Read an extract from Tahmima Anam's short story 'Garments', which has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2016. It will form part of the 'BBC National Short Story Award 2016 Anthology'.
One day Mala lowers her mask and says to Jesmin, my boyfriend wants to marry you. Jesmin is six shirts behind so she doesn’t look up. After the bell, Mala explains. For months now she’s been telling the girls, ya, any day now me and Dulal are going to the Kazi. They don’t believe her, they know her boyfriend works in an air-conditioned shop. No way he was going to marry a garments girl. Now she has a scheme and when Jesmin hears it, she thinks, it’s not so bad.
Two days later Mala’s sweating like it’s July. He wants one more. Three wives. We have to find a girl. After the bell they look down the row of sewing machines and try to choose. Mala knows all the unmarried girls, which one needs a room, which one has hungry relatives, which one borrowed money against her wage and can’t work enough overtime to pay it off. They squint down the line and consider Fatima, Keya, Komola, but for some reason or other they reject them all. There’s a new girl at the end of the row but when Mala takes a break and limps over to the toilet she comes back and says the girl has a milky eye.
There’s a new order for panties. Jesmin picks up the sample.
She’s never seen a panty like it before. It’s thick, with double seams on the front, back, and around the buttocks. The leg is just cut off without a stitch. Mala, she says, what’s this? Mala says, the foreign ladies use them to hold in their fat and they call them.
Thanks. Thanks? Yep. Because they look so good, in the mirror they say to the panties, Thanks. Jesmin and Mala pull down their masks and trade a laugh when the morning supervisor, Jamal, isn’t looking.
Jesmin decides it won’t be so bad to share a husband. She doesn’t have dreams of a love marriage, and if they have to divide the sex that’s fine with her, and if he wants something, like he wants his rice the way his mother makes it, maybe one of them will know how to do it. Walking home as she did every evening with all the other factory workers, a line two girls thick and a mile long, snaking out of Tongi and all the way to Uttara, she spots a new girl. Sometimes Jesmin looks in front and behind her at that line, all the ribbons flapping and the song of sandals on the pavement, and she feels a swell in her chest. She catches up to the girl. Her name’s Ruby. She’s dark, but pretty. Small white teeth and filmy eyes. She’s new and eager to make friends. I’m coming two, three hours from my village every morning, she complains.
I know, Jesmin says. Finding a place to live is why I’m doing this.
This short story was read on BBC Radio 4 Front Row on Tuesday 20 September. You can purchase the rest of the story as part of the BBC National Short Story Award anthology, available at www.commapress.co.uk and all good bookshops (including ours), and as an eBook at www.amazon.co.uk/kindle.