Ankle Bells

Client: Room magazine

Ankle Bells tells the story of a young dancing girl living in a red-light district in Lahore, Pakistan. Trapped in poverty she is forced to make a choice that will set the course of her life.

arabian carpet

The air in Lahore was thick with humidity and the monsoons had come. Outside the open window the leaves of the fig tree danced as the raindrops fell. Noshi stood pigeon-toed in the centre of the room. Her eyes followed a cockroach that crawled into a hole in the crumbling plaster wall. She wanted to sit down, take a long, cool drink of water and fall asleep on her bed.

“Again!” bellowed the old dance instructor.

“Yes, Master Jee,” she said, positioning her tired and achy feet in a classic Kathak pose. With deft movements she began to sway her hips suggestively and raise her hands to her face. She peered through her open fingers and sang along to an old ballad about lovers and broken hearts.

Thrack. The thick bamboo cane came down quick, whipping across the back of her calves. Noshi tried to stifle a cry. She lifted the back of her shalwaar and caught her breath when she saw the spray of red welts that had risen on her olive skin.

“You will never be ready for tomorrow,” chided Master Jee, his eyes hard and dark like coal.  “Watch me,” he shouted while gliding across the room on his cracked and calloused heels. “I need you to float like a leaf. You are light as a feather!”

Noshi bit her bottom lip and tried to concentrate.

“One, two, three, four!” shouted Master Jee. He pressed the play button on an old 1980s cassette deck. The high-pitched warble of a sweet love ballad echoed throughout the room. Noshi began to slap her feet against the cement floor. She spun around on her heels, swayed her small hips, and leaned back so far that her hair swirled into a gleaming blue-black pool on the floor behind her. She hesitated to glance at her feet and caught her toe in a loose thread on the end of her shalwaar. She stumbled forward and nearly fell.

“It is useless,” said the old dance teacher. He turned to face Noshi’s mother. “Your daughter has the grace of a turnip.”

Mrs. Sarwat sat cross-legged on an old charpoy pushed tight against the far wall, her chiffon dupatta loosely draped around her head, covering her breasts and upper thighs. She had been watching her sixteen-year old daughter carefully, scrutinizing every move.

“I just want her to wear the ankle bells,” she said, jangling a handful of tarnished brass bells in her hands. “And she needs to oil her hair. It does not shine the way it used to when she was a child.”

Noshi looked first at her mother and then Master Jee. She averted her eyes, feeling the heat in her cheeks. She shifted her weight from side to side and resisted the temptation to reach down and massage her bruised and tender soles.

“Will you come tomorrow, Jee?” asked Mrs. Sarwat hopefully as she pressed a handful of stained notes into the dance teacher’s hand.

“There is nothing more I can do for your daughter. She will have to rely on her beauty alone,” said Master Jee matter-of-factly. He pocketed the money and collected his old bamboo cane. He was on his way to another house in the lane, another girl in need of dance training.

Left alone in the crumbling, old room, Mrs. Sarwat stared at her daughter with a hard, desperate look in her eyes. Noshi knew she was thinking about their future. The money that needed to be paid to the miserly landlord, the rice bins that needed refilling. If things didn’t go well, they would end up on a footpath.

“I am an old woman and there is nothing more I can do. Our fate lies in your hands.”

Noshi stared at the floor.

“Look at me,” said Sarwat. She lifted Noshi’s chin with a long bony finger.

“A sweet face like yours might fetch five, six or even seven thousand tomorrow night. But it is up to you, daughter.”

Noshi sat down on the charpoy next to her mother. The old woman had lost so much weight that her skin looked like it had been stretched across wire. She held her mother’s hand tightly and was suddenly afraid.

When her mother had fallen asleep, Noshi walked over to the open window and peered into the lane below. Whizzing rickshaws and rusty old Hondas raced past each other in the streets and galis below. Their passengers were mostly veiled women returning from all-night parties outside the neighborhood. Azam, the pimp from the crumbling mansion-house next door, stood on his balcony, his naked belly resting on the chipped iron railing, his torn undershirt exposing his nipples. He looked over at Noshi and winked, twice. She turned away and scanned the streets for her friend, Kashif. There he was huddled in a doorway to escape the summer rains. Noshi had known Kashif for as long as she could remember. They had grown up together in the old Mohalla – neighbourhood. She slipped her toes into a pair of plastic chappals – sandals and raced down the stairs to the alley.

“Kashi,” she touched him softly on the shoulder. “Are you singing today?” she asked, looking down at the old tin cup that sat on the floor beside his right foot.

Kashif turned and reached to trace her face. “Yes, Ghazals for all the lovely ladies,” he smiled. His blind eyes were milky-white, but his face was beautiful. His smooth skin glowed and a few stray drops of rain dotted his cheeks. Whenever she saw him, Noshi felt a strange tightness in her chest. She wanted to protect him, to save him from the blackness of his life.

“One day I will dance for you,” she whispered, and then ran back up the stairs to her damp and airless room.

That night, alone in her room, Noshi lay awake on an old bed. The springs in the old mattress creaked as she rolled from one side of the bed to the other. Although it was late, sleep eluded her. There was a tightening in her chest that made it difficult for her to breathe. Her mind raced with wild thoughts. She would run away, leave her mother, her duty and the Mohalla behind. She was certain that Kashif would join her and together they would start a new life. Getting out of bed, she walked over to a small closet that stood in the corner of the room. She opened the door and pulled out a battered suitcase. She unlatched the loose clasp and quickly began to place a few possessions into the square case. Two pairs of plastic chappals, a flimsy cotton shalwaar, her gold beaded dance outfit, and a handful of her favourite music cassettes. I will dance on stage like a real artist, she thought. She pulled the suitcase upright, then quickly ran a plastic comb through her tangled hair. She pinched her cheeks and smoothed down the creases in her kameez – top. She opened the door and lodged the suitcase against it, careful not to make any noise, then stepped out into the open living room.

