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I sat there quietly waiting for one of them to enter. I had just finished applying my makeup and taking my cow drugs. I feel sick but my Madame Anika tells me that I look beautiful. I hear footsteps coming towards me. They are hard and forceful. It is one of them. I feel my body tense up as he enters the room. He flashes me a toothless smile and immediately begins to undress. He slowly walks towards me. I sit quietly trying my best to calm down and appear willing. He sits down on the bed. I lie back, close my eyes, and let it happen.
My name is Rupa Rahman. I am a bonded sex worker. I was brought here on my thirteenth birthday. I am now eighteen years old. My step-father sold me to Madame Anika to pay for my mother’s medical bills. He did not want to but he had no choice. He had to take care of my mother and I do not mind helping my family. This is why I take the cow drugs. They make me beautiful and the more beautiful I look the more clients I will get. The more clients I get, the quicker I can leave this place and rejoin my mother and step-father at home.
I hope they are still the same when I get home. I have heard terrible stories of girls leaving this place and going home only to hear that their parents want nothing to do with them. But this will never happen to me. I did not ask for this. They did this to me. They brought me here. They cannot be ashamed of me. No, they cannot. When I get home, they will love me and everything will be alright. Allah will forgive me for everything. He will understand why I did those things.
The toothless man is done. He pulls off his used condom and throws it onto the pile that has built up in the corner of the room. He silently fastens his sarong, sets the money on the bed and leaves the room with the same hard, forceful footsteps he entered with. He was my last client for the day so I am relieved. I leave the room and go into my own room where I can think. I look at the calendar that I have drawn onto my wall and I realize I only have one month left in this horrible place. A smile slowly creeps onto my face. For thfirrst time in five years, I am truly happy.
For the next month I do what I have to do. I go about my business as usual and take clients. At the end of the month I walk into Madame Anika’s room, hand her the money I owe her and I leave. I catch a train going towards my village and I walk the rest of the way home. It is early in the morning when I arrive and I am excited. I walk into my house and call my mother’s name.
“Mama! Mama! It’s me Rupa! I’m home.”
My stepfather is the one who comes out to see me. He is wearing his old night gown. The one with all the patches I sewed on. He looks at me suspiciously and then he looks angry.
“Rupa?”, he says, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m home. Baba I came home. I served my time. I’m home.”
His facial expression has not changed. “You cannot stay here”, he says. His words are like daggers in my heart. Those stories I heard are real. He does not love me anymore. “Baba”, I say, “What do you mean I cannot stay here? Where is Mama? I want to see her.” Now he has stopped looking at me. He is looking at the floor, rubbing his knuckles like he did the day he told me mama was sick. I am afraid.
I whisper barely audibly, “Baba. Where is she?” His head slowly moves up; his eyes reluctantly meeting my own. “She died”, he says. “She died about 4 years ago, shortly after you left. The medicine did not work. I would have come to get you but you have shamed our family by becoming a prostitute.”
I have no words. I feel my legs giving out under me. The room is spinning. Nothing feels real. I feel myself falling as I whimper, “She died? I have shamed you? I did not ask for this. Why?” I am on the floor now. I cannot feel anything but I still hear him. “You cannot stay here. You have shamed us.”
When I awoke I was alone in front of what I previously called home. The conversation from the night before came hurtling back into my focus like a comet that was temporarily forgotten. My mother is dead. My step-father no longer loves me. I cannot go home. It was not my fault. But I cannot go home. I did it for my mother. But I cannot go home. They told me this would not happen. But I cannot go home.
I need to find food and shelter. The only place that I know will definitely give me these things is the brothel. But I cannot go back there. I have already shamed my family. I refuse to shame myself as well. I will be strong. I will live on my own. By my own work. I know of some NGOs, the aid organizations, that operate in the city. I just have to find them and then life will be good. They will help me. They do not know what I have done. They will protect me. Feed me. Give me a place to sleep. I just have to find them. I feel slight relief now. Since I was young having a plan had always made me feel more comfortable.
I see a man with a bicycle riding past me. I flag him down and beg him for a ride into the city. He says he will do it but only if I give him my shoes. So I take off my dusty three year old sandals and hand them over to the man. I climb on the back of his bicycle and he begins riding. The man is young. His face is unshaven and coated with sweat. The back of his shirt is completely soaked with his perspiration. He smells of cigarettes. Other than his occasional shout to make his bicycles visible to cars, we ride in complete silence. After a few hours we arrive in Faridpur. He drops me off on the side of the road and continues riding. I wonder where he is going and then I dismiss the thought. I have a plan. I must stay focused. I see a general store at the end of the block. I am sure they will know how I can get in contact with an NGO.
The store is old and unkempt. It smells of curry and chai. The old Coca-Cola bottles in the front of the store are coated with thick sheets of dust. I look around for the store keeper. The only other person in the store is a tiny old man. His beard is thick and white. As I get closer to him, I realize he also smells of curry and chai.
I ask "Sir, are you the owner of this store?” He turns from the shelves he was stocking and responds "Yes I am. What can I help you with? Some cow drugs?" I had not even thought about the cow drugs since I had left the brothel. I knew that soon I would need some if I did not want to get sick like my friend Sumi did after she stopped taking the drugs. But right now, I have a plan. I have to focus.
I replied "No sir. I wanted to know if you knew how I could get in contact with an NGO." He gave me a curious look and said "NGO? Are you not one of Madame Anika's girls?" He recognized me. My heart dropped. I wanted to run but I could not. I had a plan. "No. Sir, do you know where I can find an NGO?" This time he did not look at me before saying ,"Yes. There is an office down the road. It is right across the street from the brothel." "Thank you very much sir", I reply. I walk away feeling accomplished and then I realize his directions. I do not know whether to laugh or cry at how twisted my fate is. My salvation will be found across the street from the very place that robbed me of five years of my life.
The NGO office is air-conditioned. The floor has a carpet on it and there is a comfortable looking couch in the corner of the room. I walk towards the woman sitting on the far side of the room. Finally I will be free. I will have people that care about me. They will help me. They will protect me and feed me. I will be safe and happy.
The woman looks up at me with an almost bored look on her face. She says "Hello. What do you need?" I begin explaining my situation to her. I tell her I cannot go home. I skip the part about the brothel. I do not want to be judged for something that is not my fault. I tell her that I have nowhere else to go and I need help and provisions. The woman waits until I havfirnished speaking. She picks up her cup and takes a sip of her chai. She puts down her pen, picks her glasses up and disinterestedly places them back down. She raises her head, looks directly into my eyes and without even a hint of hesitation she says, "We cannot really do much for you. Have you tried the brothel?”