift, I was placed with an NGO working for the welfare of sex workers. Especially for those who were infected with STDs. I was a self-willed graduate from TISS. Social work was bound to be my profession. However, I bade more towards child rights, education, health and all. Sex workers and their medical issues although cast a serious social concern, they remained a little tough as old boots for me. Still, first job and its first assignment. That had its own vanity. Buttoned up, I set for my first assignment. More for just an experience.
Benares wholeheartedly welcomed me. The prodigy of Hinduism, Kashi Vishwanath, Aghoris, Kumbh Mela (the seers offer Sangam water to Lord Shiva before they disperse), pamphlets of art and music, shahanais of Bismillah, soul-stirring thumrisand whatever was read or taught before breathed in some life. Besides, for building the premise of sex-workers in Benares many literary pieces had delineated several tales. Zamindars and their consorts, atrophies of Baaijibaris over the time, the fate of their true love labours that was stamped to be illegitimates and many more.
Patina and those printed words on it could nudge a bit of mercy towards them. However, keeping tabs on their daily ordeals with life and its sugar-coated savagery was different. Difficult. And of course appalling. Perhaps, more because of it being my first real life on site experience.
Dirty dungeons, seldom delivery of basic needs, boycotted from all fringes of humanity, they all were pariahs. Rejected by all and dejected within. With each passing day, a kind of aversion branched out towards my profession. A sordid whisper kept haunting me every time I witnessed Sharmila di interacting with them. They all were infected with a dreadful disease.
Odious conclusions often paid a visit to my face which never went unnoticed by Sharmila di. Being the boss, she was compelled to motivate me. In lieu of retaining a staff, I guessed. Not joking. Social work sorely becomes a desirable profession. Celebrities do it for the sake of fame and corporates are forced under the logo of CSR. Above all, hardly any parents would like their daughter to roam under the sun earning peanuts.
In the span of four days, my riled up expressions received umpteen number of messages from my parents. You leave. Come back home. Gradually, I too sailed in the same tide. However, the rule required me to lead at least one case to get an experience record. And Sharmila di did not shy away. I was summoned for the last case study. I wasn’t afraid; just that I had become allergic to those scenarios. Same tangled stories of their past essaying the macabre role played by their own blood in clipping them into this loathsome business; how their sole source of bread was snatched because of this disease and so on.
The next morning, Shravan, our local worker, took us to the location. To my surprise, this was not a half-shattered hut. A small beautiful apartment with all the basic amenities. More like a usual house, ceiling fans, tube lights, water pipelines, a fully furnished kitchen. The ambiance touched me like a beam of light at the end of the tunnel. Our host, THE WOMAN, greeted us at the door. Big brown eyes, thick angular eyebrows carrying an affable smile. She was certainly beautiful, once upon a time. Nonetheless, her droopy tired eyes, weakened stature, lifeless face and a big box of medicines thoroughly attested her condition.
“She is Noorjahaan.” Shravan introduced her to all of us.
While the interns were busy reading out her health details, my eyes hopped on each element of that hall. Marvellous paintings on the wall, an abandoned sitar, a pair of tabla. None of the earlier case studies resonated with hers. Instead of the routine detailing about what all our NGO would be doing for her, I popped up with an unusual query.
“Who are you?” My eyes disclosed more surprise than concern.
“Me?… Why? Shravan Sir told no. I am Noorjahaan.” She smiled. That overwrought smile stomached a very different story.
“Not asking your name…. Just that you are different from the others.”
“Perhaps yes… perhaps no…. We all are the same. Eagerly waiting for the end.” She smiled again. And now more with an unuttered command to stop interrogating unnecessarily.
In a couple of days when the project wound down and the team left for reporting to the head office, I sought a medical leave and wished to visit my parents in Kolkata. Yes, I wasn’t well; not emotionally staggered in those aisles of pitiable prostitutes, but ardently inquisitive towards Noorjahan. I couldn’t leave Benares without knowing her untold side. Somewhere, I sensed an abysmal secret about her that nobody knew.
In the privacy of that night, I reached her door, prepared to be chucked out immediately. However, to my surprise, her greetings unleashed something else. Noorjahan was expecting me. Why? A despair-ridden prostitute, on the brink of death; why would she want to meet me? In that impassable darkness of the night, I was enmeshed into a tale of love and sacrifice which got snarled into a hypocritical bigotry.
Noorjahaan was not her real name. Obviously. And, it would be better not to name her either. She was a woman. Just a WOMAN; laden with love and affection, blessed with such a mellifluous voice that Lucknow often called her the reincarnation of Rasoolan Bai. The 80’s saw her spreading her wings. And, in another decade, she became proverbial for Benares Gharana. She burst forth any limitations of being a woman; being without a godfather and outpaced the renowned whip hands in several concerts.
It was winter of 1995 and she was performing at the Music Academy, Madras. In the thick of several rose bouquets, there stood out a bunch of jasmine garland wrapped in a patravali. She was in Madras for the first time and nobody would have known her qualms for the expensive wastage on flower bouquets. Except for one, her childhood friend Nalini Radhakrishnan. She turned and twisted that patravali to see if there were any means of communication given. Yes, there was. An address was written over there. It was somewhere in a village of Maharashtra. As far as she remembered, Nalini was married to an NRI from the US. What was she doing in this village? Carrying this little query and a soul, full of love, she set for this meager village of Maharashtra to meet Nalini.
