At the height of the upstate New York winter, Harish waited at the Buffalo Amtrak station for the 11:40 p.m. train to freedom. That’s how he thought of his final destination, Rockport, Ohio. Through bribery, courage, and deceit, he’d made it to Buffalo from Nova Scotia, where the cruise ship he worked on had docked for five days. Armed only with a fedora and a single-breasted three-piece suit, which his grandfather received in 1947 from the Indian government for killing three British officers, Harish sat shivering in front of a TV in the waiting room, a small stark rectangular place with unadorned dull walls and plastic chairs. CNN anchor Lou Dobbs spoke agitatedly about outsourcing. Harish didn’t much care for Lou Dobbs, who talked of Asians and South Americans destroying the ‘American Way,’ but Harish continued to watch so he could pickup the American accent. Occasionally, he’d repeat a phrase. He looked at a tattered handkerchief, a gift from his sister, with H stitched on it using a bright red-colored thread. He’d accidentally left her photograph on the ship, but the knowledge that her future depended solely upon him did not escape him. Lesser men would’ve crumbled. The thought caused the faintest of smiles to appear onto his otherwise stoic face.
A teenager, whose pants were too low and his boom box’s volume too high, entered the small room. The voice of the CNN anchor drained away. Harish moved closer to the TV. He tried to think of an angry English phrase but he’d never learned any at the call-center he worked at in India. He could only think of, “Sorry, sir. May I please have your mother’s maiden name to verify your account and send you a replacement?” The other people in the room, about ten undistinguished men and women, sat there wrapped in thick discount outlet jackets, trapped in their humdrum thoughts. A strong gush of wind heaved snow into the room through the broken main door.
The teenager cranked up the base and his head started to sway mechanically with increasing velocity. Harish gave up on CNN. He fiddled with his pocket watch, his family’s most prized possession that hadn’t turned a hand in at least three decades. A man with a hoarse voice made an announcement over the PA system. The train was cancelled. After brief mumblings, which lacked conviction, people started leaving the room. Harish took off his fedora and tossed it nervously. His plans depended upon the efficiency of the American railway system. He considered heading back to Nova Scotia. Then he thought of his frail old father who’d worked hard to ensure that Harish received a good education. Of the times his school would demand that he get a new white uniform. Of all the money that had been wasted on his education needlessly. Of his illiterate sister. But mostly of crushed dreams and cramped stomachs. “Need to get to Rockport,” he said aloud, aware that his life now had shades of a Bollywood spectacle.
The station cleared except for a homeless-looking man asleep in a corner. Fresh stubble covered his head and face. He reeked of alcohol.
Harish bit his fingernails in hunger and frustration. His meticulous plans, concocted in a cramped room in a half-baked brick house in India, were faltering.
The homeless man, now awake, shouted, “Where the hell’s the train?”
Harish said, “Cancelled.” Drunk people scared him. He paid no attention to the man and started watching CNN again.
“What’s your name, boy?” the man asked.
“I’m Harish Chandra.” He became conscious of the growing number of creases in his suit.
“Huh? Look at me when I talk. Show some respect. Harry Chan. Don’t look like a god damn Chinaman.”
“Sorry, sir,” Harish said, turning his head toward the man. “From India.”
“Jesus Christ. For twenty-seven years, I worked at IBM. Twenty-seven. Built some mean ass machines. Thousands. What do they do? Fired us all. Don’t mean no offense but your kind take our jobs. You ain’t welcome here.”
“Sorry, sir,” Harish said, and focused on the TV screen again.
“Hell, man. You speak English? Habla ingles? Bonjour. Que Tal?”
“Your name?” Harish said, suppressing the urge to ask the man his social security number.
“Jack Ryder. But you can call me Mr. Jack Ryder, boy. What the hell are you doing at a place like Buffalo?”
“I found a job.”
“Shitting me? Now they’re bringing you assholes to take our jobs here. This crap ain’t right.”
