These are some of the stories of victims I created who endured the brothel houses in India; they represent the characters from the novel Sold.
I sit impassively with my back against the cold cement wall and cringe as one of Pushpa’s bloody coughs pierces the room’s usual morning silence. It’s grown unbearable today, so dreadful that Pushpa can’t even manage to crawl out of bed, poor thing. Lakshmi and I were somewhat obligated to take care of her baby Jeena, but the little one is absolutely adorable. We take turns bouncing her merrily on our knees and tickling her soft skin, until Anita and the cook start making a fuss about who is to hold her next. Pushpa somehow manages to rise from her cot and nurse her wailing baby, but there is no milk left in her withered body. Hopefully Jeena’s dry screams will not wake Mumtaz, or we’ll all be in deep water.
However, Pushpa is not the only woman with children. Many other mothers go further into debt with Mumtaz by pampering their little girls with hair ribbons and new dresses for school; the younger girls are even worse than the mothers, showering the children with pastries they bought with the tips from their wealthy customers.
Lakshmi eyes me with a bewildered expression on her face. “Why Shahanna,” she inquires, “why don’t the women receive shots that keep the babies from coming? Why does Mumtaz tolerate so many children and their mothers’ frivolous spending?”
I let out a haughty laugh in spite of myself. How ignorant can a girl be? She knows nothing about what it’s like to spend eternity in Mumtaz’s brothel. I turn towards her, attempting to conceal my own exasperated sigh. Lakshmi is always asking questions about everything and this continuous explaining was becoming annoying.
“All of us here at the brothel have to pretend everyday. How else would we cope with what is happening? Once the women have babies, they cannot leave Mumtaz, unless they want to be publicly shamed in the streets. That’s far better than getting those nasty shots from the dirty-handed doctor and risking the chili-pepper punishment from Mumtaz. Besides, the babies are our only family here”
“But how can the children…”
“Lakshmi.” My voice suddenly trembles and I scold myself for losing my composure. “The mothers give up their freedom so their children can pretend to lead ordinary lives. Every morning they go to school and come back in the afternoon to do homework; afterwards they might play outside or indulge in sweets and watch some TV.”
“Once the sun begins, though it’s harder for the children to pretend anymore; to wait on the brothel’s rooftops and pretend they can’t hear their mothers down below with the customers; to watch the laughing, drunk men stumble out of the doors with their pants unzipped. The little ones, like baby Jeena, are given Mumtaz’s special medicine. They sleep under the bed while their mothers are with their customers above.
Lakshmi dark eyes widen in what seems to be a mix of disbelief, shock, horror, pity, and despair. I continue, but my voice is faint this time.
“Then morning comes early again and we have to drag the dazed children out of their beds for another day of pretending.”
I have been in bed for three days and nights now, but it is to no avail. It seems the longer that I lay there, the more my body aches, to the extreme when I cannot turn without feeling a horrendous ache and the taste of blood in my mouth. No medicine has been able to cure this terrible disease, not even the forbidden shots I received from the doctor. It was probably one of those dirty old men who gave it to me.
Abruptly, the door to my room flies open and a shadow emerges. Lakshmi and Shahanna cower back in their corner. Oh dear God. It’s Mumtaz. She steps slowly into the light, her fat mango face flushed with anger and iron arms akimbo, burdened with dangling gold bracelets. Her red fingernails irately tap on the top of the dresser and I know she means business.
Her voice is dangerously soft. “If you do no get out bed and see customers today, you will be out on the street.”
Immediately, I roll out from under the covers and sink to the floor with my head bowed in response. Grudgingly, I squeeze my eyes shut and kiss Mumtaz’s disgusting feet in submission. A cold sweat begins to run down my back.
“Please,” I plead desperately, “I’ll work tonight, I promise you…”
The rest of the words never come out of my mouth. I feel the sharp pang again. Not another coughing fit. Not now. Please. The coughs grow louder and raspier in my throat until a torrent of tears pours down by cheeks and clot of blood spills onto the floor.
“Pshhhht,” Mumtaz snorts. “You lazy whore, you are of no use to me now. No man wants to make love to walking death!”
Her brutal words ring over and over again in my ears. “Have some compassion for me,” I cry. What is to become then of my children? Oh please don’t make me go Mumtaz. If I am put on the street, everyone will know.
Mumtaz approaches me, a smirk written across her merciless face and her ink eyes shining like a bundle of rupees. “My dear, there is actually something you can do for me.”
