“I want to put forward laughter and detachment as ways of resisting and refusing patriarchy by which women can seek to create their own spaces from where to engage in political ways of living. I regard laughter as a response of refusal, neither active nor passive, but a refusal nevertheless.”
Karin Van Marle, Laughter, Refusal, Friendship: Thoughts on a “Jurisprudence of Generosity” (2007)
About a decade back, on a sweaty summer morning in North Calcutta, I had first encountered sex workers within the office premises of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). I was in my first year of law school and was visiting the collective’s Nilmoni Mitra Street office as a legal intern with Action Aid to conduct a human rights training workshop with sex workers.
As I entered DMSC’s office, I was greeted with loud sounds of uncontrollable laughter by a group of middle-aged saree-clad women. They were chatting about the plight of a police constable, whose wife had eloped with her lover, who had come to seek their help in finding the lovers suspecting that they were hiding somewhere in the vicinity of Sonagachi – Kolkata’s historic red light district. With them, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the situation.
This physical encounter with laughing sex workers was preceded by a visual one. As a member of a student activist group, I had watched Shohini Ghosh’s documentary film Tales of the Night Fairies at Larzish – India’s first queer film festival – in Pune. Shohini’s film had destabilised my world-view as the women in the film had posed a challenge to the image of the sex worker – hapless victims in need of rescue, removal and rehabilitation – constructed through my disciplinary world of statutes, judicial decisions, state policies, many academic writings and legalese.
As a law student, someone whose understanding of sex workers’ lives was primarily informed by the ‘prostitute’ subject of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956 (ITPA), the sex workers in the film subverted such disciplinary and statist authority and articulated a different subject position for themselves: that of workers and activists. They also narrated stories about gendered life experiences in the city where I was born and grew up; their stories were different, and yet resonated with my own experiences of growing up and accessing public places as a woman in Kolkata.
That first physical encounter with sex worker activists at DMSC has been particularly memorable. I had experienced a sense of freedom at having witnessed and also participated in those bouts of uninhibited laughter and jokes about sex and sexuality by women; a sight and sound of sheer joy and abandon in talking about a subject that is rare in public places in any city in India (and also other places in the world), let alone in the so called private (didn’t we learn from feminisms that the personal is also political?) confines of our sanctified middle-class homes.
Our session of fun and laughter on that first encounter was not restricted to the plight of the police constable. It moved to making fun of my thin-ness, my small ass in comparison to their big ones, and also about my neel haap-pant (blue shorts). On finding out that I had first graduated from Presidency College and then went to study law, I was jokingly asked: Matha khatiye eto porashona kore ki labh hochhe shuni? Ei to rugno roga pyatka chehara! (Of what use is working the mind and getting so much education, when it lives in a body devoid of any sign of health?)
Even as I learnt that my intellectual labour was being articulated as a mind-body activity, at the time, I wasn’t quite able to grasp the significance of the mind-body-labour correlation that is primary to sex workers’ activist world-view. For them, sex work is a form of labour that is as much about the mind, as it is about the body: among other things, it requires serious thought in terms of how to interact with different clients differently, assess clients’ needs in order to become a better service provider, and determine how to maximize bodily pleasures as well as ensure one’s emotional and bodily safety.
But what seemed significant that day was that through those loud bursts of laughter, as we humoured our bodies and desires, two things were being done to the ordering of social relationships, the ways in which they are authorised by power structures: first, the hierarchical ordering of power relations between me (a subject position carrying certain caste, class and educational privilege) and the sex workers was disturbed, if not altered; second, at that place and time, a reworking of the rules of public place as it applies to the conduct of men and women in our gendered societies, had taken place.
I had not joked about such things at a public place so openly and loudly before, neither had I seen women of that age group, in traditional attire, making those jokes. There was also no authority to reprimand us – a bunch of ordinary women, which included a transgender sex worker – for what might have otherwise been considered inappropriate public conduct. To share laughter thus was simply joyful, fun and entertaining. But it was also a shared language that helped build solidarity through a refusal to conform to a patriarchal diktat, even if in a very small way. True, it felt like no grand act of subversion, but it did feel like a refusal nevertheless.
