Impact of An Autobiography of a Sex-worker

Pix courtesy : Outlook India

They call her a prostitute; she says quite proudly that she is a sex-worker. Her book ‘The autobiography of a sex-worker’ opens quite naively, thus,

“I am Nalini. I was born at Kalloor near Amballoor. I am forty-nine years old”

The 152 page book written in Malayalam with the help of the activist for the cause of sex workers, I.Gopinath, was first published in 2003. It went on into six editions and above 13,000 copies in a period of barely 100 days. It has since been translated into eight languages including English. She withdrew the first version of the memoir and rewrote it but the tone is still firm and candid, just like her expression in the photos on the cover of the book. There is no extravagant body language of a seductress anywhere in the photograph. She looks rather like a matriarch who is out to have her say. Her voice does not repent her past or present. There is even some wry humor in her anecdotes about her clients.

This is Nalini Jameela, now in her mid-fifties. She, in her book, outlines the path of her life from that of a 9 year old construction laborer to a sex worker, in predicted lines, but with an impact that still leaves the society reeling.

No, there aren’t any hot scenes or steamy lines meant to titillate. It is just an account of the trials of her life and how she took up the oldest profession by her own free will. She recounts her hours with her first customer, a police officer and how she comes out of the rendezvous only to be arrested by the very police for immoral traffic.

Nalini has come across as a bold and candid person who wants to tell the world that she and many others like her aren’t just anonymous faces and willing bodies. They are individuals with aspirations; they are wives, mothers, sisters and daughters as well. They have real trials and struggles in life and aren’t spiders waiting with a web every minute of their waking day. Nalini herself has had three marriages and is a mother of two girls, both of whom have not chosen to take up their mother’s profession. Yet, they are proud of her and what she has achieved.

Her words ooze confidence and hasn’t the slightest tone of a victim and this is what she wants to convey to the others in the profession. Don’t be victims but consider yourself as service providers; of a physical or psychological care that the men cannot find in their own homes. Be dignified and set your own rules. How do the women, trapped in an unhappy marriage become different from a prostitute other than the fact that she is unpaid, asks Nalini. She also fumes in quiet dignity about the system that chastises the sex-worker but lets off the client. The book is calm but there is silent anger under the tenor, and the reader gets to feel it. This is what makes the book different from the ordinary. Nalini’s inner strength makes its presence felt throughout. And she says she would like to continue her profession.

The book drew flak from all the ‘right’ places. The whole society of the fully literate, liberated, IT savvy and communist state of Kerala was out to condemn her. The literary intelligentsia was almost violent in their reactions. There were also a few bouquets to her frankness. But all of them did buy the book, since it didn’t look right borrowing the book from anyone in full view of the public. This act added to Nalini’s purse, as well as to the marketing value of the book. Now Nalini occupies the same space as the award winning, internationally acclaimed writers who censured her for glorifying prostitution.

India frowns upon prostitution, but that doesn’t prevent 200 million women being on the streets of the country, doing the same job, with no escape route from its miseries. India is also the strongest contender for the first place in the acceleration of the AIDS epidemic. This is where Nalini’s book is relevant. Nalini is now deeply involved in AIDS awareness initiatives among her co-workers. She is worried about the government AIDS initiates being confined to the lower income group, since she sees many customers from the middle and high class group.

The book has brought her respect, dignity and exposure. Nalini took up the post of the coordinator of the Sex Workers Forum in the state which is a part of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) that gave the women in the profession a venue to voice their problems. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) in India have jointly produced a 28 minute documentary based on her book. With support from the NGO Jwalamukhi, the organization which works for the rights of sex workers, she and a couple of other colleagues opened a restaurant by the same name at the small town of Thrissur. Nalini and her friends got noticed from this and these women were invited to a week-long international seminar organised by the Global Alliance Against
Trafficking of Women
(GAATW) in Thailand. It was here that she learned the method of handling the video camera and she has since made two films on the sex worker’s condition.

Nalini’s autobiography has created an awareness of the individual that is usually hidden behind the woman labeled as a sex worker.

Host Dr Mini Nair discusses about the famous book ‘Njan Laingika Thozhilali’ with its writer Nalini Jameela in this edition of  Kairali TV’s ‘Saahithya Jaalakam’.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3.

Part 4


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