On the day Tarun discovered the papers that would change his life, it was also his daughter’s birthday. He couldn’t call to wish her happy birthday, only to hear her burbling through the static—back home, ten hours ahead, she would have just been put to sleep, a day ripe with eating and tearing open gifts already behind her. He imagined she’d grown bigger, with enough teeth now to fill out a smile. He recalled the way her eyes widened as she sucked sugar syrup from his finger, the hum of her tongue against his thumbnail. He wondered what dreams she might be conjuring as he lay awake, perhaps swimming in a pool of gold as he walked to work, or feasting on imagined delicacies, frothy chocolate rivers and mangoes the size of melons, as he stuffed down his lunch. He allowed himself to indulge in these memories, both real and manufactured, before getting up to begin his day.
He woke up with a sore throat. He scalded his skin in the shower, combed his hair into a severe side part, and stuffed his keys, wallet, and sandwich into his pockets. He had learned early on not to bring a backpack to the factory. It jacked up the time that security spent on him, making him nervous as they combed through the contents of his lunch. He carried everything he needed in his pants pockets now. He packed a wad of toilet paper in there too, in case the sore throat progressed into something more menacing. He drained his tea— only half a cup so that he wouldn’t need to relieve himself until afternoon break, slowing his productivity. Then, pulling his hat over his ears, he stepped into the darkness of the morning, feeling the cold air prick his freshly shaven cheeks.
Over the last three years, he walked the same route, lit by exactly twenty-nine street lamps. A few cars sped past him, and a lone sparrow cooed from a low-hanging telephone wire. When he arrived, the morning light was just beginning to show. He flashed his badge to Matti, the security guard with the waxed mustache. As always, Matti scrutinized the badge, as if after years of seeing each other daily, today he might have forgotten who Tarun was.
Next came the metal detector, standing resolute like a plastic Stonehenge, yawning as Tarun stepped through. His roommates—three men: one from Sri Lanka, one from Ghana, the third, like Tarun, from India—didn’t believe him when he’d first told them about security at the factory. He’d assumed that all factories were like this in Canada—they took their production seriously here, ferociously protecting the goods that were churned out inside, like dogs guarding their spoils. But it wasn’t so, he learned. Ranuga worked in a factory that made airplane parts and he could stroll in with a suitcase of knives if he liked, and no one would give a damn. And the call centre where Kwaku worked mornings had never even learned his name, let alone put his photograph on a badge. No, it was just this particular factory—the first one that hired Tarun when he’d arrived in Toronto four years earlier—that treated its workers like they were about to board a plane, which is exactly what most of them had done to find themselves there.
When he signed his contract at the foreign workers agency office, he had to pay a massive sum of money, just over the cost of his one-way plane ticket to Pearson International Airport. He was told that he would earn back the money by working there and his payment would be returned if he chose to leave the factory. Think of it like a deposit, they said, when Tarun had questioned this muddled practice of paying for a job—a deposit for a better life.
Factory was a misleading word. This particular one did more destruction that production. It was where important things came to die. Files, documents, confidential envelopes arrived in duct-taped crates through the gated back entrance, where badge-clad workers would haul them inside. From here they were sorted: the less important ones, such as tax papers and outdated business reports, were sent to the shredder. The remaining files, the ones marked with government stamps or scribbled over with black marker, went to the incinerator.
This was Tarun’s domain. It was hot in there, the air sticky. “Like India,” his boss said when Tarun was assigned to the incineration room, “you’ll be comfortable here.” Tarun never complained, although the air tasted like ash and some nights his chest hurt as he tried to fall asleep, but he knew it meant something since they trusted him enough to promote him. Somehow, through some combination of never missing a day of work, learning the names of the security personnel, shaving his cheeks every morning, and telling stories of his daughters back home, he had gained their confidence. He was a good immigrant, rising through the ranks. They would never suspect him of peering into the files, stealing information like scraps of food.
And neither would he. His last inclination was to jeopardize his already precarious position in his new Toronto life. He lived discreetly with three other men in a one-bedroom getup in Flemingdon Park, spending his nights on the pullout couch. He kept his toothbrush tucked into his makeshift-closet—a suitcase propped up against the wall—to be sure that none of his roommates would mistake it for their own. Several nights a week he shared the leftovers that Sunil brought home from the Indian restaurant where he worked: lumps of battered chicken marinating in pools of yellow grease and dried out rice that took on the flavour of the Styrofoam containers in which it was packed.
