At the Stroke of Eight: Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela

“I should warn you that I might write again in the future—‘My Autobiography, Part II’!…I will keep on telling you the story of my life.”

These were the last lines Nalini Jameela wrote in the Afterword of her autobiography Oru Laingikatozhilaliyute Atmakatha (2005). Thirteen years have passed since she created a storm with her story. Sex worker Nalini Jameela is back again as a storyteller. Translated from the Malayalam by Reshma Bharadwaj, Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker, is slated to release this year by Om Books International. And, like the day is divided into aath pehar (eight parts), Nalini has travelled back in time and borrowed eight stories from her past—a thirty-year recap of 1970s-2000s—to present her ‘Autobiography, part II’, to the world. 

Romance and politics

When Nalini recalls her ‘romantic’ encounters, her reminiscences are not obliged to rules of tense or syntax. Her recollections transform into a moving picture. The past cheats and slips into the present without permission. The translation too abides by Nalini’s remembrances of things past. Ask Reshma about her very first interaction with Nalini and the genesis of Romantic Encounters…, and she avers, “In early 2000s, Nalini Jameela was the president of Sex Workers Forum of Kerala (SWFK). They held protest marches to draw attention to the atrocities faced by the street-based sex workers at the hands of police and goons. Nalini was one among the many vibrant leaders of SWFK. At that point of time, the political sphere of Kerala was not yet ready to accept such a movement. Sex workers faced violence both by participation and non-participation in public forms of politics. Nalini is a survivor from those turbulent times.

“Her engagement with the politics was not confined to the sex workers’ politics alone. She participated in many other agitations of that period. One such was the anti ADB protest formed against the Kerala government’s decision to take loan from Asian Development Bank and the conditions laid down for accepting the loan. Nalini, Dileep Raj and I were active in the agitation. She was in the organising committee of the ‘occupying night’ protest by women (the first of its kind in Kerala).

“When we went to Thailand as part of the conference and film screening, Nalini’s daughter was left in the care of my mother. Since I and Dileep lived together in a nearby apartment, Dileep was appointed as the co-guardian. Nalini and Dileep became thick friends sometime during those years.

“Soon, Dileep started working as editor in a Malayalam publishing house which brought out Nalini’s autobiography. As you know, she had serious problems with the first edition of the book and contacted me when she was reworking her autobiography. On her request, Dileep accompanied her to a meeting with the CEO of the publishing house which resulted in the revoking of the book. Three of us, Dileep Raj, Baiju Natarajan and I—worked as a team helping Nalini rework her autobiography. Nalini met Baiju at our home during those discussions. Theirs was a relationship between two writers. Baiju’s role is crucial in making the narration nuanced. It was during those days spent together that the idea of a further book came up—a book which would talk about the clients, lovers, friends, etc.; a book which looks beyond the regular stereotypes of a sex worker as a friendless, lonely person haunting the streets at night. By the time the reworking of the first book was over, all four of us had formed such a comfortable and challenging working relationship that we decided to do this work jointly.” After several rounds of interviews and discussions, the content for the second book was conceived in Malayalam. “Nalini went through the transcribed and edited material and after her approval of the Malayalam original, I did the translation,” explains Reshma. 

Compulsion or choice?

Nalini Jameela, a woman with a Hindu first name and a Muslim surname, perceives sex work as a language without a script. For her, rules cannot define this business. And, interestingly, there is no hierarchy playing out in her mind while she discusses her clientele. Whether it’s a forest officer, policeman, rowdy petty local thug, or a sewage cleaner, Nalini chooses money over station in life. She is not and cannot be cowed down by somebody else’s dictates, however influential the person might me. “Baletta, this calculation is rotten. The earlier one was better than this. Ten rupees and a bottle only make up to thirteen-and-a-half rupees!” she reprimands when forced to bow down to authority.

As a beginner, she does reveal her discomfort and awkwardness at standing in the middle of the street soliciting clients. She is not even sure if she is standing at the right spot. But, as she assumes maturity and experience, she begins asserting herself. Someone who began as a labourer in a mud quarry in her early teens, sex work as a full-fledged profession came to her as a compulsion-driven decision. Reshma Bharadwaj in her translator’s note recounts a pertinent episode when she pleaded with Nalini to be her guru and guide her to a new career—sex work. Alas, she couldn’t go through it. Something came in the way. Middle-class morality? Did Nalini’s social class and background, in a strange way, make it possible for her to enter sex work as the most palatable means of survival? But then again, it was not a choice for her. How does one negotiate this dilemma—this quandary between a class-determined choice or compulsion?