“Once I pay off papa’s loan and sister gets married, I’ll go back home.” He only had a year to rescue his father from the debts his forefathers died for without ever knowing how much they owed. It happened years ago when his great-grandfather needed some money; the harvest was bad and the British tax collectors were merciless. The zamindar got the great-grandfather to put his thumb on a blank government document in exchange for a small sum of money. Harish had been born a slave in a free country that did not even recognize zamindars.
“Where’re you headed?” Jack said.
“Oh yeah, me too.”
“Can you help?” Harish asked, though he didn’t want to. Nevertheless, that one image of his sister—standing at the train station, poignantly unperturbed, waving goodbye—had stuck in his mind and called for action. She’d not cried or pleaded that he rescue her life and restore her one dream—a simple idea of a cozy marriage.
“What’s your business, boy?” Jack said, lighting a cigarette.
“I’m marrying in two days.”
“Lemme guess, you and some hot-ass Indian chick in love. They’re damn sexy. Tell you that much, boy. Fine-ass girls. Slept with this chick once—she told me how you people don’t know how to treat a woman right. I won’t even go into what she said about small dicks.” He took a big gulp from his flask in-between blowing puffs of smoke that fermented into starry shapes in the cold.
“Can you drive us?” Harish said, coughing.
“You’re totally deaf, boy. All you think about is marriage. She that good in bed?” Jack grinned.
“I don’t know. Never met her.”
“Damn primitive.” Jack took out another cigarette, lit it, then took a deep puff and said, “Say something.”
“Got fired at call-center for bad English,” Harish said, shivering after more cold air entered the room. “Please, can we go to Rockport?”
“Jesus,” Jack said. He whispered, “You’re illegal here?”
“If I marry in two days, I become a citizen. Fiancée is American.”
“That ain’t happening while you’re dressed like a god damn clown.”
“My British teacher would say to you, ‘I dare say, given your own fashion sense, you’re hardly in a position to talk.’”
Jack laughed. “Do that funky accent for me one more time.”
Harish repeated the line, and then said, “Can we go to Rockport tonight?”
“My daughter moved there. She said to me, ‘Daddy, you got a hate problem.’ Ashamed. Can you believe this shit? Her mommy left me when my girl was three. Got nothing on me. I’ll prove her wrong—you come with me. I have a booze problem—I’ll give her that. But who doesn’t? Now when you see her, you’re gonna tell her how nice I am. Understood?”
“Can we leave now?”
“Man, you make for crappy company. Say something else. My dead dog made better conversation. And lemme tell you, he wasn’t much of a talker. Never seen no man so excited to be hitched. You never got laid, that’s the problem. I’ll hook you up with some whores tonight.”
“Did you have love marriage?”
“Border Patrol’s gonna find your ass.”
“I dress well. They won’t think I’m not from here.”
“Nobody’s been wearing that shit since Truman. Maybe even FDR.”
Harish didn’t know who either of them was. He touched his suit and said, “Good material—Indian. Help me?”
“My girl would like that. She’s like a damn hippy or something. But she’s all I got.”
“I drove a tractor once…”
“We ain’t gonna go anywhere till tomorrow. We bond tonight. I ain’t got no hate problem. You understand?”
“A real gentleman.”
“Damn right. Now, I’m thinking, you might be all right,” Jack said. He threw his cigarette butt at Harish and said, “Come with me.”
They walked out of the station with not a soul in sight outside. The temperature, according to a gas station sign, was -20º F. Harish didn’t understand Fahrenheit but his bones did not discriminate against the shrill winter. The sidewalk remained un-cleared; a layer of ice sat comfortably beneath the bed of snow. Jack occasionally slipped, fell, and swore. Harish offered no assistance; Jack reeked of week old rotten eggs mixed with cow dung. Snow seeped into Harish’s old leather shoes making his socks wet.
“What does your daddy do?” Jack asked.
“Some damn good money in agriculture these days.”
“No, no. Very poor.”
“You Arabs never brag. I like that in a man. Mighty impressive.”
