Soft Things by Sushma Joshi

 

Sushma Joshi is a writer and film­maker from Nepal. Her book “The End of the World” was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Her short film “The Escape” was accepted to the Berli­nale Tal­ent Cam­pus. She has a BA from Brown University.

 

 

Date: Octo­ber 23, 1998

Loca­tion: Kamathipura

Black mounds of trash out­side build­ings that are crum­bling, peel­ing. Punk and blue shut­ters and iron grilles in every bal­cony. Six bal­conies on each floor. What I take to be four storey houses, on closer inspec­tion, have grilled open­ings above doors and between floors, with shad­owy fig­ures of women comb­ing their hair with long, brisk motions. Lit­tle girls in frilly pink dresses pace back and forth.

“Chil­dren are good to have sex with,” says Kalu, with his weasley smile, a smile sticky with apol­ogy, promise, decep­tion. “Their minds are not formed, so you can do what­ever you want with them.” Kalu sits in a lit­tle wooden laun­dry shop on the 14th Lane in Kamath­ipura. Kamath­ipura, the city of love. Our trans­la­tor and guide, Shailesh, has taken us to him, promis­ing us that Kalu is a well-known pimp who can pro­cure us the child pros­ti­tute that we are look­ing for.

“We are look­ing for some komal maal,” Sailesh says. Sailesh, a jour­nal­ist from the local news­pa­per, who’s been recruited to take us along and act as our guide in the red­light dis­trict. In the words of inter­na­tional jour­nal­ism, he’s a fixer. And that’s pre­cisely what he’s doing right now—asking for a soft thing with the casual inflec­tion of a man used to ask­ing for soft things. I don’t think he nec­es­sar­ily fre­quents child pros­ti­tutes. But his tone makes it abun­dantly clear that what­ever we are after, he’s will­ing to pro­cure for us—and if it’s a soft thing, he’ll get us a soft thing. He is big and solid, dressed in casual clothes, speak­ing the local dialect like he’s one of the locals. 

I try to act cool and go along, although every nerve in my body is telling me to move away from these peo­ple who are on their quest for a child prostitute.

Of course, the two women who I am trans­lat­ing for have an excuse for their vic­ar­i­ous glee when Kalu says he can find us many komal maal. The two women are in Asia to write a story about child traf­fick­ing. One is an award-winning pho­tog­ra­pher, and she urgently needs pho­tographs. One is a writer—she urgently needs sto­ries. They have been sent by the biggest, most impor­tant news­pa­per in Lon­don. They are both des­per­ate for a child pros­ti­tute. I, their gullible trans­la­tor who has flown in from Nepal on my own expense to accom­pany them, look at their greed and hunger and feel a phys­i­cal sickness.

Per­haps it is the method­i­cal way in which jour­nal­ists try to get to their sub­jects, rather like hunters track­ing down prey. Or per­haps it is the impa­tience that the two women are exud­ing after being stuck for a week in an expen­sive hotel in Marine Drive, with one fixer after another promis­ing them girls that haven’t mate­ri­al­ized. Per­haps it’s the com­bi­na­tion of both, mixed in the Mum­bai heat, that makes me feel the way I do.

Why am I here with them, you may ask. The rea­son is sim­ple. A hard-smoking, hard-drinking friend of mine named Vid­hea  had called me one day and said to me: “Sushma, there are two jour­nal­ists here from the UK. They need a trans­la­tor. Are you inter­ested?” I was at that time employed by the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health, and I had made sev­eral trips already to Mum­bai, where I had vis­ited the red-light dis­trict and come to know of the sit­u­a­tion of Nepali women there. When I said “yes,” it was more out of schol­arly curios­ity than the  need for employment.

