‘Murder, loyalty, love, and survival at all costs, set in the teeming underbelly of Calcutta’s most infamous neighborhood’
– Small Deaths
[ About the Book ]
In the red-light district of Shonagachhi, Lalee dreams of trading a life of penury and violence for one of relative luxury as a better-paid ‘escort’. Her long-standing client, Trilokeshwar ‘Tilu’ Shau is an erotic novelist hopelessly in love with her.
When a young girl who lives next door to Lalee gets brutally murdered, a spiral of deceit and crime begins to disturb the fragile stability of this underworld’s existence. One day, without notice, Lalee’s employer and landlady, the formidable Shefali Madam, decrees that she must now service wealthier clients at plush venues outside the familiar walls of the brothel. But the new job is fraught with unknown hazards and drives Lalee into a nefarious web of prostitution, pimps, sex rings, cults and unimaginable secrets that endanger her life and that of numerous women like her.
As the local Sex Workers’ Collective’s protests against government and police inaction and calls for justice for the deceased girl gain fervour, Tilu Shau must embark on a life-altering misadventure to ensure Lalee does not meet a similarly savage fate.
[ My Review ]
Small Deaths by Rijula Das will be published on September 13th with Amazon Crossing and is described as ‘literary noir…as absorbing as it is heart-wrenching, holding within it an unforgettable story of our society’s outcasts and marking the arrival of a riveting new writer.’ It is a pleasure to join the blog tour today with my review so I do hope your interest is piqued.
Small Deaths is a novel that is difficult to place in any particular box. Primarily set in one the more renowned red light districts of Calcutta/Kolkata, it highlights the horrendous plight of sex-workers as experienced through the eyes of Lalee. Lalee was sold off as a young girl to a notorious brothel owner, Shefali Madam, and for years has been plying her trade under horrendous conditions with little reward at the Blue Lotus.
Her most ardent admirer is Tilu Shau, an erotic novelist with dreams of writing a book that the whole world will be talking about some day. A disappointment to his family, Tilu has a vivid imagination losing himself in fantasies of the olden days when Calcutta was a much grander place to live. He found an unexpected niche in erotic fiction which just about pays his bills. His one extravagance are his visits to Lalee, a woman that he is completely smitten with.
One evening the body of a sex-worker is found murdered, her body mutilated, in the room opposite Lalee, while Tilu is there. Under instruction from Lalee he immediately leaves the scene but is struggling with what he saw. Lalee is tormented, scared for her own safety and that of her friends. With the police very slow to intervene, a local Sex Worker Collective steps up, in an attempt to pressurise the powers that be into action.
Lalee is presented with an opportunity to work in place of the dead girl, a promotion of sorts which would require her to work as a more high-end escort. With the promise of a more pleasing lifestyle and more disposable income, it is an offer that Lalee cannot refuse. She needs more money to help her brother and his family and this opportunity comes just at the right time. But Lalee is about to embark on the most dangerous and violent days of her life as the reality of her situation comes crashing down. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lalee, Tilu is searching for her, hoping to finally take her away from the life she lives before it is too late.
Small Deaths is an extremely affecting read. Prostitution is accepted as part of life in certain areas of India and the police generally turn a blind eye. These women are left very much to fend for themselves so the community spirit is strong and the sense of friendship is palpable. They look out for each other where possible but underneath it all, they are all just surviving. The references in the novel to child trafficking are stomach churning. There are no actual images but what’s alluded to is sickening and very distressing. It is uncomfortable reading but also necessary to highlight the existence of such a brutal and heinous evil.
Disturbing in content, Small Deaths highlights the day-to-day existence of thousands of women drawn into a life of a sex-worker for whatever reasons. With descriptions that would break the heart of any reader, Rijula Das somehow manages to incorporate warmth and wit throughout, which does add a much-needed lighter tone to some parts of the book.
Small Deaths is an engaging and informative debut raising many important societal issues. It is a gritty and stark read but at its core are courageous and determined individuals who long for a better life, who long for escape.
[ Bio ]
Rijula Das received her PhD in Creative Writing/prose-fiction in 2017 from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where she taught writing for two years. She is a recipient of the 2019 Michael King Writers Centre Residency in Auckland and the 2016 Dastaan Award for her short story Notes From A Passing. Her short story, The Grave of The Heart Eater, was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019. Her short fiction and translations have appeared in Newsroom, New Zealand and The Hindu. She lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand