Monday, March 10, 2014

Translating Bodies of Sex Workers

(The cover page of Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho that I translated into Malayalam)

My efforts to translate the autobiography of a sex worker in Kerala, Nalini Jameela, though was a cathartic experience for me, however could not find a publisher. There were two reasons for this; one, by the time I finished translating it, noted Feminist scholar, J.Devika had already finished it and Penguin Books had brought it out on stands. Two, I had not approached any publisher with my translation as I did not know the rules of the publishing game then. To my surprise I got a commission from the famous D.C.Books to translate Anita Nair’s ‘Mistress’ from English to Malayalam. This was my first official commission for translating a literary work. I took it up earnestly and finished the work in six months time. It was in 2005 and I was a contract correspondent for the Delhi edition of Malayala Manorama, one of the leading newspapers in Malayalam. I had not yet entered the world of blog writing then. But still I was working on a small autobiography (the reasons for writing an autobiography at that time were even unknown to me then). I have always been tremendously disciplined as far as my writing is concerned. I used to get up early in the morning and wrote for around three hours. It could be anything, small poems to short stories to anything. Though I was writing quite regularly, no serious thoughts about publishing them had crossed my mind then. Once I got this translation work, I reorganized my working style. My son was hardly three months old and I wrote while sitting next to his crib, occasionally looking at him and feeling a lot good about the scene.

A4 size bond paper and Reynolds ballpoint pen were my favourite tools for translating. The local stationary store person became very friendly as I started visiting the shop quite regularly for buying paper and pen. I never bought a whole bunch of paper or a packet full of pens. Instead, I bought fifty sheets and one pen at a time. This gave me a sense of accomplishment as I could finish both the items in two or three days and visit the shop again. Initially I used to number the pages once I finish them and stack it up next to the cot which I was using as a writing pad. As the speed of translation increased, to keep with the pace of writing I stopped numbering the sheets thinking that I would do it later once I finished the translation. That was a foolish decision. I never used to keep the translated pages back in the cupboard. I wanted to keep all of them by my side just to feel the amount of work that I had done so far. Seeing the growing number of sheets filled me with a strange thrill and that high itself was enough for keeping the rhythm of translation intact. One day, while writing, my infant son woke up and cried for something. As I jumped up to attend him, accidently my elbow hit the stack of papers and they flew down on the floor. I collected them frantically and realized that the order of stacking them up was collapsed. It was extremely difficult to bring the sheets in order and it took another two days to read them page by page and see which page had the continuing part. But I learnt a great lesson from this incident. From the next translation onward from A4 sheets I switched to register note books which provided me with A4 size lined pages. The accidental jumbling up the pages was thus solved forever. And it is important say that my personal friendship with the local stationary shop person became very thick over a period of time. Today, even if I go to buy some other item, he first asks whether I need a register note book or not.

As I told you that in this chapter I would write about my encounters with sex workers, I should desist from going at length about the first book that I translated officially. But the second book was really important because it was the one that provided me with a lot of insights about the mental workings of a sex worker. The book that came for translation next was Paulo Coelho’s ‘Eleven Minutes’. Eleven Minutes is the story of Maria, a small town girl from Brazil. Maria belongs to a middle class god fearing family. She dreams of a life beyond the confines of her little town. She is not interested in studies. She wants to become big in her life. She falls in love and experiences sex. But she does not like sex that much though she has experienced throes of the physical passion in various ways. One way of experiencing it is covering herself with a thick blanket on a hot summer afternoon. One days she escapes to a bigger town, where she becomes a sex worker in a bar. From there destiny takes her to Switzerland, where she becomes a real professional. She encounters several special clients who give her different kinds of experiences both sexual and spiritual. One special client treats her like a slave and inflicts pain on her body which she slowly starts enjoying. Another client, a painter does not want to have sex with her but takes her to a river side and makes her walk on the sharp stones in ice cold water without shoes. There she experiences the same deliverance as she used to enjoy in slave sex. She imagines that she would collect enough money buy a farm for herself and her parents. She reads books on agriculture in the local library where the matron like librarian befriends her thinking that she is a serious agriculture student. One day she reveals her identity to her. The matron also opens up her mind.

Translating this book was a real experience for me. I had encountered a few sex workers before that. I remember meeting a woman who worked as a receptionist in a reputed firm but did sex work for extra income. I also had seen a nurse who did it for extra money. One of them whom I encountered next was a very young girl, hardly twenty years old but very bold and did everything in a business-like manner. Another was just like any other society type of woman but occasionally did sex work for making an additional income. My encounters with all these women were more or less planned by others. I do not know whether I really had physical contact with them or I was just talking to them to know more about them. Most of them were unwilling to talk. Their idea was to finish the job and go home. I never felt anything bad about them because they were doing a work. Each time I met them, I felt a silent thrill growing inside me. But the moment I touched their bodies I found them lifeless. They were just acting their role or doing a job. It could be washing clothes, registering a call, mopping the floor, cleaning the backyard or ironing clothes. There was no soul to connect with. Even if they had soul they did not want it to connect with anyone else. However I tried to connect with their inner core, they refused to let it go. It was so precious for them. And the most interesting thing is that you don’t see them again, even if you want to meet them. I had seen a couple of them again but they never showed any trace of recognition. Out there they were different people.

While translating the story of Maria, I thought of all those women. But Maria was special. She went to Switzerland to make money. She wanted to provide a good life to her family. But each time she earned enough to fly back to Brazil, something prevented her from doing so. A bit more, she thought. She could earn a bit more, or experience something different. And she was searching for something that she did not know at all. One of the clients showed her how torture could be a way to soul deliverance. Another one taught her how even a barefoot walk over pebbles could give her the same experience. She was confused. She was experiencing her spiritual deliverance through different processes. But she did not know which one was right for her. She intensely felt that she could opt for the latter over the former. But when she experienced the former, she thought the latter could wait. Finally she goes back, or so tells the author. And she sets up her own farm, marries and lives a happy life, leaving the memories of her sojourn as a sex worker in Switzerland behind. The book was a best seller even in the translated version. It ran into ten editions or more. Still it is in the best seller list in Kerala.

But what pains me and keeps me at the edge is the revelation of the matron like librarian. She had once gone to a city for some work. She was supposed to come back the same night. But she could not manage to catch the last train. At the station a man befriends her and she ends up having sex with him  that night. She has never done that before. She would never do it again. She is a staunch Christian and for her sexual deviance is a sin and crime. But she has done it. She is not a sex worker. But she has done it. I was shivering while I was translating that incident. And still that minor anecdote in the novel pains me, perhaps for no reason, for a past that is beyond my control.

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