“All he wants is his own land. Just a small piece. But the zamindar takes all the money. I asked for documents—I went to school. Now, to teach me a lesson, the zamindar wants a huge sum of money in a year’s time or he’ll kill my papa and take my sister.”
“That shit’s illegal.”
“What law, sir? For hundred-hundred rupees every month, we get treated like circus animals. But, I’ll send the money back from here.”
“God damn liberals in this country. Crazy shit, boy. How’d you make it here?”
“I worked on a ship as cook—month long cruise from Mumbai to Canada.”
“I’ve heard worse.” Jack shook his head. “Cubans come on tiny boats.”
“My sister was ready to marry. Now the man won’t marry her. Zamindar has threatened to kill him if he does.”
“You need to chill out, boy. Go back home. I’ll send the money.”
As they walked, treading through the snow, Harish saw a huge poster that featured a man wearing a white spacesuit killing off multi-colored aliens. At the bottom of the advertisement was the text: KEEPING ALIENS OUT—RYDER FOR MAYOR.
“Is that you?”
“Ryder. That’s me.”
“You like sci-fi?”
“It’s an election poster.”
“You were in NASA? We got Patel. Good astronaut, he became a politician afterwards.”
“A metaphor, boy. Know what that means? Nah, you won’t know. You connect idea to something. Even I forget. A D.C. Republican guy told me to run—he came up with this poster when I got fired. Said I’m a true American working hero. Good man, but I messed up.”
“Politics. Immigration. Aliens. A play on words. Do you get it?”
“Clever, I think. You’re mayor now?”
“Nah. This debate in the Town Hall. Had half a whisky bottle, puffed a lot of pot, and snorted coke. Some other shit. Who knows? You begin to see stuff. Someone asked me to talk about aliens. I forgot. Metaphors. So I said there’ll come a time when aliens will attack us from outer space. Everyone laughed, so I thought I was doing well. I told them ET was the worst movie I ever saw. Alien love. I declared war on Mars and took my gun out. They threw me out. Bastards.”
Harish and Jack stopped before a beautiful mansion built in the Victorian-era style. Jack picked up a key from a flowerpot near the entrance and opened the door. The place was littered with antiques and stuffed deer heads while the floor appeared to be carpeted entirely with white Persian rugs. Jack headed straight for the well-stocked wine cabinet. As he walked, the floor creaked.
“You live like a king,” Harish said, gently touching the wood. He took off his shoes and rolled up the wet pants. “This place—yours?”
“Hell yes,” Jack said, working on opening an aged Sonoma. “Listen, don’t go up the damn stairs. Grab whatever you want here.”
“Can you wash up, please?” Harish squeezed his nose.
Jack let out an angry growl but went to the bathroom. Harish opened the freezer and grabbed the chicken nuggets. They looked appetizing. He poured the whole bagful on a sheet of aluminum foil and placed it in the microwave. A fire started inside; Harish opened the door after slight hesitation.
“You’re a total nut-case.” Jack ran toward Harish from the bathroom.
“It works in the oven.”
Jack moved the nuggets into the oven. Harish turned on the TV and put on CNN. He sat down on a huge leather chair while Jack took a long couch and spread out his legs.
“You addicted to this crap?” Jack said, pointing at the TV. “Put on some football. This ain’t no time to be listening to boring shit. Have you watched football before?”
“I love football.”
“You ain’t too bad. Who’s your favorite player?”
“Never heard of him. What team do you follow?”
“Some damn ghetto Indian league?”
“No, no, from England.”
“They play football there?”
“Yes, but Brazil—the top, total best.”
“Nah, you retard. That’s soccer. Lemme show you some serious kick-ass American action.”
Harish got the nuggets out of the oven. Jack gorged on the food, Harish stopped after four.
“What the hell’s the matter?” Jack said. “If you’re planning on living here, you need to eat until you get fat. After you become a fat ass, you eat some more. America is a free country.”
The floor creaked and the upstairs light turned on. Jack was too drunk to notice but Harish glanced up. He saw an old man leaning on the wooden railing—right leg in a cast, rifle in his hands.
“Yo, retard. Stop staring and sit the hell down,” Jack said to Harish.
Harish tried to hide under the table.
Jack finally noticed the old man and said, “Shit. I thought you’re at the hospital for a month.”
“Jack Ryder, I gave you a chance. You made a fool out of my party and now you have the audacity to sneak into my house.”
“I meant no harm, Mistah Cornwall. All I did was drink some wine. Filled it back with pure bottled water. Better for your weak liver anyway.”
The old man aimed his rifle, still leaning over, and looked almost ready to shoot when the railing broke. He tried to pull back but his broken leg didn’t have enough strength. He fell down screaming. Jack moved closer to him; Harish crawled out from underneath the table.
Jack touched the man’s wrist and then screamed, “Dead.” He shouted a few more times. He ran to the kitchen, grabbed a towel, and started rubbing the dead man’s wrist. Harish stared at him. Jack noticed and said, “Fingerprints.”
Harish stayed silent.
“Let’s burn him in the fireplace,” Jack said. “Gimme a hand.”
“I will not touch him.”
“You’re a Brahmin? High class?”
“You lied to me. This is not your house.”
“Shit, man. I feel bad, okay? Now get your ass over here and help.”
“No, no.” Harish shook his head. “I hate blood.”
“You’re a pussy. That’s right, a pussy.”
“You killed him.”
“No point arguing with you. You’re a retard.”
“How’ll we get to Rockport?” Harish doubted that Jack actually owned a car but thought he might be able to steal one. Moral scruples about theft didn’t bother him much at this point.
“I’m gonna sit down and watch some TV. This ain’t just my problem.” Jack kicked the body.
With the rifle next to him, he and Harry started watching TV silently. Arnold Schwarzenegger blew up a robot. And then another. After about ten minutes, Jack said, “What’s your name?”
“Ain’t no way you’re gonna survive here with that. You’re Harry now. H-A-R-R-Y. What’s your name? Get it right.”
“God damn genius.” The movie was over. “You wanna help me throw the body in the fireplace now? Maybe chop it up or something so it fits?” Jack asked. “Or just wanna watch something else?”
Jack flipped through the channels, and stopped at The Brady Bunch. “Ever see this?”
“Boy, if you’re gonna live here, you gotta enjoy The Brady Bunch for sure. This show is what America is all about.”
“Very boring,” Harish said, five minutes into watching the show.
“Damn, you don’t get it. You didn’t have a good American upbringing,” Jack said, gulping down another bottle of Boredeaux.
“Can I watch CNN?”
“Nah, forget this TV shit. You ever drunk dial?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You get drunk and call people you don’t like. Make yourself useful. There’s a cordless somewhere here, go find it.”
Harish got up and looked around, almost tripping over the dead body. He brought a phone back.
“This is fun, boy. You get to be anyone you want. Who you wanna be?”
“I’m scared,” Harish said, pointing at the dead man.
“What the hell’s your problem? Got something against a good time?”
“Okay, okay. Let’s call people.”
“Now we’re talking. We’re gonna be ghostbusters.”
“Who is that?”
“Hell, what do you think?” Jack said. “They kill ghosts.”
“Do you see the spirit of the dead man yet?”
“Nah, not with just liquor.”
“I feel it.” Harish shut his eyes and said a prayer.
“Maybe I ain’t looking hard enough,” Jack said. “But I hear you people got some black magic and shit.”
“Who’ll we call?”
“I usually call IBM toll-free. Helluva fun to mess with them. I reckon you won’t enjoy that.”
“That’s mean. People did that to me at work.”
“How about Dell?”
“No, please. No.”
“Forget this. Let’s get some whores down here.”
“Dead man,” Harish said, pointing at the body.
“Fine. You like classical music?”
Harish nodded. “Very nice and calm.”
Jack put on Mozart. “Do you like Bach more?” Jack asked, yawning.
“I don’t know,” Harish asked, his thoughts meandering back to his sister’s plight. Do we leave in the morning?”
“Jesus Christ. Didn’t I say yes?” Jack said, eyes closed, almost passed out.
Harish moved toward the CD collection and picked out a Madonna album. “Do you know Madonna? Is she alive?” Harish said.
“We heard rumors in my village.”
“You’re so weird.”
“Very uncanny.” Harish took out his handkerchief and kissed it.
“You’re something, boy. Lemme see who the lucky girl is. You got a photo of your fiancée?”
Harish pulled out the picture from his bag.
“Woah. She looks like my daughter. Pretty. Gonna sleep now, boy.” After a few minutes, Jack sprang up from his seat. He said, “Show me her picture again.”
Harish handed him the photo.
“You’re an ungrateful asshole. It is her.”
“Is that bad?”
“You’re a piece of shit. How the hell did you meet her?”
“I looked online. She wants to help.”
“Gonna sleep with her?”
“I-I don’t know. Maybe. Never met her.”
Jack picked up an empty wine bottle, took a wild swing at Harish, and struck him on the head. Jack looked at the photo again and shook his head. “Sorry, boy,” he said, “wrong girl.” Harish, who’d passed out, didn’t hear him.
Harish regained consciousness an hour later and found himself tied to a black leather chair. A sharp pain crawled through his head. He felt certain that blood was gushing out of the wound uncontrollably, but with his hands tied, he couldn’t do much. The TV played CNN. Jack slept nearby, clutching onto the rifle. The dead body leaned on him with an unlit cigarette dangling from its mouth. Jack’s snoring sounded more like a whistle. The noise zapped through Harish’s head, zinging every nook and corner and felt like a Pakistani cricket batsman hitting Indian bowlers all over Kolkata. Harish tried to free himself unsuccessfully. Annoyed by the noise, he started yelling; Jack woke up.
“Please, free me.”
“I put Mistah Cornwall on the couch. He made for better company.”
“He’s dead,” Harish said. “He’ll haunt us.”
“Gotta kill you, boy.” Jack lit up a cigarette and then tried to light the dead man’s.
“No, please. I’ll go away, back to Canada.”
“I’ve been thinking—you’re gonna get caught by someone for snooping around America. They’ll ask you something, one thing will lead to another and then this’ll come out.”
“You can drop me at the border. I swear on my sister. I’ll never come back.”
“You’re from a shit country and your daddy’s some lazy ass farmer. What the hell are you gonna do, boy? Your daddy will be disappointed if you return with no money. And I, for one, don’t like disappointed daddies.”
Harish nodded, frightened. His thoughts became haunted by images of zamindar’s men raping his sister in their castle built upon crushed dreams and cramped stomachs.
“How do you wanna die? I’m thinking of burning this whole shit down. No fingerprints, nothing. Good, eh?”
“You’re gonna be dead. Just piss in your pants.”
“No, no. You’re completely wrong.”
“What? This is a pretty good rifle,” Jack said, picking up the gun.
“Guru ji predicted I’ll live till eighty-three. Not a day less. I don’t think I’ll die now.”
“Yeah, boy, and Santa Claus is real.”
“Please, sir. Bathroom. I want to go.”
“Alright, Jesus. Suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll consider it a last wish or something.”
Jack, with the rifle in his hand, untied Harish and then followed him to the bathroom. Jack glanced outside the window and looked at the fresh snow while Harish pissed. They came back into the living room.
“What’s your name, boy?” Jack asked, putting the rifle to Harish’s head.
“Your name’s not Harry,” he said. “You’re never gonna be Harry. You understand, boy? What the hell is your real god damn name?” Jack, smoking a cigarette, got closer to Harish and blew smoke on his face. Jack said, grinning, “I got a solution for you, boy. I’ll call your sister over here. I’ll take good care of her—if you know what I mean.”
“Do not say anything about her.”
“Don’t talk to me like that, boy. Let’s talk about your mother.” Jack put the rifle down.
