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Tuesday, 29 June 2010 02:00

The Promised Land

By  Sushma Joshi
Umesh Acharya, only son of an illustrious family of judges and diplomats, inheritor of lavish acres of land in Banepa, and owner of two centrally located Kathmandu apartment buildings, decided to leave for America a week after his marriage. His wife Supriya, who came from an eminent though now impoverished family, was a pretty girl. Pretty, with the kind of prettiness that made it impossible to say "no" when he first saw her photograph, and then her real face, at the Bakery Café in King's Way. She has a wide-eyed smile, dimpled cheeks, a sophisticated way of talking that hid her blatant uncouthness. She radiated a fun-loving, cheerful disposition. Within the first few days, she had charmed her suspicious mother-in-law along with the adolescent male cousins of her husband. She spent the better part of the three days of the wedding playing with children of her soon-to-be husband's relatives. Older women, who rarely spared a new bride, found her faultless.

Umesh, dressed in his pin-striped, ash-grey suit, with a tiny brooch of his favorite football team stuck in the lapel, suddenly seemed to transform from a gawky teenager to a worldly-wise, practical man, someone who had grown up with the ins and outs of byahahar, the behaviors of everyday life. He greeted his future in-laws, all four hundred of them; ran around to seat the old and distinguished in chairs on the side; escorted lost guests towards the buffet heated in big trays at the back. "Have some more," he said, ladling the rich food onto the plate of a beaming auntie. "Cauliflower and spinach? How about some chicken?"

The bride's family complimented her parents on finding such a good son-in-law. "Where did you find him, Maiya?" said a breathless mother as she grabbed Supriya's mother's hand. "My daughter needs a husband just like him, the only son of a rich family. And so well mannered!"

Behind bejeweled hands, rumors flew.

"Did you hear they spent twenty lakhs on this wedding alone? Poor woman. Her husband is dead, and Umesh is her only son, so she has nobody else to spend it on."
"I heard she ordered real gold coins to give to the in-laws."
"Who cares? My niece just got married to a man working in America. He may not have given gold coins for marriage, but at least he can take her there."
"Umesh's cousin is working in Radio-sack in Ohi-e. He might join him there, I heard."
"Radio-sack! That's just a shop that sells radios. It sounds fancy to Nepalis who know nothing, that's all."

Thirty of Umesh's cousins and school-friends accompanied him to his bride's home. The janti was received with a great deal of pomp and ceremony - the bride's family sacrificed an entire goat to keep them in good spirits. Wine and beer flowed discreetly, since the bride's family were still firmly rooted in their orthodox Brahmin ways. The bride's sisters hid Umesh and his friends' shoes in keeping with tradition. There was a lot of good humored bargaining and badgering from the men to get the shoes back from the giggling girls.

A causal observer might have thought that Umesh, who had passed his SLC exams but had floundered in two subjects from his intermediate studies in commerce, would have had no reason to leave this comfortable life. His father was dead, and he and his widowed mother lived off the generous amount of rent they received from their two opulent buildings, which they rented out to international donor agencies. But Umesh, who had watched all his friends leave Kathmandu one by one, had a secret restlessness inside him that both his mother and his new wife knew nothing about. "You must get married, Babu," his mother had told him so many times that Umesh had finally caved in. But the urge to leave had never left him.

A week after his wedding, Umesh came into the kitchen. His mother, her spectacles perched on her head, was supervising the cook. Janu, the cook, a wrinkled octogenarian who had been with them as long as he could remember, was cutting open a papaya with remarkably steady hands. Supriya was helping to scoop out the black seeds.

"Oh, there you are," said his mother, looking up. "We were just getting this ready for you. Supriya's mother sent this for you. I had told her a while back this was your favorite fruit, and she remembered."

"Muma," he hesitated. The papaya was laid out in a white ceramic plate with pink roses around the edges. They looked tempting, slices of sweet orange fruit, ripe but not spongy, sweet but without the over-heated sweetness of a papaya sliced a day too late. He picked up a slice, and bit into it. The juice came out into his mouth, a soothingly mild flavor.

