House of cards

by Mehrin Mubdi Chowdhury

12 July 1985
House-of-cardsNargis woke up; exhausted. Gigantic baboons were chasing her in hordes trying to get a special ‘something’ off her hand. She screamed for help but no one seemed to hear. In a nippy pursuit to escape, she saw herself tripping over a log and somehow falling into pitch-black darkness, almost feeling every bit of the spine-tingling sensation. There were drops of sweat on her forehead; her heart was beating 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, engrossed in profound and peaceful slumber. It was almost becoming a routine for Nargis to have all these strange nightmares and be stark awake when the rest of the world was still immersed in the land of dreams. She wondered whether these were someway of the Divine Entity telling her that her life was doomed.
Rokeya Begum, Nargis’s mother, snored away on the other side of the room while her brother Imran lay on the floor oblivious to the fact that his eldest sister was having strange visions. Nargis felt a pang of jealousy towards all of them. She really wished to enjoy a cavernous slumber, once more, like the rest of them. With this thought, she crept out of her bed making sure not to trip over her brother while she got herself a glass of water from the kolshi at the far end of the one-bedroom apartment they had all been sharing for the last eight years.
Something squeaked in the eight feet by eight feet apartment. The unexpected clatter brought Nargis back to reality. She remembered that she really needed to fall back asleep soon, to be able to wake up precisely at dawn. Nargis needed to make an early start towards her office that day to meet the deadline for a consignment. Her boss had requested everyone to do overtime and promised a hefty bonus if they met the deadline.
Nargis knew it was just a matter of few days and after that she would get a considerable bonus with which she could buy Imran, the toy he had always eyed at the department store, while on his way to school. She knew with that extra money she could buy Parul, a red dress and her mother a nice cotton sari.
With her regular earning, Nargis could only afford to pay the rent for the one bedroom apartment they all lived in together and manage a decent, three-meal a day routine. Her mother worked tirelessly as a day laborer, 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 wasn’t falling asleep soon because once the nightmares came she had a hard time falling back asleep. She thought of waiting for dawn when the melodies of the azan would fill the entire place. She prayed tahajjud and stayed awake to watch the sunrise that day. It’s not often that she gets to enjoy the true beauty of her surroundings.
House-of-cards2Once, inside the factory she stays put most of the day, blocked away from any view. Plus, mother said it’s not safe for her to go out because the entire basti had eyes on her. According to Rokeya Begum, her eldest daughter was at the prime age of her youth and needed to get married soon.
Nargis shrugged at the idea of marriage. What’s the use of getting married when the person she gets married to ultimately does nothing, sitting around and wasting her hard-earned money? Most of the men her friends got married to were good-for-nothing people, taking dowry from 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 times later. He lived somewhere in the country with his fourth wife, almost her age, with a new set of kids. Thought of men and marrying always clouded her mind.

‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’ — the harmonious sound of azan, from the many mosques in the neighbourhood reverberated together. Nargis crept out of the bed again and went to the door, opening it to see daylight creeping in. She gulped in a bit of fresh air and immediately felt energised, looking forward towards the day. She was almost glad that she had the nightmare and woke up early to see the perfect morning and the beautiful sunrise.
After the fajr prayers, Nargis put on her burka, and covered her hair tightly with a scarf, lest the men of the basti, especially Joynal, saw her. She was terrified of Joynal; the local hoodlum who worked for the chairman of the area. Nargis hated the way he eyed her.
Nargis felt goose bumps all over her body at the disturbing thought of the terrible man. She urgently felt the need of getting married and having a man as a protection symbol by her side. She was an adult now and understood her mother’s agony. She knew why her mother worried about her. Rokeya Begum worried whether Nargis would be able to maintain her chastity before marriage, for a woman — that was everything! Her mother would sometimes get terribly upset with her and ask her to somehow trick some man from the garments factory into a love affair and get married as soon as possible!!!
Nargis marvelled at the unfairness of the world, how it forced young girls towards marriage much before they were even ready, as if there was no other way for them. She wanted to be independent, earning enough money to support her family, get her siblings through college. Really! Her life goals were that simple. She thoroughly enjoyed her time at the factory. Work made her feel as if she was doing something meaningful and didn’t need the respect of the world or a husband to prove that she was doing well.

