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River of Flesh is an anthology on the prostituted woman in Indian Short Fiction, and each of the twenty one stories in this collection is riveting and horrifying. In ‘Woman of the Street’, the aging Girija receives news of her son’s illness, and must collect money to be with him. So when a customer approaches her, “The mother in her was eager to share her grief and lessen it. She wanted to say, ‘The child is ill. I got a telegram. I don’t have a paisa.’ But she was instantly on her guard. She killed that cry for human sympathy. It would have made the ready customer flee and she would not be able to see her child. She gathered her skills together. She stood up. She blushed. Began to demur. Then stammered with a coy smile, ‘I was not to be touched.’ A customer loses his wisdom when he hears something like that. He does not haggle over money but takes a woman at her price. This she knew. That is why she lied. And a dagger plunged into her heart.”
In ‘The Last Customer’, the mute young Kani is buxom for her age and for people who craved flesh, she was a sumptuous meal. Uprooted from her home, she learns that the few scraps of paper she earns to let men feast on her body will fetch her a meal and keep hunger pangs at bay. After three decades, the boy in ‘Heeng Kochuri’ seeks out the young Kusum whose babu gets her the delicious snack every time he visits her. And in the ‘River of Flesh’, an ailing Jugnu, in her dirty squalid room forms an attachment with the man in smelly socks.
The stories in the River of Flesh are carefully curated to showcase, in Ruchira Gupta’s words, “the low self esteem, incompleteness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-hatred that comes from being the oppressed.” From well known authors like Manto, Premchand, Ismat Chugtai and Amrita Pritam to stories in regional languages of Marathi, Malyalam and Tamil and others, the stories cover a gamut of emotions and situations. A woman prostitutes herself to shame her wayward husband, another murders her pimp and knows she will be caught and punished, a woman’s loving husband deserts her after gaining access to her money, while another carries out the charade of being a dutiful wife. The longing for love, acceptance, kindness and belonging drive the characters as they try and make the best of their circumstance.
River of Flesh gave me sleepless nights. I had read some of these stories in other collections, but together, they are a lethal reminder of how warped our thinking is – that the victim bears the brunt of social ostracization. The men function from a position of power because as procurers, pimps and customers, the men create a web from which a prostitute can never escape, and must remain at their mercy. The men, those self-willed, predatory, selfish and judgmental beings are never blamed for the condition of the prostitute, and the women, always marginalized, exist in the outermost fringes of our lives, with scant attention paid to their slavery.
Buy the book, read it, understand it and change your perspective. It changed mine, as I wrote in this HuffPost blog http://www.huffingtonpost.in/preeti-singh/women-like-us_b_9393656.html