Three women looked at him -- his mother with the patience of someone who knew her own son and was waiting for his confession; the old cook with complacent satisfaction at having fed her charge yet another meal; and Surpiya with the anxious delight of a young bride pleasing her husband.

He looked at the three of them, and blurted, "I got accepted to a college in the US." He had applied to a community college in Ohio, where Abhisekh, his best friend, was also studying. Umesh's grades were too low for four-year college. Abhisekh, in his Internet chats, had convinced him that if he attended community college for a year and improved his grades, he could transfer to a better college.

Abisekh, also from an old and wealthy Kathmandu family, had been his best friend at St. Zavier's. After his friend left, Umesh had felt that craving to be somewhere other than a city where the dust and exhaust got more overwhelming each day, and where crowds seem to swell until there was no more room to breathe. What rankled him was the thought that boys from families much less well-off than his had received scholarships to Ivy League institutions. Not being able to put foot in America while the riff-raff got established there was insult and injury to his prestige. His mother could easily buy him a ticket anytime she wanted to. What had held him back were his bad grades. He had tried to get a tourist visa twice. The United States consulate had rejected his application both times. He had been furious. But now he had a I-20 in hand, a form that the brusque consulate officer could not refute.

"Why do you want to go to America?" his mother asked with a worried frown. Supriya gave him one of her guileless smiles. She shared his excitement. She was of a generation that had seen entire batches of students disappear into the void of North America. She was one of the few her own age that had remained in Nepal. "I am sure your husband will soon take you to America," her friends had told her jealously. "He's so wealthy. There is no way his visa will be denied."

Umesh's mother sat down heavily on the small stool. She had already planned to go around and show off her new daughter-in-law to her extended family. And now here was Umesh, telling her he was planning to leave. "What am I going to do with your new wife in this big house?"

"Muma, its only for a few years," Umesh said soothingly. "I will get a bachelor's degree, and then I will come back."

The cook wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

"What if your wife runs away with another man?" his mother said. "Look at her," she commanded, brandishing her knife in the direction of her new daughter-in-law, who looked half alarmed, half amused. "She's too pretty to stay with an old woman like me."
"Of course I will send a visa for her so she can join me," Umesh said. "I wouldn't go alone. As soon as I get there, I will start the process of getting a visa for Supriya."

"Who will look after all this land and property? I am just an old woman. I can't do everything by myself." Tears were starting to glisten in her eyes, and Supriya hastily washed her hands and took the old woman's hand to comfort her. "Why can't you start a business? Start a hotel, a factory. You have all the money in the world. How much more do you want?"

"Muma," said Umesh in exasperation. "I don't plan to go for ever. I will come back as soon as I get my BA degree."
His mother wiped her tear-wet cheek with the back of a wrinkled hand. "Promise," she said, using his old childhood pledge.
"I promise," he answered, breaking out in a big smile as he heard his mother giving way. Supriya looked at both of them and smiled, as if she wanted to know more about the promises they made to each other, but withholding her curiosity for a more suitable time.

Umesh reached Ohio in the middle of September. Abisekh came to pick him up at the airport in a beat-up Toyota.
"How are you doing, yaar?" Umesh asked Abisekh, giving him a big hug.

Abisekh, who was wearing a big jacket and big outdoors boots, smiled and said, "Thikai cha. Same old grind."
"Its so warm here, I was expecting it to be freezing," Umesh said excitedly.

"Wait for winter, and then you will wish you were back in Kathmandu," Abisekh said laconically.

They got into the car. Umesh chattered excitedly about the flight, and how he had been re-routed to Singapore, instead of Hong Kong.

"What lovely breasts," Umesh joked, as a woman walked by.

"Put on your seat-beat," Abisekh said, starting the car. "And people in America don't find jokes like that funny," he added formally as he backed his car out of the parking lot. Something about Abisekh's set jaw and concentration was different from how Umesh had known him - he had been an easy-going man, laughing at little jokes, taking pleasure in silly observations. Apparently things had changed.

