Fatema is 80 years old. Maybe above. She cannot tell. She cannot even tell her name. Fatema is her new name given after her rescue from the street of Lalbagh in the capital on December 10.
Receiving a call from police that night, Syeda Shalina Shally, founder and executive director of an old home at Abdullahpur, rushed to the police station the next morning.
"The woman who could not make one step without assistance was seated in a wooden chair throughout the night," she said. Police had found Fatema with a bag full of clothes and a betel nut cutter. She also had clean clothes on.
"She didn't get lost. She was rather left on the road by someone of her family that no longer wanted to bear her burden," Shally said at her office room on the ground floor of a dilapidated three-storey rented building, Aapan Nibash, home to about 70 elderly women.
The shelter home has brought in about a dozen aged women like Fatema over the last seven to eight months though the funds began to dry up with the pandemic lingering.
The space has also become congested with twice the number of residents it should have accommodated. Yet, Shally said, "The door will always be open to women disowned by their families and society, to the women who could not fend for themselves."
Banu is another resident who came to the shelter about five months ago. She did not have husband or children. Most of her life was spent helping others as a housemaid in Dhaka, but when she needed help, her employer took her from Mirpur to the old home.
Banu seemed to be able to go back in time and recall her past. About her age, she said, "I was a voter during the rule of Ayub Khan," referring to the second president of Pakistan who assumed office through a coup in 1958.
Age seems to have sucked out life and energy from all the women of Aapan Nibash. Life has been very unkind to them. When Shally asked about their wellbeing, the women hugged her, kissed her and exchanged smile with her.
A woman on request began to sing but soon was overwhelmed with emotions to blink away tears. That was a priceless moment of happiness, a gift wrapped with love and care.
Banu looked out the window by her side to see through a pair of hazy glasses ducklings swimming in the pond. Her mind might be as free as the ducklings were without having to serve anyone now.
"I am good here. Nobody else could give me a place to stay," she said.
About half of the residents are bedridden. They have to be bathed and fed every day and listened to even if what they say is nothing but indecipherable mumbles. Some, who are physically active, however, lend hands in caring for others.
Aapan Nibash is a large growing family and Shally wants to provide its members with comfort in their last remaining days of life.
She opened the old home in 2010 after local human rights activists whom she had been working with came to her for shelter. Neglected by their families in their twilight years, the women reached out to their leader who carried the torch of women's liberation.
A rights defender herself, Shally could not turn them away. Eventually 26 others came forward to form a trust and entrusted Shally with the job of overseeing the old home.
She lately tried to get the shelter registered with the Directorate of Social Services but failed because, she said, a government intelligence report was very critical of the living condition at Aapan Nibash.
"I do also agree with the report but is it not a better place than the streets! At least, these women have a roof over their head, saving them from heat and rain."
Many organisations and individuals have extended support to the cause. But, Shally said Aapan Nibash could have a home of its own if the government gave land to it.
She also wrote to the Prime Minister's Office, appealing for allocation of khas land.
In March, one of the private secretaries of the prime minister sent a letter to the deputy commissioner asking him to take "necessary actions" on the matter. She also got a copy of the letter that she showed to The Business Standard.
Since then, Shally has not heard from the office or any other government authority.
All the while, she continues to save the lost souls from the dark, forgotten alleys – the women invisible in the bustle of the day, yet visible in the moonlight.
[Shally has an appeal to make: Call her on 01816779163 or 01716680192 if you wish to join her lonely endeavour.]