Home > Fiction > The Hooghly River
Published: Mon Apr 15 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 99 Relationships Sexuality Illness
The Hooghly River

Chandu measured her day not by hours but by the clock of her bladder, by how much time elapsed between trips to the toilet. Thirty minutes, twenty minutes, thirty-five, fifteen, fifteen, fifteen. A strong, dark stream the first few times, after she woke late in the morning, her small room brimming with clots of light, the reassuring touch of the pillow under her head, and then just weak tributaries, her body draining itself as the day wore on. In the bathroom she shared with all the other women in the house, Chandu squatted low and moaned through the rills of pain, her urethra burning as if it were flushing out stinging insects.

Through the door Priya interrupted Chandu’s groaning. “I know that sound,” she said. “You have a UTI. You need a doctor.” Chandu could hear the rakish sound of a plastic comb moving through hair, Priya counting slowly from one to a hundred.

She was always telling Chandu things she already knew. Priya was sanctimonious, selfless to a fault. She devoted all her time to organizing demonstrations, helping new girls settle in and get papers, and negotiating with the cops as they chewed their paan and spat it all over the house’s walls, washing them red. It was important work, she knew, but Chandu avoided those gatherings, brimming with crowds ready to set things on fire, to pelt police officers with stones and rubbish. Priya was coordinating a protest scheduled to take place in two days. Chandu would not go. She wasn’t scared or above it all—she was just lazy. Her free time was for being free. She didn’t want to squander it begging big men in air-conditioned offices for a little more freedom.

Chandu emerged from the cubicle and washed her hands, looking in the mirror dotted with finger smudges and runoff from years of makeup as Priya instructed her on the importance of urinating after sex. The comb moved in Priya’s hands as she gestured and talked, like a second, ragged mouth. Her eyes were ringed with kajal; her brown sari draped elegantly around her tall, narrow frame; all her features were angular and pinched upwards like a prehistoric bird’s. The color of her sari matched her skin, so that Priya looked like she was folding into herself. The effect arrived at beauty sideways, forcing one to reconsider what beauty was.

“You think I don’t know?” Chandu leaned against the sink. “You say that every time.” Her sleep had been erratic, interrupted by the infection.

“You know you can’t work until it’s healed, right? It’ll make it worse.”

“I’ll see the doctor,” Chandu said.

“I’ll get an appointment with Ganguly. And I’ll come with you.” The union had elected Priya as president a few months ago—she’d seemed to settle into the new position quickly, efficient and determined. She said her days of sex work were behind her for now, that she wanted to devote all her time to solving the women’s problems. Chandu thought she had a little too much time on her hands.

Dr. Ganguly was their usual doctor at the hospital on Chittaranjan Avenue—they couldn’t afford Belle Vue or Woodlands. Ganguly was reliable, at least. He’d helped the women through infections, injuries, abortions, and pregnancies, though the government hospital was often dirty and out of supplies. He’d delivered Chandu’s son; it wasn’t his fault the baby had not survived. A year had passed since Chandu relinquished his small body to the river. She’d had so many candidates for names: Anir, Arup, Kaustav. Even now she found herself turning the names over in her mind, trying to decide which fit her son best, though he was long gone, would never return.

“I’ll WhatsApp you to confirm the time,” Priya said, and left as the other women started to come in, holding buckets and toothbrushes and bars of soap worn down to their last nubs.


Sonagachi operated on its own timetable. The rest of Calcutta pretended the neighborhood didn’t exist until night fell in thick curtains of smog, but it always pulsed with life—even if only the people who lived there could feel it. Motorbikes growled low under the windows of the house, autos grumbled past, the fruit seller came around again, hawking guavas sprinkled with rock salt. Chandu was back in the bathroom already, peeing and checking her Facebook.

In the last few weeks she’d received a strange excess of friend requests. They were always from men, or maybe boys—bored and lonely. Chandu never had any friends in common with them. Sometimes she got as many as ten a day. She thought it might be a joke—Rima or some other friend creating fake accounts to spook her. But neither Rima nor anyone else she asked knew anything about it.