Abhisekh drove down the highway and into the city, asking many questions about Nepal. But Umesh was enraptured with what he saw before him. He brushed aside questions about his marriage party with a brief, "It was fun," before launching into his own questions. "What do you do, yaar? What's your job?" he asked, as he spotted a big glass office complex out of the window. Perhaps Abisekh worked in one of those huge buildings, with hundreds of colorful, shiny cars parked outside.

"You'll see," Abhisekh said. "Don't expect too much. I barely arrived here myself."

After taking an exit, Abhisekh drove down a neighbourhood that looked like bombs had gone off in the buildings. The windows were blackened. People sat on stairs, looking at them pass with unfocused gazes. "Where are we?" Umesh asked, suddenly nervous. This place did not fit his image of America. There was an unsaid tension in the air, as if Abhisekh was not revealing everything to him. "Don't worry, we live in a better part of town," Abhisekh said, before turning down a road. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived in a street full of uniform clapboard houses, faded white. Abhisekh finally parked in a space beneath a scraggly tree.

"Welcome to America," he said, taking out Umesh's Samsonite suitcases and dragging them into the narrow, carpeted hallway. It smelled of old cats. Umesh held his bag and looked around, wondering what to do. The door at the far end opened and an old, balding woman peeped out. She glared at him for half a minute, then slammed the door again.

"That's the landlady," Abisekh said. "She doesn't like us having guests over. She might try and make you pay full rent as well, but leave that to me. I know how to deal with her."

They went upstairs. Abhisekh fumbled with his keys before finally opening the door. They walked into a living room filled with Tibetan carpets. Beds were lined up on both sides of the room, with a man lying down on each. They half woke as they entered, and blinked blearily. As Umesh looked around, he saw two rooms leading off the living room - both of them were also filled with beds. Umesh's panicked brain counted at least eight men in the small apartment. "Namaste," the men chorused. "Come in, come in."

"Would you like some tea?"
"How was your flight?"
"He looks exhausted, give him some tea and then ask him questions."

The chatter of the men was overwhelming. A cup of steaming hot tea was put in his hands, and he took a deep breath and drank half of it.

"So - do you all live here?" he asked. The question came out of him stupidly. He felt like he was gawping at them.

"Yes," said one man with a big grin wryly. "I know, it's a small place, huh? Our families in Nepal think we are living in a palace."
Umesh learnt that the men - eight of them - were boarding together to split the rent. They were full-time restaurant and gas-station workers. Two of them were students at the local college. All of them came from villages outside Kathmandu. They talked, he thought in horrified fascination, in the rough and uncultured language of his servants. Abhisekh noticed his horror, gave him a wry look and said, "Lets go out and take a walk."

The men noticed Umesh's discomfort. "Its like this everywhere, Bhai," said one of the men. "My family had a big house in Boudha. I did not need to work - my family was rich enough. But here I am, sharing these rooms with a dozen men."

Umesh did not respond. He walked out quickly without waiting for his friend. "He thinks highly of himself, doesn't he?" one of the men laughed as he left.

"Give him a couple of months," said another one charitably. "He'll learn."
"Hope he's not like the other Bahun man, who hid the meat so he could eat it all." Laughter greeted this anecdote, and the newer men pressed the older ones to repeat the story.

"You're not living here, are you?" Umesh demanded as they got to the streets.
"I am," Abhisekh said. "Here, lets go get a coffee."

They walked down the street into a McDonald's. Umesh forgot his anger for a moment as he entered the place - this was the famed McDonald's that everybody always talked about in Nepal. The tables were pink, there were pink and blue pictures on the walls. Umesh got a thrill looking around him. "Two coffees, please," Abisekh said. "Two dollars twenty cents," the tired black woman behind the counter said expressionlessly.

"Its expensive to live alone, so all eight of us in the college share the rooms," Abhisekh explained as he carried the cups over to a table.

"Can't your parents afford to pay your rent?" Umesh asked with that slightly cutting tone of voice that challenged Abisekh to defend himself. Talking about financial difficulties was taboo amongst the rich in Nepal. He watched Abhisekh as he took off the little plastic tab on the coffee cup, and did the same.