“Well, in that case, she’s not an option, is she?”
“Do not bring up my mother.”
“Didn’t I say that I’d settle for your sister? Does she look any good?”
Harish pushed Jack and tried punching but didn’t quite connect.
Harish shouted, “I said don’t say anything about my sister. Don’t you understand?” He lunged for the rifle across from him. With the gun in his hand, Harish stepped back, pointed it at Jack, and said, “I’ll take some money from the house, then leave for Canada. Let me go.”
Jack got up from his seat and said, “That ain’t a toy. Keep it down. I tell you what to do.”
“Sister needs to get married. Papa needs land. They’re counting on me. You sit down.”
Jack kept walking toward him. “I was nice to you, brought you here. This is how you repay? You all are just the same. Ungrateful bastards. Maybe you should meet my daughter. Just like you—ungrateful.”
“Stay back,” Harish said, moving backwards. “If you take one more step, I’ll shoot.”
Jack laughed. “You grew a pair. But you never killed a fly, pretty boy.”
“Samajhte kyun nahi ho? Why don’t you understand?”
“Gimme the gun.” Jack stood less than a foot away from the rifle.
Harish kept the rifle aimed, though he sweated profusely and his hands shook. “Stay back.”
Many thoughts crossed Harish’s mind. The hilly terrain upon which the zamindar’s mansion rested, the spot in the village that marked the site where an old woman got beaten to death for not paying lagaan, the body of the son of the rebel who was trampled underneath a tractor, the gang rape of a young girl because her father couldn’t pay off a loan he didn’t take, and the image of Lord Shiva, the destructor, dancing to the melody of annihilation. But mostly of crushed dreams and cramped stomachs.
Jack tried to snatch the rifle from Harish, who didn’t move his finger away from the trigger. Then Jack hit Harish with his knee; Harish pushed Jack back in the chair and aimed the rifle at his head.
“Relax, boy. Take it easy. Just messing around with you. Marry my daughter if you like.”
“She’s not your daughter, is she?”
“She ain’t my daughter. I got confused. But you can have her too. Lower the damn gun. You’re freaking me out.”
“I always wanted to come to America. Studied hard all the time in school. Got a scholarship to come here too. But the bank wouldn’t give loan for airfare. Such a small amount—rich people spend that much in a night on parties. I tried to get job at the village council. The council wanted bribe.”
“Didn’t you say you like Madonna?”
“I tried hard, you know. There are lots of small communist groups operating in Indian villages. I went to the local chapter and offered to fight against the zamindars. You know what they said? ‘Kill your uncle who owns a small shop to show you’re against capitalism.’”
“I’ll take you to the Madonna concert. Front row seats. We cool now?”
“I said no, I will not kill my uncle.”
“We got a lot in common. I hate those commie bastards.”
“I thought you’re a good man.”
“I am one helluva man. A little gruff but gold-hearted on the inside. We’re chill. Let’s just go to Rockport.”
“They killed my uncle anyway. Called me traitor to the cause.”
“I’m gonna get up now; get the damn rifle away from my face.”
“No, no, sit down. You do not move—” Harish said.
Jack grabbed the rifle and tried to push it away from his forehead. The gun went off; the bullet hit Jack in the dead center of his face. He fell back on the seat instantaneously. Droplets of blood appeared on Harish’s 3-piece suit. He took out the old white handkerchief with the bright red H and tried in vain to clean his coat; the H was no longer distinguishable from the rest of the blood-soaked cloth. His father had tried hard to ensure that Harish would stand out and become better than everyone else so he could be free.
Harish yanked the cigarette out of the corpse’s mouth and put the body on the floor. Then he said a prayer for the dead man. Harish remained still, the floors no longer creaked and the mansion was enveloped in silence except for CNN in the background. He heard Lou Dobbs say, “And now a special look at how this year’s holiday season might be hit hard as the American middle class struggles to cope with falling real income, disappearing jobs, and declining social security…” Harish switched off the TV and reloaded the rifle. It was a re-run.