Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The children of Circe are gathered - India and its women

The plight of women in India has been a topic of conversation around the world following the brutal rape and murder of a young medical student. This is an excerpt from a novel I have written about India, Children of the Lie.



They came upon Kamathipura suddenly. For a moment it did not seem so .different to the other suburbs through which they had  passed.  But  it was  different; here was one  place at least where  the birth of  a daughter brought joy. This was the place of the 'cages,' the red-light district of Bombay. Jan  wanted to see one of the women who worked  the seedy streets.  Jo was simply curious. Her name was Ana, Jan said, and she was the daughter of a woman who had died recently in the south.   He knew the family through the mission where  he was working and he  had known them well enough  to be sure that  no-one would write to  Ana, the lost daughter, to tell her of her mother's death.  They would no longer even speak her name,  such shame did she bring upon the family.   That they accepted  in silence the  money she sent them, was a different matter altogether.
Jan had told the old woman,  as she lay dying, that he would find her daughter when he was in Bombay and he would tell her what  had happened.  The drifting,  distant eyes had given no  indication, either one  way or the other,  that  the old woman wanted this to be  done.  Even if she had rejected what  he proposed, he would  have done it just the same. That the daughter,  no matter what path she had  taken, had a right to mourn the death of her mother, was without question. And so he had sought the  help of a social worker, Nita, who promised to find the  woman and send them  word when she had.  The call had come the previous evening.
Jan searched  through the  window on  his side  for some sign of  Nita who said she  would meet them  in Shuklaji Lane,  while  Jo  looked  around her  at  this  squalid,  but amazingly lucrative place of prostitution. It was a  place as much of children, as  it was of women and the  men who paid  for their  services; for not  only the children of the prostitutes  wandered the filthy streets, but of the whores themselves, some  twenty percent were below  the age of eighteen  and almost as many were  below the age of sixteen. 
Young  girls were considered to be  good meat in this  bustling market  place; not  surprising then,  that the birth of a  girl child should bring rejoicing.   To the pimp, she was immediately marked off  as a future source of income, to the brothel-keeper, she was  that premium prize, a virgin, and as such  would bring a high price; at  least once; and to the money-lenders she was a  valuable pawn to be secured when her mother came to him, as she invariably would, for money. 
The street  was paved with  square blocks of  cement and the rooms  ranged along either  side, with doors  and windows barred,   for  greater   security:  It   was  this   physical self-imprisoning,  which  had brought  it  the  name of  'the cages.' Pieces of clothing hung across the chipped and broken wood of doors  and window-sills; even here,  there was always washing to be done. Many  of  the  women  stood  by  their  doorways;  those openings  into Stygian  depths; others sprawled on  charpoys laid out  in the  slush of the  street, or  squatted, scrawny knees close to  their chins, in a bird-like  gathering on the doorsteps.
 They  were dressed  brightly,  in  the main,  in richly  coloured  skirts and  tight-fitting tops  of shiny fabric,  but some wore drab  saris, and  yet others were in Western style dresses;  there was something in  fact, to suit the taste of  every man, no matter how jaded  his palate.  If they shared one thing  it was a dullness of eye  and a set of face which spoke of the  most unspeakable boredom.  They said little, even to each other; moving only to scratch listlessly at  their bodies.   Small,  pinched faces  peered from  their pigeon-holes; women of the night  before the age of ten, they waited, just  like all the others, for the fall  of darkness and the coming of the men.
Children played  in the streets, darting  nimbly between the heaps of rotting garbage; jumping to avoid the swipe of a hand;  running  barefoot,  with  all the  energy  that  their scraggy  bodies could  muster.  Dressed  in dirty  rags, they roamed  the putrid  alley-ways in  search of  childhood.  The younger ones, those below the  age of ten, could still laugh, in a  free and innocent bubbling from the heart.   They knew that their mothers were dhandas,  they knew what the price of an hour was, and what it cost for the whole night.  They knew about  condoms and  how  to use  them and about the aphrodisiacs which were sold at every street corner in the area.
  They knew  too, all that happened in the  name of sex, but they did  not truly know, not as yet,  what it all meant. When they  learned that,   they would  become sullen,  and then they would  no longer play,  but would sit,  without smiling, along  the sides  of the  road.   Some of  them would  choose instead to stay  inside, hidden in the darkness  of the room. Others, especially the boys, would  run away, knowing all the while that there was not far to run. The room was at best, a  temporary haven for come six in the evning the children would be  fed and then, thrown out of their homes,  they would be  left to their own  devices until the following  morning while their mothers  worked the night.
