Mamun walked in wearing his best shirt. He took out his pocket comb and ran it through his hair one last time. He didn’t even notice his friends bantering about his well ironed clothes and polished shoes. He had his eyes on Kalpona, who was working at the other end of the factory floor. As he walked towards her, through the crowd of workers and the noise of the machines, the last eight months flashed in front of his eyes.
He vividly remembered the first time he saw her. She was wearing a tattered green salwaar kameez, but had caught his attention with her flawless dusky skin and long flowy hair. She was there with a friend to talk to the floor manager about getting a job. The next day he saw her sitting two rows across from him. The distance didn’t bother him, because two rows in between meant they would face each other. In between threading the machine, trying to get the seams right and answering his neighbor’s questions, he managed to steal frequent glances at her. This went on for a few days, but she hardly ever looked up. When she did, she had this melancholy look on her face that made her look even more beautiful.The intrigue was unbearable, he had to find out more.
Finally, one day during lunch break, he decided to go and talk to her group of friends. He took Rana along, since most of the girls seemed to like him. They tried talking to her, but she didn’t say a word. It was a friend who told them her name. Kalpona. The name was definitely a Hindu name and Mamun could see the long tiring argument he would need to have with his parents about this. But he knew he could handle them. What about her parents though ? He soon realized that he was getting ahead of himself, given that he hadn’t even said a word to her. He decided to change that and offered to walk Kalpona and her friend home. He was pleasantly surprised at the progress he was making when they agreed, but was soon disappointed by Kalpona’s silence through out the walk. As they reached Kalpona’s house he heard her voice for the first time. “Sumon”, she said as she knocked her door. When a little boy opened the door, she said goodbye to her friend, glanced at Mamun and went inside.
Once Kalpona left, Mamun asked her friend all the questions he could think of. What he learned came as a really rude shock. Kalpona had lost all her family in the factory fire that had happened a few weeks ago. Sumon, was her neighbor’s kid who was also orphaned by the fire. She had taken him in and was now working to support them both. Her deep brown eyes, her frequent melancholy look and her silence, lay bare and explained in front of him. A seventeen year old girl was all alone, working and taking care of a child. A friend is what she needs right now, he thought. He decided to keep walking them home.
Kalpona was recovering with every passing day. She had begun to like these walks as well as Mamun, a fact that was well noticed by him. Every time she offered them water, she had made it a point to give him the nicer of her two glasses. Once when he had dropped his pocket comb, she had picked it up promptly, wiped it with her dupatta and handed it back to him. Another time when it was raining heavily she had asked her friend to invite him to tea. And once she asked Sumon to say hello to him, which Mamun thought was really ironic, given that she herself had barely said a word to him. But he didn’t mind her silence at all. As long as he got to see her smile more and more, he was happy.
One day when Mamun came to work, he saw Kalpona standing besides Sohel, who seemed to be angry about something. Sohel, the floor manager was not a nice man. He was rude and always used abusive language, so Mamun was really tense to see Kalpona in his office. From his gestures it looked like Sohel was shouting at Kalpona. Mamun knew that Kalpona was trying really hard to complete her daily quota of garments, so he was really mad at Sohel for giving her such a hard time. Finally when Kalpona came out, she refused to talk to anyone and just went straight back to work. During his afternoon rounds, Sohel shouted at Kalpona once again and in his rage, he slapped her. Mamun who had kept his distance until then, swiftly ran upto Sohel and started beating him. The brawl did not last too long because Mamun let go when he saw the disappointed look on Kalpona’s face. That evening, Kalpona actually spoke more than just mono syllables to him. “You are a good man Mamun. You shouldn’t get your hands dirty by quarreling with someone like Sohel. But, thank you for standing up for me like that.”, and she smiled. He’d always remember that day, that smile.
Once Kalpona had broken her silence, their walks became even more interesting. Her friend had wisely found another girl to accompany her to give Kalpona and Mamun some lone time. And this move served its intended purpose. Both of them grew fond of each other and the time they spent together increased with every passing month. When Kalpona was to turn eighteen in a month, Mamun started making plans to ask her to marry him. Sumon was her only family and the kid loved him. He was sure she liked him, but wasn’t sure she’d accept his proposal. He knew she’d worry about Sumon, but he’d assure her that he would raise Sumon as his own child. He had so many plans for their life together. He would be able to save up enough in a couple of years to buy a small room in a better neighborhood. Then Sumon could go to a better school as well. Kalpona was a big fan of Bollywood and Mamun wanted to take her to Mumbai someday. He wanted to have another kid with Kalpona, preferably a girl just like her. So many dreams! He couldn’t wait to start his life with her! He couldn’t wait to get to the other side of that month.
Today, finally the day had arrived. His heart raced up and down as he walked towards her. It was her birthday today and she looked great with the flowers in her head. He had traveled half the way across the factory floor when the lights in the building went off. The machines stopped. Not again, he thought, as it was a very routine thing given his country’s poorly maintained electricity network. The sound of the machines had been comforting and the sudden silence made him feel as though all eyes were on him. But he kept going. He was relieved when the generator kicked on and a jolt went through the building. He hadn’t walked a few steps when another far stronger jolt shook the floor violently. It took him a moment to realize that what was happening was not normal. He started running towards Kalpona. As he ran, he recalled the earlier day when the police, reporters and some officials had come to the factory. There were rumors about a crack being found on a floor. He hadn’t thought much of it then. He was caught up with his plans for today. How could he have let this happen ? How could he have let Kalpona come here today ? There was chaos everywhere as the workers started running around. Some towards each other, some towards the exit. Finally he reached Kalpona. She looked scared. He was about to calm her, when he saw a pillar fall behind her. And just like that, he saw all his dreams shattered and ruined. He realized that amidst all the screaming and loud rumbling there was no time to tell her how much he loved her. There was no time to say anything to her. There was no time to even ask her permission for what he was about to do. He only had time enough for one thing. Time enough for their very first embrace. Time enough for a final embrace.
“Mamun” was inspired by this photograph taken by Taslima Akhter at the site of the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. I know this story is no match for the photograph and it can’t even come close to doing any justice to the people in the photograph and their life story. But I think that wasn’t the motive behind writing this story anyway. The motive was a purely selfish need to feel good about doing something other than sending monetary help, for those people.
Another thing, I like writing stories where the characters are nameless. Anonymous. But these characters are not. They have names. They have families. They have jobs. They have hopes. They have dreams. Just like the people in that photograph. Just like you and me.