The following narration follows Ali Khan – a highly unlikable man, as he visits a prostitute, capturing their encounter and giving insight into a sick mindset that exists in our society.
Walking through this familiar galli, I take in the scent of gajras and agarbattis mixed together. I’ve always associated flowers and incense with graveyards and death. I suppose that’s fitting since the part of me that is known to the rest of the world came to die in this little street.
I’m a new man here – new name, new identity, new backstory. I don’t have to be Ali Khan. No, I can be whoever I want.
Some days, I use a friend’s name. Ahmad Siddiqui. Hadi Nadeem. It never really matters. My role in these streets means nothing to the outside world. My train of thought is broken as I near the downtrodden haveli. My senses are more alert. It’s like I can smell what’s on the other side.
Longing. Lust. Lies. And I’m a part of it.
I knock on the wooden gate, expecting to be greeted by Begum Noorani. Before she even gets to the door, I hear the chan chan of her payal. She greets me with a large, fake smile that shows her yellowing, paan-stained teeth. I smile back, anxiously wanting to get in.
“Aur saab?” she inquires. “Sab kaisa chal raha hai? Biwi, bachey, sab khairiat?”
It’s a standard question. Yet, each time she brings up biwi bachey, I can’t help but feel sick to my stomach. I know she sees through the identities. However, I also know that my well-being only matters as long as I pay well.
“Jee Begum, sab theek thaak. Yasmin hai?”
Begum laughs. Of course, Yasmin is in. Why else would I be here? I only came when Yasmin was around.
We’ve been doing this dance since Yahya’s birth. After my son was born, my wife and I drifted apart. Some of my fancier friends, who believed in all this medical mumbo jumbo they’d been reading online, suggested she had post-partum depression. I didn’t believe that. Sumera – my wife – was simply learning how to be a better mother. In doing so, she’d forgotten how to be a wife. At that point in my life, I needed someone. A friend suggested I visit Begum’s Haveli.
There, I found my Yasmin.
My heart races as Begum’s extended laugh turns into a questioning look. I assure her that I have the money.
She leads me upstairs. I pass by half-clad women, feeling a sense of revulsion swell up inside. What would drive someone here, to do this filthy work? I realize my hypocrisy. After all, I’m here. But it’s different. I’m not selling my body. I’m merely a customer. In my mind, I can get away with this because I only come here once a week to meet my Yasmin.
The smell of Yasmin’s ittar grows stronger as I draw closer to her room. Begum knocks, the door opens and I walk in, greeted by the smell of smoke. I convince myself that Yasmin has been steaming her hair to meet me.
My eyes scan the room till they fixate on her. There she is. My Yasmin.
Meeting her after a week is hard. Which is why I begin my routine of imprinting a picture of her in my mind. She’s dressed simply. Her bare feet are covered by her purple, oversized shalwar. Her matching purple kurti, however, embraces every inch of her torso, save her shoulders. The dori at the back is untied, which is why the fabric hangs loosely from the top. I assume it’s because she had been in a hurry while getting ready. I block any other option from entering my mind.
“Noor ko paise de diye saab?”
Yasmin has never felt obliged to call Begum Noorani by her designated title.
Perhaps it’s because she despises her, from what I’ve gathered. It could also be because Begum won’t let Yasmin visit her children who’re stuck with her drug-addled, abusive ex-husband.
I respond with a smile and lock the door behind me. Yasmin responds with a half-smile. Perhaps she’s nervous. However, I can swear I see something along the lines of sorrow and distaste. But what do I know? It could just be the smoke.
Half an hour later, with another half hour to go, I hold Yasmin close and tell her about my week. I know she’s listening, despite her furrowed brows and a distant look on her face. Perhaps she’s taking it all in.
“Saab, aap mujhse merey baarey main kyun nahi poochtey?” Yasmin cuts me off.
I realize that I truly never ask her much. Whatever I know about her is what she’s told me herself. But how can I believe a word she’s saying? How do I know she won’t lie? After all, she’s just a prostitute.
Don’t they hustle for money by gaining sympathy? As these thoughts cloud my mind, I start to feel the anger rising.
I shove her off. I don’t pay for her to tell me what I do or do not do. I’m definitely not paying to hear her rant and give me a false story. However, despite my shoving her off, Yasmin seems undisturbed. Perhaps that’s because this has become somewhat of a routine. She starts talking about herself, I get mad and leave. But I have half an hour left. I’m onto her tricks.
I roughly seize her and get my half hour’s worth. As I try to get our eyes to meet, I notice the tears escaping her eyes. Boy, she’s good. But I don’t pay for the drama. I pay for that remaining half hour.
I pay to make her my Yasmin.
And when the half hour is up, indicated by the knock on her door, she becomes someone else’s problem. Someone else’s Gulaab or Chameli or whatever name she’s using with that client. Can’t fool me, though. After all, once I leave the Haveli, I’m Ali Khan. And Yasmin? She’s just another prostitute, selling her body.
Also check out Part 2 of this series:
Cover image via: Kate Orne / thephotobrigade.com