Besides, Vid­hea said, the two jour­nal­ists were about to visit the famous reha­bil­i­ta­tion home of Anu­radha Koirala, who some had likened to the Mother Teresa of Nepal. Mother Teresa had recently received a group of girls res­cued in a high pro­file raid from Mum­bai. The raid had been done by one Balkr­ishna Acharya of the Res­cue Foun­da­tion. These girls were now at her home. The only prob­lem was that she didn’t like Nepalis to visit the home, but for­eign­ers were very wel­come. This, I thought, was a very good moment to see what was going on inside that insti­tu­tion. Mother Teresa had also recently received a mil­lion pound grant from Prince Charles to do her work, so British peo­ple were espe­cially welcome.

Some­times luck favors the bold. We had arrived an hour early. “Can we start our inter­view?” Mary asked. Mary, as the writer, felt side­lined by Olivia’s con­stant need to get her pho­tographs, and the reminder that: “A pho­to­graph is worth a thou­sand words.” A young man there, with a rather mil­i­taris­tic demeanour, frowned, but he decided to bring one young girl into the room any­way. She was young, shy and fair. The inter­view started off well. The girl started to tell us about how she had been taken to the bor­der, how she had been sold, how she had ended up in the brothels.

Then Mary broke in and asked a sym­pa­thetic ques­tion. “Did you know the man who was sell­ing you?” she asked, flir­ta­tiously. It was girl talk and girls knew how to get con­fi­dences out of each other. At the moment, I rather admired Mary’s inter­view skills.

The girl blushed. She was all of four­teen. “Yes, I knew him,” she said. “We went together. We were in love.”

“Ah, your boyfriend?” Olivia asked. “Boyfriend” sounded rad­i­cal in this small room, with Anuradha’s man frown­ing from behind the chair where the lit­tle girl sat. The con­cept of “boyfriends” don’t exist in Nepal. It is as if peo­ple only get mar­ried at an appro­pri­ate age, and any rela­tion­ships before that is con­sid­ered non-existent.

The girl giggled.

The man stepped in. In a rather harsh tone, he said: “No, she didn’t know this man who took her,” he said. “She didn’t know him. He was a stranger.”

Anu­radha Koirala’s insti­tu­tion soared to the skies telling the world Nepali girls were carted off to India by crim­i­nals offer­ing them drugged mango Frooti drinks. The fact that ado­les­cent girls may be hav­ing rela­tion­ships with men and get­ting sold through the trust fac­tor would besmirch their image as inno­cent girls in the hands of great dan­ger. The young man left the room abruptly. We con­tin­ued our con­ver­sa­tion with the young girl. The young man returned and said very stiffly to Olivia: “You have a phone call from Anuradha.”

Olivia blanched. We were clearly in trou­ble. She left the room. When she returned, she was very agi­tated. “She screamed at me over the phone. Who is that Nepali? She asked me. We have to leave imme­di­ately.”” And this is what we did.

This was Kath­mandu in 1998, where even the idea that teenagers may have had sex­ual rela­tion­ships with men was an unthink­able idea. Young women could be vir­gins only, inno­cent vic­tims of crim­i­nal gangs, never indi­vid­u­als with desires to travel the world, get jobs, take care of their fam­i­lies or have boyfriends.

It is often these desires, and the ways in which they can­not ful­fill them in a safe man­ner, that land girls in bad places, even now. Four­teen years later, young Nepali women can now be found in Lhasa night­clubs, instead of Kamath­ipura. But I have no doubt those in the reha­bil­i­ta­tion busi­ness are still insist­ing that women are being drugged rather than going of their own accord.

Now lets go back to Kamath­ipura, where we are still seek­ing our Nepali child prostitute.

“Hah, hah,” says Kalu. “I’ll bring her out to a hotel and you can do what­ever you want with her. What­ever you want.” His “what­ever” falls along a con­tin­uum of rape, deflo­ration, tor­ture and pho­tog­ra­phy. You can do what­ever you want with her, he promises, allow­ing the women per­fect lee­way to vio­late vir­gin­ity, body, and pri­vacy with equal access.

