The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street by Jayanta Mahapatra
The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street is one of Mahapatra’s famous poems as is his poem Hunger. There is something common to the two poems, though there is a big difference between them too. Both poems have sexuality as their theme; but the atmosphere, the circumstances, the characters, and the working of the minds of the characters in the two poems are entirely different.
Calcutta is one of the notorious Indian cities so far as prostitution is concerned, and that is why Mahapatra here speaks about a “Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street“. In this poem Mahapatra gives us his assessment of the working of the mind of a customer when he visits a whorehouse, and he also throws some light on the working of the mind of a whore. The word “whore” means, of course, a prostitute or a harlot or a strumpet.
The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street opens with the words “Walk right in. It is yours.” It is not necessary for us to imagine that somebody has said these words to a would-be customer. It is possible that the poet wants us to imagine that the whorehouse is itself speaking these words or is to be imagined as having uttered these words to somebody who is about to enter this whorehouse. If the whorehouse had actually been able to speak like a human being, it would definitely speak these words or other words meaning the same thing.
A whorehouse belongs to any visitor who may have come to it deliberately and intentionally in quest of sexual gratification. We may further imagine that this whorehouse is “smiling into the lighted street” as if it were feeling amused (or pleased ?) by the arrival of yet another customer (who has come with great hopes but who would go back disappointed like the others). The speaker, whether it be the whorehouse itself or some spokesman speaking on behalf of the whorehouse asks the visitor to get ready to enjoy the pleasure which he is seeking.
This poem does not deal so much with the sexual encounter between a customer and a whore as with the working of the customer’s mind. Thus the poem has more of psychological interest than anything else. Sexuality is one of the most dominant instincts in all human beings and, more particularly, in males; and there are numerous stimulants in this world to keep this interest alive most of the time. The pictures of women, appearing in newspapers, magazines, periodicals, on posters pasted on the walls, and the pictures painted on hoardings are all stimuli which awaken the dormant sexual desire in a man and which intensify that desire if it has already arisen in his heart. That is why the customer in this poem suggests, or is given the advice, that he should think of the women he wished to “know” but has not been able to know.
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The customer is advised to think of the faces in the posters, and the faces on the public hoardings. All these faces are likely to be found in a whorehouse, if not exactly the same faces, then faces approximating to, or resembling, those which appear in the posters and on the public hoardings. Then, any customer going into a whorehouse would experience a sense of guilt because going to a house of prostitution, is, after all, not something respectable or dignified or decent. Visiting a prostitute is contrary to the moral code which has always prevailed in society though it has never actually been fully practised. That is why the customer in the poem feels, or is made to feel that nothing which he does here would make a “heresy” of the whorehouse. The sense of guilt of a customer deepens when he thinks of the women whom he has left behind in order to go to a whorehouse and have a new experience of sex.
There are the “dream children” that the customer is asked to think of even though the childless women, who need and who invent dream children, do not keep thinking of them all the time. The next thought that comes into the customer’s mind is that he would learn something more about women by having come into the whorehouse and by meeting a whore with whom he can have some kind of intimate talk. But the customer gets a shock when, in the course of the sexual act, the whore says, almost in a tone of finality:
“Hurry, will you? Let me go.”
There is nothing to startle us so far as the customer’s thinking is concerned. All customers, with the exception of the seasoned and hardened ones, have such thoughts when they go to a whorehouse.
The other important character in the poem is the whore. We are not given any elaborate picture of her. Nor is her mind analyzed in detail. But the way in which she behaves towards the customer is certainly described. She does what she thinks proper to please the customer. She does the sweet, little things; she does what the customer might have imagined she would do. And. finally, in the course of the sexual act she says what every prostitute says to a customer. She urges the customer to hurry up and let her go. Every prostitute wants to get rid of a customer as soon as she can because she is hoping that some other customer would soon come. She is concerned only with the commercial aspect of the whole transaction. The customer is a fool if he thinks that he would learn anything more about women than this commercial attitude of a prostitute. The customer is a fool if he becomes sentimental with her even to the smallest degree.
One other point to be noted is that, during the whore’s artificial amorous movements and gestures, the customer’s inner being reveals itself to him. Every human being has an inner life of which he is, most of the time, unconscious. In fact, a man’s inner personality may remain hidden from him till something happens to draw it out and make him aware of it. A man’s sexual relationship with a hired woman is certainly something exceptional if he is not a debauchee and if he is not a habitual visitor to a whorehouse. And that is why, in this poem, we are told that the statue of the man within comes back to him like a disobeying toy. Furthermore, we are told that most of the fancies and much of the make-believe, which a man has been treating as something real, are actually non-existent, or exist only in the imagination.
The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street is a most realistic poem; and it is therefore perfectly convincing. It may have something new for a novice who knows nothing about matters of this kind; but for men of the world who have had a wide-ranging social life, and who have had some taste of what is generally regarded as immoral sexual behaviour, there is nothing either remote or fantastic in this poem. Nor is there much of obscurity in this poem. The general purport of the poem is clear enough, though there may be a phrase here and a line there the meaning of which is not absolutely clear. The most realistic and the most convincing statements in the poem are those which tell us that the visitor to a whorehouse should think of the faces in the posters and on the public hoardings, that a customer feels ashamed of having come to a whorehouse, that a visitor to a whorehouse expects to learn something more about women, that a whore does what she thinks to be appropriate to please her customer and, above all, that the whore says:
“Hurry, will you? Let me go.”