June 13, 2015
I once lived in a forgotten corner of Karachi, a place where even God had forgotten his way.
During the day it was a quiet, sleepy ghost town. But during the night it was a thriving, congested Red Light district. Women dressed up in outfits that were once colorful and glittery, with their hair wrapped together into intricate braids. Others adorned their necks by wearing heavy and fake gold jewelry. Some of the women preferred to cater to the westernized men who’d come all the way from areas like Clifton and Defense. These women wore old, discarded jeans left behind by old client, and loose-fitted shirts. They spoke a few words of whatever little English they knew to lure them: “Eh, mister! Good morning,” they’d say. During the idle hours, standing outside of the buildings, the women would chat away with each other for hours as one would with her own neighbor. They’d talk about the soap operas that they’d watch on television while caressing their own hands and wiping away perspiration off their foreheads. The humidity of Karachi was damning. After a long, exhausting night of work, some of us girls would spend the first few minutes of the new day sitting on the dark grained sand where the dark grey Arabian Sea dared to rush up and touch us.
First it was just me, then one day I turned around and saw that the other girls were there too. I always liked the way the warm water blanketed my feet. The other girls did too. That was the only time we had to ourselves, to sit by the ocean and do nothing. At first it was strange getting used to the fact that just before the loud city would wake up and begin with the motions of everyday life, we were just retiring from a long night of work. The other girls didn’t call it work; they called it roti, bread. “And don’t you dare come up to me and tell me how to make my roti” one of them once said to me. It’s was a strange life we girls once lived.
We were once ordinary—you might have even passed us in the rustling, loud streets of the city, completely unaware of the life we were living. There were four of us in our immediate group. And as we sat there that day, with our silk shalwar kameez dresses dancing with the warm wind, and with our hair blowing away from our face, we had no idea that it would be our last.
“It’s so peaceful,” I heard a voice from behind me say.
I turned around and saw Rani. Her long delicate nose decorated with a small gold piercing. She had a wide, expressive smile that reveled dimples on the side of her face. What had ever brought her into this line of work, I wondered every time I saw her. We all had our reasons, but Rani could never manage to come up with one. She just showed up. Her long black hair blew with the wind, and the rays of the orange, rising sun reflecting onto her golden-hued face. There was the faint smell of her foreign perfume in the wind. She purchased her small collection of perfumes from the merchant who came once a month from Empress Market. He usually brought in a whole bag full of them, of different shapes and sizes and smells that filled up the dull tiny quarters we shared.
“Rani Ji,” he would address her, “I brought this one here especially for you,” and he would smile showing off his brown teeth, tainted with beetle leaf tobacco. She loved perfumes, and unlike clothing and jewelry, it was the only luxury that Babou allowed her to have.
“We can’t have a flower like you smelling like a donkey off the street,” he told her. The perfume bottles were intricate and carved with small details. If you held it up against light you could see so many colors shine through. I was tempted, whenever alone in the quarters, to touch the foreign bottles. But I never dared. It was as though my hands couldn’t fathom touching something so beautiful.
We made it a point to watch the sun rise every morning; like owls, we were awake only during the night. It was when the busy city went into a deep sleep, and became a place where only silence, ghosts and the dead lingered that we dared walk about the streets. Sitting by the ocean, the warm waters racing itself to land and to touch our feet. The familiar sun rising far above the horizon, we reminded ourselves that we too were among the living. We had to do this, we had to.
When the sun splattered the skies with its shades of red, orange, and a hopeful yellow, we would get up one by one and retreat back to where we came from.
