The Buddha of the Brothel is a poignant memoir by Kris Advaya. It is a thrilling, eloquent, and deeply personal story of heartbreak, love and misadventure, The Buddha of the Brothel is the true story of Kris’s journey in India—a journey that not only made him cross paths with the love of his life but also cross swords and more with the drug lords and mafia. All for love. For Radha, the woman who stole his heart away, was a sex worker in Pune’s notorious Budhwar Peth, the red-light district.
Beautifully articulated, this piece of non-fiction writing is staggeringly heartfelt. Kris’s account is by turns anguished, humorous, hopeful, and bewildered, as he wades through a world he had never expected to encounter.
About the author: Kris Advaya emerged from the void in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1976. After crawling his way through a stint in the military, and already multilingual, he spent five years studying French, Russian, and literature at the University of Ljubljana. Always artistic, he spent most of these years writing songs and abusing an electric guitar while playing with his alternative rock band. Soon afterwards, life took him to India and its enticing ways, and he’s been trying to cure himself of nomadism ever since.Below you can read an excerpt from his book, Buddha of the Brothel. Courtesy: Fingerprint Publishing.
An Excerpt from Buddha of the Brothel
I was slightly ashamed of starting my relationship with Arun by lying to him. But what could I have said?
‘Hey, Arun, I fell in love with a hooker, you know how it is. So I was a bit confused and couldn’t get the book. But you get me, right?’ No, this situation did not warrant unconditional honesty; nobody would profit from it. Deep down I knew that when the first opportunity presented itself I would take off to see Radha again, and that I wasn’t going to be stopped. Arun, too, was still a mystery to me. Would he throw me out of the apartment and not want to share his skills if the results of my imbalance came to light?
Never mind the fact I had no idea of the legality of my possible meeting with a “commercial sex worker” (as the official job designation went).
Arun was faintly irritated by my failure in finding the bookshop, but didn’t make a big deal out of it, so we jointly decided that we would first embark on the meditation course and postpone massage theory until the next day. In the afternoon, after the meditation was over, I would return to the city and be more focused and determined in my efforts to locate the correct shop. And naturally, my mind also made the silent resolution to visit Radha and find out if I could meet her away from her workplace.
At one o’clock sharp, the first meditation session was ready to get under way. Both of us were sitting on the couch cross-legged—Arun in his usual cheap-looking, overly tight trousers that he wore to the clinic, making me wonder if they were really the most comfortable choice he could find. His whine of a voice suggested otherwise, but all of a sudden took on a solemn tone, excessively so, as if trying to make a lasting impression. The scripted lines for the ceremony were ready to roll.
‘Simply sit down, keep the hands in your lap, turned upwards, one on top of another, and close your eyes. You must be fully dead to the world! After about fifteen minutes have passed, slowly, gently open the eyes. According to me, you should do this three times a day, once before breakfast, once before lunch, and again before your dinner.’
That was it. No advice to keep the back and neck erect—the usual mainstay of meditational instructions, no focusing on any part of the body, no visualizations, no mantras. And only fifteen minutes? How was I going to become ‘dead to the world’ within fifteen minutes? I couldn’t help feeling a pinch of disappointment. At the same time, if I didn’t have to do anything, there was at least no way of doing it wrong.
As I closed my eyes, a familiar lightlessness quickly soothed my pressing doubts. The distant sounds of traffic became less and less obtrusive, and the rhythmic humming of the ceiling fan softly cradled me into a dreamlike awareness. My limbs began to feel as if under waves of warm anaesthesia. The mind offered no resistance and moments later entered the vaporous images of early childhood photographs.
The spring sun’s tender light envelops the lawn behind the house. The warm foehn wind of May unfreezes bones, awakens hearts to love and foolish hopes. My kid brother, only three, is standing defiantly, arms crossed, eyes piercing. The let-down corners of his mouth say, ‘This is it? This is all life has to offer?’ My lips are cheerful. I know the camera demands a smile, even if it masks the forceful loss of innocence. My mother, stuck behind the camera, needs these memories to make her perseverance worthy of her tears. An urge to escape gusts me into the classroom where I can always bury her pain.
