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River of Flesh and Other Stories

By Ruchira Gupta

Click here to buy River of Flesh and Other Stories

River of Flesh

—Kamleshwar

The doctor who examined Jugnu said that there were no traces of STDs, but there was definitely a hint of tuberculosis in her reports. She wrote out a prescription and advised nutritious meals.

The Committee had already put a ban on the profession and it worried them all; they were unable fathom the consequences. Medical check-ups had put an end to the works of many already. Those picked up by the pimp Ibrahim had ‘passed’. Their tantrums therefore escalated and they smugly talked about their high lineage.

Ibrahim selected only the healthy girls, helping them to gradually settle in different parts of the city. He took care of them and regularly paid the different brothels they had been picked up from. Once, when Jugnu was worried, she had asked Ibrahim to settle her in one of his areas, but he had snubbed her saying, ‘This is not marriage that I can fool the party once and forever. Whoever
comes will see every inch of your body.’

That day, Jugnu had felt a pain in her heart for the first time. Was she now so worthless? The second blow came when Shahnaz, the woman next door, loudly abused her and gestured insultingly: ‘Arre, Allah will show you the worst day of your life—when no man will even step onto your stairs.’

The entire mohalla was stirred by this incident. That curse was forbidden; no matter how bad one’s situation was in this occupation, they still blessed each other, exclaiming: ‘May your men live long,’ and ‘May God give men good jobs and strong thighs.’

It was on the same day that he had come for the first time, hesitantly. Fate had brought him. Clad in khaki pants and a blue shirt, he carried a sling bag in his hand. He had stubble and his facial hair was covered with a thin film of dust. Jugnu entered the room and sat on the bed. He kept standing there, confused about where to keep his bag. Jugnu unobtrusively took it and placed it on the headrest. Quietly, he sat next to Jugnu.

A few minutes passed before Jugnu said, ‘Take off your shoes.’ A gush of odour filled the room when he took them off, the stench similar to the odour that emanated from most men when they removed their clothes, especially the clerk Mansoo, who always visited her after eleven at night, and would sit on the bed rigidly after he finished, because of his backache. Jugnu would then help him to get up, and he would leave scratching his thighs, which revolted her. Then there was Kanwarjeet, the hotel owner who would not only stink, but would burp loudly after he finished.

The odour was now unbearable. ‘Put them back on,’ said Jugnu.

He did so and sat down again. Jugnu was annoyed now. She stared at him for a minute and said irritably, ‘This is not a sitting room; finish your job and leave.’ He felt insulted and, to counter that, mumbled, ‘What is your name?’

‘Jugnu.’

‘Where do you come from?’

‘Mind your own business.’ She was annoyed again.

Like every other man, he asked, ‘Do you like being in this profession?’

‘Yes. Don’t you?’ She lay down and pulled her sari up to her thighs. He, too, lay by her side and timidly tried to put his hand inside her blouse.

‘It’s better if you don’t bother me. Why are you opening that?’ she snapped.

It was impossible for him to begin. Jugnu’s face was covered in a layer of cheap powder, the same powder had formed thin white lines around her neck. There were dots of blood which had dried on her lips. Earrings ogled like toad’s eyes, her hair was drenched with oil, the pillow was filthy and the bedsheet like crushed jasmine. A peculiar odour filled the cramped room. In a corner, an earthen pot of water was kept with a mug; in the same corner lay some rags.

He kept lying on the bed and looked around. Behind Jugnu’s bed was a small almirah, its stone top marked by patches of oil. A broken comb, a bottle of cheap nail polish and a few hairpins were scattered there. A few names and addresses were scribbled on the almirah door. In one corner, some film songbooks were stacked and false braids coiled like snakes lay beside them. The ambience of the room filled him with disgust. He placed his hand on Jugnu’s naked thigh for some respite—it felt squidgy like stale fish, and rug-rough. From her half-naked body a pungent dairy odour emanated. As Jugnu removed his hand, it fell on the sheet beneath her thighs. The sheet felt wet.

‘This is the time for making money—by now, four men could have enjoyed themselves and left.’ Jugnu held him tightly in her arms.

