By Nidhi Arora
Saloni applied to four job openings in Singapore a week before she landed there. As an HR professional herself, she knew it took even the best of teams a couple of weeks to process applications, and by that time she would be on the little island, by her husband's side, where she 'should' be, as her mother reminded her every day. "A newly married couple had no business staying apart," her mother said. It amused Saloni that this was said to her and not to the one who had gone ahead and moved countries four months after marriage.
"I'm just making sure I have something lined up when I get there," she replied.
Her mother gave her the 'Kauser Ma'am' look, the look that she had said something wrong, but instead of being told what, Saloni would be left to figure it out herself. The first time she'd got that look was when she was about nine. Kauser Ma'am was her class teacher in the third grade and also the mathematics teacher. Saloni remembered standing in the queue for reviewing marks for the first term math paper. Although all her answers were correct, she'd got 24.5 on 25. She had even done one question more than was required. The question paper said 'do any four', she had finished early and done the fifth one too. Her writing was more or less neat, there weren't too many re-writes, over-writes or erasings. The line moved quickly. When her turn came, she pushed her answer sheet gently under Kauser Ma'am's nose. Kauser Ma'am turned to her with her radiant skin, matching bindi and lipstick.
"Everything is correct, Ma'am," Saloni mumbled.
"And?" She raised her perfectly round eyebrows.
"Why did you cut half a mark, Ma'am?"
"You tell me," she said. When she said this, Kauser Ma'am didn't scold. She didn't smile either. She said it from far away, like a queen, a goddess more like, surveying her people, wanting them to do better. Her friends told her not to think too much about it, when had Kauser Ma'am ever given full marks, 24.5 was practically full marks coming from her. It could be the handwriting, the way she had written the date or the shade of ink. Saloni was convinced it was the extra question she had done. Kauser Ma'am didn't approve of over confidence. She didn't like the girls who walked with their chests out, said it was indecent. When she went around class with a wooden ruler, the entire class twitched, slouching backs straightened, straight backs softened, hoping to get it exactly right.
All her report cards that year said, 'Saloni can do better.' The way Kauser Ma'am said it, Saloni felt hopeful. She desperately wanted Kauser Ma'am to be right. Her mother came back from parent-teacher meetings talking like her. Saloni got top marks in math. The comment stayed the same. She trained her focus on English, then Hindi, then history, then geography. She studied chapters that weren't taught in class, wrote essays longer than were asked for, participated in the play, sports day, flower decoration competitions, debates and dances hoping to somewhere find that hidden potential and unleash it. Saloni's mother adopted that comment and continued using it long after Kauser Ma'am stopped teaching her class. Saloni went to a good college, started working, married where she was asked to. The way her mother said it, it sounded like an accusation, like Saloni had a gift and she was squandering it.
Her gamble paid off. Two days before her flight, there was an e-mail from one of the companies, a big bank, asking her to complete an online personality test.
Nikhil received her at the airport and they took a taxi to the apartment they were going to live in. They had chosen the place together. Her primary requirement had been a garden. She didn't mind if the place was far from the city, she was used to long commutes in Delhi. But when she came home from work, she wanted some space. It didn't have to be big, just some green open space to call her own. Nikhil had sent her pictures of apartments he saw with brokers and they had agreed on a two-bedroom condo with a patio in Bedok that was within the allowance his company offered.
Their shipment would take a few weeks to arrive, but Saloni had her laptop and the Wi-Fi worked even better than the LAN connection she had back in Delhi, and that was all she needed for now. She did the personality test before going to bed in a new country.
The apartment had the basic furniture and fittings. Her cousin had told her about Mustafa, the fantastical place that contained everything Indian imaginable, 'from pin to plane' all under one roof. One day when Nikhi was at work, she took the MRT and made her way to Mustafa. Walking down Syed Alwi road, she passed a row of Indian restaurants. Ananda Bhawan was big and busy. Walking down, she was overjoyed to see Sagar Ratna, her favourite South Indian joint in Delhi. The only thing more exciting than exploring a new place was concluding it with a familiar meal. Lunch decided, she entered Mustafa. She lost her bearings a few times before figuring out the layout and though she didn't see an aeroplane, she emerged two hours later, lugging eleven shopping bags and headed straight to Sagar Ratna.
The air was stale and tepid, like they had turned on the cooling just then, but the menu was familiar. She chose a seat directly under the air conditioner vent and ordered her usual mixed uttappam. There was one other gentleman seated a few tables away. In a few minutes, the waiter brought her food and said something to her in Tamil. She had been to Chennai enough number times to know what the language sounded like but she didn't understand it. She was also used to being taken for a local because of her dusky skin. She shrugged her shoulders helplessly.
