The House of Melting Wax

Street Theatre

Playwright: Samina Luthfa Nitra

Director: Mohammad Ali Haider

Translation Soumya Sarkar and Munasir Kamal

[Three-wheel van puller, Nobi, is trying to paddle fast. But his load is so heavy that his feet refuse to work. He feels dizzy and nauseated.]
Nobi: Ufh, the stench! I can still smell it! The smoke and the stench are stuck in my head! Bodies: Stuck in your head!
Nobi: Son of a dog! Child of a whore! Are you a man or the devil? How much more do you want, you thief of thieves? So many people! So many dead! Burnt to ashes! Ashes and coals! They have crammed those coals, ashes and bones into these sacks. And the stench! So many mothers bereft because of them! They have murdered so many people! [Nobi stops the van and wipes his eyes. Meanwhile the bodies on the van get up and take position. They are wrapped in white plastic sacks tied with string.]
Fancy: Stop it, Nobi bhai. I wasn’t murdered.
[Song] Amare keu khun kore nai (no one murdered me)
Nobi: How did you die then, stupid girl?
[Fancy laughs. She picks up a piece of cloth and imitates the clothes-making process in a garments factory, and then sits on the edge of the van dangling her feet.]
Fancy: Stupid Girl? I have a name you know. I’m Fancy. You can call me Hamida too. I’m from Shetabganj in Dinajpur – quite far from the sugar-mill. Shahinoor and I came to Dhaka with Najiron bu. We all wanted to work in garments factories. Najiron bu died in the fire at Hamim Garments. I got work at Tazrin. I told my ma not to cry, but she wouldn’t listen. Women! They’re such crybabies!]
[Rafiq and Arman rush in and approach the van. They search the bodies.]
- Have you seen my Beauty, my Lovely? Aren’t these from the second floor?
- Can you tell me where they do the DNA test? Dhaka? That’s so far! Must we go there?
- Isn’t it possible here, Rafiq bhai? I don’t have much money. How can I go to Dhaka? O van-puller bhai, where are you taking these? Don’t take them away, I beg you. My Lovely may be among them. My three daughters – Lucky, Lovely, Beauty – all of them worked in the sewing section. When the fire started, they called me and said, “We three are huddled together, abba. Don’t worry about us.” Have you seen three bodies holding each other, van-puller bhai? How do I recognise them now – my own daughters? Please don’t take them away, bhai.
- If they don’t hand over the bodies, why don’t they burn us as well? We don’t need the compensation money. My Mimi was pregnant; how can I get her back? She’s not in your van. Don’t take them away, I beg you! If their kin come, they won’t be able to find the bodies of their loved ones. [Fancy or Hamida is among the bodies he goes through in search for his wife. Fancy suddenly gets angry]
Fancy: Keep your hands to yourself. I’ll kill you if you dare touch me again! [Scene changes]
I don’t remember at what time the fire alarm rang one day. I was on the second floor. I rushed down to the main gate. What a crowd! All the workers bunched together alarmed and anxious. Someone, may be the supervisor or the manager, came and said something and we all went back to work. Shanta was at the back of the crowd. I asked her what was going on.
Shanta: False test.
Fancy: If it’s false, why do they do this shit?
Shanta: Shut up. It’s time to work, no time to explain.
Fancy: You always tell me to shut up… But where’s this guy taking us?
Nobi: To hell. [Scene changes]
Shanta: I was feeling a little afraid by then. I remembered what Rahman bhai said one day. Rahman: You know, Shanta, not a single fire extinguisher works. I told the manager during the drill. He said MD sir told him he had no time to look into it. No time! Listen carefully, if something ever happens – Allah forbid – go downstairs without delay before anyone else has the chance to move.
Shanta: That got me thinking, what if there really was a fire? Stop it! What rubbish was I thinking! Absolute rubbish. Rubbish and ashes. Ashes and ashes.
All bodies: Fire! Fire! Fire!
- Ashes everywhere on the second floor of the factory! And the smell of burnt human flesh! I’d never smelt anything like it before.
- Till our last breath, the smell haunted us. And no escape even when we’re dead!
- And the unbearable heat! I could see my own skin burning and melting. I could smell my own hair burning and melting.
