A squat, grey building of only thirty-four stories. Dark slits no wider than a sewing machine for windows. It rises above the tenement flats, staring down at the whizzing traffic as if confused about how it got here. It does not have a door, but two armed guards watching the entrance. A passage the width of a car leads the way into a dim-lit mall crowded with t-shirt shops and market stalls. There is no way around the mall; to reach the stairs at the other side which lead past the office spaces up to the factory floors, one must weave one’s way past the stalls, bumping shoulders with vendors, buyers, and workers hurrying to pick up a packet of biscuits or a bhel puri before their shift starts.
Today the mall is empty. So too the offices on the first three floors. Boarded up stalls and dark rooms meet us on our way to the clothes factory, which starts on the fifth floor.
‘What if there are more cracks in the walls?’ Farah asks. Her eyes flick around, scanning the walls and the staircase and the ceiling, wide and frantic like a mouse’s. ‘If there is, do you think he will send us home? If the offices and shops have closed, why haven’t we?’
He is our supervisor. A short, pot-bellied man with an angry squint and a high-pitched voice. ‘There is no crack,’ he told us yesterday. ‘A bit of plaster came off, is all. If you don’t go inside and work, not only won’t you get your salary in time, you won’t get paid at all.’
We know what happens when there is no pay. When mother lost her seamstress job due to a strike and father was run over by the motorbike, we had no salary for four months. We almost starved. We almost lost the flat. We almost lost my brother Imon, as we couldn’t afford his medicine.
No pay means no life.
‘Father always said this building wasn’t safe,’ Farah whispers as we trip up the stairs. ‘They built it like a stack of cards.’ She glances at me. ‘Are you wearing the compass?’
My hand wanders to my chest. I feel the metal object under my shawl. ‘Of course.’ Father called it his lucky charm. He picked it up from the street one day, thinking a businessman or foreigner must have dropped it. He asked his customers and knocked on doors, but no one recognised it. Mother told him it was broken. The compass hands did not move. Father should take it to a pawnbroker and use the money to get a doctor for Imon.
It is not broken, father said. The hands point south-south-west. He placed his finger beside three curly, black letters: SSW. Daksina-daksina-pascima. Farah, Nazia, you know what lies there?
We shook our heads. Father spoke of foreign concepts in a foreign alphabet in a foreign language. Translating did not help.
The sea, he said. A blue disk, all open. A happy place. He ran his finger in a half-circle around the bottom half of the compass. From SSW to an E, where the quarter-past mark on a watch would be. It is a vast place, the sea. His eyes grew wistful. Maybe the compass is a sign we should go there.
We thought something in his mind had broken. We’d heard of the sea, but it was nothing more than a word, an impossible thing, unreachable for the likes of us. Father proved us wrong when he ended that week on a double profit. One would think it was the dry season by the amount of people flocking by his coffee stall. Father saved his extra earnings in envelopes that he hid inside his mattress. You are looking at the richest coffee-walla in town, he’d say with a grin. We can buy our way out of here, to the sea. Get you out of that grey monstrosity.
One day, six months ago, he forgot the compass under his pillow. He never made it across the street. A motorbike taxi, blinded by the rising sun, saw him too late. Father died before he hit the road.
Farah and I swore we would never leave the compass behind again. We take turns wearing it, tucking it under our shawl so our supervisor can’t confiscate it. Today, I am its bearer.
‘You think too much.’ I touch her hand. ‘Just work, ok?’
Farah pulls her hand back.
Everyone stares at the crack in the wall as we enter the factory room and take our seats behind the sewing machines. It spiders down from a corner halfway to the floor, disappearing behind the stack of cardboard boxes used for packaging clothes. Smaller cracks spread out from it like legs.
Our supervisor wanders down the rows, firing beady eyed glares at anyone who’s not in position yet.
