Book review: Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker

Book review: Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker

Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker is not, as the title might suggest, a work of erotica. Instead, it is quite literally the story of Nalini Jameela herself, a sex worker, her clients, and the environment she worked in. Originally written in Malayalam, this short book is a compilation of Nalini Jameela’s experiences, her contacts with clients, and her observations about them and the way society looks at her and her peers. This is a memoir, and an unusual one.

The first chapter makes clear right at the outset the challenges faced by Nalini Jameela and others like her who chose this line of work, the sexism of the men they take on as clients, and the rights of such workers as far as the government is concerned. There is also mention of how Malayali men view sex workers. The first chapter reads as an introduction of sorts, followed by the notes of the translator as a second introduction. Then the book dives into the author’s many experiences compiled in a conversational style. Every chapter focusses on a different anecdote. Not all chapters are of equal length — some are more detailed than the rest.

The Mud Quarry Romance offers a very brief glimpse into the author’s past with details of a certain man she met while working at a quarry. The Goldsmith’s Touch has at its core glimpses of a Nair tharavad and a goldsmith.

In The Chittilanjeri Story, the author, in 1979, is forced to leave her current place of residence. She meets Leila from Chittilanjeri in Palakkad who takes her in. Leila has her own insecurities however, especially when it comes to prospective clients.

Masala Dosa, Body Lice and a Tiny Blue Mirror introduces the reader to the very peculiar Babu and the author’s relationship with him.

Cricket Abu and the Friendship Group and Men, Wine and Mangalapuram have more characters and encounters — of cricket and rowdies and arrack.

Lovers at Vijaya Lodge speaks of awkward situations and a brush with the police. And more alcohol. The last piece, The Medical Representative, is about a client the author remembers fondly.

A Writer Who is Also a Sex Worker, one of the introductory pieces, does say that the book does not adhere to a chronological order. Nevertheless, it would have helped if more dates were included in the narrative because it is a little unclear when these events take place. Including some indication of the year may have proved useful to place the societal norms of the time. That the author moves from place to place is evident.

Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker is told, as already mentioned, in a conversational, bantering style. Unfortunately, this very style presents a confusing series of events. For one, the clients introduced are many and it is hard, with the way the narrative is presented, to keep track of names.

And then there are bits of information that appear at random that were not mentioned before. For example, Masala Dosa, Body Lice and a Tiny Blue Mirror talks about the author’s children. That there were children was not made clear in the earlier chapters.

As far as the vagaries of society are concerned, the book makes mention of them but offers very little to go on. Anecdote follows anecdote, and the author’s attractiveness is often mentioned in some form or the other.

The book’s main focus appears to be on the quirks of the clients. They try to bargain, bring more clients, cause tensions at home, and bring gifts. Not all of them are discreet, or respectful, or even well- behaved.

As for the translation, the chapters in the beginning are competently done. However, as the story moves on, the language grows more and more confusing. A lot of the time, it’s difficult to separate the past from the present, and the tangle of characters does not make reading any easier. There are moments when the book even feels like a sequel to another work.

Reading this book in the original Malayalam might prove a different experience altogether.

Tighter editing might have helped, especially since the book is presented in a language alien to its original. Sometimes it is possible to guess the Malayalam original under the English phrasing… but in English, the very same sentence does seem strange.

As it is, there are awkward moments in the book. For example, on page 76…“In all these scraps, he always stood behind me but never came out on the stage.”

Overall, Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker is thematically interesting, especially when social commentary is woven into the fabric of the main narrative.