12th July 1985, 3:00 am
Nargis woke up, exhausted. She had been chased by hordes of gigantic baboons, trying to snatch a special “something” from her hand. She remembered screaming for help. In a nippy pursuit of escape, she tripped over a log, falling ceaselessly into an abyss of pitch-black darkness; almost feeling every bit of the spine-tingling sensation.
There were drops of sweat on her forehead; her heart thumped recklessly, pumping blood terribly fast, as if to impede an immediate catastrophic aftermath. Glad that it was all a nightmare, Nargis woke up to see Parul, her younger sister fast asleep right beside her. It was almost becoming routine for Nargis to have all these strange nightmares, causing her to lay awake in the middle of the night.
She wondered whether these sporadic episodes of nightmares was some way in which the divine entity was telling her that life was about to go downhill.
Rokeya Begum, Nargis’ mother, snored away in a far corner of the same room while her brother Imran lay on the floor oblivious to the fact that his eldest sister was having strange visions again.
Nargis felt a pang of jealousy towards all of them. She really wished to enjoy a good night’s sleep, once more, like the rest of her family.
With this thought in mind, she crept out of bed, making sure not to trip over her brother as she fetched herself a glass of water from the jar, kept in one of the corners of the one-bedroom home that they had all been sharing for the last eight years.
Something squeaked in the eight by ten feet room. The unexpected clatter brought Nargis back to reality. She remembered she needed to make an early start that morning to meet the deadline for an urgent consignment at the factory. Her boss at the garment factory had requested everyone to work overtime the coming week, promising a hefty bonus if they met the deadline. Nargis knew it was just a matter of time after which she would get a considerable bonus, finally allowing her to buy Imran the national cricket team jersey he had been eyeing in the stores he passed on his way to school. She knew she could buy Parul the red dress and her mother the blue and white patched cotton sari she had always wanted her to wear.
With her regular income, Nargis could only afford to pay the rent for the small room they all lived in together and manage a decent, three-meal-a-day routine. Her mother worked tirelessly as a day labourer, helping to get the other two members of the family through school. This bonus would mean a lot to them. Actually, this bonus would mean a lot to her—to be able to see so many happy faces.
Nargis knew she wouldn’t fall asleep again because once the nightmares began she had a hard time going back to bed. She thought of waiting until dawn when the sound of the azan would fill the entire place. She prayed Tahajjud and stayed awake to watch the sunrise. It wasn’t often that she got to enjoy the true beauty of her surroundings. Once inside the factory where she worked, she stayed put most of the day, blocked away from any sort of scenic view. Plus, Mother also said it’s not safe for her to roam outside—all alone, because the entire bosti had eyes on her, especially the dreadful son of Samad Mollah, a local hooligan called Joynal.
According to Rokeya Begum, her eldest daughter was at a prime age and needed to get married soon. Nargis shrugged at the idea of marriage. Most of the men her friends got married to were good-for-nothing people, taking dowry from their in-laws. Once the dowry money was exhausted they either beat up the girls or re-married elsewhere.
What about her own father? He had abandoned them a long time ago and got married three more times. He lived somewhere in the country with his fourth wife, almost her age, with a new set of kids.
The thought of men and marriage always dampened her spirit.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar,” the harmonious sound of the azan from the neighbourhood mosques reverberated together. Nargis carefully crept out of bed again and went to the door, opening it to witness daylight creeping in. She gulped in a bit of fresh air and immediately felt energised, looking forward to the day. She was almost glad that she had the nightmare and was able to wake up early to witness the perfect morning and the beautiful sunrise.
After Fajr prayers, Nargis put on her burkha, and covered her hair tightly with a scarf, lest the neighbourhood men saw her—especially Joynal. Nargis hated the way he eyed her. At the disturbing thought of the terrible man, she felt goosebumps all over her body. She understood why her mother worried so much.
