Monday, March 03, 2008

Sex and the Kochiite

A large number of men, dissatisfied with their marriages, take solace in the arms of sex workers

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, sex worker N. Janaki, 40, was standing near the Ernakulam Junction Railway station. An auto-rickshaw came up, and four men jumped out. They surrounded Janaki and dragged her into the vehicle. The few bystanders present watched the scene in silence. She was taken to an open field a few kilometres away.

“That night, 25 men raped me,” says Janaki. “As soon as one man finished, another man would take his place. Most of them were drunk and were in a violent mood.” She pauses, stares into the distance, and says, “I just wanted to die that night.”

When this horror finally ended, the men heaped one last humiliation on the hapless Janaki: they took away her saree and left her with nothing to wear. “Thankfully, in a nearby house, I saw a shirt hanging on a clothesline,” she says. She climbed the low wall, wore the shirt, and went home.

In normal circumstances, any woman would have given up this dangerous profession, but Janaki says that if she had stopped working, she would have starved. “I knew of nobody who could rescue me from this life,” she says.

Her husky voice gives a hint of the toughness of a woman who has dealt with all types of men -- rough, cruel, violent and tender -- in her 27-year career as a sex worker in Kochi.

She began at 13, when, angry over a quarrel she had with a brother and his wife, she ran away from her home in Kollam and went to the bus terminus. She spent two days loitering around, before a woman, Hameeda, befriended her and took her to Kochi, promising a job in a factory. But, later, Hameeda told Janaki she was a sex worker. “She passed some of her clients to me and that was how I was initiated into the trade,” she says.

So, does she remember her first customer? She nods and says, “He was 30 years old and knew at once that this was my first time, because I was trembling with fear. When he touched me, I pushed his hand away.”

This was at a lodge near the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus terminus. He offered a glass of beer, but Janaki refused to drink it. It was only when he threatened to hand her over to the police that she submitted. In the end, Hameeda took the money.

The lodge owner, Varkey, keenly aware that most men preferred young girls, encouraged her to stay. Board and lodging would be free, he said, but he would pocket the money she earned. Desperate and hungry, Janaki agreed to this lop-sided arrangement.

“In the beginning, I had one or two clients a day,” she says. “But, as time went on, I was dealing with three or four men, and later, it went up to 20 clients a day. I was getting tired.”

Janaki walked out after six months. But within days, while loitering on the streets, she was picked up by the police and spent a year in a rescue home near the Ernakulam Junction station.

She managed to get out and has been in the trade for the past several years. She started with Rs 50 for a night but now the rates for the sex workers vary from Rs 100for an hour to Rs 1000 for a night.

So what sort of customers does she get? “The rich, the poor and the middle class,” she says. There are customers who come drunk, or are violent or behave rudely. But there are many customers who treat the sex workers with dignity and affection. “We also behave well with them,” says Janaki. “Whenever they call us, we go with them, because we know that no harm will come to us.”

But there is no such luck while dealing with the police. The broad-built Renuka, with kaajal-rimmed eyes and an easy smile, who is sitting next to Janaki, says, “Now the Vanitha police tell us we cannot stand at bus stops or walk alone on the streets. We are not supposed to go for movies or take our children to hospitals.”

She says that as soon as the policewomen see them on the road, they give them a piece of paper and ask them to deposit the fine in the court.

A woman police officer, on condition of anonymity, says that it is true that they sometimes charge the sex workers when they are merely walking on the streets. “We are trying to discourage them from continuing in the profession,” she says. “Anyway, thanks to mobile phones, the number of women who actually work on the streets has gone down.”

Renuka continues with her list of grievances: she says the police will only harass the sex workers and not raid apartments where well-organised sex rackets are going on. “Obviously, the owners are paying the cops handsomely,” she says.

Kochi Commissioner of Police Manoj Abraham rejects the allegation. “We have raided numerous flats and some actresses have been arrested,” he says. “We have also closed down several so-called massage parlours.”

Renuka says she knows of cops on the night shift, who instead of trying to keep an eye on criminals, hide in the shadows near the KSRTC bus terminus and wait for men to approach the sex workers.

“The moment a deal is struck, they will pounce on the man, take him to a shady corner and coerce him to give them money,” he says. “The men end up giving at least Rs 1000.” Some of the cops, she says, make thousands of rupees every night, and “apart from all this, they also get a monthly salary. It’s a good life.”

“This is not true at all,” says Abraham. “On the other hand, we know of several cases where sex workers entice customers to follow them to deserted places and a group of accomplices will then rob the man of his money and valuables.”

Despite all these dangers, a large number of married men are regular clients. To the perennial question as to why married men go for relief to sex workers, Janaki says that some men are sexually dissatisfied with their wives. Some are disappointed when the wife won’t do all that the husband asks her to do. “A wife might not want to indulge in oral sex or try different positions,” says psychologist Prakash Chandran, 46.

Janaki says that some wives show a lack of interest in sex. “Many wives, after doing the household work, say they are too tired for sex,” she says. “Some of them suffer from a serious illness and are incapacitated.”

So, what is Janaki’s advice to these wives? “Since he is your husband, at least, for half an hour, try to fulfill his desires.”

Renuka says that about 70 % of the men stray, because of the drawbacks of wives. “But having said that, there are still men who are not content to eat from one plate,” she says. “They want to eat from many plates, so these men will stray, even if the wife is willing to fulfill her husband’s sexual fantasies.”

So, in this fast-changing world, what are the trends these days? Janaki says she knows of cases where a client takes a sex worker home, and, with the permission of the wife, has sex. “The idea behind this is that instead of the husband walking out and breaking up the marriage, by doing this, the man is able to get sexual satisfaction and the marriage remains intact.” The wives, in these cases, are not interested in sex.

Sometimes, an impotent man will hire a gigolo, so that he can satisfy the wife. “There are some husbands who find it thrilling to see their wives making love to another man,” she says.

Janaki also tells the story of a man who is obsessed in seeing lesbian sex. “So, he hires a sex worker and asks her to make love to his wife and he gets a kick from seeing that.”

Janaki no longer gets a kick at seeing the underbelly of Kochi society. Too many years in the trade has burnt her out emotionally. And now, she feels a regret that she has been a member of the oldest profession in the world for so long.

What is intensifying the regret is the presence of her 20-year-old daughter Sharada. She was born out of a one-year relationship that Janaki had with a former client, who died a few years ago.

By going through hardship and constant work, Janaki was able to ensure that Sharada did not follow in her footsteps. The girl studied in a boarding school, and, today, she is a graduate who works in the private sector.

So, does Sharada know that her mother is a sex worker? “Yes, I told her about it when she passed her Class 10 exams,” says Janaki. “I had to tell her because I did not want her to hear about me from another person. She cried for many days and did not speak to me. Now, she has accepted me as I am.”

Mother and daughter have accepted each other, but society has not. “Because of my reputation, it is going to be difficult for Sharada to get married,” says Janaki. “Most people in Kochi know that I am in the sex trade.”

This is the only time in the conversation when Janaki looks vulnerable. The hard face, which she shows to the world, dissolves and, for a brief moment, there is a glimpse of anxiety mixed with fear. Then the hardness envelops the face once again….

(Some names and locations have been changed.)

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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