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Baijis And Their ‘Ada’: Harlots And Humanity In Nabendu’s Short Stories

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It could have been a screenplay, I wondered, reading the first story of the collection Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women by Nabendu Ghosh (Speaking Tiger Books, 2020).

Ghosh was a screenplay writer, having to his credit movies including Devdas, Sujata, Majhli Didi, Abhimaan and Teesri Kasam. Writing was one among his many talents. Mistress of Melodies is a collection of six short stories about the lives of tawaifs and baijis in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Edited by Ratnottama Sengupta, Ghosh’s daughter, the stories have been translated from Bengali into English by Sengupta, Mitali Chakravarty (Anchor) and Padmaja Punde (It Happened One Night), except for the titular story, which was the first draft of a screenplay originally written in English by the author.

Not In Search Of The Other

Rekindling the imagination of the time and era gone by, Ghosh narrates stories of love and lovers, deceit and betrayal, and parting and longing. Turning every page of this book transported me to mid-18th century to early 19th century Calcutta, and I couldn’t agree more with Muzaffar Ali, who argues that “society was culturally more evolved, the courtesan was the most alive source of enrichment.” Introducing his collaborator’s work, Ali mentions that Ghosh “takes you deep into an emotion that has been the pride of the cinema of Bengal, the cinema of realism and the romance of culture.”

It is undoubtedly part of Ghosh’s oeuvre, but where he departs from many of his contemporaries is when he portrays his courtesans, sex workers and tawaifs as a whole. He steers away from this done-to-death pity-seeking portrayal of these-are-humans-too prostitutes in literature. He imagines or recreates the courtesans as they are, with no divide between their profession, craft and  everyday life — legitimising their living in ways a few writers tend to do.

Mistress of Melodies | Book Review | Saurabh Sharma

Realistic Portrayal

The first, Market Price, is a story of deceit. Chhaya is a widow who elopes with her new husband in search of a new life, but he turns out to be a conman. The story moves deftly in frames, the details of their living and the intimacy between the two are sketched as if for a movie.

In Dregs, we witness an unusual story of a tram conductor who observes a call girl — Basana — daily and hates her ‘clan’. Out of sheer anger against her profession, he wants to tell everyone who she is. In many failed attempts to out her, the arc of his bittersweet life as a tram conductor in a colonial setup, traversing through the World War II, the Bengal famine and Independence is in stark contrast to, what he thinks, an easy assent of a call girl. She became a wife because of her looks and this newfound respectability in society merits the conductor to respect that, too. But he refuses to give that and, once almost risks losing his job, secures it only by apologising.

Later, we find Basana dying as most disadvantaged die. Helpless. Hungry. Homeless. The tram conductor learns it when Basana’s boy enters the tram. He is disgusted once again when he sees ‘Basana’s tribe’ growing in numbers — concerned and fuming with anger he yells at a girl for the ticket.

Sarangi, Sensation And Seduction

Song of a Sarangi is the longest among all stories in this book, but the length is justified given that it covers generations of a culture that provided entertainment to people in times when there was no Netflix to chill.

The sense of sight and sound in the enigmatic world of the baijis some time after the Sepoy Mutiny is an appropriate portrayal of the time. Focusing on the ‘nath utarna’ ceremony — synonymous to marrying in the tawaif-world — and the interplay of desires, Ghosh sketches the scene among the wealthy in Calcutta back in the day. We also witness the desire to meet with her first man of a baiji, who later is confronted with a shocking revelation, in which she loses her all only to meet with the man who truly loved her all along the way, without the baiji realising it.

In It Happened One Night, a sex worker is confronted with the everyday rejection that one faces in the profession, where the outer appearance and youth determine your earnings. Another, Tagar, finds herself here after losing a family. And in the titular story Mistress of Melodies, Ghosh explores the love affair of a wealthy man, Nimai Sen, with a baiji Gauhar Jaan.

Khushnaseeb zamaney mein kaun hai Gauhar ke siwa?
Sab kuchh Allah ne de rakha hai shauhar ke siwa…

— Gauhar Jaan in Mistress of Melodies

Nimai is arrested by Gauhar’s stunning looks, a premonition to a Devdas-like story, which, in fact, does end at a tragic note. I hope these stories linger in your hearts as much as they did in mine.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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