At office, there was the usual chaos; lots of girls came in together cackling and humming Hindi tunes from the latest movies. The hi’s and hello’s and the morning welcomes continued. The world was wonderful and everyone always seemed to be at their highest spirits.
All of a sudden, the line manager wailed & created a break in the harmony.
‘Everyone get to your positions, right now!!!’
The clusters broke up and everyone took their dedicated seats. He howled again.
‘No one will leave the premises today without any emergency reason; I will lock down the main gates. During the mid-break the assistants will provide you with snacks at your desk and you will get a 15-minute break today.’
The snotty character of the assistant ruined the early morning goodwill of the workers.
‘Sheesh’ murmured Kulsum, Nargis’s best friend
‘This man is so horrible. If there was an earthquake he would probably force us to work during that time and not leave our workstations’… someone remarked from the back.
‘Don’t say such horrible things, Kusum… God forbid!!!’
‘Who is the smart ass, whispering here? — Show your bloody face’ 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 very good relationship with the boss, police & all the ministers!!’
Everyone looked down and murmured cursed voices in their head, but no-one made an actual sound. The resonance of the machines emerged and a typical work day had begun.

The construction where Nargis worked had several cracks in it. The splints were smaller at first but as months went by without any heed from the management, they got dangerously stretched.
The manager blamed severe humidity and the ghastly weather of the country for the cracks that developed. He assured everyone that such minute faults were a regular part of tall buildings and assured everyone to refrain from losing sleep over it.
Nargis never felt scared though, she had seen many cracked up buildings in her life and none of them led to any major disasters. The house they lived in had cracks in many places but she still lived there, didn’t she?

Busy immersed in her work, she looked up to see the time. Two hours had already passed and she seriously wondered how. They would get lunch break at 12 and that’s when she could chitchat with Kulsum.
Nargis really wanted to share her nightmare stories with Kulsum. She wanted to know whether Kulsum had any appropriate explanation for the horrible visions. Nargis knew Kulsum would have a solution because Kulsum always had a solution to everything.
Kulsum was her best friend since school. They both attended the local community school till class five. Then, both their parents resisted letting them to study any further. Nargis understood her limitations, she knew that her mother was a single parent and had more than one child to look after.
Kulsum’s father worked in the garments factory, so did her mother and it was natural that she joined the garments industry as well. Kulsum’s mother encouraged Rokeya Begum to also enroll Nargis as an apprentice, to which Rokeya gladly accepted, reflecting a sigh of relief. That’s how their journey began. It’s been eight years now and both Kulsum and Nargis would turn 19 this year.
‘Hey, you girl! Where are you looking at? — Do your embroidery, precisely?’ The sudden, crazy, scream of the line manager brought Nargis back from her daydream. These sudden daze-offs have been happening quite often nowadays.
‘It must be because of the insomnia’ she mumbled.
‘Need to ask Kulsum about this’.

