August 12, 2012
He had decided to walk home, after the office. Usually, at this hour there would be some traffic. But today the street was deserted. Here and there some parts of the street were lighted by amber lights. He stopped when a vehicle pulled next to him. It had approached quietly, for he had not heard its engine till the last moment. A couple of times in the past, strayed tourists had stopped him for directions. He waited for the window glass to roll down. Then suddenly something hit his face, soft but unpleasant.
“Go back to your country,” the voice from the vehicle said, “bloody scavengers.”
The vehicle took off instantly and vanished at the corner. When he sufficiently recovered from the shock, he looked for the things hurled at him. It was a fast-food paper bag with French fries and used napkins in it.
Wife opened the door; she looked sleepy and tired. The food on the dinner table was cold. He helped himself with a small portion and reheated it in the microwave. They ate quietly. He asked about their son.
“Slept just now. Waited so far…”
“How’s your day?”
“Nothing new,” she said.
“When you start working -”
“Let’s not talk about it.” It was a sore topic. They had discussed this many times. “You know it won’t happen any time soon.”
They had moved to the new country right after the childbirth. Back home she had a well paid job. Currently she had a dependant status; she could work only after the permanent residency, which was dragging for years.
“You need to be patient.”
“I am tired of library visits, and long evenings waiting for you.” She continued after a long pause, “these are not our people. Their culture is different. Don’t you realize it’ll affect our son? He is the only outsider in the art class. He gets noticed immediately. His every move is scrutinized, compared and judged. Yesterday, after his performance, no one cheered or clapped.”
“This is an isolated incident. You cannot judge everyone by one such event. We cannot forget the good things this country has offered.”
“What about the incident at the movie? Was it an isolated incident too?”
A month ago, they had gone to a late-night show; the neighbors had volunteered to baby-sit their son. She had planned the whole evening: quiet dinner and a movie. At the entrance, they were stopped for identification. She had left her id in the car. Her husband went to fetch it, while she waited at the door, what seemed like an infinitely long time. A few people ignored whatever they were doing to witness the amusing event unfolding at the door. The usher was quite apologetic: it was just a security measure. A random selection. Inside the theater, she couldn’t enjoy the movie. They left early - never talked about it, until now.
He finished the dinner alone; she had left for the bedroom. He kept the food containers in the fridge and started the dishwasher. In the bedroom, she slept on the far corner of the bed, with the child curled up against her.
He sat on the edge of the bed. “I need some time,” he said. “I don’t think we can balance the finance if we return now. Give me a few months -” He stopped when he heard her rhythmic breathing. She was deep asleep.
He came out to the front room and lied on the couch. Things were going out of his hand. Though, both were working back home, they could hardly save anything after the expenses; A large component of their savings was going towards the home loan. It was only after they moved to the new country he could pay off chunks of loan principal, to bring down the EMI to a manageable amount.
The phone rang sometime early morning. Father had called. “Is it too early?”
He looked at the wall-clock.
“Yes. But we can talk,” he had slept on the couch with office clothes on.
“I keep forgetting the time difference. I’ll call you later.”
The line got disconnected before he could object. He went to the kitchen -started the coffee brewer.
In the initial days, he had wondered about the strange culture and practices of the new land. These things didn’t seem strange anymore. Some of them were practical necessities. Being a foreigner, he was noticeable among the natives; even otherwise his accent, which was much different than the locals, constantly reminded that he was an outsider.
“Are you in the office?” Father called later in the evening.
“Yes. I have a few things pending -”
“Do you want me to call later, in the weekend?”
Father had become softer over the years. Long ago, he was very strict with his children.
“We can talk now.”
“Your mother and I have decided to paint the house -”
“I’ll send some amount next week -”
“It’s not that. You always worry about money. I haven’t touched what you sent last time. The reason I called: we are unable to decide on the colors. Do you have any preference?”
It occurred to him, Father had not asked his opinion for ages. In fact he could not recall the last time his suggestion was asked. He pictured the home in different colors; but each one was not much different than other.
His manager stopped by his desk -asked him to meet after the call. He nodded, waited for the manager to leave before continuing. “Father, I am not good at colors. I think I’ll leave it up to you.”
“I should have asked your wife,” Father said, “She’s good in these things.”
After the call he went to meet his manager. The HR person was in the room too. Her presence was unusual. He had met her only once at the time of joining. She had given a brief speech on the company and its vision. Later she had taken him for the company tour. Their paths never crossed after that.
Manager was searching something in the file in hand. Behind him, the management books were neatly piled on the shelf. Their position had not changed in months. A couple of certificates-of-attendance of outdated technologies were proudly framed on the wall. Eventually the boss found out what he was looking for. “Read the highlighted line -”
He took the paper.
‘…though the product is promising, it seems the presenter himself was not convinced of its worth.’
Manager said: “Feedback from the customer for the product- demo you gave. Apparently they like the product but not you. Or the way you gave the demo.”
