Mangala wrung the ball of wheat dough until the twisted knot felt close to the knots in her stomach. It was happening today. Sweat dotted her forehead, and on the bridge of her nose. At nineteen, she was considered an adult and a senior in their family business now.
“You’ve been pampered enough. It’s time for you to grow up and make some money now, Mangala. I can’t keep working for all of us forever.”, auntie Pramila chided her one day.
“You won’t get younger, so stop wasting your time studying and with these silly evening classes. All the numbers and english that you need to know for business, I’ve already taught you. And the rest you can manage with that pretty face and wholesome body of yours.”
Mangala flinched at being described as an object by her aunt, but it was true. She was pretty and that made her the object of cynosure as well as the object of hatred within her community. At least the little girls liked her, and that had been enough when the she and the others were younger. But not anymore. She wished she was ugly.
She had been abandoned as a child and found by aunty Pramila.
“Maybe some rich boy did it with some unfortunate girl from the nearby basti and left her stranded. Stupid girl must have believed all his false promises”.
The community gossip was how she knew about her story. A beautiful orphan. An ill fated beautiful orphan. Or maybe not, since aunty Pramila always said that her stars shined on her the day she found this fair little baby and took her in. Oh, the money she got and the business she had after a few years of nurturing Mangala. Priceless.
But Mangala felt like a zombie fifteen years later. She couldn’t live in this house anymore and the prospect of leading her family business, no matter how lucrative, made her want to vomit. She wasn’t like her auntie.
She had started attending evening classes when she turned fifteen. That’s where she had met Inspector Sheila.
All Mangala wanted to do was graduate and open up more horizons for herself. Whatever money she made for her auntie with her main job and the little chores and errands that she did here and there, to scout for business and clients, she secretly kept a portion of money for herself. She had demanded a cut from Pramila auntie as soon as she was old enough to understand the value of money and how the business worked and how she was a crucial part of the business. She had been terrified of approaching the subject with her auntie. But her auntie had barked out a laugh instead.
“Looks like you’ll be a great asset for the family business, already learning the ropes of the game eh?”, there was a greedy gleam in her eyes that wasn’t because of her pride in her adopted daughter, but because of all the clients and products she could amass in the future, using the beauty and brains of her adopted daughter.
Mangala received a paltry sum as commission of her services from her auntie. But every time that she gained a new client or sold a ‘service’ as her auntie liked to refer to their business, she told herself that she was bartering a piece of her soul in exchange for her freedom. And the freedom of her sisters.
She snapped back to the present task at hand of kneading the dough for the rotis for dinner when one of the youngest in their family called out in her child like voice, “didi, do you need any help?”
“You concentrate on the homework I’ve given you Urmi. I promise you, we’ll be free soon. Just don’t ever stop studying”, Mangal replied kindly. She hated herself because it was her kindness and beauty that made it easier for her extended family of sisters to trust her.
The lock on the door clicked and the lady of the house, who ran their business like a professional, who provided for them, yet stole from them, walked into the tiny kitchen.
“Do you need some special invitation to bring me a glass of juice from the fridge?”, auntie’s loud and cutting remark made one of the other girls Savita rush to the fridge. Auntie too was bestowed with a timeless and almost serene face. She didn’t look like your usual bully. No wonder all the flies would get stuck in her honeytrap the minute they came in contact with her.
Amidst the rushing around in the bid to get auntie comfortable, no one noticed the shake in Mangala’s hands as she typed in something on her phone and pressed the send button. She looked at auntie and tried to put on her best poker face, but inside her heart was beating a million beats a second. Will things go as per her plan? She had been planning this for months.
She had tried to broach the subject of starting a different line of work six months back. But it had drastically backfired. Her head was still ringing from the slap she received from auntie’s bony fingers that day.
“Ungrateful little bitch”, she had spat at her, after she slapped her.
“Do you know why I didn’t set you up for adoption like the other girls? Oh, you would’ve brought me so much money. But you were my investment. And one doesn’t sell their investments after they’ve spent years in nurturing them. So you’ll bloody well do as I say, and look for prospective buyers. If I hear any other nonsense from you, you can say goodbye to your evening classes”. Pramila auntie gave her the warning in her usual stern yet quiet voice - no hollering for auntie. And then lit her cigarette, according to her, the only vice that she had. Oh how much Mangala loathed her.
Mangala found out that her punishment was far from over, when the next day she lost one of her sisters to a client.
“Adoption”, auntie used to refer to their transaction as.
Only she knew what the reality was. That was the evening she bumped into Inspector Sheila while returning from her class. And together, they hatched a plan.
The sharp knock on the door made even the usually composed auntie jump for a second.
“Who is this?”, she asked suspiciously, as she got up to open the door and wipe the stain from the juice on her saree. She wasn’t expecting any clients today.
When she opened the door, she froze. But just for a second.
The Police was at their door. This wasn’t anything new. After all, they’d had many Policemen of varying ranks as their very satisfied customers. The girls huddled into the far corner of the room as always. Each trying to hide their face from ‘prospective fathers’.
What was different though this time was, there was a female Police officer standing at the door, looking even more smug than auntie.
“Auntie Pramila..finally I’ve got you where I wanted. Sly little fox you are, aren’t you? Let’s see how the women in prison take to someone selling young girls for money, should we?, Inspector Sheila smiled a hardened smile as she cuffed auntie Pramila.
Mangala and the girls were standing mutely while the scene played in front of them. This had never happened before.
“You can’t keep me in prison. I’ve got contacts in high places Madam”, auntie Pramila looked absolutely nonplussed with her arrest. But before she stepped out, she looked back, straight at Mangala, with a stare that confirmed all of Mangala’s fears. If auntie escaped prison, it will be the end of her. She knew.
What felt like an eternity of silence but was only a few minutes later, Mangala unclenched her fists and looked at her sisters.
“Are we safe didi? Is she really gone?”, Urmi asked in her in a voice that was half expectant and half fearful.
“No, not yet Urmi. There’s something I forgot to do. Just wait here a minute.”
And with that, with a blade in hand, she ran outside to finish what she had started.
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