The  very  small children  would  be  allowed to  remain inside, pushed beneath the rough wooden bed; beaten back into silence, should they disturb any of the succession of men who came to share it with their  mother through the long hours of darkness.  The lucky  ones would be given opium  to keep them quiet: respite in the realms  of blissful ignorance.  As soon as they  could walk they  would be  put to work  cleaning the room and preparing it for the next customer.  They would work especially hard  in the mornings because  their mothers would be catching up on lost sleep.
It was  perhaps appropriate that  much of the  facade in the otherwise  dingy street, was painted  blue.  However worn and faded  it all was, there  came with it still,  a sense of the sky  and sea-green, those  colours of infinity,  of peace and compassion,  of gentleness and caring;  feminine colours, the blue  of the cloak  of the Holy  Mary; the shades  of the  Mother Goddess.   Since ancient  times it  is blue  which has been  known as  the  ray of  love, the  colour  of truth,  of revelation,   wisdom,  loyalty,   fertility,  constancy   and chastity ... it has also been known as the colour of rigidity and self-righteousness, behind which,  some may seek to hide, believing their  intentions to  be honest,  and yet,  all the while, manipulating reason for their own ends.
The truth  of Kamathipura,  was far  more likely  to be, that one  of the pimps had  come upon a source  of cheap blue paint, mislaid by  one factory or another, and so  had made a commercial  killing  in the  district,  bringing  as he  did, although  unwittingly,  a  touch  of sky  brightness  to  the wretched place.
There  she  is,"  said  Jan suddenly,  waving  one  arm through his  window.  "Come on,"  he added, opening  his door and disappearing in what seemed an instant. Nita,  who was  wearing  a cotton  kalwar  sameez in  a busily printed fabric of yellow  and green, appeared to be in her  early  twenties, although  there  was  still about  her, something  of  the child.   She  had  been working  with  the children of the  prostitutes for the past year.   She was not yet married and her parents did not know what it was that she did. They would not have approved.  She loved the children and she wanted  to make their  welfare her life's  work, although she knew it was unlikely that she would  find a husband who would approve  of such a thing.  She had yet  to make up her mind as to whether or  not she had the strength to oppose her parents  for the  sake of her  chosen career.   She hoped that she would not have to.   She was young enough to believe in miracles.
"Hello,  hello," she  said cheerfully,  as they  reached her, rocking her head from side to side and flashing the most glorious  of smiles.   She had  a  wild curl  of hair,  which framed a small,  thin face of pointed chin  and rounded nose. Her  eyes danced,  and while  she was  not pretty,  and would perhaps have trailed in any  serious marriage stakes, she had about her the  quality of some slight, bright  elf.  That the children knew her as their  fairy queen could not be doubted for they  thronged  about her  in  laughing  dance, each  seeking desperately to gain  her attention.  She shushed  them with a laugh, which  was as  close to  a tinkle  as any  human being could get, and promised that she would be with them soon, but first, she  had some work  to do  with the gentleman  who had come to see her.   He was a man of God and  they must be very good and very quiet while she talked with him. They were not of course very quiet, but they were reasonably good and while some wandered off  to play, keeping her always  in sight, the others trailed slowly behind as she  led the way to the house of the woman who had lost her mother.
 As they made  their way through the press  and huddle of the lane, she told them about her work.  She ran a school for the  children whose  ages ranged  from five  to fifteen  and although it was non-formal, it  was an opportunity to provide some education  for them,  some hope, however  meagre. These children  wanted to  learn so desperately  and yet without money there  was little hope.  Even  if their mothers did save the money to send them to a proper school they would be cruelly rejected  as soon as the other  children found out where they lived, for then they would know, just what work it was that their mother did.
These  children   were  outcasts  wherever   they  went, condemned as  pariahs by the  society at large, for  no other reason than the  accident of their birth.  Many  of them, she said,  were fiercely  possessive  of their  school, or  their 'home,' as  they called  it, for the  bare two  rooms offered them  more acceptance  and normality  than the  cramped space which  they  shared with  countless  others  and which  would otherwise have been called home.  The girls especially had to fight hard to come to  school, both against their mothers who may want them to stay home and clean and scrub and the pimps, who did not want their young meat ruined by education.
