Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fifteen Lanes by S. J. Laidlaw

Set in India, Fifteen Lanes tells the story of two girls from very  different segments of Indian society, one the daughter of wealthy parents who leads a life of privilege, the other a first born to a prostitute whose fate seems to be that of her mother.

The story opens with Noor Benkatti remembering how at age five she used to sleep under her mother's bed in a room shared with three other women. Noor lives in a house in Kamathipura run by Binti-Ma'am and her son Pran with her Ma and another woman called Deepa-Auntie. Her five year old self did not fully understand the men who visited her mother, Ashmita and the other women such as Deepa-Auntie at night, nor why she couldn't sleep at night with her mother in their bed.

Noor remembers her first day of school, her uniform, the tight braids and her first time wearing shoes. Her mother sent her to a fee-paying school but unlike the parents of her schoolmates, did not accompany her the first day. Noor immediately made a friend in Gajra Bawanvadi. Gajra was soon sharing her delicious lunch of samosas, paratha and dahl with Noor, who was used to eating very little. But when her mother discovers that she's been eating more food than usual she warns her not to steal.

Noor's story fast forwards four years to when she is nine years old. Noor now has a three year old sister, Aamaal and her mother is expecting another baby. In the 4th class at school, Noor is an excellent student, placing firsts in Math and English. Talking with Deepa-Auntie, she asks her about her past. Deepa-Auntie is from Nepal and has beautiful golden skin which makes her a favourite with the men who come to the brothel. She grew up poor on a farm but when she was a young girl she was taken from her village by a man who promised her she would work as a domestic. Instead she ended up in the brothel in India. When talking with Deepa-Auntie, Noor asks her mother to explain why they never visit her Ma's village anymore. Ma explains that she is a devadasi, that her mother dedicated her to serve in the temple. Her mother gave Ashmita to the temple for money. The village elders pretended it was a sacred tradition but it was no longer like that. Without explaining further what a devadasi is or what it will mean to Noor, Ma tells her that she cannot escape her fate. "You were born into your fate, Noor. I may forestall it but you can't escape it. We can only hope your next incarnation will be more forgiving."

Noor does not understand what a devadasi is and Deepa-Auntie has no information to give her because she is from Nepal. Deepa-Auntie hopes to pay off her debt to Binti-Ma'am and Pran and return to her country to see her younger sister Yangani. However, Deepa-Auntie is not allowed out of the house and can only sit in the window box which is where men look at the women for sale. She must have permission and can only be escorted out by Binti-Ma'am or Pran.

Noor's mother gives birth to a baby boy named Shami. The day of his birth Noor is out with her friend, Parvati but Aamaal and Lali-didi who is a new girl in the brothel run to tell Noor to get Sunita-Auntie to help her mother who is in labour. However, when Noor returns with Sunita-Auntie her mother has given birth to a frail, little boy. Sunita-Auntie tells Noor that both her mother and the baby boy have the virus - meaning AIDS and she tells Noor to suffocate the baby.  Noor refuses.

Little Shami is constantly sick with pneumonia and sores. One evening Aamaal and Noor are accosted by a customer leaving their house. Noor manages to get Aamaal away from the man and she is saved by Pran and her mother. The customer tells Ashmita that if she is devadasi so is Noor and that she is only delaying the inevitable. Pran informs him that  when it is time Noor will be sold. This altercation leads Noor to confront her mother about what it means to be devadasi. Ashmita explains that it has been tradition that the oldest daughter is dedicated to serve in the temple as a courtesan to the priests and wealthy landowners. Although the practice has been outlawed it continues on as a form of sexual slavery now. Noor is horrified to learn that this will be her fate.

Noor's true situation is discovered as a result of her seeking medical help for her little brother Shami who is HIV-positive and sickly. As Noor's mother's health deteriorates (she is also HIV-positive) she is unable to care for Shami. Her time is spent resting and continuing to work as a prostitute at night. It is a brief encounter in a clinic that unravels Noor's world. At school Noor continues to excel, obtaining firsts in almost every subject. Noor's mother lied to get her into the school hiding that fact that she is the daughter of a sex worker and Noor herself has fabricated an embellished family history; her father is a civil servant and her mother a former actress. After school one day as Noor and her classmates, Gajra, Sapna and Kiran are discussing their marks, Sapna's father who is a doctor, arrives. He recognizes Noor as the girl who brought her very sick brother to his clinic and he makes sure Noor knows he has recognized her. Knowing once the truth of her situation becomes known - that she is the daughter of a sex worker, she will be expelled from her school, Noor races home. At home Noor learns that her mother has been called to her school. Prita-Auntie, upon hearing what has happened tells Noor to come with her and she takes her to the NGO demanding that they ensure Noor is allowed to continue in the school.