Rokeya Begum worried about whether her daughter would be able to maintain her chastity before marriage. For a woman, that meant everything. Her mother would sometimes get terribly upset with her, urging her to somehow trick a man from the garment factory to fall in love and marry her!
Nargis pondered about how unfair the world was, how it forced young girls towards marriage, as if there was no other alternative to it. She wanted to be independent, earning enough money to support her family, getting her siblings through college. Her life goals were that simple, really.
At work, there was the usual chaos; lots of girls came in together cackling and humming Hindi tunes from latest movies. The “hi’s” and “hello’s” continued. Everyone always seemed to be in the best of moods in the morning.
All of a sudden, the line manager wailed, “Everyone get to your positions, right now!” They broke out of their clusters and shuffled to their designated seats.
He howled again. “No one will leave unless they have an emergency; I will lock the main gates. During the midday break, assistants will provide you with snacks at your desk and you will get a 15 minute break later today.”
The manager’s snotty character ruined their mood.
“Sheesh,” murmured Kulsum, Nargis’ best friend
“He is so horrible. If there was an earthquake he would probably still force us to work…” someone muttered from the back.
“Don’t say such horrible things,” said Kusum. “God forbid!”
“Which smart-arse is talking? Stand up!” scoffed the manager.
“The boss will arrive in a few minutes, if I hear one more word from any of you, I will personally throw you out of work today, and you won’t be able to show your face at this factory ever again! And don’t you dare come challenging me! You don’t know who I am—I have a very good relationship with the boss!”
Everyone went back to work, murmuring curses in their heads, but no one spoke again.
The building where Nargis worked had several cracks in it. The splints were smaller at first but as months went by they stretched further. The manager blamed severe humidity and the ghastly local weather for all the developing cracks. He assured everyone that such minute faults were expected from tall buildings and asked them not to lose sleep over it.
Nargis never felt scared though; she had seen many damaged buildings in her life and none of them led to any major disasters.
The house they lived in had fissures in several places; but she still lived there, didn’t she?
Nargis found a moment to look at the wall clock. Two hours had already passed and there was one more hour to go until lunch break at 12 pm, when she could sit down and chat with Kulsum.
Nargis really wanted to share her nightmare stories. She wanted to know whether Kulsum had any appropriate explanation for the horrible visions. Nargis knew Kulsum would have a solution, because she always had a solution for everything.
Kulsum’s father and mother both worked in the garment factory, so it was natural that she join the industry as well. Kulsum’s mother encouraged Rokeya Begum to enrol Nargis as an apprentice; Rokeya gladly accepted. That’s how their journey began eight years ago. Kulsum and Nargis would both turn 17 this year.
“You! Girl in the red kameez! Get back to work!”
The manager’s sudden shriek snapped Nargis out of her daydream. She had been in a daze quite often these days.
“It must be because of the insomnia,” she mumbled to herself. Need to ask Kulsum about this as well, she thought.
Nargis felt something move. She felt severely light-headed. A muted reverberation ensued somewhere in the building. It was a momentary jolt that took place for roughly a second. She immediately blamed the heavy-set machinery on the floor above. They must be moving those monstrous machines again, wondered Nargis.
In a split second, the entire building began to shudder and commotion ensued.
Nargis went back to her nightmares; she was falling into a pitch-black abyss. The second, massive jolt brought her back to life. Nargis realised this was no longer a nightmare. What was happening around her was real—it was an earthquake!
The energy-saving bulbs above their heads shattered into pieces, and within seconds there was a blackout. People started screaming and chanting religious verses, hoping against hope that God would intervene and stop the terrible shaking.
“Get out of the building, NOW! It’s going to collapse!” someone screamed.
Nargis knew a lot of surahs, but strangely, at that moment she couldn’t remember a single one.
Her mother and siblings’ faces flashed before her eyes and she said a prayer—to be able to see them again, even if just for a single day.