The nego­ti­a­tions con­tinue. Olivia is will­ing to go to the guest­house to see the girl. She says she can­not go back with the pho­tographs she has—they are use­less. I raise my eye­brows, and try to tell her, with­out open­ing my mouth: Maybe we should be care­ful. Kalu, with his knife scar, his greasy laugh and his assur­ances are not a guar­an­tee I want to trust my life with.

Kalu sees my raised eye­brows. He turns to me and addresses me directly: “Ahhh.” He exhales his breath, con­sid­ers me, pauses. I look at him, defi­ant. “Where are you from?”

“Amer­ica,” I lie. I try to hide behind my glasses and my Amer­i­can accent. I am not one of these Nepali girls he is used to sell­ing for a hun­dred dol­lars. I am dif­fer­ent, I think in panic.

“You should take off your glasses,” he says. “You’d look pretty with­out them.” I don’t want to take off my glasses. With­out glasses, my vision blurs and I feel help­less. I glare at him.

I take a deep breath, try to look intim­i­dat­ing. Inside, I feel the dread­ful sink­ing of fear. Olivia looks at me with scorn, as if to say: toughen up. He’s just a pimp. If we can deal with him, so can you.

“Here,” he says, get­ting up to get what looks like a plas­tic album down from a ledge in the rafters of the wooden box. “I have many col­lege stu­dents like you. Many col­lege girls who are avail­able. All kinds. Very well edu­cated. Eng­lish speak­ing. They are avail­able, with pho­tos. If you ever want to work, leave your photo with Kalu.” And he grins that khaini, tooth-rotting smile. He flips open the album. Pho­to­graph after pho­to­graph of women in pretty kur­tas and col­lege out­fits peer out.

“Okay,” I say, try­ing to hold on to my last bit of cool. What answer is there for a pimp who’s just offered you a job as a low-paid pros­ti­tute? “I don’t think I’m inter­ested, though.”

Kalu gets inter­ested now. “Ohhhh… Mem­sahib,” he says, smil­ing some more. “This is Kamath­ipura. Its united. If we didn’t like you, you can enter here and never leave again. Nobody would ever find you again.” He looks at me directly in the eye, mak­ing sure I have under­stood what he’s just said. 

I give an off­hand smile, and pre­tend I haven’t under­stood his threat. I smile, I shrug. I move slightly away, sud­denly aware of the slit in the back of my dress, the blue and black flow­ered dress that I had bought in Colaba and which had seemed so inno­cent, and now in the heat and stench of Kamath­ipura sud­denly takes on sin­is­ter con­no­ta­tions. I take out my Kon­ica, and fid­dle with the lenses. My big fat solid Kon­ica, which I’d bought for a hun­dred bucks in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island, and which had stood me in good stead for so many years. I pray I won’t have to use it as a weapon.

                                                            ***

Last night, we have just been taken to a tour of Kamath­ipura by a flam­boy­ant man who has taken a fancy to us, and wants to act as tour guide. His name is Ram­jee, and he says he’s a local. We find him at an open air build­ing where he’s tak­ing an after­noon nap, along with other well-oiled, scant­ily clad men. It looks like they’ve all recently had a massage–their bod­ies glis­ten with oil. The male energy is palpable—I won­der if this is the local ver­sion of a gay club.

“Do you know where we can find a young Nepali pros­ti­tute?” Olivia asks with brazen desperation.

And he looks at them, sees the white skin, gets up slowly, and enun­ci­ates: “Hello Madam.”

Ram­jee is pleased, indeed, almost happy to see us. He sees the two British women and instantly his demeanor becomes grand and flow­ery. He starts to declaim. He demands that he be allowed to take us around. He insists. Some­how, some­where, he asks the ques­tions: “Are you in any way con­nected to the British Royal Fam­ily? To the Queen?” It’s a setup, but we play along.

