Mohamaya. That was her name. She was barely twenty.

Lalee had to shut her door because she could not take it anymore. Mohamaya had lived next door to her for almost a year. The girl before Mohamaya had run away, and Lalee never knew what became of her. Then one day, Mohamaya moved in.

In the beginning, she didn’t say much. Lalee had gathered – a little from her and a little from the others – that Chintu had found her wandering around Sealdah station, and the demands of hunger and shelter were strong enough for her to follow him to The Blue Lotus. She looked young. Lalee had, of course, known girls far younger – some of them seven – but Mohamaya had an inviolable air of calmness about her that Lalee found discouraging. It felt wrong to be crass around her.

Mohamaya reminded Lalee of a young bride she had seen once in her village, a very long time ago. Mohamaya was an old-fashioned beauty, doe-eyed, long-haired and fair-skinned. As if she was made to be wrapped in red-and- gold silk, bejewelled, calmly ruling over a prosperous household. In her presence, Lalee wanted to hide her dark hands, her angular face, the bitter smirk that seemed to always hang around her lips, and the cuss words that they formed more naturally than anything else.

Mohamaya was good to her. Called her Laal didi, a little smidgen of genuine affection in the soft lilt of her voice. Lalee sighed, and shook her head. What a waste of such beauty, she thought – all of it spilled on the floor, swollen face and a broken glass bottle stuck in her throat spewing blood like a spigot.

There was a time Mohamaya had gone away. She had never confided in Lalee but everyone knew she had been transferred to the quarters upstairs. They were special quarters – Lalee hadn’t seen them herself; they were only for those amenable to the Madam’s wishes. But she had heard about them. Of course she had run into Mohamaya from time to time in the labyrinthine alleyways of The Blue Lotus. But Mohamaya had only smiled politely and walked away.

Lalee, in those moments, had felt a jab of jealousy – she wasn’t beautiful enough for the luxury quarters, not pliant enough, not woman enough. All of that seemed so futile now. Now, when the women came in waves, asking about the girl that died last night, so unquietly, so callously drawing attention to herself lying in a pool of blood. “Mohamaya, Mohamaya, Mohamaya,” she kept repeating, telling anyone who wanted to know her name. “We called her Maya.”

Lalee hadn’t slept very much after walking into Mohamaya’s room. Before the crowd of women could take in what was in front of them, Shefali Madam had the room barricaded. A thick wall of men, some Lalee had known and many she didn’t, edged her, Malini, Amina and the others out of the room. Before the windows were shut and the door bolted, Lalee only managed a glimpse of Shefali Madam’s broad, capable back obscuring her view of the dead girl on the floor.

A group of women, Lalee among them, milled around outside waiting to know what happened. Amina burst into tears while Malini sat seething in a corner, knocking again and again on the locked doors. No one answered. Eventually, a man Lalee had never met – a well-dressed middle-aged man wearing glasses – came down the stairs from The Blue Lotus’ upper quarters and asked the women very politely to go to their rooms and ask the customers to leave.

“Please go and compose yourselves,” he said. “This is a difficult moment, but we all must keep calm, yes?” He had the kind of capable voice that could get the group of nervous and bewildered women to do as instructed. Though Malini glared at him, Lalee tugged at Malini’s arm until she finally left with her.

“There’s nothing to be done now,” Lalee whispered in Malini’s ears.

“Of course,” Malini seethed. “They won’t leave anything that would help us do something. I run the Sex Workers’ Collective; I should have been there. Shefali Madam can’t have it all her own way. Sweep a murdered girl under the carpet like some dirt. You just wait and see what I do.”

Lalee found it hard to believe that Malini or anyone else could do much for Maya. The girl was dead, there was no helping her. In time, more would die – perhaps not so openly, perhaps they would just slip through the cracks into some viscous oblivion where no one would remember their names or what they looked like, but they would, all the same, be lost. Lalee wanted to have Malini’s absolute faith, her recalcitrant rage and bullish optimism, but she had learned her lesson well – there was no hope, no escape.

She paced up and down the narrow corridor connecting all their rooms. Memorising the spaces where the paint had peeled, the glimmer of spidery webs, lines of dust – as if all this anguish was some kind of antidote to death, a talisman against memories of slit throats.

Sitting on her haunches on the red cement floor, Nimmi was feeding her two children. She called out, “Oi, ledki. What are you doing?”

Lalee glanced at them, the two children were staring at her, hypnotized by her ambulations.

“You’ve quietened my babies,” Nimmi said. “I’ve never had it so easy before.”

Lalee leaned against Nimmi’s door frame. All their rooms were stuck side by side, a narrow rectangle of space enough to fit a bed and a clothing rack. Nimmi’s bed was slightly larger and elevated, resting as it did on two thick bricks. Her children slept under it when she was with customers. Lalee stared at them. Maya’s room was two doors down from Nimmi’s and yet here she was, feeding her children like it was any other day.

“Don’t let it get to you,” Nimmi said.

Lalee felt her temper flare up. She hadn’t always played nice with the other girls, not been a pleasant person, but she hated to think that Nimmi and the rest of the girls could doubt her grief so easily, as if nothing could shake her from her acrid self- centredness.

“Rest up – you’ll have to go and stand out there after sundown, just like every other day,” Nimmi said, rolling a ball of rice mixed with dal and pushing it into her boy’s reluctant mouth.

Lalee looked away from them, retraced her steps to her room. It was sultry. A damp heat seemed to climb out of the uneven cement floor. The Blue Lotus was an old building. The rent kept rising every year, but everyone in Shonagachhi was too busy to do any repairs.

Shefali Madam had once said to her: “The houses here are like women. They’re to be rented out, so money can be made; they don’t have time to be mended.” The dark alleys inside The Blue Lotus got narrower and darker over the years Lalee had spent within it. The insides were cool, even in the worst of summer. Some of the girls wet gamchhas during the long afternoons, spread them out on the floor and slept on them. In the evening, business resumed as usual. Heat and sweat caused the make-up to slide, but customers came, and the girls stood outside, no matter the weather.

She heard a familiar cackle outside her door. A small head clad in a red baseball cap bobbed up and down, arms animatedly gesturing to the world.

“Ai Babua,” Lalee called out.

The tiny head jerked towards her and the boy gave her a wink and a smile. Babua, at nine, had the smile of a man who had the world figured out, and knew where the cracks lay, where the lever could enter, push and crack it open.

“Come here,” Lalee said.

“Ai Lalee didi, give me some cash, no? You’re looking so well these days.”

Lalee made a mock gesture of slapping off his red cap. Babua moved, raising up his hands in self-defence.

“Where did you get that cap?” Lalee asked.

“Foreigner tourist, Lalee didi. They were shooting with big video cameras – they say us kids will be able to go to a new school, get mid-day meals and all that.” Babua laughed.

She went back to her room, feeling the shape of the migraine descending behind her eyes like a raincloud. She spent the rest of the day either laid up in bed or pacing the narrow confines of her room. She wanted to do something, but she didn’t know what.

She wanted to scream, and she wanted to cry, she could urge Malini and maybe the Collective to do something, or maybe she could run down the road to the nearest police station and tell them everything – about the girl, barely twenty, who had died last night and that nothing at all remained of her this morning, not even the frayed poster of her favourite Bollywood star on the walls. But Lalee didn’t do any of these things, she remained confined to her room, with a hammering pain waiting to explode behind the darkness of her eyes.

A Death in Shonagachhi: A Novel

Excerpted with permission from A Death in Shonagachhi: A Novel, Rijula Das, Picador India.