Here’s a quick tip to stave off unfavourable reviews: in the preface, offer a number of reasons to justify the missing links in the book. Need an exemplar? Pick up journalist Rajendar Menen’s new book, Karma Sutra.
Presented as a bunch of anecdotal accounts of street life in urban India — mostly Mumbai — as experienced by Menen over the eighties and nineties, the book is a first person account of the author’s encounters — and rendezvous — with the marginalised, homeless, exploited and troubled. Much of what is lacking in the book is conveniently accounted for in the preface. There are no statistics — the author believes that “figures can be doctored and interpreted either way convincingly”. Nor quotes from the authorities concerned — “we all know the answers of those in power.” Nor even dates, months or years — well, no explanation.
The result is a toned-down commentary on urban exploitation; one that offers little of novelty.
Who’s to blame? Indian street life makes a compelling theme for any writer, and it’s not unusual to be swayed by the sight of the ever-sprawling ghettos. Some even end up becoming fervid observers of the quirky spectacle of inequality, feeling little need to tell sob stories from genuine concerns. Menen, it seems, has also fallen for it.
No doubt the book covers a lot of ground: from the disquieting existence of sex workers to the castration rituals and peculiar funeral ceremonies of hijras; the age-old practice of Devdasi; drug addicts; the homeless; migrants and so on. But there is a problem: the author has cast his net too wide and doesn’t stay with his characters long enough — hence a sketchy read.
Menen, however, claims to have spent two decades on “research” for the book. And how thorough is this research?
He walks you down Kamathipura’s dingy alleys surrounded by wretched buildings that house claustrophobic pigeonholes where the flesh trade thrives unabated; Colaba’s hideouts where complete strangers share space with formidable respect for each other’s privacy; the ever-lively Juhu beach; and other such attractions for travel writers. Of the scores who represent the darker side of urban India, the sex worker is Menen’s undisputed muse. After all, most of the nine chapters feature women engaged in the flesh trade.
Take Tara, a sex worker who is featured in the first chapter titled “Kamathipura”. Her life story, running into six or seven pages, is an unsettling reminder of the exploitation and lifelong struggles of marginalised women. A native of Andhra Pradesh, she was gang-raped, had repeated abortions and suffered from several venereal diseases — that was before she turned 18, after which she was sold into a brothel by her own family. There is a neat description of her appearance, cubicle and daily routine. However, read further and you would want a few questions answered.
Menen writes that Tara was once married and has two kids — such snippets of information would leave the reader curious about details such as Tara’s age at the time of marriage, how her occupation impacted her family life and and whether she married before or after she joined the trade. Maybe such details were too unimportant for Menen to accommodate in this anecdote, which nevertheless has room for his own musings on the “dharma of happiness”.
What Menen lack in his research, he partly makes up for with his writing style. Lucid and taut, much of the prose flows.
Somewhere after the first two chapters the book sheds its weighty, sober tone. From being an earnest observer’s workshop, the street becomes a braggart’s arena. It is no longer about the dingy sex districts. From now on, the author would be seen dining and clinking beer mugs with high-profile sex workers. Rita, a Chinese-Tibetan escort in Colaba, even falls in love with the author. “Marry me, live with me... I can’t live without you....” she pleads, to which he thinks, “How could I ever admit that our friendship only filled the hollows of my own desperation and loneliness in the big city?” Such soupy exchanges seem incongruous in a book that claims to be a “powerful document of the Indian street”.
On other occasions, Menen’s apparent hardiness and the “old habit of seeking out excitement with a passion” are on display. He claims to have shared digs with “gangsters, their molls, winners of beauty pageants, professional killers….” And another rookie-like boast — “I have been threatened with knives, hit, kicked and verbally abused. If I hadn’t honed my survival skills and been a good runner, I would have been dead by now.” We heard you, Mr Menen.
Pardon the pretentious tone, lack of hard facts and the book’s sprawling structure. By the time you finish reading, you will have known of too many people at too many places doing too many things in India’s urban underbelly — but too little that’s new about it all.
Adventures of a street bum
Author: Rajendar Menen
Price: Rs 299