We were a collection of forgotten girls, forced into a cramped corner of Sadabad, a noisy and congested suburb of Karachi. It was different from any other place that I had ever been to. I had only seen the area twice in my whole life before, once while on a school trip to nearby Safari Park, and the second when my family driver got lost into its narrow and tangled streets, littered with Marie biscuit wrappers, and cow dung. Before I was brought here, I was lovingly referred to as Soumbul. I was the second eldest in a family of five, and I was considered my father’s favorite. He nicknamed me Soumie, but now I was known to others only as Shirley. I was barely seventeen, and my henna-dyed hair still hadn’t grown past my shoulders yet. When Babou first saw me, he took his meaty fingers and pinched my cheek “my little school girl,” he said, his black eyes twinkling. “Where are your books? Your nursery rhymes?” he laughed. The only thing that I still owned from my former life were memories and those too, I later gave up. Most of us fought and cried the first few weeks, almost everyone had some sort of physical brawl with Babou, but in the end we all knew we had no choice. It was either this life or no life at all. Most of us held onto the belief that we would be found or our families would decide to take us back, but we soon figured out that there was no point in hoping. No one wanted us.
Our quarters were part of a large and spiraling apartment building. It was only just a few years ago that the building housed offices, general stores and bakeries where families sent their servants to retrieve pastries and fried vegetable rolls. On certain days I can still smell the fresh samosas and hot chai. I spent a lot of time touching the walls of the empty rooms, trying to conjure up the images of the decent, respectable people who were once here. During the day, the building was quiet, and through its many maze like hallways and corridors the only sounds you could hear was of the ceiling fans in each small room spinning and circulating dry, humid air.
We returned to the damp, quiet room in time before the neighborhood woke up. If they were to see where we resided, they would have feared us and taken away their children and respectable lives somewhere else. But we needed them. Some of us couldn’t sleep without the sounds of that mother waking up her child for school, or the mistress of the house giving orders to the cleaning staff. Some of us held on to the sounds of the loud, noisy rickshaws, hoping that the driver was perhaps our father or brother hoping for our return. They were the voices of the living.
Back in our room we changed into simpler clothes in front of each other. But that day, Asiyah was reluctant. She held the collar of her kameez, as if she’d forgotten how to take it off.
“What is it?” Rani asked.
“He gave me a scar,” she whispered, almost as if she were afraid someone outside would hear her. Asiyah turned around and pulled up her kameez to show us her bony shoulder where the scar flaunted—one of the clients had dug his fingers into her skin.
“Girl, that’s nothing,” said Saltaneh, rolling her eyes “if you can’t bear a little scratch, you’ll never survive this world.” Saltaneh was the one who had been here the longest. She was rounder, and heavier, and I always assumed that she was much older than the rest of us. She was the first person who talked to me when I was first brought here. The others who were there with me were just as scared as I was to speak—worried that a single action might send us elsewhere or bring about punishment. We knew we were in deep trouble if we got a personal visit from Babou. We were all terrified of him, except Saltaneh. When we would hear him approach with his leather boots smearing hard against the concrete floor outside our door, we’d hide, or pretend to be asleep. Saltaneh would simply continue on as if his presence never mattered. I suppose that’s why he never bothered her. “Just stay calm,” she once told me, “and the bastard won’t come near you.”
A few weeks ago the other girls began to be taken away—to Defense, Clifton or Nazimabad—our cramped quarters soon became empty. Saltaneh was left in charge. She made sure the doors were locked, that when we went out with clients or out to the sea every morning that we would return. She never said or did anything, but we girls always knew that it just took one mistake on our part for Saltaneh to report to Babou.
Rani shook her head, staring at Asiyah’s scar, running her fingers through Asiyah’s dry, sun bleached hair, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll put a little antiseptic on it,” she assured, her long, slender fingers touching the scar.
“Do what you want with it” said Saltaneh, almost to herself, “scars always remain.” Saltaneh quickly changed into her sleeping dress and was always the first to drift off to sleep. Most of us sometimes wondered how she did it. The throbbing of our own invisible scars kept us ruthlessly awake.
“I had a dream the other day,” Rani began, trying to change the gloomy atmosphere. “It was my mother.” Asiyah and I looked at each other; the mere mention of a relation brought floods of remembrances.
