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Thursday, February 25, 2016

River of Flesh and Other Stories

Ruchira Gupta, the globally renowned anti-sex trafficking activist, has edited a compilation of short fiction from the Indian subcontinent on the theme of prostitution. The volume River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction (published by Speaking Tiger) has short fiction by some of the most prominent names in subcontinental literature such as Premchand, Sadat Hasan Manto, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Kamleshwar, Qurratulain Hyder, Kamala Das, Ismat Chugtai, Krishen Chander, Amrita Pritam, among many others.

“Over the twenty-one stories in this collection, a system of abuse by customers, pimps, brothel-keepers, lovers, husbands and recruiters is delicately uncovered,” Ruchira says in the book’s Introduction. The unifying theme of all the stories is the inherently exploitative relationship that prostitution imposes on the woman.

There is nothing alluring or romantic about it, and the popular myth created primarily by cinema (Devdas, based on Sharad Chandra Chattopadhyay’s story) that depict prostitution as acceptable, is nothing more than that – an elaborately constructed myth.

Ruchira Gupta
Ruchira has seen the hellish world of prostitutes from uncomfortably up close. In the Introduction to the book she notes, “I was told that some women chose prostitution over marriage, that they find freedom from patriarchal structures in prostitution, that college girls prostitute themselves for the sake of consumerism – to buy shoes, lipstick, bags, clothes, perfume…I was told that prostitution was a livelihood choice many women make when confronted with sweat-shop work, domestic servitude and oppressive marriages.”

“As an activist, organizing girls and women suffering from inter-generational prostitution in red-light districts and caste-ghettoes, the reality I saw was vastly different. I witnessed prostituted women struggle to access even their most basic needs – food, clothing, shelter and protection from violence. I saw women live and die in debt bondage. I came to know of the huge profits which pimps and brothel-keepers make. I saw girls and women chewed up and spit out by the brothel system.”

Another unifying theme of the stories is the economic destitution of the prostitutes. Nearly all the stories are about economically underprivileged women, and in the Indian context that also means they are from the so-called lower or backward castes.

The collection is a response to this hellish world, and emerged from a suggestion from Rakshanda Jalil who suggested “an anthology of stories by progressive writers from undivided India which provides insights into the link between women’s inequality and prostitution.” Gradually, the book expanded to include stories from other regions and languages of India.”

Not surprisingly, many of the stories also bring out the abject condition of the woman who is not the prostitute – the wife, who is reduced to a mute spectator even as the husband openly seeks ‘pleasures’ outside.

“The term ‘sex-worker’ cannot erase the trauma of body-invasion. Nor can any kind of legislation do away with the shock of body-penetration. There is no glossing over the fact that prostitution is an inherently exploitative practice, more akin to slavery than to occupation….River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction is our attempt to de-normalize the effort to legitimize the exploitation of women.”

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