Almost flaw­lessly, as if to ful­fill this decep­tion that we all know we are par­tic­i­pat­ing in, Mary, the smoother one, says: “Yes, we are sent by Prince Charles. He’s very inter­ested in stop­ping child traf­fick­ing, you see. Yes, we are sent by the Royal Fam­ily of England.”

That’s all Ram­jee needs. “Madams, tonight,” he explains, “is Laxmi Pooja, the night of Laxmi, the God­dess of Wealth. All the broth­els, by a stroke of luck, must keep their doors open tonight so that the God­dess doesn’t feel offended by the close doors. We can go wher­ever we want to go.” The women look at each other and shrug, try­ing not to show their glee. “Yes, please. We would like a tour, thank you,” they say, as if this is not some­thing they had not been dying to do for the last fort­night. This is a rather stag­ger­ing stroke of good luck for jour­nal­ists who’ve flown thou­sands of miles and spent a help­less fort­night try­ing to enter the infa­mous but inac­ces­si­ble brothels.

Ram­jee takes us from one brothel to another, all the while announc­ing that we have been sent by Prince Charles. “These peo­ple are rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Prince Charles!” He announces in big florid accents each time we enter a brothel. The trans­ves­tites on Lane C wel­come us with open arms. They are putting on their makeup when we make our way up the nar­row stairs to their room upstairs. There is a gaity and fes­tiv­ity in the air.

As we walk through the crowded streets, a trans­ves­tite in a red blouse and sil­ver sari tries to pull Olivia along with her. “Sweetie, come,” he says. Olivia resists with a smile and a tough: “No, thank you, dar­ling.” “I’m used to the streets,” she explains to me, when I mar­vel at her appar­ent cool­ness. “This is the same as my neigh­bour­hood in London.”

We walk up and down nar­row stair­cases of a dozen broth­els. Ram­jee intro­duces us in his florid accent, in each instance, as Prince Charles’ envoys. In many places, we get scowls and angry looks. In many broth­els, we are ignored. In one brothel, a madam with a clas­sic Nepali face looks down, see us and slams the grilled door in our face. As the grilles shut, I can see young girls scam­per­ing to get out of sight. Olivia, with her big cam­era, seems not to notice. In her head, she has this ideal child pros­ti­tute, and it seems that she doesn’t see the young girls who lit­ter the brothels.

There are fif­teen hun­dred brothel own­ers in Bom­bay. They are ready to kill the peo­ple who come and tear apart their sta­bles of young girls. Many of the top ones are Nepali, women who worked their way up and now own their own sta­bles, as they are called.

In one brothel, we we enter a green vinyl and mir­rored disco room where the Nepali girl, only twenty-four, tells us that she was sold by the man who mar­ried her after her Bachelor’s degree exam­i­na­tions. “I was deceived,” she says, as if being deceived was the most nor­mal thing in the world. “I didn’t know he would sell me, that I would end up here.” She is from Dar­jeel­ing, and has the sweet­est accent. As we walk out, we see her a twelve year old girl look­ing at us as we walk out. The girls are everywhere—hanging out in famil­ial packs, doing girl things, play­ing with dolls, plait­ing hair. Just being lit­tle girls.

At the very end of the evening, we enter a gigan­tic brothel that looks like it has a thou­sand women liv­ing inside it. The brothel’s entrance is cov­ered with shit as a bro­ken sewer over­flows the entry way. We jump over the yel­low liq­uid and walk up war­ren ways of pas­sages in which iron bunk-beds have been put in every cor­ner. There are women inside the cur­tained bed-frames, whis­per­ing, smil­ing, laugh­ing, talk­ing. There are men dressed in hum­ble out­fits, walk­ing in like they are there to buy their daily bread. The women in their blouses and saris look only slightly tou­sled, as if they have been caught in their homes enter­tain­ing guests rather than clients. Some of them look indif­fer­ent. Oth­ers look like they are enjoy­ing moments of inti­macy. Mostly, they look busi­nesslike and prac­ti­cal, as if its all in a day’s work.