The uniforms are crimson scarves and dark-blue, red-starred caps commemorating anti-fascist resistance that won Yugoslavia freedom without Soviet or British tanks. Healthy, relaxed, we seem united, yet separateness lurks unseen. As does my violence. Memories of kindergarten torture still dictate reactions to perceived threats, but I can feel them releasing their grip, and I again emit a smile. Little do I know it would be erased less than a year later . . .
A cough brought back the awareness of muscles, joints, skin. Sounds of the fan and the traffic returned, now mixed with the snores of Arun’s vertical nap. Opening his eyes, he didn’t seem to notice the exercise hadn’t had a similarly pacifying effect on his student. Or maybe he was already consumed by hunger, knowing these sessions were always rewarded with versatile meals, painstakingly cooked by his wife.
Within minutes of swallowing the last amazing mouthful, I was ready to plunge into the fumes of the old city. The thought of seeing Radha again gave rise to signs that were telling me my lunch would be digested faster than I would have wanted. I was still undecided about the exact course of action. What I did know, however, was that I would first get the Ayurvedic book so Arun’s beads wouldn’t have to heal an ulcer and only then rush towards the area where I’d last seen the black beauty.
Two hours later, textbook mission accomplished, I was near the milk bar where I had first talked to Radha and in another ten minutes located the mouth of the brothel’s circular road. And then saw her again.
My heart switched into celebration mode. Although marking the same spot as the previous day, I could barely recognize her; dressed in a traditional sari, Radha looked a wholly different creature from the girl I’d met only twenty-four hours before. And on that second day, her face was sullen resignation.
Did I from the very beginning think of her as a victim in need of saving? I have sometimes discredited my emotions, recalling her expression of that afternoon. Was the infatuation simply a method of a subconscious quest to find someone worse off, someone that would allow me to exercise a “higher” love, thereby forgetting my own vexing issues?
‘Can you come and have some milk with me?’ I wanted to talk somewhere less crowded. Self conscious about my distinct skin colour, I felt I was the focal point of all the eyes of the area.
‘Today I can’t come. You come inside.’ She nodded in the direction of the entrance as if the location needed clarifying.
‘Could I talk to your boss? To maybe change that?’
‘It’s okay, don’t worry, come inside my house.’
Her boredom had disappeared in a second, with the eyes again mocking my puppy-like shyness. This seemingly unsophisticated girl was sharper at reading insecurities than any guru or casting director.
I would be back soon, I told her, resolved I would not return to the suburbs without talking to her in private. No chance. There was just that simple job of shedding inhibitions to carry through.
Walking away, I realized I had been paranoid: not a soul was staring at me. Having spent all of my previous time in India down south, I seemed to have forgotten many northerners were not a great deal darker than me, and that Pune was transforming into a Mumbai-like cluster of Indian identities.
Suddenly, I was sick inside out. Sick of my feelings, sick of my shyness, sick of the hold a prudish morality had over my conscience. It may have been years since I had last tasted alcohol, yet at this moment I felt a raging thirst for any substance that would wash away or at least deaden as many hindrances as possible. Cannabis was out of the question; I would never dare risk incarceration abroad. I could still recall an article about a foreigner who’d been arrested on a drug-related charge somewhere in India, then hung himself in his cell before the case even got to trial. Where would I even find weed in Pune? And if high, wouldn’t I get lost among stalls selling laddus or other sweets before I even reached the brothel? No, it had to be some form of alcohol. But which? And where would I get it in India?
Having never seen an alcoholic drink being sold in an Indian grocery shop, I concluded a bar would be a safer bet. By the time I finally found one, in a dingy alley about a half a mile away, the overrun city streets had already been swept and darkened by nightfall. Locating the bar (and its toilet) proved to be a much-needed breakthrough, with my bladder on the verge of going through the Mumbai fiasco all over again. The proprietor of the next house I pissed on might not be as charitable as the awkward pimp.
