Critics have tried to label Jameela’s autobiography as a mere feminist exercise. Others called it a bit of sleaze masquerading as a call for support. But why did this book sell over 13,000 copies in its original Malayalam edition and cause controversies in literary and feminist circles? Ultimately, one finds that Jameela is neither a prostitute nor a feminist in the understood sense of these terms. Her voice is simply that of a human being who can shed every bit of hypocrisy as only the very poor can, for it is only those who have nothing to lose who can freely choose to do whatever is necessary to survive. Her account challenges intellectuals, feminists, activists and various self-appointed moralists, and their bondage to middle-class predicaments.
She traces her life from her childhood in an Ezhava family working in the clay mines, including her love of money and later the occasional stiff drink of alcohol that she preferred to drink neat. Gradual changes in our society are reflected in her engagement with the police over 30 years. It shows the ugly days of the emergency when the police routinely terrorised the poor. Over the years, ngo activism and recognition of gender-related issues have allowed the oppressed to organise and be heard, even if they often end up in jail. Today, Jameela is an activist in the campaign for the dignity and rights of sex workers. Now in her 50s, she does not flinch from the choices she made, whether it was to sell her body to maintain her children, or the many liaisons, short and long term, with men. She negotiated life on her own terms, and is clear-eyed that men need psychological or physical comfort just as she needed a roof above her head and her children needed care. As a sex worker, she merely tried to fulfil those needs. A survivor, she used her intelligence to gently manipulate her clients to accept her terms, sexual or otherwise. What comes through is the need for self-worth, dignity and trust and that finally circumstances alone define how each individual translates these into acts of daily life.
This short but riveting narrative also exposes holy men who exploit women in the name of spiritual healing and the murky atmosphere in many local mosques where impoverished women are allowed to be molested by thugs. She finds solace in the kindness of some clients, occasional husbands, and her colleagues at Jwalamukhi, an ngo. The protective love she demonstrates for her vulnerable daughter by far compensates the supposed immorality of selling her body to feed and clothe themselves.
An Autobiography of a Sex Worker is an unwaveringly honest, intensely personal yet universal book. Like Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, it helps us understand the underbelly of our many-layered, exploitative and highly complicated society, held together by its multiple moralities, and that true empowerment means having the courage to guide one’s own destiny and living bravely by the consequences.