She stretched her hands and stood upright, wiped the beads of sweat as her skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, she continued digging again – her passage to freedom.
Waiting means risk being caught. But if I go ahead, there’s a fat chance of running into the devil’s accomplices.
Her legs screamed with exhaustion.
Minutes ago, while she had been weighing her odds, her attention was drawn to several pit caves at the foot of the hill she thought she knew well. None of them though, was deep enough to accommodate her. The soil was soft though. She began to dig one of them.
Her mother’s frail fingers kneading the lump of clay and her father’s pale worried eyes taking an account of their day’s produce flashed infront of her. She hit the mattock with added force.
“Don’t hurt yourself.” Her mother shoveled up the loosened soil on a hand-cart.
“Yeah, we don’t want a deduction if this stupid tool breaks.” She hit the ground again.
“This is enough clay for today. Hopefully Seth’s tractor should be functional by tomorrow” Mai pushed the cart which was way too heavy for her. Lachmi promptly spared a hand and mentally ran over the numbers her father reiterated often for her benefit.
“Another fifteen thousand bricks and we will have cleared the debt we received at the beginning of the season. That’d be another 15-20 days. During the remaining season we can deliver a decent amount of bricks to get us by the dead monsoon months.”
Her father’s calculations gave her hope. And a reason to ignore the lewdness around in here and look forward to life back in their native village.
Ignorance was her favorite coping mechanism while she embarked on a daily battle to become an inconspicuous identity in the brick-yard. She wasn’t fair. Obviously, with the kind of labor she put in through the scorching heat at the brick-kiln, one couldn’t remain fair. To her dismay, her sharp features were accentuated by her tanned complexion, aided further by large black eyes. She was aware that at 5 feet 3 inches, when she walked with her hair plaited into one long heavy braid swaying along with her hips, men ogled at her shamelessly. Soni, her friend from one of the other families who worked as bonded labors at the kiln remarked on that, a lot. She wanted to cut her hair short with the sickle that her mother used for cutting potatoes.
She tied them up in a bun instead.
“These danglers look good on you.” Soni had giggled when she once bought a pair of earrings from a hawker for a full two rupees.
It took two more pointed compliments from Soni for her to pull them away and throw them afar. She didn’t want things to suit her. She only wanted to remain unnoticeable to the world around. She was 19 years old, at the cusp of womanhood and invited too much attention from the lecherous male species – especially the ones who gloated on their status of being Seth’s men. The truck drivers, guards and that imperious Jaggi. She blamed it on the two pairs of ill-fitting, donated salwar-kameez that she washed and wore alternately. She didn’t mind the lose fit, but it was a constant struggle to keep the neck-line covered with her dupatta which she draped across her chest, wrapped around her waist and tugged it on the side.
“That Jaggi gives me creeps.”
“Ignore him.” Lachmi stood facing away while Soni completed her business. She felt the early morning breeze caressing her face and realized that summers were on their way. Days would soon become unbearably hot.
I must ask Baba to spare some clay for lining the walls of our hut for some cooling effect.
She doubted if it would help.
A roof would help more.
But the roof wasn’t a priority. Four hours of sleep at night and an hour of afternoon nap was all that they needed the place for.
“What took you so long?” Lachmi snapped, as Soni walked in by her side rubbing her hands with a fist full of dry sand.
The two girls hurried away from the hill that ran alongside the main road. Though it was a full thirty minutes walk, away from their so called huts, its dense bushes gave them enough privacy for their ‘business’. And a reason for Soni to take a break from the back bending labor they indulged in since midnight every day.
“Walking down here is a waste of time for you, right?” Soni giggled.
“I could mold over 80 bricks if I didn’t have to come this far.” Lachmi grumbled as they tottered their way across the furnace chambers.
“What are you two upto?”
Lachmi made her first mistake of the day. They should have fled. Instead, overcome by dread and the stench of alcohol, the girls froze on their feet. The notorious guard- Jaggi, lunged in from the side. Clad in a lungi and a vest he struggled to balance his weight on his feet.
He wobbled his way into their space. Lachmi fisted her hands on her sides, not sure if the shiver that ran up her spine was due to morning chill, fear or anger. Her eyes bore into the ground.
