Niharika’s Bookshelf: Autobiography of a Sex Worker


Nalini Jameela, Autobiography of  a Sex Worker, Westland Publishers, Paperback Edition, 2008.

One of the more beautiful qualities of a subaltern autobiography is that it comes straight from the heart, devoid of superficialities. However, it has its own limitations as well- one being that it cannot often be judged with the regular standard of a novel. I have tried to see it at both levels.

The Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela falls in this category. It seems like a series of unfortunate events put together, to make a tale. The tone carries forth the writer’s aim of wanting to simply tell her story, rather than arousing the sympathy of the reader.  But she definitely wants to keep the readers in the know-how. Starting from the huge ancestral house that Nalini’s first few years were spent in, the financial difficulties that followed, to the problems of belonging to an upper caste and working as a laborer and finally resorting to sex work for survival, this story draws upon society’s prejudices and well nested shallow establishments. It could be classified a bildungsroman novel, with only a few relevant and pertinent questions asked at the end. (After Nalini becomes a significant part of the organizations spreading awareness and calling for dignity of sex workers) The narration becomes rather bland and inconsequential after a while, if looked at from one angle. The adventures, the struggle for survival, the going back on forth on decisions to make money, the protective instincts- all these are almost an essential part of subaltern diaries. They are alien to the upper class who most often read them and slightly familiar to the middle class who are the passive observers. That is exactly what the book seeks to change; to familiarize and change attitudes and perceptions. If that’s how the book is read into, the bigger message from a one person experience, then the world could be a much bettewant to ask these people whether they have ever tried to find out about sex workers’ family ties, social ties. Is it possible to build afresh their domestic ties and social ties through rehabilitation? Won’t this merely leave the sex worker all the more isolated and helpless?

We demand that sex work be decriminalized. … By ‘decriminalizing’, what we mean is this: if two people want to have sex by common consent, if this is in no way a nuisance to others, then it should not be questioned’ says Jameela.

It is almost impossible to deconstruct what is deeply construed in the society’s collective conscious. But the way this question has been constructed by the writer leaves hope. Most often, the need for sex work arises out of poverty, crime and insufficiency. But if those involved are there voluntarily, then do we have the right to judge them? But again, would this lead to nourishment of a patriarchal society? Does our prejudice of commercial sex work stem from our secretive attitude towards sex? She then goes onto say-‘ …In general feminists are reluctant to accept sex workers. I think that’s because they cannot see that sex is a woman’s need as well.’

It is difficult to see how such an ideology will fit into present day society. But, with more such, a renaissance in good time will help the cause of modern day “taboos.”

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