Jo felt compelled to ask why  it was that so many of the prostitutes had  children.  It  was, explained Nita,  the one thing  which they  could  do which  put them  on  a par  with respectable women. The  child was the one  human being with whom she  could relate with  human dignity.  Until  the  child reached  the  age  of  understanding, she  would  have  total acceptance; some sort  of love. It was one way in which  she could enter into a tangible human  relationship:  it  was  the  only  one  which  offered anything  genuine in  an  otherwise  shallow and  meaningless existence.   The prostitute,  with  the  grubby little  child clinging to her  worn sari, had given birth in  order to know love.   She had  wanted to  give love  and to  receive it  in return.  That she  believed in love, was  at least something, Jan remarked.
Jo nodded in agreement but she could not help but think that there was something cruel about these babies, born out of a quest for love, but doomed to a life of exploitation and misery.   She wondered how  long the love lasted.   At least  they had  someone like  Nita.  She couldn't  offer  much,  she  said, but  it  was  better  than nothing.   The school  was  a place  of  refuge.  There  were rudimentary lessons in history,  geography, biology, and also time spent on drawing, dancing  and singing.  It was the last three subjects which the children preferred, if only because they were, in the  main, hyper-active and sometimes neurotic. That they needed to yell and  scream, to jump up and down, to fight and even  to belly-dance when the fancy  took them, was accepted.  They led brutal lives and  the cruelly suppressed energy needed to go somewhere.
Many of  them were  scarred without  as well  as within, from  the  beatings  and  cigarette  burnings  which  were  a frequent  form  of  punishment  from the  pimps  and  brothel owners.   There was  Ashok whose  face was  a mass  of scars, burns driven  deep by the  press of live  cigarette butts, and Vikas,  who would carry to  the grave the imprint  of the horsewhip which ripped  across his bare buttocks  when he was four-years-old; and Ajay, who tries to squeeze the breasts of his  teacher  in  greeting,  because that  is  what  he  sees happening around him. And  there was  little Sushama,  a broken  tearing of  a child, twig-like; her  mother dead, she was fed  from time to time by the  pimps, in order to keep her  alive; she would be fattened  when  the time  was  right.   She clutched  to  her brittle chest  a dirty, plastic  doll, its bald  head covered with a bright scrap of rag:  she hugged it tight to her heart with the  wide-eyed joy which  belongs to any little  girl in possession of a doll.
At one  time, said  Nita, she could  give them  milk and bananas  but  it  was  not possible  any  longer  because  of financial  constraints.  There  was  also a  chance that  the school itself  would be  closed when  the current  funds were exhausted.   Such projects  were not popular; the  prejudice against these  children was  very strong. And yet, she told them,  without such schools they would have no hope  at all since it was almost  impossible to bring them into the normal school system.  It was held by many that such children  were tainted  and would,  in turn,  blight all other  youngsters  with  whom  they came  in  contact.   Some shelters and boarding houses,  which could otherwise offer an alternative,  openly refused  to  take prostitute's  children because it  was believed  that they  would 'spoil'  the other children.  While some prostitutes  did succeed in  sending a child, usually a son, far away to be educated in safety, most did not.  This,  said Nita, was why her work was so important:if the children were to be helped then it had to be done here.
They stopped at last by  a narrow doorway.  From between the heavy stones, pushing bravely from a minute bed of earth, was some green and reaching sapling.   It was a palm tree; or it would have  been had it chosen some  more hospitable place to take  root.  It was doomed,  but for the moment  at least, like the little children, it gloried in life.
Nita led them up the feculent, unlit stairs, through the nauseating stench  of this crushed and  apathetic life.  They passed  a  succession  of  women and  child-women,  all  with heavily painted  smiles, draping  themselves in a  variety of seductive poses. There was Salma, who had been brought to Bombay when she was twelve by a friend of her family who promised to find her  a  job.  She  found  herself  instead, enrolled  in  the world's oldest profession.  After  a fortnight of torture she received her first customer.  Her rates were sixty rupee for the whole night and twenty rupee for an hour.  While she made anywhere  between eight  hundred  to twelve  hundred rupee  a month, she earned only one hundred rupee for herself. There was Mira, all of twelve  years old but wise in the ways of  the world.  Her  parents had sold her  in marriage when she was ten years old, to an Arab sheikh in his sixties. He had paid an  enormous dowry  for her  and after  two days spent in a hotel in her home  town he had been taking her out of the country.   But she had been found crying  on the plane by one of the air hostesses and had blurted out her story and begged to be freed.  Her  husband had been arrested and the court had ruled that she be returned to her parents. Her  parents were  enraged at  the  fuss she  had made.   Her mother  beat her,  and  then, some  months later, when it  was felt safe to do so,  she had been bundled off to  Bombay in the custody  of a woman she  called aunty but  who   was  better   called  pimp.
She was an  object of shame she was told  and her family no longer wanted her.  She  was threatened with an even worse fate if she should try once again to return to them.  She had not of course.  Children learn quickly. Many  of  the  child  prostitutes were  the  victims  of incest.  There was Sushama, a  fourteen year old girl who had been sold  to a brothel  by her own father  following incest. The girl was now twenty, and  said Nita, was still in a state of shock.   She was also  syphilitic.  Many of the  girls had been abducted, like  little Geeta, who had  been brought from the  north and  sold and  re-sold into  various brothels  and forced into sexual intercourse with  seven to ten males every day.   By  the end  of  the  first  year she  had  contracted tuberculosis.
Quite a few of  the little girls  had been brought  from Nepal; some as  young as nine.  It  was easy to see  why, said Nita, there was  great poverty in  the country, most of  the people were  illiterate,  and, in  the  main,  the girls  were  also fair-skinned and attractive.  The girls from Bangladesh were popular  too, and  cheap, relatively;  one for the price  of three scrawny cows.  It was a busy trade across the border.
Many of the prostitutes too were devdasis, those who had been dedicated to the Goddess Yelamma.  Despite the fact that the system  was banned  by law, some  three thousand  or more girls, aged  between nine to fifteen,  are ritually dedicated each year, usually on the full  moon of the eleventh month of the Hindu calendar.  When the red and white beads are tied around her neck she can no  longer marry, she is devdasi.  In the old  days she  would have remained  with the  temple, but now,  in  the modern world,  she will  find her  home  in Kamathipura, or some other such place.
There  was a  terrifying enormity  to the  problem, said Nita, and now  with AIDS it was even worse.  More than sixty  percent of these women and  girls tested positive.  She shook her head as she conveyed this last piece of information.  The light, bright  smile had  gone.  And they had arrived.  The door in front  was that of Ana, the woman they had come to see.
She  was  younger  than  Jo expected;  swarthy  of complexion and pockmarked, just a little, on the rise of each cheek.  She  wore a scarlet  sari in shiny, cheap  silk.  The room was  bare, apart from a  narrow, wooden bed and  a small side table, upon which lay,  a neatly placed round mirror and a green comb.   She looked, thought  Jo, so ordinary  and hers was no more than the rough, bitter-sweet  love sought by  sailors in any port.
She nodded her  head slowly as Nita  introduced them and then explained that Father Jan had  come to see her.  A flash of something akin to fear lit for a moment the dull depths of her eyes,  and then,  as Nita translated  to her,  what Father Jan conveyed in English,  there came a deep howl, born in  the depths  of an  anguished  soul.  It  poured from  the woman; a cry of pain and  fear and terrible rage. Jo found herself holding  both hands  to  her chest,  as if to protect her own heart.  Jan looked stricken, and yet, he must have expected at least this.  But the grief was so real, so great, and so much more than a mere mourning for her mother's death.  It was that  extra, unexpected power,  which reached out and shook viciously, all those who stood within the room.
When they left her,  in the care of  two of  the other women who  had told Nita they were friends, each felt as if they had taken something terrible  into a life which had more than enough of its own horrors  already.  And yet, it had had to be  done, and perhaps  in the final awful  grieving, which was both for her mother and for herself, the woman Ana, would find some semblance of peace.
As  they drove away, Jo  looked back  through the  rear window.  It seemed  strange to be able to walk  into and then out  of such  a place  when so  many within  were irrevocably trapped.  It  did not seem  right that they should  enter and then leave with such ease. A little girl watched them as they went.  She  looked to be about five  years old, standing at the  corner, her coal  black skin in stark relief against the purest white of her dress.  The garment appeared  to be new: shocking in its purity.  Her long, black  hair was pulled back  from her forehead, tied at the top of  her head with a  trailing of thin,  white ribbon.  She looked for all the world like  some freshly frocked child about  to take her first communion, except  for the fact that  she was barefoot.  Standing  there on  the  dusty path,  watching, waiting,  she looked for all the world like.....
........Adriane, the woman who had  stood by the hospital gate, day in  and day out, watching  and waiting for the  return of her lover.  She too had been barefoot.  She  said it allowed the earth to speak to her, allowed her to  walk the music of her own making.
