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It was on the Radio

The clothes hangers are rusty, the clothes themselves dulled by layers of dust. Clumps of hair

have fallen off the wigs – carpeting the wooden floor in patches of black, blonde, red, and

grey. Used lipsticks lie strewn across the three dressing tables, the white lettering on their

bodies now faded and unreadable. In the corner, an open bottle of nail polish has spread a

sticky lavender next to a pair of silver, pencil heels draped in cobwebs. I feel sorry for the

little moth in the slick, one wing still in the air. It disintegrates into a fine powder that sticks

to my finger, browning the tip. The walls and ceiling have yellowed with time, the paint

flaking in large patches. The entire room is still damp, and the air, musty. The dust hasn’t

spared the mirror and the once-neon bulbs framing it, either. This place hasn’t been touched

in nearly eighteen years – since 1962, to be precise.

I lift a finger and begin tracing my name on the glass. It matches the name on the door –


“Ladies and gentlemen, this is 150.5 FM: Get Your Groove On! I am Andrew, your host for

the evening. As we all know, today is International Women’s Day, where we celebrate our

mothers, wives, sisters and friends for not just their successes, but for being phenomenal

human beings as well. Of course, dear listeners, it wasn’t always the happiest day in history –

in the early 1900s, it was a day of protest against the struggle of female workers. The earliest

Women's Day observance, called "National Woman's Day," was organized by the Socialist

Party of America on February 28, 1909, in New York City. Russia observed its first women’s

day holiday on the last Saturday of February in 1913, following which it was celebrated every

year by the communist movement worldwide. We have certainly come a long way since then;

in 1967 second-wave feminists began pushing for it to be a day of activism, and demanded,

among other things, for equal pay and equal rights. Today, in honour of this important event,

one lucky woman stands the chance to win a trip to Hollywood Studios, Los Angeles! That’s

right ladies, an all-expenses paid trip to the land of glamour and fame for their special tour,

“Ladies of the Movies.” All you have to do is call us on our toll free number 1800-150-500,

and tell us YOUR success story, and who knows – you may be the lucky winner! So what are

you waiting for, get our phone ringing off the hook!

Till then, first up on our Iconic Women Playlist is Nina Simone with ‘To be Young, Gifted

and Black’!”

“And that, ladies and gentlemen was the phenomenal Nina Simone! What a wonderful song!

With that, we have our first caller – Karen from Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you for calling

in Karen, my name is Andrew and today, we would love to hear your story of success! Take it


“Thank you Andrew. Hello everyone, wishing you all a Happy Women’s Day. My name is

Karen and I currently live in Nashville, Tennesee with my husband, John, and three children.

I am a nurse with Nashville General Hospital and I’m studying to be an anaesthetist. I am

lucky to be where I am today only because of the support of John, who was helped me

manage my education and finances even before we got married. I was only 16 when we first

met. It was the day my alcoholic father had got his first paycheck from his 7th job and let us

kids spend some of the money on candy. I was standing in line at the cashier at the local

grocery store after spending a good fifteen minutes choosing from the largest selection of

candy I’d ever seen. The staff was on a short break and we stood patiently waiting for them to

return when a voice behind me said, “So you like sour worms too?” I turned to face a young

man in beige pants and a green sweater, with a boyish grin on his face. “Um, yes,” I blushed.

He introduced himself as John, and we…”

Marilyn took a long drag of her cigarette and looked outside the window. The pale blue

curtains had been long removed, and in the afternoons, harsh sunlight bounced off the kitchen

counter, hurting the eyes. Right now, the sky was a rich blend of orange and gold, with traces

of pink blush growing as the sun set. On the street, traffic had swelled as office goers ended

their day, probably stopping by fancy shops to take home a “thoughtful gift” for their wives.

A number of them in cars would be tuned in to the radio, probably listening to Nina Simone

as well. She had always liked western music and English movies. It was a pity that she hadn’t

had the chance to watch many of them. She exhaled slowly, letting her eyes go to the ruled

notepad in front of her, and the number on it: 1800-150-500.

