13. I WANT A JOB
– I have already written a novella , AMERICA, in Tamil, based on my life at the detention camp. The journal, ‘Thaayagam’ was published from Canada while this novella was serialized. Then, adding some more short-stories, a short-story collection of mine was published under the title America by Tamil Nadu based publishing house Sneha. In short, if my short-novel describes life at the detention camp, this novel , AN IMMIGRANT , describes the struggles and setbacks a Tamil migrant to America faces for the sake of his survival – outside the walls of the detention camp. – V.N.GIRITHARAN –
Another day dawned. As usual, with the always availale existential problems. Arulrasa and Ilango were deep in thought, wondering how to start the day and how to spend it. Ilango was first to speak his thoughts.
“Arul, I have to get a job really soon. What is your plan?”
“I am also seriously searching for a suitable job. But, nothing comes my way. Wherever I go, they are insisting on a Social Insurance Card. If you ask me, I think it will be better if we try to get that first. Let us go to the Immigration office and try our best to secure that Card. What do you say?”
“Arul, it’s a nice idea, but, of course, there are many obstacles. But let’s first go there today and enquire. After that, we can then begin our job-hunting…”
“Ya, that is good. We will do that. Let us go find a solution to this problem. If we feel that it is not going to be helpful, then, like you, I should also gear myself to accept any kind of job.”
“Well, but do you know where the Immigration office is?”
“It is located in the Federal Plaza. Hmm…”
“What is wrong?”
“For securing this Social Insurance Card, we need several other identity cards. First and foremost, we don’t have any kind of legally acceptable documents or certificates for securing employment here. Not even the passport we have…”
“‘Why don’t we have the passport. We are giving it to Immigration only, no? They can very well verify it, can’t they?”
“Next… Gosh said…”
“What did he say?”
“We need to show our passport. And also, a letter of assurance from the employer who is giving us the job, confirming it and also a permission letter allowing us to work. If only we have all these we can hope to get the ‘social insurance card.’”
“Damn it, where to go for all these? One step ahead and two steps backward – this seems to be the curse of our life…”
“But, what else to do? Instead of lying idle it is better to try our best, isn’t it so?”
“If this doesn’t work out, what else to do?”
“If this is not proving good then, let us approach some social service organization and try to get some legally viable service. Seems like so many such forums and organizations are functioning here.”
“Whatever it is, let us first go to the Immigration office and talk to an officer there. Let’s show him the illegal immigration documents that we possess and start a dialogue with him. At present, that is the only document we have in our possession. Let us begin with it.”
“Yes, without trying, we cannot come to a decision about the outcome. After all we cannot get anything without asking, isn’t it so?”
“Of course, we have a Christian song that sings that message, don’t we?”
“Which song you refer to?”
“Ask- you will be given; knock and the door will open. Ask and you will get, said Jesus; ask and you will get, said Jesus”
“Alright. Let’s try asking the Immigration Officer. If we get, well and good. Otherwise, we have to do something and survive. That’s it.”
Saying so, Ilango continued, “Whether we get the Social Insurance Card or not, we will continue to live. During the time we are here, we are going to try our best to secure it. If we get the card, life will not be difficult. We can secure a nice job and progress. If not, we should get into some job or other and survive. That’s all.”
They decided that somehow they should meet an immigration officer and explain their precarious position to him and try their best to secure the Social Insurance Card. They will also explain to the immigration officer the present situation of their island, Sri Lanka, its political events and their implications, incidents that have been taking place of late, the dark events of July 83, the way State terrorism is being unleashed on the Tamils incessantly and with increased venom – all these events must be explained to the Immigration officer in a detailed manner, with authentic proof. It is good thing they have collected various news-items and photographs that have appeared in the Western Media. They can be shown as valid pieces of proof. Thus, the friends discussed the initiatives that must be undertaken by them. After that, as planned, they decided to visit the Immigration Office situated in the Federal Plaza and so began their journey for the day!
14. FUNNY IMMIGRATION OFFICER!’
IT WAS Ilango who introduced the two of them to the female officer sitting in the reception hall.
“Good morning “
The officer responded, “Good day to you too. What can I do for you?”
