The morning went on as usual at work until we all got called in for a sudden meeting. They said it was to announce something important. I grabbed a notepad and gulped down the hot coffee almost burning my tongue. A man stormed into the room with a briefcase and greeted us with the loudest Hello! He was our new boss. His moustache was thin, his bald head reflecting the sun light pierced through my eyes – I guessed he was in his late 40s. He wore a dull grey suit, his shirt not ironed, and to make it worse he wore sandals. This man had already been judged by me secretly. He announced with a smile that he shall be leading our team for the Eastern Marketing department. He moved close to one of the female employees and pulled the notepad away from her saying ‘We shall not work today, I would like to get to know the team in person – now tell me which is the most happening bar in town!’
My then cold beer was already getting warm as the smoking room was crammed with people. I had been distant from my new boss all evening. Let’s say he got too cozy with all the ladies in our team. As I saw him walking towards me, I started looking for a place to stub my cigarette. In almost a swish, he took it from my hand and took a drag from it. ‘Hi! I am Abhishek and young lady, what is your name?’ This led on to him speaking about himself for more than 20 mins. As I was finally relieved that the party came to an end, I went over to Abhishek to say goodbye. He was surrounded by two of my colleagues and by this time he looked tipsy. He looked at me with a wicked smile and said, ‘Now don’t you have a car Ms. Roy?’ I said ‘Yes’. ‘Why don’t you take me to a place where we can have an after party then?’, he quickly added, ‘we can ask these gentlemen to join as well.’ (pointing out to the guys around him who already looked like they were in for the plan). I couldn’t be impolite. I said ‘Sure, why not! Where is this place?’ He replied, ‘That’s a surprise my dear.’
My heart started racing as I knew where this road was taking us. The bordello in that area was famous for being notorious. I was the only woman in the car along with this weird man who wanted to visit the red-light area at midnight with new members of his team. My colleagues, whom I thought I trusted then just asked me to go with the flow. I thought to myself, how bad could it be. I might have an exciting story to share at work when the night was done. I parked a little away from the alley. As we got closer to the street, it looked like a parade. The lights were trippy, there were women of all age staring at us from the balconies above. Some came up to Abhishek, almost falling over him and negotiating on rates. I stuck close to the other two guys. He looked at us and said ‘Come on guys, I am going to show you the best night of your lives. Follow me.’
We were taken into a small room with tinted red and yellow glasses. There was a green sofa with foam coming out of odd places. There were two doors. One led to the balcony and the other I guessed was another room. I started to feel uncomfortable and scared. I thought to myself, what a girl of my age could probably do at a place like this. I felt unsafe. My colleagues had a smile so wide across their face, that I could sense their excitement of getting some action. I had decided, I would leave as soon as these men found their glee. Just then we were made to sit on the sofa and a man walked inside and seven girls walked behind him. They stood in sync to their height. My eyes were glued to the last girl, the shortest one. She was probably 19, or maybe not even the right age to be here. She wore a shiny pink blouse, a black skirt tied as a knot on the side revealing her pencil-thin legs. Her hair looked like it had not been combed for years, so tangled yet it was jet black and long. She kept looking down, so I could notice her dark pink eye shadow which I was sure she smudged some lipstick on to make it look that bright. The same shade was used on her cheeks and her skin radiated. She folded her arms still making no eye contact. Her hands were bruised, and her nails were painted red. She wore rubber slippers and had an anklet with a small butterfly on it. A gush of guilt-empathy-sorrow flooded inside of me. I had read so much on child trafficking, the brutality they had to endure, but seeing it all in front of me gave me goosebumps. I decided to rush out of there and as I started walking away, Abhishek holds my hand saying with a grin so wide, ‘Which one do you think would best suit me?’ I looked at him disgusted and said I would like to return. He grasped my hand tighter and said, ‘Not a word to this to anyone or I will make sure the resignation letter will be typed and signed by you tomorrow morning. Now be a good girl and wait out for us.’ I could not imagine what he was saying. This man was not in his right mind. I returned to the sofa and sat hopelessly as I watched the three men get into the room with a girl by each one’s side.