I realised that laughter was not a personal good with use-value for individual gratification alone; it was indeed a political good with use-value for reorganising gendered relationships that are intimate as well as more public. It is political in the sense that it is able to disrupt gendered and sexualised systems of power that hierarchically regulated our lives and relationships in the world. In sex workers’ lives, I learnt, laughter was a deeply subversive and collective practice with use-value that is significant for reorganising both intimate and commercial relationships: it contributed towards making their work more exciting, ensured financial security, kept them and their clients happy and coming back to them, and helped them form friendships with other sex workers and in building alternative kinship and support systems.
Sex workers use humour as a tool for negotiating their everyday business and leisure. As workers in the informal sector who do not have labour rights guarantees, in order to ensure financial security, they have to publicly solicit business even at the risk of inviting abusive and extortionist practices by the police and local goons. But even then, the process is so much more than merely standing on the street and accosting men passing by. It involves naughty eye contact, seductive or coy smiles, risqué touches and, of course, a lot of making fun. Even through the process of providing sexual services, humour plays a central role in keeping the client happy, making the experience happy for the sex worker herself, and enables her to quote a higher price for her services.
During breaks through their day’s (rather night’s) work, sex workers spend time speaking to each other about a range of things, which include funny stories about the diverse shapes and sizes of their clients, or jokes about strange habits of clients that many of them have shared, or deciding to compete for their favourite client when he comes around the next time. In these discussions all the virility of patriarchal masculinity is often turned on its head. In their co-edited book, The Business of Sex (2013), Meena Seshu and Laxmi Murthy write of a trivialisation of the power of the phallus that is enacted through the cultural practices of sex workers from Maharashtra and Karnataka. Needless to say, such practices are often also embedded in humour and laughter.
In 2012, on a grant from AWID, I went and collected such stories of fun and humour that make sex workers’ lives and business thrive. I chatted with sex workers at DMSC, Kolkata, and Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), Sangli, and compiled a set of stories that would be presented as an illustrated book, to be enjoyed as a form of knowledge about sex workers’ lives and politics. The book will be called Sex, Fun and Money, and will carry about fifteen illustrated stories.
The stories were originally narrated to me in Hindi and Bangla, mostly in groups and amidst loud sessions of continued shared laughter. Unable to preserve the sounds of that hearty laughter in this word form, I have tried, however, to keep the translations as literal in meaning as possible and have also tried to retain the conversational flavor in which they were shared with me. In such a role of the translator, wanting to not be too much of a mediator and regulator of meaning, I have struggled but, I hope, haven’t failed entirely.
This book project, although supported by a grant that I received, is not one over which I claim ownership as an individual: its authorship is shared between me, the sex workers of DMSC and VAMP (the women wanted their names to be kept confidential) and graphic artist, Anirban Ghosh, my long-time friend and comrade who has turned the words to images. The collaborative process has made these our stories, as each of our personal journeys have come together to give the book its content, shape and form.
This is still a work-in-progress because all the stories haven’t been illustrated yet. This is the first public sharing of the context and intent which led to the formation of this project, along with two stories from the book: The Goat Man is a story from DMSC and The Underwear Story is from VAMP.
This is a work-in-progress also in the sense that it is an ongoing work of meaning making. We are still trying to collaboratively work out what meaning to ascribe to the practices of fun, laughter and merry-making in the lives of sex workers that would not be easily fixed, co-opted or disregarded by any of the existing frameworks that define sex workers’ lives. How are we to keep them as stories about life that perhaps inform, disturb and destabilise sex work scholarship rather than comfortably fit into any theory box about sex work and sex workers lives? Worse still, create yet another generalised explanation about sex workers and their practices? This is the feminist question that primarily inspires the politics of this project.
*I thank Oishik Sircar and Joan Nestle for conversations that have helped me think through this project, and Joan, particularly, for suggesting the title. I am also really thankful to AWID for funding the project.
Anirban Ghosh is a designer and filmmaker based in Bangalore. An alumni of the Department of Visual Communication at National Institute of Design, Anirban uses his short films, documentaries and graphic narratives to narrate stories on gender, sexuality, human rights as well as other mundane tales of growing up and the world around. Some of his recent projects are available here.