When he sat up, Jugnu casually opened his bag and remarked, ‘You carry a lot of money!’ He presumed she had said this in order to extract extra money from him. For the first time, he looked at her attentively, and left quietly.

Jugnu always covered her head when on the street. She wanted to believe that she was not so cheap that men could comment on her as she passed by them. They would, in fact, look at her as if they all owned her equally. She often glanced at the men she knew well, and at those who visited her frequently like other customers. Then one day she saw him, the same man with a bag, wearing the same shirt. He was standing on the first floor of a building with his elbow resting on a windowsill and smoking a bidi. A red flag swaying on the top of the building cast a flickering shadow on his shoulders. She stopped to get her slippers fixed and assumed he had gone inside.

That night, he came. His eyes flickered with familiarity. He was not timid this time. Sitting on her bed Jugnu asked him, ‘What do you do?’

‘Nothing, I work among labourers.’

‘Do some labour for me too, I’m also a labourer,’ teased Jugnu.

‘Aren’t you late?’ he enquired.

‘I’m not feeling well today,’ she answered lazily.

‘What happened?’

‘I have a pain in my lower back. My whole body is aching, I don’t know why… Shall I call Tara? She will be very courteous, she’s a very sensible woman.’

He turned down her offer. After sitting with her for a few minutes, he got up to leave and said, ‘I came just like that.’ Quietly climbing down the stairs in the darkness, he left. Jugnu silently stood at the window. She presumed that he would climb some other staircase. There was not much movement on the street at this hour, just a few men standing in groups in the distance. Some would occasionally climb one of the many stairs opening on to the street. She stared at the smoke wafting from a baker’s chimney, and then her eyes followed him on the street. He had not stopped. Walking slowly, he had crossed the street and turned towards the main road—the road where he lived.

Jugnu was pleased. Returning to her bed, she lay down again, feeling happy.

The room was damp and stuffy. She had locked the door and was reading one of the film songbooks when, all at once, a knock sounded and Amma spoke: ‘Jugnu beta, has that scoundrel passed out?’

‘There’s no one here, Amma!’

‘Then come out onto the balcony, the breeze is lovely, dear. The street is also alive.’

Opening the door, Amma entered Jugnu’s room. ‘Are you feeling all right?’

‘There’s something wrong, Amma.’

‘Drink a glass of milk, dear. There is still time, someone may come.’

She walked onto the balcony and Amma checked her temperature, noticing flabby tyres around her waist. ‘You are ignoring your health. Look at this—you need exercise.’ Hearing a loud noise from the next room, Amma walked toward it, mumbling, ‘This bitch is never bridled without a ruckus, there will be murder in this room one day…’

This was routine. Amma always cursed Bilkis in this manner. Bilkis claimed that no man could leave her room without a backache. She, too, enjoyed it. The moment men left her room, she would come to her door, clap loudly and taunt them: ‘O Jubeda, look, Rustam retreats! His tall claims of power—this loser will sleep with a woman?’ She would then clap loudly.

Irked, one of her customers once said, ‘What nonsense is this?’ ‘You son of a sweeper, take this, and buy yourself some fresh cream!’

Insulted, he climbed down the stairs. The entire building remained in a constant state of terror because of Bilkis. No one knew when she would next pick a fight with her customers. Undeterred, she would gesture vulgarly and spit loudly, ‘As if you all are sleeping with celibates!’

Whenever Bilkis saw Jugnu, she would taunt, ‘You should sit at someone’s house now.’ But Jugnu never retorted, she never fought with anyone. She knew that Bilkis was loud-mouthed. She would not even spare Amma. But Amma always took care of her body and looks. Amma would always urge her, quite aggressively, to take care of her appearance: ‘You are expanding like a buffalo, start wearing satin petticoats. Stop eating potatoes, you bitch.’

When she first noticed Jubeda’s loose stomach, Amma brought her a belt, saying, ‘Tie it during the day time and don’t drink too much tea.’ Amma bought fancy blouses of every size. She worried only about one thing: ‘If it was in my control, I would freeze time for all of you.’