“And that, dear listeners, was Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace!’ My name is Andrew, and

you’re tuned into 105.5 FM: Get Your Groove On! Today is International Women’s Day and

we’re celebrating with the chance for one lucky woman to win an all-expenses paid trip to

Hollywood Studios for their tour called “Ladies of the Movies.” Just call our toll free number

1800-150-500 and tell us your success story!

Now, we have with us on the line, our second caller for the day – Marilyn from San Jose!

Thank you for calling in, we can’t wait to hear another fabulous story!”

“My name is Marilyn Lee. I was born Kim Lee in Busan, South Korea in 1921. My father

was a doctor in the Military Hospital, my mother was at home. She liked knitting and

reading. I had two elder brothers and a younger sister. I don’t know where any of them are

right now. On August 24th 1937, I had gone, as usual, to buy some rice and vegetables for the

day. It was mother’s birthday, and to celebrate, we were to have some beef with dinner too. I

was nearly home, walking with the paper bag in my right hand when two black cars stopped

next to me on the sidewalk and five men in black masks got out. They had guns. They yelled

at me in Korean. I was to get in the car with them. “Please leave me,” I begged, “I am just a

sixteen year-old girl. I just want to go home, it’s my mother’s birthday. I mean no harm.”

They did not listen and threatened to shoot if I did not comply. I got into one of the cars, and

two men sat on either side of me. One of them gagged and blindfolded me. I then felt a large

hand on my thigh. I don’t know how long we drove, but it remained there till we stopped.

When I got out and the blindfold was taken off, we were in a room with many other girls.

There must have been about a hundred of them. They all looked to be my age, some of them

older. Many of them were crying. Some just sat in silence, without even looking up when

they heard us enter. The room itself had blackened walls and no windows. It reeked of sweat

and urine. “Get in,” barked one of the men. He snatched the bag of groceries that I had held

onto till then, and left. I was scared. I wanted to ask the other girls what was happening, but

nobody responded to me. I knew not how much time had passed, and wondered if my mother

was worried. Thinking about her made me cry. At some point, I fell asleep.

After some hours, we were put in a truck, and then a boat. We were not told where we were

going. At our destination, we were brought to a farm with many houses. They had only

women living in them. They looked different, and spoke another language. This was China.

We were taken to a house with many rooms, and given some clothes to wear. A man with a

sharp haircut and black moustache came to see us – I will never forget the joy that crept onto

his face as he told us why we were here.

“Comfort women. You all are comfort women. Our Japanese soldiers in the army are

hardworking men and deserve some hours of rest. They will come here and you will do as

they say. You are not allowed to talk or refuse. Doing so will reward you with ten lashes in

front of everyone. Now, be good girls, we know you will do your job well.”

After that, there was no going back. Everyday men would line up outside the rooms, they

were often drunk. We were made to have sex with these men for several hours continuously –

on weekends it was as long as nine hours. We couldn’t refuse or we were beaten. We were

starved and often dehydrated. Our bodies ached and we couldn’t walk at the end of each day.

The beds in the rooms would be covered in blood, and the sheets were never changed. We

had to sleep on them. We had to defecate in a bucket in the corner of the room that was

emptied once a week. At night, we were raped by the guards of the houses. One day this man

tried to tear me apart with his hands, and I screamed and kicked him. I was beaten till I

became unconscious.

Then one day, an entire troupe of men stormed the houses and raped many of the girls for two

whole days before killing them. I lay among the bodies, pretending to be dead, and that was

how I was spared. They fired rounds outside the house at the end of these two days. Later we

found out this was one of many of the sprees during the ‘Rape of Nanking.’ The soldiers got

away with no punishment. I knew death at the age of sixteen.

Many of the women became pregnant, or fell sick with sexually transmitted diseases. At that

time, they were taken away for medical treatment and brought back even before they

recovered fully. They often shifted us from house to house, so nobody got a chance to get to

know another woman properly. At one house, they gave us ID numbers. These were tattooed

onto our right wrists. I was E-14275. Some months later, I scratched it out with my heroin

needle with I tried to kill myself. I was beaten up for that, some men burned my back and

shoulders with hot rods and then forced them into me. Then they put themselves into me. I

had an abortion some weeks later.

