The author recalls the time when she first saw a prostitute, during her stay in Jammu & Kashmir
I still remember my first sight of a prostitute, in flesh and blood.
It was a long time ago but the exact moment is still etched in my memory like the haunting theme music of a well-made film. At that time I was at Riyasi in Jammu and Kashmir with my engineer husband Madhu and his official dwelling was close to a forest of pine and maple trees.
There inside the forest was the memorial of a freedom fighter killed by the British. The stone and concrete memorial had then become the shelter of a peer (soothsayer), who was supposed to have divine powers. I had heard that he could tell many things about a person just by looking at his or her face.
I was very curious to meet the man. One day, when Madhu had gone to his work site, I asked our two helpers, Keya and Sitamadev, to accompany me to the peer.
Just a few hundred metres into the woods led to an incredible sight. There, sitting by a tree was a woman with tattered clothes, which barely covered her body. It was a sight, which took me completely by surprise.
As I looked at the woman in stunned silence, I could only wonder who she was. My thoughts were interrupted all of a sudden when our middle-aged Oriya domestic help Sitamadev caught hold of my hand and virtually dragged me from the place, whispering faintly, “She is a prostitute...she is a prostitute....”.
I had the same shock many years later, during my stay in Vrindavan. One day, my teacher called me and said, “I am sending to you a lady who wants a letter drafted. Kindly do it.”
Instantly, there appeared a young woman in saffron clothes at my door. She introduced herself and said, “I have come from Bajali, in the Pathsala area.”
“When did you take to the life of an ascetic'” I asked her. In reply, she only gave me an enigmatic smile and parried my question.
On a few earlier occasions also, in Guwahati itself, I had come across a few Assamese mendicant women. I was glad to find, after a long time, a girl from Assam. I treated her to tea and snacks. Then I asked in what language, Assamese, Hindi or English, she wanted the letter to be written.
Giving me a sweet smile, she said, “Let it be in English. He can follow it.” The letter revealed to me that the woman lived with a well-to-do man, who also happened to be an ascetic of sorts. The man also had a temple to live in Ahmedabad, where he was away at that time and taking advantage of his absence, some local rowdies had started harassing her.
She appealed to him to return. Having written the letter, I said to her, “If you find it unsafe to live in your temple, you could temporarily shift to ours. Under the protective shade of my teacher, everybody lives here in peace”.
Once again, she gave me an enigmatic smile. I felt rather puzzled at her behaviour. As she left, Lalita Dasi, who was observing the woman at my door while she was busy sweeping the courtyard, came to me and stood beside my writing desk.
A nauseating smell always emanated from Lalita Dasi’s body. Her complexion was fair, but she did not give herself a regular wash. As a result, smears of dirt freckled her face and hands and other parts of the body. She was often seen sitting with the beggars in front of different temples.
Then, with an air of surprise writ large on her face, she said, “This woman for whom you wrote a letter just now hails from Assam. You don’t seem to have any suspicion of her ways.”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
Then she came close to me and whispered in my ears, “She lives on this sacred soil of Vraj, smears sandalwood paste on her forehead, wraps herself with saffron clothes and also sports a garland of beads. But can you imagine what her vocation is'”
“By no means can I,” I cried in consternation. “What is it, to be sure'”
“She’s a prostitute. That’s how she’s known in this place.”
“A prostitute' You say this woman is a prostitute' Sounds so incredible!”
Her revelation struck me dumb with surprise! The image of the woman came to my mind vividly. Her complexion was like that of earthenware glowing in the light of a lamp. An oval face, and the eyes far from large.
And her hair' Well, her shock of hair itself seemed to be the abode of all her mysteries. It was thick, long and dark and had a peculiar shine to it. Her age was difficult to determine. For many people, the face is hardly an index of one’s age, which lies hidden under a deceptive mask of flesh and blood. So it was, for this woman, too.
From her looks, you could hardly say how old she was.