In the afternoons, Amma would affectionately wash one woman’s hair, or press a sari for another. If it was spring, she would get their saris dyed bright yellow. She would never forget to get a scarf dyed for Fatte. She would celebrate both Eid and Bakr- Eid, as well as Holi and Diwali with much fervour. Sometimes, when she would think of Kamla, her eyes would moisten. ‘A thousand wombs cannot bear a girl like her again. God had granted her such beauty, as if a mere touch would soil her radiant skin. Enmity among the affluent swallowed her. The scoundrels poisoned her—she writhed so much. Alas, I could not even take her to the hospital.’

Jugnu was sitting in the corridor, watching people walking on the street. Gradually, the crowd thinned. The flower- and gajra-sellers were packing up. She noticed that like every day Mannat had thrown a gajra through Kalawati’s window and, as usual, she had smiled naughtily and cursed him. Banne walked straight up to Shehnaz’s room with a crisp tahmad tied around his waist, wearing a net vest.

Half-crazy Chunnilal had spread his rag on the platform in front of Shankar’s betel shop, and was sipping tea from a metal mug mumbling, ‘You ruthless… Get your hands chopped the day you hum a wrong note! You callous… One day you’ll come down here…here on this rag our nuptial night will be celebrated… You ruthless!’

Meanwhile, Jugnu thought she had seen the same blue-shirted man at the end of the street. Perhaps he was back, perhaps he too would climb one of the staircases. But it was a mere delusion. It was not him.

Many days later, he came again. Soon after entering Jugnu’s room he lay down on her bed, yet he did not dare take off his shoes.

‘Tell me your name at least,’ Jugnu asked, lying down beside him.

‘Madanlal. Why?’

‘Just like that. You haven’t been around?’

‘I was in jail. Detention was going on, I went in due to that.’

‘Why?’

‘There was a strike…the owners got us arrested. We were released, but with much difficulty.’

‘Are these strikes ever effective? Why did you do it?’

‘They had dismissed us without prior notice. There were other reasons but you won’t understand. May I take off my shoes?’ Madanlal asked coyly.

‘You may.’

The odour from his shoes and sweat-soaked socks did not bother her much today. She was gradually becoming familiar with the repulsive smell which now enveloped her and filled her body.

Madanlal left, but his stench remained. It was during those days, when Madanlal was around, that all of them had to visit the gynaecologist for their check-up. It was then that the doctor had said to Jugnu that while she had no venereal disease, traces of tuberculosis had been found.

Soon, Jugnu’s coughing increased. She was frequently feverish. Amma had taken her to the hospital but her condition did not improve. Gradually, she became unfit for her profession. One day, she spat blood and Bilkis caused havoc, ‘Throw her out of this place! We don’t want to catch anything and die!’ Amma scolded Bilkis for her harsh words but, deep down, she too had changed. In every possible way she suggested that Jugnu go elsewhere, for the sake of her health. If required, she could take some money, but under no circumstances should she ignore her health.

Jugnu had no idea where to go. She had no money. And whatever she could get hold of wouldn’t last more than a few days. Eventually, she was admitted to a sanatorium and, slowly, her money disappeared. She had to stay there for four months, but she found no relief even after that. Although there was no restriction on her to not go out, she had visited Amma only a couple of times. Amma advised her, ‘Don’t disclose your whereabouts to anyone here. I’ve told them that you are visiting your sister in Rampur and will be back soon. But this wretched Inspector troubles me a lot, he thinks you have started sitting in some other place.’

She felt comforted when she caught a glimpse of affection in Amma’s eyes. Amma, on the other hand, was distressed to see Jugnu’s deteriorating condition. Indeed, her body appeared parched: she had lost hair and the glow had vanished from her face.

Jugnu was terrified to see her reflection in the mirror. Now what? How would she survive for the rest of her life? There was nothing left to count on, and she had no other skills.

Despite their profession being banned, there was a constant supply of new girls from Lucknow and Benares and these new girls had completely ruined the business. She had come to know that Shehnaz was struggling and Kalawati was destitute. She grew all the more depressed.

On her last visit, when she had asked Amma for some money, she had recounted her own woes—Amma’s life was also crumbling. On her way back to the sanatorium, she glanced at the familiar faces around. She knew them; they were the same men who would frequent her room when she was in her prime.

When she saw Mansoo the clerk sitting in his shop, Jugnu was filled with revulsion—him on the bed, nursing his bad back, and leaving the room scratching his thighs.

