November 16, 2009

Dirty Picture


IQBAL HASAN’S PAINTING of a young woman sitting on a chair with an older woman standing beside her makes for the cover of Anuradha Marwah’s third and latest novel Dirty Picture. As a reader and someone who has seen these paintings in a plush Lahore restaurant called The Cuckoo’s Den, incidentally located in the  heart of the city’s red light area, I immediately identified it as one of several painted by the artist to document the lives of prostitutes in this area. Most locals are shy of admitting to the existence of prostitution in the city. For them, the red light area in the forted city still has certain mujra performances by ‘artists’ and nothing else. The painting illustrates in brush strokes what Anuradha Marwah documents in words – exploitation of women and the lower classes through a deep-rooted mechanism of inequitable gender constructions often obfuscated by ill-disguised hypocrisy.

The novel has been read as a fictionalised documentation of the Ajmer Sex Scandal of 1992. However, Dirty Picture, tracing the personal narratives of two sisters Reena and Bharti, uses the incident as a site to critique exploitation at the levels of gender and class.

Reena and Bharti live very different lives yet their narratives absurdly merge into each other’s forthright questions about notions of love and consent. Reena, divorced from a man who was struggling with substance abuse, is engaged to the married CEO of the company that

employs her. She lives a seemingly comfortable life in the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai weaving dreams of a married life with her boss, Suhas, a middle-aged man inebriated by the power he wields.

In Ajmer, Bharti lives a life driven by idealism and a desire to make a difference to the parochial town and its regressive outlook. To gain clout in college politics, she befriends local politicos Anish and Sarosh, which in itself is a scandal as these are Muslim men. Sucked into a vortex of political intrigue, Bharti finds herself involved in a sex racket with no one to turn to and nowhere to go. She looks at her sister

for help in the hope of escaping an Alcatraz of impending shame but Reena is caught up in her relationship, which she realizes will never evolve into more than that of mistress.

A novel that gains momentum with each word hurtling towards its fatalistic conclusion, this reads more like a journalistic account than a work of fiction. The universe of Dirty Picture has no clean edges to it. The world of Reena and Bharti leave the readers with a keen sense of discomfort. The journalistic gaze gains strength in the section on the making of the blue film where the writer assumes a stationary camera angle and pens an otherwise traumatic imagery in monotone, thus de-fetishising the woman’s body. De-sensationalising the issue was the writer’s concern and the literary tools that she uses to describe the sexual scenes in the novel achieve the purpose quite effectively.

Marwah’s writing has often been called manly. This refers perhaps to the way she handles sex in her works. According to her, when people say she does not write like a woman, they mean her writing is not internal and domesticated. She says this is only a perception about fiction by women. She herself finds writing an exercise in androgyny. The demeanour of the book as well as the attitude to writing seems like a simultaneous exercise in involvement and objectivity for the writer.

Unlike her first two novels, The  Higher Education of Geetika Mehendiratta and Idol Love, which negotiate the space between the personal and the political without locating a concrete political centre, Marwah’s third novel is honest, brave and candid. She fleshes out each character — even the ‘villains’ — so non-judgmentally that they could be any of us. The nonchalant prose disallows prejudice as reader’s judgments too are suspended and deferred, nudged towards a desire for deeper analysis. During her extensive research for the novel, the writer came across a number of reactions and observations to the scandal. She documents some of these in the introduction to her novel: ‘Ajmer tapes’ are still freely available in the blue-film circuit. Muslim men consider it their obligation to ‘spoil’ Hindu girls. The real culprits have escaped; the arrested men are scapegoats. The real culprits are bureaucrats and politicians; the arrested men are scapegoats. Why did the girls keep going back to their tormentors? Could it be that they were enjoying the sex act? Certain Hindu sub-communities have issued whips against their boys marrying girls from Ajmer. Three of the girls involved in the sex scandal have committed suicide. It wasn’t suicide; the families murdered their girls to escape the stigma. What else could they have done?’

The victims of the scandal either committed suicide or are leading their lives in anonymity denying any association to the scandal that shocked the whole country. The victims have been coerced by the same socio-political paradigms to erase or at least pretend to erase all memory of the event. Dirty Picture challenges such an erasure, the coercive structures that first conceive and then erase such shameful memories, the facade of notions of women’s emancipation within such structures, and most importantly, the networks that centres of power operate to veil their existence.

As Manju Kapoor, the author of Difficult Daughters writes, “This is a story that needs to be told, but because of its complexity, it is not an easy story to tell. But Anuradha persisted, and we all owe her a debt of gratitude that she did. This particular incident at least will not be covered by the dust of ages.”

Dirty Picture, Author: Anuradha Marwah, Delhi: Indialog Publications November 2008, Price: Rs 195.

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