Ramki and his family had arrived in the spring of that year, and rented a basement apartment in Mississauga. Soon, their dimly-lit and viewless underground home sported the smell of curry, like a newly acquired accent. No sooner had they unpacked their enormous suitcases, all six of them, than Ramki started to look for work. He had realised pretty quickly that the money they had brought into the country as “proof of funds” wouldn’t last them forever. But however much he tried, he failed to find a job, let alone one in his cherished field of electrical engineering.
“Do you think it will help if I, too, started looking for a job?” asked his wife, who had never worked in her life before.
“I doubt it, Latha. But what the hell – even if you had a hundred years of experience, it wouldn’t matter. They only care for Canadian experience. There’s no harm in trying your luck.”
Ramki knocked together a one-page resume for his wife on a word processor in the local library. Latha went around the nearby malls handing out copies of her resume to the skeptical-looking staff of every shop that had a “Now Hiring” placard propped up in the front window. When Latha was offered a position as a crew member in a Wendy’s outlet, both of them were quite astonished. Latha took up the job even though the menu featured beef, an item tabooed by their religion.
But their relief was stillborn.
“Anu’s kindergarten class is for half a day only,” said Latha. “I can’t leave her and go to work.”
“I’ll look after her when you are away,” said Ramki, but his voice belied his optimism.
“No, we must look for a crčche or somebody who can take care of Anu.”
“You’re right. I can’t stay at home and also look for a job.”
When they made enquiries, they found the cost of daycare so astronomical that it made no sense for Latha to surrender almost all of her earnings to a childcare centre. Feeling helpless and frustrated, Ramki decided to send Anu back to India to live with her grandparents.
“It’s only a temporary arrangement,” Ramki said, on the night they returned from the airport. A distant cousin living in Winnipeg, on his way to India, had stopped over in Toronto to take Anu along with him.
Lying down by him, Latha may as well have been a bolster. She was silent, her heart frozen with misery. Her initial objections had been overcome, not with Ramki’s reasoning, but her fear of an uncertain future.
“We can bring Anu back, after I find a good job,” said Ramki. In the past few weeks, he had been spouting that statement, like a sporadic geyser.
The still autumnal night, cold because their landlord was frugal with heating, resonated with Latha’s unspoken comment: “As it is, it’s so difficult to for an immigrant to get a job, how can one ever hope to find a good job?”
“I just need an opening, Latha, that’s all,” said Ramki, as if addressing her unexpressed thought, “If I work for a couple of years, I can move on to something better, something in my line, hopefully. We must have patience.”
It was seven in the evening when Ramki got into his blue-and-white uniform. Latha had to rush back from Wendy’s that afternoon to shorten the legs of the trousers that were designed for Canadian men. Ramki stood at five feet eight, not short by Indian standards. His body was thickset, containing more fat than muscle – but it made him look deceptively strong. Huddling into a heavy coat which had the company’s crest emblazoned on the upper arm, Ramki walked down to the bus-stop. There were skeins of mist adrift, blurring the street lamps. It had rained wet snow earlier in the day.
When Ramki arrived at the city centre, Murtuza his supervisor was already there, leaning on the door of a patrol car. Murtuza was from Karachi in Pakistan. His grandparents had fled from a town in North India during the Partition.
“Here’s the radio,” he said, handing Ramki a bulky handset. “You must call the office on the top of every hour. Do you know how to use the radio?”
Without waiting for Ramki to reply, Murtuza pulled out his own radio, and mimicked: “Bravo 12 calling Alpha 2. Ten zero.”
The radio bristled in Murtuza’s palm, and a response that sounded like gargling, came through: “Ten two. Ten four.”
Murtuza led Ramki to the square and briefed him about his duties. The place looked gloomier than the rest of the city; the mist having assumed the aspects of a fog, emboldened by the relative openness of the place. It seemed darker too, the only light coming from the Christmas trees, standing at attention like decorated soldiers. There was a rectangular open-air ice rink in the middle of the square. A board was put up with the message: “The Rink is Closed.” Rain and a sudden spike in temperature had made the rink’s top layer soggy.
“Even if the rink opens tomorrow, you don’t have to bother yourself with it. Your job is only to guard the Christmas trees.”
“Got it,” said Ramki, “But what do I guard them from?”
“Some of the trees have been vandalized. All sorts of people visit the square in the night to look at the trees. You should not let them touch the trees or pull out the ornaments.”
“Just lookie but no touchie.”
Murtuza left soon afterwards, and Ramki – who had shimmied up trees in the middle of blazing summers to pluck mangoes – began to guard these tall pagoda-like trees which were weighed down not by fruit but a variety of gewgaws.