- [On the phone] We won’t survive, ma. Fire engulfs us. Please come and take my body home.
- The collapsible gate was locked, as usual, from the outside and we couldn’t get out.
- [On the phone] We will not see each other again, Kanak’s father! Please take good care of my Kanak and Kusum. Have you bought the new shoes you were supposed to get for Kusum? I won’t see her wearing those! And a last request – please quit smoking.
- Who do we blame for this? Fire on my own clothes, my own hair! I helped everyone to take off their clothes so they would not catch fire quickly. I also helped them to cut their hair. And then we just ran and ran. - Come here Latifa, sister, let me cut your hair. Take off your clothes. Don’t be shy. Take them off. - We were all roasted alive, Nobi bhai. In death, our flesh seared together.
- We were on fire for twelve whole hours. Now, those who see me cover their nose and mouth. - [On the phone] Please accept him, bhaijan. Let him be one of the family. With me gone, he’ll be all alone. Our baby is dying with me. Accept him, brother, I beg you. The smoke chokes me. If only I could find some air to breathe! No time left to call my baby’s father…
- We couldn’t break the window, the collapsible gate was locked. The fire went on burning. It caught on my skin and lit up my flesh. Even my soul felt like it was on fire. And the unbearable pain! And then – finally – peace. Death saved us. We no longer felt the pain.
[Song] Amare keu khun kore nai (no one murdered me) - No one killed me. No one killed me. Death gave me peace.
Nobi: You say no one killed you, sister? What is the perfect way to kill you then?
Shanta: Nobody killed us.
Nobi: The owner will collect the insurance money, no doubt. Why didn’t you raise your voice about your own safety, point out that your factory had no fire exit [he pronounces it as “eskit”] Rahman: Who said we didn’t have any? We had one, but it doesn’t lead from inside to outside, but remains inside – from inside to the innermost. The fire exit stairs go down and down and end in the storeroom on the ground floor. If it led outside, we would’ve been saved! [laughs]
Nobi: You are such idiots! They just burned you to death like bees and you are claiming that no one murdered you! Delowar: Yes, absolute idiots! You’ll never meet such idiots again! They regularly insert uneven bamboos through our asses and that’s how they take the nation to the top. They designed this death by burning for us! Hell of a country this is – a country of fuckers!
[Bakar, who has gone mad, enters carrying a baby]
Shanta: Look over there, another loony on the list! Bakar puffs a bidi like he’s smoking ganja, but when you look closely, there’s nothing in his hands.
Bakar: Will those who jumped from the windows also get compensation? What should I do with my little babies? Who will look after them now? Nobi bhai, will you take my Kusum? No, you don’t have to pay – she’s free! Your wife has no child, she wants one desperately. Ashfia wanted new shoes for Kusum. I got them for her. You can have them with the child. Won’t you take her?
Nobi: It really is a matter of concern. Will those who jumped from the windows to save themselves be compensated? And if husband and wife both died, who will get their share? I’m afraid the owners will try to cheat them. Things seem very complicated.
[Everybody laughs]
Hamida: Listen to the fool! He thinks things are complicated! People have donated 127 crore taka for the affected labourers. Only 27 crore taka is being distributed. The rest has vanished and this guy says it’s complicated. It’s clear as distilled water – we’ll get nothing, nothing at all.
[The others beside Shanta on the van get up and start giggling. They are young and beautiful, but long-term lack of nutrition is evident in their small structures. Now they all laugh shaking their small frames.] Nobi: What are you laughing at, stupid girls! Has someone tickled your asses?
[They settle down]
- Your reaction makes us laugh, Nobi bhai. Why get upset with us?
- We have no grievances or rage. When we get upset, it’s termed sabotage. It becomes an image issue for the government. The owners are restless. Meanwhile, the police reap the benefits.
- The police beat us and are rewarded by the garments owners.
- They demand money from us too. We have to pay or be charged for sabotage.
