In this essay I look at the contradictory impulses generated by a certain idea of prostitution in the fictional writings of G. Nagarajan and Dandapani Jeyakantan: desire and its inevitable disappointment; the intimate contact of bodies and its demystification by monetary exchange, the ideal aspiration of love and the void enclosing each human being in his/her loneliness. Representations of prostitution, I argue, have fantasmatic origins in that they privilege the image over the real, the word over its referent, the symbol over the event. Prostitution has to be understood in terms of the liquidity of personal properties including gender identities. The understanding of prostitutional desire is focused not on the possession of any one object but on the process whereby objects acquire value as representations. What makes the prostitute desirable is her capacity to deny nature and function as a medium for representational practices. Further, I am interested in looking at where Nagarajan and Jeyakantan diverge in their representations of the prostitute s sexual agency. Jeyakantan s fiction represents the figure of the reformed prostitute whose sense of self-alienation, an effect of commodification, is redeemed through love. Nagarajan on the other hand empowers the prostitute with greater sexual agency precisely through the simulation of conjugality that only resists her sexual reformation through marriage.

G. Nagarajan s novella Kuratti Mudukku (1979) is preoccupied with male fascination for the prostitute s made up beauty whose seductive appeal lies precisely in its synthetic nature. Through her theatrical performance of desire and pleasure the prostitute alternatively evokes and disappoints desire. The client s interpretation of the prostitute s desire is ambiguous for the prostitute is an embodied simulation of desire that veils an absent „truth or „subject of desire. In other words, the prostitute s simulation of desire and pleasure cannot be reduced to an original truth or subject, only an infinite oscillation between the „real and its representation. The novella is mostly narrated by the male protagonist of the story who despite himself falls in love with a prostitute called Thangam. Before he meets Thangam he had assumed love and marriage were convenient arrangements for rearing children. But in his encounters with Thangam, the narrator is conflicted by his paradoxical interpretations of Thangam s desire and acts of intimacy that are at once „authentic and disillusioned by the commercial nature of prostitution.

The narrator wishes every prostitute was as professional and particular as Thangam. From her tireless engagements with her profession, he wonders if Thangam has greater sexual desire than the other prostitutes (117). While on the one hand, he is certain that Thangam desires him as much as she does her other clients, on the other he wants to believe that she has a special affection for him. He clearly fetishizes her desire for him; his desire for her oscillates between his faith in her apparently spontaneous and exclusive love for him and the disillusioning recognition of the commodified nature of prostitutional desire. (119). Even as he identifies with her seemingly spontaneous desire for him he constantly reminds himself that his relationship with her is merely commercial (118). He wants “to free himself from the happiness she gives him while establishing and guaranteeing it”, he “wants to sustain his fantasy of having an exclusive relationship with her” even as he is aware of the potential disappointment of his desire (118). He buys her things, refurbishes the interiors of her room and tries hard to prove that she is only in love with his money and not with him.

When the narrator asks Thangam to temporarily stay with him in his new house she grows wary of his possessive affection for her. When she claims she already has a husband he is incredulous and ridicules her apparent faithfulness. She sarcastically replies “I don t have to be a widow to be in the business.” When he suspects her of being involved with a richer man she hugs him and starts weeping (128). Thangam s assertion of her sexual freedom and self-ownership preempts the possibility of having an exclusive relationship with the narrator; of being exclusively owned by a man that would result in the potential loss of her liquidity; her mobility. She cannot be exclusively owned or possessed by any man without being excluded from the circulation and exchange of sexual identities and desires. Conversely, for the narrator the possibility of possessing Thangam is to be dispossessed; to lose his individuality; to become a substitutable object of her desire.

The narrator discovers Thangam has again been wrongly accused and arrested for soliciting a customer and has been asked to pay a fine in court. This time she decides to file a case with her pimp s help. She is certain the client, the police and the law are complicit in her ruin. When the narrator offers his help, Thangam asks him to lie to the court that he has been financially supporting her. For the first time, he feels nothing but empathy and compassion for her. He recognizes in her his own status as a social outcaste; as orphans who have marginalized themselves from society (136-7). He promises to help her if she agrees to renounce prostitution and live with him. She agrees but when she wins the case and the narrator reminds her of her promise to marry him, she laughs incredulously and denies any such promise. He feels betrayed and realizes that like most people he had misperceived marriage as the ultimate expression and guarantee of love when there can be no love without jealousy. There is merely he says “an irrational faith in marriage”, “a social guarantee of faithfulness that has been handed down…” (138).