"They could," Abisekh said, disarmingly. He sipped his coffee and grimaced at the acid taste. "But for how long? They already sold their land to send me here, and I spent all that money. I can't keep asking them to sell all their property."

"You spent all that money?" Umesh asked.

"Tuition costs a lot. Then there is rent, food, clothes, the occasional movie. It all adds up, dude," Abisekh said. "Nobody can live here without working. Living with everybody makes it easy to pay rent. And to eat."

"So what work do you do?" Umesh pressed.
"I will take you there, you'll see," Abhisekh said a little wearily.

The place was bright and shiny from the outside. "Latina Comida", said a brightly painted sign. Inside, a glass case was filled with salami and sausages in all sizes. Haunches of meat were hung from the ceiling. As soon as Abhisekh entered, a large man came bustling up. He had a big belly, and his blue shirt had a missing button.

"Where you been, Abi?" he demanded. "You four hours late. Get working."

"I took the day off to pick my friend up from the airport, Juan," Abisekh protested. "This is Umesh. Where's Frank? He was supposed to sub for me."

"He never showed," Juan said angrily. "What I pay you for? To pick friends up from airport? Or to work?"
"Sorry, man," Abisekh said apologetically. "I'll shake Frank down when I see him."

Juan handed him an apron splattered with blood. "No excuses," he said. "Your friend here can watch and get training from you. He will need a job here, I am sure. Fresh-off-boat people always come to Juan."

Abhisekh wrapped the apron around him and said, "I guess you get to watch me work for the next three hours."

Umesh clutched his arms around himself. His friend, who he had imagined working at one of those office complexes with black glass windows, took up a big knife and started to chop up the meat on the counter. For the next three hours, he sliced beef, wrapped up salami and shaved off pink pieces of pork for a line of never-ending customers. At the end of the evening, Umesh, dizzy with jet-lag, thought he might faint. All the noises - the screech of cars accelerating down the highway, the loud orders of the customers, Juan's angry commands began to sound blurry and far away to his ears. Finally, Abisekh put down the knife, and wiping his face, took off his apron.

"Do your parents know what kind of work you do?" Umesh asked as they walked out of the shop three hours later. Umesh's feet and hands were icy from standing near the freezer.

"No," Abisekh said, as he drove down the highway. "Why should I tell them? They will only worry. All of us work these kinds of jobs. Remember Kundan-Sir?"
"Our physics teacher?"
"That's right. He is stacking boxes at a supermarket right now in New York. Remember Suresh? He was a batch behind us?"
"What about him?"
"He pumps gas at a station in Idaho."
"I don't believe it," was all Umesh could say.
"Remember Ranay?" Abhisekh continued pitilessly.
"Ranay who wanted to be a doctor?"
"Ranay works at an Indian restaurant now, waiting tables. He dropped out of college and is illegal."
"Don't tell me anymore," Umesh said.
"Are you ready to go home and sleep?" Abisekh asked. "I will take you to the college tomorrow."
"I am ready," Umesh said a little unsteadily.

"Hey, man, don't shove me," a tough looking Latino boy said to him in a growl as he brushed past the boy's desk to the back of the classroom. Umesh backed off, and went and sat in one corner of the room.

The college was different from what Umesh had expected it to be. Used to the rigorous discipline and resources of the Modern Indian School, where he had spent two years for his intermediate degree, he had expected a similar system. A classroom of students who had a basic background in math and science. A classroom that at least took literacy for granted. But not all his classmates, he realized, knew how to read and write. Community college, which had sounded so cozy and warm from far-away Nepal, now turned out to be a nightmare as he shoved through hallways filled with students whose basic training and education had been in schoolyard survival.

Was this the America that all his other friends had gone to, or had he arrived at a special nightmare version? His class friends had returned for vacations and talked with cool sophistication about liberal arts and a capella groups, Olympic size swimming pools and college graduation concerts with the Indigo Girls. Where was that world, he thought the first day as he sat in class and realized that the teacher had only a marginal grasp of mathematics. 'Have I come thousand of miles and paid ten times more for an education that was worse than a public college in Kathmandu?' he thought.

