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A familiar kick I cherished rose from my womb into my heart. The pulse of my baby flowed and percolated in every crack, every gaping hole within me.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Supriya Bansal is one of the winners for the June 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Kiran Manral commented, “A disturbing account of a woman from a community where the women are traditionally sex workers.”
*Trigger Warning: This has graphic descriptions of violence against women, trafficking, and child sexual abuse, and may be triggering for survivors.
The tatty mattress pressed against my back, scratching and chafing my skin, and the charpoy creaked and groaned under our collective weight.
He butted my thighs against my chest and rammed into me, burying his face into the hollow of my neck. The rancid tobacco reeked from the truck driver’s flesh onto mine, dribbling down to my bones, and homed into my marrow.
He grunted. Grinding deeper into my numb privates, he sought relief—something I didn’t have enough to spare. I was the grain getting crushed by the circular stones of the flour mill, pulverized under the force of his physical hunger.
Few more minutes, I comforted myself.
My eyes meandered from the blue wall opposite the cot and onto the ceiling. The rising damp, peeling paint and powdery mold had carved shapes on the surfaces of an otherwise buck-naked room.
I distracted myself—a sort of game that made the minutes trickle in faster. Squinting at the flaky plaster, I fabricated a multitude of faces on the concrete barrier. A girl in braids with a toothy grin gawped at me; in the corner, by the sheet metal door, a woman peeked through the fringes of her dupatta. I averted their gaze; I was tired of them rummaging for their forgotten echoes in me.
A mishmash of voices from the outside marched across the paper-thin walls.
“Hush- sh-sh,” my mother shushed my sister’s two-year-old daughter. The pots and pans clanged and clamored on the ground in a ting-tang bang of metal striking the tiled floor—my sister was slaving in the kitchen before showing up at the market. Muffled sounds of my father’s feet pacing outside the door, waiting to collect the dough my present venture was going to generate. Distant sounds of the trucks and lorries whizzing on the tarmac, screeching to a halt at the cluster of cots laid out along the pavements. More customers, many deals, a multitude of negotiations — just another night in my unremarkable existence.
The man collapsed on top of me. Spent. Smug. Satiated.
For a few brief moments, we dangled together, our physical forms suspended in a spot, fastened by his need. Now, the space between us stretched into a never-ending chasm. He pulled out, leaving me sinking and squirming alone in the bottomless abyss of filth.
Like a well-oiled machine, my hands drew up the heaped shalwar from my calves and hitched it on my waist, tucking the unspoken screams in its seams.
My tipsy client flung open the door. “Just what I needed to break my journey. I would not be home before the end of the month,” he said, pushing two crumpled hundred rupees notes in her father’s fist.
“Home,” I repeated under my breath. The word curled into a cinder and seared my tongue, scorching my insides as I swallowed it.
I ambled towards the mirror. On its own accord, my fingers yanked the stray wisps of hair, flattening and fastening them under bobby pins on either side, just above my ears. A soiled rag took care of the plum smudges around my mouth, and I slapped on a couple of more coats of lipstick on my already blood-red lips.
“Home?” I asked, looking deeper into the pools of black reflected into my eyes. This concrete ensconced by the frail but unpassable walls where I sold her body to provide for my family—was it my home? Or was it the charpoy where I slogged away hours for the benefit of my customers?
I placed my palms gently beneath the just emerging bump and trotted out of the wretched room into the night. The composite stink of sweat, stale clothes, cheap alcohol merged with the stench of drains lined with excreta braided the air.
My sister had finished chores and taken her place outside the settlement. I slid beside her. My father flashed his mobile light to the passing vehicles — with his wares lined up, he was ready to play shop.
“Wah-Wah-Wah-Wah,” the high-pitched cry of my sister’s infant daughter stood against the racy Bollywood number blaring from a transistor. “Amma, come home, Munni is crying,” my six-year-old niece dashed from the shanty towards my sister and tugged at her wrists. My sister didn’t budge.
What held us there on that rickety metal bed, day after day, night after night? I wondered.
A solitary orange lamp hung by the wires overhead traced our shadows on the ground—three women? Or bitter dregs of civilized society fused as one?
A shiny car stopped at the end of the road. My father ran towards it—in a good business, there could be no wasted opportunities.
A man strolled towards us. Right on cue, we — my sister and I straightened up. As did the rest of the girls on the surrounding metal bunks. The neighborhood men hovered around the potential client, like hungry bees swarming a garden, lured by the promise of sweet nectar.