A possibility of hope flutters in my stomach as I gaze expectantly at her. This woman has the power to kill me if she pleases, but yet I am willing to do anything to please her. Anything.
“Sell your baby Jeena to me.” My darling was peacefully asleep in her bedroll, her little pudgy hands gripping a teddy bear. “In a few years or so when she is old enough, I can make a lot of money with her. It is; after all, best to start them off early.”
I shudder involuntarily, not wanting to hear the rest.
“There are men who would pay dearly, “Mumtaz coos, “to be with a pure one. Men who think it will cure their disease.
I feel her nails digging into my bony shoulder. She grins at me, and asks in a tone as smooth as syrup, “So, Pushpa. What do you say?”
I explode. An indescribable feeling of utter despair and anguish batters my head violently and I howl in an uncontrollable rage. I desperately claw onto to Mumtaz’s skirts and scream for mercy. Scream for my children. My dead husband. My deprived dignity. My freedom. My will. My shame and disgrace. My life that Mumtaz snatched from me when I was a little twelve-year-old girl standing outside the brothel gates, eager to begin my alleged job as a city maid.I am beyond words. Beyond language. Beyond sanity. There is nothing left of me but the corpse that stares back at me with empty eyes when I gaze in the mirror at night
Mumtaz is with one of her important male friends today and she has put me in charge of guarding the counting room. Finally, a moment alone. I turn on her cumbersome radio to an American music station and sing quietly along to the meaningless words of the songs. I press my ear against the door and listen for Mumtaz’s footsteps. Instead, down the hall, I hear her high-pitched laughter and a man slurring his words. A relieved sigh escapes from my throat. They have been drinking heavily again. Good. I quickly reach from behind the file cabinet for a bottle of liquor I bought from street vendor. The bubbly red liquid trickles merrily into a glass and I eagerly chug it down. Ahhhh. Delicious as usual. I sprawl out contentedly on a silk cushion and reach from Mumtaz’s open ledger book. Turning the page, a smile creeps on my face. The girls’ debt calculations. At last. The only secret Mumtaz had insisted on concealing from me. Until now. Dearest Mumtaz, you are a clever old hag. You cheat your prostitutes out of their meager earnings and fill their days with empty hopes of paying off their debts, when we both know better. However, I fear you are not as clever as you think. I earned your unconditional trust over these long years together and… (I giggle in spite of myself.) now, Madame, I will cheat you.
The hesitant creaking of the door breaks my thoughts and I succumb into a frenzied panic. I roll the bottle of liquor and glass under the file cabinet and cross my arms, putting on a serious pokerface. Breathe Shilpa. Breathe.
It is only that dim-witted hill girl, Lakshmi. Trembling, she walks through the door and positions herself in front of me. “I want to borrow 40 rupees,” she croaks, attempting to look tough.
What a surprise. “You are even more stupid than I thought you were.” Her ignorance is infuriating, and I spit at her feet.
Lakshmi flinches a little, but then rolls back her shoulders and glares at me. “Why should you care?” Her tongue is sharp as polished stone. “It’s my money, you know and my family back in Nepal won’t mind a few rupees.”
That’s it. A boiling pot of rage roars inside of me and I stand up to confront the little brat. The room spins around in circles and a sudden rush of adrenaline courses through my veins, further provoking my fury. “Ha, you really think all your precious money goes home to your family. You Auntie Bimla may have given your father a small sum for selling you to Mumtaz, but he will never see another rupee.”
Lakshmi presses her back against the door and claps her ears with her hands. “What are you talking about,” she demands, her tone rising. “That money I received for my services…”
I pry her hands away gently from her ears and hiss, “goes to Mumtaz, so you will never pay off what you owe. She work you to death until you catch the virus and cannot make money for her. Then, she will throw you out onto the streets and you will die in disgrace. No man will want you then, will he?” A flood of joy surges through my head and I stumble a little at its shock. Goodness, I’ve never felt this fine before. Where is the street vendor! I need more liquor. Now! Where did he go?
Yet, somewhere in my heart I once felt pity for Lakshmi, the vulnerable child stolen from everything she has known. But she is just like the others. With the exception of her head filled with colorful dreams and that infamous, vile thing called hope. Something stolen from me long ago. Something I could never have. Something always just out of my reach. Something I despised her dearly for.
Lakshmi shakes her head furiously at my words. “No, you are wrong!” she shrieks.
It’s too late. Now she knows. Everything, her toil, sweat, and tears, the countless nights she endured with men, all times she tried to please Mumtaz, all those hopes of paying off her debt and retuning home, were for nothing. Absolutely nothing.