- What is sabotage? Is it when people are killed in a fire?
- No, silly! It’s when a building falls on you and you die – that’s sabotage.
- You’re both wrong. It’s when you shake a building with your hands making it collapse – that’s sabotage. - When we laborers revolt, who gets into trouble? We ourselves. And who profits? The police, the owners and the BGMEA. You think we’re such idiots? When we start labour movements, we get into trouble. Is that what you want? [Keramat suddenly starts tugging at Nobi’s lungi]
- Are you a leftist? What do you gain by provoking us labourers?
- This bloody leftist thinks we’re stupid!
[They all start chasing him]
- [Speaking like a politician] They have taken bribes from India to tarnish the image of our beloved country. - No, they have probably taken money from China.
- Stop it! Without people like them [indicating Nobi], we would’ve died of hunger! [They scuffle on the stage. The others laugh.]
Nobi: You can only get upset with me! Why not save some of your precious rage for the factory owner who barbecued you? You can only reach the leftists and this poor Nobi.
Mahabbat: Garments workers don’t have the luxury of getting angry or frustrated. If we get frustrated, we will suffer. That’s why we remain silent.
- We are burned like coals, turn into ashes, still we keep silent. When we die, no one is ruined except us. But when we get upset, it is said that we ruin our employers and the image of our country. Nobi: It’s better your honorable employers are killed, not you. Mahabbat: No one killed me.
Jatugriha burns, the bees burn too
The Pandavas had a tunnel to escape
But we have no exit.
Still, no one murdered us
We just died.
[Hazrat, another van-puller, arrives with his load of bodies. Faruk descends from the back of Hazrat’s van, rushes to Nobi and starts crying. Holding Nobi, he cries for long in a rhythmic pattern. Nobi remains silent. He lets Faruk go on crying.]
Faruk: My wife Lima and her sister Shireen were on the fourth floor. Shireen is still missing. I don’t know what happened to her. But I know that Lima jumped from the window. What was she thinking? Did she think the fire on her body would go out if she jumped? Did she suppose she could fly to me on the second floor? They took her to the hospital, but she didn’t wake up. She will be handed over to her father today. They will bury her at their village. Nobi: Who are you?
Faruk: I was Faruk – the machine operator. Now I’m just a sack of pulp and bones, that’s it. Anjuman Mofidul will take me to the Jurain or Azimpur graveyard.
Nobi: Ha, Azimpur – what a dream! You’re a miserable labourer, and you think they’ll take you to Azimpur? You should feel blessed if you manage a tiny spot in Jurain, you fool!
Faruk: I couldn’t find a way out of the second floor. So my flesh melted against the locked collapsible gate. When at last the fire went out, they had a hell of a time opening the gate. How could they open it? The burned flesh, bones and skull were all over the damn gate! [He laughs] The man who scraped my body parts away with his fingers couldn’t get rid of my smell. The odor was locked in his brain. He finally went mad and just kept looking at his own hands.
Mahabbat: What the hell were you doing squashed up against the gate? What a scene you’ve created, man! You people just don’t think about the image of the country! I’m sure you had plans of sabotage! Faruk: Sabotage? How on earth would I do that? I was working just moments before the fire broke out. When I smelled the smoke, I rushed to the gate. I hoped my Lima could get down, hoped the gate was not locked. I wanted to see her smiling face. I stretched out my hands through the narrow gap in the gate toward the smoke. I wanted to say sorry. That day when I got angry with her for being late to give me a cup of tea and called her names, I didn’t mean it. I wanted to ask for forgiveness. If only I could tell her how sorry I am!
[Nobi can’t stand it anymore. A complex sound of outrage and helplessness comes from his throat. He starts sobbing.] Nobi: The bloody fools! Why did you die with such love in your hearts? No fucking anyone could do anything! No fucking government or anybody – just two drops from the eyes and all forgotten and acquitted! Fucking country! Fucking job! Fucking life! It’s perfectly justified that you died like this!