petervas

Blood, Sweatshop & Tears

In Short Story, Social, Women, Writing Assignments on May 14, 2013 at 8:08 pm

 
 

APTOPIX Bangladesh Building Collapse

 
 

The dust-fog lifted swiftly into the air. For a few minutes that followed, the eclipsed scorching sun cast a gloomy shadow on a six-storey garment factory plaza, now pancaked into a two-storey rubble.

Selva rushed to the tiny window the size of an exhaust vent, to investigate the loud explosion.  A thought raced across his mind: Indu is dead
 

 
The local elections were in full swing, and political rivalries could turn up anything – even a cycle-bomb. As he peered outside, he had an eerie sense that he might be peering through a different window. The familiar view of a brick-clad facade of the drab and decrepit six-storey garment factory refused to greet him today. What greeted him today instead, was a rubble-heap of deathly proportions: fallen concrete beams with ripped-off and twisted metal rods, crumpled factory floors, and caved-in ceilings.

But the reason he was shell-shocked and the blood drained from his face, was the wordless realization that thousands just like him worked in the garment factory that this building housed.

And there was Indu on the fourth floor of this collapsed building. Buttons Section, third row to the right, next to window the size of an exhaust vent. Always waving her red dupatta through the vent-window at the sight of Selva getting off his clackety-clack Hero bicycle at 8:00 AM every weekday morning. Just like she did today. He had waved back to her. Where is she?

The floor manager was screaming his head off.

“The workers are trapped!” he yelled. “Let’s get them out”

Selva heard loud wails coming from another worker who was calling out to her sister somewhere in that collapsed building. There was instant chaos and panic on the floor. Selva was caught up with the rushing crowd, he rushed down the stairs and moved quickly to the high gates that fenced in the garment workers. The security guards did not budge to their request of opening them as it was not the appointed time for the gates to be opened. Some of the workers scaled the high fence.  The guards were quickly overpowered. The gates swung open and a burst of men rushed out towards the collapsed building. A dust cloud emerged behind them with unmatched flip-flops and slippers strewn about in it’s wake.

There was an undefined and invisible periphery around the collapsed building where the army of men suddenly stopped.

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As they got down from the taxi, Selva went up to the mighty pillar of his daughter’s house and stroked it.  It was unshakable.  He had personally supervised the construction that lasted almost two years.  He had checked all the cement bags for the ISI mark.  A mark of certification from the Indian Standards Institute.  

“This will last a 100 years!” he had proudly told his daughter, Sindhu.

“Grandpa!” shouted the brat, as he leaped from the veranda and rushed to grab him by his legs.  Before Selva could lift him, the brat had made his way now to his grandmother who was struggling to get down from the taxi.

“Grandma!” he shouted and hugged her legs.  Sindhu, who just appeared at the veranda shouted “Careful! Careful!”.  She knew that her mother’s artificial Jaipur right leg might buckle if not carefully planted on the floor.  

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“How do you get up there?” Selva asked one of the security guards that had a newspaper over his head and was wondering how to bring down a few girls that had emerged at the different floors of this now facade-less building, and frantically shouting and waving for help.

“The staircase has collapsed” one of the men shouted “See that? Most of us that escaped came out of there” He pointed to a rubble heap with a crushed collapsible gate.  “I escaped by a second”

One of the men from an adjacent building which was intact, was perched  on an exposed top floor.   He was shouting to the survivors.

“This way!” he had discovered a way out of this collapsed building. “We need more ropes” he yelled at the top of his voice.  What he got instead were sarees that were in abundant supply at this garment factory.

Selva could see full length sarees of different colors that were tied to precarious beams and pillars, fluttering outside the building. He squinted hard to spot Indu’s red dupatta amidst them, but did not have any luck.  That red piece of cloth that Indu wore across her shoulders was nowhere to be found.

“Indu!” he shouted “I am coming there”

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“Indu, I got you a present for your birthday” Selva gave a newspaper wrapped gift to Indu.  

“Open it” he said eagerly.  He had waited for almost an hour at the bus stop for Indu to show up alone.  He gave furtive glances to make sure nobody he knew saw them together.  They lived in the same bastee, a squatter settlement.  He had bumped into her a few times at the kirana shop.  It was about a month ago that they started talking to each other.  

Indu was trying to help her family get out of spiraling debt.  Her father had abandoned the family and had moved out of their lives.  She was not more than 15 years of age when she joined the garment factory as a helper.  She was now a permanent employee, a Kaja Button Operator, operating an automated button stitching machine.  This was her third year at the factory.  

She unwrapped the newspaper to find a red dupatta.  She was moved.  She held Selva’s hands and cried face down with a smile.

“See here, in this corner?  That’s my name” Selva had marked his name on the dupatta “I’ll always be with you”

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He ran up to the adjacent building and climbed up the narrow stairs. He bumped into a man who was bringing down one of the girls in his arms. She was quite and he could not tell in the dark, if she was alive.