:My name is Ilango. He is Arulrasa. Both of us have applied for shelter here,” saying Ilango took out the photo-copy of the application form given by them to the American Immigration Department.
Receiving it, the female official looked at it for some time and then said, “This is the copy of your application form. We can’t do anything with this. You will be receiving a communication from them regarding your application. Come back after receiving that.”
“Madam, regarding that, we want to talk to an official here. We don’t know when we would be getting the said communication from them and we are not in any condition to even apply for Social Insurance Cards. For all those who had come along with us, and are now in other States, ‘Social Security Cards have already been issued. Without that we cannot get into any job. That’s why we would like to discuss the matter with some officer here. We will be grateful to you if you could arrange for that.”
Ilango’s polite words and humble tone touched the heart of the Immigration Officer. With her voice reflecting the impact to some extent she said, “I can understand your condition. But, to my knowledge I can’t see how any other officer can help you without the said response coming your way. Anyway, I don’t want to dishearten you or block your way. Try your best. Just be seated in those chairs till your turn comes. Ok?”
Her words provided some soothing effect to Ilango. And, this sense of relief was reflected in his next query too.
“Madam, one more question. Both of us have applied for the refugee status at the same time. So, can the two of us see the immigration officer together? Or, are we to meet him one by one only?”
“It is not possible for both of you to meet him at the same time. You have to meet him one by one only. And you may have to wait for minimum one or two hours”.
Understanding the conditions, the two thanked her once again and returned to the row of chairs where the others were waiting for their turns.
“Arul, I don’t think this is going to work. Anyway, there is nothing wrong in trying, no? Let’s give it a try. We will not be losing anything.”
“Hey, what is this Ilango? As a rule you would be always thinking positively and now how can you get so disheartened? Let us try with the firm hope that things would work out. Then, everything will be ok. Let us get into it. Let us hope that it would be fine”.
“Yes Arul, what you say is of course true. However positive we are, sometimes hopelessness and despair must overcome us.”
“And, it is not without reason, you know.”
“It is just that the human mind cannot remain static. It will always be oscillating. Just as the moon wanes into its crescent form and then grows into the full moon and then once again disappears completely, only to form again as a ray and then an arc and so on. Our mind and heart are like this too. Sometimes, even without any rhyme or reason, our mind plunges into gloom and despair. At other times, when one has problems overflowing, weighing heavily on him, his mind would nevertheless be brimming with joy and elation.”
Arul’s explanation surprised Ilango.
“Arul, what you say is indeed true. You know so much Arul, surprising indeed! You could have practiced to be a therapist! Sad that you did not.”
As they were chatting, an official soon called out, “Who is Ilango here?”
“That is me,” said Ilango and he stood up quickly. Then, turning towards Arulrasa he said, “Don’t go anywhere. Till I return stay here, ok?” Saying so, he followed the official and went inside. The officer who took Ilango to his cabin showed him the chair there and asked him to be seated.”
“My name is Tim Langine. Well, what brought you here today?”
Before responding Ilango took out the photo-copies of news-items highlighting the ethnic crisis and the ensuing war in Sri Lanka. In one of those a Tamil youth was surrounded by a group of Sinhala fanatics who had stripped him naked and teasing him cruelly before doing away with him. Seeing that the immigration officer frowned and murmured to himself “Uncivilized Brutes…”
Seeing him Ilango felt that the officer could be made to see the reason and offer some help.
“The Sril Lankan Tamils have suffered the onslaught of ethnic oppression and suppression. The situation is turning from bad to worse. That hapless and gullible man who is seen in the photo waiting to be butchered – he is a Tamil. And, I am also an Eelam Tamil”.
Thus, when Ilango tried to describe his plight and anguish to the immigration officer he could empathize hundred percent with the miserable Tamil in the photo; he could feel the shame, fear, agony and alienation by the fellow-Tamil. Oh, being there, stripped and abused, mocked at and being man-handled, standing there stark-naked and bleeding all over – surrounded by blood-thirsty, wild animals waiting to pounce on him – oh, what would have been the thoughts and apprehensions quivering in his heart? His wife, who would be waiting for his arrival with bated breath and sweet dreams, or his child who would also be equally eager to see his face or any of his loving friends who would stay wide awake thinking of him or feeling apprehensive about his safe arrival, or his mother who would be nearing the end of her life and for whom her son was her hope and anchor, his brother, sister – oh, how would he have undergone the unbearable pain of losing all his near and dear ones…The youth’s miserable posture with eyes full of fear and his body bent and folded appeared as the very symbol of the sorrow of the Eelam Tamils.
