Sleep was over but he lolled in bed, enjoying its warmth. This was the only day of the week when he could afford the luxury to laze a bit. It was his weekly day-off. There was little else to do, though. He was groggy and he savoured it. But the grogginess began to leave him as the urge to go to the toilet gradually became stronger. He got off the bed when it could no longer be helped.
It was an eight-bedded room. The seven others were empty now. Each bed was covered with a clean sheet with pillows at the head, all neatly arranged. The occupants had to be very particular about neatness and order because the owner of the place would surely come up on some pretext or the other and he would always find faults everywhere.
He looked at the watch. It was nine-thirty. The seven others were already busy in the restaurant downstairs. The hall and the kitchen had to be cleaned first. Last night’s table cloths were to be sent to the laundry, the crockery needed to be washed and wiped. Meanwhile, the daily provisions would arrive from the market. Preparations for cooking would be completed by eleven when Kitchen Aunty would arrive and take over. By this time, the waiters would have had their breakfast. Then they would take a shower and slip into their uniforms. The restaurant opened at noon and carried on till midnight.
The waiters’ bedroom was on the first floor above the restaurant. The ceiling was so low that their heads almost touched it. The owner lost no opportunity to remind them that he had given them the accommodation for free. The rent for even a third of the space anywhere else in the
locality was, of course, frighteningly high. The room had one door and no windows. It was a little uncomfortable in summer, but very comforting in winter. The only problem was the location of the toilet and bathroom which were in the basement of the restaurant, at the end of a steep staircase.
Shahin relieved himself and felt better. He looked at the mirror. Shaving was compulsory because the waiters were not allowed to grow facial hair. Shahin decided to shave before the shower, otherwise he would miss breakfast. He ran his fingers through his hair and walked into the
restaurant. The tables were ready. The owner and Kitchen Aunty were yet to arrive. The main door would not open before noon. People used a narrow corridor on the side at this time of day.
Kauser smiled at him, “Up so early?”
“Slept enough”, said Shahin and picked up parathas and egg bhujiya from a pot.
“Blighter was hungry”, shouted Farouk while brushing the floor, “I kept that stuff for you”.
“These Mymensingh people are like crows”, Ronny sniped, “they’ll keep cawing wherever they are”.
Farouk shouted louder, “And how about fellows from Barisal? Hey, do you all know that old story about the Barisalis?”
All hands stopped working. “Tell us”, said a voice.
Farouk stood at the centre of the room, “In a Barisal village, there were three brothers who went out to till their land at dawn. At noon, they took a quick swim in a pond, went home and plopped down, side by side, to have lunch to be served by their mother. One day, mother noticed that the eldest one was missing. When she inquired, the second brother casually replied, ‘he was taken by
Mother fell quiet for a few seconds. Then she said, ‘Taken by a tiger? Pity! Such a nice boy he was. Here, take some more rice.’”
Everyone laughed. “Rubbish!” said Kauser, “forgot her child so fast?”
Farouk nodded knowingly, “But it’s true. Barisalis have hearts of stone. Our Ronny saheb can be no different”.
All said in pure fun ! Shahin loved these banters. One could at least hear the names of these places in Bangladesh, Barisal, Faridpur, Mymensingh…so wonderfully soothing!
“Breakfast’s over. Now what are you going to do Shahin Bhai”, asked Akbar Bhai, the senior most among the waiters. He was the only one somewhat trusted by the owner. As usual ,the others were not so sure about him because he was in the owner’s confidence and might rat on
them. But no one dared say so openly. Shahin said, “Back to the room. Got to write to home”.
“Who do you have at home?”
“The whole lot. Abbu, ammu, two elder brothers, a younger brother and a sister.”
Shahin blushed, “The things you say…”
“Got a lover?”
“No. Had no time for such thoughts.”
“Oh please!” Shahin moved away. Akbar Bhai didn’t make such cracks at him usually. He was as old as Shahin’s eldest brother. Now he was busy giving a piece of his mind to the two assistants of Kitchen Aunty. These two were from the Sylhet district. Nobody understood a thing when they spoke to each other in their own dialect, neither could they speak any other dialect of Bangladesh well. Kitchen Aunty alone knew how she managed them. Ronny was of his age. He was from Bikrampur. A likeable chap, but he was too eager to go gallivanting around whenever he got a day off. This was dangerous because all of them were in the USA without valid travel documents. If someone ended up being caught by the police, the owner would refuse to recognize him. Those who employed illegal immigrants were as much an offender as the immigrants themselves. No one had a clear idea about the likely punishment, but stories could be heard.
Some said it was imprisonment for life, others said one would be sent to the cold country side to shovel snow from the roads; death from the unbearable cold was certain.