He counted the floors as he ran up the stairs and stopped at the fourth. He walked up to the edge of the building where there was a gush of light coming through a gaping hole where the other building had sheared off. There was no fourth floor. He gulped and swallowed his worst fear as he looked down the edge: Indu is somewhere below in this collapsed structure.

“Indu!” he shouted.

He dashed to the narrow staircase. It was pitch dark from a complete power outage triggered by the collapse. The only guiding light here in this narrow staircase were the grunts, wails, sobs and the clattering noise of slippers and sandals falling on stairs in an arrhythmic hurry. Selva went down two stairs and found the rescue mission in full swing.

“Did you see Indu, from the Buttons Section?” he inquired one of the girls who was too frightened to even cry. After getting no response from the third survivor, he decided to move into what might be considered the second, third and fourth floors combined.

“Indu!” was his silent battle cry as he barged across the narrow make-shift plank that bridged the two buildings.

One of his slippers fell through the deep chasm beneath the plank he was crossing. He filed to hear it drop to the rubble below. He shook the other one off and felt he was on firm ground with both feet feeling the uncharted territory. He crossed over quickly as he saw a couple of girls approaching the plank.  There was a deathly silence all around him.

As he scaled another mound of rubble, he lost perspective of dimensions and searched for any path that will lead him into the epicenter of this disastrous mound. He suspected that would be where he would find anybody. As he peered into a narrow passage and shouted “Indu! Indu!” he heard a weak response coming from deep within the belly of the collapsed factory “Save me!” There was enough crawl space for him to slide through. He clawed through the narrow space between fallen beams and crushed pillars, till he reached a small opening where the roof held itself a few feet above the floor in suspended animation.

There were a couple of men searching the rubble using their mobile phones as flash-light.  The bright LED light cut through the darkness and picked bright color clothing.  It invariably snaked up to the location of the face for recognition.  Sometimes it hovered there longer than usual.  Everybody turned up dead, Selva realized.

He found mismatched slippers strewn around.  He saw a pair of export quality jeans in the process of being hemmed.  He spotted a man and a woman in a final embrace, mostly covered in rubble.  It appeared they were trying to either escape or save each other just before they perished.  He wished he was there for Indu at her moment of need.

There was sufficient light coming through for him to be able to see some bodies. They were not moving. He went around the rubble in search of anything that might belong to Indu.  He went up garment8to one of them and put his hand on her shoulder and pulled it back. A decapitated body fell back. Selva moved back in horror.  He pulled out the piece of blood soaked cloth from the corpse.  In one of the corners, a name he had marked stared back at him – Selva.

Selva sat down in a heap. He was overcome with grief. He covered his face with his bloody hands that left ghoulish marks on it.  He sat down in a corner, about to retch. He took out a small water bottle from his hip pocket and poured some water on his hands to wipe his face. He stood up finally, when he heard a feeble cry:

“Save me”.

He was terror struck. Somebody had whispered into his ears. He turned around to see the body of a girl on a floor that was inclined about 30 degrees. She was covered with so much dust and debris, that he had mistook her to be part of the rubble around her.

He asked instinctively “Which floor are you on?”

“Fourth”, she replied. “I am thirsty” she said.

He took out the small water bottle from his right pocket, and gave it to the girl.

The water bottle fell from the girl’s hand onto her own pool of blood. Selva picked it up quickly to save half of the water. He poured some of it to wash the blood soaked bottle. Then he took it to the girl’s parched lips. She drank it.

“Save me” she said.

Selva could see that her foot was caught beneath the fallen beam. Crushed out of sight with a steady drip of blood from a beam the only indication of a ghastly situation.

“I can’t” blurted Selva. “I’ll have to get a doctor” he said as he gave her the rest of the water to drink.

“Don’t leave me, brother” she cried.

Selva turned around to leave. “I’ll be back soon. With a doctor” he said as he crawled out of the tiny space.

He traced his way out into the open. There were ambulances, police and the military personnel everywhere. Sirens were blaring and the police were charging with sticks to move the crowd back. Selva moved towards an ambulance. He grabbed the white coat of a doctor who was checking the pulse of an old man who had collapsed in the sun just watching the rubble.

“Doctor, you need to come with me quickly” Selva tried to grab the doctor’s attention to greater and urgent tasks at hand.

“Come? Where?” asked the doctor not used to emergency situations like this.

“Into the building, doctor!” Selva sounded exasperated. “There a girl whose foot needs to be amputated” Selva said “It’s the only way to pull her out to safety”

“I am not a surgeon, baba!” said the doctor in white coat. “I am not going into that dangerous building! It has already taken the lives of many” Selva could not stand this anymore. He dragged the doctor with both his hands.

“You don’t have a choice, doctor! The girl’s life depends on you!” he shouted.

“Police! Police!” the doctor yelled.

One burly policeman doubled-up at once towards the ambulance. He took his stick to Selva.

“Leave the doctor alone, can’t you see he is doing important work?”

This infuriated Selva. “There are people dying inside, because he is not willing to save them” he yelled at the policeman. “Give me the tools, I will do it myself!”