The narrator is determined never to see Thangam again. Some months later he learns from her pimp that she has disappeared from the brothel with her husband Nataraj. The narrator later discovers her when he goes to Trivandrum on work. She confesses she is Nataraj s mistress and not his wife. She laments that he has been imprisoned for committing a serious crime. She recounts her violent encounter with his wife who burnt her when Nataraj decided to take her under his care. She tells him she always considered him her husband although he is a married man with children. She is grateful to him for taking care of her needs and privileging her over his wife. Now she feels responsible for ruining his family. Thangam s guilt and helplessness love for her „husband and his imprisonment reduces her to a sorry state of helplessness and despair.

Although Thangam s relationship with Nataraj becomes a social impossibility (of not conforming to the straightjacket
of marriage), I would like to draw attention to the self-divided identity of the prostitute that empowers her to assume other identities and make sexual/ romantic choices that give her security and ultimately question and redefine the social understanding of marriage. Although Thangam occupies the position of mistress she can identify herself as the wife of a married man whose „free and in some sense „real love for her unhindered by the domestic and financial responsibilities that accompany marriage, overrides his consideration for his family.

Jeyakantan s Orru Manidanum Sila Erumaimadugalum (A Man and A Few Buffaloes) (1985) is about a prostitute who is purified and reintegrated into society by a man s love for her.

Sabapaty works in his father-in-law’s lucrative liquor business. He is a private taxi driver who secretly smuggles liquor from Pondicherry to Madras. On one of his smuggling trips back to Madras he is tracked down by the police after a long chase and shot as he tries to escape. Sabapaty’s friend and assistant Kanniappan who runs an illegal brewery manages to escape with the owner of the smuggled alcohol and informs Sabapaty’s wife Unnamalai of her husband’s plight.

At the hospital, Sabapaty is sorry to see his wife cry helplessly. He thinks of the fights they have had in the past over his alcoholism and his affair with a prostitute named Leela. While he sympathizes with Unnamalai’s jealousy and her determination to raise their children independently, he perceives Unnamalai as an unrefined and illiterate country bumpkin who will never understand the true significance of his relationship with Leela.

As Sabapaty is convalescing in the hospital, his friend Kanniappan secretly gives him a letter from Leela that expresses her gratitude and humility to “his flawless and unselfish love”. “Her guilty conscience” makes her ask if “she is worthy of such love”. (900). She promises not to have any sexual relationships with her “boyfriends” or her uncle’s (pimp’s) friends until he recovers. She decides to change into a new person when he comes to see her. The sound of his “unrefined Madras dialect” reassures her with a feeling of self respect. She is determined to relinquish prostitution and only belong to him. (901)

It is clear from her letter that Sabapaty s selfless love and concern for Leela initiates a process of sexual reformation that compels her to aspire for the loyalty and domestic comforts of wifehood. But her supposedly irredeemable immorality and sexual indulgence preempts the possibility of ever being  worthy of Sabapaty s love. His love makes Leela realize that she is enslaved by the consciousness of her sin (i.e. prostitution). She realizes she was earlier able to simulate desire and even in her outer debasement she was convinced her human essence was her true essence. Now her degradation touches her innermost being. Her sexual continence and self-denigration become redemptive symptoms of her („failed ) attempts to be worthy of Sabapaty.

What follows this part of the novella is a long flashback that is triggered by Leela s letter. The flashback begins with Sabapaty s childhood memories of Leela as a young girl and ends with his unsuccessful attempts to convince Unnamalai of the innocence of his friendship with Leela. Sabapaty remembers accompanying his poor mother to Leela’s house to deliver milk. He remembers looking at Leela s “golden form [with] his mouth agape” (901). Leela is disgusted at the sight of a “smelly, dark boy” staring at her. The narrator says, “Sabapaty at that age, never thought of bathing, combing his coarse hair and wearing a clean shirt” when he came to see her. Sabapaty remembers running errands for Leela at her slightest command. But once Leela matures into a pubescent girl she is forbidden from stepping out and spends most of her time indoors. Sabapaty, now older, is “ashamed to be spotted by Leela standing like a servant before her wealthy and reputed family.” (904).

