Excerpts from " Out of Gods Oven "

by Dom Moraes

" I phoned a friend, Rajendar Menen, a journalist who is also a student of Mumbai. He is a muscular, dark, handsome young man. He is also unusually resourceful and has many contacts.    

" Rajen liked to walk around Mumbai at night, and talk to people who lived on the pavements. Once I went with him. After midnight the whole city seemed different, eerily illuminated by streetlamps and moonlight, the crowds dredged away. Shrouded figures, wrapped in sheets though it was very hot, snored or smoked in the throats of alleys, or in dark corners. 

" We  spoke to some of those who were awake, their kindeled beedis sheltered from the wind in cupped hands. The snores of the sleepers often ended in choking sounds and coughs. Sometimes a name or a pleading phrase was called out, unanswered. Many people I met on this walk had come from the mainland for work. They were landless or had sold their land, and could not now return to their villages. Others were local drug addicts, less communicative, though some of them knew English.

" I met a woman in her seventies who had been brought from her village by relatives and dumped in the street to die. 'Many old people are dumped like this,' Rajen said. 'Their families can't feed them. Most die soon. The police pick some up, but have no way to help them. The lady survived, as you see. She has slept on the pavement the last six months and has been raped twice.'

" He was quiet and meditative on this walk, unlike his usual self. Two days later he took me to the Kamathipura area, where the brothels were. At that time he was writing extensively on AIDS research. The streets of Kamathipura were lined with tumbledown tenements. The windows were barred like prison cells. It was morning and a number of slatternly women sat outside on the doorsteps, some with small children. The mothers, whose sharp, pointed fingernails did not match their tattered sarees, picked lice from the children's hair.Some of them waved cheerfully to Rajen.

" 'They know me well,' he said. 'Sometimes we chat. Former sex workers mostly own these brothels. They pay protection to the gangs and the police. Girls aren't difficult to buy. They're brought from the villagers, sometimes from Nepal. In places like Bihar and Orissa, parents often used to kill girlchildren at birth. Now they have found they have value. They can be sold to brothels.'

" We entered a brothel. The women on the doorstep moved to let us pass. A girl in her early teens came out of an inner room and greeted Rajen with unqualified, puppy-like affection. 'Even so early in the day, they get clients,' Rajen said. 'She's ready for work.' The girl wore a dark blue saree adorned with tinsel stars. Her naturally brown features had been dusted with white powder, and her cheeks and lips indiscriminately reddened. She looked like a small, grotesque doll.

" Rajen led me into a room curtained into cubicles. Old sarees provided the curtains, and each cubicle contained a string bed. 'This is where they fuck,' he told me. 'All kinds of men come here, from labourers to college students, because it's a cheap joint. One girl can service about twenty men a day.They are supposed to have a check-up once a month, but it doesn't work out like that. So there's constant danger of HIV positive. A lot of these guys are married, so one visit here can put a whole family at risk. The government won't admit it, but AIDS is now almost at epidemic level.'

" The room, hot and closed, smelt of disinfectant, old sweat and stale semen, and, though this was possibly my imagination, so did the child. She also smelt of the strongly scented oil that glistened in her hair. She rubbed her head against Rajen's hip, speaking in giglges and whispers. 'She's in love with me,' Rajen said matter-of-fact. 'I'm different from the other men she knows, and she can't be more than fourteen. She wants me to sleep with her and marry her.'

" As we left, the girl started to cry, and was pulled away by an older woman. Raucous film music started to play from somewhere inside the house. 'It's time for the lunch break in offices,' Rajen said. 'Peons and clerks will start to come here soon.' He waved a hand at the girl who, though the older women were trying to comfort her, was crying in brief, violent bursts like a child. 'Once I gave her a doll,' he confided. 'Perhaps I shouldn't have done that.'

" When I remembered the walk though the dark city, and the visit to the brothel, I felt empathy and warmth for Rajen."