"No Tamil?" the waiter asked.
"No," she shook her head. "Hindi."
Her meal turned out to be average. The uttappam tasted flat, the batter hadn't fermented enough. The sambar was not only bland, it was mildly sweet. The chutney was straight out of the freezer, she could taste the ice. She tried to get the waiter's attention but he was deep in conversation with the gentleman. She didn't bother trying their coffee. She would go home and make herself a proper cup. She paid, picked her bags and walked out looking for a taxi. All the taxis turning in were red, even though there were no passengers inside. After ten minutes of waiting in the sun, she finally saw a green one, but with all the bags, she couldn't hail it and the taxi drove right past her. She asked a passer-by where the nearest taxi-stand was and walked there. The heavy plastic bags were beginning to hurt her fingers. She swapped them around to balance the weight, worrying at the same time that they might burst open. She couldn't locate the taxi stand. Every few seconds she looked back over her shoulder to see if any green taxis were coming. After what seemed like half an hour, a taxi pulled up a few metres ahead of her and passengers alighted. She made a dash for it and held up her eleven bags for the driver to see. He nodded and opened the boot for her. She dumped all the bags and got in. A blast of icy air greeted her. She nearly cried with relief.
"Vannakam!" the taxi driver said.
"I'm not Tamil," Saloni said. She was hot and tired and generally dissatisfied with the way her day was turning out.
"Then, Delhi?" he asked, looking at her in the mirror.
"Yes," she said. She had no energy to engage in small talk.
"Namaste then!" he said. "Aap kaise hain?"
He had learnt Tamil, Hindi and Bangla from his Indian customers. He also knew some French and Spanish. German was the most difficult. He loved Indian food. How did one say 'It's very hot' in Hindi? He would teach her some Mandarin in return. One day he wanted to visit India. No, not Agra, he wanted to go Dharamsala, to see the Dalai Lama. When they pulled into her block, he said "dhanyavad" and she said "xie xie ni" in return.
With not much to do, she went for a walk in the evening before Nikhil returned from work. Even a seemingly natural reservoir looked neater and more manicured than Lodhi gardens back home. The outdoor gyms did not overflow with people and the grass didn't overflow with litter. The only eyesore were the pigeons. She couldn't stand these birds. Till as far back as she could remember, pigeons had hovered near her, flying too close to her head in the school playground, getting under her feet in college corridors, nesting in the crevices of the stairway in her office, mumbling officiously. They insisted on being here too, sullying the park with their poop and feathers, bobbing their heads, looking at her sideways with their pink, suspicious eyes. A child dropped some food and from nowhere a whole flock descended noisily, flapping their thick wings, strutting, looking for scraps.
She arose early and cooked breakfast and lunch while Nikhil got ready to go to work. It was only a matter of time before she wouldn't be able to do this, and she didn't mind affording her husband this little domestic pleasure. The first day she made poha with potatoes and onions. Nikhil devoured it, said it was the best poha he had ever eaten. It was hard to tell what he enjoyed more, the dish or the fact that she had cooked for him. She kept waiting for him to sprinkle some criticism on his compliments, but none came. Some evenings she met him in the CBD after work and they went out for dinner. While Nikhil pored over menus, she took in the tall buildings, the clean roads, the traffic that actually went by the rules. Most of all, she admired the women with their flat bellies, straight hair, marking the earth with their stilettos. On her next visit to Mustafa, she bought a hair straightener.
One morning, after she had cleaned up in the kitchen, she made a cup of coffee and went to the patio. As she stepped out, her foot touched something furry and soft. It was a dead pigeon. She gagged. Some of her coffee spilt. She left her mug on the sill, shut the door and limped to the bathroom, not letting her soiled foot touch the floor. The only thing more disgusting than a live pigeon was a dead one. She scrubbed her foot with pumice, soaped her entire body two times, showered with hot water but couldn't wash away the image of the dead bird from her mind. Its eyes had been open. It could very well have been alive if not for the way it lay and didn't move when her foot touched it. She called Nikhil. He didn't answer. She messaged him. He didn't reply. She called her mother.
"It's not a good sign," her mother said.
"It means death."
"Of course it does, it is a dead bird."
"Not like that. It means someone or something is going to die."
Saloni's problem was more immediate. Who was going to remove the dead bird from the patio? It would have to be Nikhil. She was not stepping foot in there until it was cleared and washed with soap.