“What are you doing?” Her mother asked groggily. She sat up and looked at Noshi, sleep lodged in the corners of her eyes.

“Nothing, getting water. Go back to sleep,” said Noshi. She walked over to the bucket that sat in the corner of the room and dipped a plastic cup into the tepid water. She drank long, slow mouthfuls. Looking over her shoulder, she stared at her mother laying on the old charpoy. A life of hardship had erased her beauty, carrying away the softness that Noshi had loved. She glanced at the small suitcase that was lodged against the door. She knew what would happen to her mother if she left, she would beg in the streets with the strays of Lahore. The thought made her skin crawl with shame and her cheeks began to itch. Her eyes were unwillingly drawn to her mother’s sleeping expressionless face. How could she possible leave? She dropped the plastic cup into the water and watched it float aimlessly from one side of the bucket to another. Turning quietly on her heels, she walked back to her room and shut the door abruptly.

By the next evening the room had been dusted and swept, the old charpoy covered in an orange silk bed sheet and decorated with Kashmiri cushions.

It was a landmark evening. Mr. Hamza was coming to see Noshi dance. He lived in a posh residential area of the city and was in search of a new lover, a young girl to replace the one that now bored him. He was ugly with a thick, oily face. Mrs. Sarwat secretly called him fatty because he wobbled when he walked and he was a big fat catch.

“He owns a leather factory and he is rich,” said a wide-eyed Sarwat. “He’s so rich he carries thousands of rupees in his back pocket.”

Noshi listened to her mother speak, but her mind drifted down to lane below. She was standing in front of a floor-mounted mirror wearing a black silky shalwaar and a red kameez embroidered around the neck and hem with gold threading. The outfit was too large and hung on her shoulders, gaping at the neck. She had applied a garishly thick layer of face powder, black eyeliner and lipstick the colour of pomegranate. A gold choker gripped her neck.

Mr. Hamza arrived late that evening. A shiny black Land Cruiser pulled into the courtyard. No one had seen anything as expensive or grand in the mohalla in a long time. Mrs. Sarwat greeted him at the door, performing her role as hostess with grace and aplomb. She pulled him by the hand, coaxed him over to the newly decorated charpoy and turned on the overhead fan. She handed him a bottle of Coke and a small plate of greasy snacks.

Noshi stood in position in the center of the room, nervously flicking her long hair from side to side. She watched Mr. Hamza play with the buttons on his cell phone. He didn’t touch the food.

“Please, I don’t have much time,” said Mr. Hamza.

“Don’t worry. We will start now,” said Mrs. Sarwat. She walked over to Noshi and whispered in her ear. “It is up to you, daughter.”

Noshi inhaled deeply. She made tight fists and then opened her hands. She placed her feet in first position and felt the bile rising in the back of her throat.  Closing her eyes for just a second she thought of Kashif and the suitcase waiting in her room. She tried to smile, but her lips were frozen.

The music rose in waves and Noshi began to move stiffly. She danced slowly at first, concentrating on her footwork. She wore the ankle bells; they jingled in a slow, rhythmic pattern. She stumbled once, then again, tripping over her feet. She glanced at her mother as she danced.

Mrs. Sarwat sat crouched on the floor in front of Mr. Hamza, her shoulders hunched and her chin drawn in like a frightened child. Our fate is in your hands now. The words spun round in Noshi’s head and she felt the weight of her mother’s fear.

Suddenly, the music changed tempo. The beating of the drums accelerated. Noshi began to twist and turn frantically. It was almost as though she had lost control of her body. The music took over, enveloping her and commanding her body to move like an artist. She swung her hair so it fell in a silky curtain around her face. She slapped her feet harder and faster against the cement floor. Turning and swaying, she raised her arms high above her head. She cocked her head to one side and smiled, her eyes darting around the room. The music was hypnotic. Caught in a trance Noshi swirled round several more times and then dropped to her knees. Standing up gracefully, she covered her face with her hands and peered through open fingers. When the music ended she resumed her position in the centre of the room and arched her back in one final dramatic pose. The performance was almost perfect. She wished that Master Jee had been there to see her dance. She was a true artist.

Mr. Hamza stood up and clapped a little too loudly, obviously enchanted by the performance. “More! More! Show me more,” he shouted again and again. Suddenly remembering where she was and why she was dancing. Noshi could not move. She simply bowed her head and waited.

“She is exactly what I want,” said Mr. Hamza. He carelessly jangled the Land Cruiser keys in his sweaty hands. He looked Noshi over one last time. His eyes lingered for a long moment on her girlish hips.  He smiled knowingly, as if thinking of the nights that lay ahead. “I will call you tomorrow and we will set a final price.”

Mrs. Sarwat licked her lips and gave a little shiver.

Mr. Hamza then reached into his wallet and threw a handful of rupee notes at Noshi’s feet. She bent down to pick up the money and suddenly felt ill. When she stood up, her gaze fixed on the open window. Across the courtyard Kashif stood in his doorway, his milky eyes turned to the sky, the old tin cup rattling in his hand.