Mr Patted My Back by Kavya Sharma
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It was dark. I entered Forever Textile Industries half an hour before time. It was 7:30 in the morning and even though the sun was out and it was bright, room number thirty nine wasn’t. It was not a room actually; it was a big hall painted red with sewing machines on wooden tables arranged vertically to ends I couldn’t see. The hall was very dimly lit. There were no windows on either side of the hall and the reek of the enclosed space was making me a little giddy. Somewhere nearby I could hear water leaking and the sound irritated me.

 

It was my first day at work. Amma fed me sweets before I left telling me how good I was at sewing. I was the fastest in my village. We lived in a small village in Kerala, just a two kilometres walk to the beach. Everybody trusted my work. Father said I was an artist.

 

This textile factory had been well known for years. I couldn’t do better.

 

I walked towards the end of the hall after counting the number of tables. There were a hundred and twenty.  I tried finding the switch to illuminate the room a bit but couldn’t, the dingy smell was now getting to my head.  As I was walking back towards the main door I heard noises.

 

Bangles, sighs and footsteps. I saw a number of women old and young entering the hall. They were so busy cleaning and occupying their seats they didn’t notice me standing right next to the door. I noticed they all had badges attached above their right breast with their names on them.

 

I silently stood in a corner watching them settle down. Then they all looked at me but none of them came to talk, not that they were talking amongst themselves. It was strange. I smiled but none of them smiled back at me. They now conversed but only in whispers.

 

I waited for someone to switch on some lights but nobody did. There were no lights, nothing to look for. I wonder how they did such a careful job of sewing without enough light. Simultaneously they all contracted their eyes to put the white thread into the tiny needle hole and began working.

 

Good morning, came a male voice from behind.

 

It was Mr Jayant. He was the one who had employed me. I smiled at him and he patted my back. He gave me my badge with my name on it and showed me my table. Pointing towards the pile of clothes he told me the number I had to complete today. They were too many but I was willing to try. This was my chance.

 

Mr Jayant was a tall man with dark skin and black moustache. He had perfect white teeth but he smiled very seldom. He had this look of seriousness and judgment on his face. His hair was neatly combed in towards the right, and he wore black pants and a white well-ironed shirt with ‘Manager’ written in capitals on his badge above his name.

 

The women were so involved in doing their work that they did not raise their heads to look at him or even to greet him. They were so engrossed none of them took their eyes off their equipment, their legs moving at horse speed, just like the movement of the machines.

 

They appeared as if they were in a hurry yet their movements were really well synchronised.

 

Mr Jayant went outside the room after assigning me my task and, taking one last look at the working women, closed the door so it felt as if we had no air to breathe.

 

I sat on my chair and started my work. For a few hours there was nothing else but the creaking noise of the machines, the sound of silent breathe and the moving legs. Nobody talked or made any sort of eye contact with anybody. Each of their pile of clothes was now reducing.

 

Am I too slow? I thought to myself.

 

I had no idea how I would ever be able to finish the task by the end of the day.

 

It was 11:30 AM now. After three and half hours of continuous work I felt thirsty, so I got up and started moving towards the main door to get myself some water.

 

You shouldn’t be wasting your time, said a middle-aged woman as I reached near her table. She had no expressions on her face, just focus and concentration. She said this without even looking at my face.

 

I just need some water.

 

You need things more than water, she said and kept on mechanically moving her legs. I looked down and walked out quietly.

 

I heard Mr Jayant whispering in the other room, as if silencing someone. Work is work, isn’t it? he questioned. Shhh... I heard.

 

I discerned footsteps nearing the door so I ran towards the adjacent water cooler and started filling up my bottle.

 

You shouldn’t be wasting your time like that.

 

I looked back and saw Mr Jayant standing just behind me, so close I could feel his warm breaths brushing past my neck.

 

I looked down and said nothing. He patted my back and went.

 

As much as I wanted to feel right about it my soul felt heavy. Everything seemed so mechanical. They were all machines, all of them.

 

When I walked back to the hall I witnessed sudden rising of heads. They all stared at me and then looked back at the pile that I had, then, simultaneously, they all looked down at their own machines.

 

I was fearful now. My throat went dry again.

 

In frenzy I ran towards my table and started doing my work at a much higher pace, moving my legs as fast as I could and inhaling heavily because of the lump in my throat that only seemed to be growing now.

 

The bell rang in no time. It was lunch time.

 

I looked at my pile in horror.

 

You better work during break, said the stout woman sitting right in front of me.

 

I had no responses to the statements these people were making. The advice they were giving me uninvited was creating space within me, a sense of hollowness was building up.

 

Why was it so necessary to finish all this in a day?

 

I better? I questioned her back.

 

Yes, if you need your money, she replied without much thought.

 

While everyone took out their lunch boxes and silently began eating at their tables, I kept looking at my pile. Still around a hundred pieces were left.

 

Mr Jayant came and began doing rounds. Nobody looked at him.

 

He walked a little bent with his hands behind his back and eyes wide open. His polished black shoes made a perfect marching noise. After looking at the pile beside every table he looked at the woman it belonged to and sniffed,  lifting his hairy brows. None of the women looked back at him. By the time he reached my table I had begun to move my legs faster. He looked at the pile and then looked back at me. I raised my head and saw him bend just a little over me. I could see myself in his dark eyes.

 

I.... My voice was choking on its own nervousness. I couldn’t feel anything.

 

Too slow child, he said.

 

It’s ... I’ll try, Sir.

 

Showing me his perfect teeth he patted my back and went on.

 

The women ate as mechanically as they worked. I was so suffocated I was finding it difficult to breathe. There was no air in the room, no windows to open, no sunlight to soak. There was nothing but just the redness of the room and the noisy machines with unthinking women.

 

The bell rang again in twenty minutes and the break was over.

 

They began working but my legs, my legs were lifeless. I tried moving them harder gathering strength but I was slower than ever.

 

Oh! I needed this job, I needed the money.

 

Time’s up! came Mr Jayant’s voice from the far front at sharp 6 in the evening.
I noticed all the piles of clothes had gone.

 

Women started packing their stuff and leaving. Nobody looked back at me while Mr Jayant kept on standing at the door, smiling at me. I couldn’t move my legs; numb I sat there motionless.

 

Mr Jayant bolted the room after everyone left. The sun was gone. The redness of the room was now eating me up. I could hear steps coming closer, heavy sighs and polished shoes.

 

You there? he asked.

 

I said nothing.

 

Mr Jayant patted my back and I shuddered.

 

Work is work, isn’t it? he said.

 

I...

 

Shhh... I heard.

 

*


Kavya Sharma is twenty-two years old and is recently completed her Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Nottingham. Her poetry collection, The Carmine Memories: An Insane Woman’s Poetry was published by Partridge India in 2015. Recently, she gave an interview to BBC Nottingham Radio on Project Ballads which she was working on as a part of her placement in The National Justice Museum, Nottingham. She is a tribe member in the writing community, Terribly Tiny Tales and has been published in various online magazines including Thought Catalog and Youth Ki Awaaz.

Kavya is the founder of a poetry group called LeArtista which organises poetry reading events in New Delhi. She also played a key role in managing a poetry book anthology The Stage with PepperScript Publishing House. She has run a blog called verseofsilence for over two years and has an Instagram handle with the same name with close to 5000 followers.