Ramki plodded up and down the rows, as the shimmering trees loomed over him. The trees looked sombre, even secretive, despite their lights. It was a long, lonely vigil, interspersed with bursts of quixotic-sounding broadcast from his radio. As the hours passed, the trees became more familiar to him, slowly giving up their outlandish quality. He discovered that many of them flaunted ornaments quite unlike the ones on the Christmas trees he had seen in shopping malls. The trees were put up local organizations, and it gradually dawned on Ramki that they were dressed up to reflect their sponsor’s line of business. Along with wisps of traditional ornaments, a music school had hung musical notes cut from golden cardboard; a clothing company, miniature dresses; an auto dealer, model cars; and so on.
The ever-watchful Ramki, radio in hand, patrolled the square with a zeal, almost religious in its intensity. Around midnight, he saw a dark shape making its way towards the trees. Seized with panic, Ramki radioed his office.
“If he behaves in a dangerous way,” said the despatch officer coolly, “withdraw from the scene.”
With a palpitating heart, Ramki approached the intruder. The man was a smiling, slightly-drunk patron of a nearby pub who had walked over to see the trees. He gave Ramki a bonhomous wave.
“The trees look neat, eh?”
“Yes,” said Ramki, alert to any exhibition of dangerous behaviour.
The man went around showing his admiration by spitting expletives like ‘Holy shit!’ and ‘Aw shucks’ before disappearing into the night, without either ravaging the decorations or shooting Ramki point-blank.
At around half past one, a young man turned up and sat down on a bench out in the open. When Ramki walked past him, the young man started a conversation. He was a short-order cook who worked in a steakhouse down the road, and was on his way home.
“Man, I’ve never seen the likes of them before,” said the young man, pointing at the trees. “Is this the first time they’re doing this?”
“I don’t know,” shrugged Ramki, wishing he knew how to be friendly to a perfect stranger in the dead of the night. But he couldn’t help wondering what made a young man loiter in a cold, deserted city square rather than go home to a warm bed. The man left after lounging in the cold for about half an hour.
The night passed without any mishaps, and all the Christmas trees remained inviolate. When it was five in the morning, Ramki sighed with relief – a relief that was tinged with a feeling of triumph. Ramki, whose working life had been dedicated to motors, carbon brushes and armatures, had successfully coped with the strangest assignment he had ever been offered. He called the office on the radio and took off.
A small wind started to blow and it got noticeably colder. Trembling in the glass-walled bus shelter -which hosted an ad for cruises to the Caribbean - he waited for what seemed like ages for the first bus of the day. When he reached home, a sleepy Latha asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. Ramki preferred to go to bed straight away. He wanted to catch enough sleep so that he could face another workday night. Living life one night at a time, he had told himself. This was only a temporary job which would end the moment they took down the trees. But he wanted to make a good impression; Murtuza had hinted that if Ramki did his job well there was a chance of something more permanent.
He woke up around noon to a throbbing head. He swallowed two Tylenols. Latha was at home and he could smell the spicy chicken curry she was making for him.
When he finished his lunch, a kind of lethargy stole over him. He was lolling on the bed when Latha came over and lay down beside him. She was in her late twenties, light-skinned, and pretty with finely-chiselled features. But worry and overwork were taking their toll: the sharp outlines of her face were starting to blur. Her complexion looked sallow, even Ramki had noticed, without kohl around her eyes and tikka on her forehead. Latha had stopped using traditional make-up after coming to Canada. Ramki turned on his side and put his arm round her.
“How’s your headache?” Latha said.
Picking up a small vial of Amrutanjan from the bedside table, she applied a pinch of the sickly-yellow pain balm on his forehead. Both Ramki and Latha had been amazed to learn that familiar Indian products like Bru coffee, Pond’s talcum powder, and Brahmi hair oil, to say nothing of Amrutanjan, were available in Toronto, even if only at Indian grocery shops. As Latha rubbed his temple, she said, “Can I ask you something?”
“What is it?”
“Now that you’ve got yourself a job, can we bring Anu back?”
“Latha, yesterday was the first day at my new job! I don’t even know if I’ll last out all the twenty days they promised me. Working in the night during winters is no joke.”
“I know. But we were in too much of a hurry to send Anu back. There are so many immigrant families living here, and not all of them have good jobs. Somehow, they manage to stay together. Maybe with the help of government’s monthly child support, we too can do it.”
“Child support! Are we beggars? Anyway, it’s such a measly sum. Now that I’ve got this job, it will reduce even further, I’m sure.”
“I heard there are private Indian babysitters. And their rates are very reasonable – they charge only a couple of dollars an hour. If we look around we’ll be able to find one.”
“Latha, the job I have is a temporary one,” Ramki said. “Once the Christmas holidays are over I might not have it.”
