Here it is – yet another story from that tiny village of Bandilanka where lives that have been crushed rise once again to new heights of empathy and love!
“Look, Parvathi! A letter from America! Seshadri Mamawants me to join him – in that restaurant business of his. You know the one.”
Parvathi looked up from the grinding stone.
“So … what does he need youfor? Or is this part of … part of the ‘debt payment’?”
She wiped her brow with the edge of her sari.
“Husband,” she cautioned, placing her hands on her knees to help her get up from the floor. Her legs weren’t cooperating so well anymore. “We are heavily in debt as it is. We have sold off the bit of gold my mother left me …”
“Yes, wife, I am so sorry about that!”
She got up, went to the hand-pump, and washed her hands.
“Stop that, husband! You have worked those sugar-cane fields so hard all these years – you have broken your back over them, just so that we could send our children to school. And now this lack of monsoon rains – everything destroyed. Crop failure after crop failure …”
She scooped the chutney out of the grinder into a copper-bottomed brass vessel.
“My mango pickles are selling well. Those houses in Ganti Veedhi have ordered a dozen jaadis.That wealthy Saradamma wants even more for the upcoming marriage of their daughter. That should get us quite a bit of money.”
“You will work yourself to death, wife. I wish I could …”
Parvathi interrupted him:
“What did the bank say?”
“The bank? What do you think? We do not have an account. They will not even look at me. The moneylender … he told me to come back tomorrow.”
He glanced at his uncle’s letter.
“But now I have no need for the money-lender. This – this letter means that I can buy you a new sari, it could mean sufficient dowry for our daughter, …”
“Husband, I don’t need a new sari.”
“I don’t mind. My old saris are as good as new. And I’m keeping a couple of the heavy silks that my grandmother gave me for our daughter.”
Ramalingam gently stroked his wife’s cheek.
“You are a blessing, my Paru! May you come back to me as my wife for seven or more rebirths!”
Parvathi tried to scowl, but couldn’t resist smiling. She remembered exactly when he had last called her ‘Paru’ – on the day he held their first-born in his arms.
“See here – Seshadri Mama has sent me some money, and …”
“When does Mama-garuwant you there? And does he know that we can’t afford …”
Ramalingam interrupted her.
“Here … he says he will send me a ticket. Air India! Just imagine. As soon as I get a tourist visa of course. He has also mailed documents that I have to show to the authorities, documents that promise his financial support when I’m there. He warned me not to mention that he wants me to work for him. A work permit for America is almost impossible to get nowadays.”
He looked at Uncle Seshadri’s letter.
“He says that I am to tell the visa officer that I am a visitor, that he needs me to help him in the wedding festivities.”
“Wedding festivities? The old man’s getting married? “
“No, no! That’s what I am to tellthem, that it is his son’s wedding, that he needs me to bring special items for conducting the ceremony from India, to help him with the arrangements. Americans know how elaborate our Indian weddings are!”
Parvathi stood still.
“I don’t know, husband. I have a bad feeling about this. But helping him in that restaurant – I suppose he’ll pay you well for your work, right?”
“Yes, of course! US dollars! You know how many Rupiahs you get for a single dollar? Hundreds, I think. Our Suresh knows all about the … the internet. He will find out how much. Anyway, we’ll be able to afford that dowry the boy’s parents have been demanding for our dear daughter.”
Ramalingam picked up his small shiny leather suitcase from the baggage claim area at New York’s JFK Airport. His previous travel had been limited to bullock carts, buses, and trains. And there were many buses and trains connecting Bandilanka to the big cities. He had his trusty bicycle to get to the fields.. But an airplane? He tried to understand how humans had developed this almost god-like technology. The Ramayana told stories about flights, but they were always about divine beings. He had been given a seat in the middle aisle of the plane, but an elderly passenger had noticed Ramalingam’s pathetic attempts to look out of the window.
“Come! Take my seat, brother,” the man had offered. “I have had enough of these flights and would like to sleep for a while.”
