Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker: Nalini Jameela returns, with eight new stories from her past

“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.”

The afterword of Nalini Jameela's autobiography Oru Laingikatozhilaliyute Atmakatha (2005) ended with these lines. Thirteen years since she created a storm with her book, sex worker Nalini Jameela is back again as a storyteller. Translated from the Malayalam by Reshma Bharadwaj, her new book — Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker (Om Books International) — is slated to release this year, and brings to life eight stories from Nalini's past. The stories comprise a 30-year recap spanning the period between the 1970s-2000s — presenting Nalini's ‘Autobiography, part II’, to the world.

Nalini and her translator Reshma go back a long way, to the early 2000s when the former was the president of Sex Workers Forum of Kerala (SWFK). The SWFK held protest marches to draw attention to the atrocities faced by street-based sex workers, and Nalini was among the most vibrant leaders of the movement. Sex workers' issues were not the only politics she engaged with, however. From the protests against the Kerala government's decision to avail of the Asian Development Bank loan to the 'Occupying Night' initiative — Nalini was at the forefront of several social movements.

In fact, it was at the anti-ADB loan agitation that Nalini and Reshma became friends, as also Dileep Raj (who later became Nalini's editor).

 Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker: Nalini Jameela returns, with eight new stories from her past

Nalini Jameela's new book is titled Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker. Photo courtesy Ima Babu

When Nalini's first book was published, she was unhappy with the outcome, and got it revoked with the help of Reshma and Dileep. They then began reworking the draft (along with another writer, Baiju Natarajan). It was during those discussions that the seeds of Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker were sown.

"(The idea that came up was of) a book which would talk about clients, lovers, friends, etc; a book which looked beyond the regular stereotypes of a sex worker as a friendless, lonely person haunting the streets at night. By the time we had reworked the first book, all four of us — Dileep, Baiju, Nalini and I — had formed such a comfortable and challenging working relationship that we decided to do this (second) work jointly,” says Reshma.

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.

As the book reveals, Nalini perceives sex work as a language without a script. Rules cannot define the business, according to her. 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.

In her translator's note, Reshma recounts a time when she pleaded with Nalini to be her guru and guide her into sex work. Ultimately, Reshma couldn't go through with it (middle class morality, perhaps?). Nalini, on the other hand, makes the transition from being a teen labourer in a mud quarry to full-fledged sex work. As a beginner, she is discomfited at soliciting clients on the street, unsure if she is even standing in 'the right spot'. But, with maturity and experience, she begins asserting herself.

Can Nalini's decision to enter sex work be seen as one born of compulsion or as a class-determined choice?

“This is a very difficult question. 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 than alternatives like labouring in a quarry, or being a petty vendor, 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," says Reshma.

“There is a definite narrative structure connecting choices, compulsions, and social stations. That each of us is already well versed in this narrative and most often tend to stick with it 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."

Through her stark recollections of her past, the reader reconstructs the arc of Nalini’s evolution not only as a sex worker, but also as a woman and a human being. And from this powerful storytelling is born the desire to read more, to wish that Nalini would consider writing her 'Autobiography, part III'.

Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 16:42:49 IST