Rest of the girls started to move back to their rooms, except the last one. When it was just me and her, she finally looked up at me. I cannot describe how pretty her eyes were. They were deeper than the ocean. She came forward and asked me if I would like something to drink. It was as if I felt hypnotized by her. I could not reply. She sat next to me and snapped before my face. She said ‘I make the best tea, the best you would ever have in the world. I promise you will love it. Do you want me to make two for us while you wait?’ I nodded and waited for her to return. I lit a cigarette out in the balcony. I looked down to the street and noticed cars honking and men making their way inside even at 3 AM. As I looked up in the sky, it felt like all the noise below faded. It was lit up with stars, there was a tint of pink just like her cheeks. I couldn’t get my mind off her. I was anxious and did not know what we would talk about, yet I had so many questions for her. Just then she came in with two small cups in her hand and handed me one. She looked up in the sky and took in a deep breath. ‘Don’t you love how the stars light up the night? I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. You don’t seem so fond of the man that came with you tonight.’ I took a sip and indeed it was remarkable. I nodded. ‘What is your name?’ I asked her. ‘Laila. But you know that’s not my real name. My father sold me to this man when I was eight years old. My mother called me Ramya. I don’t know where my family is now. But I really hope they have not done the same to my sister. She is the brightest kid you know. So good in math. She used to study from my old books. I wanted to be a doctor. Did you know, the human hand, including the wrist, contains 54 bones. I never felt the pain of all the bones cracking at once until they broke my wrist when I tried to run away from here. But enough about me, you tell me sister, what is your name?’ We sat on a cold marble slab on the balcony as we continued to talk. She asked me about the outside world. I knew she might have never been allowed to step out for a long time. What fascinated me that despite being caged, she was so curious about everything and wanted to learn more. My heart sank deeper as I realized what life she has had to lead with her innocence taken away, she had not turned bitter towards this god forsaken world and its people. I asked her, ‘Don’t you want to leave this life? See your family again?’ She smiled and said ‘Back to my pimp father? Never sister. I have accepted my fate. You know I read a lot of books. It helps me to transport into the characters and live their life for a bit. Have you read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott? It was originally written in Bengali. Set in pre-independent India, this book is about a woman named Subarnalata who is married at the age of nine. Her mother was completely against this marriage and believed in educating her daughter rather than making her the ideal Indian wife. Subarnalata enjoyed going to school and shared a close bond with her mother. But her father was a weak man and married her off without her mother’s knowledge. The book follows Subarnalata’s life and how she raises her voice at every injustice meted out to her in her in-laws house. She faces humiliation, deceit at the hands of her husband and complete dissatisfaction in her life. But till the end, her will is not broken. I believe someday I too shall be like her. I am saving up money, little that I can hide away from my Sarkar (boss). I will leave this place someday and go back to my sister. Both of us can live together and re-build our lives. We don’t need no men. I have seen enough of them and it makes me sick to my stomach to imagine how they can be so selfish.’
I had no idea when the sun started to rise. It was almost five. We were lying down on a little mat in the balcony. She kept rifling through her hair as she spoke, and our cups lay astray with a pile of my cigarette buds soaking in the sediment left. I heard the men come out of their rooms, adjusting their belt, fixing their hair, and trying to look like their decent selves they claimed to be. I took a good look at her one last time and hugged her. She thanked me for making her feel anew and being such great company. She gave me that book we spoke about. I asked her to keep it, but she said ‘Something to remember me by sister. Till we meet again!’ Tears rolled down her cheek as she waved goodbye to me. She stood there on the balcony till I took a turn on the alley. The drive home was quiet. I knew what I had to do. I put my resignation the very same day.
Four years later, I had a new job, a loving husband, and my life was just sailing by. I was cleaning out my closet one morning and found the book. I had read it over and over. I took my keys and rushed out. As I was taking the turn to the same road, this time not feeling scared or nervous, but expecting to see Laila. I walked inside and went to the balcony. Nothing in that place had changed. The musty smell of the rooms, the stairs were dusty and there was the same old green sofa. I asked a woman about her. She said she knew no one with that name. I thought maybe she was new and did not know. I asked more people, and no one seemed to have an idea about her. Just as I was walking out of the gate, a girl walks up to me and says, ‘Are you looking for Laila sister?’ My heart skipped a beat, smiling I said ‘Yes. Can you please call her?’ She looked sad and said, ‘Laila had big plans sister. She was not like us. We are born to rot and die in this hell. She had saved up enough and told me that she would be sneaking away, and everything was planned. But unfortunately, Sarkar caught her. He beat her so bad sister. This happened late at night and we were busy with our customers. Since that day, whenever we ask about her, they say she has been shifted to another area.’ This girl started crying. I held her hand as my eyes too couldn’t hold back the tears. Feeling helpless I returned not knowing what happened to her. Did she make it out alive? Was she stuck again in another dark place? Or had she managed to escape and probably be living with her sister happy and free. I still wonder…