"A community college, man, is different - like - from all those East Coast private schools you're thinking about," his classmate, a white boy from the suburbs, explained to him at break when Umesh explained the discrepancy between his imagined ideas of America, and reality.

That night, calling home, Umesh worried that his mother would hear the bewilderment in his voice. "Hello?" he could hear the far-off voice calling. "Have you started the visa process for Supriya? She wants to join you there as soon as possible."

The five thousand dollars Umesh had brought with him ran out in 21 days. Three weeks after arriving in the US, Umesh went to the men with whom he shared the apartment, and asked them, "Do you know of any jobs for me, Dai?" A discerning observer would see a distinct different in his demeanor. His hauteur around the men had evaporated, replaced by a modesty that might be mistaken for fawning subservience. He had realized, all too quickly, that the men knew a lot more about America that he would ever find out on his own. The only way to keep himself afloat in this new culture was by being respectful to them. He was, after all, totally dependent on their generosity for everything from rides into town to finding out the location of the nearest bank, restaurant and movie theatre. The men, charitably, had forgiven him his initial arrogance. All boundaries of caste and religion had dissolved for the other men, and they saw no reason for not taking a new convert into their fold.

"What about the restaurant?" Purna Dai asked.
"Its all full," Tenzing said cheerfully.
"What about the deli?"
"I don't think Juan is hiring any more fulltime people," Abhisekh said. "But I will let him know."

"My mother keeps calling me and asking me when I am going to bring my wife over," Umesh said after a moment of silence. He still had an innate suspicion of sharing familial troubles with outsiders. At the same time, he could not keep it to himself any longer.
The men laughed. "Wives!" Purna Dai said. "Talk about getting your wife over. We've been trying for years."
"What do you mean - years?" Umesh asked, irritated.

"The old Kulung Rai dai who works down at the Indian restaurant has been trying to get his budi to come over for ten years."
"Ten years!" Umesh had thought he would fill out a request for a visa, and it would arrive in the mail in a couple of weeks. "Why is it so delayed?"
"Visas for spouses are difficult to get," Abhisekh said tactfully. "You should put in an application anyway."

Time flew as Umesh spent a semester, then two, in Ohio. He found a job as a waiter at a Japanese restaurant, and this paid his expenses. Life took on a comfortable rhythm, one where food was always ready on the table, and all he had to do was attend classes, pay his bills, and hang out with the boys at the bars. Abhisekh, who loved music, worked as a DJ part-time. Umesh helped him with the parties at which he DJed. A normality developed in his life, and he soon forgot about the ease of his former life in Nepal. The servants, when he thought about them, seemed like a quaint joke.

His mother's voice on the phone was always sobering, reminding him of his wife, who still waited for him, month after month, to send her a visa so she could come and join him. But after a year, Umesh knew it was not possible for her to join him in his bachelor lifestyle. He did not make enough money to support a wife, or get an apartment of his own. Where would he put her? The thought of her face, so sweet and innocent, gave him a feeling of annoyance these days. Why had he agreed to get married? His mother was the one who wanted the marriage, and now she had the young buhari to look after her.

'It is not my concern,' Umesh thought one night as he noticed a woman in a loose green cotton skirt at a bar, and smiled at her. Her blonde hair fell to her shoulders, and she had big blue eyes. She wore an Indian blouse, embroidered with mirrors. He had just drank two beers and a whiskey and he had never felt bolder in his life. "Would you like to join me?" he said, hearing the accent in his drunken voice. She gave him the twice-over, and then as if she approved, smiled. "Where you from?" she said. 'Oh no,' thought Umesh. Not again. "India," he slurred, so he wouldn't have to explain where Nepal was. "I love India!" she said enthusiastically, leaning towards him to hear him better. "I always wanted to visit." "You should come visit us," he said. Picking up his glass, he moved to the seat next to her. She didn't flinch. "What you having?" she asked, picking up his glass and taking a sip.