“Sir, it is very difficult to survive without a job. Indeed very difficult. But, wherever we go asking for a job, they demand the Social Security Card”.
Hearing that statement, the officer smiled a little. And said, “You are now in New York. It is not significant for its sky-scraping structures alone but for another thing. Do you know what it is?”.
Ilango promptly nodded in the affirmative. “Yes, I know. It is famous for the pubs and clubs and the night life with all sorts of entertainment available to any.” Observing this, Ilango smiled lightly. Hearing his words, Tim laughed with his bloated tummy jiggling up and down. “You have learnt a lot about New York and very accurately in such little time! Have you any direct experience?” asking this, he winked mischievously. And, he added, “But, ‘that’ is not the right answer,” implying something unsaid.
“I don’t know what you are hinting at,” said Ilango, scratching his head.
Tim Langine continued, “Let me give you a small clue. Let’s see whether you can find out then. The answer lies in your present existence. That’s the correct answer to my question. Now, tell me the answer.”
Ilango was a little amused by this officer belonging to the western world. Funny fellow. Speaking humorously. The usual air and stiffness of the officers are absent in this fellow and he speaks in a casual, unassuming and friendly manner. Just like a small boy, so full of joy. Not being able to answer his query Ilango made a successful retreat.
Langine continued, “How can you forget that which is so popular even with the illegal immigrants living in millions here, in New York? After all, you are one among them, aren’t you? Here, all of them are working without having the proper, official and legal documents. Like those millions, you can also fare well. Go, and be like them. The proper response to your respective file should come from the State Immigration Office in Washington. Only after receiving it can we do anything. I will send them a word about your plight and your request. I do hope that soon there would be a response from them. Till then, I sincerely hope that the city of New York will help you also to live on.”
“Well, if some of your officials apprehend me while I am working thus, illegally…” Ilango asked, giving a pause. For that, Tim Langine said promptly, “You show them the documents that you have now. They will understand. Though you are staying here illegally, you have legally registered your name. So, they will understand. If they try to threaten you or speak to you harshly, tell them that you are thus employed in order to save you from starvation and tell them to take you to a detention camp and leave you there, if they wished so. ‘Oh, leave us, damn you” and they will then turn into thin air and disappear! Just don’t be afraid of anything. America will surely help you survive and prosper!” With that, the officer bid Ilango adieu. Thanking him, Ilango came out. The immigration officer’s humorous talk and his bloated tummy along with his suggestions and advice on how to lead the life of an illegal immigrant in New York proved to him that he was a mysterious chap. Ilango couldn’t help smiling to himself.
CHAPTER -15 SELLING UMBRELLAS!
The two friends were returning after meeting the immigration officer. Wanting to visit the library, they were walking along the Broadway Road. Ilango felt that it would be better to go and spend some time in the library, leafing through the pages of some Dailies, Journalism, books, anything. Unlike Ilango, Arulrasa was not all that interested in reading magazines, journals and literary writings. But, he liked to read books and journals related to Education, entrepreneurship, finance or anything business-related. They both agreed to spend some time there. Spending sometime inside the library would provide some relaxation and rest too. This was a common point of interest. During their walk, Ilango was thinking of his ligh-hearted meeting with Tim Langine. On the other hand, the immigration officer that Arulrasa had to face was a grim and haughty fellow. He was terse and carefully chose his words while speaking in the usual authoritative manner. So, the dialogue between Arulrasa and the Immigration Officer was rather brief. He was an Italian-American. His name was Glad Mansini. The conversation that took place between the two was less amusing…
Glancing at the documents and official papers submitted by Arulrasa, the immigration officer named Glad Mansini began with a question, “How can I help you?”
“Sir, I have come here to enquire about securing a Social Security Card and the respective Number …..” – Arulrasa responded.