There was a guard, a young man who might have been in his early twenties. He was very

handsome. He talked to me sometimes, telling me about the great war that had begun. The

Japanese soldiers were fighting bravely he said. He began slipping me heroin, and then

opium. I quite liked it. I also liked it when he came to have sex. He never raped me. He never

told me his name. In a world where we were not allowed to be happy, not allowed to be

angry, not allowed to cry, falling in love was scary.

The year was 1945. The great war appeared to be coming to an end. Fewer soldiers came to

us now, and our heroin and opium supplies had decreased, driving many of the women in the

houses to insanity. One day, in the late hours of the night, there was the sound of vehicles.

Then there was shouting, and gunfire. Soon, a group of soldiers broke the door of the house

down. All of us women were scared. He yelled at us in Korean to go out. We did. We were

bundled into trucks and taken away to a hospital. I didn’t get to say goodbye.

Then, I was sent by the Chinese government to the United States. I lived under supervision

and was allowed to recover. The trauma of the ordeal would never wear off. I would get

nightmares everyday. For some reason, I drowned myself in the world of pop culture and

entertainment, watching movies and listening to music on my radio, trying desperately to

forget about this whole thing. I wanted it to stop existing. Then, I changed my name. New

name, new life. I learnt English and got a few jobs in cafes and supermarkets, but could not

work long hours. Now, I live in San Jose, alone.”

Marilyn took a deep breath. She was not used to talking much.

“Umm, thank you…Marilyn, for that shocking, moving story. We will move on to Olivia

Newton John.! My name is Andrew and this is 150.5 FM: Get Your Groove On, a Women’s

Day Playlist!”

It had been eighteen years. Eighteen years and she hadn’t told a soul.

On August 5th, 1980, a certain radio station had a special announcement.

“Marilyn Lee, first publicly known ‘Comfort Woman’ dies.

Marilyn, born Kim Lee was the found dead in her San Jose home last evening. She appears to

have died of barbiturate overdose. She was first ever woman to tell her story to the world, on

our show for Women’s Day back in March, which won her a trip to Hollywood Studios. She

was the first of many others who came forth to tell their stories, and shocked the world with

the atrocities that went on during the war.

Comfort women were young girls were either lured from their homes or kidnapped by

Japanese soldiers under the pretext of jobs, and were taken to China and other occupied

territories during the war. They were made to live in “comfort stations” along with dozens of

other such women, and were forced to offer sexual services the hundreds of soldiers that

came there. They were beaten, raped, and many of them, killed. It was one of the worst

examples of military brutality in the 20th century. Only a few survived, and not much was

known of their whereabouts till recently. The Japanese government has so far refused to

comment on this barbaric act its country is responsible for.”

In an apartment somewhere in Nashville, Karen couldn’t hold back her tears.

Dear Teesta,

You’ve managed to deal with very heavy, tragic, traumatic, horrific material with a light
hand, and you’ve made the story flow by delivering it through ardent story tellers who are,
perhaps, relying on the safe anonymity of a radio show to be able to bare their souls so freely.
I’m intrigued by your use of a radio show in the short story format, which basically makes the
story a lot of dialogue with some minimal description. Given that a short story can do so
much—jump through time; accommodate multiple characters; play with perspectives—your
decision to deliver the entire thing in a radio monologue is an interesting one. Did it allow
you to share certain aspects of Marilyn’s story that she otherwise would not have had the
courage to say? Did it make it easier to tell her story, without having to deal with character
reactions? You’ll see that my in-text comments further question your choice of format: a
radio show, because it read less believably to me in parts. And I didn’t learn enough about
Marilyn to buy that she would do this. What moved her to call up the radio show in the first

place? What had she made of herself after arriving in the US and being “allowed to recover”?
Why the interest in pop culture and movies? Did she name herself after Monroe, and why?
Did she kill herself on August 5 on purpose, or was it an accident? Her story is so powerful
and traumatic that it would help me to see some description and narration before and after it’s
telling—and, ideally, during the telling of it as well. Surely she needs a sip of water at some
point. Or she may start crying. Or she may glance at her arm where the tattoo is? Or shift the
way she is sitting because she can still feel the pain in her legs. I don’t know. But when
giving a character such a heavy story, you need to ensure she can hold it up with her body,
and not just her words.

Eager to see how workshop discussion goes,

Prof Sriram

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