Juxtaposed against Noor's story is that of fifteen-year-old Grace McClaren. Three weeks into the new school year and Grace is struggling to make friends. Her popular brother, Kyle has moved on to university and her best friend Tina has moved to Singapore, leaving Grace without anyone to hang out with. For the past three years Grace has attended Mumbai International School. Her family has moved every couple of years and Grace has struggled to adapt, never really fitting in. Attempting to make friends Grace tries to become part of Madison's group however this fails miserably. Grace has a crush on Todd who was friends with her brother Kyle even though it seems like Kyle didn't like him. On Friday night Grace gets a series of text messages supposedly from Todd. Although she's skeptical at first, Grace continues to text Todd over the weekend and by Sunday they are sexting with Grace sending him a picture of herself topless.

When she arrives at school on Monday morning Grace is horrified to see her topless picture taped to her locker and discovers that it has been shared with almost everyone at the school. Grace realizes she has been tricked by Madison and possibly Todd.  Mr. Smiley who is principal of the school,  listens to Grace's version of what happened and tells her parents that the school will have to decide what consequences she will face. At home her father is supportive, but Grace's mother is not as she is furious over what she believes was a stupid act. Grace's distress over what has happened is to great that it leads her to begin cutting by engraving the word "Stupid" into her thigh with a pen. At school the next day, Mr. Donleavy who is Grace's community service advisor, tells Grace and her parents about a program run by an NGO that works to prevent the daughters of sex workers from being trafficked as their mothers were. While her parents are horrified, Grace herself is very interested. Mr. Donleavy tells Grace that teens in the program are paired with a girl and she would act as a mentor and friend.

Meanwhile at school, Grace continues to receive nasty texts and to be confronted by Madison. However, the school's most popular student, VJ Patel who's father is a Bollywood producer, tells her he will help her. VJ wants Grace to be his beard in exchange for him supporting her socially and teaching her how to deal with people. VJ is open with Grace telling her numerous secrets about his family. He told his mother he is gay but she told him never to mention it again.

Grace continues to cut herself, cutting the words SLUT and LOSER into her legs. Mr. Donleavy takes VJ and Grace to Kamathipura  to Sisters Helping Sisters run by Miss Chanda, which works with the children of women in the sex trade. At first Grace believes the house is full of children but is soon shocked to learn that the girls are her age. While Grace is at SHS, a woman shows up with a young girl in tow and begins yelling at the NGO staff. Grace notices the girl and learns from her that the woman is asking the staff to help keep the girl in school. Grace and VJ learn the girl's name is Noor and that because her school learned she was the daughter of a sex worker, they want her to leave. Because Noor's mother distrusts the NGOs she is unable to join the program and come to the house run by SHS. This doesn't stop VJ though as he arranges for Noor and Grace who will mentor her to meet at his home. As Grace struggles to recover her reputation and her self-esteem, Noor struggles to remain in school and escape the horrible fate of becoming a devadasi like her mother. When Noor's situation takes a sudden change for the worse, she has the courage to reach out to Grace who acts quickly to help her, and redeeming herself in the eyes of her parents.


Fifteen Lanes whose title is a reference to the lanes in Kamathipura which house the sex trade, tackles the difficult subject of sex slavery and trafficking as well as sexting. Although this was a well written novel, I feel the story of Noor would have been better told if the story had focused entirely on her rather than flipping between the two points of view. Noor' Benkatti is the daughter of a sex worker whose story is juxtaposed with that of Grace McClaren, a wealthy girl whose family  had lived on three different continents. Grace's life is a complete contrast to that of Noor's poverty. Their futures are incomparable: Noor faces a future of certain prostitution and an early death from disease and hardship while Grace has many options open to her including education, being able to choose to marry and have children. Comparing Grace's first world problems of sexting to Noor's third world problem of being trafficked into prostitution felt trivial. Grace's problems arise from her own actions and problems that are decidedly "first world" while Noor's situation is the result of the outlawed practices of religious prostitution and sex trafficking.