Glad Mansini said, “I can’t do anything till the official response in your case is forwarded from our side. Till that time you have to wait. No other way to go.”
Realizing that it was no use talking to him, Arulrasa thanked him and came out.
“He was a good–for–nothing monkey. Having not even an ounce of humanity in him. He had absolutely no patience to listen to my woeful story. You were lucky with that Tim fellow, Ilango.”
“In what way? Tim Langine said the same thing. Your person uttered those words grimly and harshly. My person, with a piece of humour. That’s all. The end result is the same.”
Thus, they walked ahead, conversing. It was then that Ilango noticed the sky. The city-sky was turning darker all too suddenly. The wind too had begun to blow fiercely. In no time, the clouds seemed frenzied, a delirious dance of the lords of the wind and Rain is bound to follow. “Looks like, it is going to rain cats and dogs again,” Arul observed.
“Ya, seems so. This weather would be perfect back home. Even the downpour would be exclusively beautiful there. Here, we can merely watch it as if seeing some movie. We can’t enjoy the sight.”
Thus, the conversation between the friends, once again, turned towards their crisis at hand.
“We need jobs, money.”
“But we need the Social Insurance Numbers, wretched, wretched! We can’t do anything.”
“Arul, I have an idea…”
“Why should we look for some job outside, working under someone else? Let’s try starting some work on our own, shall we? In New York, so many people have done exactly that, you know, doing their own business. What do you say?”
“Well, it is fine. What you say sounds good, in one sense. But, we have no savings… In such a situation, how can we start a business of our own? Even if we can, what sort of an enterprise we can start…?”
The darkness in the sky transformed into a deadlier sight. From the nearby buildings, several city pigeons flew away, fluttering their wings. Suddenly, Ilango remembered something.
“I have an idea, Arul”.
“An opportunity has come our way to try our hands in doing a small business…”
“What is it? I don’t understand. Say what you mean.”
In a short while we would be having heavy downpour…”
“What has that go with our doing business?”
“Trying our hands at this business, we may not make money, but we can test our own abilities and potentials for venturing into business.”
“Oh, come on, don’t speak in riddles, damn you – Be straight. My head is already pounding!”
“Even after telling that there is a connection between rain and our proposed venture… Can you get at it, at least now?”.
“Look here Ilango, I am not an intellectual like you. So, just do some plain-speaking. The way you speak in riddles just confuses me. The mess we are in- do we need to talk in riddles in such a situation?” Arul sounded a little exasperated.
“How many dollars do you have Arul?”
“Why do you ask? Well, I have approximately fifty dollars”.
“That would suffice. And, I have some forty. And, we need not spend all that we have. We need to spend just 20 dollars each. For the business I have in mind, putting together both our investments, it would come up to forty dollars. That would suffice.”
Arul was still not seeing his point.
“You see Arul, soon, the rain would arrive. Before that we should commence our business. Yes, the business I have thought of is to sell umbrellas!”
Arul felt a little startled. He did not expect this.
“What? Doing business with umbrellas? Have you gone mad? Are you serious?”
“Of course, Arul, I am pretty serious. Let’s start our business of selling umbrellas. Why should we feel ashamed of it? Let’s give it a go.”
“But, I don’t like to be on the streets and selling things on them. If you have some other business in mind, please tell me.”
“Come on, Arul – look here. If we are to feel bad about doing this thing and that thing, we can’t do anything at all. Why do you feel ashamed? Of whom? The people here? If you starve tomorrow, are they going to feed you? Just, stop feeling ashamed. It’s unnecessary. We should only concentrate on whether we can do it…Whether we can do it successfully. What do you say?”]
“Your words do sound fair and meaningful. If we are loaded with this sense of shame, we can’t do any business on our own. Let’s try our hand, in all seriousness. Tell me, what do you want us to do?”
“Let’s buy two dozens of umbrellas – one dozen for you and one dozen for me. You stand near Empire State Building and sell the umbrellas. I will stand in some other place and sell. Even if we manage to sell ten umbrellas each, for a price of five dollars per , there will be 30 dollars profit for each of us. And, there will also be two umbrellas left. If we can sell all the umbrellas, that would be real, solid achievement. What do you say?”