Four days later, he moved in with Cynthia. She was a native of Ohio. She said she was fascinated by the Discovery Channel's specials on Nepal, once he had finally told her where he was from. "You silly, why didn't you tell me?" she said, flipping through his passport. " I am tired of explaining where it is," he told her. "I always wanted to go there," she said, putting an arm around him. They made love for hours that night. On the fourth night, Umesh packed up his bags and moved into her small and untidy apartment. For the first time in his life, he was in love. Supriya, with her lovely, childish smile, was pushed to the back of his mind. She was so insipid compared to Cynthia, Umesh thought, as he lay in bed and watched her shave her underarm hair through the open bathroom door. "What are you thinking, Um?" Cynthia asked as she looked up and smiled at him. "I am thinking I want to lie here for the rest of my life watching you shave," he said. "Silly boy," she said, giving a warm, rich laugh and throwing a handful of hair right at him. He walked towards her and took the razor out of her hand, put it down carefully on the sink, then carried her back to the bed.

Umesh cut off all contact with Abhisekh and his former roomates, telling them he had found a new place. When Abhisekh, who knew why his friend was trying to isolate himself, caught him in school and confronted him, Umesh stopped going to class. Abisekh called his cellphone and pleaded with him to return to college. Umesh hung up. Four months later, he tore open a letter which had his college's address on the right-hand corner. It was from his advisor. It informed him that because he had not attended class for a semester, he was now no longer a student. He was now an illegal alien in the United States.

"Cynth, I am illegal," said Umesh, waving the letter at his girlfriend.
"Oh good," she said. She was standing over the oven, preparing a big tray of lasagna for dinner. She gave a laugh. "I always wanted to date an illegal. I guess."

Umesh stayed with Cynthia for the next eight months. During those eight months, their love-making waned, she started to complain about his surly behavior and unsteady economic habits, and their fights increased. One evening she came back to her apartment with a Columbian man. He had been recently hired at the diner where she waitressed. They went to salsa classes together.

"Hi Um," said Cynthia cheerfully. She turned to the man and said, "Javier, this is Umesh. He's from Nepal. He's my roomate." Zavier, oblivious, held on to Cynthia's hand and smiled, "Hello Umesh. I am from Columbia." Umesh didn't know how to respond. "Hello," he managed to say. He went into the kitchen as they moved into the living room. Cynthia took a bowl of popcorn in with her. "Who's he?" Umesh managed to ask. "My new boyfriend," she said coolly, before walking out.

Umesh walked out without a word. When he came back at midnight, Cynthia was alone, folding her laundry. "Why the hell did you do that for?" he shouted as soon as he entered the apartment. His voice was ugly. He was drunk from whiskey he had downed at the bar. Cynthia looked at him, and the look broke his heart. He had come in planning to make a scene, yell at her and make her pay. Perhaps he hoped that by another argument he might, perversely, win her back and make her forget the series of endless arguments and fights of the last month. But there was no mistaking the look of disgust on her face. He took one look at her, and then backed out of the room.

Umesh quietly packed up his suitcases, got into the battered Toyota he had bought from Abisekh, and drove back to the old apartment. He had not gone by there in a year, but he occasionally went to the kitchen the Indian restaurant to meet Purna Dai, who worked as a cook while he put himself through college.

"Abisekh did well," Purna had informed him a month back. The flames of the gasfire shot up and he added onions to the huge pan. "He got into Ohio Wesleyan for his senior year, and got a degree in computer science."
"Oh," said Umesh, feeling a pang of sudden and unexpected envy. Abisekh and he had been blood brothers, doing everything at the same pace. Now Abisekh had gone and left him, he thought despondently.
"He got recruited," Purna said excitedly.
"What do you mean?"
"A top company in Silicon Valley," Purna said, hopping over to the end to get a bottle of turmeric. "He will be making millions soon. Did I tell you I also got accepted to Ohio Wesleyan for fall? I am just working here for the summer to make some cash. Abhisekh told me he would get his company to look at my CV. He looks out for his friends."

