Deep in the holy streets of the city of Varanasi, India, upon the sacred land where one of the five heads of Brahma rests unseen, sleeps the prostitute Anaya, the one who was born to a different name in the poorest of Nepalese villages, her true name remembered only by her mother and known only to her friend Shefali, forgotten even by her malik, the brothel boss she has served as master for nine and more years.
She is the last of the seven daughters of Baburam, a goatherder from the mud-villages of Jethal; daughter of Bilhana, who was forced to marry her mother’s brother at age twelve and bore his eleven children and three more stillborn, all in April; mother to Chimini and Sanani, twin girl and boy, born by a miracle five years ago, refusing to die in her womb despite the pills forcefully fed to her by the malik; sister of Dhonu the one named King and Kwina the one named Queen, who were both sold before her to the same dalal, who trafficked them across the mountains and down to the most violent streets of Varanasi to be auctioned off at the market, albeit at a low price and a lowly establishment for he had already stolen their virginity for himself.
She once was known to her mother as the girl with the smile of a thousand flowers, before that night her father interrupted her innocent dreams and woke her up at the first sign of dawn. “Daughter,” he called upon her, “you must follow this man who will take you to a rich and important city. You will listen to him, and he will help you find a job and a man to serve and to love.”
And thus, Anaya departed the rhododendron-stained slopes of Nepal, trembling from cold and fear equally, following a man who wouldn’t talk or reply to her until night fell over the steep mountains and they stopped at an empty hut that the dalal called “home.”
“What should I call you, kind master?” Anaya asked the dalal, the first night they stopped to rest. The Nepalese girls are known for being meek and obedient, thus have a reputation of becoming “manageable” slaves.
“You will call me ‘kind,’ and you will call me ‘master’ for you will know of no one and dream of nothing after me,” said the dalal.
He grabbed Anaya by her frail arm, and when she screamed in utter surprise, he took out his belt and welted her until he silenced her to a muffled sob, and then raped her repeatedly, for three days and nights until Anaya couldn’t scream anymore as she felt her ribs, spine, and spirit broken to a thousand pieces and begged for his kindness to stop and knelt in front of her master willing to do anything for water or a piece of stale roti.
The dalal took her to the city of Varanasi, and she marveled as they passed by boat the Ganges river, and saw the red and ochre-colored ghats, those shrines, with concrete steps reaching the river banks, where the pilgrims come to find water and fire, in ablutions or cremations, heaven and hell. For it is a great fortune to die in this holiest of cities, thousands and thousands of pious and devoted men and women come to do so. Anaya would see nothing more of Varanasi, the city also known as Benares, except for those ghats on the first day she arrived and the street she’d be forced to slave as a prostitute every day for the next five years.
It is a fact that even in this sacred place, there are more men of ill-intensions and vile instincts than kind-hearted ones. Twenty of them came to bid for ownership of twelve-year-old Anaya in the market, and the malik who won her, a gigantic monstrosity of fat, filth and greed, locked her in a pinjara, a four by ten-foot street cage, it’s front side open and visible to locals and tourists eyeing the merchandise, the child, the prostitute. He forced her to sleep with men day and night, some days as many as twenty of those who paid no heed to the holiness of the city.
On the third day, she begged, “let me go,” and the malik told her that she is a fortunate one because she was destined to die in Varanasi, a sacred place where everyone prayed and even paid to come and die. He promised that he’ll never let her go.
The opium erased everything in her mind after the ninth day and the third encounter each day, and from then on, she was a servile broken wooden doll, a female Pinocchio, a slave with rattling joints, but no fairy godmother, among thousands of Honest Johns.
It was a spring sun-blinding day when Anaya turned seventeen. She didn’t know her exact birthday, other than it was spring, had to be. The rays and the sun’s warmth fell from the sky down to her street and cut through the cage’s bars. One week had gone by since her second abortion, induced by swallowing the malik’s poisons. On that self-proclaimed birthday, they brought Shefali to the pinjara next to her. Maybe Anaya was dazzled by the newcomer’s name, reminiscent of flowers and happier days or by the motherly sweetness of Shefali’s voice, for she was some years older than Anaya. Shefali would talk to Anaya day and night, between the customers’ visits, and whenever she felt Anaya suffering under the weight and the wrath of a brute. That woman was an eternal spirit, unbroken and unwilling to accept the fate that the world had reserved for her, and she tried to pass her message of hope from her cage to Anaya’s.
“We will escape, Anaya, one day we will, I will help you, I have escaped before. My true Nepalese name is Binsa, the fearless one, last spring I escaped slavery and made it all the way to my village, in Jethal. Yes, we are both from the same villages, and it is a sign of the gods to be together.”