Nargis felt something move. She felt severely lightheaded. A muted reverberation ensued somewhere in the building. It was a momentary jolt that took place roughly a second. She immediately blamed the heavy-set machineries on the floor above. ‘They must be moving those monstrous machines!’ — wondered Nargis. She made a quick look towards Kulsum who seemed to reveal the palest face as if she saw a ghost.
In a split second, the entire construction began to whimper in a grown man’s voice as if it was in a lot of pain.
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 lights above their heads popped and within seconds there was a blackout and people screamed at the top of their lungs — chanting religious lines, hoping against hope that God would intervene and stop the terrible shaking.
Someone screamed from behind. ‘Get out of the building now! This one’s going to collapse!!’ GET OUT! GET OUT! Ya Allah!
Nargis knew a lot of surahs but strangely at that moment she couldn’t remember a single one. Only the faces of her mother and siblings flashed before her eyes and she made only one wish… to be able to see them again, even if it was just for a single day.
Someone screamed again from 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. The girl that sat in front of her nearly jumped above Nargis’s head to go towards the entrance. Another one dived besides her and cursed Nargis for sitting still and 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 mother used to talk about doomsday and how the world would end with corpses walking out of their graves and devils & angels becoming one.
Her entire body shriveled with fear and she began to cry. Sobs at first, but as the building swayed further and the pillars gave away their hold, she screamed out loud. She screamed for her life.
All the chairs and tables flung out of the way. In the pitch black darkness, Nargis could make out that someone near her was hit by a flying sewing machine.
‘Was it Kulsum? — Oh GOD, NO!!!’
She ducked under her table and strongly held on it while the table moved all the way to the end of the room. — As if it had feet of its own.
Nargis cried out her lungs. The stench of horror made the air morbid. The worst happened, Nargis heard a crashing sound, and from the terrible noise she could make it that the ceiling had given away and the building came crashing down. Huge machineries and tons of loaded, stocked garments fell on top of them.

Nargis’s body gave away; lying still, unconscious and oblivious to what happened after.

14 July 1985
Nargis woke up. She saw herself in a white room. At first she thought she had died and gone to heaven but then came faces that she recognised as her own. Her mother, Rokeya Begum wailed and embraced her, her brother gave her a bear hug, Parul kissed on her swollen cheeks.
Nargis realised she was saved from the terrible day. Habitually she thanked the Divine Entity for giving her another chance. She wanted to sit up, hugging and cry out loud in gratitude. A severe pain sensation in her legs stopped her from doing all that. That’s when her mother cried louder and said something about amputation, necessity for existence, life saving action, angel rescuers, angel doctors…. Nargis lost her consciousness again.

Two weeks after the incident…
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 her life was that now she’d have to be a burden to them. She wondered whether this was all because she made a prayer longing to see her family again. She wondered whether death was better or not. Surely she didn’t mean to live a cursed life like this one.
Many from that basti had died that day. There was no celebration for those who survived. Nargis heard wails all night for a month from several houses. Mother said Kulsum, her best friend died in the stampede; hands and legs were found separated from the body. Nargis went into severe depression, suicidal thoughts haunted her regularly.

Three weeks after…
A group of five came from the government with some money. She refused to take the money and instead asked them for a job that would bring back her sanity, rehabilitate her and help her get back on her own. Parul Apa, a mid-aged social worker saw something different in her and was convinced. She offered her a job as the sewing teacher at a skill development project for slum girls, funded entirely by the government. The pay scale was satisfactory.
At her job, Nargis soon became a vocational trainer and confidante for many. She showed the girls how to fight against a damaging life and emerge out as the winner. Ladies with all sorts of problems came to seek her help as if Nargis was a messiah. All she did was give them confidence and narrate her own story.
Nargis now realised that a divine intervention did save her that day and she felt obligated towards that entity for her second chance in life. She needed to do something to show her gratitude and pay homage to the deaths of her loved ones especially Kulsum.

Years later…
Precisely, thirty-one years later, the memory of that night no longer haunted Nargis. She gladly 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 trained over 3,000 women, annually. Her brother and sister both worked with her at the training institute. Her mother passed away due to complications of old age but was able to see her success before death.
The only thing that bothered Rokeya Begum was that Nargis remain unmarried. But at least her other two children got married and bore her grandchildren.
And Nargis…. Well she didn’t consider herself as lonely. She had so many depending on her love and affection that it was much more than she had ever expected. The most important thing was that terrible nightmares no longer haunted her. She slept peacefully till she breathed her last lungful of air.

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