“This is a very difficult question and there is no easy answer to it. There is no doubt that choices and compulsions differ according to our social station. Most sex workers in Kerala are from Dalit, adivasi, OBC and Muslim communities. Sex work was a comparatively better option of the array of choices like the blood sucking work in a mud quarry, or being a petty vendor, or a domestic worker, etc. With all the moral dictates that give sex work its ‘abject’ status, getting labelled as a ‘sex worker’ also closes this already limited array of choices.

“That there is a definite narrative structure connecting the choices, compulsions, and social stations. That each of us is already well versed in this narrative and most often tends to stick with this narrative also shows the normative power of this narrative. Being on the margins of the social structure makes the glaring gaps of this narrative more evident. At that time, my choice was not between many different jobs. I could afford to live off my friends and relatives. I was too lazy to consider a full-time job. Sex work was appealing in that sense. Work for a week in a month and then go back to whatever I wanted to do. Nalini and others disabused me of that fantasy. Being a street sex worker also meant that you lose all manner of privileges you might have taken for granted till then,” elucidates Reshma.

Deceit in pursuit

Malayali men are paragons of virtue by day and predators by night—seems to imply Nalini as she offers a fascinating demystification of these demigods. She relates this duality to the geography of Kerala. For instance, Malayalis from Kozhikode find refuge in Mysore; Palani is the haven for Palakkad men, Mangalore is the favourite destination for men from Kannur, Kanyakumari doubles up as a sanctuary for the Trivandrum population, Kottayam and Madurai strike a deal, and those from Thrissur opt for Pazhani. Sexual politics and male hypocrisy are stripped bare. Nowhere in her stories does she come across as someone who is trying to hoodwink society—she has no reason to. On the contrary, she is exposing the tricksters and hypocrites in the patriarchal society she inhabits. A police officer—her client—has her arrested the morning after; another is afraid of his wife but smuggles in Nalini’s favourite drink at her behest (she has fun watching her clients in an inebriated state), another presents her with a string of jasmine flowers, until his wife gets a whiff of his antics, and so on. Somewhere, she enjoys the sight of vulnerable men at her mercy. Laughing at these foolish men, Nalini seems to seek redemption or is it sadistic pleasure?

Sex work has no script

And though Nalini says sex work requires no script, a hilarious story in this collection proves quite the opposite. What happens when husband and wife are not really husband and wife, and the “script” goes awry? 

“[…] When they questioned us together, the whole lie was laid bare.

‘Edi, did you say that his house was thatched?’

‘No, tiled.’

‘On which side is the tamarind tree?’

‘Northern side.’

‘Da, what did you say about the position of the tamarind tree?’

‘South!’

‘Edi, you said that there is a jackfruit tree. Da, is there one?’

‘No!’”  

Nalini absolutely detests the idea of playing the role of a dutiful wife to a man. Love and labels like husband and wife are very constricting for her. Perhaps, these middle-class emotions and ties are not part of her emotional grammar. Whenever her client turns in a sob story, she runs away—no, she sprints. Her way of teaching men a lesson? Men who abandon women at the slightest pretext? 

 “[…] But he reached a stage where he started proclaiming to everyone that she is mine. A stage where leaving me became unbearable for him. If this went on, he might not be able to marry anyone else nor give me up—a real conflict. So, when his love reached its zenith, I left that place.”

Nalini is a conversationalist too and she is affectionate toward clients who come to her for advice, and not just sex. She remembers how one client would take her to the terrace of someone’s house and would wait patiently for the world to turn silent—sounds of washing, crying babies, bustling crowd, the radio etc.—just so they could talk into the wee hours. “This love was an intense sort of emotion. A feeling so very different from what we ever felt for other clients,” she analyses. Intense maybe, but definitely fleeting! 

A woman’s story

Through her stories—stark recollections from her past—the reader reconstructs the arc of Nalini’s evolution not only as a sex worker, but a woman and a human being. If the inaugural story was a roadblock for her, by the eighth pehar, she turns the situation around in her favour. As a teen toiling away in a mud quarry, if she saw stars while kissing Johnny, by the last story, she has left her client unnamed. Men as entities and their identities keep diminishing for Nalini by the time she reaches the end of her career. 

That is Nalini’s story. A sex worker’s story. A woman’s story. A human being’s story.

A version of this story was first published on Firstpost on 16.04.2018. Here’s the link: Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker: Nalini Jameela returns, with eight new stories from her past 

(Featured) photo courtesy: Ima Babu

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