Truths Pushed Through the Sieve of Fiction: Rijula Das on Her Debut Novel Set in Shonagachhi

Rijula Das's new novel brings up many facets of Kolkata's red-light district, from corruption and gender violence to the effect of demonetisation on the flesh trade.

By Neha Kirpal

In A Death in Shonagachhi (Picador India, Rs 599), the debut novel of New Zealand-based author Rijula Das, sex trafficking and activism come together with murder and even a bit of dry humour put together in an engaging read. Protagonist Lalee is a sex-worker in the alleyways of Shonagachhi, where she is brought and sold to a brothel against her will when she is just a child. When a fellow sex-worker next door, Mohamaya, is found brutally murdered, the girls feel haunted and traumatised.

They go on a strike and demand a thorough police investigation into the gruesome incident. Social workers from the Sex Workers’ Collective join them in their fight for justice for Mohamaya, and the cause spreads to others like her – women who are routinely made targets of assault and violence. In no time, the high-profile case becomes a hot topic in the media, and a candlelight vigil is organised in sympathy with the victim.

The novel is a result of Rijula’s meetings and conversations with a number of women, children, transpersons, shopkeepers and workers of Shonagachhi, South Asia’s largest red-light district in Kolkata, West Bengal. “Some events mentioned in the book came out of newspaper articles, but most of those truths were pushed through the sieve of fiction,” Rijula tells eShe.

Rijula Das

Through the characters in the book, the author delves into the reasons that lead these women to sell their bodies for money – in order to seek a better life and future for their family and children – their feverish, desperate dreams and ambitions, and the lives they have left behind them.

“It is impossible to have generalised impressions of people as a group, and I’m more interested in the individual than the group, whatever label they may be assigned. The people of Shonagachhi are one of the most heterogenous groups,” Rijula explains.

She goes on: “You can find daughters and wives from ‘respectable’ middle-class homes, people who’ve survived unimaginable traumas, and migrants from different parts of the subcontinent. And that is even without talking about the children, men, transpersons or shopkeepers of Shonagachhi.”

Moreover, the book touches on “the laughter, the friendships, the minutiae of daily life” that flows in the fabled streets of Shonagachhi, which come alive in the evening – the “rough-and-tumble world” of “pimps, touts, madams and petty hooligans”.  

“I wrote and rewrote the book over a period of seven years. It began, very simply, with a scene percolating in my head. That scene is now the first chapter of the book. In the process of writing the book, life in India changed. Momentous events like demonetisation altered people’s lives significantly. The events and characters in the book would have to feel the repercussions of those shifts. So back to the drawing-board I went,” shares Rijula.

The book’s gripping narrative keeps a reader hooked from page to page, as the story swiftly navigates through its brief chapters. The story goes on to throw up a lot of dirt, highlighting several related aspects of the world’s oldest profession – an industry worth a few hundred billion dollars – such as sex rackets, rapes, police complicity, bribery, how demonetisation has affected the flesh trade and how mobile phones have altered its landscape.

The book also has a strong sense of place, painting a vibrant picture of Kolkata – its history, anecdotes and landmark neighbourhoods – complete with visions of street urchins, suffocating metro stations, second-hand bookshops, crammed Park Street pavements and the iconic Victoria Memorial.

“The book is a love-letter to Kolkata,” Rijula admits. “I came to live in Kolkata when I was 15 years old. The city has an indelible influence on my creative lens. I think the space between 15 and one’s early 20s is when one is alive in a way that’s not possible afterwards. I’ve written the book in the UK, Singapore and New Zealand, but the distance from Kolkata has added a softer lens to the telling. To me, the book was about a city, and a big cast of characters than one individual’s tale.

But Rijula does not see the long existence of a red-light district like Shonagachhi as something that is uniquely Bengali. “Kamathipura, GB Road and other places have also existed for a long time. As Pratchett would have said, ‘… but men have always found space in their religion for a little sinning here and there’,” she quotes.

Rijula received her PhD in creative writing in 2017 from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where she taught writing for two years. “My doctoral research examines our cultural ideas about public space and how they influence the space women occupy in the public sphere. Who is allowed to use the streets? How do we inflict violence on those who breach those boundaries? As my research progressed, it shaped my novel as well. I was also interested in the stories we tell about yourselves, and which stories, as women, we are allowed to lay claim to,” says Rijula who is a recipient of the 2019 Michael King Writers Centre Residency in Auckland and the 2016 Dastaan Award for her short story ‘Notes from a Passing’.

Her short story ‘The Grave of The Heart Eater’ was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019.

Though Rijula believes, “Novelists can only bring out a truth, but not offer solutions,” referring to human trafficking, the characters in her novel reveal a bit of the author’s mind when it comes to the way forward to stop sex trafficking:

“Raid-Rescue-Rehabilitate. There is no other way. The police need to conduct fair, transparent raids with honesty and not shield the guilty parties. We need to find these girls, rescue and protect them and then we should put all our resources into rehabilitating them so that they can find their place in society. Human trafficking is an organised crime, and we need to be organised to fight it.”

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