An awkward silence ensued. The HR person asked: “Do you not like our product?”
It was a strange question, coming from a person who had no clue about the product.
“I do,” he said. “I am in the core team who designed it.”
That made her uneasy. But, she recovered instantly.
“Now that the product is market-ready, is it the time to move ahead?”
Is this an innocent question? Or is she suggesting a course for his future?
“Why do you ask?”
“Well,” she sighed and made an effort to read something form the file, which she knew already. “For one, you have been seen many a times in the cafeteria during the work hours attending personal calls.”
This was a lame allegation. A complaint, an employer would resort to, when an employee is no longer needed. When no objection was heard, she said: “We’ll monitor your performance for now. Let’s meet after 3 months and see where we stand at that point.”
He was excused. It was strange how the companies treat you once you were of no use to them.
That evening he spent a long time in the bar. Since it was a weekday the usual buzz was missing. After the food was ordered, he lost his appetite. The day’s events lingered in his mind. He paid for the food and came out. At the door he ran into a group of youngsters. “Having a good time?”
“Not really. How about you guys?”
“Celebrating our failures.”
He wished them a good evening and moved on.
He had covered only a few paces, someone called. The group had followed him.
“Don’t you want to know what are we celebrating?”
He smelled alcohol. The young man with long hair, apparently the leader, said: “We have been fired today. All four of us. One day notice.”
“I am sorry to -”
“Do you know the reason?” the young man cut him and without waiting for a reply continued, “Because our jobs have been outsourced to your country. So a stranger in an unknown country becomes rich while we starve here.”
“It is unfortunate -”
“Stop it. Stop your preaching.” The leader shouted. The atmosphere was charging up. The young men had cornered him.
“I was just…”
“You think you can give some crap to fool us. Do I look like a fool to you?”
“No. You don’t -”
“How do I look?”
When he didn’t reply, they attacked him. One blow landed in the ribs. One on the face. Then he lost count and consciousness.
He was found on the pavement by one of the cooks who had come out for a smoke. The chef was a big man. He single handedly helped the victim inside the kitchen from the backdoor. Inside it was hot and noisy; something was sizzling on the pan. He sat on a highchair. The big chef and workers helped with the wounds.
The kitchen was crammed with an unusually large number of workers for such a small place. Most of them were illegal immigrants, who got paid in cash bi weekly -much less than minimum wage.
The big chef offered a bowl of soup.
“Delicious!” said the victim, “I haven’t seen it on the menu.”
“It’s a delicacy where I have come from; but not much in demand here.”
The food came soon. He got surprised to see it was his usual order. “You order the same food all the time,” big chef said. “I have seen you from the kitchen window.”
He had never thought much of this side of the world. People working behind the curtains -the one who run the machinery.
Someone turned on the music. The noise reduced and the mood lightened. A melodious song filled the kitchen.
“What does it means?”
“I don’t know,” said the big chef, “it’s a local dialect. I am from the city. Before crossing the border, we stayed in a small town, waiting for the right time. That’s where I bought the CD; I have never tried to find out what it meant. I fear, it has a different meaning than what I think -”
Someone called big chef and he had to leave. In spite of the low working standards the workers were cheerful and happy.
He avoided night walks after the recent incidents. Instead he started taking the car even for small distances. One such evening, another car was blocking the road. It had hit the lamp post which was about to fall. He parked on the shoulder and, ran for the rescue. The door had to be opened forcefully. The car had a single occupant.
“I need help -” the old woman said, before drifting to unconsciousness. She had lost lots of blood.
In the hospital, he waited outside the emergency room. From her cell phone, he had called a couple of random numbers, and eventually got hold of her daughter. Someone in uniform approached: “You got her here?”
“She wants to talk to you,” the man said, “next time call an ambulance first.”
He entered the room. It was small and neatly arranged. She looked exhausted.
“I wanted to talk to you before my family arrives,” she said, “sit here.”
“Don’t stress yourself. We can talk later.”
“No. No. I am fine.”
“The officer outside said I should have called an ambulance. I know these streets quite well. I thought I could get you here before the ambulance.”
“Don’t worry about it. You did the right thing.” She spoke with effort, measuring every word. “Could you fetch me a glass of water?”
He filled a glass for her. “I have called your home. Your daughter is on her way.”
“Thank you so much.” She drank the water. “You can leave now. I can manage -”
“I am in no rush. I’ll wait till your daughter comes. If you need anything -”
“I think I need some sleep.” She held his hand and closed her eyes. “You didn’t tell me anything about yourself. Who are you?”
Who am I? he wondered. He took time, as if something unusual was asked of him. She waited, eyes closed.
He said eventually: “I am just an outsider.”
Her eyes opened. They looked at him kindly. In the brief moments, in spite of her condition, she understood him.
“What do you mean by an outsider?” she chuckled. “Are you from a different planet?”
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