Indian prostitute reveals all in gripping autobiography

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2005, 12:00am

Dressed in a printed cotton sari, with her hair tied neatly in a bun, she looks like any ordinary Indian housewife. But Nalini Jameela, 52, has supported her family for more than two decades as a prostitute in southern India. Now she's written a book about her life and it's flying off the shelves.

A surprise best-seller, Jameela's Autobiography of a Sex Worker is already in its second print run after being released by DC Books last month.

Based in Kozhikode in Kerala state, Jameela is quite unlike most other Indian prostitutes, who are too ashamed to reveal their faces, much less their names. Indian sex workers invariably are seen as victims. Not Jameela. Confident, unembarrassed and cheerful, she defies every stereotype. Like most, she entered the profession because of poverty. Nevertheless, she says she's content. In fact, she intends to continue as a prostitute for as long as her body 'holds'.

'It's not that I'm dying to do it, but when I need the money, I do, because it's the only work I know,' she says.

Her husband died of cancer when she was 25, and she was unable to feed her two daughters on her salary of two US cents a day as a quarry worker. It was about this time that she met a prostitute in the neighbourhood.

'She told me that I would be able to earn more than 50 rupees in one go,' says Jameela. 'I decided to give it a try because I'd been reduced to begging to feed my children. My first time was when a police jeep took me to a government guest house in Thrissur to serve a senior police officer and a politician.'

Written in the local language, Malayalam, with the help of a social worker, Jameela's life is recounted in a sober narrative, peppered with her forceful comments about sex and society's contempt for prostitutes.

'Prostitution will thrive as long as there's sexual oppression in society and as long as there's interest in enjoying variety in sex,' she says.

Many of her clients are prospective grooms or newly married men, woefully ignorant about sex and the topography of a woman's body. They're desperate - and deeply grateful - for advice. Jameela feels quite proud that she's helped many young men enjoy a better sex life with their wives. Some have even called afterwards to thank her. 'They would watch porn movies and come to me because they'd failed to replicate what they'd seen,' she says. 'Once I've reassured them, it's a huge weight off their minds.'

Indian wives may pity her, but they're the ones Jameela feels sorry for. 'Do you know what Indian women have to put up with? How women live with husbands they can't stand, suffering insults, torture and even rape, all because of some false concept about having to be married?' she says.

Just as times have changed so, too, has the attitude of her clients. 'Clients are more considerate, and want to talk to us. If sex was just mechanical intercourse 20 years ago, it's now more enjoyable because men treat us as people rather than as objects.'

In her book, she relates how one client would take her along whenever he went on a long train journey. But sex was not always the motivation; often, all he wanted was her company and a cuddle. He called to congratulate her on the release of her book, she says, and insisted she give him a copy the next time they met.

Jameela's horizons have expanded considerably over the years. As co-ordinator of the Kerala Sex Workers' Forum, she's flown twice to Thailand to attend workshops, and has since made a film about sex workers. She's even run a hotel for a while, and is pleased with her status as a writer.

Her younger daughter, Shahina, a schoolteacher, is as relaxed about her mother's work as Jameela is herself. Shahina and her husband share a home with Jameela in a district populated by sex workers, and is thrilled that her mother's book will be translated into Tamil, Hindi and English.

Her elder daughter isn't as comfortable with Jameela's work. 'She still doesn't have the courage to openly come and see me,' she says. 'But that's all right. I respect her feelings.'