“One can’t even shit in peace.” She mumbled. Soni nudged an elbow into her side.
“You work too hard with your father”. He reached out for Lachmi’s palm and brusquely rubbed it against his chest in circles, “Come with me. Let me show you some joys of life.”
Soni began to sob.
“Why are YOU crying?”
Lachmi continued to stare at the ground, a scream stuck in her throat grappling to break free. Silently, she prayed – hoping against hope that he was too drunk to follow through his intentions.
Soni’s cries grew louder.
“Tchh! Are you upset?” he growled, “I will be obliged to take in both of you together. I am quite capable that way”, his burlesque sneer caused Lachmi to shudder.
“Come on girl.” He twisted her arm, turned around and pulled her along. She followed with little resistance. She didn’t want to fuel his anger. And his hunger.
“Please let her go. Pl…”
“Go home Soni.” Lachmi’s cold words cut through Soni’s plea, “Go home.” Her dispassionate tone defied the fear running through her veins.
“Looks like I got lucky. I thought you would put up some fight.” He sneered some more.
Lachmi wasn’t naïve. She was well aware of what several girls around the kiln went through every night. Those who raised their voice in objection met a fate much worse. In the darkness of nights they vanished. Everyone knew that even in death they were made useful by fueling the kiln furnaces. And the rest continued to kneed-mould-dry-repeat, licking their wounds without shedding a tear, helping their families eat two square meals a day.
“Don’t tell them anything. I will come back and handle it.”
She hoped to get done with the totally spent Jaggi quickly. There was still time to dawn. The roosters had not begun to crow yet. With a resigned nod at her friend she went with the devil.
“Undress fast.” Jaggi took a long swig of the dark liquid from a bottle and signaled at the cot lying in the corner of the tiny quarter for kiln guards. It was hot and dingy inside.
“Hey! The guard on duty for the next shift will come in right after sunrise. I don’t have long.” He barked.
The full extent of her situation dawned upon Lachmi. She let out a shivery breath. She had managed to remain elusive for quite long. It seemed fate had finally caught up with her.
Would Soni be next?
She thought about her parents. Would her father come looking after her? She hoped not. Years of bonded labor had taken a toll on him. He was now so fragile that he could manage hardly 500 bricks daily on his own.
“Oyii” Lachmi cringed at Jaggi’s snarl followed by a series of obscene insinuations. She rubbed her face with her hands and braced herself. There was no point dallying. The sooner the devil was satiated the earlier she could get back. She put her hands on the sides of her salwar to pull it down. That’s when she felt it.
She had bought it from the temple fair back in their native village and on a whim tied it in a string around her waist. Her pulse quickened as she mulled over the opportunity. She licked her lips and looked from the sides of her eye as her predator staggered his way towards her. A siren went live in her head and everything around ceased to exist. She could only hear her heartbeat and the echo of one loud thought in her mind. She blinked hard.
There aren’t many people near the furnace chambers at this hour. No one will suspect me.
She trembled as the burly man lurched closer. All reason and judgment of repercussions scurried out of her head as she pounced.
That was her second mistake of the day. She realized it the moment his limp form fell on the ground. He lay listless as if dead. Only if he were dead. He was merely unconscious.Tiny streams of blood trickled down his abdomen and the hollow of his neck.
He might bleed to death.
Or else, he would come looking after her, with consequences much uglier than the fate she had just evaded.
What was I thinking attacking him with this blunt toy of a knife?
She gulped a lump of stuffy air through her parched throat as she deliberated over the eventualities. She knew that this time, he would take her mother too. It happened all the time. It was their way of establishing superiority over them – the bonded beings.
She wished she were strong enough to drag and push him down one of the furnace holes. With no smoke, no one would smell the fire.
She rushed towards her hut, the one without a roof. She had to get back to her parents. They had to escape. She saw Soni sitting with Mai outside their hut. Her father wasn’t around. Mai sat cross legged on the ground, her elbows resting on her thighs, her head on her palms.
“Mai…Mai…!” she dropped on her knees to the ground infront of Mai and let out a keening wail. One that was trapped inside her all this while.