Adriane‚Äôs hair had been long and straight, tied in a ribbon at the top,  but her trailing locks  were the colour  of ice and the ribbon was black, as was her dress. She had  been forty-one, with milk-white  skin and soft, grey  eyes; beautiful  of body  still, while  yet rotting  of mind.  She had been  married by  then, for  some twenty-four years and given birth to  two sons, and yet she believed, that she  had become once  again, a virgin:  immaculate.  She waited, for the arrival of her  lover, her hero, her lord; he who would  surely come, even  though he had never  existed in any place other  than her head.  He would carry  her away and to him, only to him, would she give of her perfect, unsullied self.
She came  from a place deep within the  heart of the country.  When she was  barely seventeen she married a man who  owned a cattle  station.  Her father had  died the previous year  and she was sent  to live with  a maiden aunt.  She was nine when her mother  walked out with another man.  She  saw her father's  pain and  she learned that to love brought only  the hurt of losing and so, unknown to herself,  she chose a man whom  she could not love.  That  he had married  her almost solely for  her looks meant the match was doubly doomed.
In the beginning each found  enough satisfaction in the physical union to bring an element of contentment, but as the  years passed,  each began  to  sense that  the agreement between them was less than honourable.  It had never been  a conscious thing, and that  of course,  was the problem.  Neither could she  acknowledge that he or she had  played an  active  part  in the  creation  of this arid reality. The anger came, in  its own  good time, and  in the course of things, that too was replaced, by indifference and apathy, enough to see them through the middle years.  But then, almost without warning, came the time of hatred: a slow and bitter drip upon the soul.
And so  they  had  lived, the  last  five  years,  held together in the bonds of  holy hatelock, until that day, when they found her, out  behind the water bore, crouched down in the blood-red dust, naked, gnawing at the raw haunch of a calf; engrossed in a sharp, white tearing of the flesh.  They sent her  south; banished such  Dionysian frenzy from their  realm.  She was forsaken  by  both husband  and full-grown sons: they possessed no stomach  for the orgy of  passion which had been  released.  They  feared  her nocturnal  ragings; shrank  at  her  awful shriekings.   They decreed that  the dance of  madness would be done  alone, and they would not listen to the drums.
Jo  met  her, some  many, many  months later,  after leaving the hospital.  She ran into her in the city.  Her hair was cut shorter, but still hung straight, ice-white, either side of her face.  It had been  strange to see her out in the world, so  lost had she seemed  when Jo first  knew her. She would not  return to the north, she said.  She had a new life, a  job, and she hoped that the  divorce would leave her with some  money, but if not, then it  did not matter; it was enough to be free, to know her own self at last. She had seen  her mother again, after so  many years and come  to understand that her  leaving had been more  of a separation  for survival,  than  a desertion.   She had  been clinging to  things which were  not real.  She had  fled from the truth into a loveless marriage and become the bride of death.  And  when at last, she sought the underworld, had entered  the labyrinth, that  realm of both hell  and the soul where  life is found or souls are lost forever,  it was her  mother for  whom she searched.   Her decision, never  to love  again, after  the suffering  of her  mother's betrayal, had merely doomed her  never to live.  In forgiving her mother  she had begun to  put back the pieces  of her own self; begun  to live  again.  That  she in time found herself  to be the  mistress of the labyrinth was unexpected.
In the end, she had met herself at the gate: it was she who  came  to her  own rescue.  She  came as  her own hero, her own lover.  She became woman in relation to her own powers, not as defined by relationship with others. She promised the  doctor, she had confided  to Jo with a laugh, that she would stay  away from steak tartare.  She in fact became a vegetarian,  having found, that for the time being at least, she could not stomach meat of any kind. Perhaps it was that which gave her milky skin an added translucence, a shining, or perhaps it was merely happiness instead.
She was still a virgin, she said, if only because she had given birth to herself and been renewed.  It was not perhaps in the sense of hymen intacta, she had added with a wink,  but in a symbolic sense and that was far more important.  She believed that she had something pure and unsullied to offer, both to herself and to the right man when he came along, as she knew he would ... but even then, she would remain a virgin in the truest sense ... a woman unto herself.
To think of Adriane now, as they drove away from Kamathipura, seemed somehow strange and yet the figure of the small girl had taken the hand of memory and dragged it into the light. Perhaps there was a link, because these women too watched and waited for their lovers, day in and day out, with the same sense of helplessness and perhaps madness that had possessed Adriane.  But she had found a way to freedom, a way through to herself and that  was something which could never be for the women of Kamathipura.  Their destiny  and culture condemned them to remain forever as they were, circling the boundaries of life in a cruel and foolish dance.

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