But Ronny didn’t care. Hundreds and thousands of people were milling around on New York’s streets. How would the police know who didn’t have papers? He had almost mastered the American accent, so he wouldn’t rouse suspicion easily. All he had to do was avoid places where
the identity card had to be produced. On his off day, Ronny slept till three in the afternoon. Then he shaved, put on his best shirt and jeans and went out, to return after midnight. Next morning at work, he would chat about the girl he had met and what all he had done with her. He shared just two kisses with the girl he had met last week. This week, he had gone the whole length. “What fun”, he would say. “What bodies these memsahibs have! Incredible!”
“Want to marry that memsahib?”
“Are you mad? I’m not walking in that direction in the next twelve months. Twenty-six girls in a
year is no big deal in New York”.
“What was the damage like?”
“What?” Shahin gaped at him.
“But she thinks I am a business man”, Ronny said, “can’t afford to be stingy”.
“Works out to nearly two hundred and fifty a month. How much do you send home?”
“Four hundred. Look, seven hundred and eighty is what I make. Is it a crime to spend two-fifty on myself after sending fifty per cent to the family?”
“But you’re cheating those girls, aren’t you?”
“By no means. They are the lonely types, you know. They find it good fun. Come with me one day. I’ll arrange to get leave for both of us together.”
“Oh no. I have to send seven hundred home, no less. After deductions, what abbu gets is forty- five thousand rupees. We’re a large family.”
“Has your abbu ever made forty-five thousand on his own?”
“He’ll do a jig even if he gets twenty-eight thousand, let me tell you. I’ve told Abbu to buy Ammu a new ornament every month.”
“But that leaves you with only eighty bucks a month. Can you manage?”
“Why not? Food and board are free. All I have to buy are hair oil, soap, toothpaste and shaving blades. One movie a month. I still save a few dollars.”
He had that letter to write to Abbu. But Shahin decided to postpone it. He had the whole day before him, could even do it in the evening. He went out and stood on the pavement. It was empty but cars whizzed past interminably down the carriageway. The shop next to the restaurant was a grocer’s. He had entered it once. The owner was an Indian but he had three Mexican employees.
They sold all stuff needed for everyday use. Shahin had specially liked the vegetable counter. The brinjals were so large and fresh. Better than the ones back home in Bangladesh.
There was, of course, not much to see really, back home. They ate whatever could be grown on the family land. His eldest brother was a passionate angler who left for fishing early in the morning.
By ten, he would be back with his catch, mostly of the small varieties like Puti and Meni. That would make Ammu very happy. They would sit down to a meal of rice, dal, potato bharta and fish curry with great relish. Abbu would observe that it would have been more fun if the Meni were slightly larger. On days his eldest brother came back with an empty net, Ammu would be vey downcast. “What will you all eat?” she would moan while Abbu would ask her to shut up. “The poor should be happy with whatever was available,” he would say and ask Ammu to serve chillis.
“Crush and mix it with the rice and eat.”
A girl was approaching from the left. Quite a woman, to be honest. Tall, well-built, a slender waist, full breasts, jeans clinging to her thighs, a swinging gait. The stiletto heels beat a steady rhythm on the pavement. Shahin looked away. Any girl walking that way would be ogled at and
followed by boys in Bangladesh. Not only in a village but in the towns too.
“Excuse me”, asked a melodious voice. The beat of the stiletto had stopped. Shahin looked at her and held his breath. She wasn’t wearing a bra and the upper zone was visible.
“Excuse me”, she asked again.
“Ya,” said Shahin and then corrected himself, “Yes.”
“Got a lighter?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Shit.” She walked away. Shahin watched her swinging hips. For a moment, he regretted not
having a lighter.
A car stopped by the pavement. The owner emerged from the driver’s seat and shouted at him, “Son of a bitch! Ogling at girls in broad daylight! I like your guts. If the cops nab you, I’ll say I’ve never seen you. Go and rot in jail.”
Shahin didn’t like it. “You are wrong”, he said though his voice trembled a little.
“Yes. I have just come out of the restaurant. Wasn’t looking at anything in particular.”
“But why? Weren’t you ordered not to hit the street during daytime?”
“So? Look, whatever I tell you is for your own good. You were a complete cad when you landed here. I groomed you, taught you English, coached you in table manners. Why? In your interest.”
The owner pulled out some bags and said, “Take these inside”.
He was not supposed to be carrying material on his off-day. But if he refused, the owner, already angry, might fire him on the spot. He would be in trouble again. If he went to any other Bangladeshi establishment in New York looking for a job, he would be asked where he had
worked before and why had he left. Lies wouldn’t work because the previous employer would be contacted. Then the owner would make false allegations against him. Even if a job was available, the salary would be less by at least fifty cents per hour. No valid papers and a bad report from the employer to boot! He lifted the bag with both hands, but then the owner said, “Leave it. Send Ronny”.
But Shahin took the bags inside. He smiled. Now the old bird has remembered that it was his day-off. Wasn’t a bad fellow after all. Only couldn’t stand the thought of his order being disobeyed.
