When Nalini Jameela burst onto the Malayalam literary landscape in 2005 with her book Oru Laingikathozhilaliyute Aathmakatha (2007, The Autobiography of a Sex Worker), there were indignant protests from every possible side. Guardians of morality and some feminist groups — usually at loggerheads with each other — took umbrage at what they saw as a “glorification” of prostitution. The former feared that this would have a deleterious effect on the morals of society, while the latter condemned what they saw as Jameela’s attempt to show sex workers as mere bodies for transaction. The loudest protests came from the literary establishment. The book was “prurient”, said the titans of contemporary Malayalam literature, with writer M Mukundan lamenting that great novels in the future won’t be written by great (male) authors but by (female) sex workers. As denouncements of this type have the effect of arousing rather than suppressing curiosity, the book became a bestseller: it sold 13,000 copies, went into six editions within 100 days of publication and brought its writer a great deal of international renown.
Jameela hadn’t foreseen any of this when she decided to write the story of her life. All she had wanted to do, she says, was claim some dignity for the work that she had spent a quarter of a century doing as well as expose the hypocrisy of those who denounce sex workers during the day and seek them out at night. “Men who are our clients stand against us like they’re reincarnations of Maryada Ram and paint us as the sinners. We are not doing anything that harms society. It’s labour like any other, so why is it wrong to acknowledge that openly?” she says.
It is tempting to say that the 63 year old I met at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts, where she was attending the Gateway Literature Festival, looks like an unlikely mascot for sex positivity. To give in to this temptation, however, would be to succumb to prejudices. There’s no reason why Jameela, clad in a plain cotton sari and looking every bit the ordinary Malayali that she is, shouldn’t also espouse a radical form of sexual politics. In fact, her very ordinariness — and her insistence that sex work is “ordinary” business — is what makes her stance so radical. “I know women who are progressive and free-thinking, but whose views suddenly become limited when it comes to the bedroom,” she tells me, “Women can live like Sita or like Panchali, but if you choose to live like Sita, then don’t talk about women’s liberation.”
It’s not that Jameela’s own story is uncomplicated or that she began sex work despite having choices. Born into a middle-class Ezhava family, she was forced to drop out of school at the age of nine and began to work at a tile factory to help her family through a financial crisis. Her father, an ex-military man who would blow up his otherwise adequate pension at the local thatta kada, had become an active communist and this led to her mother being fired from her job at a thread mill. In her autobiography, Jameela recalls feeling proud of becoming a “big person”. She writes, “The neighbours would ask Mother, ‘Though it is her you coddled quite a bit, isn’t it true that she’s the one who’s proving useful?’ When I heard that, in spite of all the burning in my hands, I’d still feel I was the boss.” Jameela began her career as a sex worker in her early 20s when the man she had been living with died of cancer and left her with two children to care for. “My mother-in-law demanded Rs 5 from me every day to take care of the children, and the only thing that paid well enough was sex work,” she says.
Readers who made the autobiography a bestseller in 2005 must have been surprised — and, perhaps, disappointed — to find that not only does Jameela not detail her sexual encounters, but that there were times of genuine happiness after she began sex work. There were, of course, the usual encounters with the police, as well as betrayals from friends and clients, but what emerges from the book is the picture of a woman who, with strength and humour, makes the best of what life gives her. Writer J Devika, who translated the book to English, says that this is the real Jameela. “Nalini is a very wise woman who can see through people very well. A lot has happened to her, but she’s able to forgive. She can be critical, yes, but she won’t hold on to resentment. You can see that in her writing, in how she never loses her sense of humour even when looking back at painful events,” she says.
Jameela’s second book, In the Company of Men: The Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker, expected to come out later this year in Malayalam and in English, narrates the relations she developed with her clients, as well as stories from other sex workers. Readers can expect portraits of all sorts of men, from tender to absurd to cruel, in the book but there’s also a lot of humour in it. “I learned a lot from the first book about how to write,” she says. Following the publication of the book, there was controversy again when Jameela retracted the first version, written with the help of journalist I. Gopinath, and published a second version, which she felt was more true to her recollections. “In our eagerness to see the book published, we did not give ourselves enough time to make it perfect,” she writes in the Introduction, “Many asked me if it was right to make such revisions. I don’t know if there are rules about these things…even if there are, and I happen to be the first person to change those rules, let it be so!”
This courage to challenge rules is characteristic of Jameela. For example, when she began working as a rights activist for sex workers in the late ’90s, one of her main arguments was that sex work is a form of therapy that fulfills a real need. This was an unpalatable argument for many — then and now. She’s now retired from full-time activism as well as sex work, but she still evangelises the need to be open about sex. Her dream project is to interview people between the age of 15 and 50 about their sexual expectations and misconceptions and put it all in a book. “We are so uptight about sex education, but the fact is most of us don’t know what to expect. So many marriages fail because there is a mismatch of sexual expectations,” she says. Jameela has been vocal about these issues for many years, but it still surprises her how people react to her views, given her history. “Once when I was talking about the importance of sex education, one man asked me if I thought sex education meant giving a condom to a man and woman and shutting them up in a room.” There’s a note of outrage in her voice as she says this, but almost immediately it gives way to mirth. “Some things never change,” she says with a chuckle.