Chandu was not the name she used online, nor was it the name her parents had given her. Her profile pictures were stock images of pink or purple flowers superimposed with inspirational messages, and one solitary picture of Shah Rukh Khan. The women in Sonagachi knew of her new account, and mostly she had a profile because Priya had asked her to make one to like posts on the union’s page.

Chandu was a professional name, an adopted identity, the name she went by in the house, which clients whispered to her in hot, throaty gasps in her corner room, the green walls a canvas for strange shadows. Chandu wondered if the friend requests were from her clients, if they had identified her somehow. But no—she scrolled through the profiles now, walking back to her bedroom—they bore no clear resemblance to the men she knew. The taxi driver who came every Friday, his hurried touch, the precise way in which he arranged their limbs together. The bespectacled man who visited sporadically, who talked little but stank of scales and guts and blood. The paan wallah near the post office, the ticklish eruptions of hair running down his back. The low-ranking constable with bad breath and a nice smile. The man who wore elaborate ties and fedoras that he was always forgetting at the house.

There were her high-profile clients too, old clients from when she first started, when she was seventeen. But those men would never risk making contact, wouldn’t even lift their eyes if they saw her at a metro station or at the mandi buying vegetables. Not that they’d go to either of those places—they traveled the streets in chauffeured cars, had their groceries delivered to their doorsteps. A businessman, salt and pepper beard, who dealt in imports and exports. The Chennai police inspector who visited when he was in town, staying with his daughter. A local politician from the opposition party, with his obtrusive mustache, his bowl of belly, who always fell asleep after exactly an hour. She allowed him to stay on her narrow bed deep into the morning. He paid well. He doted on her, he brought her gifts—pink nail polish, chocolate pastries decorated with spun sugar and fruit, and once, a gold necklace. The money she’d been able to put away came almost entirely from them. She couldn’t charge as much now—that was for the younger women.

It was impossible to remember them all. Were those the men who haunted her now, the ones who’d vanished without leaving a thumbprint on her memory? She let the requests linger, neither accepting nor rejecting them, the men’s disembodied faces sequestered in a neat column she could scroll through.


The hospital’s waiting room was overflowing with sick people. Chandu hoped the prim nurse with a mole the size of an eye would call her name before she had to pee again. The others, who looked sicker than her, would undoubtedly take up more of the doctor’s time. Visiting the bathroom would mean relinquishing her chair—a hard plastic seat sticky with her sweat; even now hungry onlookers surveyed the room for any lapses, any fidgety children who might run away from their tired mothers, who would then run after them. An elderly woman stood in a corner, supported by her cane, and a man in a tie offered up his seat. Kiss-ass, Chandu thought.

Chandu was alone. She’d made an appointment with a different doctor at a different hospital—a stranger, whoever was on call here—and hadn’t bothered to tell Priya. Seeing someone new was risky. She’d met Dr. Ganguly several times since the birth of her son, at events organized by the union. Still, there was something unsettling about seeing him again in that same hospital, its peach exterior, its cold blue interior. She didn’t want to investigate the impulse.

The nurse announced the name on Chandu’s PAN card, acquired during a short stint as a domestic worker in a well-off Calcutta home, sweeping floors and handwashing expensive clothes. She’d liked the madam’s daughter, Madhavi, but the job left her no room for a life of her own. Most of the women in Sonagachi had no ID at all, and most of them only had bank accounts at the cooperative started decades ago by other sex workers. As she rose, she caught a glimpse of the woman who slid into her vacated seat, wearing an orange kurti and loose pants. The woman had a familiar profile, a face Chandu recalled from her village—she raised her hand weakly in what would have been a wave if she’d completed the gesture, but the woman’s eyes were fixed stubbornly on her phone.

Dr. Mina Gupta’s office was electric white. The walls were bare and so was the desk, as though she’d just moved in and hadn’t had a chance to decorate. Sweat collected in trembling drops on the doctor’s upper lip, and her eyeliner was smudged, a thin cloud circling the corners of her eyes. No one had bothered to tell her, or she didn’t care enough. The smudges had an unreal quality—so uniform it seemed as if someone had smeared them with great care.