We are on a quest for a Nepali pros­ti­tute, Ram­jee explains. Ah, a Nepali. The women, chat­ter­ing and curi­ous, escort us to where the Nepali woman lives. Her name is Radha.

Radha is thin. She looks tired. She has a smile on her weary face. Radha says: “I pay Rs. 80  a day rent for this place.” She waves her arms around the small three feet by six feet cubi­cle bal­cony, with a small bunk that rests halfway up. Her room is open to the elements—there is a roof but not much else. I sit on the bro­ken ledge and lis­ten to her tell her story—how her hus­band sold her to the brothel, how she can’t work much now since the acci­dent, how she wished she could send her son to school—all this with the calm detach­ment of an ordi­nary woman telling an ordi­nary story. As if, in her mind, this is how life is sup­posed to be.

“I can’t work much now since the acci­dent,” she says. A lorry came up behind her and hit her. Now she walks with a limp. She is in her thir­ties. She has a three year old son who she had with the man who sold her after he mar­ried her. She takes a few clients each day these days, but her clients are dry­ing up because of her dis­abil­ity. She fetches a small price, but its still enough to live on. She looks at me with those eyes and asks me to take her son to Nepal where he can go to school. The small boy pre­tends not to under­stand his mother’s entreaties, and looks down as he plays, all with the intense self-conciousness of a lit­tle child eaves­drop­ping on impor­tant talk.

On our way out, Ram­jee stops at what looks like a wooden box in the mid­dle of a dark pas­sage­way. This, says Ram­jee, is where another Nepali woman lives.

We see the girl as she comes in—big, dark, per­haps a Dalit. She doesn’t say a word as she dis­ap­pears into the box. Its like she doesn’t see us. We are appar­ti­tions, we don’t exist in her numb mind. The wooden box, shaped like a tele­phone booth in Lon­don, looks like it’s big enough to hold a human being upright. That’s her home? I ask. That’s where she sleeps, a young man says, eager to show us around the brothel. The man, I real­ize, must be her owner.

We are back in the sun­light. Radha, dressed in immac­u­late pink silk, comes down for us. She rests on a pole out­side Kalu’s laun­dry shop. I know that inside that poise her legs, the legs that got run over by a lorry dri­ver, by a drunken lorry dri­ver, is get­ting tired… Olivia clicks, and clicks, and clicks. She takes a thou­sand photographs.

Kamath­ipura, I think with a shiver, is about death, the death of trust and the death of illusion.

Kalu goes back to bar­gain­ing with Olivia and Mary. “Nepali girls,” he says, “are very fash­ion­able. They are like film stars. They wear good scents. Men come to them for fash­ion. For sex, they go to South Indi­ans. They go to Nepalis for fash­ion. For hon­esty. Even if the wal­let fall out of his pock­ets, the Nepali girls keep it for them so they can come and get it later. It hap­pened last week with one customer.”

Olivia checks her dig­i­tal cam­era, and real­izes that she still doesn’t have pho­tographs she came to get. “But I don’t want any Nepali girl,” says Olivia impa­tiently. “I need a lit­tle girl. One that is eight or nine.” She has two more weeks before her edi­tor recalls her back. If she goes back to Lon­don with pho­tographs of teenaged girls, she is screwed. She is depend­ing upon this money from the story to pay her mort­gage. She has already wasted two weeks vis­it­ing broth­els and see­ing the women in it. They are all too old for her.

“Ahhhh…” Kalu closes his crafty eyes. “Too many raids these days, Madam. Many lit­tle girls have now been moved to Surat, across the bor­der into Gujrat, because the madams in Bom­bay are too afraid to keep them here. They lose too many of them. So they are all hid­den away in Surat.”

Finally, they agree on a deal. At night, Kalu will bring a lit­tle pros­ti­tute to the Oberoi Hotel for us to do as we please.