I eat a biscuit before I start. I woke up too late for breakfast: mother had already left for work, grandmother was feeding the last morsels of food to Imon, and Farah was waiting for me at the door, telling me to hurry. I popped into the 7-11 shop on the way here and snatched up the closest packet to hand. Pineapple cream sandwich biscuits. My favourite, my father’s favourite. I pull the halves apart, licking the cream before taking a bite. The sweet, buttery biscuit crumbles in my mouth, a welcome change to the rice and dried fish we have at home every day, every meal. As my supervisor draws near, I stuff the packet into my rucksack and place the fleece I was working on yesterday under the needle. I feel his razor stare on my shoulder as my foot comes down on the pedal and the needle erratically jabs into the fabric. Soon, all that can be heard is the wirr-wirr of three hundred sewing machines.
Twenty minutes later, they are silenced. A pulse of light emanates from the lamps and then we are plunged into darkness. Power cut. Confused voices fill the air, met by our supervisor’s order to calm down. We do not hear the faint rumbling creeping down from above.
Not until the room begins to shake.
Panic builds around me. People rush out of their seats and scramble for the door. Farah is two rows away from me, blocked from view by a pillar. As I call her name someone pushes against me from the side, making me look up.
The building is falling on top of me.
Black. No air, no noise. Only dust, clogging my throat. Breathing sets it on fire. Clamping my mouth shut, I hold my breath, waiting for my body to succumb.
It has other thoughts. One by one my fingers and toes begin to curl, my hands and feet to flex, my arms and legs to bend. They are stiff and sore, but not broken, and as far as I can tell, not bleeding. My right hand wanders up my stomach, registering the even skin and intact ribs, the heart beating as it should be, the throbbing pulse in my throat and the warm breath from my mouth.
A black, wooden surface, rough and veined against my fingers, sits above me. The sewing table?
I splay out my fingers against it and bring all the feeble strength I can muster into my hands. Elbows bend into a push. Two pushes. Three.
With a groan, the table topples over. I sit up.
Pain sears out from my head.
There’s a bald, sore patch of skin amidst the hair. Fingers red when I bring them to my eyes. Looking over my shoulder, I distinguish black tufts of hair trapped between two concrete slabs.
I look up in search of the light source. A hole two meters up the debris, letting in a fragile, filigree light, revealing my surroundings.
The bodies crumpled by my legs. One of them missing a head. A third body beside me, hand extended towards my leg, almost touching. A man, his head twisted to the side at a strange angle. I bite my lip, resisting the urge to pull my legs in, to scramble away and hide. I take the man’s hand and hug it. ‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper. ‘I’m sorry you weren’t as lucky as me.’ His fingers are stiff and unresponsive in my palm. Perhaps he was the one who pushed me from the side, when I tried to reach…
I crawl over to the left side of the broken room. A wall of debris, wood and cardboard meets my eye, but no sister. No limbs or clothes or hair. The building crumbled like a pack of cards, she could be several meters beneath me.
Three times I call her name, listening to the silence. Then my body folds in upon itself as I sink to the floor, knees to face, rocking back and forth.
The sliding of metal against my skin makes me still. I fish the compass out from under my shawl. It glows faintly in the dark.
Why me? I ask it mentally. Why didn’t you save Farah too?
A voice drifts through my mind, weightless and distant. South-south-west, south, south-east.
My gaze is caught by something beyond the compass. A black object, something red and plasticky flashing inside…
Within two seconds I’ve crawled over to my rucksack and crammed two biscuits into my mouth. I almost cough them back up. The dust in my throat forbids me to swallow.
I need water.
As if hearing my thoughts, something drips onto my head. One more, two, a steady drip-feed.
Rain. Hitting my face now, drawing wet lines across my skin.
Sticking out my tongue is not enough. As if on purpose, the rain drops land everywhere but there. I need a vessel to guide them.
Letting the compass dangle from my neck, I push myself onto hands and knees. The biscuits may have fired up my brain, but my limbs are still half-conscious. Two crawling steps and I’m already out of breath.
The space is narrower than I first thought. Concrete and rubble scrape against my spine and the sore spot on my head. My hands are eyes, scanning the surface. They close around something slim and cold. A metal pipe.
Grasping it, I reach up to the hole, using the slabs as scaffolds to help me stand. I extend my arm and close my lips around the mouth of the pipe.
Never has water tasted more like a blessing. I stay until the skies dry up and the last drop trickles down my pipe. Then I sink back into the filigree grey and eat my third biscuit.
Faint sounds drift in through the hole. Men, calling and shouting. The muted rumbling of machines.
Twenty-nine stories’ worth of concrete and alabaster stand between me and the rescuers. By the time they reach me, I could be beyond saving.
Wouldn’t death be mercy?
Movement draws my attention. A shadow, skirting across the face of the compass, showing the outlines of a man I know so well.
South-south-west, south, south-east. A wind shimmies down through the hole above me, tickling the bald patch on my head. East…
Father would never forgive me if I died here. His daughters buried with his dreams, his lucky charm nothing but a useless trinket.
Death is dishonour. I must hold on, until the men reach me. Clutching the compass to my chest, I repeat his mantra to myself, eyes shut, trying to imagine that world of blue. The strip of daylight fades, grows, fades again. The biscuit packet shrinks in size. My hands navigate the slabs as if they were extensions of my own body. Instinct pushes my mind beneath the surface of my awareness: I become a creature of the dark, a creature of instinct, scuffling through the tunnels of debris which are now my home, scavenging for scraps of food when my rations are gone. When the rescue men’s work send tremors through the building, I crawl through the concrete tunnels to a safer space, always making sure to have access to the sky. I make a bed for myself out of torn garments and softer mounds of rubble, cradling the compass to my chest, listening to the winds getting louder. Sometimes, the fragment of a male voice whistles with them.
One day, the winds are drowned by a thundering roar. A crunching sound grinding concrete to dust.
Peeking out through a crack between the slabs I see a monstrous yellow thing with a metal claw, digging up rubble.
Bulldozer. Around it, searching through the debris…
A tremor causes a piece of alabaster to dislodge from the ceiling and hit my shoulder.
I tap the pipe against the concrete. Try to poke my head through the crack so the rescue workers can see me. No sound escapes my lips when I open my mouth. My vocal chords have been unused for so long they’ve forgotten how to speak. The men drift closer, but their eyes are on the ground, unseeing. Another tremor, another rubble block tumbling.
I tap the pipe and the compass at the same time, creating a broken, discordant rhythm which slows down as my wrists tire. I can’t keep this up much longer…
Then one of the rescue workers stops dead in his tracks. He stares up in my direction.
‘Stop the machines!’ The crunch of boots against rubble draws near and then a sweaty face appears in the crack.
Finally, my voice breaks through. ‘Sir, please help me.’ The sound is feeble, inhuman.
‘Are you hurt?’ the man asks.
A torch is passed through the crack. ‘Find some clothes. We are going to cut you out.’
Only then do I realise I am naked. The rubble must have torn the garments off my body, strand by strand.
With the aid of the torch I locate a purple sari half buried in the rubble and wrap it around myself.
An ear splintering screech cuts the air. Metal teeth pierce through the concrete, creating new cracks, new splinters of light.
The wall tumbles down. A silhouette appears in the opening, blocking the daylight, grabs hold of me by the elbows and hauls me back into the world of the living. My rescuer cradles me like a baby as he makes his way down the rubble. Noise and movement come at us from all sides; a sea of people, calling, reaching out as if I’m some kind of miracle. As I’m passed through different sets of hands on to a stretcher and carried through the crowd, their chant finally reaches my ears.
God is great.
My eyes close under the blinding sun, my surroundings and my consciousness drifting away on the waves of father’s mantra. South-south-west, south, south-east, east…