I waited ages for the National Library to stock Wesley Leon Aroozoo's 'The Punkhawala and the Prostitute' (November 2021). It appeared in the catalogue but it wasn't available to borrow or to reserve. No digital copies available anywhere either. What the. Fine. Went to find the actual book at the bookshop.
The author didn't live in that era, but he did in-depth research for this book and wrote a fictional (and entirely convincing) tale young karayuki Oseki and Indian convict Gobind whose paths crossed in 19th century Singapore. We know the sad stories of the Indian convicts sent to the Straits Settlements as a cheap source of labor, and the comfort women that the Japanese army bent to their will. But the stories of the karayuki are not often heard. These are the powerless and defenseless Japanese women seized from their poor agricultural countryside and sold into the flesh trade across the world, and of course they were in Malaya too.
The book begins with recounting Gobind's and Oseki's respective journeys to Singapore on separate ships in the maybe 1869 or so. Gobind was on a ship as a convict bound in chains (no idea what he had purportedly done, killed his wife maybe) traveling from India to Singapore and caught up in a rebellion/mutiny. Oseki was on a ship from Nagasaki to Singapore under the impression that she would be 'wed' upon arrival. Her father had sold her into prostitution.
Gobind gets a job as a house servant to the colonial masters, a punkhawala. Oseki becomes a prostitute, a karayuki, at one of the two Japanese brothels on the street, and is known by her working name Panjang. They led separate lives too. The book centers on the year 1870 to 1871 in their lives. Their paths first crossed briefly one night at the House. Oseki was sent there to entertain the master of the House, and Gobind found her staring out at the verandah in the night.
She is spilling her sorrow and fears. Saying that she is being hurt time and again by my master. Her voice sounds like it is drowning, struggling to come up for air. I might be the only one who can help her. But Renuka, how do I? What can I do? I am just a slave. If I give in to the urge to help, I could never return to you. My master would bury me in a tiger ditch.
The woman lowers the cigarette as the evening breeze returns. She looks out from the veranda and into the night sky. The cigarette slowly crumbles into ashes, which scatter with the wind. The cigarette keeps burning and wasting away. She probably knows that she has wasted her breath on me tonight.
I’m better off in the pit, Renuka. It should have been me.
⚠️ Super Spoiler. Don't read beyond this line if you haven't read the book and intend to do so. STOP HERE.
In between the happenings in Singapore, the author reveals the protagonists' past lives and younger selves in continuous recollection and stirring of memories. Gobind was deaf and he literally had to live in a world of his own. He had mind demons to deal with too. He missed his dead wife, Renuka and his dead mama. Oseki missed her home in Amakusa and her father who was ironically the one who sold her into prostitution to cover his gambling debts.
It's quite an enjoyable story. Towards the end of the book, I grinned when I realized that the author had managed to include the stories of yokai, and turned the stories into fictional reality in this book. Gobind and Oseki's paths crossed again one fateful night when she came to the house and stole from his master. The master shot Oseki. Gobind tried to save her, but he was tied up by his master. The master of the House had gone quite mad, fixated on hunting down a tiger in the forest nicknamed Rimau Satan.
There was only one tragic ending for Oseki in her human form. She desperately wanted to go home. But she couldn't. She was grievously injured, and somehow not quite dead, and her body was taken to the forest to be disposed off. Her soul somehow transferred into the rumored and fabled majestic tiger nicknamed Rimau Satan.
Gobind was also injured. He could somehow see Oseki's soul in the tiger. What followed was a crazy turn of events which culminated in the master shooting many people to death, and the final death of the master. I wasn't very sure what happened to Gobind. The author kept it intentionally vague. Did he drop dead? Did he leave his second round of employment at the very same house that the previous Master lived in? Actually, I wasn't even sure what he did in India that caused him to become a convict bound for Singapore. He was indicted for murder, and I wasn't really reading the lines again to find out who exactly he was accused of murdering.
“Speaking of Rimau Satan, whatever happened to it?” Matthew Little asks. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard about it devouring someone.”
“If you must know... Rimau Satan was sighted going up north to Malaya. Then it was spotted in Siam. Rumour has it that it kept going north before it was finally caught in China. One of my Chinese importers told me that Rimau Satan was sold to a rich man who owns a private zoo in Amakusa, Japan. He supposedly adores animals and keeps many exotic ones. Well, good luck to him keeping a man-eating tiger as a pet!” Bastiani and the other men laugh.