Having relieved myself, I took a look around the interiors of my chosen shelter of intoxication. A dim, yellowish light revealed an opium-den atmosphere, consisting of decades old worn-out furniture and plasticky chandeliers. Religions had made sure there was no casual drinking culture in most parts of the subcontinent, and since it was a little early to get wasted, there was only one other customer in the small room. He was a stout man in his forties, his haircut that optimistic comb-over which aims to conceal last stage baldness with a few dozen sidelong hairs. Our high school Latin teacher had had the same sad scalp hair ratio, and we’d often wondered whether one of us should let him know how nobody was fooled, in the end realizing you didn’t mess with an ego of a pedagogue and survive to tell the tale.
Drinking alcohol would often transport me into the home of my maternal grandmother’s second husband and his hospitable glasses of wine during our Sunday visits. I was ten when it began. Even at my paternal grandmothers’ home, an integral part of our growing-up diet consisted of slices of bread dunked in the liquid we called “wine-water-sugar”. Bread being optional. But whereas local wine had few narrow allegiances, the two leading brands of beer were a source of fervid sectarian disputes, and after drinking their favourite, votaries would always claim they were about to piss the chief contender.
While the Kingfisher beer turned out to be decent enough, I was in no mood to compare it to anything I’d drank and pissed in my early youth. Once I saw the third bottle approach emptiness, I felt I had drowned any emotion or thought that might prevent me from entering a brothel. I was good to go.
Radha was still outside when I returned. It was early, so she might not have had a client while I’d been away. I pretended she hadn’t. Ever. The two colleagues were there as well, both of them again embellished by profuse quantities of make-up.
The taller and older one looked distinctly East Asian, though I would later find out she was from a village in the Nepalese part of the Himalayas. She wore a face etched with melancholy fatigue, and hints of a saintly aura, surely resting on thousands of forbearing nights. Knowing South Asian beauty standards, I presumed her white skin must have made her a star when she was young, and I couldn’t help wondering whether the fair-skin obsession had more to do with a legacy of colonialism, an ancient idea of purity, or the seemingly universal notion of class structure, fairness being a symbol of exemption from manual labour.
The other girl was short, nearly as dark as Radha, her only distinctive features a nose ring and beautiful shiny hair, the thickest and longest of the three. Wearing tight jeans, she also had the most suggestive moves, putting me in mind of a construction worker eyeballing big-breasted women in minis.
Radha gave no indication that she’d been expecting me. She was waiting to be asked inside, and when she was, she simply turned and disappeared into the house.
Following her footsteps, I lumbered into the ancient building which appeared to be at least a century old, a defiant remnant of the Raj. I had neither inclination nor time to absorb the details of the ground floor since I had to promptly climb the creaky wooden stairs, Radha having done so with such speed as if I’d visited a dozen times before. The second floor was essentially one large back room; on the left, it was split into a hallway and three tiny cubicles, on the right, a room and a kitchen for the madam. The partitioning job reminded me of my Mumbai lodge, except that it looked to have been done within a few hours by using flimsy planks.
As we entered her cubicle, the cage at the end of the hallway, the first thing assailing my senses was the heat, oppressive despite the time of day. The outside wall was facing west, so the afternoon sun must have triumphed over the feeble attempt at insulation, particularly the make-do roof made of tin plates.
Radha asked for three hundred rupees, which my wallet produced without bargaining; I must have already been in love. Briefly assessing my face, she demanded another hundred to cover the short-term rental of the room. Or was it the bed? I couldn’t concentrate on trifles. She put the four bills inside her bra and vanished without a word.
Left alone, I realized I was sweating profusely. The warmth radiating from the tin had greatly intensified the effects of alcohol, by itself challenging after nearly eight years of abstinence. I sat on the bed and took in my surroundings, hoping Radha hadn’t just robbed me.