The coveted customer stopped by our shack. His gaze swept past us to the darkened corner of the dwelling. Bile rose in my throat, and a queasy dread churned in the pit of my stomach as I followed his eyes. The man was staring at my six-year-old niece huddled in that cranny with a stray puppy.
A lightbulb flickered on in the neighborhood hut. My father’s eyes gleamed; like a man on the verge of hitting the jackpot. The glimmer of lust glided from the man’s eyes and touched my niece—a presage of repugnance to come.
“How many times have I told you not to come out?” My sister yowled, clambered on her feet, and ran towards her daughter. “Go home.” She dragged my niece to our crumbling shed without once meeting my father’s glare.
Home… Why did this word irk me so? I pondered. Could home save my niece from an unbidden but undeniable destiny?
My fingertips twiddled with the thick corrugated paper in the pocket of my Kurti.
My father had rejoiced when my divorced sister had given birth to a second daughter. I now understood why. For someone belonging to the Banchhada community, entrenched in the family-based prostitution for centuries, the birth of a girl was nothing less than a gift from God. Flesh trade or being married off for a bridal price—either way, having a daughter was a financially rewarding enterprise. Since my initiation a few years back, my father had been my pimp, taking care of all the arrangements for this caste-sanctioned prostitution.
I gagged— less because of my hormones, more at the possibility of what could have happened to my niece. I could never forget my first time.
“I’ve had enough drama for one night. Pregnancy doesn’t mean you can bunk work. And you sure don’t need to announce it to the prospective clients. Your sister has already ruined my mood. Go throw up somewhere else,” my father hissed. “Don’t forget to tell your sister to hurry. It may not be today, but her lamb is ready for the slaughter. You know, the more tender the meat, the higher the price,” he grimaced, baring a row of beetle-stained teeth, and took a deep swig of the liquor.
I staggered to the back of the hutments, to the narrow-secluded alley. Bracing myself against a pole, I retched to my heart’s content. It was as if tonight my body wanted to purge years of accumulated pain, layers of sorrow, wedges of melancholy lodged in its core. Tears rained down my cheeks.
Exhausted, I stretched my limbs and collapsed on the dampened earth; its calm seeped into me, quieting the inner clamor. My eyes took a while to adjust to the uninterrupted vastness of the inky darkness before me. It was as if a whole new realm had opened before me.
No, the ceilings, the walls didn’t weigh down upon me. My breath didn’t clot at the end of my throat. Instead, it pranced in circles, unsure of the openness. Like a bird born in a cage, I was uncertain I could fly.
A familiar kick I cherished rose from my womb into my heart. The pulse of my baby flowed and percolated in every crack, every gaping hole within me. The sky lightened, and pink light streaked across the dome.
There lying under the canopy of stars, with my heartbeats matching my womb’s, I tasted something that I had craved. Afloat amidst the earth and sky, for what seemed like hours, I had stumbled upon something I had long sought.
Home! I had found my home.
Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited, and that too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realized now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.
I fished out the corrugated train ticket from my pocket and stared at it for a moment. On a whim, I had bought it a week back—a train to Rajasthan, a journey into sweet oblivion.
My forearms cradled my belly; I felt my body relaxing under her cozy, pleasant warmth. I was whole. Fulfilled. Unfettered. The men who had plundered me wouldn’t shy away from taking a piece of her soul, too. I couldn’t let her become a broken, unwanted version of herself. She needed to fly, dip her wings into the wind, and reclaim the slice of her home—the sky.
I couldn’t let her take birth with clipped wings.
In the small hours of the morning, as I sneaked into the shanty to collect my belongings, my sister woke up. We stared into each other’s eyes for a split second before she turned away and slumped down beside her daughter. Like the birds caged together, our eyes spoke more to each other than our words ever did. She knew I needed it.
I needed to go home.
AUTHOR’S NOTE- Banchhada community, a nomadic tribe that belongs to Madhya Pradesh, practices prostitution as their primary source of livelihood. The daughters are introduced into this profession as soon as they reach puberty, their families surviving on the female’s earnings.
Reference- Interactive: India’s Highway Of Shame. interactive.aljazeera.com. Al Jazeera. 2020. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Kiran Manral, a writer, author and novelist based in Mumbai. Her books include The Reluctant Detective, Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard, Saving Maya, Missing Presumed Dead, The Face at the Window, The Kitty Party Murder and More Things in Heaven and Earth in fiction, Karmic Kids, True Love Stories, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up, 13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting, Raising Kids with Hope and Wonder in Times of a Pandemic and Climate Change in non-fiction, apart from short stories in various acclaimed anthologies.
The cue is from her latest book More Things in Heaven and Earth.
“Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.”
Image source: FreePhotos on pixabay
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