From Brutality to Hospitality

She takes my hand as we turn down the main lane, the multicolored flags crisscrossing overhead make it feel festive and bright rather than the sinister aisle in which people are sold as goods. It is crowded today and she weaves around bikes and dokans and groups of people. Her hand tightens protectively around mine as she maneuvers her body between me and the blind stumbling of a drunken man. I am startled to see a familiar face among the throng – our friend Ahava. Her gentle smile and quick embrace warm me, though I hadn’t realized I was cold. She cannot stay long and makes her apologies as we continue in opposite directions.

A few paces ahead we take an abrupt right through one of the many doorways lining the road. It is dark, especially after the midday haze and my eyes are ill-adjusted, but she leads me deftly – she has walked these halls many times. I stumble up a set of worn stairs, my right hand in hers, my left holding the railing that has been polished smooth with use, and as we round the final bend light comes streaming through the open roof. We have reached a narrow second-floor veranda lined with doors but I hardly have time to take it in before she throws open one set and instructs us to sit.

hallway

So we do. We sit on the bed that fills the room, leaving barely a foot of space to the right and maybe another foot or two at its end. As we settle in she leaves, reappearing now with a bottle of water, now with rice, now with daal, now with chicken curry. It is a feast and we are honored to partake of it. She perches on the edge of the bed as we eat, asking us questions and patiently bearing with our belabored Bengali responses. We ask a few questions too – where does she cook? Around the corner in a different part of the building. How long has she worked at Sari Bari? Five years. Where is she from? A place we don’t recognize, north of Darjeeling, over ten hours away by train. How long has she been in Kolkata? Sixteen years. How long has she lived in this room? Sixteen years.

foodAfter we have eaten our fill and then two helpings more, she takes our plates and tells us to rest (a very Bengali ritual – to rest after lunch, one I heartily support). We stretch out on our backs as she shuts the doors, telling us she’ll be back in five.

Half an hour later I wonder if we misunderstood.

I am not alone, Andrew is with me, but if I was alone, I would be feeling anxious right now. Suddenly I feel the weight of this room and the sixteen years of life it has held. I wonder if she was once brought to and left in this room, uncertain of who would return for her and what fate awaited her. Did she come of her own accord driven by desperation, or was she lured here with promises of a much different life, or was she brought against her will? What horrors has she endured within these walls?

An hour later, I am beginning to understand that in my rudimentary Bengali, what I took to mean “back in five” was in actuality “back AT five.” We have three more hours.

I lie back down, my eyes exploring the room more closely. It is rare to be given the space to contemplate a place like this. The salmon-colored walls have patches of cracked and peeling paint revealing green and white and grey and blue, layers from a time gone by. There are a few phone numbers scribbled on one wall and I wonder whose they are. One of her friends from a neighboring room stopped in over lunch, a shawl thrown over her spaghetti-strap-clad shoulders, a shy smile on her lips. I am struck by the power of a woman who has fought for her own freedom remaining rooted among those who have not yet tasted its sweetness. I marvel at the character of this woman I have come to call “friend.” She, who has wiped tears from my eyes. She, whose smile is infectious and spirit is gentle and kind. She endured 11 years of abuse in this room. I wonder as I drift off to sleep: How does one emerge from such death with such capacity for life?

She appears before 5:00 with a broad smile and a promise of tea. She settles in her doorway, her feet outstretched, her head leaning against the frame. We sip tea from clay pots and my soul acknowledges the beauty of what I am experiencing; the beauty of redemption. For this room has been transformed from a place of brutality to a place of hospitality.

 

photos by Beth Waterman

 

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