Kanwarjeet, the hotel owner, was wearing a filthy pyjama and counting money at the counter; he always burped so disgustingly that it would make Jugnu nauseous.

Jugnu could not stay in the sanatorium for long. Eventually, she had to return, but she was very grateful to all those who helped her in her hour of need. She noted on the back of her prescription the amounts of money she had borrowed—she was neck-deep in debt. Kanwarjeet had given her forty-seven rupees as a great favour, while Mansoo had made her promise to return his money soon, as if his business would close down for want of twenty-five rupees.

The mechanic, Santram, had lent her twenty rupees before adding a cheap remark: ‘One night for the interest accrued, agreed?’ His vulgarity had instead made her aware that men still desired her, and that her body was not as worthless as she had thought.

In those days of need she had also met Madanlal and borrowed thirty rupees from him. He had said, ‘This is part of a donation. Better you return it soon, as I do not have any savings to compensate for this.’ There was such helplessness in his tone: he had chosen his words carefully to ensure that Jugnu did not misunderstand him. Before he left for the Party office he had also reminded her that he was not rich. Due to her dire need, Jugnu had to keep the money, though she felt awkward.

Since her return from the sanatorium, the police were also after her—they had not received their cut for the last seven months. In her building they had fixed different rates for different women.

Also, after returning to work, she felt very weak; her body could not bear any strain. If a customer was more playful than usual, it would make her very uncomfortable. She would grow breathless in a few minutes, yet men would press upon her with all their weight.

Again and again, she felt like she used to feel in the beginning of her career—as if she was doing it for the first time.

She bought false hair for seven rupees from Kalawati, and also began padding her bra. It was cumbersome to wear the pads and take them out each time, but where she had always despised wearing a starched sari, the pads pleased her in the way that they made her look voluminous.

Despite these efforts, her earnings were not sufficient. A few nights would pass without customers, when she would lie alone on her bed contemplating the future and worrying about her deteriorating body. Impotent men annoyed her. They would bother her by digging into every inch of her flesh and waiting eternally to get aroused. They would run their hands all over her and make vulgar demands.

Jugnu preferred the men who came in like loaded guns—they would shoot and leave in minutes. They would neither make small talk nor bother her endlessly. Yet her income was not enough and her debts were not cleared. And while she had noted the details of her borrowings on the back of her prescription, there were never sufficient funds at hand to clear them off.

There was no alternative way to earn money, either. On her way to the local surgeon—for the recently erupted boil on the fold of her thighs—she crossed paths with Mansoo who said, ‘It’s been a few days now, and your business has also picked up well. I have taken a vow with the holy water of the Ganges that I’ll never visit a brothel. See, I’ve even worn the tulsi weeds.’

Mansoo’s claims made Jugnu laugh and he stared at her with wide eyes.

It wasn’t easy for Jugnu to walk with the boil on her inner thigh. She was walking with her legs slightly spread—her gait was alluring to Mansoo. Where the street turned he whispered to her, ‘So, you never told me when you are arranging it for?’

‘If you have the courage, come and take it yourself!’ she replied teasingly, hiding her helplessness. She was ashamed of her own retort, then realized there was nothing wrong with it—what is the use of so-called ‘reputation’ anyway? And why should she die with a burden of debt? Whatever could be returned was good.

The local surgeon told her that it would take a few days for the boil to come to a head and he gave her a bandage to cover it with. By the time she returned, it was afternoon and all the women were out on the verandah cleaning their teeth. This was the time when they would all sit together and begin their preparations for the evening.

Meanwhile, a group of young boys was crossing the street. They teased the women with vulgar gestures and enjoyed the abuses the women yelled about their fathers. These rogues would walk past every day, this was their regular amusement. Mature women would react to their obscene gestures by abusing their fathers, while the younger ones would just smile. At times, Hasan, Banwari or the cripple Matadin would chase the boys to the end of the street from where they would shout and make lewd gestures by raising their trousers or jerking their knees. This group used to come from the colony behind the mosque.

Afternoon was also the time when the women would interact among themselves and bitch about the others. Typically, their targets would be the girls who had moved to the elite parts of town, those who had been hand-picked by Ibrahim.

