Fresh Off The Boat

It was a humble neighborhood of red brick apartments in a middle-class neighborhood of Toronto. The black door to a nondescript building opens and a woman walks out. A little stooped, her entire body seems to be apologizing for its presence. 

Neha wears black trousers, a slightly crumpled cotton blouse, and a large blazer. Her clothes appear too warm for the tepid summer morning. Nonetheless, she moves forward tentatively. After a few steps, she pauses to pull down the sleeve of her blazer a little bit more to cover the purple bruises on her wrist. It was where Harprit had tightly grabbed just a few minutes ago, to keep her from walking away. Walking away from a conversation she did not wish to have.

“Why did you not tell me? That luxurious Haveli of your father in Punjab was buried in debt. And you! You are the sole heir of nothing.”, he spat. “Why didn’t you tell me you bitch?”

Harprit, turned Neha around painfully twisting her arm behind her.

“Of all the soni Punjabi kudis I could have married, I married you. You dark-skinned, flat chested….”

Harprit’s tirade still burned Neha’s ears and stung her eyes. Although they had such fights almost every day, it still shook her to her core every single time.

It had taken so long for her to accept that the tall handsome lad who had walked into her father’s home, spoken buttery words, and gazed at her with affection and admiration, was not really looking at her. He wasn’t looking to marry Neha, the woman but rather Neha, the heiress. The only child of Balwant Singh, whose immense white Haveli could be seen all the way from Narangpur Railway station. And anyone walking the streets of Narangpur could tell you that Balwant Singh was the richest man in town.

Harprit had dreamed of being the new owner of Badi Haveli as the locals affectionately referred to the grand building. The custodian of the Singh family fortune, managing the finances on his father-in-law’s behalf.

Less than a year after Neha’s wedding, Balwant Singh, who had single-handedly raised Neha after his wife died in childbirth, succumbed to a heart attack. It was a shock to the town that he was dead. But more so, that he was bankrupt. After his death, the town found out that the family fortune had long been spent, many times over. There was a never-ending list of debtors each claiming their debt was secured by the Badi Haveli. As the lawyers and accountants scrambled to keep tabs, the debtors kept coming. Finally, one day, the family attorney declared that the estate could only pay a small portion as a full settlement of all the debt against it.

Harprit was stunned, and then furious. That day was the first time he raised his hand to Neha. He delivered blow after blow on her till she screamed for help. Chacha-Chachi had to summon the neighbors to help pull Harprit back. If not for their collective restraint, Harprit would have possibly killed Neha in his white fury.

Although she survived that day, Neha’s life became a never-ending nightmare of daily beatings from her unemployed husband.

Chachaji took pity on the young couple and spent a big chunk of his savings to pay for their Canadian visa. In a few months, Harprit and Neha had packed their bags and found themselves in the folds of the Punjabi community of Toronto.

Neha had hoped the change of scene would pull Harprit out of his disappointment. But instead, the pressure of creating a new life in a new country added further stress on Harprit. He expressed it the way he always did, by blaming it all on Neha and her bankrupt father.

Today, Neha walks to the metro station and thinks. “Had it not been for this job, there would have been no way to pay for their bills. Harprit is still unemployed.”

Despite her shoddy domestic life, she had something worth cherishing. And it was a recent win. It wasn’t very long ago that Neha was hired at Mirza Brothers.

One Month Ago

One morning, after Harprit had left home in search of a job (in those early days, he still tried to find work when he could), Neha went to the Metro station. She was to take it to Jackson Heights, where several grocery stores sold staples for the Indian kitchen. 

At the metro station, Neha saw several men and women dressed in professional attire. In trousers, suits, scarves, and blazers, carrying bags full of important-looking documents, they were headed to work. Their faces looked fresh in the morning sun and they walked with an air of quiet determination. They looked like important people headed to important places. Places where their presence made a difference. 

A thought sprouted in Neha’s mind. She did have a bachelor’s degree from Punjab University. Perhaps she could apply for an office job? Maybe she too could join this army of office-goers each morning on the metro. She too could be worth something. A job would mean a salary that she could bring back home and then perhaps Harprit would forgive her for her father’s failings.

Neha saw a familiar face in the crowd. It was Meena. Meena lived a few apartments down from hers and they had seen each other in passing. They walked to each other and greeted each other. Their common immigrant experience gave an easy flow to the conversation between them. 

“Where are you off to this morning?”, Neha asked.

“Why to work, silly”, Meena flashed her a warm smile. Or maybe she didn’t actually smile but Meena’s round face always looked like it was about to break into a smile.

Neha wondered how it was even possible.

“Will you tell me where I need to change trains to go to Jackson Heights? I went once with Harprit and don’t remember the names of the stations very well.”, Neha asked.

“I am going to Jackson Heights too, Neha. I work at Mirza Brothers. It’s the largest Indian grocery store there. You should get everything you need at the best prices there. We can go together.”

Neha nodded gratefully.

“Are you hungry?” Meena held out a couple of breakfast bars that she had extracted from her large bag. “There is never any time to eat before I leave home so I keep these in my bag to eat on the train.”

Neha smiled as she picked one that was wrapped in pink and claimed real strawberries were the main ingredient.

“You are lucky you have a job. Something to fill your time.” Neha said. “I find the days so long and quiet here in Canada. So different from back home. In Narangpur, every home is a bee hive where servants, vendors, neighbors, relatives, and friends walked in and out all day.”

“Yes it’s different here but you’ll get used to it. Have you been looking for a job?” Meena asked.

“I hadn’t thought of it. “ responded Neha. “I was married soon after graduation and have never worked. Who would give me a job.” Neha sighed.

After a pause, Meena said, “The store that I work at is always looking for people to help stock the shelves. If you are any good, they may make you a cashier even. I work in the office behind the store and take care of the bookkeeping.”

“I could stock the shelves.” Neha said, as though coming alive. “I might look small but I can carry a mean load.” Neha made a gesture as though showing Meena her strong biceps. Both of them burst into peels of laughter. 

It was settled that Meena would take Neha to Mirza Brothers and introduce her to the floor manager.

“And if he won’t give you a job, we can at least try and wring out a discount from the stingy bastard.”, Meena said.

When they walked in, Neha was amazed at how large and well-stocked the Mirza Brothers store was. Everything on her list and more could be found on its endless row of shelves. 

Meena led her straight away to the back of the store. A small glass door led to a back office where Mirza bhai was sitting hunched over a desk covered with papers, and ledgers.

As soon as Meena walked into the tiny office, Mirza bhai stood up from the chair and waved her to it. 

“I don’t know how you make sense of all this. Looking at all these numbers makes my head spin. Bitiya, before you start, have some tea and there are fresh samosas for breakfast too. But please make sure the books are balanced before Zia bhai comes in this evening. I hate it when he asks for the hisaab and nobody knows where we stand.”

He made a grand gesture of waving Meena to the chair and only then he noticed Neha standing at the door right behind Meena.

“And who is this young lady?” he asked.

“This is my neighbor Neha, Mirza bhai. She and her husband have just moved to Canada from Punjab and have rented an apartment on my street. She is looking for a job so I brought her here. She is a good and hardworking girl, Mirza bhai.” Meena continued hoping this last part was true. She hadn’t known Neha very long after all. But still, Meena’s generous heart wanted to help this timid girl.

“We have enough cashiers Meena. And I just hired the two college students that came in yesterday to stock the shelves. Masha-allah, what strength in those young arms! They move those large boxes as if they were filled with cotton and not lentils.”. Then he turned to look at Neha standing at the door. “This young lady could hardly budge the boxes if she tried with all her might”.

He was speaking to Neha now. “You should look for an office job, bitiya. Kya naam bataya? Yes, Neha. You should look for a desk job like Meena. She has learned so much since she joined us 3 months ago. And she sits comfortably here in this air-conditioned office instead of sweating it out on the store floor like those lads. Now if you had come here three months ago, it could have been you in that seat. We have Meena now though. So unless she is run over by a bus, I have no open position I could put you in.” He guffawed at this own joke.