The family shouldn’t worry about him, Shahin wrote to his abbu. He was very well. He’d gotten a job in the best place in New York. He got a lot of fish and meat to eat here, though what Ammu cooked was much better. He was happy to know from Abbu’s letter that a second storey was
being raised on the house. Since Rahmat chacha’s house and pond were up for sale, he needs to be paid an advance immediately. From the money he was sending, Chacha would be paid off in a few months and the property will be procured. He wanted everyone at home to be happy. It was by the grace of Allah that he was able to do his duty as a son. It was, however, not advisable to give his address to others in the village who wanted to send their boys to America for employment. This was a complicated matter. He understood Abbu’s anxiety to see him, but leave was not easily available. He couldn’t say exactly when he would be able to go home, but would do so as soon as he got at least a fortnight’s leave.
A sob escaped his throat at this stage. Burying his face into a pillow, he tried to control himself, but his body throbbed. Lies! He was telling his abbu plain lies! He remembered the faces of his abbu and ammu, two simple village folk. When he received money the first time, Abbu wrote, “You have given us a new life. You have done as my son what I couldn’t do as your father”.
But he couldn’t help telling them lies. Abbu, Ammu and his brothers believed that he held a big job in America and could send such a lot of money because he earned a huge salary. Abbu was a proud man. From a nobody, he had now become someone important in the village. It would take about a hundred and fifty thousand rupees to renovate the old mosque in the village. Abbu had wanted to know whether fifty thousand could be spared for the purpose. He had replied that abbu was free to do whatever he liked to with the money he sent, there was no need to ask for his opinion.
It would break their hearts to know the truth. How could he tell them that he was simply a waiter in a restaurant in America, where he would have to spend the rest of his life hiding like a thief? That he would never be able to go home again ? He couldn’t bear the thought. No. The lie had to be kept up. He had no choice.
Men off duty were not allowed to go to the restaurant below. Their lunch and dinner were sent upstairs. Shahin had fallen asleep in the evening. Ronny woke him up, gave him the food packet and said, “Guru, great news!”
“What d’you mean?”
“She is here”.
“The queen of my dreams, my heartbeat. Last week, she came with some stupid bloke. Looked at me and flashed smiles. Once she dropped her hanky on the carpet and said, ‘So nice of you’, when I picked it up and gave it to her. I took the hint, you know, I know these American girls. But I moved off gravely. Today, she is again here with some other bastard. Asked which table I was in charge of, then went and sat there. The man ordered brandy. She thought a little, then asked me to choose a drink for her.” Ronny whirled around a couple of times in joy. “Let me announce”, he said, “on my next off-day, the inevitable will happen. I’m off now.” Shahin stopped him and gave him an envelope. “Please give this to the owner,” he said.
Ronny looked at the envelope. “Janab Mechbaharuddin Ahmed, village Tilpur, district Faridpur, Bangladesh.” He chuckled, “This will go to Bangladesh, we can’t. Doesn’t matter to me, though.”
He went out.
The waiters had to take their position at different points in the restaurant by noon, in their well- pressed uniforms. The owner went behind the counter and looked round to check whether everything was in place. He called Ronny over, “You don’t have to attend any table today. I
watched your shenanigans yesterday.”
“What did I do?”
The owner was about to chew him off, but checked himself and beamed at the sight of someone entering, “Good afternoon, Mr. Smith, welcome!”
Mr. Smith glanced around and smiled, “Looks like I am your first customer. Good luck!”
“Thank you, thank you. Please choose a seat for yourself”.
Mr.Smith sat himself on a stool by the bar and said, “For the time being, let me sit here and have a beer.”.
“Sure”, the owner poured beer into a glass from a can, “How’s Mrs. Smith?”
“Oh! She lives elsewhere. We’re separated now.”
The owner shrugged. He never discussed the personal affairs of his customers. Mr. Smith
sipped the beer and shut his eyes. Ronny, who was watching silently, now asked, “What should I do now?”
“Take orders for drinks from the respective waiters. And attend on customers who come in without female company.”
“That means I’ll have to slog harder than the others”.
“Should have thought of that while playing your games yesterday. Good afternoon Mr. Sharma, when did you come back?”
“Yesterday”, smiled the veteran Mr. Sharma, “what’s special today?”
“Please take a table. There’s a special prawn dish. You’ll like it”. The owner signalled Ronny to attend to him as Mr. Sharma stepped in. He went to Farouk’s table who came forward with a smile.
“I have to attend on single customers”, Ronny told him, “this owner is a big bastard”.
The owner was then whispering to Mr. Smith, “A famous scientist, you know. Just back from the polar region. Ordinary Indians don’t dare enter my restaurant. I have all Americans, you must have amareshnoticed. The only Indians who eat here are scientists, professors or famous surgeons. Heh heh”.
Mr. Smith asked in a low voice, “What’s his name”?
“Dr. Hanuman Prasad Sharma”.