01 January, 2010

THE WHORE’S HAIR WAS SPREAD OUT down her back till her ass. She was lying on a sheet of black hair with her legs wide open. Her eyes were shrunk within her brow. On both sides of her forehead, on the right and on the left, like purple figs that had been pasted on, were two holes. Her body was utterly soaked from the rain that had begun late in the night. The rainwater had thoroughly washed the unusually long arms, stomach and feet of this corpse.

They had torn a piece of the sari she was wearing and used it to bind her mouth. As the flies buzzed around the dead woman’s face, the villagers stood by, brushing their teeth and staring at her.

The corpse was lying in front of the village’s main market. The villagers kept circling the body again and again. They had never before in their lives seen anybody killed by bullets and were exclaiming loudly with great surprise and sympathy.

On the chest of the dead body was a big white board. The cardboard had soaked up the rain and had swelled and curled up at the edges. The villagers tried to read the rain-washed letters, yet none succeeded in reading what was written on it. But I knew the words that had been washed away.

‘A Warning to all Enemies of Morality!

Name: Indumathy

The Death Penalty for Prostitution.’

Early last night -

Before the heavy rain started –

It was I who had written the words on the board in bold red ink. Early in the night, three men came to our house. As usual, father was fully drunk, lying face down on the front yard. In the seven or eight villages surrounding ours, father was known as ‘Artist Maniam.’ Father writes name signs for shops, touches up temples, and paints bicycles. The men who came wanted a little paint.

I didn’t see any guns on them then. They must have hidden them under their waistbands. I tried very hard wake up father, but the more I shook him, the more insistent he became in curling up and falling asleep in the sand in the front yard.

It was the era of wall hoardings. Last week, the whole city of Jaffna had been covered with the same kinds of notices. The Tamil words in those notices were painted by a professional artist like my father, or at the least, by someone like me who worked often as an assistant. The lettering of the words on those Movement posters was beautifully rendered and drew the attention of the whole city of Jaffna.

‘Let’s bear arms in our skillful hands, we know no other way.’  I knew this slogan by heart. ‘Do not brew alcohol,’ ‘No Abortion,’ ‘Hartal! Protest! All shops to be closed.’ We lived under the relentless rules of these wall posters.

Father didn’t look like he was going to get up and I wasn’t ready to lose the chance of helping the Movement. As never before, my heart was beating excitedly as I picked up the paint and brush. I waited eagerly to find out the slogan I was to paint.

Yesterday morning, on the walls of our school—I was in tenth grade then—new notices had been put up. These posters asked: ‘While there is a student revolution in Iran, why friend, are we still bookworms?’ The whole school talked about nothing but that poster all day.

I gave them the red paint, and asked, “Is this enough, brother?”

“It’s Enough. We need to write on just a single board.”

As they were turning to leave, I stood behind them and said very hesitantly, “If you need something written, I could do it for you…” They stopped; standing motionless in the dark. Finally, I lit a candle in the front hallway and prepared to write the slogan they wished. I thought they would say something like “there was a revolution in Iran while we were bookworms.” But the slogan they came up with was something I’d never heard before. A chopped sentence with no recognizable nouns or verbs: Moral Enemy—Indumathy—Death Sentence.

I placed the words beautifully, side by side on the board. While I was writing, my mother brought in tea for the three men. I finished writing and admired the work from afar in the candlelight. I felt very satisfied with how the sign had turned out. “Should I add black borders, brother?” I asked. “It will brighten up the letters.”

This had happened about four or five days ago. That morning, I was cycling to school. The school was located in the south of the city, and on the way, I saw a large crowd running toward a four-way street corner. When I inquired why, I was told that there was a whore tied to the neem tree there and that there was a board around her neck. My bicycle automatically turned to face the four-way junction. My eagerness to see the writing on the notice around the whore’s neck displayed drove my feet on the bicycle pedals. This was a time when the Sri Lankan army roamed the city streets. I knew that they could come upon the four-way at any moment. But all I wanted was to read the notice. I was just a schoolboy. I could run away afterwards, I thought.

