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- Mattie Stepanek
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‘How little you know of me
How much there is to know’
Words clouded Rahel’s mind as she walked past Chowringee street. It seemed a bit more boisterous than any other day, perhaps because it was the beginning of the month. Every seller seemed to have replenished his stocks in the market-place, and every buyer looked like he could afford more than usual. On her left, the street food shops shouted their way into salvation. Pockets full of coins simmered into fresh hot kebabs. A little away from Rahel, a few currency notes cascaded into shards of chiffons, and across the other side from where she stood, a sharp knife sliced raw fresh fish. The market sounds, smells and silence seemed to have collided into one big chaos.
Stories and people culminated here against a seemingly silent backdrop. Life moved from morning to afternoon till sunset and in the darkness of the bare night, the stink of leftovers got stolen.
Before the dawn broke, each day, this madness was replenished again. It went on, day after day; fresh fish, shards of chiffon, gritty gold.
Rahel was in the market but she didn’t see herself as a part of it. She was indifferent to chaos, the background silence, the raw fish being sliced and the coin kebabs being sold. She was her own person, her own market. Rahel was a sex worker.
‘Prostitute,’ some people shouted as she walked. Yet, she walked unbothered, with the grace of a queen, the élan of an empress, she was her own person, her own temptress; lost in time, and in place in an utterly nonsensical market-place. She wasn’t chiffon or a fish and yet she was once sold, for a couple of coins and some gold.
Rahel disregarded everyone, like the silence that disregarded the chaos in the market. Her indifference was the prison that locked and unlocked her fury. Rahel made no friends, it simply wasn’t her thing. The only time she had made a friend, the man had sedated her and sold her. She had paid a heavy price and since then, Rahel trusted no-one, made no friends. Yes, Rahel made enemies, plenty of them, but she disregarded them too.
That day, as she walked down the market, she heard a whisper … ‘Hey beautiful!’
Rahel turned to look, even her indifferent self couldn’t resist the compliment that came her way. Perhaps, because it was a first … Perhaps because she was tired of her own indifference.
Upon noticing, she realised that the compliment giver was a skinny woman wearing a long pastel coloured skirt and a chequered men’s shirt. She had bottles hidden behind the straps of her boots.
The compliment giver was – A bootlegger!
The bootlegger lady had called Rahel beautiful.
Curious, Rahel smiled at the lady.
The bootlegger lady didn’t stop at the compliment, she signalled her, beckoning her close.
At first. Rahel thought it was a joke. It turned out, that it wasn’t.
Rahel followed her instinct and went after the bootlegger, who had signalled her to walk along. She had no qualms or fear, the compliment had developed a sort of trust, a hidden camaraderie.
Rahel didn’t know, what it was. It simply felt right. She, simply walked.
They reached the end of that lane and the next one, they crossed a crowded street and a lane that was forever shrouded in holy incense, because of the nearby mosque. It was clouted by fakirs who held bundles of peacock feathers and blessed everyone on the street as imams sang prayers that blared out of the large speakers on the road.
The bootlegger lady reached an old-worldly house with a wooden door. Tired from the ordeal of walking, she knocked again and again. An old saintly man with a skull cap and a long beard opened the door and welcomed them with a beetle-stained smile.
Rahel felt welcome, when they ushered her in.
Together, the bootlegger and Rahel climbed quietly till they reached the top most landing.
On the terrace, there were at-least fifty coloured lanterns lying on the floor.
It seemed like it was a gathering of more than a dozen bootleggers from the street, each held a colourful Japanese lantern. It was a wonderful sight!
‘Pleasure can never be bought,’ whispered the bootlegger lady who had lead Rahel there, ‘or sold’.
Rahel was startled by the bootlegger lady’s closeness and her words, yet she stood there transfixed.
For the first time, in her indifference and all her imprisonments, she felt a flicker of emotion.
Breaking her train of thought, she looked up, as they all counted … ONE TWO THREE.
And released 20 lanterns into the thicket of fog that clouded the sky above the terrace.
Rahel looked in admiration, the many coloured lamps floated above the city, and the market; where coin kebabs were being cooked and fed, where raw fish were being sliced on wooden tables and their stench invited crows. Where chiffons were bought, bargained and sold and bodies too were bought, bargained and sold.
The lamps simply drifted and drifted, much like the clouds.
‘It didn’t matter to their light, whether the lanterns floated above the market or above the incense shrouded lane, the light simply shone’ … ‘She too was the light … floating above the city’.
‘Did anything else matter?’ Rahel asked herself.
And just like that,
After many years, after many nights, after many markets … Rahel smiled.