Sabapaty tries to explain “the true significance” of his relationship with Leela to Unnamalai when she accuses him of having an affair with a whore (916). (what is interesting to note here is that Unnamalai is more concerned that her husband is having an affair with a prostitute rather than his sexual infidelity. He angrily refutes her accusation that seemingly “insults his masculinity”. He asks her “to you think I go for leftovers?” that suggests the male anxiety around potentially emasculating threat of female sexuality. He tries to convince her that Leela “was not always a prostitute” (917). He recounts his childhood memories of Leela and expresses his

gratitude to her father for his financial support. He meets Leela years later in a room in a hotel as he is delivering alcohol to her uncle/pimp. (919) Leela emerges from the room looking like a glamorous ‘high class’ prostitute expecting to see her uncle. She is surprised to see Sabapaty but does not immediately recognize him. There is an elderly client with her who requests him to drop her at her uncle’s place as he inserts some money in her hand bag before leaving. Sabapaty instantly recognizes Leela and is shocked and sad to see Leela s refined and suave beauty that he once exalted now reduced to a state of debauchery. He asks himself, “Why do good family women; educated and beautiful women all end up like this? Won’t some men marry them and take care of them? Are there no men left to do this? When aggressive, unrefined buffaloes like Unnamalai have someone like me, why don’t women like her who has everything find someone? Have they not found someone? They are the ones who don’t want any of this and go wandering in search of random men in their expenses, the insolence of earning- is that why they yearn for attention?” (921)

Sabapaty makes a social distinction between sexually promiscuous prostitutes and chaste and loyal wives. He assumes the power of financial independence makes prostitutes like Leela impudent and indifferent to their social reputation that he feels can only be achieved and maintained through marriage and domestic wifehood.

Leela asks him to take her to a hotel. Sabapaty is not certain if she wants to go to a hotel (restaurant) to eat or to a hotel to have sex. He is pained to hear her speak to him like she would to a client. In the hotel room, Sabapaty remembers how amazed he was by Leela’s beauty as a child but now he is unable to be happy with the thought of “having Leela’s beauty and body all to himself like an object to be bought”. (927) He is disgusted at the thought of Leela’s glorious body being purchased by men for their pleasure and rendered impure by their touch. (927) He suspects her family estranged her when her uncle prostituted her. He experiences an overwhelming sense of concern and is determined to rescue her from her uncle. When she shyly expresses her desire to have sex with him her sexual modesty partially redeems Sabapaty’s contempt for her (943). But he silently refuses to have sex with a promiscuous and unchaste prostitute (941).

For Sabapaty, gratifying Leela s desire for him is a collapse of social differences. Like the narrator of Kuratti Mudakku, Sabapaty s desire for an unchaste and promiscuous prostitute threatens his own individuality by becoming a substitutable object of her desire. When Leela later confides her sexual past, Sabapaty appreciates her trust in him but is furious by her “shameless confessions” that seemingly emasculate him (938). The very fact of her sexual frankness and immodesty is perceived as a threat to his masculinity that can only averted by resisting his desire for her. For Sabapaty, Leela s chastity is an alienable „commodity or property that essentially constituted her femininity and whose irredeemable loss now forever signifies her diminutive and „public womanhood. The suppression of his desire for her and his concern, I would argue, de-eroticizes her and consequently their relationship by robbing her of her ability to stage her seduction, neutralizing the threat of self-alienation and emasculation embodied in her prostitution.

Through Leela s confessions of her sexual past we see her negotiating various shifting and intertwined constructions of her identity as a prostitute that entail self-division for personal advantage, security, social mobility and survival, sexual indulgence and even a helpless victim who lacks enjoyment and appeals to others sympathy. Prostitution for Leela offers the power,

security and comforts “that a helpless woman like her needed”. (938) Leela feels empowered by her uncle’s patronage and his influential and wealthy businessmen friends whose connections with the police protect her. She expresses her gratitude to her uncle for his support and protection when she was faced by the possibility of being disinherited by her family for eloping with a married man who tried to prostitute her (936). Her uncle and his “educated, respectable businessmen friends” convince her that prostitution is a normal profession and that “many people have been happy in this profession.” In her travels, “[she] has seen many reputed people in the profession...[she] has met many new people, learnt many things, experienced everything that rich people experience and feels at par with them...everyone is very affectionate to [her]” (937). The world of elite prostitution with its nexus of rich clients, pimps, patrons and prostitutes offers Leela upward mobility and impunity against the law and social stigma.