“She told me my little sister was getting married.” Rani smiled to herself and retreating inward into her own world. “Can you believe it? Only yesterday she was a chubby girl of twelve and now she’ll be getting married!” She looked away, her brown eyes filling with dreams of a colorful wedding that existed only in her mind.
“Good, maybe if you sleep she’ll send you an invitation,” Saltaneh said. She turned over in her bed to face the wall. She always told us that she didn’t like the light that came from the window, but we all knew she liked to listen to the voices of those next door—the voices of the living. She would make us speak in whispers so that she could listen to them. I don’t know why, but sometimes I felt sorry for Saltaneh. When she’d lie quietly like that, I often thought about the stories she used to tell me of her childhood in Hyderabad. It was in that small historic town that she grew up learning and becoming accustomed to the need, and cruelty of men. Left with no money or food of her own, Saltaneh resorted to the crowded market streets and begged those ordinary and respectable strangers who passed by.
“I remember clearly,” Saltaneh once told me, “a woman dressed in a bright, colorful sari once gave me five rupees. She leaned down to look at my face, wanting to see who I was. She wanted to look straight into my eyes. It was the first time I ever felt noticed.” There were rumors that Saltaneh had a baby. One of the girls whispered it in a hush voice, a sinister smile peaking at the corner of her dark lips—it helped some, to find comfort in the pain of others. But Saltaneh didn’t get to keep it, none of the girls ever did. Saltaneh never spoke about the baby, and we never dared to ask.
Asiyah was usually the last one to make it in bed. She took a lengthy bath in the heavy tin tub, scrubbing and scrapping every inch of the skin of her bony body. Sometimes we could hear her whimper; her sobs and cries. Sometimes I had to cover my head with my pillow just to get some sleep. I liked praying for her, but then other times while staring at the paint-chipped ceiling I would cry with her too. The last few hours before going to sleep was the hardest part of our day. Before we could drift off into a deep slumber, lying on wood-pine cots and dressed in the simplest of clothing, we were forced to confront the women we had become. I think this is what Asiyah was most afraid of—facing herself during the most meandering of hours. I visited them in my dreams sometimes.
It always started out with me looking through the tall black iron gates into the place that was once home and seeing the people that were once family. I could hear my parents crying for their daughter, even if there were no tears in their eyes. My father sat in the front lawn with his eyes lowered in sadness. I was never there for long—I wouldn’t dare be seen; it was too late to be saved, it was too late for goodbyes. I would just stay for a moment, trying to remember what life was once like living behind those gates. Guilt is the heaviest feeling that can reside in your heart, but when the guilt isn’t your own the feeling suffocates you. I hated having those dreams. I hated them.
“Wake up” I heard. At first I thought it was my mother. But I turned from my pillow to see not her, but Rani. She stood in front of the window, pulling back the curtains. I was startled by seeing Rani because I was still floating somewhere between reality and dreams.
“What is it?” she asked, looking at me with concern. “Did you have a bad dream?”
I shook my head, “I don’t remember it anymore.”
“Well hurry up then and get ready, or you’ll be sliding on your jasmine bangles while we’re still in the rickshaw like always” she said, in a sweet and soft voice. If this line of work doesn’t make one bitter then I don’t know what does, I thought. One only had to look at what it did to Saltaneh. But this life never seemed to affect Rani. She always smiled and laughed as if one day all of this would go away. She kept herself busy by patching up our clothes, and while she did that she would hum blissful tunes. Whenever she walked by our gated windows, she’d stroke the jasmine tree flowers and sing to them as if they were children being lulled to sleep.
“Where did she come from?” I asked Saltaneh, getting out of my bed and sliding my feet into my rubber sandals. I was always envious of Rani’s ability to find her own happiness. “She’s been doing this longer than the rest of us,” Saltaneh replied. “That’s why she’s learned to smile through it.”
“Take Asiyah for instance,” Saltaneh began, “she just arrived in front of us the other week—hmph—can’t even learn to stop crying” Saltaneh said. “Every night crying in the bathroom, ‘oh god forgive me, forgive me’ does she think we’re deaf?”