He was saving up to bring his wife and two daughters over and was looking forward to teaching them how to ask for a transfer on the bus and where to buy the cheapest produce in Chinatown. Some nights he could think of nothing better than falling asleep with Preethi curled into his shoulder, watching her waist sway as she boiled daal on the stove, or bouncing his youngest on his knee. Snapping back to reality, he would remember that was his old life. Here, it would be different. Preethi wouldn’t understand the bus drivers, nor the television channels. She would grow bored and restless, watching the cars pass by all day through the window, too afraid to venture out with her imprecise tongue. She would hunger for the flavours of home, grow fat on white bread and microwave dinners. The girls would be slapped into the nearest school, bringing home foreign germs and unrecognizable accents. They would learn to be ashamed of their parents, asking for ham sandwiches for lunch, exasperatedly correcting their father’s pronunciation. And he would continue to spend his days at the factory, too afraid of losing his standing to tread a toe out of line, too enamored by the dream of America—the dream he was supposed to be living, to believe that this was it for him. This was, after all, the most hospitable land for immigrants. He would wait patiently in line for someone to notice him: to detect his heroic looks and skillful hands; how quickly he picked up new tasks and how easily he slipped into wherever he was placed. It was then that he would be resettled, as swiftly as paper turned to ash, to where he was meant to be.
When Tarun graduated with an LLB from the Baroda School of Legal Studies, he had pictured himself as a flashy lawyer in a corporate firm or one of those judges in the high court who finished work at four in the afternoon and lived in a gated complex. Still, something about it hadn’t felt quite right. He had always seen himself as going elsewhere. Nowhere in particular, but just somewhere else. He believed, in some cavern of his heart, that elsewhere is where he would be noticed, where his life would be made worthy. If he went elsewhere—America, Canada, places ripe with possibility—he would mean something back home.
He had felt this way for as long as he could remember. Perhaps it was the influence of the American legal dramas that Preethi loved, their ominous soundtrack playing in the background over dinner. He would become one of those fist-slamming lawyers from the shows, with their late-night liquor habits and their shiny interrogation rooms. Or perhaps it was the influence of his buddy Sonny who went to UMass Amherst and would regularly send along pictures of his weekend travels: eating shawarma in New York, pretending to read in the Harvard library. Maybe it was merely that he’d never left, and now he was due. Whatever it was, when he mentioned it to Preethi, she wrapped her arms around his neck and asked if they could visit Niagara Falls. Every weekend, he said, kissing her on the mouth.
In the factory, the light above the door signaled when it was okay to enter—green meant come on in, you’re welcome here, while red was, stay out if you want to live. Tarun often wondered about the documents that were torched away behind the sliding grate of the incinerator. He wondered what fragments of life he had unknowingly tossed down the chute. Papers from a marriage that begged to be forgotten? Police reports detailing the facts that they hoped to erase from existence? Incriminating tax scandals hastily disposed of by the world’s wealthiest? Rejected immigration applications signalling the end of a newly invented life? Memories went down that chute, along with pain and disappointment. Dreams, too, became lost and abandoned. Rejected by everyday dreamers, jettisoned into the crap-heap, to be whisked away, then chewed, charred, belched into non-existence. Their ghosts lingering like smoke. Tarun thought of Preethi’s eggplant curry, smoked in the tandoor until perfectly crisped, blackened around the edges and treacly in the center. He thought of last night’s dinner, soggy and uninspired, eaten straight from its take-out container. He thought of the first time he took the girls out to a restaurant, when he secured his work permit, how they celebrated over rasgulla, the sweet milk trickling down their chins. He thought of what was tossed aside, remembered his own dream, and how it was beginning to resemble a ghost. Then the light turned green.
It was around the anniversary of his first day at the factory when he realized that he wouldn’t be able to work as a lawyer in Canada. As this thought occurred, he felt a hot shame creep up his collar. All those years spent cramming in law school, locking himself away in his study only to emerge when he smelled dinner on the stove, and coming home so late that his daughter was already in bed, for what? He recalled when, a few weeks after his arrival in Toronto, the Bengali family in the neighbouring apartment invited him over for dinner. The man said he was an airport taxi driver, but had a certificate of general surgery from the Dhaka Medical College framed above the kitchen table. Tarun thought it was strange, but didn’t ask questions, thinking that perhaps this man was just unlucky, or tired. He knew the truth of it now, but it was too late: he was here, and no-one could accuse him of not working hard.
