Karma Sutra is a powerful document of the Indian street - a journey into the murky urban underbelly. It tells the stories of those who live on - and off – the street, and amazing cast of characters that includes sex workers, bar girls, hijras, Devadasis, drug addicts, runaway, migrants, hustlers, the homeless, the dying , the abandoned ...
Pulsating with raw realism and energy, the book tells gripping, heroic stories of hearbreak and hope, of exploitation and the will to survive. The stories echo the vibrance of George Orwell’s classic description of poverty and low-life in Down and Out in Paris and London, so that one can actually smell and feel the street, and all its risks and dangers.
Rajendar Menen, a journalist who has pounded Mumbai’s streets fearlessly for many years as part of his work on HIV AIDS, often walking on the wild side, something on a razor’s edge, leaves on stone unturned - and no eye dry - as he talks to those fighting for their daily survival. In doing so, he opens the window on an India less examined.
Rajendar Menen is a senior journalist who has been published in several countries. He began his career with The Times of India in Mumbai. He has launched and edited magazines, written four books on different aspects of healing, and freelanced for organizations such as the BBC, UNFPA, France 2, Gulf News, Ray of Hope, and Teacher's Training Centre, Tralee, Ireland. He has co-authored books on AIDS and prostitution in South Asia, and edited three journals on the technical and human aspects of HIV/ AIDS. The street is his muse. He lives and works in Mumbai.
I have been on the street most of my life. I am still on the street.
It's been a deliberate decision. A choice I have made in my saner moments. It's the only way to understand the magical mosaic of the Indian street.
I love the excitement of disorder that the street exhibits with such vivid imagination. The colours, sounds, smells and dangers send the adrenaline pounding. There is never a dull moment. You live with the unexpected. You court it without fear. You wander with the flow and go where it takes you. It never lets you down. It is startling, irreverent, exciting, agonizing, desperate, raw, even tragic.
The book is not backed by ideology or dogma. It is not political. It is without prejudice or bias. No insult is intended. No individual, social group, community, caste or religion is targeted. All names have been changed where necessary and all identities protected. It is not about activism or intended reform. No state secrets have been compromised. It is not a definitive document on the street. If anything, it is about empirical evidence and gut-level reaction. There are several colours On the street J have tried to absorb some of them.
The book doesn't wear any moral garb. It is not judgemental. It doesn't tell you how to live, or how not to live. It just tells you how it is. If I have made statements, they are a reaction to how the street has impacted me. It is my opinion, straight from the heart. Not sponsored or designed by an outside agency.
I have deliberately avoided statistics. I have also gone out of my way to not quote anyone in the government. Figures can be doctored and interpreted either way convincingly, and we all know the answers of those in power.
This book is mainly about my experiences on the streets of Mumbai, one of the greatest cities of the world. It is about the darkness on the streets. It's about the lives of the marginalized, and their heroic battle against the enormous odds stacked against them every single day of their lives. It is about how they surmount it all without complaint: the true heroes of a karma that has shackled them.
It is about sex workers, drug addicts, hijras, Devadasis, the homeless and the dying, and the hundreds of thousands of people who wander into India's most glamorous city to seek the crumbs. It is about the other side of midnight in a city that is also equally gross about its display of power and pelf.
I have crossed the boulevard, lived with those who inhabit it, and broken bread with them. I have had the option of returning to my life of comfort when I wanted to. So it has been easy. But those on the streets were condemned to their fate. For them, there was no escape. It takes great skill, wit and cunning on their part to get out of it unscathed. This book documents their sutra; the sutra that extracts every inch of guile to help them battle their karma. The street is a living entity, its code well outside the pale of normally accepted behaviour. When you are in the trenches every day of .your life, and survival is etched on your mind as your primary goal, you make your own rules. It is often not in consonance with what those who make the laws have in mind.
Circumstances give birth to protest, revolt and rebellion. Anarchy has its seeds in misfortune, whether real or perceived. It is difficult to understand this pain or its expression if you are not of the street. It is also easy to exploit it and use it to advantage.
The police are let out on the mean streets to look after them. They have it rough. They are poorly paid, desperately outnumbered, manipulated by their political masters, and low on morale. But they are in constant touch with the marginalized. They are human, tOO, and get to see all sides of the dice. It works on them. They see the corruption and the loopholes in the law, and exploit it. They can become a terrifying presence.
The research for the book took several years, from the 1980s to the late 1990s. During the period, the city also changed its name from Bombay to Mumbai. There have been cosmetic changes to other locations too. This book is not a chronology of events. There are no specific dates. Situations may have changed but the flavour of the street will remain for a long time.