“Ilango, it all actually sounds interesting and very encouraging. But, do you really think that we can sell them? If we can really do so, it would be fantastic. Getting a profit of thirty dollars from an investment of twenty dollars is great indeed. And, we are not going to lose anything, trying this. Nothing at all to lose.”
The sky, which was being patient till then, began to drizzle. Observing this, Ilango said, “We should not wait any more. See whether there is some wholesale shop somewhere?”
Luckily, there was a warehouse shop on Broadway Street, just a little ways off from where they were standing. Both of them darted there and purchased two dozens of umbrellas. When they came out of the shop, holding those umbrellas, both the friends were filled with some kind of indescribable joy. The thought that they were selling umbrellas in a world – famous city kind of surprised them. When the two some came to Empire State Building, the torrential downpour truly began. As if the sky was torn, it rained all too densely. The real heavy downpou was accompanied with lightening, thunder and stormy wind. The people of the city were caught so suddenly in the incessant rain, and were thoroughly bewildered. Some of them got into taxi’s and sped away. Several others who could not spend so much money or who did not like to spend so much, ran to seek shelter under the entrances of buildings. The attention of several others turned towards the umbrella-sellers. Ilango and Arulrasa commenced their ‘Umbrella Business.’
They began their sales pitch, “Umbrellas, solid umbrellas for just five dollars each – Buy this and save yourself from the rain!” Thinking that it was indeed thrilling to sell umbrellas thus, standing in the platform and shouting, Ilango went on shouting, “Umbrellas – strong and compact umbrellas, only a few at hand. First come –First served … Don’t waste time! Come quick and buy and guard yourself from the rain!” Thus Ilango tried with all his might to lure the pedestrians to his side, and to some extent, he had succeeded! Thus, the umbrella business of the two friends started at a slow pace, but soon gained momentum, along with that of the downpour.
Chapter 16 Haribabu’s advertisement
It was 10 AM the next day and Ilango was lying in bed. All the roommates had left for their respective jobs. Arulrasa too had gone on some errand. Ilango didn’t feel like doing anything today. He wished to spend the whole day inside his cabin. For the past several weeks, they walked great distances, wandering ceaselessly. He felt tired. His back ached horribly as if it had split into two, if not smashed to pieces. His body and heart longed for some respite. Yet, there is something pleasant and soothing about lying on the bed and recollecting things… pondering over… His mind halted for a moment on their ‘umbrella business.’ He couldn’t help but smile. Selling umbrellas in the streets of New York…. Indeed an experience to remember! The umbrella business didn’t bring any loss to their investments. Not at all. This was what made them immensely happy. He had managed to sell eight umbrellas for forty dollars. Arulrasa had sold seven umbrellas for thirty- five dollars. So there was some profit, with some extra umbrellas for personal use too. ‘True, doing one’s own business gives one happiness and fulfillment. Of course, not relying on anybody, not beseeching anybody with out-stretched hands but determining the course of your own life all by yourself proves to be immensely satisfying.’ Ilango was thoroughly convinced.
He could hear the footsteps of someone approaching. It was Mrs. Padma Ajith. There was a foreign envelope in her hand. Ilango arose to a sitting posture, on the bed. Mrs. Ajith gave the letter to Ilango, “This came in the mail for you.”
“Thanks,” said Ilango and received the envelope. It was from his mother back home!
Sitting on the bed, a little away from him, Mrs.Padma Ajith asked, “Ilango, how is your job-hunt going?”
“I am trying in all possible ways. But nothing concrete has come out of it, not yet at least.”
“There is an advertisement in ‘India Abroad’ asking for Sales Representatives. ‘Wanted immediately’ – it said. The salary will be given on a daily basis, it seems. When I saw it, I inevitably thought of you. I have it with me. If you are interested, tell me and I will bring it.”
Ilango remembered his umbrella business, once again. He felt like laughing.
“What is it Ilango, why are you laughing to yourself?”.
“Nothing, I was reminded of our Umbrella business!”
“What is it – some new tale you are telling? Did you sell Umbrellas? Where?”