When Nikhil checked in the evening, he didn't find anything.
"Are you sure it was there?"
"What do you mean, of course I'm sure."
The interview was scheduled for the following week. She had brought her suit with her but she could do with new shoes. Her black flats that she had worn to work till a month ago felt a bit too flat now. She didn't like anything she saw at Mustafa. Her wanderings took her to Charles and Keith. The heels were tantalizing. The shop assistants here didn't bother to sit her down and ask her what they could help her with, which was all for the better because she wobbled embarrassingly when she tried on the two inch pumps. She didn't even bother trying the nude pointed-toe stilettos. She almost settled on a black pair but then she did the conversion and could not bring herself to spend three thousand five hundred rupees on one pair of shoes. She found a more reasonably priced shop closer home and bought a dark grey two-inch heel, which was a full inch more than she was used to.
"Isn't the heel too much?" Nikhil asked when she showed it to him. She wondered whether it was the heel he thought excessive or the spending.
As she entered the bank building with the sky-high ceiling, she felt herself become taller. She walked over to the concierge who handed her a visitor pass and opened the turnstile for her. She pressed level 31 in the squeaky clean lift and thought about her old office on the third floor where the security guard mostly slept, the rickety lifts that mostly didn't work, the paan-spit-festooned staircase caked with dry pigeon shit. She assessed herself in mirror, tucked her hair behind her ears and sucked her belly in. She had practiced walking in her new shoes before leaving the house, but regretted that now. The shoes were pressing against the back of her foot and her toes.
The lady at the reception sat ramrod straight, her head covered in a pink floral scarf. She wore a pale pink top with matching lipstick and earrings. The room was perfect, there wasn't a strand out of place.
"You must be here for the interview," she said, each word perfectly enunciated. She didn't smile, she didn't not smile either.
She gave Saloni a clipboard with a form.
"Please take a seat and fill this for me," she pointed to a lounge a few feet away. "Can I get you drink?"
Saloni looked around for a coffee machine or kettle, but could only see a water dispenser.
"Hot water or cold water?"
"Nothing, thank you," Saloni said. What she needed was the bathroom, but her left shoe was beginning to bite. Every step was getting painful. She'd best sit in one place and go later.
Another candidate walked in, a young Caucasian man, and the same conversation happened. Almost the same.
"Can I offer you a drink?"
"A single malt will be good for my nerves," he said and they both guffawed. He came and sat next to Saloni and nodded to her. She smiled back. The receptionist came over with a cup of water. She wore the nude Charles and Keith stilettos Saloni had seen earlier. She walked gracefully, effortlessly.
"This will have to do for now," she said. Addressing both of them, she said, "The manager is running a few minutes late, he sends his apologies."
Saloni was shivering in the blast of the air conditioning and her bladder was threatening to burst. On top of that, she'd made the mistake of slipping her feet out of her shoes while filling the form. Now a blister had formed at the back of both feet and another one had swelled on the side of her left pinkie toe. When she slipped her feet back in the shoes, she had to bite her lips to not squeal. She walked gingerly to the receptionist and asked directions to the bathroom. She wanted to walk lightly, but her foot was making her limp. She tried to do both at the same time and ended up with a weird, ungainly movement.
In the bathroom she relieved herself and nursed her blisters with a wet tissue. She considered leaving it in there like a band-aid, but worried that it might fall off and flushed it down the toilet. The walk back to the reception was slightly less painful. She knew the comfort was short lived but at least she could have that drink of water now. She walked over to the water cooler. It took some looking around to find the stack of paper cups shaped like cones on the side of the cooler. She had never seen such cups. She tried to pry one off from the bottom. It wouldn't come off.
She looked back to see if she should ask the receptionist for help. She was staring intently into her screen. Saloni pulled again. This time a whole bunch came off and slipped from her hands. She'd need to lunge to her left to catch them, but if she did, her shoe was sure to slice through her foot and sever it from her body. The cups fell to the floor and rolled away in a spiral pattern. She took a deep breath and got down on her haunches. She winced with pain. The guy came over and helped her. From the corner of her eye, she saw the receptionist swivel her chair, assess the scene and rise slowly. Saloni mumbled clumsy sorry's and thank you's as she gathered the cups. The receptionist replenished the dispenser with a fresh stack of cups.
"Where can I…?" Saloni asked her, holding the fallen cups.
She extended her hand and Saloni handed them over to her. She dropped them in the bin as she sashayed back to her desk.