Then he spoke kindly. “Try again in a few months, Bitiya. And for today, how about I give you 10% off your grocery purchase? Tell Karim at the cash register that Mirza bhai has approved it when you pay, ok? Chalo I have a lot to do. Nice to meet you, Neha. Khush raho. Khuda Hafiz.”

And with that, Mirza Bhai walked away.

Neha was disappointed but as she always did, she pushed the feeling deep into that back crevice of her heart where all the disappointments in her life were buried.

She turned to look at Meena, who was settling into her chair. Meena had fired up the computer and was muttering. “Silly old man. To think you could do my job. Keeping the books is not that easy, you know. Sab ke bas ki baat nahi. Women like you, fresh off the boat, who can barely spell, how can they keep books? Sathiya gaya hai buddha.”

Neha was stunned at this change in Meena’s demeanor. The girl who was so full of generosity just a few minutes ago had forgotten their friendship and spoken so harshly.

“I will not take any more of your time, Meena. I know you have a lot to do” Neha turned to leave. Before she shut the door though, Neha turned back for another look. 

Meena was sitting in the high-back leather chair across from a desktop computer. She was staring intently at the screen. On the side of the desk, she had placed a notebook, pen and other supplies neatly arranged in a straight line. From the other side, the air conditioner was blowing a cool breeze in which Meena’s long hair was gently moving in waves away from her face. Neha looked on with a longing she could not explain. The calm concentration on Meena’s face, her high self-worth from being a valued employee reflected in the way she occupied her space in that tiny back office. This picture of self-worth was in such a stark contrast to Neha’s abused body and mind, that she ached at the sight of it.

Recalling Meena’s words about ‘women like you’  and ‘fresh off the boat’ pierced her heart as Neha forced herself to turn and leave the store.

Meena worked part-time which meant that her afternoon commute was very different. Afternoons at Jackson Heights were quiet and she had to contend with very few fellow passengers. That afternoon Meena wrapped up her work and headed back to the metro station. She was listening to music in earphones that were positioned on each of her ears just above her dangling earrings. She seemed lost in the music blasting in her ears as she waited on the platform for the train to arrive. 

Minutes later, the distant rumbling of the approaching train could be heard. A gust of air filled the mostly empty train station. As the train drew near, someone rose from the back bench. It was Neha. She walked in slow deliberate steps to stand right behind Meena who continued to be oblivious. 

Since she left the store that morning, Neha could not dislodge the picture of Meena at her desk from her mind. And having seen it the way she did today, Neha wanted it for herself. She craved that sensation with every ounce of her being.  She had felt the weight of that craving all morning as she shopped, paid for her grocery, and walked to the metro station. She felt it as she sat on the back bench. It was that craving that didn’t let her board any of the trains headed back home. She just sat there, as though in a trance.

Now, standing behind Meena, Neha heard the oncoming train too.

Moments before the train arrived at the platform, Neha summoned every ounce of energy in her tiny frame and pushed Meena on the tracks, right in the path of the coming train. There was nobody around to see her do this. Just before she hit the tracks though Meena’s head turned towards Neha and looked at her in disbelief. That was the expression that stayed frozen on Meena’s face until the moment she hit the tracks and the train ran over her.

Nena’s face maintained the usual air of someone about to break into an apology. This time she boarded the train and headed home. Neha went home with her discounted grocery. It was only after the train had left, that someone saw the body of a dead woman on the tracks and raised the alarm.

Today

Neha gets off the train and walks to Mirza Brothers. She walks to the back of the store where Mirza bhai is sitting hunched over some ledger. 

Seeing her, he stands up and said “Come come Neha. Please help balance these ledgers. In budhi ankhon ko ab thik se dikhta tak nahi. If you hadn’t informed me of Meena’s deportation and helped me organize everything, I don’t know what I would do, bitiya. ”, he speaks with sadness and gratitude and then turns to leave. At the door, he pauses to add, “And today we have upma and coffee for breakfast in the staff room. Make sure you eat some”. He beams at Neha one more time before leaving the small office.

She smiles shyly at him as she watches him go. Then, Neha settled into the high-back leather chair feeling the cool whiff from the air conditioner on her face. A content expression finally reigns on her face as she powers on the computer and arranges her notebook and pen on the desk in a straight line.

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