“As I calm Baji in my arms I look in her deep green eyes, look at her scarred face, and she smiles at me. Should I take her with me? Should I free her from the chains of life?”
My face is damp. I can’t feel my throat. I sluggishly walk to the water left over from yesterday, and moisten my lips with a few drops. I quickly run back to the floor, worried that Father will wake up and slap me for using the scarce water we have. I start covering my bony body with my blanket but then see the morning sun streaming through the twigs. Time to start my chores. I take the big bucket from the kitchen, put on my sandals, and start walking down the dusty path to the river. I’ve been walking down this path for seven years and I’ve never had the urge to run away, find a new life, a new beginning. Father and Mother would never let me leave, for fear of what is over the trash-piled mountains, but I don’t.
As I calm Baji in my arms I look in her deep green eyes, look at her scarred face, and she smiles at me. Should I take her with me? Should I free her from the chains of life? After all, she will end up like me, with no future, no money. No, I can’t. She’ll be too much of a burden. I put her back down on my blanket and take one last look at our house (if it even is one) and embark on my journey for a new life.
“Where are you going?” Mother screams.
“I’m going to Arva’s house to play with her,” I lie.
“She’s not there, she got sent off.”
“Oh, then I’ll go, um, get some more water.”
I rush out the door before my tears wash my dirty face. Poor Arva. I never thought her parents would be so cruel to send her off. She’ll get treated like an animal. Her poor little body will be ripped in half.
I run. Run for her, run for me. I can’t risk my parents sending me off.
I’ve been walking for a day now, my feet are as dirty as the ground, and I smell like the garbage that surrounds me. Finally, some trees! I take the big dirty blanket from under my feet and bring it over to the tree. The shade envelops my dark skin to make it even darker and I collapse onto the blanket.
The hard wind strikes my body and I pull the blanket to cover myself. Something’s there, like an anchor. I dismiss it and try pulling the other side. It takes me just a second to realize my clothes are off my body and a coarse hand is stroking it. I quickly turn back around lying face to face with a scarred one-eyed old man. “Stop moving, darling, the fun hasn’t even started.”
I stand up, still processing the abuse I’ve just experienced. I grab a piece of metal just an inch away from me and hit the old man with all my might. I see blood streaming down his neck and know he is dead. I immediately start praying and ask god for my forgiveness. I walk and watch the sun reflect on my piece of metal. I know that I’ll be needing it now.
The metal scrapes me every now and then but I dismiss it. The only thing on my mind is water, I know that if I don’t get it soon I’ll be too weak to walk. I need to get a job, make money, get food. I’m about to turn around, end this adventure, and go back to my boring hut but I see a sign. Asarganj it says in bright red with an arrow pointing to the right. Asarganj is where mother’s from! Maybe I’ll find aunty, she won’t tell on me, she never liked mother anyway.
Asarganj, this is where mother grew up. Dusty streets, shady people, the smell of dead bodies. Beggars, dogs, the sound of gambling, and there it is the legendary Dream House where prostitutes bathe in gold. Only the best of the best serve there, they come in poor and come out queens, but their minds are scarred forever. I can’t resist. It won’t hurt to go inside and take a quick look. This is a place of magic. I touch the cold gold metal on the door and rush in.
Scarves, mist, sound everywhere. I push the scarves away, already feeling like a queen, and find myself standing next to men bidding on women. “100,” “150,” “200,” “300,” “Sold.”
“What’s happening here?” I ask a nice-looking man.
“I’ll take her for ten.”
The next thing I know a woman so covered in makeup you’d think she’s a doll touches my shoulder. “Honey, you seem hungry and tired. Come with me,” she says.
I’m so hungry by now I don’t care if they’ll kill me, so I follow her. We walk into a room with wooden tables and chairs filled with more dolls. All the women look at me.
“Kindra, who’s this?” one of them asks.
“She’s hungry, we’ll talk later.”
“Honey, take some bread with your soup,” Kindra says.
“What were those men doing?” I ask.
“Oh, just playing a game. Are you done?” I nod my head. “Follow me.” I follow Kindra through the sea of dolls and we go inside a room. The room smells of incense with a big lumpy bed adorned with scarves.
“Who’s this? You know I’m busy,” says a woman, so thin I can see her heart.
“She came in. What should I do with her?”
“Girl, why did you come here?”
“I wanted to see if the legends are true,” I say.
“Oh, they are. Would you like to work here?” the skeleton woman says.
“Marji, she’s just a little girl.” Kindra stares at Marji as if communicating with her telepathically.
“We need a greeter, don’t we?”
“So, do you want the job?”
“How much would you pay me?” I ask.
“A greedy one we have. Ten each day.”
That’s more than I’ve ever seen. “I’ll take it.”
“Good. Kindra, go dress her up.”
The bony woman then turns around and vanishes into another room.
“Come on, we don’t have all day,” says Kindra. We walk past multiple rooms with weird noises seeping out. “You know, you’re lucky. Fathers send girls over here a few years older than you and make them work here for as long as they like. Of course, the fathers get the money and Marji gets half. She doesn’t like that it happens but she’ll lose all her money if she doesn’t.” We walk into a room with many women transforming into dolls. They paint their faces with vibrant colors and attach feathers to their hair. “Come here,” Kindra says. I sit down on a velvet chair and let the dolls make me into one of them. A crisp blue is put on my eyes and a mash of purple and red put on my lips. They then undress me and put me in a glittery sari. I turn to look at my new self. All my life I’ve been told to hide, be invisible, but now no one can miss me, everyone must see me. I’ll be the sun goddess in the pool of dark, I’ll be the only flower in the garden. All the dolls are looking at me, laughing. “Yes, you’re beautiful. Let’s go. You’ve got work to do.”