As dusk descended, the street would buzz with activity: flower- vendors would start their business, the betel-shop would be decked up, and a policeman would take his usual spot in front of Gafoor’s shop—after his arrival, Gafoor could sell his bottles without any hitch.
Jugnu would remove her bandage in the evenings and do her make-up with disinterest. The boil had hardened and was very painful, but she still managed to entertain a few customers.

Sitting on her balcony, the thought of her future and her current physical condition filled Jugnu with fear. What would become of her? She would be dependent for every morsel of food. How would she survive like a lame mare? Was she destined to cover herself with a veil and sit on the steps of some mosque, begging in God’s name? When her heart stirred with such thoughts, she considered consuming poison—like Akhtari, Bihabbon and Champa—or jumping into a river.

Hundreds of men came into her life, but none arrived with a shadow that could shelter her for the rest of her time on earth.

The familiar men were those she had borrowed money from, but there was no hope there, either. How could she trust them, when they would just vanish some day? With old age, men just leave. As their children grew they would stop coming to her. Men find myriad other sources of entertainment as the journey downhill begins. Then who would visit her? Not even those old familiar faces would appear on her horizon. How strange and secluded it would feel! And how painful it would be to live like that, so starkly different from the days gone by. Her only solace came from visits by those who had lent her money. She was expecting a visit from Mansoo as well. She was positive that he would come to ask for his money back and, indeed, he came.

The same familiar stink arrived. This time, Mansoo had come after eleven at night and just like always, he sat stone-stiff from the pain in his back after he was done. Jugnu also lay exhausted. The pressure on the boil had made her scream in pain. She had no stamina to get up and help Mansoo so that, as always, he could leave scratching his thighs.

When his stiff back eased a little, he told Jugnu, ‘Do remember…’

Jugnu acknowledged that she did and helped him off the bed.

It was late in the night. Lying on her bed, Jugnu was staring at the walls of her room. There was nothing worth staring at, though. Dirty and ugly walls on which she had some day pasted pictures of film stars cut out from some old magazines. In a corner hung a string laden with bunches of old bangles, and an empty bottle of nail polish lay next to the wall on the floor.

An old quilt and a tin box were kept under her bed. In that box was a slip of paper; the letters on that slip had faded. It was now meaningless. The affinity was dead too. Who goes back into the past, and who calls out to one from there? The meandering stream of time flows between lives, ever-widening its flow and distancing the shores, apart and incomplete.

When she woke up in the morning she had a terrible body ache. The boil was unbearable too—her inner thigh was bursting with pain. With much effort she got ready for the evening, once again tying the bandage. In her room, she calculated her dues. She had marked each lender’s visit on her almirah wall to remember how much had already been settled and for whom. Santram, the mechanic, had behaved very insolently. In lieu of twenty rupees he had already made four visits and, after the fifth one, when Jugnu had asked, ‘Will you go without paying?’ he had retorted, ‘Why not?’

‘The loan was settled last time,’ Jugnu had replied, feebly yet clearly.

‘One for the interest?’ he sneered in a very demeaning tone. ‘Money doesn’t come for free, understand?’ He climbed down the stairs and left without another word. Jugnu stared, numb and helpless. Unlike her friends, she could not pick fights with her customers. Nor could she shout at them; it was just not in her to insult men.

She owed the maximum amount to Kanwarjeet, he had visited only thrice—a total of fifteen rupees had been settled with him. Mansoo’s twenty had been paid back too. Jugnu was slightly relieved about her debt issue, but suddenly she felt excruciating pain from the boil. She lay down with her legs spread apart.

There was a tap at the door and she saw Madanlal. For a moment she was annoyed to see him standing there. As if another usurious moneylender had appeared before her for recovery. Madanlal had not visited her for some time and his appearance at that moment did not please her. Helpless, she called him in; he entered and sat on the bed. He pushed his bag towards the headrest and Jugnu felt it gently—there were a few posters and a folded flag in it, plus a few old registers. She felt her heart palpitate in the anticipation that he might ask for hard cash. The pain from the boil was not subsiding either.

He was wearing the same old clothes and the same shoes. The stink of his sweat wafted into the room.

‘You’re here after a long time,’ Jugnu somehow managed to say.

