Manish's first rendezvous with art and creativity was within the four walls of a kotha Image: Assad Dadan
I think it was William Faulkner who once said a brothel is, perhaps, the most ideal place to work because there are quiet hours in the morning, and the evenings are abuzz with a social life to draw from.
I didn't have to go seeking a brothel or a kotha to find my writing sanctuary. I lived in one.
Thumris, Begum Akhtar's ghazals, '80s Bollywood music, quibbles and a dilapidated kotha — all this faintly surmise my growing up years. The kotha is where I chose to dive into the floating arias, the kathak dances, and not the harsher realities that surrounded me. In retrospect, it sounds like I am romanticising the truth, but when the truth is so unbearable, escapism — or in my case, finding a channel to express — helped me embrace it.
My head was in the clouds — immersed in Urdu poetry, reading the French existential writers, writing about feminism, absorbing the sights and sounds and turning them into a memoir. Between the ages of 15 and 20, I wrote a diary. I wrote about social shaming, misogyny, violence and abuse that surrounded us, but also the magical evening hour when the lights came on and the courtesans sang and danced with grace, trying to eke a living in the most dignified manner possible. Courtesans are not sex workers, they are also artistes — albeit unrecognised — without formal training with equal or more passion for the performing arts.
My mother's stage name is Rekha. She is fourth or fifth in a line of nine daughters. The pressure on my grandmother of bearing a son — as most Indian families believe only men can carry their lineage forward — ended when the tenth child was born. The daughters were raised with little money and food. They led a frugal life — jobless and wandering as gypsies on the outskirts of Pune.
As a child, I was thrilled to listen to stories about my mother and her sisters stealing vegetables from fields and plucking fruits from private orchards. They used to make a stock (kind of a soup) of rice, water and ginger, and eat it with a side plate of chilies for flavour. It sounds like an adventure to a child, but as we grow up, we realise how arduous life is for some. I mean, at least to me, it was fun, as I never had that upbringing — running in the fields and watching open-air cinema without paying a penny. To put it precisely, I was a bit more privileged than my mum, so her stories filled me with awe.
My mother was also a child bride. Her mother got her married to an older man. She was taken to Agra to live with her in-laws. Things weren't easy for her there. Her in-laws were brusque with her, treating her like cattle. She was often harassed by her mother-in-law over petty issues. After a few years, working laboriously in Agra, my mother was taken to her sister-in-law's kotha in Kolkata. Over there, she was trained to sing and dance and she started working as a courtesan. It was during her stay in the kotha that she fell in love with one of the patrons — although courtesans aren't known to get married and settle down, as perpetuated by happy-ending Bollywood dramas.
For the first four years of my life, I was raised in Mumbai's Congress House, and later in Kolkata, when my mother shifted between the two cities to find her footing.
My days in the kotha were magical. I woke up to ghazals and the sound of women practising Kathak. I was enamoured. It is, perhaps, because of the training I received by default — "observing in Hindi, expressing in English" — that I could easily translate the sights and sounds into my personal diaries. For my safety, I was sent to a boarding school in Darjeeling. In those days, getting admitted to a boarding school in the hills was easy, with no background check required. I wasn't alone, there were other kids from the kotha who had also been admitted to the same school.
I still remember how I got my surname. I didn't have a real surname when I was admitted to the school because my mother was not legally married. I was admitted as Manish Gagade. Gagade is the surname of my mother's elder sister's husband. The school authorities couldn't pronounce Gagade. They mistook it for Gaekwad, and the surname stayed.
I wasn't an extrovert kid. I kept to myself. I loved reading books as a kid, but unfortunately, I didn't have enough money to buy them. I think I started with Winnie-the-Pooh and moved on to Archie comics in school, and later to the books of Somerset Maugham and Guy De Maupassant, which were freely available in the school library.
At home, in the kotha, there was really no culture of reading. I used to quell my thirst for books by reading newspapers, the only reading material I could afford. I bought them with the daily pocket money I used to get for a snack. I used to raid a local raddi shop for magazines and rent them for a negotiated price. The raddi shop owner later allowed me to read for free as well when he saw how obsessed I was with his kachda, finding gems among them. To me, reading meant more than eating, I suppose.
The Telegraph kind of played an important role then. I used to read the daily thoroughly. It introduced me to films, music, books. I remember being fascinated with Franz Kafka whose photograph I once saw in an editorial. He was wearing a hat and had a haunting look in his gelid but soulful eyes. When I read The Castle, I did not understand a thing, but later, after reading an illustrated version of his short story The Metamorphosis in The Gentleman magazine, I warmed up to his books and eventually read his diaries.
I used to visit the kotha in Kolkata once a year, during winter vacations. But I didn't mingle with the other kotha kids. I was always blissfully sheltered inside the kotha. I did my graduation from St Paul's, Kolkata. My first job was as administrative staff for the Gourmet Club at the Oberoi Grand hotel in Kolkata. Then I jumped several jobs — in call centres across Kolkata, Gurgaon, Bangalore and Pune — and finally landed in Mumbai, where I now work as a freelance reporter. This month, HarperCollins is publishing my first book, a travel-fiction roman-a-clef called Lean Days.
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day,” said the wise Winnie-the-Pooh. My river of stories has flowed gently out of the kotha and found its bank.
(As told to Sreyashi Mazumdar)