Sabapati refuses to believe that Leela chose to be a prostitute. He is incredulous when she expresses her „love for her clients. When Leela expresses her financial motives for becoming a prostitute Sabapati is shocked that she would sell her honor for money. (939) He suspects “poverty, deception, hunger, money” are just excuses for the lack of a justifiable reason to resort to prostitution. Leela tries to convince Sabapati that she has never been and can never truly be in love with her clients. She can “only simulate pleasure and desire because she can never have true feelings for a client who doesn’t love [her]” (940). She sometimes wishes she could pay men to have sex with her.

Leela realizes she has never been honest to anyone about her past. She feels she can trust Sabapaty. When Sabapaty recounts his fond memories of her as a child and praises her father’s altruism, she begins to feel that his love for her “is not the same that anyone else has felt for [her]”. She sees the innocent child that she was in his eyes as he constantly regrets her debased state. His concern makes her feel for the first time that there is something wrong in being a prostitute. She remembers her father and imagines him asking her the very question that Sabapaty asks her, “Do you call prostituting yourself a profession?” (932).

Sabapaty s almost filial concern for Leela s welfare makes her question her own duplicitous identity and marks for her the beginning of a process of reformation that is characterized by a sense of guilt, worthlessness and sexual abstinence. Leela realizes that the performative sense of self-alienation that once empowered her now divides her very being depriving her of a sense of self. Prostitution then can be understood to be both empowering and an extreme form of alienation; of commodification that fails to distinguish between a person and a thing; between the producer and her commodity or the prostitute and her body.

Sabapati sympathizes with Leela and offers her his friendship. He realizes that Leela is a disgraced and orphaned victim of economic need for whom prostitution is the only available means of survival. He promises to lend her money every month to help her give up prostitution and offers to make reservations in a hotel if she wants to have sex with someone. (944) Although Leela is put off by his sexual indifference she is so moved by his respect that she expresses her exclusive love for him.

Although Sabapaty is unable to have an exclusive sexual/romantic relationship with a fallen woman without losing his sense of self-ownership, his suppressed desire for her and his sense of responsibility prevents him from abandoning her. While he sympathizes with Leela s

victimhood, he perceives her sexual indulgence as constitutive of her identity. Thus even if Leela no longer sells herself or her body, the historical formation of female sexuality as the sum of female identity constructs prostitution as a figure for the disturbing permeability of public/private boundaries. Leela s sexual deviance is tolerable only as long as it does not visibly undermine the paternal Law or provoke disciplinary regulation. The subversive force of the woman s/prostitute’s erotic body can be safely evoked only in a disguised or displaced manner by controlling the signs of her sexual visibility and accessibility.

When Leela learns that Sabapaty has been shot by Ollikaruppan she decides to sever her friendship with the police officer, who was a client of hers, for betraying her and “her man”. When she curses and scolds the policeman Leela resorts to a rhetoric of conjugal ownership to define her relationship with Sabapaty. She later wonders if she is making an irrational decision to lead a celibate life “all by herself” by refusing to meet any of her male friends. But she feels only Sabapaty can give her the respectable status of a wife (954). She realizes Sabapaty through his kindness and generosity has been responsible for changing her opinion of men and the poor. (959) She hopes their friendship lasts forever.

When the court mercifully condones his crime because of his handicapped condition, Sabapaty returns to his overjoyed wife and children. When Unnamalai discovers he is still having an „affair with Leela, she has a violent fight with him that turns into a crisis that ends with Unnamalai leaving him with her three children. The eldest son refuses to leave his father. Sabapaty silently wonders if he has committed a mistake but he realizes that no one in the world can understand his intimacy with Leela that in some sense escapes social and ideological definition.

Leela and Sabapaty realize that they their secret meetings at the hotel suggest their own unconscious guilt and disapproval of their relationship. They decide to live together like a married couple that they feel would redeem Leela s disrepute. The novella ends with the image of an alternative family that is not structured by conjugal or even entirely filial relations. Thus the social assumptions that undergird the inviolable sanctity of marriage and family is re-formed as it were in the novella. Sabapaty is also reformed of his alcoholism as he retires from his job as they settle into a life of bucolic domesticity.

To conclude, while Nagarajan explores the subversive power of the representational nature of the prostitute s desire in challenging the straightjacket of marriage, Jeyakantan suggests the sexual and social reformation of the prostitute through love and social reintegration. What we see though in both their writings are new forms of intimacy between men and women that are premised on mutual concern and compassion that rework the patriarchal terms of conjugality.

(Kiran Keshavamurthy is a P.hd Research Scholar is the South and South East Asian Studies Programme at the University of California, Berhelay.) 

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