‘May I take off my shoes?’ Madanlal asked softly.

‘You may…’

‘Shall I close the door?’

‘I’m in too much pain today, a boil has erupted on my inner thigh. I can lie straight but it’s unbearable if I fold my legs.’ Madanlal suddenly stopped unhooking his belt; he felt a little ashamed. Jugnu too felt strange, but he saved her from guilt. He talked on various topics but, throughout the conversation, Jugnu feared that he would eventually bring up the money she owed.

‘All right then, I’ll leave now.’ Madanlal stood there with his bag. With an affectionate gaze he looked at Jugnu, as if parting with her distressed him. Jugnu could not ask him to stay, so she meekly brought up the dreaded topic: ‘Your money…’

‘That’s not why I’m here,’ said Madanlal, ‘I came for you!’

The sweat under his armpits seemed blots of ink. With his moist hands he held Jugnu’s hand and she felt the warmth and softness of his palms.

‘I will come again,’ he said as he left. Jugnu immediately rushed out to the balcony. She was repenting deep down that he had to return like that. She watched him. He crossed a couple of streets and then stopped. It was unbearable for Jugnu to see him stop there in the street. He looked up towards the balcony and climbed the stairs of the fifth house on the street. She somehow felt strangely afflicted. There was a shooting pain from the boil. Gradually, the burning subsided. If only she had asked him to stay, then he wouldn’t have climbed that staircase—after all, he too had his needs. The pain was now bearable. He had gone back only because he cared for her suffering; the warmth of those moist palms had held no deception…

As she stood there, Kanwarjeet arrived. Jugnu felt as though an intruder had entered her home, but she managed to smile at him nonetheless.

Bilkis was standing in a corner talking to a large man while Jugnu quietly ushered Kanwarjeet in. She closed the door behind her and Kanwarjeet locked it.

‘There’s too much pain today, my boil has come to a head,’ Jugnu tried to explain in a frustrated tone.

‘Is it not gone yet?’ asked Kanwarjeet.

‘Hmmm, perhaps a day or two more,’ Jugnu said in a pleading tone, hoping to be left alone.

‘I’ll not let you suffer the slightest bit, I will do it gently.’ Kanwarjeet lay down on the bed.

‘Tonight…’ Jugnu started, but Kanwarjeet gently made her lie down next to him and said, ‘I won’t hurt you at all.’

Jugnu was utterly helpless now; she could not think of any way to make him understand. He placed his hands on her breasts. Slowly she changed sides, switched off the light, pulled the padding out of the bra and and placed them under the bed.

She tried a number of times to control her screaming and to stop Kanwarjeet. She was blinded by pain each time he put his full weight on her thighs. Kanwarjeet did stop a few times in between but, as if overpowered by some beastly instinct, his thrusts increased in force.

‘Arre, stop it!’ he shouted, pinning her down with force.

‘Amma! He’s killing me!’ she screeched at the top of her voice as if someone was brutally murdering her. Then she squirmed and almost collapsed.

‘Bitch!’ Kanwarjeet panted as he sat up, exhausted.

Jugnu took a few minutes to gather herself. With the pain subsiding marginally, she could now move her limbs. She pulled out a cloth from beneath her pillow and switched on the light. Her thigh was soaked in the pus oozing from the boil, which had burst, and Kanwarjeet was sitting next to her, burping loudly as usual.

‘See, it’s gone,’ he said as he stood up. Jugnu pulled her sari down to cover her thighs. ‘Remember, this was the fourth visit,’ he reminded her, opening the door to leave.

Jugnu pulled her sari up and wiped the pus. Suddenly she grew very restless. She called out to Fatte, who gave her water from the pot. Jugnu wiped the wound with a wet cloth saying, ‘Look, Fatte, a man has just gone into Vimla’s room. If he still hasn’t left, call him here. He’s wearing a blue shirt and carrying a bag.’

‘Is he a customer?’ Fatte asked.

‘No, an acquaintance. Would you pour some more water?’

By the time Fatte came back with the water, Jugnu said pensively, ‘Leave it, go and do your work. He said he’d come back some day…’ She pressed the burst boil to release more pus and, with the pain, droplets of sweat flickered on her face.

Translated from the Hindi by Aradhana Pradhan

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