“Khali! Ey khali!” She called out, hoping for an empty rickshaw. Her voice was soft and smooth, her accent very proper. I could barely make out the few people on the street, now that the current was out. I cycled in the blinding darkness past a beggar, and pulled up next to her.
“Uttara Model Town, section one, road four, house twenty-two,” she said. Any other rickshawala would have told her no, it’s too far, but I didn’t say anything, I just peddled. That was the first day I saw her. She wore a beautiful, expensive, embroidered, salwar kameez2, with a thin white orna3 wrapped around her head. Little strands of curly black hair shown around her face. When I turned the corner, I glanced back for a second and caught her looking into the night, her lips red and her complexion fair. After a long thirty minutes, we finally arrived at her three-story brick house. She hopped off and quickly punched in the security code to her building. I slipped the twenty taka4 she gave me into my pocket, and turned away. Only rich people live in houses like that, houses that have electricity all the time.
I peddled till the blisters on my feet oozed, till my calves ached, till even my gamsa5 dripped of sweat. Amah6 told me to buy some flour so Sarayu7 can make roti in the morning, but all the stores have closed now. Sarayu is only nine, she does all the house work and still has time to run around and get lost in the neighborhood. I stepped inside quietly knowing I would have to work on an empty stomach tomorrow.
“Tui aisos?”9 Amah asked half sleeping, before I got the chance to reply, she started snoring softly. I opened the small, Dano tin-can, and put in the hundred-seventy taka I earned that day. I wondered which would come first, Amah’s death or a doctor’s appointment. I looked to see if there was anything to eat, but there was only rice water, as usual. I covered it, and put it to the side. Sarayu and Janya10 could eat that in the morning. I made my bed on the floor next to them, and closed my eyes.
I cleaned up, and headed out, before the sun had risen the next morning. I stopped in front of the local tea shop for a moment and stared at the glass, into the eyes of a stranger looking back at me. My shirt was torn on the side and my face the color of tar from the sun. Those two beady eyes, white against my black skin, stared back at me. I turned away. Kids of all ages were jumping around full of excitement: holding each other hand in hand, or arm around neck, some had book bags on their backs, others just carried a few books. I missed the days I went to school. I had only one friend, he was a Muslim. The other kids would tease us and push us off our stools, me because I was a Hindu and him because he associated with me.
“Dekhna, Hindu haramjadre,” 11 a local store holder shouted as I cycled past the tea shop. Those were the first words I heard that morning. How much longer is it going to be like this? Since Abah died three years ago it’s been like this. I was eleven. Janya had just been born, and Sarayu was barely six. Amah used to work as a cleaning lady, at the Mirza residence, but after she got sick, they wouldn’t have her anymore. I knew if I didn’t make the money, Sarayu would have to be married off to Mr. Thakur. Some days I thought it was the only way to get out, but Amah says she would rather die than give her the life she hated.
It was a sunny day; the rain hadn’t come back yet. I was about to turn the corner to wait on the main road for costumers, when I saw Sarayu running like a mad-man towards me. She didn’t take the time to hear the curses coming out of people’s mouths, nor did she stop when her only anklet broke off and disappeared into the mud. “Bhaya! Bhaya!”12 She screamed out, “Amah.” I scooped her onto the rickshaw and cycled as fast as I could to the slums where we lived. Janya was crying, and Amah lay on the floor, covered in blood. She was trying to mutter something, but barely a whisper came out. I franticly checked the room to see if anything was missing and spotted the Dano tin can across the room. I walked over slowly, wishing, praying that there was still something in there. My whole life savings, everything I’ve worked day and night for was in that can. In one moment, the bleak life that was set for me changed forever.
Amah lay there dying. “Stay with her,” I shouted, and took my rickshaw to Mr. Thakur’s house. He was a man in his mid thirties, who already had two wives. “Oh come, brother, come. What brings you to these parts?” He asked smugly. “You can have her, but you must give me her dowry now.” He laughed, “Of course that’s not how it works, bring her to me first; you will have your money.” She is only nine years old, I thought, still pure and innocent. “No, you can have her, but I need that money now,” I said firmly. He laughed again and looked at me closely. I stared straight into the nothingness. He went inside, and within a few minutes came out with a box. “That’s all I can give you for now,” he said. Without uttering another word, I swiftly returned home.
Amah lay there still, this time with her eyes closed. She was barely breathing now. “Janya, keydo naa baba, keydo naa,”13 I whispered to her as I picked her up. “Asho.”14 I placed her on my rickshaw and pedaled slowly through the slums, past the beggars on the side of the road, past the market, past the cricket park, past the great buildings, past the children who ran around in shoes, to arrive again at house twenty-two, on road four, section one of Uttara Model Town. I kissed Janya and placed her in front of the heavy white gates. “Eykane thako, ami ashe.”15 She stood there, with the box in her hands, looking out at me with curious tiny eyes. I turned away and cycled back through the streets, to the muddy road of the slums, stopping only to pick up dry wood along the road.
I finally reached the small tin room all four of us occupied and went inside, Sarayu was gone. She must’ve have run off again. She is like the wind; she doesn’t belong anywhere, to anyone. Most girls are that way here, bread to be married off to another. I would rather die alive then live in this selfish world where people are not appreciated for being people, instead they are judged by their last names, religion, and sex. “Amah, amah…” I whispered. She lay on the floor, cold and still. I wrapped my fingers around hers and waited for the flames to engulf us both.
– Shammy 12/13/09
1 Kali: empty 2.A common way of calling a rickshaw, similar to calling a cab.
2 A traditional South Asian three-piece woman’s outfit, consisting of pajama like pants, long tunic and a scarf called an orna or dupatta.
3 A scarf worn with salwar kameez.
4 Currency in Bangladesh; 70 taka is equal to 1 USD.
5 Thin cotton towel that is commonly used in Bangladesh because it dries relatively fast.
7 Hindu girl’s name meaning the wind.
9 You came? Dialect commonly used by uneducated, lower class Bangladeshis.
10 Hindu girl’s name meaning life.
11 Look at that Hindu bastard.
13 Don’t cry sweetie, don’t cry.
15 Stay here, I’m coming.
16 The Hindu word for cremation.