Ramalingam had thanked him over and over again. After that, everything else on board the plane became a blur. His eyes were riveted on the images outside the craft: the ant-like people and cars as the plane soared higher and higher into the sky, the clouds through which the plane navigated before resting, it seemed to him, on white softness, and the sight of a brilliantly orange sun disappearing into the ocean.
He waited nervously in line as Customs and Immigration officials checked his passport and visa.
“How long do you intend to stay in the US?” the female official asked.
“Few weeks, sir. Only for my cousin-brother’s wedding.”
“Are you carrying any food or plants?”
The officer carefully examined his passport, checked the visa, and finally stamped the document. Ramalingam picked up his suitcase and followed the other passengers to the exit. His uncle was waiting outside.
“Come on! Come on!” Seshadri shouted. “I’ve been waiting for three hours. No relying on planes nowadays.”
“Sorry, Seshadri Mama,” Ramalingam said, bending down to touch his uncle’s feet.
“Okay, okay, enough, enough. Come on! I have a business to run.”
He opened the door of a shiny crimson BMW M4. Ramalingam was about to place his suitcase on the rear seat.
“Are you insane?” Seshadri shouted. “I have just had the car detailed. Put your stuff in the trunk.”
“Where, Seshadri Mama?”
“The boot, the luggage boot!”
The older man got in behind the steering wheel.
“What are you waiting for? Come on, come on. And stop calling me Seshadri Mama! ‘Sir’ is good enough.”
“Yes, Ma… sir!” Ramalingam responded, thinking with pride:
“He’s a man of integrity! Doesn’t want to be accused of nepotism!”
They didn’t exchange another word as Seshadri entered the JFK Expressway and navigated his way through the heavy traffic. As they neared the Bronx, Ramalingam noticed that the streets were getting dingier. Piles of garbage lay on the sidewalks.
“It is just like Bandilanka’s poorer sectors!” he thought. He looked at his uncle. It was very untypical that Seshadri Mama hadn’t asked him about the family, or about relatives, or … or anything at all. Perhaps he was exhausted, after all that waiting at the airport? Ramalingam decided to break the ice.
“Seshadri Mama, I haven’t thanked you enough for giving me this opportunity to … to come to America and …”
“Yes, yes!” Seshadri interrupted irritably. “You can thank me by working hard.”
He brought the car to a stop in front of a row of buildings. Each of them had exterior neon signs that read “Video”. He got out and beckoned to Ramalingam to follow him.
Ramalingam followed Seshadri into an alley. The older man stopped in front of a shabby door and unlocked it. An overpowering stench of urine hit Ramalingam’s nose. He struggled with the vomit that was rising in his throat.
“Pigs!” Seshadri swore. “Come on, come on! Don’t dawdle.”
Ramalingam followed him up three flights of dingy stairs.
“Mama … sir, where are we going?”
“To your quarters, of course, boy! You think I can afford a five-star hotel? I don’t have that kind of money to spend on my workers.”
He kicked the door open. Ramalingam saw three men sleeping in hammocks. The smell here was a mixture of spices and stale sweat.
“You’ll report for work at 5 am tomorrow. These fellows will bring you.”
Ramalingam set down his suitcase.
“Oh yes,” Seshadri held out his hand. “Before I forget – give me your passport, for safe-keeping. And your mobile as well.”
“Yes, sir.” Ramalingam obediently opened his wallet and handed his passport to his uncle. “But the mobile – I need it to call …”
Before he could say anything, Seshadri had grabbed the cell from his hand, thrust both objects into his pocket, and rushed out of the apartment.
One of the men in the hammocks opened a cautious eye.
“So! You’re the nephew! The boss mentioned you yesterday,” he said, rolling out of the hammock. “Welcome to the great United States of America, the land of the brave … and so on!”
Ramalingam set down his suitcase.
“I … I’m not sure what this place is. Is this where I’m supposed to stay?”