I will not show up for this event, because it sick­ens me. Later the women will tell me the girl came but she was a dis­ap­point­ment. In what way, I can­not tell. Per­haps she wasn’t sexy enough.

The shut­ter speed is slow, clos­ing, cap­tur­ing the light. I look at Radha and see that look of betrayal in her eyes. The look of some­one who thought they’d seen a friend but instead seen just a camera.

Kanchi, the first pros­ti­tute we met in Kamath­ipura, sit­ting out­side in the thresh­old of a one storey brothel, had given me that same look of betrayal. The men had stared at us as we walked into Kamath­ipura. Hun­dreds of men, just star­ing at us with big eyes. Then we’d seen her, sit­ting in that lit­tle thresh­old on a bam­boo stool, just wait­ing. All dolled up, wait­ing for her first client.

And the clients were us. Sailesh, mov­ing towards her like a hunter who’s seen his first prey, had whis­pered to me, “Talk to her, dis­tract her!” So I, numb, pan­icked, dis­tracted her while Olivia took her pho­tographs. Click, click, click! Each pho­to­graph a vio­la­tion, taken with­out per­mis­sion, with­out due dili­gence, with­out noti­fy­ing the sub­ject where her image would end up. She had looked at me with that remote, detached face, the beau­ti­ful young woman who knew once again that she was being betrayed and told me: “My name is no longer Kanchi. After I came to Bom­bay, I became Hasina.”

Then as the cam­eras clicked, she told me: “I used to have a lot of clothes, a lot of jew­elry. But now I no longer want them. I give it to the beg­gars who come to beg. I gave it all away.” And I sit there, feel­ing the reproach, know­ing at once that I am the beg­gar, and again she is giv­ing me all that she has, over and over. Her image. Her face. Her youth. Her beauty. All this will appear in a mag­a­zine in a far­away place, and make money for other peo­ple. She knows this.

Hasina lives in a sta­ble with her brothel-owner, who trusts her now not to run away. She’s too bro­ken down, too dead, to run away. She has no pos­ses­sions. She wants noth­ing. Her best friend, Aarti, looks at me with beau­ti­ful eyes and pur­ple marks of melanoma on her arms. She will soon die of the dreaded dis­ease, like all the rest who went before her. “There were many of us here,” she says sim­ply. “But many of them are now dead.”

After she was done tak­ing pho­tographs of Hasina, Olivia, in the glee of snag­ging her first young pros­ti­tute, went to the baz­zar and bought the cheap­est makeup kit she could find. I tagged along, sud­denly exhausted by heat and depres­sion. I’ve talked with Hasina for the last half hour. She’s treated me like a vis­i­tor from far-away, some­one who she’s trusted with her life’s story. She ran away with a friend when she was six­teen, ran across the bor­der to India. After she paid her debts to the brothel-owner, she decided to set up her own shop here in this lit­tle thresh­old, and not be owned by a madam. No she is never going back. Yes, she had another name in Nepal, but in Kamath­ipura she is known as Hasina.

The two jour­nal­ists know noth­ing about her other than her profession.

 Only one quid for all this!, Olivia said, mar­veling at the cheap­ness of the makeup kit.

The makeup kit was a big red plas­tic case filled with gar­ish pow­ders and potions. Sil­ver let­ters say: Hasina on top. Some­thing in me screams “No!”, but Olivia is implaca­ble. Sailesh says: “Yes, these women like makeup.” We take it back, and I am pushed for­ward to han­dover the gift. Olivia beams, pleased by the cheap deal, and pleased by her own ges­ture of mak­ing a pros­ti­tute happy. 

With the great­est of embar­rass­ment and sick­ened fury, I hand the box to Hasina. She extends her hand and takes it with­out a word, nei­ther happy nor dis­pleased. She looks at the Hasina embossed with sil­ver let­ters on top. I don’t know if she can read, but she looks down at the let­ters for a while. Then she puts it down, gets up and enters the build­ing. She van­ishes in silence, as if she is happy to be released from our presence.