It is amazing how she avoids the pitfalls and picks her way through the muck
Picking up to read this book seemed like meandering into the film sets of Kamal Amrohi, maybe a Shyam Bengal, a Muzaffar Ali or even the present-day Sanjay Leela Bhansali on tawaifs and kothewalis. It is a world we are all far removed from, know very little of and have at best imagined either in the romantic hues of an Umrao Jaan or in a slightly more graphic format of a Mandi. But this book is not just about any courtesan’s life. This is the story of a mother being narrated by the son, and the son decides to cut out the frills and opt for a real representation: sordid, grimy, depressing, and yet sparklingly triumphant.
Manish Gaekwad is an author and a journalist who has perhaps delved deep into many articles to bring out its truth in the course of his career. But to narrate one’s own mother’s story, especially if it’s wrapped in ignominy and disrepute, is a tough one. But Gaekwad’s tribute to his mother as a “beautiful, brave and extraordinary woman” rings as true as what it sets out to do: a son’s love and admiration for a mother who has remained undaunted in the face of many obstacles, has resolutely fought the world and raised a son.
The courtesan Rekha’s beginnings are humble and squalid and predictable: a drunken father, many siblings, a struggling mother and, of course, abject poverty. She is married off as a child to a much older man, and predictably enough, mental and physical abuse follow, before she is sold off to the tawaifs by her own mother in law. Interestingly, this meant freedom for the young girl, and she never looked back. What stands out in the story is, of course, Rekha.
She is destiny’s child, and she has to live the life that is meted out to her. She is no beauty and she is no talent, two things imperative in a world she finds herself in. But she has brains and she knows how to twist her fate around without losing her dignity. Rekha traverses a world from the north Calcutta gullys to the Bombay kothis, and her path is strewn with goons and the mafia and the underworld henchmen, not to forget aggressive kothewalis and their sidekicks.
It is amazing how she avoids the pitfalls and picks her way through the muck. She makes a name for herself as a skilful dancer and manages to earn enough to look after her mother and siblings and put her son, when she decides to have him, through an English-medium boarding school.
The language in the book sticks to the mood. When Rekha speaks, the English has to be pedestrian, and it is. The touch of Hindi and the shayari in between manage to create the erstwhile world. The book also is a chronicler of the times, the blackouts (the Bangladesh war), the skirmishes on the borders, references to the Bowbazar blast suspect Rashid, the Bombay film stars and their little secrets (during Rekha’s stint as an extra in Hindi films) — everything plays out in the book as it happened. In fact, the Bowbazar blast in Calcutta was a turning point in the lives of mujrewalis who had to bow out when dance bars started becoming the vogue. Rekha was one of the few who hung on to the tradition till the last. She was the last courtesan to leave the infamous Bandook Gully.
The Last Courtesan: Writing My Mother’s Memoir
By Manish Gaekwad
pp. 185; Rs 599