Book review: Cages by Aabid Surti
The story is a straight one. A heroine who is unafraid to express her sexual desires; the patriarchal straitjacket of male control; the strength of sisterhood. These then are the central themes in Aabid Surti’s book which was published almost fifty years ago, and has been re-released now…which makes Surti a ‘woke’ author long before that concept came into fashion!
Cages, love and vengeance in a red- light district was originally written in Gujarati as Vasaksajja and then translated into multiple languages. An abridged censored version was published by Imprint magazine in the Eighties. According to Surti, a man who wears many hats — painter , author, cartoonist, journalist, environmentalist, playwright and screenwriter — the book is now an uncensored, expanded and updated version of the original.
This is the biography of Kumud, a sex worker from Kamathipura, tracing the journey of a girl from the drought-stricken village of Tulu who goes on to become a movie star. Biographies of famous personalities come with their own niche audience but the biography of an unknown person does not have this advantage. However, the unusual protagonist and the colourful setting of Bombay in the Seventies makes this book an entertaining read.
The most revelatory yet refreshing part of Kumud is how unapologetic she is about being a sex worker. It is worth quoting what she says in the preface: ‘I am a prostitute by birth, by vocation, by religion. No man tricked me into this calling. No bastard deceived me. No pimp forced me into a cage. Unlike other innocent girls who are unwittingly trapped into the flesh trade, I have never shed a tear. I chose this ancient profession because it gives me complete satisfaction.’
Kumud portrays all that she goes through in a matter- of- fact, unsentimental manner, even the ugly bits of selling her body in seedy by-lanes, being beaten up by pimps and getting raped. Yet she comes across as a woman determined to overcome every setback and surge ahead. Since she firmly believes what she does is her career, she patiently plots her way up through the ranks as any woman in a more conventional workplace would. Only in Kumud`s case, it means going from a cage to a bungalow-brothel, and finally to a plush apartment on Peddar Road. Combining all the elements of a commercial potboiler, there is love, betrayal, a gang war, revenge and finally success: Kumud is transformed into Pinky the movie star.
Surti has chosen to tell the story in Kumud`s voice and thus, has the reader involved in the narrative from the get-go. The story has been translated afresh by Aalif Surti, Aabid’s son. The inherent drama propels the narrative and the simple language of the translation aids in this. There are no literary flourishes that would stand out as inauthentic.
Kumud’s characterisation makes the most impact due to her strong personality but the other characters are also drawn with a careful eye. You get a sense of who these people are, however briefly they appear. Surti himself makes a guest appearance in the book and plays a small but important part. The real-life setting of Kamathipura gets the benefit of a non-judgmental, descriptive gaze, quite like the impersonal way Kumud views the place. Whether it’s the underworld characters relevant to this story or even something like the clothes Kumud wears, it is all drawn in sharp and precise detail.
However, Kumud’s relationship with the love of her life Sattar is not too convincing. Much is written about her yearning for him but it is difficult to fathom what exactly she sees in him. The revenge aspect of the story is driven by this love story and though that plays out well, the tragic love that spurs it tends to underwhelm. One also wonders whether a less expository and clunky title would have served the book better.
This is a good read but those who come to it with a preconceived moralistic mindset won`t glean much from the book, and it would be their loss. This story, as Kumud herself declares, has no uplifting message to impart nor is it a cautionary tale. It is just one woman’s tracing the trajectory of her life without a shred of nostalgia or pity. Kumud is blunt, almost brusque and there is no dissembling on her part to come across as more likeable. Then again, a woman who strives to live a life with all its constraints, on her own terms, can’t help but elicit admiration.
Cages: Love and vengeance in a red- light district /By Aabid Surti/Penguin/198 pages/Rs.399
This appeared in the Sunday Herald of 7 March 2021.