by Sudha Balagopal
SUPERVISOR SINGH THRUSTS his wristwatch in Uma’s face, waggles his bushy unibrow.
No point in telling him she’s late because they ran out of milk this morning. That her mother-in-law called her a brainless bovine, or that her hungover husband couldn’t rouse himself to defend her, or that she had to run to the store, pack lunch and send her daughter to school, or that she had to hunt for the rupees hidden under a mattress heavy with the weight of her husband, or that it’s impossible to find an auto-rickshaw on a rainy day.
She coaxes her lips into an apologetic smile, realizes her error when Singh’s meaty hand touches her back as she hurries past him to her station on the shop floor. She picks up her sewing where she left off yesterday. Five minutes later, she sneaks a peek; he’s writing in his ledger.
Her belly sinks―he’s docking her pay for being late.
Uma studies the posters hanging on the shop-floor walls. Golden-haired, long-limbed women and sharp-featured men cavort on beaches and in verdant gardens. They’re dressed in clothes made in this Krishnapur factory: chiffon dresses and skirts, collarless T-shirts and shorts.
‘Is it the clothing that frees them?’ she asks aloud.
The busy seamstresses around her don’t answer. Sewing machines whir―some race surr-surr-surr, others keep a more sedate pace, chucka-chucka-chucka.
She squints hard at the pictures, imagines a transformed version of herself in a western dress, waist-length dark hair bouncy and loose. When she shifts her gaze, she finds Singh’s eyes fixed pointedly on her idle hands. Her fingers triple their speed.
Singh catches Uma outside the ladies rest room at mid-morning break. She’s adjusting her sari in the full-length mirror, when he grabs her palloo, unwraps it.
He hisses, ‘Cooperate if you want me to stop docking your pay.’ His hands rove over her body. ‘If you talk I’ll tell everyone you’re a thief and you steal garments for your daughter.’
She extricates herself like a noodle from the press, wraps wave upon wave of shame inside her sari, flees to her station and the safety of the shop floor.
A gnawing fear finds residence in the pit of Uma’s stomach. Her palms are cold, yet sweaty, as she sews the brand’s label on clothes.
Singh glares at her from his post, flicks a betel-leaf-stained tongue over an upper lip covered by a fuzzy mustache. Later, he walks over, examines her stitching with a magnifying lens, jostling against her at every opportunity.
When the lunch bell rings, she can hear protesting voices outside.
Singh rises from his desk, turns off lights and fans. The other seamstresses abandon their work, clutch their meal containers and scurry.
Uma makes frenzied attempts to meet her quota, sewing labels in the faint light filtered in through grimy windows. She lifts her braid, wipes her sweaty neck with the sari’s edge. It’s sultry inside.
‘Ouch!’ She’s pricked her thumb. Before the bead of red can stain fabric, she sticks her bloody finger into her mouth.
‘Sitting and sucking, stupid woman?’ Singh’s breath reeks of garlic. His hot hand pinches exposed skin between her blouse and sari.
Uma grabs for her lunch box with numb fingers, drops it. A roti unfurls toward the wall. In the poster above, a golden-haired woman smiles down at her. Uma shoves the roti back into the plastic box, scrambles out of the shop floor.
Six seamstresses hold signs, yell in front of the factory manager’s office: ‘Better hours, better wages, longer breaks.’
Others huddle in the courtyard in small groups, hurrying through lunch in whispered conversations. The potato curry inside Uma’s rotis is cold, the food in her dry mouth a hard ball of mud.
The agitators grow louder, their voices strident. They form a human wall preventing access to the shop floor. ‘No six-day weeks. No ten-hour days. Nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi!’
Singh roars in with a baton, pulls women by their plaits, arm raised to strike.
The prick on Uma’s finger throbs. She tight-winds the corner of her sari around the wound, gasps as he heaves and whacks, gasps at the blur of scuffle and commotion, gasps at the shoving, screaming fracas, then leaps as Singh falls, a sack of sand.
The weapon flies out of his hand, thuds onto the concrete.
Uma pounces on the heavy stick, hugs the baton to her chest. Along the edges, faint, red-blue striations spread like veins.
Standing straighter, she shifts the heavy weight from one hand to the other. He wobbles to a standing position, knobby knees visible through the rips in his pants.
The bell shrills, signals the end of lunch.
Sudha Balagopal’s work appears in Fractured Lit, Monkeybicycle and Smokelong Quarterly among other journals. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction this year. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions and has a micro in Best Microfiction 2021. She is also listed in the Wigleaf Top 50.
More at www.sudhabalagopal.com.