If his job could be boiled down to three words, it would be this: rip, scoop, toss. With his mind trained in the discipline of law, he tore open boxes, pulled out the wadded folders, and launched them into the chute. And then again, and again, and again. And again, until his watch read 7:00 and he could stumble, back throbbing and feet swollen, to the punch-out clock, logging his twelve hours, passing back through security before he could leave.
So it went, hour after hour passing with only the constricted hum of the machinery to keep him company. Around noon, he tore open a box that was smaller than the rest. From it, he withdrew a thin file folder. His burgeoning cold tickled his throat, and he sneezed, losing grip of the file. A few sheets of paper slid out onto the concrete floor, and he knelt to swipe them up.
They were sworn to secrecy in the factory; the contract plainly stated that anyone who removed property from the premises or reproduced anything they read was subject to immediate termination. It sounded more precarious than it was. Most often, the documents were littered with a scramble of numbers and jargon that no one cared to decipher, particularly not the sort-of English-speaking immigrants that populated the workplace. As much emphasis as the place put on security, it was really a risk-free enterprise. All pomp and no substance, like the dream of this country itself.
That is, until now, as Tarun stared down at the page in his hand. The first thing that caught his eye was the factory’s masthead. The second was the title: LETTER OF TERMINATION. He scanned the page, drinking in the legal blather like his mother’s milk. Familiar, off-putting. The truth crystallized before he had finished reading—the factory was closing down. Nearly 400 workers would be laid off. Severance pay would be offered to those who had worked there for over five years, those with seniority, or who were elderly. Tarun was none of these. Whatever money was owed him, the money he had rightfully earned back, gone. Swallowed into the bowels of the building.
When Kwaku had been offered a raise in his last job, he brought home three cases of beer to celebrate. They had downed pint after pint, sucking the bitter drink like juice. Tarun and Sunil had reminisced about the beers from home, brands such as Cheetah and Gorkha, names that puffed out their chests. They clanked their cans to Kwaku’s success, to this new concept of upward mobility, to dreams realized. “Like the sky, man,” Kwaku had drawled, inflecting his “a” so that it sounded like he was addressing his ill-assorted legion as “men,” “that’s where we’re headed.” By the early hours of the morning, four wilted men drooped over crumpled cans. Eyes puffy, barely open, Kwaku had croaked, “they don’t even know my name, men.” Tarun’s tongue felt heavy with recognition.
He recalled, now, his baby’s first word: baba. Father. The sounds rich and determined as they sprang from her lips. It was what he most wanted to be called in this moment. It was his most prized name. Lately, when Preethi held the phone up to their daughter’s ear, cajoling her to talk to her father, to say “hi, baba, miss you, baba,” she sat quiet. Tarun pictured her pouted mouth, her balled fists. Once, she started crying, and Preethi hastily scooped back the phone, saying that she was cranky, not to worry, she had just missed her afternoon nap. Tarun’s throat clenched. He had gone away to be revered, and instead he was being forgotten.
Now he stood, holding a choice in his hands. He could ignore it, risking nothing, feigning surprise alongside his fellow workers when the announcement was made. He could watch his earnings and his chances torched to smoke. Or he could stop waiting. His legal mind clicked into action, procuring a final possibility as he bundled up the file and cast it to its death. His deposit. Owed to him if he left of his own accord. The cost of a plane ticket, one-way. The deposit for a better life. In that moment, he knew exactly what that better life was.
Tarun ripped, scooped, and tossed one more box, paying his respects. Then he left the room, heading straight for the manager’s office. In his head, he rehearsed his speech, the gratitude he would express for the opportunity, how the factory had become family, but how it was time for him to move on, forward and upwards. A balance of sweet and firm, just like Preethi’s milkcake, which they would have devoured earlier today for his baby’s birthday.
Tarun met the door and knocked. He clutched his badge in his hand like a passport. Behind him, a light blinked green, as if to say: welcome home.
Janika Oza is a writer and educator based in Toronto. Her work can be found in SmokeLong Quarterly, Homonym Journal, and Looseleaf Magazine, among others, and she is a 2018 VONA/Voices fellow. Find her at www.janikaoza.com.