Charulata Akhter was an ordinary, braided, floral salwar kameez-wearing nineteen-year-old from the Shundarganj village of Rangpur. The middle of three siblings and the only female in the family in the appropriate state of mind to run the family, all the typical responsibilities had come down on her shoulders. Her mother, a mentally unstable woman, led her unfortunate life in one corner of the dimly-lit mud cottage with only bumblebees for company. Jalaluddin, Charulata's elder brother, was fighting a battle of survival with his father while working in a small shop. Money was in short supply. Charulata, thinned by the struggles of a meager life and the agonizing pains of hunger, would leave a fistful of rice for her younger sister instead of devouring it herself, like a fearless soldier in war.
In this battle of life, any hint of a way out was a once-in-a-lifetime golden ticket. So was the one when Jalaluddin's friend, Kamal, proposed to her. Kamal had offered to take her to Dhaka city. He promised her a well-paid job in one of the city's garments factory. Maintaining a family of five with no money in hand was proving burdensome to the resilient young girl. What options did she have other than to agree, even if it meant staying away from home and not hearing her mother's silver-toned voice, a person whom society had labeled as worthy only of disdain.
The bus was going to leave at five in the morning. She and her friend Bokul were going with Kamal. As she left, she hugged her mother, and bit her lips in an attempt to fight back tears. Her mother's struggles, of course, were her own. With Charulata gone, there was no one to save this woman from society's atrocities.
The road seemed not to end. Though pumped with the notion of being on a thrilling expedition, she was also distressed and anxious. She clasped Bokul's hands as the bus came to a halt. Delighted that the tiresome journey had finally ended, she asked her Kamal Bhai, “Are we there?”
'No Charu, just a little further away,' Kamal replied and smiled with his moistened face.
The girls dismounted the bus and were told to climb on the back of a bright white pick-up truck. She saw a glimpse of what she thought was the outskirts of bustling, jostling Dhaka city. Then darkness engulfed her.
With regular intervals of about an hour, many women climbed onto the back of the van. In what seemed like days on end, she sensed something was wrong. She would take lungfuls of air and scream 'Kamal Bhai!?' but no one would answer. Occasionally, a young boy, who seemed like the power of starvation in his abdomen, was forcing him to do so, would come in and supply them with a jug of water and grains of puffed rice. She was hungry. Hunger was something she had dealt with before, but this was a different experience; there was an abyss in her stomach this time.
Charulata woke up one night with a start. She realized that they had been all transported to another room. A gigantic room with nothing but grey mosaic surfacing the ceiling, walls and the floor with a tiny fan at the centre, featuring three wings. The wings reminded her of freedom; the twilight afternoons of the time when she would skip across the golden mustard fields and bathe in the glorious sunshine of a bowing sun. Each day someone would come in and drag away one of the women. The screeching as the person's body created friction with the grim floor and the screams of the frightened women amounted to torture. And then once again she heard the shouts of satiated men even though the women shrieked in agony, imploring God to finish them right away.
Bokul curled herself up and sat clutching her stomach as it growled and moaned. It was the day Kamal scooted in himself. He grabbed a handful of Bokul's hair and started tugging her away. In the fear-outlined eyes of Bokul, her water-encrusted iris, Charulata saw her own reflection. She discovered that she was dirty, and weak. She was a pariah dog, stained and patched, her body veiled in black charcoal-like dust. Bokul's fear-filled voice and petrified screams of horror filled the room. Her grip on her dear friend started to slip as Kamal pulled Bokul away into infinite darkness.
She could not bring out tears. Crying would have made her feel better, but she was astounded and unable to get her emotions out. She gave thunderous screams, knowing very well that there was no one to hear her, not even God. Any moment now Bokul was going to start screaming as the tyrannical beasts approached her. The treachery of the man knew no bounds.
And then—all of a sudden—a brilliant thought frisked across her mind. She grabbed her chiffon dupatta dangling from her neck and looked up at the fan. This was the chance of a new life, an opportunity to escape the brutality that was otherwise inevitable.
What would happen if she succeeded in carrying out her plan? Would it mean freedom? Would she be soaring over the highest cloud, or swimming in the deepest ocean? Could she fulfill her mother's wishes without being ridiculed by society? Could she rise above the crimes plaguing society and infecting their lives? Would women like her finally be able to live a fearless life without perverted stares from men? And with that thought, her mind full of mirth, she tied a knot on one of the fan's wings with her dupatta. She could not wait to see the next chapter of her life unfold. With endless hope and desire, she let it coil around her neck till it became a venomous snake stalking its prey. She soon felt herself sinking into darkness.
Where was the fluorescent light to save her?
Zarrin M. Ali is a student of Class VIII, Sunbeams School.