There presided an unparalleled request to honour her. Nalini and her NRI husband had come down to India in search of a surrogacy. A clandestine business that was propagating in many developing nations for the want of money. Lending a womb in return of money. Was it a joke? What kind of business was that? Women lending their virtue, their body to gratify a man’s lustful desires were heard of. That had a putrid name too; Prostitution. But, why would a prostitute lend her womb for 9 months intentionally? It would be an utter loss of business.
She couldn’t figure out anything until Nalini asked for something beyond her belief. Nalini wished her childhood friend to help her out. She was diagnosed with endometriosis, which prohibited her pregnancy. In the desire of motherhood, she had been roaming in India in search of a womb. And what did she get? Old prostitutes with futile business. Nalini couldn’t accept that and sought WOMAN as her last refuge.
Nalini’s request was incorrect. Immoral too. She was asking a WOMAN to sleep with her own husband. How could a friend even think of that? On the same note, how could a friend think of not helping?
WOMAN had always been ahead of her time. In her thirties, she winked at those marital norms of our society and chased her dreams. A beautiful spinster attracted many undesirable remarks. Some were vocal while some tried to be physical as well. But, she could shun everything out of her way single-handedly. She was different. She was strong. Every decision she took, never repented. That time, in that small hut surrounded by green fields, WOMAN could see nothing apart from her pleading friend drenched in tears. She was aware that helping Nalini would mean to go missing for a year, living in a disguise, vanished from her social life. Yet, she accepted. Not in return of money but as a token of true friendship.
By the end of the next year, WOMAN gave birth to a baby girl. Nalini was overjoyed. In those teary eyes blanched with joy, WOMAN found an incredible solace. She had always perceived motherhood to be a blessing from the God. However, sometimes angels were needed to pave the path. Perhaps surrogate mothers were those angels.
“So, Nalini’s husband was infected?” I interrupted.
WOMAN smiled. “No. Society was corrupted.”
“Didn’t get you.”
“Nalini left with her child and I had to come back to normalcy. I was captured under a reporter’s camera in Lucknow station….Next day, the front page of Lucknow newspapers put me on their reviews….Many doubts popped up. Eyebrows raised over my morality. Some concluded a terrible disease… And what not? I had to open up. What would I say? Did I become a surrogate mother? I was indecisive. Never felt so before. I was always headstrong about my life and my way of leading it. That was the first time I was considering the so-called society.”
“So you revealed?” I asked pondering upon the probable outcomes.
She smiled again. Rubbed her moist eyes and said, “I did not. But someone did, whom I trusted forever. Someone whom I will never name.”
“Then!” WOMAN laughed. Her voice trembled in the fear of reliving her past. “Then a mob of moral citizens raided my house every now and then. Stones were thrown. My walls draped a new badge of a prostitute. My music academy was burnt. Women asked me to leave the residential area and men…Huh! They asked my rate….One night a mob of men broke into my house. I was beaten brutally until I lost my senses. All I could sense was their lecherous groaning all over my body…. Left Lucknow and started living in disguise…. But, life was cruel again. I was pregnant and my blood tests showed my HIV status clearly….Then onwards this is my life. I have been seeking helps from different influential parties to lift up our status.” She stopped. Her eyes wanted a very specific reaction from me and I served it well.
“And how could you trust me to reveal this?”
“Because none before you had ever paid attention to anything in this house apart from my disease.”
“You want something from me,” I asked guessing for a monetary help in return.
“Get me a picture of my daughter…Nalini’s daughter…Want to see her before I die.”
Her plea to me was unexpected. How could I search for someone in a country as big as the US? And who knew, they might have travelled somewhere else? Still, a breed of hope reared hope. I, who was lethargic to see anything good in this profession suddenly fell in love with it. I resumed my job, bringing a smile to my bosses. It took me three years to find out Nalini. United numerous connections in India, sought help from my American bloodlines, embassy and what not; and finally I got in touch with Nalini Radhakrishnan.
WOMAN was counting her days when I reached her with her daughter’s photo. Nalini had sent a video clip too. On that quarantined hospital cabin where misery surmounted every emotion, everyone earned a moment of love, a slice of joy. You know why? The child that was nourished in a WOMAN’s womb knew her, recognized her. She was taught to have two mothers. What could be more joyous than that?
WOMAN breathed her last that night. In that mortal body, lifeless, bloodless, a perennial smile of content was glued.
They say one who dies in Benares receives Moksha. Is that why WOMAN chose Benares to be her last resort? I never understood. Nonetheless, if Moksha meant contentment, WOMAN had received it. Perhaps through Benares; or probably by listening to her own blood calling her MAA.
Photos from the Internet
#ShortStory #Benares #Woman #Fiction #SaturdayStoryteller #DifferentTruths
Atrayee Bhattacharya is an educator and works for an MNC’s CSR wing. In the bustle under the sun, she is a devoted educator, a loving wife, a caring daughter and a passionate homemaker. In solitude, she writes. In the pursuit of love and joy, penning down the miasma of human emotions is her favourite pastime. Her fictions always have a slice of reality, either owned or loaned.