“She’s just scared” I told her
“So was I when I started, but never did I allow myself to become slave to it. I took it like a woman.”
Saltaneh went into the bathroom. Asiyah sat by the window, looking beyond the heavy bars that covered it. “It must have been a nice day,” she said, looking at the sunset. “I miss being out during day light—I think I’m going to forget what it’s like.”
Rani was putting her wardrobe together. She carefully touched her silk dresses as if they were soothing her in some way. “I always thought that I would wear red to my sister’s wedding” she said, her hand trickling across her dress that only for a moment was bright red, with elaborate embroideries of gold. In her mind she could hear the wedding folk songs that she once sang as a little girl and now ladies of some village were singing them at her sister’s wedding in the courtyard of their family home. “I always imagined I would be married before her. Next to me would be my husband, and together we would go to the Soneri’s and buy her a beautiful wedding present.”
Sometimes I liked pretending to be a part of Rani’s dreams. I liked to imagine what her sister looked like, and assumed that she would be something like a younger version of Rani, happy and carefree, lucky to have someone who thought of her all the time. Someone who dreamt of her wedding taking place every day. “It would have been a nice day to have had that wedding,” said Asiyah, staring out into the saffron colored sky.
Saltaneh slammed the bathroom door when she exited. She hadn’t put on her clothes yet. An old tan colored tattered bra concealed her large, rounded breasts. Below she wore no underwear—“Easy access,” she called it—and slipped her short, stubby legs into her shalwar. Above she was having trouble putting her kameez on again, and was holding the sides, forcing it down over round waist. She probably thought that if she wore her dresses tight enough, it would make her look thinner. When I first started, Saltaneh told me that I was lucky to be so thin because I could fit into the clothing that the other girls left behind. She took out dark colored shalwar kameezes, some of the hand stitched embroidery torn apart. The dresses smelled like sweat and jasmine petals. I remember spending so much time just staring at them, wondering what girl before me wore it and where she was now.
If Saltaneh was the biggest, Asiyah was the smallest. Even when she was dressed, you could always see her collarbone peeking through the layers of the gold shimmery necklaces she wore. Her hands were so long and thin, one could easily break them apart as if they were twigs. She had a long, lean face with her dark eyes slanted inwards into their sockets, her nose just as thin as her fingers and lips were barely visible. Like most of the girls before her, Asiyah hardly ever smiled and she always hated dressing up. You could see the discomfort; she always appeared as if she were going to cry when it was time to start getting ready for work. Rani went into the bathroom; we could all hear her hum another happy tune as she went about putting on her makeup. Then we heard the footsteps.
Asiyah leaped to the other side of the room, her lips quivering.
“He’s back.” Saltaneh announced, “That dog can smell fear” she advised, looking at Asiyah.
We heard the keys jingling against the many locks, and then the door finally opened. Babou burped upon entering, and patted his stomach.
“Girls!” he said, “I’m full today!”
His voice was loud and heavy, it felt like a tire wrestling with the ground. I wondered what the neighbors thought of his voice. I wondered what any ordinary person thought of Babou’s voice when he spoke to them casually on the street. Were they as fearful and disgusted as we were of him?
“Keep up the good work! Keep Babou happy!”
He tripped over nothing on his way to the chair.
“You’re drunk so early today, you must be having a good day” Saltaneh said, “Has God redeemed you?”
Babou laughed, his large body bouncing. He found her hysterical. “I have been!” he declared with one large, meaty arm in the air. He burped again, lightly pounded his chest. His silver chain necklace bounced against his flabby neck.
“You girl!” he pointed to me, “pani” he said, “Get me water,” wiping away perspiration from the outline of his thick-black mustache—the mustache, when rubbed against your skin, felt like an old rug.
I went to the kitchen immediately. I held my hands together to keep them from shaking.
“Make sure it’s cold—I want it to turn me to ice.” He added, waving himself some air.
