“I accept this on behalf of those women who wish they were nameless. For their names are called only when their labour is required. Labour that is soul-destroying. Labour that gets no respect in return. Labour that dehumanizes.”

Tehmeena’s eyes glistened as she practised her speech. Her heart beat a little faster. Doing good felt good.

“They wish they were nameless because their names are reduced to a label for the work that can be extracted from them.”

Was the Benarasi silk too opulent for the occasion? Yes. The Baluchari cotton sari would be more apt. Beautiful yet simple.

“Theirs is a life bereft of things beautiful. I accept this award for my humble contribution towards bettering their lot. Yet so much more remains to be done…”

“Amna, dear,” Tehmeena said, looking into the mirror of the dressing table she was seated at. She addressed the reflection of the person standing quietly behind her. “Yes, madam?” Amna responded politely. “Please get the Baluchari sari from the cupboard,” Tehmeena said, smiling warmly, “The one I bought in Calcutta.”

“I am humbled by the fact that I can use my stardom to focus attention on this evil. I look forward to the day when all such women will walk free.”

Amna brought the sari.  She helped Tehmeena drape it, carefully making the pleats, sliding thumb and forefinger along each one so that it did not dissipate on its way down.

“With sadness and yet with hope, I accept this award on behalf of modern-day slaves. For that is what these women are. Illiterate, wretched women who are tricked and trafficked. Our country alone accounts for half of such women in the world. Shame!”

Tehmeena slowly turned around, twisting her elegant neck to see herself reflected in the three panels of her mirror. She made sure that her hair, make-up and dress looked perfect from every angle.

“One day these girls will receive the education they need so that their primer no longer reads A is for Abuse, B is for Battered, C is for Cruelty.

She went over this line a second time: A is for Abuse, B is for Battered, C is for Cruelty. Yes, it would be memorable. It would be quoted by the media. Her fans would tweet it.  Most importantly, it would help the cause.

Tehmeena picked up her bag and went to the shoe rack in the hallway. She was excited to inaugurate her new leather shoes at the awards show. She had ordered them from her friend’s boutique in Paris. They had been delivered just in time. But she did not see them there. “Amna! Amna!” she called out.

Amna reappeared, damp from the steam of cooking. “Amna, where are those new shoes?” “Madam, which shoes?” “Arré, the new ones—from abroad?” “A-abroad? I-I don’t know.” “But I asked you to take them out of the box and keep them in front of the shoe rack.” “No Madam, you didn’t say anything about shoes…” Amna’s voice trembled.

“What do you mean I didn’t tell you? Oh, you people are all the same! Find it. Now! Otherwise I’ll cut its price from your salary! Oh, but what’s the use? Your entire month’s pay wouldn’t even cover half of it.” “Madam…” Tehmeena cut her off. “I need it now. For the ceremony! Everyone’s going to watch me when I go up to get my award. But you are so stupid and useless, what would you know of such things?”

Tehmeena put on a pair of sandals instead. ‘Stupid and useless’ Amna stood, looking down at her own bare feet. As Tehmeena walked out of the house, it seemed to her that Amna was in her way, so she gave her a shove. Amna lost her balance. As she fell, she hit her head on the corner of the shoe rack. She let out a cry so soft it could not be heard over the sound of the front door slamming shut. She lay there in the hallway, numb. A steady trickle of blood formed a pool around her.

“Her struggle is my struggle. Her pain is my pain. And till the day she is no longer afraid when her name is called, my name is her name.”

As Tehmeena finished her acceptance speech, her voice breaking—presumably with emotion—she received a standing ovation.

 

[Cover photograph by Sumanto Chattopadhyay]

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