“Come to the Dream House, where your dreams will become reality.” That’s my phrase. Kindra says to say it every 20 seconds, so I do. “Come to the Dream House, where your dreams will become reality.”
My first customer. A man approaches me in a nice white shirt and immediately examines my demeanor, as if he’s hiring me for a job. “What are you doing here young lady?”
“I work here.”
“Well, you can come work for me, I give 20.”
“What would I do?”
“Get out of here, Bakul,” screams Kindra.
The man grins with familiarity and says, “You wanna work for me too?”
“No. Now leave, before I call Marji.”
“See you tomorrow,” he says.
“He comes here every day, takes girls and doesn’t let them leave,” Kindra says to me.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Get back to work.”
“Good work today. It´s only your second day and you’re a pro. Here’s your money. Now let’s eat,” says Kindra. We walk back through the hallways and Kindra brings me to a room. “Wake up at 6:00 to start again. Good night.”
I open the door to my room and see it’s not just my room. Three girls around my age are sitting on the floor eating. I look at the brownish broth with a little fish head popping out. “I’m Ashmira,” I say.
“Here’s your food. I’m Bindi.” Bindi’s face, like all the others, is covered with makeup, but it’s covering something. Bruises and a black eye.
“That’s what happens when you resist,” she says.
“Who did it?” I ask.
“He did,” Bindi points to the bed. Bindi stares me down with envy and confusion.
“You’re lucky. You get a choice. I don’t.”
“What do you mean?” Then I remember what Kindra told me –– her father sent her.
“My family needed money, we had no house, no food, nothing. They sent me here when I was eight and when they got what they needed, that wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They now have servants and banquets and I get nothing. All I get is bruises. I finally got sick of this life and decided to rebel, but that didn’t work. They lock this room all night, so don’t think you’re getting out.”
A cold rush of insecurity runs through my veins. Mother and Father could’ve sent me off but they didn’t, even if they were going to starve. They did everything for me.
“But I don’t work for my family.”
“I know, but do you think they care? They have more power than you. It was a mistake coming here.”
I look closely at her to make sure she’s not exaggerating. What if she’s right? What if I’m going to become a slave?
“It’s all a trick,” I say.
Bindi´s eyes glitter with satisfaction and delight.
“Exactly. They lure you in with niceness, but when you start working, there’s no going back.”
“What do we do?”
“I’m glad you asked. Have you seen that man that comes every day?”
“Yes. Kindra says he enslaves girls.”
“She’s lying, she only says that to make you stay here, not go with him.”
Is she crazy! Who would go with a complete stranger to a foreign place?
“So you want to go with him?”
“But what if he kills you, doesn’t give you food?”
“It’s better than here.”
I then realize I can argue with her no more and that she would risk her life to get out of this place.
“When are you going?”
“Whenever you decide. You’re the only one who gets to talk to him. Get more information. But hurry up, we can’t stand another day here”
Nobody talks, we all just go to bed. We don’t bother taking our makeup off, or getting undressed.
“So you’ll pay us 20?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
“What if we want to leave?”
He pauses for a moment trying to figure out the right words to answer my question with.
“Then you can, but I don’t think you’d want to.”
“What exactly would we do?”
“I told you yesterday, have fun, but you’ll see for yourself if you come.”
“When can you take us?”
“Any day, just be ready when I come.”
“Why does Kindra say you enslave girls?.”
“I don’t, she just says that because she worked for me once, we didn’t get along. I have to go.”
He walks away, looking at his gold rings not paying attention to where he walks.
“He told me Kindra worked for him,” I say.
“I knew it.”
Bindi squints her eyes and looks at me as though she just solved a murder mystery.
“Why did she leave?”
“Who knows? Maybe too little pay, or boredom.”
“He said we can leave any day. We don’t even have to tell him in advance.”
“Doesn’t this seem a little too good to be true? 20 a day and no restrictions.”
“Some people are just rich, Ashmira.”
“We need to find out more before we go.”
“Why? Do you know how much it hurts to have men pushed up your body whenever they want?”
I see the pain in her eyes and I know that if I refuse her stare will kill me.
“I’m sorry. We can go tomorrow.”
Should I go with them? I’m getting paid a good amount and no one is enslaving me, at least I don’t think they are. What if this man abuses us and feeds us poison? No, I should believe the people who have been here the longest, like Bindi. And what if she’s right?
“Run, get into the truck!” he screams.
Bindi sees the sun and starts crying. “Fresh air.”
We all scramble into the truck and immediately start going. I look at the Dream House and realize the legends aren’t true, they’re just advertisements. I see Kindra run outside and she’s also crying. Why is she crying? Is he going to kill us? She curses at the man and quickly calls someone. The police? No, they can’t come to the Dream House, they’ll arrest her not him.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
He looks back at me and shows me he’s the king of this truck.
“Stop asking questions.”
We situate ourselves strategically so that we can run away if we have to. I then realize that the two other girls aren’t here and that they ran back to the Dream House at the last minute.
¨Okay, get out,” he says.
We walk out to face a big muddy path with a forest surrounding us.
“The car won’t go through so we have to walk.”
He starts to walk so we follow. After three hours we finally come upon a big grand house, or should I say castle? Bindi and I hug each other in disbelief and both of us start sobbing. I then see something through a window. Five girls are putting on makeup, their doll makeup. The mysterious man displays a wide grin. It occurs to me that Bindi was wrong, Kindra was right and I’m trapped. I realize that no matter where I go or where I work I will never be free. I realize that even though my family had close to nothing they still loved me. I realize that I had freedom and now I don’t.