“Ji” I muttered, struggling to find a clean glass.
“Where’s Rani?” I heard him ask.
“She’s getting dressed” Saltaneh said without looking at him.
“Tell her to hurry,” Babou said, “She’s coming with me today.”
“Where are you taking her?” Saltaneh asked. The tone of her voice had changed. Had she stopped smiling?
“None of your business!” he barked. I could hear Asiyah whimper.
We all understood. It was Rani’s turn to go away.
“But you can’t take her—she’s booked for tonight!”
Babou was silent. I was breaking a large piece of ice from the freezer into small pieces but suddenly stopped.
“What’s it to you that I take her?” he asked. “Tell her to hurry.”
I heard Saltaneh knock on the bathroom door. “Hurry up” she said, “You’re going away.” I carried the cold glass of icy water to Babou. I couldn’t look him in the eye. I was afraid he might take me too.
Rani finally came out. She wasn’t completely dressed. Her hair hadn’t been done yet.
“Babou ji,” she greeted, still smiling. “Welcome . . . have one of the girls brought you some chai or cold water yet?” She began fumbling with her hair, trying to get it to rest on one shoulder. Babou laughed, “Don’t look at me with such pretty eyes Rani,” he said, staring at her with his eyes so dark you’d have thought he was the devil. “You’re moving up in the world.”
Rani stopped touching her hair. Her smile faded. “I’m not going.”
He gulped down some of the icy water and shook his head.
“You promised my uncle you wouldn’t take me out of the country” she cried. “You promised you wouldn’t take me away from home!” tears were falling down her face.
“You think your good for nothing uncle gives a damn?” Babou asked. “No one gives a damn.”
“Just do what the man says, sweet heart,” Saltaneh said “it’s no use.” She looked away, suddenly pretending to be interested in the chipped paint on the wall. Babou burped again, his eyes found Asiyah, shivering and afraid in the corner.
He laughed, his eyes smiling.
“I heard the carpenter had a great time with you,” he told her, “says he’s made his mark on you.”
He began to laugh.
Asiyah looked briefly into his eyes, before bursting into tears. “If you like playing games with your whores so much,” Saltaneh said, “why don’t you get smarter ones to make things a little more exciting?”
Babou laughed. His meaty head tilted back, and his round belly bouncing up and down. “You know Saltaneh, if they were all as smart as you I’d have to be worried about them running away.”
“Chalo,” Saltaneh rolled her eyes, “as if your little whores have the courage to run away.”
“Exactly,” he said, “they don’t—besides where are they going to run away to? No one wants you. No is going to save you. Right meri Rani?”
He stared at Rani, looking her up and down. “You know, girls with light eyes are more favorable” he told her.
“Then take my eyes” Rani said.
Babou laughed again. He chugged the rest of his water, shaking his head and giving out a loud sigh.
“Chalo chalte hain,” he said, “let’s go,” standing up, and scratching his head.
“No!” Rani screamed. Asiyah began to cry. Saltaneh looked away and returned to face the wall.
When Babou grabbed Rani by the hand, we all knew that it was going to be the last time we’d see her. That’s what always happens when Babou takes you away.
“Don’t make this harder than it has to be. I’m taking you to a nicer place this time.”
But Rani smacked him hard across the face, “bharwa!” she cursed, hitting him across his round meaty and perspiring face. He grabbed her hair and everything went silent. Her beautiful face was tilted back, eyes wide shut. He leaned in closer to her face, his breath polluting her fair skin. I closed my eyes. I tried to think of Rani’s sister’s wedding.
And then I heard glass crash.
I opened my eyes to see Babou on the floor, fallen like a pile of cement.
There was Saltaneh, in her hand one of Rani’s foreign perfume bottles, shattered.
“What did you do?” Rani cried, relieved. She slid Babou off her leg and stood up, staring at the unconscious pile of lard that was Babou.
“He was going to hurt you,” Saltaneh said.
“Yeah, but now he’s going to kill you.”