Shefali, whose true Nepalese name was Binsa, did not tell Anaya the whole story, how she made it back to her village and told them about her tormented life, only to be scorned, ousted and refused by all known and not to her, her mother first. For the village’s convenient story was that she had married well in Mumbai and was cleaning houses of noble people, and every time she would clean a house, her husband, that would be actually the dalal, would send twenty rupees back to the village, for every house she cleaned, but she was not really cleaning houses, in fact, she was a slot machine that swallows the filth and spews out coins for her father and her village, day and night. And no one wanted such an unclean and untrue woman—one who smelled, looked and talked like a whore, and that was the only schooling she had ever had—to settle back at the village and corrupt the men. And as the night fell cold and Shefali wandered alone out of her village, somebody messaged the dalal who worked those villages and he caught her and returned her to the brothel boss, a wronged businessman in rage.
Shefali never told Anaya what her punishment was, how the malik almost beat her to death, and how he inserted, four men, holding her down hands and feet, a broomstick dipped in lemon juice and chili powder inside her, and how she screamed as no human being had screamed before, the pain so maddening that she could not even faint from it. The nights of pain that she could not sleep or even crawl to the bathroom.
But a woman like Shefali obeys her master only for a breath, yearns for freedom the rest of the time, so she is poised to escape the pinjara of the new malik once again.
“Promise me you’ll come with me, Anaya.”
Anaya is not so brave; the thousands of rapes had twisted themselves around her spine like a braid of paralyzing fear, not of hope, and she cannot promise Shefali. She can only tell her of her fear; she has already accepted that there is no other life left for her.
“I fear, my sister, that no one will accept us like this, with bodies broken from venereal disease and mind broken from the opium, with eyes pearly-white and hearts ashen-black. I fear no one will care to listen about the horrors and the suffering we’ve been through. These days our parents and brothers enjoy the spoils of the sold children who bring back rupees, a handful but enough to buy some rice and bread, maybe to have another child at their old age, one more to provide, ignoring the skeletons of the lost children of Varanasi, the slavery-torn cadavers of the sex-slave children, the girls who made it to “civilization.”
Shefali tries to make Anaya change her mind.
“Come with me, Anaya. Do not fear them. Even if it is so, to all them, we say, so what? Who can dare judge us? Didn’t we serve, against our will, an evil master for too long? Why should we care who accepts us and what they think of us, why can’t we just be free for ourselves, ascend and smell the heavenly scent of the rhododendrons once more, listen not to the voices of those who dare judge us, but never dared to save us, listen only to the waving whispers of the home mountain winds embracing us? We will smell the rhododendrons, once again.”
And so did Shefali escape one night, she crossed mountains and deserts and made it all the way to Europe, selling her body again and again along the route to earn each mile of escape. But Anaya did not follow her, for she was again pregnant, and moreover she had forgotten how to walk miles and miles under the sun, convinced that she would burn down to ashes if she did so. She had accepted that her ashes were destined for the waters of Ganges, and she prayed to the goddess Parvati that she protects those unborn and brings them to life. The goddess listened, and next April Anaya gave birth to the twins Chimini and Sanani. After that miracle, the malik couldn’t have her at a pinjara, she was bad for business, so he moved her to a not so busy brothel, a massage parlor where she got her own one room to work, live and raise children. “You ruin me, woman,” he said. “That debt you owed me for buying you from the dalal was almost paid, but now it is big again with all those extra costs you demand. You owe me for giving you a room and for the medical. Eighty thousand rupees.”
Anaya doesn’t worry about that; she knows that there will always be a debt to the malik. She is happy to have a room, she got the one with the cerulean-colored walls, to hide the children in. When they are asleep, she waits downstairs by the doorway, wearing her “wet’n’wild” bright red lipstick, uncaged and able to turn up her head and see the sky above. Yet she rarely gazes at the sky, unless she prays for Shefali and her children. She is an old woman of twenty-one years of age now, and the sky has no magic for her. The malik keeps bringing younger girls to upgrade his massage parlor but most of them are weak and don’t survive and the ones that do cannot speak much from the opium and the disease and communicate through the rising smoke rings of their cigarettes. They spend their hours of freedom smoking and spitting—Anaya sees them spitting and spitting again, and so does she—for the filth inside is so much every day that they can never be clean, no matter how many times they spit.
She still needs to work—there is no escape from slavery—but business is slower here. Her children are only four years of age, but they have already learned to hide, the boy under the bed, the girl in the closet in her tiny room when customers come. They think it’s a game; she told them it’s called “hide and never seek.”