She hugged her mother and the two women cried hysterically. Their lamentations interrupted only by their need to breathe.
“It’s OK. You had no option.” Her mother consoled in-between sobs.
Everything might have been OK, if she had not allowed her defenses to kick in.
“I hit him.” Her words came broken through her cries.
“He will gain consciousness Mai, and come after us.” She bellowed, while Mai went still as a stone.
Lachmi pulled herself back from her mother.
“I thought he would die…He hasn’t… Save me Mai…Save Us.”
Lost in thought, Mai caressed her head. Then she stood up abruptly and went inside the hut. She returned within seconds and shoved a ten rupee note in her hands, pushing her away.
“Run away. Fast. Run.”
“What about you and Baba?” Lachmi scampered up on her feet.
“He will kill us…” Mai let out a guttural whisper, “…if that’s our fate. You must run away.”
“But…” Mai silenced Lachmi by hugging her for a long minute. There wasn’t any noise in their cries now.
And then she hurried away.
She knew the topography of the kiln expanse. She decided to go towards the hill where they went for their ‘business’. It ran parallel to the road. If anyone came on the trail, she had the option of hiding somewhere behind the bushes, and a better chance to escape later via road.
She had a hard time controlling her urge to run as she teetered with care along the huge brick piles. Just then she recalled that it was Seth’s time to come for his daily round-up. She pondered on the possibility of Jaggi regaining consciousness and seeking Seth’s help to track her down.
Was he alive at all?
I must not run into anyone on the road.
She had to ensure that the way ahead was clear. As she treaded around the foot of the hill, she came to observe several pit caves fringed by huge bushes.
Lachmi had heard that until a few decades ago these pit caves were used as kilns for brick baking. With new techniques and need for furnace chambers with larger capacities, they now lay abandoned.
Getting inside the pit cave, she convexed her limbs together, and allowed the adrenalin to settle down. Resting her face against the grimy wall she felt the pull of her parched skin from the dried up tears. Hunkering further inside, Lachmi allowed dizziness to smother her senses.
“Lachmi! Lachmi!” she heard raspy cries of a woman. No, that was two women. She recognized the voices. Mai…Soni. Eyes narrowed, she craned her head out of the cave and gaped at their torn clothes and bruised faces. And then she saw two pairs of hollow cavities in place of their eyes.
Lachmi woke up with a shriek.
I left them to fend for themselves. I must go back. I…
Tears burst forth like water from a dam. She pressed her forehead against the wall and wept her spirit out. She rewound the events that had led her already ignominious life to go further disarrayed in a matter of hours and knew she didn’t have it in her to go back. Guilty as she was, she wanted to break free.
A loud thundering of clouds made her peep outside. It was raining. She observed the tiny drops of water playing on the leaves that shivered in tandem with her lower jaw while tears trickled down her cheek. The only respite was that no one had found her. Yet.
Hours later when the day bid adieu to sunlight, Lachmi emerged from the cave and made a run for the last lap to her freedom. Her steps continued to move ahead. Her heart kept leaping behind. She turned her head to look in the direction where her parents might be, unmindful of the ground beneath her feet that had transitioned from greasy wet to hard and rutted. That was her third mistake of the day.
The dawn was cast in hues of smokey shades. The kiln inmates ran helter-skelter taking account of the damage from last night’s thunderstorm.
Lachmi…she lay somewhere by the roadside in a pool of blood and rainwater. Her head twisted at an awkward angle, eyes reflecting the charcoal of clouds above.
Her soul, now unobtrusive, floated freely along with the clouds.
Author’s Note: There are 100,000 functioning brick kilns in India employing an estimated 23 million workers. A huge percentage of these workers are bonded labors that begin the season after monsoons with some advance from the brick kiln owners, because they have nothing to feed their families. They work the entire season just paying off the debt. These kilns are also hubs of crime incidents that go unrecorded because there are no traces, evidences or willing witnesses.
Lungi – A wrap-around garment worn by men
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
Prompt: The protagonist stretched his/her hands and stood upright, while the beads of sweat as his/her skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, the protagonist continued digging again- his/her passage to freedom. Take the story forward.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Arvind Sheke
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