This prostitute was not literally a corpse. She was tied to the neem tree alive. The crowd kept going round and round the tree, staring in wonder. The prostitute’s hands were raised up above her head and tied to the trunk.

At the most, she must have been about seventeen or eighteen years old. She stood there with her slim body and light skin. She wore a sarong around her hips and on top, a man’s shirt. Her hair had been shorn off in an ugly fashion. The words on the board swinging around her neck were bright purple. The Tamil words had been written in the ink used for dying reed mats, and they were all crooked.

She had been given a twelve-hour punishment for prostitution. Under the feet of the young prostitute, there sat a skinny old woman looking like a bag of dirty clothes, who stared at the crowd without blinking. The prostitute kept shifting from leg to leg, trying to put all her weight on one. In between, she would look at the old woman and say in a whining voice, “My legs are aching.” At those moments, the old woman would peer up at the prostitute and mutter, “You unfortunate bitch,” and go back to staring at the crowd defiantly.

When I was in class, I heard that on the beach of Pungudu Theevu, a mother whore and her three whore daughters had been shot by the Movement and laid out in a row. The one who brought the news was a Pungudu Theevu boy called Eraimozhi. In the early hours of the morning Eraimozhi had seen the four corpses before catching the bus to school.

I asked Eraimozhi, “What was written on the notice tied to the necks of the corpses?”

“Nothing. There were no announcements hanging around their necks,” Eraimozhi answered. I was puzzled. If there were no boards and no writing on the four corpses then the army must have shot the four women, I began to suspect. During recess, Eraimozhi signalled me to the bathroom. He pulled out a small leaflet from his pocket and handed it to me saying, “You need to give it back to me after reading it; swear upon your education.” The handwriting on the leaflet was beautiful and it had been copied on a roneo machine. It seems these notices had been left around the corpses:

‘Mother’s name: Krishnaambal. The daughters’ names: Subathra Devi, Jaya Devi, Jeba Devi.  The mother and daughters have participated in prostitution with the Naina Theevu Navy, and therefore this death sentence.’

WHEN I WAS LIVING in Colombo, I went to a whore for the first time. I was nineteen years old then. The agent had put us up in a suburb of Colombo. That lodge was located on Galle Road, and it was filled with refugee Tamils waiting to go abroad, their agents, and sub-agents. On Colombo buses and streets, young Sinhalese women brushed up against me. I found their faces without the pottu between their eyes and their lips filled with lipstick deeply arousing. There was no tightness to the tone of the Sinhala language. The words simply melted and ran like liquid.

From the lodge, if you crossed Galle Road, there were some buildings on the other side. If you walked through them, you could see the railway tracks next to the beach. During the daytime, the landscape around the rail tracks as well as the beach was empty. But every day at noon, a woman and a man would walk down the tracks from somewhere and come to that area. The woman would stand on the railway tracks while the man moved a little distance away and sat on the beach, facing the sea. Continuously for three days, I saw them during midday, at that spot. Each time the woman turned her head and looked at me, I would start walking towards Galle Road. On the third day, I felt as if the woman took a couple of steps towards me. I didn’t look back as I walked quickly down the street.

I began to plan carefully. Tomorrow at noon, I would walk straight down the railway track. I would try not to show that I knew very little Sinhala. Using the few Sinhala words I knew, I ran through a quick rehearsal in my mind. I would take only thirty rupees in hand. It needed to be three ten rupee notes. First, I would show her the two tens. If she didn’t agree, I would pull out the next ten rupees. If she refused to agree for thirty, I would walk back.

The next day at noon, I left the lodge cautiously, taking care that no one saw me leave. When I reached Galle Road, I bought two cigarettes at a teashop, lit one, and looked to see if anyone from the lodge was watching me. I stood there until I finished smoking that cigarette. Once I was sure that no one was observing me, I sprinted across the street and walked in the direction of the beach. She was wearing a red dress. I climbed onto the tracks and began to walk towards her. As I was walking, I rolled my sleeves up. I pulled out the other cigarette and lit it as I strode along. I made my face assume an expression of hardness and changed my walk to a tough swagger.

