Sometimes, life imitates a pulp fiction novel. Start with a beautiful, sophisticated prostitute. Add the nice-guy pimp who just wants the best for his “girls”. Sprinkle fabulously wealthy clients and opulent settings for sexual high-jinks. Mix, blend and serve. The result is a media story on high-priced foreign hookers. There’s an air-brushed quality to the reporting—as though the more unpleasant aspects have been consciously left unexplored in order to sell high-class hooking as a genteel trade.
The latest in this genre is Caravan’s cover story, which offers a close-up look at the life of Polina, a 25 year old prostitute from Ukraine. This story has a Jackie Collinesque flavour. Cue the nice small-town girl came to Delhi looking for a life of glamour, only to be led astray by the high life: too many parties, drugs, and a heartless boyfriend who abandons her. All she wants is to make enough money for rehab and a plane ticket home. So what’s a girl to do?
Enter the pimp, Azam Khan “who manages the stable of 20 female and five male prostitutes”. Khan too is a good boy from Lucknow who just wants to repay the Rs1 lakh his father spent on his computer training class that turned out to be scam. What’s a boy to do? He first becomes a tour guide, moves on to “satisfying male tourists”, and then inevitably, a pimp.
For a story on prostitution, it’s exceptionally genteel. The clients remain safely out of sight, and so do the sordid details of what such work entails. In many ways, picking Polina as the main protagonist is also the safe choice, and feeds into the “happy hooker” stereotype. At the very least, a closer look at the male prostitutes, or digging deeper into Khan’s own experiences would offer a more intriguing and complicated view of the same profession.
Writer Mehboob Jeelani also works very hard to make us feel empathy for Polina who, we’re informed, had a “very, very tough” childhood. And, hey, she’s no bimbo: she has a psychology degree and worked with drug-addicted teenagers back in Ukraine. Prostitutes, they’re just like us!
Then again, Polina takes to hooking like fish to water. “Is this it?”, is her reaction after her first gig. But we have to wonder just how glamourous Polina’s life can possibly be when it involves spending the night of her birthday servicing three different men:
First, two hours at the Taj Palace Hotel with a visiting Sri Lankan businessman—who had dispatched the young man in the overcoat to check her out; and then two hours with a builder from Mumbai at The Lalit hotel; and the rest of the night in another room at The Lalit, with a man about whom all she could recall was that he wore diamond rings and had a gold tooth.
Now, that doesn’t sound like fun to most of us. We end up not knowing if we’re expected to applaud her choices or pity her for them. More so now that Polina is no longer looking to go back home because it’s “very boring”. And her main goal in life is to be “extremely rich”, which she defines as so: “When I want to go shopping—I can just do it. That’s what rich means.”
How different is she from some shallow twit who wants to marry a rich guy and spend the rest of her life as a socialite? Is this meant to be a cautionary tale about materialism or a ringing endorsement of the same?
For all its flaws, the Caravan story at least raises the question, however implicitly. And that’s a huge improvement compared to other stories on high-end hooking in India actively glamourising it as an elite calling.
A New York Times article, for example, tries to sell the profession as “the perfect job. The money is great, she rubs shoulders with the very wealthy and her working hours are convenient.” Their prostitute of choice, the actress/model Zeba, wants you to know that she is not a chee-chee, ganda rundi from some red-light district: “It’s a major, major, class difference, and with us it’s not just ‘slam, bang, thank you, ma’am’. You can actually sit and have a proper conversation with us.”
Hell, the fact that she is an upmarket hooker is downright feminist according to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, who tells the Times, “Only 2 to 3 percent of India’s prostitutes enter the profession willingly. These are the high-class girls, and it is them exercising their democratic rights.”
And it’s not just the women. This Times of India story recasts the “new age pimps” as “well-educated and disarmingly soft-spoken. And they detest the very thought of forcing anyone into the trade, or keeping her there against her wishes”. Caravan’s Khan belongs to the same genre; he too wants “to keep the unemployed models and air hostesses who work for him safe and secure, as if he were a surrogate parent rather than a pimp”. These are not evil, mustachioed low-rent bhadwas, but nice guys just trying to get ahead.
Some professions are physically hazardous, while others pose perils to our emotional well-being, and certainly anything that requires trading your body (male or female) for money can never be entirely risk-free. And yet, the message, over and again, is that just because the participants in this trade are middle- or upper-class, well-educated and cater to wealthy people, their dhanda is like a stroll down easy lane. Trade your wares on the street, you’re a sad, pathetic whore. Do it in a five-star hotel, you’re a glamour girl.
This rosy image isn’t about defending prostitution—which would be entirely valid—but the expression of a twisted kind of elitism: It’s okay to sell your body to three men in the same night because you want a Birkin, but not if you’re just trying to feed your kids. Really? I think not.
This story by Lakshmi Chaudhry was originally published on Firstpost.com.