This week’s Saturday Short Story is one by Tahmima Anam, a Bangladesh-born writer and anthropologist who was educated in the United States and now splits her time between London and Tamworth, New Hampshire. “Garments” was originally published in Freeman’s and is the third story presented in The Best American Short Stories (2016). The story, according to Anam started out as one based upon a 2013 building collapse in Dhaka that claimed 1,130 lives – making it the deadliest “accidental structural failure in modern history.” That’s not what the story turned out to be about, however.
The story’s central character is Jesmin, one of thousands of young women trying to survive on the minimal wages they earn working in Bangladesh’s garment factories. As the story opens, Mala is telling Jesmin that her boyfriend wants to marry Jesmin – but, as it turns out, there is one slight catch. At the bell, when they can finally speak without worrying about who is watching, Mala says that her boyfriend, in fact, wants three wives, and because he wants to marry all three on the same day, she needs Jesmin’s help in recruiting a suitable third wife.
Just two days later, Jesmin has agreed both to marrying Dulal and to helping Mala find a third wife for him, a task that would prove easier than most readers of the story might expect. That three women would be so willing to share a husband that two of them have probably not even seen before, speaks volumes about the desperation of these women. Mala is willing to share her “boyfriend” if he insists upon her finding him two more wives as a condition of marrying her. The other two are primarily concerned with finding a husband because of the safety and security they believe it will bring to their lives – Dulal’s appearance and character are, at best, a secondary consideration.
All three of the women are most impressed by the idea that Dulal works in an air-conditioned shop, giving him a job that is the envy of everyone, male or female, as they work their way through each sweltering day of their own. Surely such a job must mean that Dulal is a man with a future. Right? Unfortunately, Dulal is not everything the three young women dreamed he would be – and now at least two of them are likely to be left wondering what they have done to themselves?
“Garments” is a reminder of what life is like even today for so many millions of women and children in third-world countries all around the world, the very people who are forced to sell their labor tremendously cheaply in order to make our own lifestyles and standards of living possible. This is very definitely a story with a message, but on a more personal level, it puts faces on three women who are doing everything humanly possible to survive the hand that life has dealt them. “Garments” is a memorable story.