Book review by Shah Tazrian Ashrafi

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Title: Letters of Blood

Author: Rizia Rahman

Translator: Arunava Sinha

Publisher: Bengal Lights Books (2016)

 

Rizia Rahman was one of the most eminent authors of Bangla Literature. Among others, she received the Bangla Academy Literary Award, Ekushey Padak, and Arannya Literature Award for her outstanding contributions to literature.  An author of more than 50 novels, she passed away on 16 August 2019.

Presented by Library of Bangladesh and translated by Arunava Sinha, Letters of Blood Rokter Okkhor (1978) — is a novel by the late Rizia Rahman that explores the lives of the women who have been (directly and indirectly) forced into prostitution, and examines how the intricacies of their lives hold them captive in a physically and mentally hostile ecosystem. It is a window into a system that lives on the fringes of the society constantly bobbing on fickle grounds.

The novel is populated by characters from as young as twelve to as old as being on the brink of death — a feat that reflects the reality seen in the brothels.

Kusum is a fourteen-year-old, often starving and sick, whose “undernourished body hasn’t amassed enough capital”. Because she hasn’t received any customer for two days, she hasn’t been able to eat. For many women in the brothel, who are still under the control of their pimps, life is like that — the more the customers, the further the shadow of starvation. When she steals a little food, out of desperation, Kalu, her pimp, beats her black and blue as everyone else goes on about their business. No one bats an eye. The pimps are free to kill the women in their clutches  without anyone  sparing a glance.

By Ratnottama Sengupta

 

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Gauhar Jaan, a singer and dancer who cut six hundred records in more than ten languages between 1902 and 1930, a woman who popularised Indian classical.

 

Chhaya. Tagar. Basana. Maanada-Panna-Radha. Hasina. Angelina. Gauhar Jaan… What do the narratives of these ladies have in common? They are all engaged in sexual activity for money.

So, what are the sobriquets for them? Prostitute, street walker, wench, call girl, escort, harlot, hooker, hustler, vamp, whore, temptress, tart, puta, fillet de joie, bawd, moll, courtesan, lady of pleasure, woman on the game, lady of the night, scarlet woman, concubine, paramour, cocotte, strumpet, trollop, wanton woman, devadasi, tawaif, baiji, ganika, randi, veshya

This is less than half the 75 synonyms in Thesaurus for the ‘woman of ill repute’. And this is without going into the term sex worker, coined by a certain Carol Leigh, in the last century that has seen people become ‘porn star’, ‘sex educator,’ ‘sexual trainer,’ and even ‘actress turned prostitute’.

Where has the word ‘prostitute’ come from? From the Latin word prostitus, found since the 16th century? But the past participle of prostiture — whether interpreted as ‘to expose publicly’ or read as ‘thing that is standing’ — does not have the abusive association the most ancient profession has. For that matter, the very phrase ‘oldest profession’ — a euphemism for prostitution when delicacy forbade the use of the word — is said to have acquired its opprobrious nuance only in the last lap of 19th century, after Rudyard Kipling used it in ‘On the City Wall’ (January 1889), a short story about an Indian prostitute. Kipling begins by citing a biblical reference: