A short story, with a respectful wink to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
In my younger and more vulnerable years my Standard Nine Chemistry teacher gave me some advice that I recently began to turn over in my mind.
In that sweaty school laboratory, over ten years ago, where the 62 girls of Class 9B attempted to impress Mrs Sharma by holding test-tubes full of chemicals over Bunsen burners, I reminded Mrs Sharma that she was about to hand out bits of blotting paper instead of litmus paper, again.
It was easy to confuse the two; they were the same shade of pink, I said to her, in the non-threatening, matter-of-fact tone that came naturally to me. For some reason, at 15, I still retained a sense of the black and white world of fairytales my grandfather used to read to me before I was old enough for school.
Mrs Sharma, or Sharma-teacher as we called her respectfully, was in no mood to reward my frankness. The sagacious advice she offered me was 'Mind your own business', complete with a chilling tone and a coven of witches scowling through her face. She then proceeded to invent a convoluted experiment on the fly so she could make use of the blotting paper and save face in front of our sniggering class, one among many in our all-girls convent school in Bombay.
I had forgotten the erudite Sharma-teacher as soon as I had no use for her, which was immediately after my State Secondary Certificate Board Exams in Standard Ten.
Until last week when Vincent was attacked at the train station.
Vincent and I had much in common. We were both international students from Bombay. He had lived here for a year while I had only arrived three months ago. We worked in the same Indian restaurant five nights a week, he as a kitchen hand, I as a waitress: a rung higher in the restaurant food chain, I quickly found out. We even lived in the same Sydney suburb, as many from our Bombay catholic community did, for the same reasons our forefathers migrated to certain suburbs in Bombay, from Goa and Mangalore and Karwar: close to the church, close to the train station, and if you were lucky, close to a decent pork-meat shop. We caught the same train back home after seemingly endless dinner shifts. Yet I couldn't say we were friends.
He would always let me get on the train first, and I would sit upstairs — I felt less claustrophobic there. He would get on last, then give me his goodnight glance and smile, making the briefest of eye contact, and sit close to the doors, where I could see and hear him quite clearly.
As soon as he sat down he would text his mother in Bombay and within minutes there would be a phone call. He would never have been able to afford international calls from his mobile on his kitchen hand wages. It was cheaper for his mother to ring from India using the net phone system the neighbourhood internet-wallah had just installed for her specifically for this purpose.
Vincent preferred the familiar company of his mother's voice all the way from Vasai to his mobile phone, to mine just the fluttering of an eyelid away. It was as if, in the absence of his father, he was his mother's lifeblood. He spoke to his folks in Marathi, a language I had studied formally for eight years. We were forced to learn it throughout primary school and high school. I could understand Marathi very well, but couldn't confidently speak the language.
When conversing with me or any of the others working at the restaurant Vincent was always soft-spoken, deferring, his accented English vowels and consonants pouring out as if curtseying to a splendid queen. But in Marathi, Vincent became a saturated, more resplendent version of his English self. He smiled more, spoke faster and with more confidence, laughed with his whole body, his phone an extension of himself. I couldn't help but overhear his intimate chats with his mother, and very soon, due to my addictive eavesdropping, found myself the guilty keeper of his family secrets.
Vincent used to be so engrossed in his conversations that he either didn't know or didn't care about my eavesdropping. It was the talk of his sister's wedding that got me hooked, myself being of marriageable age albeit with no prospective groom in sight. It was the unfolding drama, as illustrated by Vincent's changing moods and linguistic expressions every restaurant night on the train that kept me eager for more.
Through Vincent's incredulous repetitions of what his mother was saying at the other end, I found out that his sister had rejected many proposals, criticised this man's career choice, that man's moustache. Maybe it was her way of exercising some control, knowing that now was the only time she might be able to do so. The community began to talk. 'As if she's Aishwarya Rai, thinking she is too good for our boys', the families of the spurned gentlemen said behind her back and then to her face.
Vincent's parents were beside themselves. Torn between their daughter's happiness and not wanting her to die an old maid, (she was hurtling towards thirty), they were ill equipped to shield her from these bitching blows. They were unable to deal with it themselves. 'If people are talking then let them talk', I heard Vincent say on more than one occasion. 'Her happiness is most important.' It surprised me that he, our deferring kitchen hand, should voice such a detachment from the claws of the world. I was sure the distance helped.
The night of his attack, Vincent sounded upbeat on the train. A suitable, blemish-free groom had been found, the wedding date had been fixed. It seemed to me the groom's side were still haggling about the dowry. 'Tomorrow I'll send the money through Western Union', he said, 'Dollar rate might go up next week, wait for a few days', he said to his mother.
That night four men ran into our compartment and squeezed through the doors the instant before they shut, guffawing and spitting freely as if somehow only their spit could convey their exhilaration at having made it into the train, cheating death as it were, as if their mucous were mightier than any vocabulary on God's earth.
I was immediately conscious of the curry smell of my waitressing uniform, white shirt and black trousers, as soon as I was hit with the dangerous bravado those men exuded. Cinnamon may be a good scent for a candle, but it does not sit well on the clothes of a single girl. It is a deterrent, I have found, even to prospective flirtations, never mind prospective boyfriends. No amount of liberal sprays of I Believe by Britney Spears, Cool Water for Women by Davidoff, or even Chanel No 5, from free testers at Myer before every shift, could make a meal of the odours of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, turmeric and chilli emanating from my clothes at shift's end.
I have been at a loss for affordable, effective, practical fabric odour management solutions and have accepted that this smell is in the nature of Indian restaurants and by extension in the nature of those who work within them, even if only on shift days. I consoled myself with the thought that the Indian restaurant had achieved that zenith of Indian nationalistic pride: complete dominance of the West, even if it was only olfactory.
That night had been an especially long shift. Those stock broker regulars kept drinking and drinking their Brokenwood Cricket Pitch Shiraz, and took no notice of us even when we began to turn the chairs upside down and to place them on the tables so we could prepare to sweep up, even when we made as much noise as possible this side of aggression. When they finally left, we reasoned with the owners as usual about why the tips should be shared by the waiting staff and not go into the owner's till.
It was these tips that allowed me the pleasures of going to the movies once in a while, or buying that special dress from the local op shop. (There was no way I was going to spend the equivalent of two months of my mother's Indian secretary's salary on a new dress from Myer. I forced myself to be content with Vinnies and Salvos, although I must admit I did look longingly at the enticing window displays on Market Street.) My meagre wages were used for the rent, the exorbitant full price train weeklies, food and utility bills. If there was anything left over it was saved and sent back home to slowly repay the loan my parents had taken, mortgaging their home, a two bedroom flat in Bandra, at 18 per cent interest.
I know Vincent's mother worked as a Marathi teacher in a catholic school, but his father was a bank teller and so his parents got an interest free loan from that bank to fund Vincent's Australian education. Still, they had to mortgage their flat, which they did, like parents everywhere wanting their children to be held up to the stars.
After we swept the floor and set the tables for the next day, Vincent handed me my usual box of takeaway rice and butter chicken. After eating rice and butter chicken five days a week for two months my stomach had begun to pickle at the mere sight of it. But I didn't have the heart to refuse Vincent and so I accepted his shy offering, knowing I would it eat, if reluctantly, so I could save a few dollars at lunchtime the next day. (Vincent never ate curry or rice. 'Acidity I get every time', was all the information he gave us. So he ate parathas and yogurt, and more parathas and yogurt week after monotonous week.)
It was already past midnight. We collected our wages for the week, hard won tips included, and left.
When the spitters had settled down as the train began to move, I felt conflicting currents within me. I was conscious of my power as a young exotic-looking woman. I was equally conscious of the apprehension and anxiety I felt as a non-white, as an outsider with an accent, as the other. I was unsure, in the face of imminent thuggery, whether my salvation lay in being coquettish and charming, or in making myself as inconspicuous as possible, head down, eyes lowered to the floor, even lower if possible. I settled for the latter, to start with.
I was alone upstairs, Vincent alone downstairs. We were far away from the guard's compartment, at the back of the train, because the exit at our station is at that end of the platform.
'Gottni smowkes mahyte?' I heard one of them ask Vincent. I saw Vincent deliberately avoiding the question, out of fear and a sense of inadequacy, looking away from the man addressing him, pretending to be discussing an urgent matter over the phone.
'Whassimadder? Youse too good ferrus, eh?' another man said, loud enough for his voice to travel across the oceans and continents to Vasai over Vincent's mobile phone.
I heard Vincent reassure his mum in Marathi that all was well and that he would be home soon. He still had some credit on his Happy Talk Asia phone card and so he promised to ring her from the home landline. I heard one of the men mimic Vincent's Marathi in that unreal, exaggerated accent that has become the norm when stereotyping Indians. It was so far removed from Vincent's Vasai Marathi accent that I laughed softly at the absurdity of it.
The train pulled into our station. I climbed the few steps down to the landing near the door. The four men were about my age, early to mid-20s, and well dressed. Their shiny branded shoes and clothes were of the sort that only the rich and respectable would wear in Bombay. I had lost all faith in the ability of clothes to be markers of class and trustworthiness. It seemed here in Australia, the hoodlums were better dressed than the upright lay ministers in church, which is the opposite of what I was used to.
The four men glanced at me. I was expecting a bouquet but what I got was a lemon. They turned away. Apparently I was not worth a second look. I oscillated between relief and mortification. I put this absence of chemistry down to my stinking curry clothes.
Vincent, who always looked downcast at the best of times, looked wildly frightened as he sat there, his phone to his ear, even though it was obviously off. He clutched at the rosary around his neck. When he saw me he looked so relieved, as if I had ceased to exist for him all this while and had only just materialised out of this foul ether to give him succour.
I pretended I didn't know him and turned my back to him.
It was an action I later regretted and wished I could reverse. But that night I wanted to mind my own business — good old Sharma-teacher's advice was not in vain. That night I wanted to show that I was one of them, an insider, on the right side of power, on the coolest side of cool. I didn't want to be seen as a migrant. I wanted to be seen as Australian. This was a bit hard to manage knowing I stank of cinnamon and more, but I held my head high.
How I wish the wisdom of hindsight would rear its tardy head earlier rather than later! The film of inadequacy in the face of white, or olive-skinned, non-Indians, of awe of the foreigner, the feeling that somehow they were always better than us, was not yet lifted from my eyes. We were not yet perpetrator and victim, just a bunch of cool dudes sharing the same train compartment. A little like Adam and Eve and the snake and God loving each other up in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.
Then Vincent stood up, almost lunging forward towards me. One of the spitters blocked his path.
'Heyyy, Tendulkar's getting off here,' another one said. The train stopped. The doors opened. I got out and walked quickly towards the exit.
What happened next is a matter of debate because my back was turned. If I had access to water, like Pilate, I am ashamed to say I would have washed my hands. I heard a scuffle. I heard the guard blow the whistle. I heard the train coolly pull away, as if it too had just washed its hands. It seemed to me that the guard and the train had the benefit of Sharma-teachers of their own. The station was deserted except for myself, Vincent and the four spitters. I heard Vincent's soft voice groaning amidst the loud abuses of his attackers. 'Ah! Ah!' he was saying. 'Fucking black fucker' they were calling him, 'Fucking motherfucking curry muncher, that'll teach youse. Think youse too good fer us eh? Fucking curry faggot.'
Apart from my instinct to go AWOL from this flame of searing abuse, I was surprised to note that their spitting had reduced in inverse proportion to their use of language, as if somehow getting off that train had restored their faith in the power of speech. Later I wondered how one could possibly munch curry? The way I understood it, curry, being a liquid, could be eaten with rice or one could even drink it as one did rasam and even sambhar. But there was no way one could munch curry as if it were a biscuit.
Then I heard a sob, Vincent's sob. Indian men only cry at funerals.
It was at this point that I realised I could not be what I was not. I could not keep walking away. I turned around and saw him at the far end of the platform, on the floor, the four men kicking him in the groin, in the belly, snatching his wallet, his mobile phone, the keys in his pocket, enjoying their seemingly new-found respect for the language they couldn't help using on him.
I didn't expect his eyes to be on me. Even as I turned around to look at him, as I left my world of lopsided positions of power and slowly entered the world where Vincent, my butter chicken and rice benefactor, my compatriot, my fellow traveller on the expensive road to an Australian education was being attacked, I could feel his eyes on me willing me to help him. I knew then that he had been watching me all the time.
'My God Vincent, I didn't know,' I shouted, running to him, trying to cover up my shame, knowing he did not believe a word of it.
'Stop,' I yelled at them, knowing how ridiculous this request sounded at this moment in time, but I said it again, 'Stop,' because I couldn't think of anything else to say, unused to aggression and thuggery as I was. Of course, they laughed. They mimicked me in that same absurd accent. 'Shut the fuck up you stinking black bitch,' one of them said, 'Go back to where you came from.'
Needless to say I was under no illusions anymore. This had more to do with the power relations in the political economy of migrants, than the smell of my clothes, I realised, although I knew that that too had played a part.
I was afraid they would come for me. But something deeper made me override that fear with concern for Vincent. Maybe it was the years of listening to boring sermons about championing the underdog, the years of lessons in humility and the years of being told to revere the Jesus of justice.
'Fuck off', I said to them with the fearlessness of someone who has just had an empowering revelation — I who once told my best friend she should wash her mouth with Holy Water when she called a bus conductor stupid behind his back.
'Fuck off,' I said again, enjoying the power those words gave me, using their language, a new language to me, against them. Something in my tone of voice deterred them, I would like to think, or maybe they got what they wanted and didn't see the benefit of messing around with small fry like me. Miraculously they ran away, but not before kicking Vincent in the face, leaving him with a black eye and a bloodied mouth, and me feeling brave yet trembling at the same time, relieved at the spitters' retreat, yet without a clue about what I should do next. Vincent had lost all his valuables, including his weekly wages that he was supposed to send to India for his sister's wedding.
I told Vincent I would ring triple-oh. He said 'No no, why? I am fine.' He got up, dusted his clothes as if we had just been picnicking on Bronte beach, then buckled over for an instant before standing upright again, and spat blood onto the strip of grass beside the platform.
'Look at you', I said, 'You need to go to a doctor.'
'Cheh!' he said, 'No no, I'm okay. I'll just go and put some ice on my face, I have ice at my place.'
I didn't want to force the issue on a man who was so insistent on being brave and silly at the same time.
'At least let me call the police if you don't want an ambulance.'
'No no,' he became animated. 'This is my last semester. They will do a police check for PR applications, no? Why simply get a bad name? So much I have struggled, now at the end I don't want trouble,' he said.
But I insisted. 'No, the police must be informed.' After much resistance he realised my will was stronger than his and he agreed to go to the cops with me, if only to keep me quiet, I suspected. After all they were only down the road. I wanted to hold his arm to steady him but our friendship had not yet bound us in a way that touch would have been acceptable, even in such a situation. Vincent seemed the type of man for whom a woman was either a lover or a sister. Platonic friendship was a bit further up the ladder, a fuzzy undefined state. I knew this was not the moment to attempt to define this third category.
When we got to the police station we found a notice that said it was unmanned after 8pm. There was a buzzer there that was meant to connect us to an operator, but after five tries and no answer we decided to go elsewhere. We walked to the cab rank on the other side of the station. I was constantly conscious of the physical pain Vincent would be feeling and I offered to walk to the cab rank alone if Vincent would find it easier to sit on the footpath and wait for me to return with a cab.
'No no, girls mustn't walk alone in the night, it's too dangerous,' he said with finality.
The absurdity of this was not lost on me but who was I to argue with the chivalry of a wounded man? So we walked slowly, he allowed himself this concession, and finally made it to the cab rank in the sharp April air. The sky had a sprinkling of stars, the moon was hiding somewhere behind some loyal clouds and our path was lit by a lone streetlight. After a 15 minute wait a cab turned up and took us to the police station in the next suburb. It was closed for renovations.
The cab driver, feeling sorry for us, said he would take us free of charge to the third one, a good ten kilometres away. Grateful for this kindness from a stranger, we arrived at the third police station only to be told that the officers on duty were busy with another case, involving juvenile repeat offenders who had trashed a row of parked cars, and we should come back in the morning.
Vincent looked like he was sublimating into some sort of gaseous sate. I did not have the heart to force him to another police station. So I decided to call it a night. The kind cabbie took us first to Vincent's apartment block where Vincent got off and assured me he would be fine. I gave him my number and promised to help him in the morning. All he needed to do was ring me when he was ready. I told him not to forget to ring his bank and cancel his cards. He assured me he would and then turned and walked up the stairs. He had to wake up for his 7am shift at the petrol station the next day. The cabbie took me home.
'Where you from luv?' he asked, 'Fiji?'
'No, India, Bombay.'
'Oh, India? My father was born in Calcutta, his father, that's my grandfather, was in the British army. But then they went back to England when my father was two years old, and then they came here. He could speak Indian and that, you know, they had a maid who looked after him, taught him the language. My wife says that's why I love curry,' he laughed.
As I got out of the cab at my doorstep, I offered him some money, at least for the first part of the trip. He refused.
'I consider myself to be half Indian, luv', he chuckled. 'You take care of your friend, looks like he got some nasty bruises. Yeah, we see it all the time, young Indian kids and that, too scared to tell the cops.'
This man, this cabbie, an eagle on a mountaintop overlooking the rag and bone transactions of humans down below, balanced the night for me. His words restored me to a state of reality that had eluded me. Or perhaps I had deliberately eluded it. I couldn't help thinking how we were just skimming the surface, all of us, worrying about the externals, the peripherals, hiding under our shields as victims, flaunting our armour as perpetrators, dithering about when to act, minding our own business when we were called to roll up our sleeves and dive in, when what was most important was to anoint each moment with the grace of our humanity, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Never mind about territory and retribution and who got here first.
I thought of myself, of Vincent, I was sure his call would never come. It never did. He didn't need to be rescued. I met him the following week at the restaurant as usual and he handed me my butter chicken and rice at shift's end, as if that night had never happened. Or as if it had happened so many times that it didn't merit the importance of memory. When stripped of his race, his gender, his affiliation to his country, his community, his religion, his family, and his smelly Indian restaurant clothes, he knew that his first affiliation must be to himself. He was just a person, longing, like everyone else, for release into some Eden where he could be happy.
The path to that happiness involved money, a foreign education, a comfortable house in his name. He had learned yet again that this path would have to be negotiated with skill, with a thick skin, with test tubes and blotting paper, even, if necessary, with a blind eye. As I had learned that night. Yet again.
Roanna Gonsalves is a Sydney-based writer who is working on her first novel with support from Varuna Writers Centre and an Australia Council New Work grant.