Dr. Gupta looked up from her desk without a smile, then glanced at the stark red watch on her wrist. She asked Chandu’s name, age, and weight, and wrote her answers on a crisp notepad, printed with her name and the hospital’s address.

Chandu described the burning, the endless trips to the bathroom.

“Textbook UTI,” Dr. Gupta said. “The nurse will give you things for a urine test but you should start the medication anyway. Tell your husband no until the burning passes.”

“I’m not married,” Chandu said, sitting on the chair facing Dr. Gupta, though she hadn’t been invited to take a seat. Dr. Gupta looked at her intently now, for the first time.

“Okay. Then no previous pregnancies, I assume?”

“I have a child.” Chandu said. She didn’t want to explain, not to this woman.

“And how old are you?”

“Thirty-eight,” Chandu said in a low voice. “Currently sexually active,” she added. It was obvious to her what Dr. Gupta would say next.

“Please urinate before and after sex. Monogamous?”


“What do you expect then?” Dr. Gupta’s expression remained unchanged. Her pen rolled away from her, and she didn’t attempt to retrieve it. “Have you been tested for HIV and STIs?”

“I’m tested frequently. Currently negative.”

Recognition dawned on Dr. Gupta’s face. The remoteness between them grew cold and large. “Have you paid for this consultation already?” Chandu stared, then nodded. Dr. Gupta hurriedly wrote a prescription for antibiotics and handed it over. “Next!” she yelled through her closed door, and Chandu heard the nurse’s dry voice blaring outside.


Rima and Chandu charred eggplants to a pulp, dousing them in salt and chili powder. The smoke was as white as foaming bathwater and they flailed their hands to clear it away. Chandu had spent the night after her appointment at Rima’s, who lived nearby, avoiding Priya, ignoring her phone calls. She’d have to go back now. Her blue notification ticker pulsed with friend requests again—more men, always more men: Raju and Nawazuddin and Rajesh and Kumar and Rajiv. Nearly twenty requests. She showed her old Samsung to Rima.

“These jobless men,” Rima said, grabbing the phone, clicking on their names. “Do any of them look rich?”

None of them did. Chandu wondered if the whole thing was a bizarre glitch. Were they real people? Was this some strange new scam? She wondered what they wanted from her, what would happen if she accepted. Would the men enter her foggy digital life and then make their way into her real one, or would her phone contain them forever? She wasn’t frightened of them exactly, but she felt marked, watched, and somehow still adrift, as if they were asking a question she couldn’t answer.

After lunch, Chandu walked Rima to the local parlor, where Rima wanted to get her underarms waxed. Her usual waxing girl remarked under her breath that Chandu could use a pedicure and maybe a haircut for those split ends and Rima giggled. Rolling her eyes, Chandu used the parlor’s tiny closet of a bathroom and started towards the house, stopping for a cup of chai and a packet of Kurkure despite the tumults of heat disassembling every person foolish or unlucky enough to be outside. It was right before the monsoons, when the heat rises to an unbearable pitch, the sky humid with pent-up longing.

The earthen cup shot steam in her hand, and Chandu licked her fingers clean of spicy orange residue. She walked down the Sonagachi streets, pausing to talk to the guava seller and the barber who gently shaved men’s beards, their faces engulfed in foam. She could feel the barber’s eyes on her hips. There were posters on the walls for the demonstration tomorrow, and thinking of Priya waiting for her, Chandu walked a little slower.

She felt a sudden, gulping desire for beauty, an ardent wish to mark all her years in this place, even the bad ones—this place which always pulled her through. She’d left it, once, to work in other people’s houses, then returned—almost two decades she’d spent here. Such tides of emotion came to Chandu more often since her son’s death—sputtering under the surface until they swelled up in grief or joy or both at once. Afterwards she would forget what she’d felt, forget that she’d ever been a different woman.

Flowers would do—jasmine and marigold. She would put them in her hair later, arrange them in the little plastic cups and tin cans Priya hoarded in the house. The florist came into view—she had no money left on her, but the people around here knew who Chandu was, even if in the city beyond Sonagachi she moved like a ghost—transparent, though still jarring, even frightening, if she was somehow seen. She was invisible here too, in a way, because she belonged to these locales; she could be absorbed so easily into them.

