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Book Reviews

Yes, it is karma with an ‘r’

Karma Sutra, Adventures of a street bum
– by Rajendar Menen

First published in India in 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers India in a joint venture with The India Today Group
Price: INR 299

Thank you KM, for taking me to the book

When she heard that I was reading ‘Karma Sutra’ – by Rajendar Menen, she asked if I learnt a new ‘Aasana’, and I replied, “Errrrrrr … you missed the ‘r’”. While this turned out funny, the journey through Karma Sutra, as a reader was overwhelming.

I grew up in Mumbai; continue to live here and reserve my right to both love and hate the city with an unlevelled passion. Many books have been written on the city and I have hated some of them with feelings of vengeance. Written by writers who have spent a good part of their lives outside of Mumbai and spent most pages of their book in criticising the city, I have only wanted to scream, ‘Who gave you the right to criticise the city? You do not even live here …’.  So when a friend recommended I read Rajendar’s Karma Sutra, I was in two minds with my first reaction being: ‘Oh- one more book on Mumbai?’

Karma Sutra, by Rajendar Menen
Publisher Harper Collins (in India)

How wrong I was! One more book on Mumbai, alright – but reeking of matchless honesty.  Reeking – because I do not remember the last time honesty was sweet-smelling. A journalist, Rajendar has not just walked the streets of Mumbai as a part of his more than two decades long work on HIV AIDS, but also lived the life on the streets of Mumbai in a conscious decision. He calls himself pure lucky, to have been born in a middle-class milieu that ensured a fairly easy life. Having said this when you read his admission that he always had the option of returning to the comforts off the street, in an instant, you know what he means. As a reader, it is to find yourself drawn into these accounts from the dark underbelly of Mumbai; empathising with the lives; wondering if there really is a larger purpose to your own life; but having the freedom to shut these thoughts out of your mind as soon as you close the book and thank your good fortunes for the life you live, that now feels more luxurious than ever.

Primarily based on his encounters on the streets of Mumbai, Rajendar also touches briefly on his escapades in other Metro cities of India, maintaining that extended narratives from there may run into separate books themselves. He consciously steers clear of the politics that colour the grim realities of brothels; the statistics on the homeless; and the reasons why a city like Mumbai, with all its money, is still incapable of dealing with destituteness. The author sets out to tell the stories as they are – and does exactly that, reflecting some of the several colours of life on the streets of Mumbai.  Autobiographical in nature, a large portion of the book is on sex-workers, but it also tells stories of the eunuchs; the old and dying; the ‘Bollywood’ smitten young lads and many others for whom, home may only be the street they find themselves on that night. Written in short narratives, the book makes for easy reading, enabling the reader to begin the book with any story.

Karma Sutra is about the Taras, Lakshmis, Shamas and Manishas; the Mohan who became a Sheela; the ‘maalishwala’ at Juhu Beach; and the ‘struggler’ determined to get his big break in Bollywood. You can almost hear the voices as you read their accounts. Listening to Tara In her tiny neat cubicle will leave you questioning your own karma. Like the author, you may want to try and turn to yoga and attempt finding the ephemeral happiness that these women always carry with them. Raped as a child, Tara says she did not even have a chance to be a bad person and asks the author, “…. If not for karma, why have we suffered like this? It is destiny, nothing else.” Left looking for answers, he writes that he could not even spot the happy geckos on the wall. Tara lives to share the horrors of her life, amidst jokes and laughter that nearly bring tears to her eyes, but a few others whom Rajendar witnessed did not.

When I met Rajendar at a discussion on his book, I quizzed him on how could he resist falling for some of the tall, stunning women he encountered (then there are also the ones who fell madly in love with him). Looking back, Rajendar admits he was much younger then and it was not always easy to maintain and uphold the platonic relationships but he is glad he did (although he knows friends who have married sex workers, transvestites and have found happiness in their lives).

Accompanying Rajendar on his journeys through this book will have you question, if not shatter, your own ideas of love and desires; virtues and vices; karma and destiny. In Rajendar’s own words, so much of life is inexplicable. How do you explain a beautiful young nurse at Asha Dan (the late Mother Theresa’s hospice in Mumbai) feeling happy, cleaning a leper’s wounds or how do you explain a sex worker who has slept with thousands of men, cooking rice for a man she loves, he says.

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About Sarita

My 10,000th day on Planet Earth was June 28, 2010

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