The size of the dimly lit cubicle was identical to the one I’d had in Mumbai, four by six feet, with the bed again taking up most of it. On all four sides I was enclosed by wooden boards, unfit to provide any amount of privacy, but as the other two girls were in the street, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I wondered whether sounds of abutting action bothered the johns or could it have been an additional turn on.
The walls were decorated with posters and magazine cuttings of famous actresses of Hindi cinema— Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, and a couple of others, unknown to my Bollywood vocabulary, while the door was governed by a picture of a goddess I wasn’t familiar with either; it must have been one among thousands of regional divinities. I remembered it wasn’t until World War II that Indian human population for the first time outnumbered its three hundred and thirty million gods. Penicillin, the scourge of the gods.
As I faced the goddess’ fearsome features, the door opened, and Radha re-entered as briskly as she’d left.
‘Okay, time is thirty minutes. Have you condom?’ Had it? I hardly remembered what it was.
‘No. I mean . . . I want to talk to you, Radha.’
Her name barely pronounced, she was already half naked, her undressing observably faster than the image of all that cloth made you think possible. The whitish pink underwear emphasized her dusky skin, its hue so close to black, that foreigners who’d never been to South India (nor idolized Mindy Kaling) might conclude she was from the eastern regions of Africa. With her slender, fit figure of a long distance runner the mistake would have been easy to excuse.
Her face grimaced with scepticism. Whoever came to a brothel to talk?
‘I am not a nice girl? You don’t like me?’
‘Believe me, I like you. You have no idea how much.’ I realized it would be better if I spoke slower and in simpler English; I had a feeling she couldn’t understand everything I was saying. ‘You are more beautiful than Aishwarya or Kareena,’ I pointed out the clippings on the wall.
‘No, no, don’t say that. They are beautiful.’ She was looking at me as though I’d just uttered the most astounding lie. ‘Their colour is very beautiful. You are beautiful, too.’ She was mixing English and Hindi now, possibly uncertain of whether I was a foreigner or just a very white North Indian.
It was a day of firsts for both of us. My first visit to a brothel, her first foreign client. The first ever compliment of her darkness, the first of my paleness.
‘How old are you?’ I had to ask. Mature body or not, there was something unusually innocent about her demeanour.
‘I am twenty-one,’ she replied without any pretence in her voice, leaving me no choice but to believe her. I was waiting for her to inquire about my age, but she remained silent and simply reached into the bra as if to adjust its padding. Just when the optimist in me had visualized a refund, a token of gratitude for my compliments, she pulled out an unopened condom. ‘Nirodh,’ she said, then confidently placed it in my hand as I tried to guess whether the word meant condom or “put it on”. Before I could finish the thought, she undid her bra and with a continued, well-rehearsed movement pulled the string on the side of her panties.
My mouth fell open, eyes widened and froze, the pounding of the heartbeat broke into a crescendo.
Her naked beauty provoked the second unstoppable session of staring in as many days. Barren years had clearly resensitised me to nudity, though the beer in my veins wouldn’t allow a correspondingly sized erection. I took it as a blessing in disguise. Impotence was the only way I could refrain from getting physical with her, and as ridiculous as I would later see this reasoning, I was resolved to postpone our sexual intimacy.
‘Can you put your clothes back on? Please? I just want to talk to you. You do look amazing. Bahut sundar ladki.’ Nope, she wouldn’t accept I might be serious. Her hand climbed up to my shoulder, caressed the nape and then the back of the head with her fingertips, now and then throwing expectant glances towards my unresponsive crotch.
‘Have you tension?’
‘No! I mean, yes, I’m tense, but it’s not that. I had a little too much to drink, that’s all.’
‘Drinks? You don’t take hard drinks! Okay? It’s very bad for you. People behave badly. You better take cool drinks or milk.’
‘Yes, I know. It was just beer, and I don’t usually drink. Only today. Because I was so nervous about meeting you.’