I thought she waved her hand at me. The prostitute looked like a dried fish decked out in dress and powder. She opened her eyes wide and stared at me intently. Her eyes were lifeless. She bent her head to the left, screwed up her left eye and said something in Sinhala. Her mouth and teeth were blackened. There was some kind of bad smell leaking out of her. It might have been the smell of cigarettes. She made a sign with her head and began to walk along the tracks ahead of me. I turned back and glanced at the man who had accompanied her. He was sitting far off on the beach, writing something in the sand.

I began to follow the prostitute. She walked down the slope from the railway track into a low dip. Below the tracks, I could see a large cement pipe of about four feet in diameter. It was a drainpipe built into the ground to collect rainwater and send it into the sea. The prostitute went to the entrance

of the opening and signalled me to go into the pipe with her. It looked like a large hole and had some kind of moss growing all over it. There was dirty water up to my ankles by now. The prostitute had twisted her body along the pipe and looked like she was part of the pipe itself.

When I went back to the railway tracks, I suddenly saw in front of me the man who always accompanied the prostitute. He was rubbing the wooden boards on the tracks with his feet. I immediately turned down the slope, cut through the low-lying area and reached Galle Road. When I returned to the lodge, there was pandemonium everywhere. My agent is a big fat thug, and he was beating a young boy in the office room of the lodge. The boy must have been about twenty, and was waiting to go to Canada. He had written a love letter to a girl called Arulmozhi who was waiting to go to London and was staying in the same lodge. The problem had now been brought before the agent. I leaned my hand onto the windowsill and peered into the office room. The agent’s hand was gripping the boy’s hair. “You poor scum! Your mother and father sell their land to send you abroad and you have other ideas. First go earn money and help your families. Then you can see to this. There is no lack of girls in foreign countries.”

Even as the agent was advising him, there was an instant when Arulmozhi was able to slide under the agent’s arms and spit on the boy’s face. Each time the agent got too involved in his advisory mode and forgot to hit him, the teary-eyed Arulmozhi, standing in a corner of the office, would jump up and down in anger. “Aiyo anna, hit that dog, kill him. He has humiliated me in front of all these people,” she screamed.

I went to the back of the lodge and began to take a bath. Until then, what was only a small drop of a misgiving in the corner of my mind began to spread out in waves. Was it possible for that Sinhala prostitute to have given me some disease? I hit my forehead with the plastic bucket in my hand.

WHEN I HAD VISITED Laos, I had gotten a sexually transmitted disease. The capitol of Laos is nestled in the lap of the Nong Khai. The capital city is called Vientiane, and it is smaller than Killinochchi, Jaffna. The city is overrun with vegetation. There is only one street to travel around the city, and it is filled with begging children. There are beer breweries in the city square. At these beer bistros, they sell you beer by the liter in huge containers. I met a whore in the back of a beer shop. She spoke English with grammatical precision and she claimed to be a student at Vientiane University. With small eyes, shiny cheeks, and a sarong-like dress in artificial silk, she looked like a doll. For just ten dollars and a jar of beer, she was willing to spend the whole night with me.

The next morning, there was a wart on my upper lip. By midday, boils appeared on the head of my penis. By evening, there was a discharge like a thread from the opening of my penis. The pain travelled like pin pricks from my back, face, chest, stomach, feet, and thighs and gathered at the point of my penis. Each time I pressed down on the tip of my organ, reddish orange pus gushed out. There was a murderous rage in my heart towards that whore.