The severed heads of flowers greeted her from the florist’s wooden stand. The florist was across the street, folded into a congregation of gossiping men. Fragments of speech drifted towards Chandu and she sewed them together—the men were discussing a former member of their group who’d borrowed money from one of them and then fled, leaving his wife behind. There was a rumor going around that he’d left to live with someone else, a man from the city. The gossipers weren’t unkind exactly—mostly they were curious, testing out theories and offering each other secret scraps of knowledge. The florist had taken a hard stance, that they should report the theft to the police. The others laughed. They knew the cops would do nothing.

Chandu tried to catch his eye twice, thrice—the florist kept talking to the other men, gesturing wildly about some outsized happening. The fourth time she failed to get his attention, she grabbed a batch of flowers and sprinted all the way home, leaving orange and white petals in her wake, the streets fragrant with her small delinquency.

She walked through the house, stopping to greet the others, wondering where Priya was. Devi was applying mosquito repellent to her exposed calves and arms, the neem lingering in the air. The mosquitoes fled through the open door, through the barred windows, towards the other women. Kohinoor was sprawled across a dari, on the phone with her sister, who was asking for a small loan to pay the school fees for her daughter. Geeta took her laundry off the line that threaded the length of the courtyard, stiff and warm from the heat, and handed the clothes to her son, who stood beside her with a plastic basket. Debapriya and Sara squinted at Sara’s phone, sharing a pair of earphones, watching the same soap opera Chandu followed, in which the mother-in-law had miraculously come back to life and now was dying once more.

In her sweet-smelling room, Chandu napped for a few hours, exhausted from the afternoon. Summer sapped a body. By the time she woke, her Facebook account had accumulated more pleas from strangers. She lay in bed scrolling with growing bewilderment. She placed a cup of jasmine directly under her nose, then threw some petals on her phone, as if the scent and beauty would sanctify it.

One request was from a “Salim Mistry,” the name of her son’s father. She stared at it for a long time, until her eyes began to hurt from the strain. He wasn’t a client. They’d been in love for a short, blissful while, but it hadn’t lasted—they were no longer in touch. When she’d told him she was pregnant, he asked, hesitating, if it was his, how she could know. Chandu insisted the child belonged to him. She was practiced at her job, much more careful with the other men. Would she keep it? he asked.

There’d been pregnancies before, notions half formed and then discarded, never carelessly but always urgently. But this felt like her last chance. Her body had changed. Emphatically, proudly, she said yes, and Salim disappeared. He sent her a text message—“Sorry”—then she didn’t hear from him again until the baby’s last rites. She wondered who’d told him. She was furious at that person, billowing threats at all the women in the house, who tried to calm her down. She’d carry that rage inside her like another organ for the rest of her life.

Priya, Rima, and all the women who lived in the house, along with some women from the union, accompanied her to the ghats, the trees rinsed with dew. They watched as Chandu carried the body into the Hooghly. Funeral pyres sent orange flares upwards all along the shore. Traditionally, a man—the son or the father, the husband or the brother—carried out the last rites, but Chandu had resisted the priest’s injunctions. Salim stood silently on the river bank, maintaining a neat distance. Afterwards he brushed her shoulder and said it again. “Sorry.” She cried then, finally, as the sun rose.

In the tiny circle of his profile was a skinny man in a leather jacket, standing by a body of water. She tried to click on the picture and zoom, but the profile was locked; there was no way to get a closer look at his microscopic face.

Was it him? What did he want? She declined that request, only that one, and his name disappeared from the horde. A sharp pinprick of grief—unwanted images of Salim—tightened her chest. Was it his reappearance that bothered her, or this repetition of his absence? But even with his name erased, a brood of virtual men gathered around her. They appeared faceless and nameless even though they had names and faces, as a crowd does. She had moved to the city for that kind of anonymity. Only in the city could she make money through sex unhampered.

