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Published on: 07/30/23 7:18 AM

Book review: The Last Courtesan by Manish Gaekwad

This woman`s life

It cannot be the easiest of things, to write your mother`s memoir. All the more when your mother happened to be India`s last tawaif or courtesan. Manish Gaekwad, though,  has turned a steady gaze on his mother`s colourful life and written up the account with unflinching honesty. Ultimately, what comes through is a portrait of a woman full of frailties and flaws but a feisty fighter to the last.

Gaekwad`s writing, to be honest, makes the reader work a bit to get at the subject matter. His use of English is a free-flowing one that is written with little regard to idiomatic syntax, but in the fullest confidence that the reader will wholly grasp the essence of the story…which the reader does. Quite naturally, the conversations that abound in the book are mostly in Hindi, with the English translation flowing on as part of the same sentence, which can become a bit tiresome after a while. However, the reader who persists is rewarded in the form of this most interesting personality who goes by the professional name of Rekha.

Gaekwad seems to be caught in a love-hate situation as regards his mother and being brought up in brothels,  but it is clear that this memoir is a form of cartharsis which leaves him with a resentment -free love for his progenitor. There is no doubt in the reader` s mind that Rekha loved Manish, her only child, a child she had mainly to prove to her world that she was not a baanjh, barren. If it was a capricious kind of love, which sometimes put the self before the child, well, that was Rekha and she wasn’t going to change.

She set herself up in Kolkata`s Bow Bazar but the 1993 bomb blasts pretty much ended the life of the kothas in the area. Mujras, kathak moves and thumris gave way to dance bars and discos, and Rekhabai knew it was time to bow out.

Belonging to the Kanjarbhat tribe of Gujjar nomads, Rekha was sold into the trade when she was a child. That was when courtesans still earned some respect and much appreciation for their singing and dancing skills, and were  not automatically categorised as prostitutes, as happened eventually.

Readers  get a glimpse into an ordinary evening of entertainment where a group of men, usually never more than five, would pay a fixed sum for a session, then shower the tawaif with more money if they liked her singing and dancing. The musicians accompanying the dancer would get their cut afterwards, and the performer would keep the rest.

We watch as Rekha reunites with her poverty-stricken family, and starts to support some of them. We watch as man after man, lover/patron/generous Samaritan, all let her down eventually. We watch as catfights frequently erupt in the brothels. We watch as Rekhabai becomes a name in her world, both in Calcutta as well as Bombay.

A fiesty fighter

Quite naturally, Rekha`s life was littered with men who went berserk at her sessions, men who stalked her, men who were nothing but goons, creating trouble. We observe how this brave woman deals with them all. We see her joy at receiving red glass bangles with her name engraved on them, from one bashful beau. We watch her admit her son under an assumed surname to a respectable boarding school far away from her kotha.

The one remarkable thing about this story is how it is free from any explicit display of sentiment. Even the most brutal things that happened to Rekha are related in a dispassionate manner, and tears or brooding seem to find no place in her life. There is one very moving passage where Rekha has to send her young cousin to a goon for the night, and we are shown the deep dismay both women feel…for a minute, then Rekha`s natural pragmatism takes over and she counsels the girl to just go with the flow.

The reader wonders if she cloaked herself in  a wrap of stoic pragmatism, finding things and people to exult in, just so she could  survive the many curveballs life threw her way.

This is an atmospheric story, and the one thing the reader takes away is how Rekha played the game of life adroitly, hard-headedly.

The Last Courtesan by Manish Gaekwad. HarperCollins Books. Rs 599.185 pages.

This ran in the Sunday Herald of 30 July 2023.

courtesanDeccan HeraldHarperCollins BooksManish GaekwadSunday HeraldtawaifThe Last Courtesan

Sheila Kumar • July 30, 2023

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