The doctor brushed off the dirt and bloodstains that Selva imparted his pure-white doctor’s lab coat and moved inside the ambulance. He emerged with a green box labelled Dispovan – Disposable Syringe. He handed over the box to Selva and said “There are surgical knives and scissors here. There is a bottle of anesthesia, you will have to inject before you perform the amputation” He scribbled the doctor’s number on a small piece of paper and thrust it into his shirt pocket.

Selva did not need any further instructions at this hour. He grabbed the kit and ran to get back to the girl. When he reached her, her arm had swung out in an awkward position. Selva thought she was dead.

“Wake up, can you hear me?” he said to the girl and was relieved to see her stir.

“Save me” said the girl.

“Wake up, I have brought some medicines” Selva said. The girl opened her eyes.

“Cut my foot quickly and save my life” said the girl.

“What is your name?” asked Selva.

“Laxmi” said the girl. “Where is the doctor?”

“Doctor would not come. ‘Too dangerous to go inside that collapsed building’ he said. So is it OK if I performed the amputation?”

“I am grateful that you are here to save me. Please do it, brother” Laxmi said. “You are my savior”

Selva took out the bottle of anesthesia and plunged the needle into it’s soft rubber cap. As he sucked the liquid into the injection, he asked Laxmi “Do you know Indu? Buttons Section, fourth floor? Indu Murali”

“Yes, I work with her” said Laxmi and pointed to some collapsed beams said “I saw her run towards the staircase when it collapsed”

“I found her” Selva went silent for a while “She is no more”

“Save me, brother” said Laxmi, after a long pause.

Selva resumed his work. He jabbed the needle closest to the foot that had disappeared under the beam.

“I am so sorry” he said.

“No, I am the one who should be sorry to be putting you through this” said Laxmi.

“Does it hurt” he asked. “Not anymore” she said “you may proceed”

Selva took the knife out and began cutting through flesh. Laxmi howled at the sight. Selva shouted out loudly at the sight too. The bloody ordeal lasted for a much longer time than Selva had estimated. Once done, Laxmi’s leg was bleeding profusely. Selva panicked and whipped his phone out to call the doctor for advice. The signal bars were still flat. He took Indu’s red dupatta and tied a tourniquet around the amputated foot to stop the flow of blood. Laxmi was relieved to finally come unpinned from the crushing beam. She could not walk and Selva lifted her to the crawl space.

“We cannot both go through this crawl space together” he said. “You wait here, let me get a rope”

So saying he crawled out alone. He could not find a rope ready, but he grabbed hold of a saree that was fluttering about in the wind. Some of the few survivors had used it to rapel down from the second floor. He crawled back to Laxmi and tied the saree to her waist. He crawled back out of the space and began pulling the saree. He managed to drag Laxmi slowly out of the narrow passage.

garment4When she came out of the dark and into a blinding light, Laxmi closed her eyes.  She was exhausted.

The doctor rushed towards them when he saw Selva emerge from the rubble with a girl.

“Is she alive?” he asked.  That anesthesia is good for some sutures, not an amputation!

The policeman came running with the cameraman who on default cue, started rolling the camera when the doctor wore his stethoscope in search of feeble heartbeats.

Selva left them at the ambulance.  He was exhausted and about to collapse, but  heeded the voice that beckoned him.  He had to bring Indu back.

In the next three days time, Selva had rescued thirty-two survivors in all.  He ran high fever on the third day and Amma had asked him to stop his round-the-clock rescue missions.  He was unable to sleep as he heard voices in his head, calling him to come rescue them.  When he collapsed in a state of delirium, he was taken to the hospital where the doctor who taught him crude amputation techniques treated him.

Once he recovered he inquired Laxmi’s whereabouts to the doctor.  The doctor took him to where Laxmi was being treated in a different ward.

Selva approached Laxmi, who was on the bed with a bandaged leg.  A stub without a foot.  “Do you recognize me?” he asked.

“Yes I do” said Laxmi.

There was an older couple standing next to her bed.  Laxmi’s parents, he presumed.

“How can we ever thank you for saving our daughter” said the woman, with her hands pressed together and head bowed.

“I am sorry to have caused that” he told Laxmi, looking at the large stub.

“No, I am the one who should be sorry for having put you through this”  said Laxmi

“Thank you for saving my life”

 

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Laxmi put her hand on Selva to steady herself.  She was hopeful that her son-in-law Ramesh would find the right Orthopedic Doctor in Bangalore to fit her with an advanced limb.  She wasn’t complaining, she had a strong shoulder to lean on right now.  This man had provided her the needed support ever since he amputated her foot, some thirty-five years ago.

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Other Short Stories
bharathi raghu pieta
The anklet bells went dead

Gudiya – A Doll that Saved me A Delivery in the Slow Mail

 

Notes

  1. The Embrace
  2. A story inspired by a real-life hero
  3. Women in the Garments Industry
  4. A translation to the prayer:
     

 

 

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