In one of the most telling scenes of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, a hitchhiking sex-worker drops a naked truth as her parting words to the married female protagonist, “You are wholesalers. We are retailers.” With that she draws a line cutting across the gaping chasm that has always kept the other woman in the other town to be the story of somebody else’s universe. That town often seems unimaginable when seen from the centres of othering. Mostly, it is either those sentimental stories of emancipation or the sensational reportages from the dark disreputable world that form the core of familiarity with that part of the town. When a writer decides to tell a story of that part, she laboriously lays out a thin layer of ice to walk.
Rijula Das’ debut novel, A Death in Shonagachhi, which has been longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2021, sensitively poises its way to the great act of revelation through the stories that have lurked behind the trapdoors of clichés and propriety. The great act, however, is not the one usually found in a novel that has a murder at its heart; for this literary noir upsets some comfortable expectations to reveal truths that make some other truths ineffectual. In the novel as much as in Shonagachhi, the sacred and the profane, the beautiful and the damned, the derided and the desired collide and exchange meanings.
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The novel is a nuanced view of Asia’s largest red light area through the life of the protagonist Lalee who, like many other women was forced into it. Lalee’s story makes her alive in the novel in a peculiar way. She feels, dreams, yearns, cries and laughs – and that alone is the wonder of this deftly written novel. It makes her share a relatable proximity with those little fissures that all our hearts carry while we make and unmake ourselves. The moment, in the novel, when she passes through the corridors of a very posh hotel she fears recognition; she knows the alienation that happens in these insulated spaces and we know that too. The dilemma she faces between finding an absent horizon of freedom and the trap of belongingness is also the predicament of multitudes. The desire to escape and finding nowhere to go is a familiar battle that Lalee’s life is also caught in:
The unrecognized walks through the narrow lanes of Shonagachhi enters our lives not as that ‘other’ woman but simply as a woman who has been pulverized by life. It may seem like a task that a writer is capable of easily accomplishing, but what makes this novel a tale worth remembering is the finesse with which Das has created her characters.
In the tradition of Hammet-Chandler-Le Carre style of writing a murder, Das’ novel appears to be treading the well explored mean streets of urban decay where murders are not ‘scented with magnolia blossoms’ but are ‘an act of infinite cruelty’. The plot revolving around a murder easily forgets the murdered as the procedural takes the lead. In the novel, a woman is murdered; the police expectedly unbothered sit still with the wisdom that usually in Shonagachhi—the world about which no one cares—these ‘things’ have a way of sorting themselves out. The novel contends and exclaims—they do not!
A Death in Shonagachhi at the outset begins with the promise of an intrigue of a murder and evokes the assumption that it too would rest on a central structure of threat and resolution like many other stories of murders. Soon enough the novel transforms and gradually unravels an honest and unsettling narrative of Shonagachhi’s inner life. It pulsates with some unforgettable characters and heart warming friendships. The ones that leave a memory of jokes and shared sorrows of being and living in the heart of darkness.
Tilu Shau, the erotica writer of College Street, is the pivot along which things take a turn for the novel. The murder and its supposed resolution evade the pattern. People here do live with the usualness of blood, flesh, hunger, violence and ‘memory of slit throats’ but there is mirth and little moments of surreptitious joy that make life bearable for them. Tilu is a smile that lingers on. The ineffable love for Lalee that his heart is full with, the naivety of his dreams, and the heart-breaking insufficiency of his entire existence—make him a character who demands a story of his own.
Tilu is not the usual rejected genius sitting at the edge of the city rewarding himself with the torture of being one. He does not go around the streets of brothel reciting his woes and desires of leaving this combustible and futile world, to the ears that refuse to listen. He is a man who knows that the size of his pocket is not proportional to that of his heart, yet the insurmountable courage he musters in the hour of need endears him to the readers. The pair, Bhoga (Tilu’s avid reader and a fan boy) and Tilu, share a playful camaraderie and tease with their mock-heroism of a misadventure. A tinge of Watsonian adoration to Bhoga’s eye and a wider space for his character in the narrative would have made Tilu look no less than a Batman. He could have easily been what many men have been in stories of women of misfortune. The denial is one of the many rewards of this story. While writing the character of Job Charnock for his novel, Tilu realises:
Das seems to be asserting that rescue missions that often happen at the behest of male heroism or philanthropic human empathy run a risk of making a messiah out of a mortal. In the words of one of Das’ characters (Sonia) “People love a good rescue story. Don’t they?“
Moreover, the rescued always risks a vulnerability that robs her of a faithful dedication to life itself which makes all human beings exhibit a ferocious tensile strength. The question stays in the thick air: Where is the respite then? What is the way out?
The Shonagachhi Syndrome
The novel drives home, and quite literally in this case, the point that becomes redundant largely in a story of a ‘fallen’ woman by well meaning writers like Renu or Premchand. Pooro, the protagonist of Amrita Pritam’s magnificent Pinjar mumbles a prayer when she understands that whenever a girl ‘reaches her destination, she carries along my soul also.’ Souls of women travelling from rotten pasts to distant futures are all the same. They could be a Lalee or a Pooro. However, all destinations may not be home like all freedom may not be desired. In some ways, perhaps, the way out is the way back. Sometimes the way back is to nowhere. Home is possible yet unachievable and women like Lalee may live from quest to quest. The destinies that are tied and ‘born into brothels‘ may not be bogged down with the ‘Shonagachhi syndrome‘, though they may have their moments of doubts:
Rijula Das’ sensitively etched Lalee carves a space for herself in the jumble of such moments. There are no answers to questions nobody dares to ask and the novel exposes the moments of ignorance when a question or a two would have sufficed. It takes a keen insight to portray women like Lalee, Maya, Amina and Sonia in all their profundity and shallowness. Das knows her women well.
There have been a few remarkable attempts to portray the life in brothels. Mandi is one such marvellous film, one may recall, but the fact that they have always been treated with the scarce attention reserved for the parallel of the mainstream tells a lot about how we would want to have a conversation about them. A Death in Shonagacchi pauses at those conversations and ponders in a truly genre bending way.
Rittvika Singh teaches literature at University of Delhi.