“Yes, brother. This is for us ‘workers’!”
“But you thought your uncle would take you to his palatial home! Dreams are good, brother! The only thing left to us beings who are less than animals.”
He took out a pack of cigarettes.
“I’m Krishna,” the man said, inhaling the smoke, “And those sinful brothers are Raghava Rao and Mallikarjuna Rao. Where are you from?”
“Bandilanka. I am a farmer.”
“Oh ho! So that’s where the boss-man trapped you. His own birth-place, East Godavari delta. He ‘recruited’ us in Hyderabad. We were working in the Parle Biscuit Factory. My college degree was of no use to my family. No jobs for educated people like us.”
He looked at Ramalingam.
“Oh! Where are my manners? Here, let me show you around our Taj Mahal.”
He led Ramalingam to a pokey bathroom with a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. The sink was cracked. The floor of the shower stall was in worse shape, slick with green soap scum.
“Do excuse the mess,” Krishna said bitterly. “The maids resigned today, Mr. Ramalingam, sir.”
He stepped into a small balcony and opened a trunk.
He threw a hammock at Ramalingam.
“Your five-star hotel bed.”
He laughed raucously, then began violently coughing. Ramalingam noticed blood in the spittle.
Raghava Rao groaned. Mallikarjuna Rao yelled:
“Shut up or get out!”
Almost immediately, the sound of snoring filled the air.
Ramalingam took out the hand towel wife Parvati had thoughtfully packed and tried to wash away some of the grime and disgust he felt. At least the tap water was clean. Krishna helped him put up the hammock. He had hardly eased himself into it when he felt somebody violently shaking him awake.
“Time to go, brother!”
“But I haven’t … is it morning already? I haven’t had a bath, and …”
“No time, no time. Hurry up! You can do all of that there. Come on!”
They ran out of the apartment and down the stairs. Ramalingam almost knocked over an old homeless man sleeping on one of the landings as he followed the others.
“Hey!” the man shouted drunkenly, “wa… watch it, buddy!”
Down the alley they went, and onto the main road. A few cars roared past them. Ramalingam looked at his HMT watch. It showed 7 pm. Of course! He had forgotten to change Indian Standard Time to EST. He stopped to reset his watch, but heard Krishna yell: “What the hell d’you think you’re doing? Hurry up, you fool!”
“One Alu Gobhi, twoAlu Methi, two Alu Parathaand … and … two plates of pakoras! Quick, quick, yaar! Those pakoras won’t fry themselves!”
Ramalingam wiped the sweat off his forehead and turned over the sizzling pakoras, trying to ignore the drops of scalding oil that landed on his unprotected hands. For the past six days he had been placed in front of the industrial size wok for eight to nine hours, his only job deep-frying pakorasand puris. The ten-minute break he was allowed to snatch was just enough to go to the loo and grab a drink of water. Today, the grimy walls of the windowless kitchen seemed to cave in on him. He had not been able to contact his family since his arrival. Without a mobile he was helpless. There was an internet café nearby, but he had spent the little money he had brought with him on linen and toiletries, assuming that he would he paid for his work. When he asked Krishna about their wages, the latter grinned.
“You’ll be paid soon enough, brother! Your work isn’t done yet!”
Ramalingam occasionally spotted Seshadri mingling with the restaurant guests. The day before he had seen the uncle with his arm across the shoulder of a white teenage girl.
“Who’s the girl?” he asked Krishna.
Krishna looked at Ramalingam and hesitated.
“She’s his … a friend. You want to stay out of jail? Don’t ask any questions.”
Ramalingam felt panic strike his heart. Jail? Was there no end to the indignities he was suffering? He cursed his previous lives, the sins he must have committed in them. He looked at Krishna.
“Brother, you said that my work was not yet done. What did you mean?”
“Wait till Sunday! You’ll see.”
Krishna placed a sympathetic hand on Ramalingam’s shoulder. He looked around furtively, rolled a joint, and quickly smoked it.