Saloni walked over to her and said, "Xie xie ni." She did not look up from her screen. Saloni wasn't sure if she had imagined it, but she felt the receptionist roll her eyes ever so slightly. In a few moments, a suited gentleman appeared from inside and spoke to the receptionist. She looked towards Saloni. He came over, introduced himself as the hiring manager, shook hands and ushered her inside.
"Can I get you a drink?" he asked.
In all the kerfuffle, Saloni hadn't had water. But she couldn't bring herself to think of those cups again. She declined and limped her way to the meeting room.
She didn't tell Nikhil about the cups when he asked about the interview. Neither did she tell him about the blisters. "It went well," she said. "They'll make a decision in two or three weeks."
Their shipment arrived and the house was filled with over 40 cartons worth of things. Saloni opened a couple of cartons each day, starting with the kitchen. The first day she made a simple meal of dal and rice. Slowly, she got into a routine of cooking in the morning, going for a walk, showering, lunch followed by a siesta and talking to her mother before. Whenever she needed to go into the patio, her eyes scanned the floor for a micro-second, a kind of seeing without actually seeing, to make sure there wasn't anything there that she wouldn't want to see. In the evening she went for a walk around her block. She didn't get hooked to any of the dramas on Channel 5. Increasingly, she watched Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Little Champs on YouTube and while she was there, she checked her e-mail. She did so with mild, muted enthusiasm, an unformed expectation of finding something. The interview had gone well by all accounts and from what she had seen, there weren't too many other serious candidates. It was too soon to hear from them anyway.
Every day, there was an e-mail from JobStreet.com. It had taken her half a day to fill out all the information of her work experience and education history while creating her profile, but for all that detail they had taken, the jobs they brought to her were remarkably off the mark. Ironically, there were new openings for Recruitment Consultant every day, with no prior experience required.
"Do you want to apply and see?" Nikhil suggested.
"I didn't work as an Assistant Manager for three years to apply for an entry level job here," she replied.
Every Monday, Nikhil brought home the Recruit section of Saturday's newspaper from his office. They piled up in a stack in their guest room.
Sometimes she wrote to her friends. If any of them was online, they would chat briefly. Two friends had sent her invites to join Orkut, a website where one could connect with old friends. She had started to create an account, but the options for status included student, working, home-maker, retired, other. She didn't like the option that best described her at the moment. She told herself she'd join once she had the job so she could choose the correct status for herself.
After two weeks of not hearing from the bank, the expectation morphed into worry. She spent more time online, refreshing her inbox three or four times in a day, watching the same episodes over and over. She rediscovered Solitaire, a game she used to play at her first job when all she did was wait for days on end for her boss to give her something to do. What he gave her was a B-plus during appraisal because "she could be more prudent in how she utilises her time in office." Playing by herself in an empty house without having to look over her shoulder was liberating. But the silence around her was beginning to get unnerving.
Nikhil's work was getting busy. He might have to go to KL for three days. He did not offer to take her along and she didn't ask. Anyway, his visa was being taken care of by his company. She had no idea how to get hers done.
She went to bed later and later and awoke after Nikhil left for work. She made one dal or sabzi in the evening which they had with frozen Ashoka parathas. She stopped opening anymore boxes. They had everything they needed. The last five cartons remained in the living room. They contained knicks and knacks to decorate the house she had curated over the last few months. They stayed as they were for days.
"What's in these?" Nikhil asked one evening.
"Why don't you open and see for yourself," she snapped. He did. It contained photo frames and a crystal candelabra. He placed the candelabra on the TV console and stored the frames away.
The day before he left, on her mother's insistence, Saloni tried making baingan bharta, something she had never made it before. Smoking the aubergines, chopping and frying tomatoes and onions took nearly two hours. By the time she logged on to her computer, no one was online and her inbox was empty except for JobStreet.com. At dinner, she watched as Nikhil took a mouthful of the bharta.
She waited for his reaction. None came. He ate slowly, without saying anything. Saloni fumed silently. When had she turned into one of those wives who wait on their husbands, cook for them, move countries with them, keep their house and don't even get an acknowledgment? She didn't eat. Nikhil asked if she was feeling unwell, if he could make something for her. She shook her head. He suggested they go for a walk, take a bus to the beach perhaps, she said she didn't feel like it.
After Nikhil left for KL, she spent all her time online. She chatted with her friends and when none of them were logged on, she chatted with strangers. She found herself checking her mail every half hour. She did so almost with a knowing that she wouldn't find anything there, yet she couldn't stop clicking, like an itch that she needed to scratch even though it was beginning to bleed. Or maybe because it was beginning to bleed.