Someone screamed again somewhere in the room. “The bloody gates are locked! They are locked! Someone get the keys from the pig!”
Everyone was running towards the end of the room where the main gate was located. The girl that sat in front of Nargis nearly pushed her out of her way to rush towards the entrance. Another one crouched next to her and cursed Nargis for blocking her path.
In the sheer darkness, with the building jolting out of its foothold and swaying in an ungodly manner, Nargis suddenly remembered how her mother used to talk about doomsday. Of how the world would end with corpses walking out of their graves, and devils and angels becoming one.
Her entire body shriveled with fear and she began to cry. First it began as sobs, but as the building swayed further and the pillars gave way, she screamed out loud. She screamed for her life.
All the chairs and tables were flung about. In the pitch black darkness, Nargis heard someone collide with with a running sewing machine.
She hoped to God it wasn’t Kulsum.
She ducked under her table and held on to it with all her might, while it moved all the way to the end of the room—as if it had feet of its own.
Nargis cried and screamed. The stench of death hung in the air. Soon, she heard a large crash—the ceiling had given way and the building started to crash. As the floors crashed, large machines slammed on screaming workers, smashing them in places.
Nargis collapsed; lying still, unconscious and oblivious to what happened afterwards.
14th July 1985
Nargis woke up.
She found herself in a white room. At first she thought she had died and gone to heaven but then came the faces that she recognised.
Her mother, Rokeya Begum wailed and embraced her, her brother gave her a bear hug, Parul kissed her swollen cheeks.
Nargis realised she was safe. She thanked the divine entity for giving her another chance. She sat up, hugging them and crying in gratitude.
Suddenly, a severely painful, throbbing sensation took hold of her. That’s when her mother cried even louder and said something about an amputation. She heard snatches of conversation as she went in and out of consciousness. “It’s necessary for existence”…“the only way to save her life,”… “angels that came to her rescue,” were just some of the things she heard before she lost consciousness again.
Two Weeks Later
Nargis was in a wheelchair being pushed by Imran. She wondered how they managed to buy a wheelchair. Nargis’s hadn’t spoken to anyone since the day she realised she no longer had any legs.
All Nargis had ever wanted was to help her family and the irony of life was that now she’d have to be a burden to all of them. She wondered whether this was all because she had prayed to see her family again. She wondered whether death was better than the fate she had been dealt.
Many from the same bosti had died that day. There was no celebration for those who survived. For a month Nargis heard her neighbours wailing all night long. Mother said Kulsum had died in the stampede; her hands and legs were found separated from the body.
Nargis went into severe depression; with the idea of suicide haunting her endlessly.
One Month Later
A group of five people from the government came with donations. She refused to accept it. Instead she asked the bureaucrats for a job that would help her regain her sanity and her sense of self-worth. Parul Apa, a middle-aged social worker, saw something different in her and was convinced. She offered her a job as the sewing teacher for a skill development project dedicated to slum girls, funded entirely by the government. The pay was satisfactory. Nargis soon became a vocational trainer and confidante for many others. She showed the girls how to persist. Women with all sorts of problems came to seek her help, as if she were a messiah. All Nargis gave them was the confidence to believe in themselves by narrating her own life.
Several Years Later
Thirty-one years later, the memory of that night no longer haunted Nargis. She looked out of her decent apartment in a middle class area of the capital. She had a sewing institute of her own – Kulsum Training Institute – where she annually trained over 3,000 women.
Her brother and sister both worked for her at the training institute. Her mother had passed away due to complications of old age but was able to see her daughter’s success before she died.
The only thing that had bothered Rokeya Begum was that Nargis remained unmarried. But at least her other two children had gotten married, bearing her lots of grandchildren.
As for Nargis, she didn’t consider herself to be lonely. She had so many people depending on her love and affection that it was much more than she had ever expected. The most important thing was that the terrible nightmares no longer haunted her.
She slept peacefully until the day she breathed her last.