She prays to the goddess Kali, the Slayer of Raktabija, Raktabija, the demon who kept giving birth to clone demons, Raktabija the demon reincarnated in her malik. She prays for revenge and justice.
It is an unusually cold mid-March night, the year 2022, the godforsaken year, when the goddess will listen to her prayers. A young boy, hungry for lust, money and ill-spirited, not over twenty of age, visits Anaya, to enjoy her services. He has just returned from China, where he works in a pigeon farm at Guangzhou and on that cold night, his bones are aching, and he sneezes for he has been infected with an unknown curse, a virus so vile that spreads faster than the clones of Raktabija.
And as Anaya’s rage, her hate for all that is man and world and civilization, becomes one with the seed of the poisoned man, as her desperation and misery swallow his greed and lust, the gods and the demons unite in their rage and decide that this world has become undeserving of life. Enough. It is time for retribution. Divine justice.
The epidemiologists would have called that boy patient zero, but no one will ever know his name. Inside his body, the goddess unleashes her deathly curse, the antigenic shift of the H7N9 virus, on his last day at the pigeon farm, a few hours before he takes the flight to India. It is a mutation that can happen only once, a massive change to the nucleotides of RNA, it forms a new virus subtype, and on that day the obscure H7N9 avian flu virus turns into an unstoppable pandemic. It was known to have a 40% mortality rate back from 2009 when Tilda was studying it, but it could never spread easily. “Not a viral virus,” the experts chuckled. It will change with the pigeon farm boy, and that day the mutation results in efficient and rapid human to human transfer.
Still, nobody would probably know about that, as that boy dies next to his mother three days later, blue from cyanosis in a pool of his own bloody pink froth. His mother is too religious to care about doctors—she knows that this is the work of gods and demons—and the virus mutation would have died, claiming only those two victims. If he hadn’t visited Anaya before his mother. But he did. If it wasn’t an unusually cold week with a high of 20oC. But it was. The mantra. She listened.
And it will be Anaya, the Mouth that will Unleash Hell, the one responsible for all that will follow in this story—it is always the woman’s fault in these streets—for she will (be forced to) sleep with eighty-four more men the next five days, hallucinating from fever and pain, cursing them knowingly and unknowingly, and she will infect all eighty-four of them, and in turn, they will infect thousands who breathe the air on the overcrowded streets of Varanasi.
The malik stops sending customers to her after the fifth day because they won’t touch her; they can see that she is sick with death.
She will be finally left alone; with her last strength, she pushes the children away. Anaya dreams of the goddesses as the disease spreads inside her, she feels it. In her brief sleep, she is Kali, wearing the skirt made of the severed arms of the demons and the necklace with their fresh-bleeding decapitated heads. As her last dying wish, she calls on the goddess Ganga, the one who in the times before time came down to sweep the earth with her waters after she was insulted by Brahma.
“O goddess, Ganga, unleash my rage and my revenge to all demons around me. Drown them in your purifying waters. Spare my children, unless they’re bound to follow my destiny of slavery, kill them first.”
The goddess listens.
There will be no escape for anyone, evil-spirited or kind-hearted, poor or rich, pale or dark-skinned, believer or not, as Anaya’s curse ripples to the four corners of the earth, raging wild in the months up to the summer of 2022, succumbing temporarily to the summer heatwaves, and resurrecting in October 2022, to end the lives of men, women and children, so many that no goddess would ever dare to claim as retribution.
Within a week, no more, Anaya and most of the brothel neighborhood’s population is devoured by the virus. One of her customers on his way to Cape Town through Dubai will spread the disease to twenty airplane passengers; others will do so by foot, bus or train. A man who visited her for pleasure right after she got infected, will travel to Chittagong, Bangladesh the same night, and he’ll be the one starting the spread to the West. Guangzhou, Varanasi, Nairobi, Chittagong, Karachi, Izmir, Lesbos. Varanasi to Mumbai, to Baku, Moscow, Nairobi to Paris, Paris to London. London to Reykjavik, Mumbai to LA, Paris to Rio de Janeiro. The rest is known. It is a fire; many of these clusters will die fast; others will rage uncontrolled.
The Red Cross volunteers will find the barefoot four-year-old twins crying next to an overflowing toilet and a rotting body. In the year 2058, when this story is written, the girl Chimini is leading another Indian mission to Mars, the boy Sanani is a high-school math teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Shefali will make it to Turkey and from there to Lesbos, Greece, and finally to Hamburg, Germany, where she spends her last days in a drug addiction clinic.
As for Anaya, the girl with the smile of a thousand flowers, she will never smell the rhododendrons again.