Nevertheless Laidlaw who spent time volunteering with sex workers' daughters in Kamathipura, manages to capture in a gritty way, the reality of life for girls who are trafficked both from within India and also from other countries. The way young girls are forced into the sex trade is explained by what happened to Noor's mother and some of the other women in the novel. Noor's mother tells her that while everyone in her village pretended that her working in sex was a sacred duty it was not. She was sold for money by her mother to the temple and then trafficked. Deepa-Auntie tells Noor that she was taken by a man from her family in Nepal with the promise of domestic work before she even had her first period. Noor knows was beaten because Deepa-Auntie has scars all over her body. Lali-didi was sold to a brothel in Calcutta by her brother. She tells Noor, "My family was glad to be rid of me."

Noor's future is hinted at by what happens to her twelve-year-old friend, Parvati who lives on the street. Parvati is vulnerable and relies on her boyfriend Hussein who has offered Parvati and Noor a place to sleep. Parvati tells Noor that Hussein loves her and gives her gifts of clothing. This makes Noor suspicious. As it turns out, Parvati has been given money by a boy named Suresh who decides he wants it back. Eventually Parvati is ganged raped by Suresh and his friends and ultimately forced into sex work.

Noor's narrative also explains other ways that girls end up in the sex trade - through the kidnapping of babies. "Kidnapping was another hazard of life on the street, though baby girls were more often stolen that boys. ..Babies sometimes disappeared from the brothels themselves...Everyone knew it was the brothel owners. They sold them to traffickers who resold them in distant cities far from the protection of their families. The brothel owners made money, and it was a powerful way to punish mothers who'd resisted allowing their children to follow them into the trade."

The sense of hopelessness that sex trafficked victims experience is shown by Noor's mother Ashmita who tells her young daughter "You were born to your fate, Noor. I may forestall it but you can't escape it. We can only hope your next incarnation will be more forgiving."

Noor's life in the brothel is explained in a way that is not graphic but still conveys her reality. Noor indicates early on in the novel that it is impossible to live in a brothel and not be corrupted by what is happening. As a small child she is allowed to sleep under her mothers bed but can hear all that is happening. When she becomes older, the expectation is that she will find a place to sleep out on the street before she is either sold or slips into sex work like her mother. After a customer tries to buy her, Noor admits that men have said bad things to her and that men, including her mother's customers often tried to touch her. Her mother like most of the other sex workers was sold into it at an early age. Noor states that she believes her mother is only in her twenties and that her mother told her she was "barely in her teens" she she had Noor.

The effect of working in the sex trade is also grimly portrayed in the novel. Lali-didi, the new girl in the brothel is very young. She is forced by Pran to take as many customers as want her. "No one knew how many customers she had each night. Only Binti-Ma'am saw the money that changed hands. She promised Lali-didi that one day soon her debt would be cleared, but everyone knew Binti-Ma'am was a liar. No one in our house cleared their debt while they were still young enough to fetch a high price."

Noor understands what the sex trade does to girls like Lali-didi. "As always, I felt a stab of anxiety as I watched the transformation from the girl that she was, little older than me, to the object that she became.For weeks I'd seen something die in her each time  she went through this process and every day less of her returned. She rarely spoke, never laughed; it was if she were dead already."

The discrimination girls like Noor face because of their situation which has occurred through no fault of their own is well described too. When Noor is allowed to continue on at the school, some of the girls reflect the judgemental attitudes of Indian society. Sapna whose father struggled to escape poverty states, "My father says it's improper for a girl like her to go to school with girls like us." But Gajra defends Noor stating that she must not be defined by her mother's situation or her social status.

Noor who is aware of what will happen if she tries to escape when she is locked into "the box" in preparation to being sold, shows great courage in contacting Grace. Grace's friendship with Noor helps her to put her own difficulties in perspective and also helps her to understand that they both share some measure of pain. Noor doesn't judge Grace for cutting because she recognizes that same pain in Grace that existed in her friend Parvati and in Lali-didi. She encourages Grace to tell her parents.

Fifteen Lanes is a detailed account of the reality of sex trafficking in India. It has become a serious problem throughout much of the world even in the United States and Canada. Those wishing to learn more can follow up this novel with other online resources. 

For information about the devadasi consider this article from The Telegraph.

The following documentary, Born Into Brothels (2004) in an Indian-American documentary filmed in Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district. It was made by Zana Briski who went to the red light district to take pictures of the prostitutes but also encounter the many children of the sex workers.

Book Details:

Fifteen Lanes by S.J. Laidlaw
Tundra Books:    2016
300 pp.

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