Most of the interviews were in Hindi. I have cut out the profanity from the street dialect to give it to you in as acceptable a form as possible. I have also tried to look at things with a sense of humour to soften the blow.
I have been fortunate to have been on this ride. Join me.
I have been interviewing commercial sex workers and others who live on - and off - the street for over two decades. I shall begin with the sex worker before moving on to the others.
In the good old days the sex worker was simply known as a prostitute. A word short and straight, like a powerful upper cut. No frills, no ornamentation. It takes you to the count in a swift jab.
Then the world got politically correct. You couldn't call someone short or fat or dark or thin anymore. It wasn't polite. They were all suitably and substantially 'challenged'. The compassion extended to the prostitute too. Wise minds sat together and decided that even if nothing could be done about the job portfolio, the practitioner could be rewarded with a title that looked good on a visiting card. How could somebody be called a prostitute in the days of McDonalds and Microsoft? And what was the point in meeting at exotic locales all over the world at great cost and debating the merits of prostitution endlessly if nothing could be done for the prostitute? So the poor woman (we are gender-specific here) could now die of AIDS and tell the accusing world till her last breath that she wasn't a prostitute but a commercial sex worker. It was a grand title. She could die in peace. Her epitaph would read well.
As a rookie in one of the biggest newspapers in the world, I had several beats to choose from. It was always easy to sit in an opulent patisserie and take down notes, return to the office and file a report. I did this for a while and got scared. What if I got fattened by the food, drink and the junkets and died of cardiac arrest in a supersonic jet across the Pacific en route to the inauguration of a new fleet of airplanes? It wouldn't be as exciting as a bullet grazing my nape in a bunker. A confession: I am an excitement junkie. I like to waste my life, rather than do nothing with it. I have lived recklessly - spending time and money on the street - and given myself to what Osho called the care of 'existence', which simply meant surrender to a higher force. That was good advice. I am still in one piece.
Each one of us is born to forces beyond our control. I was born into a middle-class milieu, to a confluence of circumstances that ensured a fairly easy life for me. I was born into a family that believed in quality education and to a code of values that incorporated integrity and hard work. Opportunities would come knocking and I would have the luxury of choice. This simple accident of birth determines the course of one's life in the 'developing' world. But somewhere along the way, I decided to hew my own path and march to a different drumbeat.
I met Radha in my late teens. She was slightly older than me but I was told that she could love a man with the force of a hurricane at level six. She even insisted that I take the only gold chain that she had. She owned nothing of material consequence but wanted the best for me. This gesture had me stumped. This wasn’t middle class. She was a prostitute, had already slept with many men and had plumbed the depths of loss and despair within years of sighting adulthood. And here she was gifting me a valuable ornament that she had really worked hard for. And who was I? Nothing more special than a clean-faced youth who had befriended her. But she took her chance. She lived dangerously. I liked that. We were kindred spirits. My first interview, I think, began with her.
Over the years, I went on to interview thousands of sex workers. I have launched and edited journals on HIV/AlDS, written books and countless articles on the subject and been part of several television teams from all over the world keen on documenting on camera their strange zone of existence. The sex worker is fascinating - her life so different from ours - but intimidating, too.
There is a huge moral streak running down the pants of society and she sends a tremor through it. You mention the word 'prostitute' and there is excitement, there is vicarious interest, many eager questions are asked in hushed tones, and a lot will be said behind your back. The majority wants nothing to do with you. Their world-view, built with ordinary self-righteousness, gets a knock on the head. You are a bad man even for talking about her world with some enthusiasm. But who visits the sex worker? Why she has been in existence for so long? Who fuels her demand? Who else but the proselytising moral brigade walking bowl egged between desire and duty and unable to fulfil either.
I have visited brothels in different parts of the world. I have sampled the street and the bougainvillea that shadows it. I have known the high and mighty who can't live without the sex worker and also those kicked in the butt by life but still glued to her eyelashes. Art, cinema and literature pay tribute to the courtesan. She has an indisputable place in the history of nations, and is the heroine of several mythologies that have helped structure the feathers of modern society. Love and, possibly, its sexual expression, gives mortal existence a new lease of hope. It gives life to deadend situations. It helps you dream, fantasize, fly. In the everyday existence of salaries, bills, taxes, rearing families, ill-health, old age, pensions, insurance claims, debt and finally, death, escape routes are vital for sanity. The escape hatch depends on temperament, attitude, personality, circumstances, religious beliefs, conscience, genetics, disposable income and several other ingredients.
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