Saltaneh burst into tears. I walked towards Babou. He was knocked out; a pool of blood was flowing from the back of his head like a river onto the grey cemented floor. It didn’t appear as if he were breathing.
“We’re done for” Asiyah declared. “Now he’s going to send all of us away.”
“I don’t think he’s going to wake up anytime soon,” I declared.
Asiyah stared at me, and then my hands—they were shaking so violently.
“He’s dead.” I whispered.
“Let’s run” Saltaneh said.
“No, we can’t do that” Rani said. She walked up towards Babou, trying to see the thick piece of glass sticking out from the back of his butchered head. I don’t think I had ever been anything but afraid in front of Babou, but seeing him there on the floor lifeless, I was happy, relived.
“The others are going to come after us now” Rani cried.
“We’ll tell them it was an accident,” Saltaneh said.
“Are you crazy? You think they’re not going to know that we killed him?”
“We’ll tell them that someone else did it,” Saltaneh began, her eyes widened, “a robber!”
“But Rani’s right. We can’t just run away. They know where my family lives” Asiyah said, “Babou always said they’d hurt my family if I ran away.”
I thought for a moment, what it would be like to be free, momentarily even. What it would feel like again to walk the streets in daylight without having to worry about Babou and the others finding out. To walk the streets and be a part of the living again.
“Let’s just go,” I said, “either way, we’re done for.”
They knew I was right. We were going to die anyway.
I stared at each of them. They were tired. I was tired.
We put on our dupattas, and Saltaneh and I dragged Babou by the legs into the bathroom, a trail of thick red blood trailing behind. “Bastard,” Saltaneh muttered under her breath, and kicked him hard in the stomach. “The only time I experienced love, Shirley, was from my baby” she said, “and he took her from me.” She took out his fat wallet and folded up some rupees and slid them into the side of her bra.
I stopped to look at her. It was the first time she ever mentioned the baby.
“Why are you just standing there?” she asked. “Do you want to greet the others when they come and find out?”
Saltaneh locked the bathroom door from the outside, and we dragged one of cots over the large pool of blood. Rani and Asiyah quickly wiped the remaining trail of blood from the floor with wet towels and quickly threw them into the trash can. The sound of the tin cover slamming against the base was the last sound I had ever heard from that place.
We ran past the sea, quiet and blue, we were like school children let out from school early. The sun was just about to set, but it seemed to just stay there hovering for a while, waiting to see what would happen to us. We pushed through people at the train station. Other people must have thought that we were missing our train. Some even looked at us with sympathy.
“Don’t rush betiyon, if God wants you to leave today you’ll go,” I heard an old man cry out to us. Asiyah was crying, wiping her tears with her dupatta as she went along.
“Stop it, will you?” I asked, annoyed.
“It’s ok, we look the part,” Saltaneh assured, “four sisters, leaving home for the first time,” she explained.
Maybe it was my eyes playing tricks, but Saltaneh looked happy when she said it. She even smiled brightly as she led us through the crowd. But as we were running, I couldn’t help but notice the sudden difference in the crowd—a huge crowd, in colorful clothing, their faces bright and content, waving to a passenger—a bride, on her way to a new life. There were women, chanting wedding folk songs about the brides’ vidai—her goodbye to the life she once knew, and to the introduction into a life she will now belong to for the rest of her life. They all smelled so wonderful and had happy tears in their eyes.
We boarded the train and made our way through the crowded aisle of mothers and crying babies, of fathers and traveling businessmen.
It was the closest we had ever been to the living since we were all first captured. We found empty seats, and Saltaneh said we could bribe the ticket checker. We looked at each other, wiping away sweat with our dupattas, exchanging awkward smiles with each other. Asiyah pulled back the sun-damaged cotton curtains, and all of us looked out to see the train beginning to pull away. The static voice overhead announced that we’d be in Quetta by the noon tomorrow, and to enjoy the journey. But I don’t think any one of us heard it.
We were too busy watching the wedding crowd wave us goodbye.