I returned to Bangkok that very night. After crossing the river, the city of Bangkok was only a night’s journey away. At one end of Silom, the largest street in Bangkok, is a Mariamman temple. At the other end is the garden spread of Lumpini Park. Between the two falls Patpong, the valley of the prostitutes. The whole area of Patpong is filled with brothels and dance halls. The dance halls are called go-go bars and feature nude dancing. It is like watching naked opera to see thirty to forty naked women dancing on the same stage. The prostitutes in the brothels are coolheaded. They nurse a glass of beer for hours. Their faces twist and turn in all directions as if made of rubber. Their hearts are made of paint and make-up, and they would never admit that they are prostitutes. “We are working,” the whores would say. Falseness is the righteous law of Patpong. These whores are the creations of lies, roleplays, and lust.

But the birds of Thailand are all in the mountains. The Nonthaburi mountain range starts about two hundred kilometres from Bangkok, and the mountains are filled with tourists. In the mountain villages, whole families participate in prostitution. I chose the youngest girl of the Sampoin family. She was only four feet tall. She had a plump body. With her round face, eyebrow-less eyes, shiny hair, and flawless yellow skin, she looked like a mango. I stayed with the Sampoin family for ten days. Mango never left my side even for a second. She expressed great pleasure in combing my long hair and tying my shoelaces. Mango took me into all the secret crevices of the Nonthaburi Mountains. We spent the days on the mountainsides, where there was no one else. Like a monkey, Mango would leap from tree to tree and fill her waistband with the plucked fruits. She bathed at least five times a day. I never saw her sleep during the day or night.

In the evenings, seated in the front yard, Mango’s father and I would drink ‘bird’ liquor. That old man would chew on tulsi leaves and keep sipping his drink. One early morning when I was crippled with a stomachache, the whole Sampoin family stood worriedly around my bed. Mango’s mother brought down from the mountain various herbs, ground them into a paste and rubbed it on my lower stomach. Mango wept. Her tears fell on my forehead and broke away in splashes.

I knew twenty words in Thai. Mango knew ten English words. With these thirty words, she and I would converse the whole day. Another morning, Mango told me that she loved me. Mango had no earthly idea where Sri Lanka was, or where Switzerland was or where America was. She begged me to take her with me to Sri Lanka. Last year, it seemed, a Swiss man had taken a friend of hers to Switzerland. What had begun as a transaction negotiated for five thousand baht for ten days, Mango

was planning to end as a marriage. After coming down the Nonthaburi mountains with a farewell of, “Let me go to Bangkok and be back in a couple of days,” to Mango and the Sampoin family, I left straight for Singapore.

In Singapore, before Serangoon mosque, there is a road on the right that is a short cut that ends on Desker Road. On both sides of that short cut there are these tiny houses. The front doors of these houses are kept wide open. There are five or six prostitutes to each house, who sit around in chairs either reading or knitting with brightly colored threads. There are crowds at the doorway who gather to stare at the whores for hours at a time.

It was there that I met the Malaysian prostitute. She had a large, muscular body. Her voice had a masculine tone to it. I could smell alcohol on her dark skin. Her body language was definitely not that of a prostitute; she moved like a female boxer. She was wearing a sari the same color as the neck of a peacock. After announcing her name as Kavitha she asked for my name and nationality. After saying, “Name: J. R. Jayewardene, Sri Lankan Sinhalese,” I kept quiet. Then I softly said, “Twenty Singapore dollars for you is too much.” The whore twisted her chapped lips and said, “Why not go to Tekka market then? For five dollars and ten dollars your Sinhala women hang out there. Go to them!”

I carefully took note of the Tekka market she’d mentioned. In the evening, Tekka market was overflowing with women. As I was entering the market, I caught sight of one particular prostitute. She was standing near the main entrance.

She was that Sinhala color that was neither dark nor fair. She had tied her curly hair up, and looked under twenty-five. She was wearing high heels with jeans and a T-shirt. The statement, ‘I Love Singapore,’ was written across its chest.

The whore raised her pottu-less forehead at me and grinned. I had learned to speak a little Sinhala during my stay in Colombo, so I approached her and began my small talk. “Are you Sri Lankan?” I asked in Sinhala. She asked me for ten Singapore dollars. As she needed to get back to the house where she worked as a maid by seven, she said that she couldn’t go to a place that was too far off. The prostitute spoke very fast. I couldn’t understand half of what she said in Sinhala, so I quickly said that the room I was staying in was close by. “If you behave well, I will give you five Singapore dollars more than what we agreed upon,” I told her.