What was so different about these requests? Dealing with strange men was what she did. Maybe it was that the men wanted to call her friend, wanted to see her posts, wanted some relationship that wasn’t transactional. But she was being naive. They probably knew nothing about friendship, nothing about care. She could have cared for her son.

Chandu was about to go to the bathroom when she heard knocking on the door.

“Where were you?” Priya yelled, her words echoing off the walls so that the hint of accusation multiplied. “I called so many times. Why didn’t you pick up? Didn’t I tell you to go to the doctor immediately?”

Chandu opened the door a crack and looked through. “You did—you told me not to wait,” she said, chewing on a piece of hair. “So I made an earlier appointment.”

Priya pulled the hair out of Chandu’s mouth. “Oh, you didn’t go to Ganguly—okay.” She paused, then continued in a quieter voice. “Was the other doctor fine?”

Chandu chewed on her hair more aggressively and recalled Dr. Gupta’s ruined eyeliner. She clicked her tongue. “Just great. Very nice doctor.”

“Fine.” Priya paced across a slender stretch of corridor. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”

Chandu blinked. “You wouldn’t have let me go.”

“And I would’ve been right.”

Chandu rolled her eyes, but didn’t bother to disagree. “So are you just here to scold me, Mother Priya?”

“You know what tomorrow is, right?”

“Is it your birthday?” Chandu said, winking with the single eye Priya could see, then laughing at her own irreverence. “You want a gift for being born?”

Priya chirped loudly. “Chandu,” she said, “the demonstration is tomorrow. Don’t act like you don’t know. We’re starting outside The Telegraph and marching to the BJP office.”

The demonstration was against the government’s new Aadhaar policy, a mandatory and unique identification number to be assigned to every citizen of India to serve as proof of identity. Getting an Aadhaar required bank accounts and documents that most women in Sonagachi did not have. The government had organized enrollment camps for sex workers, but the camps were only haphazard formalities, a way for the government to say it was doing what it could. Reza from the union had obtained an Aadhaar, but she was still refused her ration of wheat, rice, and lentils because her fingerprint authentication failed. “But these are my fingers,” she’d mumbled helplessly. “I didn’t take anyone else’s fingers.”

“I’m still sick, all right? But I’ll try to go,” Chandu said. She was sure Priya knew she was lying. She’d attended protests and demonstrations before, righteous and young, when she’d been grateful just to be alive. But now she felt that one less body would make no difference to the cause. Probably nothing would make a difference to this government.


The next morning, the sky the color of slate, Chandu made the mistake of telling Priya she was feeling a little better. Priya seized upon her small triumph immediately. You have to come, she said, even as Chandu shook her head no. The more Priya insisted, the more Chandu thought she detected anxiety in her voice, though she knew Priya would never admit to it. Do it for your sisters, Priya said over and over. Don’t abandon me again. And though Chandu wanted to scoff, she felt a twinge of guilt for evading her the other day. She couldn’t work, she didn’t have much else to do, all the women were going. She would go, she sighed, still reluctant.

At the demonstration, Chandu hung back. She avoided the florist’s gaze as he distributed the last of his jasmine for free to the protestors striding down the road with their cardboard signs, past a vibrant mural an NGO had painted to honor sex workers in the city, past the group of American students taking pictures of the dense streets. It wasn’t a weak showing, but Chandu knew it was smaller than Priya had hoped—the crowd consisted mostly of women and Sonagachi residents, so far. The women and a few of the men tucked the fragrant white jasmine blossoms in their hair, raising slogans on their way to the Telegraph office on Chowringhee, where the speeches would begin and the chanting would continue. Priya, walking near the front and cradling a loudspeaker in her hands, turned towards her flowering comrades and laughed. It never hurt to look pretty, she said.

Outside The Telegraph, she asserted the dangers of Aadhaar. Health clinics would begin requiring Aadhaar numbers, she shouted into the bullhorn. Even the clinics the women frequented for HIV testing and medication would. Their identities would become linked to their bodies, their whereabouts, their diagnoses. Their information would be stored in permanent databases.

“We are not paper women,” Priya roared, and the protestors bellowed their assent, chanting after her. Chandu clapped despite herself. This was why Priya had been elected—she could sweep anyone up with her.

