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A Bengali woman’s life in the world’s oldest profession

Manada Devi’s account of her life in prostitution in the 1920s is historically vivid and full of moral debates that remain pertinent to this day

Manada Devi's story is set in early 20th century Calcutta.
Manada Devi's story is set in early 20th century Calcutta. (Unsplash)

In 1929, the publication of a memoir, written in Bengali by one “Manada Devi”, raised a storm of scandal in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Titled Shikshita Patitar Atmacharit, recently translated into English by Arunava Sinha as An Educated Woman in Prostitution, it was, as the English subtitle puts it, “a memoir of lust, exploitation, deceit.”

The specifics of Manada Devi’s life and circumstances are somewhat hazy. We don’t know if there really was a writer by that name or if someone wrote her story under an assumed name. There is also the possibility of a man writing under a feminine pseudonym. But, going by the narrative, Manada Devi was born to an upper-class Brahmin family in Calcutta in 1900. Her father was a lawyer at the Calcutta High Court, and her mother died when she was barely ten, leaving her unprotected and alone.

Although her father ensured her every comfort and a good education, Manada Devi never felt the sense of closeness she once harboured with him after he remarried. Her step-mother, who was not much older than her, was never the stereotypical embodiment of cruelty. But she didn’t have the same hold over the young girl as her late mother did. And so, as a young girl, Manada Devi sought refuge in reading and the company of male cousins and relatives, especially of one called Ramesh, who would be her undoing.

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It is Ramesh’s ill influence that leads Manada Devi to her eventual doom. A student of the prestigious Bethune School, she drops out at 15 and elopes with him, lured by the promise of adventure. Later she blames her obvious physical attraction to Ramesh as the root of all evil, but is also filled with remorse for spending hours reading romance novels, especially the more salacious ones. Manada Devi repeatedly blames contemporary literature for filling her head with fantastical ideas, unsuited to her station in life, and bringing about her downfall.

Yet, even after her eyes are opened to Ramesh’s callousness and she manages to escape from his clutches, Manada Devi doesn’t return to her father in disgrace, or opt for a ‘respectable’ profession to make a living. She chooses, instead, the way of “prostitution”, persuaded by a “landlady” of an infamous establishment in these terms: “The lawyer sells his intellect, the teacher sells his education, even the spiritual leader sells his incantations; why should alluring women not sell their bodies then?”

An Educated Woman in Prostitution by Manada Devi, translated by Arunava Sinha, Simon & Schuster India, 176 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399
An Educated Woman in Prostitution by Manada Devi, translated by Arunava Sinha, Simon & Schuster India, 176 pages, 399

In different parts of her “memoir”, Manada Devi grapples with the implications of this question. Personally, she remains caught in a strange double bind: she deplores her “fall” into the ignoble profession, while also convinced that she had nowhere else to turn to. At various stages of her life, she is forced to reckon with the hypocrisy of society, where women like her are (and continue to be) treated with disdain, while the men who visit them in the evenings are able to return to their lives with their respectability intact.

When Manada Devi, along with some of her colleagues, go to the custodians of the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist sect that broke away from orthodox Hinduism, hoping to be redeemed by its liberal principles, they are sorely thwarted there, too. Scoffed and humiliated, denied a place within the so-called enlightened new religion, the women finally seek to do their bit when the freedom struggle breaks out.

Under the fiery leadership of lawyer-turned-politician CR Das and his feminist wife Basanti Devi, the women take part in fundraising initiatives to support the movement. But tragedy strikes there, too. As Manada Devi writes, young male satyagrahis get distracted by the women, while women from upper caste Hindu families get tempted to let down their guards after the see prostitutes enjoying unfettered hedonism and liberty of the flesh.

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Whether it is fiction or truth, Manada Devi’s story remains a crucial historical record of a time when women’s lives and sexuality weren’t at the forefront of the public discourse. A comparable text from around the same time is an erotic poem written by Nabeenkali Devi, another “respectable” woman who describes the decline and fall of a Brahmin’s daughter. While Manada Devi’s narrative is not a feminist manifesto in the conventional sense—it raises far too many uncomfortable questions to fit neatly into that rubric—its urge to portray the truth about the desires of women remains palpable. In spite of all its moral ambiguities, the book doesn’t shy away from confronting the realities of sex work and sexual pleasure even among a class in society, among whom such instincts are seldom spoken aloud.

From a gulf of nearly a century, Manada Devi’s book shines a light on hard truths about the world’s oldest profession—many of which Indian society continues to grapple with even to this today.

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