Book Title: The Last Courtesan
Author: Manish Gaekwad
HOW would a tawaif tell her story? Would she delve into the philosophies of life that brought her to the kotha or would she harp about how women’s bodies are subjugated by men who wield physical power? Or would she just tell it as it is? The story of her family’s abject poverty leading her to marry at 10 years of age; of being forced to become a courtesan because she hit puberty before she could be sold into flesh trade in Calcutta (virgins command more price, you see); of keeping unwanted men away; of mothering a son; of seeing the high life in Bombay and then returning to Calcutta to keep the son safe; of witnessing the kotha turn into a shambles; of dying of cardiac arrest as just another woman.
Well, this is exactly how Rekha tells the simple story of her life, as narrated by her son Manish Gaekwad, associate writer of director Imtiaz Ali’s OTT hit ‘She’. It is, however, the reality of her being, the setting of her story and the twists and turns of the ever-changing plot that defy the simplicity of the narration and collectively shine through as a story of astonishing courage. In becoming a memoir, her story also becomes a story of the courage of a mother, who bares her life before her son, and that of the son, who now shares it with the world.
‘Survival’ is the running thread through Rekha’s life. If her childhood was spent struggling for food, she was left to find her ground, first at Bow Bazaar and then at Bandook Gully, twirling to Hindi film songs. It was at Bandook Gully that she met Rehmat, who would give her a son. He wanted her to be his second wife, but wasn’t faithful.
The next leg of her life took her to Bombay, “where the real money was, where the real adventure was”. ‘Congress House’, the red light area, was littered with tawaifs, including high-class courtesans with a long history in the culture of the kotha. They did not have to struggle like Rekha. She didn’t have the lineage, fine, but she had her own USP as “Bow Bazaar Ki Mashhoor Nachnewali”.
The nights in Bombay were glamourous, and were often spent at five-star hotels. The mornings at kothas were, however, a reminder of the reality of life as the tawaifs went about filling buckets of water with unpainted faces.
Through Rekha one also gets a glimpse of an unseen side of yesteryear’s Bombay — when the likes of Mubarak Begum rose from the kothas and filled the film industry with their sonorous notes. Once out of currency (courtesy the reigning music queens of the time), Begum returned to ‘Congress House’. There were rumours of Nimmi and Madhubala rising from these alleys. Dawood Ibrahim and Haji Mastan frequented the area. There was money, there were men who spent lavishly on Rekha but there was no security for her son. And men born in brothels ended up becoming goondas, dallas or ustads. That was not the life Rekha wanted for her son. She returned to Calcutta and eventually sent him to a boarding school.
For every successful courtesan, there were several who had destroyed themselves. If there was Hasina, a cousin who came to Bombay to try her luck but ended up ruining her life, some other cousins came to Bandook Gully. All of them ruined themselves eventually, perhaps because they were there for glamour. “I was here to survive,” writes Rekha.
And survive she did, till the very end. Bow Bazaar had fallen prey to a bomb blast. Some women moved to Sonagachi, some to Bombay to seek work at the dance bars, the new source of income. Rekha stayed behind, listening to the fading sound of ghungroos, serving the last of the patrons.
The memoir was recorded and written in 2020-21; Rekha died in February 2023. Like an unbiased narrator, Manish doesn’t embellish the text with fancy narrations. He keeps his writing skills for the introduction and the last chapter, which talks about the father he hasn’t met since he was 16.
But Manish’s storytelling skills — which the world has seen in ‘She’ — are certainly there to see. The book encapsulates a lifetime, but there is hardly a dull moment. It goes on at a pace, sometimes slow, sometimes fast — just like life itself. Only a tawaif’s life pans out in a different space, a rare glimpse of which is this brave memoir.