The apartment felt empty without Abisekh. But half of the men he had met when he first arrived were still working their way up, credit hour by credit hour.

"Hello Umesh," Purna Dai said without surprise. "You're back. Your girlfriend kicked you out?"
"How did you know?" said Umesh, humiliated. He felt his shame was visible to the entire Nepali community like a sprawling sign on a highway billboard.
"That's what usually happens. You want to stay with us, I assume. There is no room at the moment, but you can sleep on the carpet till a space opens up."
"I need a job as well, Purna Dai," Umesh said humbly. All his previous arrogance had been beaten out of him, Purna thought, looking at his unshaven face and his shaky voice.
"How long have you been here, Umesh?"
"Four years," Umesh replied.
"And your wife? Is she still in Kathmandu?"
"Yes."
"Are you legal or illegal?"
"I have no papers."

Purna and Umesh both realized how their exchange had sounded like an interrogation. Umesh smiled tentatively, almost pleadingly.
"You shouldn't have lost your status, Bhai," said Purna. "You know what this means. If you leave now, they might never give you papers."

"I know," Umesh said a little unsteadily. America, or maybe the idea of it, had become an addiction. Success, which seemed to have blessed each and every one of his classmates, eluded him and haunted him, not allowing him to leave. He had two big houses, and enough money to start a business venture in Kathmandu, he often reminded himself. A few of his class-mates had remained behind in the home country and started ventures that were now ridiculously profitable. He could be living a comfortable and easy life. And here he was, bagging groceries at the supermarket for a living.

"Do you know of any job openings, Dai?"
"Did the Japanese kick you out as well? They need people who are disciplined," Purna said dryly.
"I left the Japanese restaurant last December. I was at the supermarket last month. Then they told me I had come to work late too many times, and fired me. I haven't worked for a week."
Purna looked at him. "I know a man who just left a job. Are you interested?"
"Anything, Dai, anything. I am desperate."
"It's the crematorium."
"What's that?"
"That's where they burn dead bodies. Would you be able to do that?"
"I am the son of Brahmins," Umesh joked feebly. "We're used to dead bodies."

"The Promised Land," said somber ochre letters outside the funeral parlor where Purna dropped him off. "I've called the owner already. My cousin worked here for two years. He left last Monday," Purna said, as he pulled up at the gate.
"Where did he go?" asked Umesh.
"He got married," said Purna, winking. "He was tired of being illegal, so he finally married this American lady who wanted a husband who wanted citizenship. We haven't met her yet. I don't think he will introduce her to the family soon."
"Why not?"
"Cause she weighs three hundred pounds," said Purna Dai, roaring with laughter as he drove away.

Umesh entered a room that smelt of dried flowers and velvet, the smothering smell of desiccated fabric and skin. The owner, a balding, middle-aged man with a very white face and very few words, shook hands with him with a firm grip. "Our crematorium is in the back," he said, opening a door at the far end.

The crematorium was large and cold. The man pulled open a steel door at the far end. A dead body slid out slowly. The face was that of an old woman, peaceful and calm. He wheeled the body down to the end of the room, slid this body towards a shelf at the extreme end, and then pulled down the big metal door with a clang.

The man took Umesh to the side, and showed him a meter. "This is the switch," he said precisely, before pressing it down. There seem to be a humming and zinging, like that of some deep machinery at work. Umesh lost track of time, and could not recall later how long he stood there. The man said, "It will take about half an hour. Let me show you around." The rest of the tour was a blur in Umesh's mind. All he could remember was the door, like a metal cabinet, opening and revealing the dead body. I have to do this every day, he thought, as he smiled and signed the employment forms the man put in front of him.

"It is done," the man said, walking back to the room where they had put the body. He carefully opened the grate. What had been a dead body was now a pile of grey ash. "You got it?" the man asked, looking at Umesh. "We don't want any mistakes here."
Umesh looked at the grey ash, took a deep breath and said steadily, "I won't make any mistakes."
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