The traffic police directed vehicles around them and the interrupted cars blasted their horns and drivers shouted complaints and spat into the street, but the noise was absorbed by the swelling of voices. The sun had abandoned the sky and the wind blew softly; bottles of water traveled down the front, aloft on so many indistinct arms. Another speaker ascended to the makeshift platform, a wooden crate—Geeta, who lived below Chandu. Geeta had tried to enroll her son in a government school, but he was denied admission because she had no Aadhaar to offer as proof. Others came to the front to share their testimonies, and then the crowd started to move; a serpentine coiling in the streets. Chandu began to feel the mass of her bladder weighing in on her. Maybe she could stop at a bathroom.

As they marched towards the BJP headquarters, shouting, singing songs, passing restaurants and streetside eateries that were packed with people, weaving through a flood of schoolgirls on their way home for the day, Chandu saw onlookers join in from the streets, either because they believed in the demands or because they were looking for a bit of revelry, some righteous disruption to their workdays. But even as some fell in, others drifted away—maybe they’d gotten tired, bored, or hungry. Or they had to pee. The protest moved past a bakery, and Chandu thought she’d stop on the way back, eyeing the shelves of pastries and iced cakes in shades of yellow, pink, white, brown. A few members of the CPI(M) had arrived to show support. So had a miniscule contingent of women from NGOs in the city. One of them, shielded by sunglasses, carried a sign that had nothing to do with the protest—*End Sex Trafficking, Now!—*and Chandu laughed in wheezing bursts. NGO people arrived at everything the union did, asking for something else.

By the time the slow-moving horde arrived at the BJP office, the group had thinned out significantly. Some abandoned the crowd when they saw the final destination, or huddled in small knots on the footpaths, retreating into their former role as spectators. A few uniformed officers watched from a distance. During the speeches, volunteers and cops had directed traffic around the people, but that was easier when the crowd had been substantial, thumping and belligerent. Now the cars and bikes snarled behind them impatiently.

The mass reached the doors of the BJP. There were meant to be more speeches, but the cops came closer, beating the streets with lathis. It happened quickly. Someone threw a stone at an oncoming car, and a brawl broke out. Someone threw another, which hit a police officer. The crowd ruptured in every direction as if the street were spewing people—cars rushing, protesters dispersing, uniforms charging.

Chandu had been too absorbed to find a bathroom. Before the rupture, before everyone fled, she saw pockets of familiar men, men, huddling, loitering, watching, shouting on the corners and footpaths. Perhaps they were just men she knew, blurred beyond names in the disarray of the afternoon. The angle of someone’s blue hat, the frame of another’s fake Ray-Bans, a squat man’s side profile—they suggested pixelated arrangements she had seen before. Were these the men? There was one in particular, a flower tucked in his ear, smoking a cigarette under an awning, a scratch running over his eyebrow, his childish face grinning. He seemed to want to tell her something. Maybe her son would have grown into such a man, a smiling face in the city’s streets, defiant and playful even in the moment before everything fell to pieces. There was no way to know, she would never know. If the men were searching for her, maybe all along she had been searching for them too. The man’s face—the way he looked now—moved within her. His appearance at the protest was like the experience of finally recalling a word, after days of trying and failing to remember it, not knowing how or from where it had returned. But it had returned. Whoever he was, he belonged in the same future as her.

She caught a last glimpse as she turned to leave, saw uniformed men handcuffing unlucky stragglers, saw Priya running. She waved and whistled to Priya and then paused in a discreet corner, waiting for her to get away, to catch up. Her bladder pressed, full and bursting, dousing her in the clarity of pain. She’d call the politician, have anyone who had been arrested released. She knew how to make him agree. But she couldn’t control what was happening now, what was gushing out of her all at once, liquid onto the footpath, the hot sticky joy of relief.

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Urvi Kumbhat’s work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, AGNI, The Margins, Lit Hub, Protean Mag, and elsewhere. A writer from Calcutta, she’s a PhD candidate in English at Princeton University. (updated 4/2024)

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