An extraordinary story of an ordinary life…

Salim rests his head securely against his mother's shoulder, and she lovingly runs her fingers through his hair. He smiles often, but can barely walk. Dribble slips constantly from the side of his mouth, and he stumbles with every step. He speaks with a halting lisp, and his arms are constantly askew against his bidding, rebellious from birth. Yet, in a slum in Chennai, Salim has grown to confident adulthood, under the care of Shahnaaz, an ageing sex worker. The bond that his mother shares with her boy with cerebral palsy is perhaps the only one in her entire lifetime that has never let her down.

Shahnaaz herself dropped out of school at the age of nine, and began work as a domestic help. She was paid Rs. 30 for washing clothes and dishes and sweeping the floors. Her younger brothers were fortunate to study longer than her, but the eldest also went to apprentice in a car mechanic's roadside garage from the age of five. As Shahnaaz grew older, she continued to work the whole day cleaning floors and vessels in rich people's homes. She often went by a Hindu name Shanti, because many in Chennai were unwilling even in those days to employ a Muslim girl.

Just a nuisance

Her mother hid money that she earned from their father, and shielded her and her brothers from his frequent drunken assaults. He rarely spared a word of love for any of them, or gave them anything: he would even chase away her brothers when they asked for money for school books. Her mother eventually barred permanently their father from entering their home, as he contributed little to the family except ugly bouts of periodic battery spurred by alcohol. Around that time, her mother started spending longer and longer periods away from home, and Shahnaaz understood only much later how she earned enough money to hold her family together. It was through sex work.

A young Muslim boy in their slum pressed her mother for her hand in marriage, and her mother reluctantly agreed. He moved in with them after their nikaah. Before long, he started to pester her to get her mother to agree to finance a business that he had long dreamed of starting, of selling packaged dates. But Shahnaaz refused him, knowing how hard it was for their mother already to provide for all of them. It still took Shahnaaz a long time to accept that their relationship was in tatters. They went finally to the Hajji, who formalised their divorce.

New connections

In her new vocation, her mother had drawn close to a comparatively wealthy married man in his mid-thirties, a businessman who even owned his own small car. He asked for Shahnaaz's hand in marriage as a second wife. After Shahnaaz's divorce, she agreed, since she felt her daughter now had nothing better to look forward to. He promised to wed Shahnaaz, and they began to live together in her mother's home. But he kept postponing the nikaah, ignoring Shahnaaz's mother's tearful entreaties. In time, a child Saadiq was born to Shahnaaz, followed by the disabled Salim. Shahnaaz's mother one day called the Hajji to her home to formalise the nikaah. The businessman's first wife learnt of the plans, and raised a great pandemonium at their home. However, it was too late by then. Her husband had already taken Shahnaaz as his second wife.

But Shahnaaz had no time for celebrating. She began to make endless rounds of hospitals with her disabled son Salim. Many doctors charged large sums of money, prescribed a series of expensive tests. Her husband tired quickly of her obsessive quest for a better life for their son, and stopped visiting their home. He gave her no money. Ultimately a kind doctor gently but firmly explained to her that there was no hope for her son to improve. This is the way he would remain.

She learnt then that her mother and husband were meeting again behind her back. She felt intensely betrayed, and confronted them. Her mother shifted out of their home to live with him, and left them to their fate.

Shahnaaz now had five boys to raise, her three brothers and two young sons. She is proud that they are all well settled in life, except Salim. Of her brothers, one has become a car mechanic, the second a fast food cook, the third a dish antenna mechanic. ‘It is I who settled all of them', she declares proudly. But they all drifted away.

She herself found work in a crowded export tailoring shop. The wages were like dirt, and the hours long. Her colleagues invited her into their ‘side vocation' — sex work. She resisted at first, ‘I have a husband and two sons'. But she needed money to give the five boys a better life, and most of all to provide for Salim. Her friends in the factory helped find her clients, in bus stands and hotels. There were quick furtive loveless encounters on stained sheets in shabby lodges that lined the bus stand. Before long, this became her life. She earned comparatively well. She insists that no one had forced her into the trade, and she found little reason to complain.

One day a broker agent who called herself Baby Ma persuaded her to go for a ‘film shooting' in Goa. ‘You need money for your disabled son. Why do you hesitate?' It seemed easy enough money for swaying her hips as a film ‘extra' in garish dance sequences, with no dangers more serious than warding off the advances of amorous light boys. Instead, in Goa she found herself confined and had to service troupes of rich boys who did what they wished with her. She rebelled initially, but stayed on for four months, earned thousands. She returned to Chennai with what she describes as ‘a good name' still in tact, because officially she went for film shootings.

Her elder son Saadiq studied in a municipal school, but she pleaded with the principal and eventually secured his admission in a DAV school, and paid the high costs of his fees every month, and uniform. The school taught Hindi and had a good reputation. She wanted the best for her sons. But he suddenly dropped out of school after Class IX, and left home, never to return. She learnt later that neighbours had gossiped to him about her work. He got married but did not inform or invite her. He refuses to acknowledge her even today.

Generous spirit

Her mother was diagnosed with mouth cancer. In the end, only Shahnaaz was at her bedside to tend her as she died a slow and painful death. Somewhere, somehow she found the spaces in her heart to forgive her mother.

She took a loan for a paid telephone booth for her son Salim. It ran at a loss because clients easily fooled Salim. Then Shahnaaz made time from her vocation to help him at the booth, and for some years things went well. But then the mobile phone was invented, and pay-phone booths became obsolete and were disbanded by the new technology. She despairs of ways to help Salim stand on his own two unsteady feet.

‘I went into sex work for my sons and brothers', Shahnaaz says today, running her fingers through her son's hair. There is no regret. ‘Why should there be?' she asks.

‘I love Salim a lot', she says tenderly. He smiles back reassuringly, and rests his head on her shoulder.

Keywords: Harsh Mander

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