More facial disbelief. Why would I be this uneasy about going to an anonymous girl’s room?
‘Can I hug you, Radha? With clothes on?’
She dressed with hesitancy, and I put my arms around her, feeling the happiest in years, not caring how pathetic I might have looked. Both of us needed a hug more than we needed a quick screw, I thought, although in my case it was a tight call.
While stroking her back, I tried to sneak a kiss on the mouth, but when my lips approached hers, she turned away, showing me the side of her neck instead. Only mildly frustrated, I began asking about her family, her hometown, and every other important or insignificant thing that could come to my still tipsy mind. I knew my time with her was running out, yet there was always hope she would forget about the clock.
She told me she was from a village near Bijapur, a city in an impoverished region of the state of Karnataka, where her parents and her younger brother Shyam still lived in the house where she’d grown up.
Unusual for a humble background, the ‘chota bhai’ was her only sibling. Talking about his past and present, imagining his future, Radha’s devotion and rock-steady sense of duty pervaded every word, every gaze.
Most of the money she could save was going towards Shyam’s education and to assist her parents since her father’s fragile health had always known more downs than ups. Her mother had no formal education and thus no way of earning enough for the whole family, so when Radha met a broker of sorts, who said he would help and protect her family while also providing for Radha, she didn’t hesitate for long. The broker in turn introduced her to her future employers in Pune. She had her suspicions of what the job might be, but she felt there was no choice: whatever would happen was her destiny. If she’d had a reasonably good education, she could have gotten a respectable, well-paid job. Had she been born with fair-skinned beauty or at least had a sizeable dowry, she could have married into an affluent enough family. Instead, she ended up stuck in the dim glow of the big city’s red lights, selling the only marketable assets she had, her beautiful figure and radiant face. She was only seventeen.
Four years later, she was already a veteran of the trade, so when the thirty minutes were up, she knew without having to look at her watch. My objections, meek as they were, could not extend our meeting by more than five minutes.
‘Madam would get very angry,’ she said, sincerely enough for me not to want the risk of getting her into trouble.
‘I will come again, Radha. I’ve never felt like this, believe me.’ She didn’t. She was happy, though, that I would be visiting regularly. Of that there was no doubt.
One last glance in her spellbinding direction, and I left as briskly as my lingering drunkenness permitted.
Inhaling the night air cleared my head almost instantly, yet the more sober I got, the more enthusiastic my thoughts became, realizing the full extent of the change that was taking place in my inner world.
I knew I wanted to live only for Radha from now on, and that I didn’t care about boring details, didn’t want to probe the pure lunacy of it all, and didn’t even mind turning into the stereotype I so abhorred— the white saviour of a hapless Third-World soul. Raa-Dhaa, the two sweetest sounds of humankind! Raa- Dhaa, the mantra of love for devotees of Krishna. Raa-Dhaa, the intoxicating mantra of my new found obsession. How I loved and would always love that name! But wasn’t it all just an unnaturally powerful yet superficial attraction? No, no, no, it simply wasn’t possible, I told myself; it was all about the heart. My heart, naturally, and that was selfish, but she would love me after I’d lifted her from that hopeless abyss, wouldn’t she? And I would teach her meditation, and cook Indian food for her, and we would be happy, relaxed, and joyful, and . . . I was lost in a crest of euphoria, and as I realized it, I got scared. It couldn’t happen. Something would stand in the way. When did anything ever go my way when it concerned falling in love?
Back at the apartment, incertitude was pushed aside. All I wanted to do was get lost in the lifelike images of our future—our simple life in the Indian countryside or Europe or wherever, enjoying a love that knew nothing in life was to be taken for granted. And when fears reappeared, I performed my customary escape trick of assuming the half-lotus pose and repeating my mantra, at first audibly, then in the shape of a repeated thought. The new type of meditation that I had just learned from Arun would have to wait for its turn; this was not a day to be dead to the world. For the first time in years, this was a day to feel as alive as lungs and heart could endure.