Rijula Das' debut novel A Death in Shonagachhi is a peek into South Asia's largest red-light district under the garb of romance-mystery
There is a crime, and there are clues, but the writing is not geared towards leading you to the culprit; there is a lot more going on in this novel
If you, like me, are besotted with the city of Kolkata, read A Death in Shonagachhi (2021). This debut novel by Rijula Das will shake you out of your reverie. It will remind you that there are worlds other than those spawned and fetishized by the bhadralok.
I, for one, might never be able to walk past Trincas, Mocambo, The Park and Oly Pub on Park Street without seeing them through the eyes of Lalee, the sex worker whose story this novel is built around.
You could approach this book, published by Picador India, as a murder mystery or love story, and assess whether it fulfills your expectations of either genre. The woman who is dead went by a beguiling name — Mohamaya. She too was a sex worker. When she was alive, she knew more than some powerful people wanted her to know. She is dead now, so the police force is looking for answers. Her colleagues in the trade are planning a candlelight vigil for justice.
The love story features Lalee and Tilu, who might remind you of couples in innumerable Bollywood films where the man hopes to rescue the woman through his unflinching devotion and the promise of respectability through marriage.
Read the book to find out who rescues whom, and to contemplate on the “raid-rescue-rehabilitate” model whereby sex workers are moved from brothels to training units where they are taught sewing and pickle making.
Lalee thinks of Tilu as her client. Tilu, however, sees Lalee as his beloved. He is a writer of cheap erotic paperbacks with the recurring character of a naughty sister-in-law. The changing dynamic between them is vividly captured by the author, focusing not only on the words that are uttered but also on what is unsaid. There is a marked difference between how they relate to each other at the beginning of the novel, and how their lives are intertwined at the end.
Das is remarkably talented when it comes to characterisation. You might think that there is nothing original about writing a character who was sold into sex work by a family member when she was a girl. The template is familiar; what is worth reading is the author’s treatment. Lalee is not necessarily the most courageous person in this novel but she occupies a soft corner in the heart of the storyteller. This is what makes her story a riveting one.
Tilu is deeply interested in the history of Kolkata. He likes to pore over historical records, and read about dead Englishmen who shaped the city during the colonial era. He gathers these stories, waiting patiently to share them with Lalee and also sneak them into his erotic works. Tilu wants his words to matter; he wants to be read widely, and be in the limelight.
In this book, you will also meet pimps, madams, cops, social workers, clients, devotees, and a man who helms a cult that exploits unsuspecting girls and women. Some characters have been depicted as pure evil, with no redeeming traits whatsoever. Others have been presented with shades of grey. When you begin to despise them, the author will catch you by surprise. Glimpses from their formative years will make you sympathise with their current life choices.
This would have been a totally different novel if Das had chosen to foreground the character of Shefali — who thinks that sex workers entertaining clients in hotels are like doctors making house calls — or Samsher who has not become a police officer to “clean up the city or to right all wrongs” but simply wants to buy a flat in South Kolkata. Similarly, if Das had decided to foreground Sonia or Rambo, she would have produced a markedly different book.
This is not the kind of murder mystery that will have you sitting at the edge of your seat, biting your nails and wondering what is coming up next. It unfolds more languorously, in keeping with the pace of Kolkata itself. There is a crime, and there are clues, but the writing is not geared towards leading you to the culprit. There is a lot more going on in this novel.
The author explores, for instance, the effects of demonetisation on the lives of sex workers in Shonagachhi, which is considered to be the largest red-light district in South Asia. Das worked on the novel over six years. Her enquiry into this subject is backed by research. She manages to write about socio-economic issues without losing her grip on the storytelling.
On the one hand, this book will show you how devastating it was for sex workers to discover that the bank notes they had so carefully saved up became unusable all of a sudden. On the other hand, it will also show you how quickly they adapted themselves to cashless transactions and began to receive payments from clients in their digital wallets.
Das weaves threads of pathos, humour, squalor and kindness into her narrative. She flits in and out of the minds of characters, hoping to leave you with different vantage points. She also questions ideas of purity and defilement, middle class morality, and the hypocrisies of holy men. She makes fun of clients and social workers who pat themselves on the back for being good listeners when they badger sex workers into telling their sordid life stories.
A Death in Shonagachhi will make you examine your position on sex work as you read about the Sex Workers’ Collective in this novel. They work in a neighbourhood where pimps carry laminated catalogues and business cards, and escorts have card swiping machines. New girls being recruited or pushed into the trade are referred to as products and consignments. The women of Shonagachhi want to claim their rights as workers, unionise, and ensure safety.
What does ‘choice’ mean in their context? If they decide to leave, where can they go? If they opt to stay, what are the avenues available for them to improve their own lives or the lives of their children? What are the costs and consequences that accompany these choices? Das examines these questions, gently and gradually, in this memorable novel that deserves to be read especially by people who are wary of picking up books written by first-time authors.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer
Read all the Latest News, Trending News, Cricket News, Bollywood News,
India News and Entertainment News here. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
How to become rich: You must manage your own money
Why this book on investing is more down-to-earth and worth investing in
Extinctions creates an encounter that lights up both the long enduring and the new. Following the ridge of regrets, fate, thoughts that came too late, a future appears, even of the past
Book review: The 150th edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack
Impenetrable, somewhat indigestible and yet packed with some of the best cricketing journalism around, it is a strange hybrid.