I was never the type to wear orange nail polish. In truth, I rarely wore nail polish at all. I was how you imagine an editor to be. Reliable, predictable. Manicures and pedicures seemed frivolous, a luxury item that I didn’t have time for, except maybe during the summer. When I did get them, I stuck to conservative options: French manicures or pastels. Pedicures were a luxury. They were not a necessity.
But, in 2012, I moved to India.
In Mumbai, the heat was sweltering. I have often compared it to Houston in August. If August lasted for nine months, instead of one. I was perpetually in sandals (or slippers as they are called in Indian English). It seemed counterintuitive, but during monsoon, sandals were the best footwear as they and my feet dried quickly after I’d slogged through inches of dirty rainwater.
The moment I entered an Indian home, I removed my shoes. Westerners think of India as dirty, filthy, squalid. But, an Indian home is the opposite. Clean, pristine, organized. Shoes stayed outside to keep Mumbai’s street filth from overtaking the impeccably clean space inside. I always knew when I had arrived at the correct house for a party by the tell-tale pile of shoes at the door. Whether in my own home or someone else’s, I spent most of my days barefoot. With my feet on almost constant display year-round, pedicures were no longer a luxury. They had become a necessity.
The array of colors available at an Indian nail salon is dizzying. The range, breadth, and depth of the palette does nothing to dispel the stereotype that India is “filled with beautiful colors!” Because, well, India is filled with beautiful colors. That was one of the few stereotypes with a real basis in fact.
When I returned to India in August 2016 as a participant at Anita’s Attic writing mentorship program, I resumed my regular pedicures. One beautiful September day, after monsoon had ended, I decided to try a subtle burnt orange shade with gold glitter mixed into it. Because glitter is subtle.
The manicurist raised her right eyebrow.
“But, madam, are you sure you do not want a pink color? It will go with your coloring.”
She coated the first nail and showed it to me.
“Do you like?”
“Yes, I like,” I smiled as I checked the color. “I’m sorry. You’ve done my nails before, but I don’t remember your name.”
“Shreya, ma’am.” Shreya means “beautiful” in Sanskrit and was the perfect name for this girl, whose name, incidentally, has been changed for this story. In case you were wondering.
“Shreya. That’s a beautiful name. I have a friend named Shreya. Tell me, where is your native place, Shreya?”
“Northeast, ma’am. Do you know Sikkim?”
“A little. Way up north near China, right? Lots of Buddhist shrines?”
She nodded and smiled. I continued.
“You’re from Sikkim, but you’re here in Bangalore?”
“With your family?”
“No ma’am.” Sadness swept across her face and was gone in a moment.
A young girl more than 1500 miles away from home without her parents. Something didn’t seem right.
“How old are you?”
“19, ma’am.” She didn’t look a day over 16, but malnutrition often took its toll on a young girl’s appearance. I once met a girl at an orphanage who was 16, but was a full head shorter than me and didn’t look a day over 11.
“How long have you been here in Bangalore?”
“Since five years, ma’am.”
“You came all the way from Sikkim when you were 14?”
The journey from Sikkim in the far north to Karnataka in the south isn’t just long; it’s arduous, entailing multiple long-haul trains. Such a journey would be difficult for a girl so young. I knew that. What I didn’t know is how to ask what I could not ask without asking. Finally, I chose a roundabout approach.
“Your English is very good.”
She blushed at my compliment. “Thank you, ma’am.” In truth, she was still hesitant with her words, searching for every syllable, but overall her grammar was good.
“Did you learn that here?”
“Do you like it in Bangalore?”
“Oh yes ma’am.” Her eyes lit up. “But, I am hoping to go to Dubai next year.”
“I used to live there. It’s a wonderful city. I hope you get there.”
“Me, too, ma’am.” She paused for a moment, caught up in her dream of Dubai and a better life.
Every time I wear orange nail polish, I think of Shreya and her dream.
Most likely, she was trafficked to Bangalore. Perhaps she was lured by the promise of a better life in the big city. Perhaps not. Perhaps her family knew she was there, and she sent them money. Perhaps not.
At the time, I didn’t know what to do about my suspicions. It’s a reality everyone who lives in India faces. I was familiar with NGOs in Mumbai that handled sex trafficking. But, this shook me. This was something else, something closer to home. Literally down the street from my home. I thought about reporting the salon. Yet, Shreya seemed genuinely happy. She was well groomed and clean. If I reported my suspicions, she could end up losing her job, and then where would she be? Was my writer’s imagination running away with me? I had just finished reading Chain of Custody after all. Ultimately, I decided not to act.
But, every time I wear orange nail polish, I think of Shreya and her dream.
So often, however, when we think of girls like Shreya, we imagine children born into brothels in Kolkata, women selling themselves on the streets of Kamathipura, or girls brought into the United States during the Super Bowl. We think of sex. We don’t think of all the others who are trafficked for their labor, performing menial jobs. They work in salons like this one. These are the women and men whose stories should be told.
Months later, after I had returned to Seoul, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop and writing furiously. Words poured from my pen. Shreya’s dream took shape. The last sentence in my notebook that night was: “These are the stories I want to tell.” I stared at that sentence for almost 10 minutes. The thoughts that raced through my head ranged from “Well, ok then” to “Wait? I want to do what?” to “That’s cultural appropriation with a capital A, yaar!” Yet, I felt this pull in my gut, and in my heart. The pull was so strong that I left the coffee shop that night dazed by the words my hand had written. I realized that now was the time for me to act.
But how to act? What action could I take? By this time, I knew I was headed back to the US. Was this the next step on my journey? Working with sex trafficking victims? But how?
Shreya is one reason I decided to pursue ESL training. Girls like Shreya are often trafficked but have no way of telling their stories because of their limited facility in English. The only way to empower them to share their stories is to help them learn English. English is a critical item in my professional tool box. Teaching ESL could be a way for me to give back using those tools. So, I took a TESOL workshop at Penn to discern my next step. I know I am on the right path, but I can’t see which way the path leads. Whether teaching is a paid or volunteer position, I don’t know. All I know is that teaching English to those who are not native speakers is my call to action.
Because every time I wear orange nail polish, I think of Shreya and her dream.