As Mrs.Padma Ajit inquired so eagerly, Ilango told her of how the pair went about, conducting an impromptu umbrella business. Listening to his recount of the story, Mrs . Padma Ajith laughed and laughed. Then, she said, “You will manage Ilango. You will survive. For, you have the guts – the grit and determination to fight against all odds and adversities. I could never try the way you have, you know.”
“So, you see, this umbrella business is also going to help me, in a way.”
“What? In what way?”
“For the Sales Representatives job that you have mentioned now, don’t you see that I have already acquired the experience for a Sales Representative job by engaging myself in the sale of Umbrellas. Seeing this work experience as my capital, I can go searching for and securing the next better job. Can’t I?”
“Well, each and every action of ours has a purpose. However small they are, they don’t go to waste. In some way, they will prove helpful to us, won’t they? You can only gain from that umbrella experience now, including the gaining of work experience in the American land. Not bad. Anyway, let me bring the ‘ad’ and show it to you. Go through it. And, if you wish, try your luck there. Sometimes things work out perfectly, who knows!’’
Within a few minutes, mrs. Padma Ajith returned with the clipping of the advertisement in her hand. Ilango glanced at the advertisement. It briefly but precisely stated the following:
Urgently need two sales representatives. For each hour four dollars will be paid as salary. Interested candidates, please meet Haribabu at the junction where the West Fourth Street and America Avenue meet (in the North-West).
The advertisement sounded somewhat strange.
“This appears to be queer…. Something unusual!”
“Why do you say so Ilango?”
“This is an advertisement for Sales Representatives. But, they are asked to come to a street corner to meet the advertiser. Doesn’t it sound strange?”
Only then it struck Mrs.Padma. “Ah yes, what you say is correct. I didn’t give it a thought. Only after you have pointed it out, I have become aware of it. True indeed. It sounds very strange. Maybe… sometimes…”
“Maybe…. Sometimes…? What is it Madam?”
“Sometimes it could also be that he doesn’t want to disclose his dwelling place or work-spot to strangers”.
“True, what you say sounds reasonable. So, the first thing to do is to go and meet him. And ask him right away about the type of job that he is offering. That will be the best approach. Why let the imagination run amuck and turn restless and worried?”
Mrs. Padma Ajith got up and said, “Ilango, I repeat… what I suggest is… just as what you have said, go and meet this fellow, Haribabu.”
Ilango agreed and decided that he will do exactly that.
The beautiful damsel called Earth was bathing in the soft cool twilight of the evening sun. After wandering in the city the whole day, Arulrasa arrived late at last.
“Arul, do you know something?”
“Mrs.Padma Ajith gave me a copy for a position as a sales rep, but…”
“But…? What’s the problem, Ilango?”
“It appears to me that there is some discrepancy in the Ad.”
“You are always like this. Finding fault. Otherwise, you won’t get sleep and the day won’t dawn for you!”
“Then what… the ad says Sales Representatives wanted urgently. But the interview is on a platform. How is it?”
“Ilango…. Please go through the ‘ad’ once again…. Sometimes, we will miss the obvious or overlook something important.”
“Ok, Arul, I got the point. Now, without beating around the bush, just tell me in plain words what I am supposed to do?”
“Let’s go, as stipulated in the advertisement, tomorrow morning and meet Haribabu in the place specified by him. We can get more details about the work he is offering by meeting him. If we want, we will take the jobs he is offering. Otherwise, let’s return. Nothing bad will happen. What do you say?”
Once again, Ilango found himself agreeing to such logical thinking. “Ok Arul, what you say is correct. Let’s spend the morning hours of tomorrow in the company of Haribabu.”
Thus, the friends dwelt on this issue for a long time that night, till sleep overcame them. Before plunging into sleep, Ilango read his mother’s letter.
It was a brief letter.
Dear Ilango, hope you are doing fine, there. We pray for your welfare. New place. Try to be alert and cautious. We are all doing well. Situation is not all that bright here. God knows everything. Parvathi paid a visit yesterday also. But for her timely help, you couldn’t have gone away. Poor girl, I am able to understand her plight too. So far you were kept inside. Only now, you were let out. Try to get work soon. And, if you send some amount now and then it would be of great help.