From the beginning I noticed that her eyes were filled with suspicion. The minute I closed the door, she stuck her hand out for the money. I gave her a ten Singapore dollar note. “You promised to give me five dollars more,” she smiled coquettishly. “I will give that to you when you leave,” I said. As I was removing my shoes, I asked her, in Sinhala, the name of her village. I saw the whore’s mouth open like a fish. I saw the tip of her tongue touch her upper palate. I also definitely saw her mouth close. There was a sound that came out of the whore’s throat too. But I was unable to make anything of the sound she made.  Like the tongue rejects certain tastes, I suppose the ear too rejects some sounds.

Again, I asked, “Umba gama Koitha?” Again she opened her mouth like a fish, touched her upper palate with the tip of her tongue and said, “Yaapanaya.” This Sinhala word means Yazhpaanam in Tamil: that is, Jaffna. In my halting Sinhala, I asked for her story.

She said that her name was Nayeema. Her childhood had been spent in Yaapanaya. Then her Muslim family had moved to Negombo, near Colombo. She kept talking with me in Sinhala. It had been six months since she’d arrived in Singapore as a maid, she revealed. Then she reminded me again of the five Singapore dollars.

She continued, saying that her memories of the Muslim girls’ school she’d attended in Yaapanaya, the bommai fields and the tiny houses in it are with her always. Then again she reminded me of the five Singapore dollars. When I asked her, quite idly, “So, when did you leave Yaapanaya for Negombo?” she suddenly turned on me. “Why are you asking me that as if you didn’t know?” Her eyes were frozen.

IN AMSTERDAM, THERE WERE CANALS flowing beneath my feet. It is here that the largest whore-land in all of Europe is situated; a two-minute walk from Amsterdam’s central railway station, in the midst of the oldest canals in the city. Behind the glass doors of the canal-facing houses, half naked prostitutes stand.

On the streets, people would be drinking beer and eying the women. Some would run and kiss the glass. I walked along a row of the glass cages until I reached the last one, where a young woman sat practically naked. I stood close against the glass. The two prostitutes with her invited me in. The moment I entered, a curtain was drawn over the glass. A prostitute pointed to the seated girl and asked me whether I wanted her. Watching me stand there undecided, the other prostitute said, “She is wonderful. Don’t waste time. Those who come to her once, ask for her again. Because of her, both our business is down.” She laughed loudly. The young woman stood up, and tapping the wall came over to me. She was blind.

That blind prostitute had come to Amsterdam from Eastern Europe. I had met a Ukrainian prostitute in Portugal. Her name was Valya. She had come from the city of Kiev. She was standing in Bashia Square in old Lisbon when I met her. Even in spring, she was wearing a winter coat, hat, gloves and

snow boots. She kept speaking in an agitated fashion. Even in my room, the prostitute did not remove her coat or gloves. All through the night, we drank port. As she became more and more intoxicated, her nervous agitation became worse. She threw a blanket over her winter coat and covered herself. It seemed she needed four thousand euros to build a small house in Ukraine. After she finished earning that amount, she planned to return to her home, where she had left a six-year old daughter. She had told her family that she was working in a restaurant in Portugal.

I became tired of her non-stop talking. “Enough of that,” I said. “If you can’t listen to me then get out,” she shouted, opening the door and thumping on it with her fists. I stood there without moving. She dragged me by my shirt and threw me out of my room. Her wild screaming tore through the early morning. I tried to push her out of the room. She slapped me hard on my cheek. I spat on her face.

When the police came and questioned her, they found out that she had no visa to stay in Portugal. She had condoms, pills and cigarettes in her handbag. The police search also revealed that in another compartment in her handbag, she carried a sharp knife, a stun gun and a pair of scissors.