On one such click, when she was expecting nothing, there was one new e-mail sitting in her inbox in bold, from the bank. She held her breath as she read. They thanked her for applying for the position and giving her time to go through their recruitment process. They had received an overwhelming number of highly qualified applications. She had made it to the final shortlist and they had come very close to selecting her. Unfortunately, they were not able to offer the position to her but wished her the best of luck in finding the right role. She read it over and over. There were a lot of words, filling half the screen long, but all she read was, "you tell me."
She didn't go for a walk that day. Neither did she call her mother. She skipped lunch too. She dozed off on the sofa. When she woke up, it was six in the evening. Famished, she heated up the bharta. She took one bite and spat it out. It had no salt. The smoked flavour mixed with strong garam masala with no salt tasted vile. Nikhil had eaten it without a word. Angry and embarrassed, she watched YouTube till midnight, when she fell asleep again. She lay in bed till the next afternoon, wondering what had gone wrong. She had all the qualifications. She had the exact work experience they needed. It was all India-based, true, but the hiring manager had himself said it would be a good perspective to add to the team. Should she have accepted the water he'd offered? Was it the way she had limped? Was it what happened at the dispenser?
Her mother Skyped.
"Why is your hair like this?" she asked. "Haven't you showered yet?"
It had been three days since she'd showered.
She made coffee and headed to the patio. Beyond the glass door, her eyes made out a small, grey figure on the ground. She left her coffee by the door, changed into outdoor clothes and went out. The air was thick with heat but she couldn't care less. She boarded the first bus that came. At the interchange, she got down and boarded No. 17 that went near the beach. It was supposed to be a 15-minute walk from the bus stop to the beach. She walked for 30 minutes and saw no sign of a beach, only blocks and blocks of HDBs shimmering in the sun. After an hour of walking randomly in the afternoon sun, she hailed a taxi back home. Entering the cool, pristine taxi, she became acutely aware of her weary, sweaty self, the feral tang of her own odour. She thought of getting out of the taxi for the driver's sake, but they were already on their way.
"Very hot day," the driver said. He didn't seem to mind her stench. "Better stay indoors." "I want to, but pigeons keep dying on my patio."
"They think the sky they see on the glass is real, stupid birds."
Silly as it sounded, it made all the sense. "They can't tell if is the real sky or just a reflection. Especially in this heat."
"But then the body disappears," Saloni said.
"Cats lah," he said. "I have two. They bring me birds every time."
She opened the patio door and took a full look at the pigeon. Its iridescent neck shone green and purple. Its eyes were wide open, bewildered. It must have been shocked that it could've made such a mistake. Saloni wondered how long it took for death to come post-impact. Did it come immediately or did the pigeon get a few moments to understand what was happening? Did the pigeon get to see its trajectory cut short, its flight end, crash into a mirage? There was poop next to the body. What came after the sadness?
Embarrassment? Anger? Why the door would do such a thing, lure it with promises of open skies and lush trees only to whack it to random, rude death? It was the death that was filthy and stupid, not the pigeon. It had died flying. It had died with dreams. The only thing sadder than dying with dreams was dying without them. It took courage to dream. Should the pigeon have slowed down, descended on the patio, assessed whether the sky was really the sky or a death trap? But when you're air-borne, you're not thinking about not dying, you don't examine every piece of the sky to see if it will have you, you just fly. You fly hoping the wind push your wings forward and trusting that the skies will embrace you. And what if some skies didn't? This pigeon had gone on flying anyway.
Saloni dug a pit in the earth. She still couldn't bring herself to touch the bird. Something about all those feathers, claws and open eyes, now cold, repulsed her. With a piece of cardboard, she gently pushed the body onto another cardboard and placed it in the pit. She sprinkled some mustard seeds on it and covered it with earth. A ginger cat walked past. She placed a flower pot over the grave.
One of the cartons in the living room had a string curtain made of seashells that she bought from a dastkaar mela in Bangalore. She hung it on the outside of the patio door. No more pigeons would die on her watch. She took out all the other things in the cartons. The two cane ottomans went on the patio. A carved candle had gone soft in the heat. She put it in fridge. She unpacked two more cartons and marvelled afresh at the things she had collected in the last few months for the new chapter in her life. She placed the Lakshmi-Ganesh idol in the kitchen and a mat her mother had crocheted on the coffee table.
She showered. She made herself a coffee. She put milk in a saucer for the cat and sat in the patio with the stack of Recruit. The sun was going down and a light breeze blew. The strings of the curtain clattered softly against the glass, breaking the orange sky into tiny, seashell-shaped shadows.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022