A novel of violence, sex, and power

The problem with novels in which sex workers get murdered is that the characters often suffer the same kind of exploitation that the writer either naively intends to expose or is unashamed to mimic. Violence and sex, vulnerability and power – an alluring cocktail in worlds fictional and real. Even in novels purporting to be feminist critiques of violence against women and other genders, the grisly heart tends to be the scene where the victim, most likely a young girl or woman, is found violated, disfigured and dead.

Small Deaths by Wellington writer Rijua Das is not that kind of novel. That she makes it otherwise – inviting the reader into Calcutta’s red-light district via a plot-driven, page-turning narrative which centres the lives of the vulnerable and investigates the ways in which they have or could have agency – is a singular and rare achievement. Not that she shies from grim reportage. “Her naked torso lay in front of him, taut and cold, erotic and revolting,” observes the officer in charge at Burtolla police station on seeing the murdered prostitute, Maya’s body, at the morgue. “He felt at once aroused and nauseated.”

Lalee, Maya’s neighbour at the Blue Lotus brothel in Shonagachi, is the central protagonist of this story. Tilu, a “balding and knock-kneed…obscure writer of erotic fiction”, and Lalee’s most loyal client, provides the frame for her story. When Tilu learns that his muse has taken the place of the murdered Maya as a high-end escort, and that he can no longer afford to visit Lalee, he is distraught. Wandering away from the Blue Lotus, he recalls his younger self and the “immense, beckoning seduction of a life unlived” ­– a line that captures his current disappointment, but also his determined and innate optimism, which underpins the mood of the book.

Tilu is a sentimentalist, surviving on next-to-nothing, in his makeshift kitchen under a tarpaulin on a balcony, dreaming of the day his “great book will be launched into the world” and Lalee will stand by his side at award ceremonies. He doesn’t seem the kind inclined to action. But when he understands that Lalee is in danger, he launches himself as the romantic hero into an increasingly dramatic plot that might have come straight from one of his own novels.

The officer who views the body of the murdered prostitute at the morgue is “at once aroused and nauseated”

The narrative switches between Tilu and Lalee. She’s a counterweight to Tilu: pragmatic, closed, and determined. Although vulnerable and downtrodden, she holds onto her dreams. Which is why she decides to take up Shefali Madam’s offer to become a high-end escort, even though Maya, the last woman to do so, was murdered. On her first night on the job, Lalee – having barely left Shonagachi since she arrived there as a young teenager – is led by her pimp Rambo up some dim stairs above the restaurant they have been dining in.

Das writes, “For a moment, she considered turning and running for it. She would get out of the door, maybe even farther, get on any bus, and then . . . and then, where? There were times, especially in those early days, when she had dreamed of a place that came after ‘then,’ someday—Lalee clenched her hands imperceptibly—there will be a place beyond here, that absent horizon that had to exist somewhere, but it wasn’t here now.”

Accompanying Rambo in this scene, on the stairs behind Lalee, is his sort-of girlfriend, Sonia, a blonde, possibly Russian escort who can make “seventy thousand a night”. Initially, Sonia and Rambo seem to be in command of their situations but it becomes increasingly clear that they – along with almost everybody else in their network, including Lalee – are caught up in the scheme of someone singularly powerful, who ultimately drives the story’s violent culmination.

Over 49 mostly short chapters there is a fair amount of shifting around, with other points of view coming into play, including those of Rambo, Sonia, Samsher, and Deepa, a social worker at the Sex Collective. At times the changing  narrative voice makes it hard to stay grounded in the world of the novel, and to hold fast to the necessary details and characters. I would have preferred to stay closer to Lalee and Tilu, rather than catching glimpses of others from the corner of my eye. But the Calcutta of this novel is endlessly busy and chaotic, a densely populated space where everyone’s lives interconnect, and so the narrative is perhaps necessarily distracted, looking out constantly to the various margins and the periphery of the world in which the story takes place.

And it is this world, and Das’s rendering of it—clear, unsentimental, affectionate—that makes the novel a success. Much of the physical observation comes from Tilu. He romanticises past and present-day Calcutta, with its bangla liquor shacks, street food sellers, and kerosene lamp lighters, seeing “a softly melting rainbow” in the oily sheen of a frypan, and imagining that “one day he’d put all of this in words and it would all be redeemed, made magnificent and immortal in a way his soul knew it already was”. In contrast, Lalee turns inward to articulate why her place in it all matters.

Here she is, preparing to leave the room in which she has made her adult life: “It was expensive and infested with cockroaches . . . It required monthly libations, and she spent her days earning to keep a place she wanted to escape. And yet it was hers. It was the only thing in the world that was truly hers. It allowed her the immense audacity, the sheer possibility, of being able to close the door on the world. Maybe it was . . . how so many of the women felt about their lives here. It was not a good life, not always, but sometimes it was, and despite everything else, it was theirs.”

The critical component of Das’s PhD focused on the connections between public space and sexual violence. The space we are reading about here is the private one, and when it is invaded, as Maya’s is and Lalee’s threatens to be, the results are disastrous.

But it’s not only violent murderers who claw at the gate. Maya’s death has attracted a lot of media attention, and with it a drive from those who want to ‘rescue’ the residents of Shonagachi, and have them retrained in “useful work” such as sewing. There is more than one mention of the miserable reality of these training centres.

The sex workers in her novel don’t want pitying and rescuing; they want rights

Das is not blind to this minutiae. It sets Small Deaths apart from the kinds of narratives about disempowerment that only double-down on the disempowerment by depriving the oppressed of even fictional agency. The sex workers in her novel don’t want pitying and rescuing; they want rights.

At the height of the novel’s action, when Lalee is facing the possibility that she will never be able to return to Shonagachi, she reflects: “Like many others, she could have gladly left it behind if she had another choice. At times, especially when she was young, it had seemed worse than death. But she had kept on, and in doing so, she had found a life, clawed one out, fought for it with everything she had. She had made friends, found sisters, fallen in love, and broken her heart; she had been hungry and sad and happy and full. It wasn’t a great life, but it was a human life. It was her life, not one granted but carved.”

I first became aware of Das during a Verb session she participated in with Omani writer, Jokha Alharti, in 2020, just before the pandemic. Living in Saudi Arabia for several years, I had become acutely sensitive to the problematic representation of non-Western women via fictional and non-fictional narratives that catered to Western notions of superiority. There were so many other narratives (like Jokah’s) to be shared. But it was immediately clear from her sharply intelligent responses to the interviewer that Das could cut through the sensationalism. In her fictionalised account of the lives of sex workers in Small Deaths, she imagines their complex individual realities.

Small Deaths: A Novel by Rijula Das (Amazon Crossing) is available in selected bookstores, or online as a $14.95 paperback and $1.28 Kindle edition.

Anna Knox is a writer and editor, currently working at Te Herenga Waka University Press. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.

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