With a whip in one hand and a pair of handcuffs in the other, an old prostitute stands on the street in Strasbourg. It is legal to practice prostitution on that street. Most of the women standing out there on that street are white whores, who ask for an exorbitant sixty or seventy euros. When I approached them with what I could afford, they looked at me like a dog.

These fleshy women with their white skin had licenses to conduct their business. The prostitutes without licenses would stand around in Republic Square. I met an African whore, with skin the color of milk coffee there. She was from the country of Dogo, and I remember she said that her name was Emma. She asked for thirty euros.

Her room was spotless and there were clean sheets on the bed. After telling me to, “wait a minute,” the whore knelt on the floor. She held a small earthen pot with water in her hands. She held the pot with both hands under her vagina, closed her eyes and in a low voice muttered something like a chant. Then she sprinkled the water on her vagina. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. It seemed the whore had been asking for forgiveness from her ancestors. “Please, could you also kneel down,” she asked. Then she took the rest of the water from the earthenware pot and murmuring something, began to sprinkle it on my genitals. Her eyes began to roll up and down like one possessed by the devil.

I don’t know what kind of a curse she placed upon me, for the stink of prostitutes follows me everywhere. In a crowd of a thousand women, if there is a single whore, I would be able to find her. Every whore I’ve met in my lifetime, I remember her face as if it has been deeply ground into my heart. I live my life remembering them again and again. I am able to hold in my mind the image of every individual whore in sharp clarity. Nothing is lost over time. Their souls, bodies, words, tricks, determinations, fears, blood, dirt, and tears arouse me. I know that my lust lives on in my wandering feet.

The last whore I met was a Ghanaian. I met her at a metro station in Paris. She must have been about forty years old. She was a black woman, more than six feet tall. There was a streak of spittle constantly dripping from her lips. When she spoke, she sprayed spit. She didn’t know French but spoke a crude form of English. And she addressed me as ‘brother.’ She insisted that I pay her a hundred and twenty euros for a whole night and another thirty euros for her hotel room. She said that the hotel she was staying in was only a five-minute walk from there.

The whore and I left the metro station and began to walk down the street. That area was heavily populated by foreigners—mostly blacks, Arabs and Sri Lankan Tamils. I told the whore to walk in front of me and leaving a little gap between us, followed her. Even at midnight, the Sri Lankan Tamil businesses and restaurants were still open. I ran into two Sri Lankan Tamil acquaintances. “What are you doing out here at this time of the night?” they asked me. “I came to buy hashish,” I said. I knew that this answer would strike them dumb with horror. For in the dark corners of that neighborhood, marijuana and hashish sales also took place.

That hotel had been built specifically for whores. Black whores sat along the hotel stairways chatting. There was no room to even breathe in the whore’s room. It was filled to the rafters with pots, pans and boxes. The stink of a cattle shed clung to its walls. Half-eaten meals and dishes were strewn on the floor. There were bloodstains on the bed sheets. I woke up in the early hours of the morning. The whore was still asleep with her mouth open and leaking. I got down from the bed and put on my clothes. Trying not to trip over the food dishes left on the floor, I wove my way towards the bathroom.

I opened the tap and splashed cold water over my face. I could see in the mirror that my eyes were red. As I kept staring at my eyes in the mirror, I caught sight of some words wriggling on the wall behind my head. I turned and saw that a notice had been written, badly and in broken French, and placed on the wall of the bathroom: ‘NE JETEZ PAD MANIX DA LA COMADE.’ As I read this and turned, I saw that the same sentence had been written in pristine Tamil and stuck to the inside of the bathroom door: Please do not throw condoms into the toilet.  I kept standing there staring at the letters.

I had never experienced such terror as at that moment. Each of those Tamil words had been formed perfectly, like pearls in ink, and placed upon white paper. The hand that had written it had been trained in drawing straight lines. Only a professional artist, someone like my father, could have written with such precision. As I stood there, filled with a bone-deep fatigue, I noticed the whore’s red lipstick on the bathroom ledge. In panic, I began to rub away the Tamil words with the red lipstick.