“You don’t seem to understand........”
“I do. I left a good job and came over here. I’ll do anything, anything, to make a success of it.”
“But it’s not a good thing for our child to grow up so far away from us.”
“Anu’s staying with my parents, not with some Indian babysitters! We’ll discuss about Anu only after I get a permanent job, all right? I want to have some rest now,” said Ramki, turning his back to her.
He heard the swish of Latha’s nightgown, as she got up and walked away. The headache tightened like a steel belt around his skull. He wondered angrily whether he would get any sleep at all. He need not have feared – without his knowing, he fell asleep.
Later in the evening, when he left for work, Latha came to the front door. He bent down to kiss her but she averted her face.
When Ramki arrived at the city square, the place looked as if it had been subjected to an extreme make-over. He couldn’t believe eyes: streamers of coloured lights were suspended over the reopened rink, and catchy dance music was being played on high. The atmosphere was festive, and the scene glowed with the brilliant purity of a water-colour.
A zamboni prowled on the ice, leaving behind a trail of glaze. There were dozens of people, many of them wearing skates, sitting on benches or standing about, waiting for the zamboni to finish its job. The Christmas trees on either sides of the rink shone with a soft friendly glow and looked convivial, as though enjoying the company of the young, lively throng. When the zamboni heaved itself out, the skaters returned.
Ramki called his office to sign on and began his patrol. He found a few ornaments, which had been torn off the trees, lying on the ground. He tied them back on to their respective trees. One of the ornaments he restored was a small plastic frame containing a picture of a smiling boy with a missing incisor. The picture reminded Ramki of Anu; he wondered whether she had lost her first tooth by now. He had no idea at what age children lost their milk teeth. Latha would know; he must remember to ask her.
It was almost eleven, when the last of the skaters left. Once the rink was empty, the lights and music were shut off. The temperature seemed to drop a couple of degrees in silent darkness. The trees reacquired their secretive look, and whispered conspiratorially to one another whenever the wind hurried through them.
All through the freezing night, the trees – shining like beacons – attracted visitors, many of them stragglers from the Irish pub. Ramki had quite a job on his hand to dissuade the pleasantly-drunk admirers from stripping the trees of their ornaments.
But after two o’clock, a pall of quietness settled over the square, and Ramki’s mind went back to the tiff he had with Latha. He felt his annoyance returning. Did she really think that he did not love Anu? How could he explain to her that if he did not get a well-paying job, they too would have to go back to India? Was it possible to work all your life in a warehouse or a takeaway – that was where most of the openings were – and hope to make it big? Sometimes he could not understand Latha at all.
It was half past two when a handsome couple walked into the square. It struck even Ramki, untrained as he was in the subject of fashion, that the woman was smartly turned out – dressed in a natty dark-coloured coat and boots to match. A wealth of golden tresses gushed down to her shoulders from under her beret-like cap. Wearing only a short skirt and stockings, she was unmindful of the cold. Her companion was handsome in a craggy way, like men in ads for aftershaves. The woman smiled and the man nodded as they passed him. The woman stopped by every tree, and looked at the ornaments as though she were studying them. She read every placard tacked on to the trees while the man beside her looked on, bored.
Ramki shadowed them, radio in hand – just in case.
“What a remarkable tree!” the woman exclaimed. When she saw Ramki bearing down upon them, she said: “You’d have already seen it.”
“Seen what?” Ramki said.
The tree was the last one in its row. He had not observed it closely because he would always turn away even before he came abreast with it. But he remembered that he put back an ornament that had fallen off from it. He too looked at the tree. There were ornaments of all sorts, and nestling among them were framed photographs of children – scores of them. Some smiling, some bashful, all of them so sweet, all of them so angelic. How proud their parents’ must be of them, thought Ramki. He was reminded of Anu.
He looked at the placard – the tree was put up by an organisation that provided child services. Even as he was reading about the theme, he heard the woman gasp: “These are photographs of children who have gone missing! How shocking! The poor mothers! How unbearable it must be to have your child snatched from you.”
In the light from the Christmas trees, Ramki saw her eyes glint with tears. Did she lose a child? A miscarriage, perhaps? Or was she merely empathising with the poor parents? A gust of wind blew, and the doleful tree, crowded with pictures of unfortunate little children, trembled.
Ramki too was overwhelmed with a sense of loss. He thought of Anu and Latha, and in his heart – which had been dark and cold as the night – he understood.
Pratap Reddy was born in India, and he moved to Canada in 2002. A poet and a spoken word artist, he writes short fiction about the agonies and the angst (on occasion, the ecstasies) of immigrants from India. His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. He received the ‘Best Emerging Literary Artist’ award from Mississauga Art Council in 2008.
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