Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey is a journalist, which explains why the narrator in her book is a journo following up on an old story. The reason for this is the success of Slumdog Millionaire—Pandey’s alter ego is asked by her boss to find out what happened to the children she interviewed through an NGO called Durjoy. From this starting point unfolds a tale of children rescued from Calcutta’s notorious red light area, Sonagachi.
One of the children is of particular interest—Lakshmi, who has left Sonagachi and moved into the relatively upmarket Salt Lake. She has a new name and, as the journalist finds out, a new identity. Through Lakshmi, renamed Anjali, Pandey tells the stories of three women who followed the same trade. One who was trafficked, one inducted and the third educated enough to give the business a new perspective.
Courtesan stories set in Lucknow are plentiful—so are ones set in the old days of the babus who kept their mistresses in a very different Sonagachi from this one. Pandey explores the story of the present-day world just before prostitutes were given new dignity under the title sex workers. Hers is a slutty, dirty slum which the women cannot escape—those who try mainly find themselves making the same mistakes that landed them there in the first place.
The point that Pandey makes is that escape is a state of mind, from Saraju to Malati to Lakshmi. The business of sex has no illusion of romance about it.