“You want one?” he offered Ramalingam.
“Why do you do this?” the latter asked sternly.
“Survival, brother, survival. We are locked in this damn kitchen the whole day, slaving for that monster, afraid to go out into the streets for fear of being rounded up by the cops. We don’t have any papers, he has even threatened our families …”
“Wait! Threatened your families? But that is monstrous!”
“Yes, monstrous. I did call him a monster, didn’t I? But you are lucky, brother. He hasn’t got you in the kind of bind in which he has put us.”
He rolled himself another joint, smoked it, and continued:
“The three of us – Raghava, Mallika, and I – we robbed a grocery store near the factory. Unfortunately, one of the customers decided to be heroic and was killed for it.”
“You killed … you took somebody’s life?”
“Well, Raghava shoved him aside when the man tried to stop us. The guy banged his head against the stone counter. Couldn’t be revived. Your uncle was in the store at the time. He went to the owner and persuaded him to let us go in exchange for some big hush money! I don’t know how big the pay-off was, but it must have been very satisfactory. The owner didn’t press charges.”
“But the dead customer? What about his family? What about …”
“You know how it is in India, brother. Seshadri was desperate to get more workers for his filth here. Our cops back home are the most corruptible.”
His hands trembled as he stood up. Ramalingam felt his heart sink. The moment he had entered that filthy building, he had tried to ignore his uncle’s real purpose in bringing him here. Without his passport, he was paralyzed. His wife, his family – they must be worried sick. Paru … would she think that he had abandoned them, worse still, gone off with some white woman? Everybody in Bandilanka spoke so highly of Seshadri:
“That Seshadri is doing really well there – business is excellent, he has a flourishing restaurant. The Americans love our food. Have you seen the photographs he has sent to his family here? The house – it is like a palace.”
Ramalingam smiled miserably at the thought of his hovel. The sight of the hammocks alone would destroy them. What was Krishna trying to warn him against? What could be worse than this?He had to somehow get out of this hellhole.
“Where are we going?”
His three roommates were entering a different building today. Ramalingam remembered that he had said Sundays were different. He looked up at the sign. Hair and Nail Salon.
“What are we doing in such a place?” he wondered. They went up two flights of stairs. Fancy glass doors automatically opened as they neared them. The woman at the reception looked Chinese. For Ramalingam, anyone with Mongoloid features was Chinese. The woman got up.
“Welcome to Hair and Nail Spa! You have appointment?”
Krishna went up to her and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and waved them toward a flight of spiral stairs that led to a higher floor. The front room on this floor was discreetly lit with tiny lamps hung from the ceiling that shed a purplish glow across the walls and floor. Ramalingam saw several doors in the rear wall. As his eyes got used to the dim light, he made out the figures of several girls sitting on a couch to the left. They were almost naked, just like the women on the billboards that advertised all those Bollywood movies. He looked away in shame. Krishna nudged him.
“Come on, brother! We have to get to work.”
“No! What? What is this?”
Ramalingam glanced at them. The girls looked underage, younger than his daughter. He noticed that they were mostly brown-skinned. Krishna whispered:
“You’ll get used to it. Think of the money – it’s good money, brother, very good money.”
“But I don’t understand! What is this?”
“We prepare the girls for their customers, brother. We tell them how to perform, how to satisfy the needs of our customers. They are very wealthy.”
“What do you mean ‘prepare’?”
“Brother, I can’t believe you’re related to Seshadri! You mean to tell me that you’ve never gone to a brothel?”
“No,” Ramalingam said truthfully. “That is a paapam!My wife is everything to me. But I still don’t …”
“Look, brother Ramalingam, it is simple. These girls are chosen for their virginity. Nowdo you understand?”
Ramalingam felt the bile rising in his throat. He screamed: “Shiva, Shiva! Never!” He took a step back and felt a figure pushing against him. The blade slid smoothly through his heart. He whispered a single word before darkness descended on him: “Paru!”
Ceramic jars for pickles.