- Published: 20 June 2023
- ISBN: 9781761049545
- Imprint: Vintage Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $32.99
The Days Toppled Over
Four names on the lease and, as of today, seven people in the house.
Surya, Home Delivery Guy at Golden Fort, Newtown, is no longer at the bottom of the house’s pecking order but closer to the middle, a position he cherishes this morning with a smile on his face. It is his first day off in months. The rain has finally ceased. Through the gap left by the broken window slat, a thick stripe of turmeric sunshine is falling onto the carpet.
There you go, Surya thinks. When you work in an Indian restaurant, turmeric coats everything, even the sunshine.
Last night, Malli had seemed distracted on the phone. Oddly, Surya can perceive these things by reading the frequency and pressure of her phone taps. He’d imagined the news of his promotion would make her happy, and he found it stranger still that she’d not reacted to his news about Bobby with more enthusiasm. He allows his thoughts of Malli to pass over his mind like clouds blowing in the wind. Not on his day off. Not when he has something so important to do.
Bobby will be here at noon with the new recruits and Surya is both excited and nervous in anticipation of her arrival. Surya goes over in his head the words he’s prepared for her, words he’s been going over for weeks but hasn’t found the courage or opportunity to speak.
Still in his bedclothes, a worn t-shirt and a pair of pyjama shorts, Surya pauses for a moment to examine a new stain on the carpet. He cleans his glasses with the edge of his t-shirt so he can see better. A large red wine stain on the already stain-mottled carpet. It was another big one last night, the culmination of a week-long celebration of Joe obtaining his 457 visa as Restaurant Manager of Golden Fort. It is a wonder Surya has no hangover.
He pulls open his suitcase from underneath his bunk and examines its contents. He isn’t used to paying attention to his appearance. Most days, he operates on autopilot and slides without thinking into his black and white uniform. He has few occasions to dress up. But today, he’d like to look nice. Not too nice though, not like he’s tried too hard. He examines each shirt against the light for stains and tears. He is frustrated there isn’t a single shirt that is both clean and suitable for the occasion. Their dryer has been broken for months and his good shirts are still hanging on a wire rack in a corner of the room, damp and smelling of mould. Finally, he selects a blue and grey plaid shirt he’d bought at Salvos for five dollars and hasn’t gotten a chance to wear it yet. He lays it flat on his bed and attempts to smooth down the wrinkles, but it’s too crumpled, and he sighs discontentedly.
The house is quiet. On Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, they usually attend their classes, but with today being the Queen’s Birthday public holiday, they can finally run some errands or catch up with old friends. Surya wiggles his chilly toes and fingers to get the blood flowing in them. It is June, and winter has started to set in – what he needs is a warm shower. The bathroom door is closed. Surya awaits his turn as he does every morning, because those with their names on the lease have the first use of the bathroom. This will change with the new arrivals, Surya reminds himself, and lets out a tiny whistle at the prospect he won’t be last in line anymore. In the kitchen, he surveys the aftermath of last night’s shenanigans – unwashed dishes in the sink, abandoned plastic wine cups lining the windowsill, and, in the middle of the floor, a black bin bag overflows with crushed tin cans and potato chip wrappers.
‘Is the daal resembling our shit or is our shit resembling the daal?’ Ramana, Head Chef of Golden Fort had said last night, disgusted at the thought of eating daal-chawal again. Daal with rice was their staple meal because it was easy to make and needed only two utensils. Surya had egged Ramana on to cook something South Indian for the party, and in a moment of abandon, even offered to wash up after him, an offer that seems reckless this morning. They had all relished the spicy potatoes that made their foreheads sweat, and the tangy garlic rasam that ran down their fingers as they slurped it. In other places Surya had worked, staff meals were served in the restaurant, either before it opened for business or after the last of the customers had left. But Narsing, the restaurant’s owner (who they joked was also their owner, and so, called him ‘Malik’ behind his back) considered it a waste of his time and money to keep the restaurant open any longer than he had to after the last customer had left. They were forced to cook in their own kitchen, scrubbing their own crusted pots and pans when two industrial-sized dishwashers sat serenely still below them in the restaurant.
It is easy to have misgivings, Surya thinks, when looking at the kitchen in this state. He’s had daily misgivings about this entire arrangement – living in the cramped tenement above the restaurant, both tenant and employee of a man he neither likes nor trusts, and leaving in this man’s hands all his hopes of remaining in this country.
How good it is to be proven wrong. Look at Joe now, with an actual 457 visa label in his passport that Surya has seen with his very own eyes. A visa that allows you to stay and work in Australia for four years. From a 457, a Permanent Residency is only a hop, skip and jump away. Joe has paved the path for all of them. With Joe ready to leave this dump for better digs, Surya can move to the lower bunk and also take over his lease. Surya hasn’t mentioned it to anyone in the house, but late one night last week, Narsing had phoned Surya to pick him up from an event at which he’d had too much to drink. It was past two am when they’d arrived at Narsing’s home and Narsing had told Surya how impressed he was with his hard work, and that he would be up for a front-of-house position soon. The only person he’d told was Malli, during their phone call last night. He was always scrounging for something positive to share with her about his life, and here at last was a piece of good news that he didn’t have to makeup or exaggerate. And yet, she’d not reacted in the way he anticipated. Still, after all this time, the sickening awareness fills him that he longs for her approval.
Ramana emerges from the bathroom, freshly showered, in a sleeveless vest, and a lungi wrapped around his waist. His face is flushed, and underneath his hooded eyelids, his eyes are bloodshot and swollen as though he hasn’t slept. Wet, his hair is curlier than usual.
‘If I were you, I’d wait five-ten minutes,’ he says, brushing past Surya. ‘Maybe light some Nag Champa and waft it about before going in. Not sure I’ll be making those potatoes again anytime soon.’
‘A shower on a day off?’ Surya asks, following Ramana back into their room. ‘Something happening?’
‘This isn’t your boarding school and you’re not my schoolmaster, you know?’ Ramana says, giving him a pat on his arm.
They all give Surya a hard time for having gone to a boarding school. In fact, giving each other a hard time is their convoluted way of expressing affection for one another and is often accompanied by a pat on the shoulder or arm, or a tousling of one’s hair. The housemates’ relationship is an awkward combination of rivalry and solidarity. They are each other’s only support in the country while also vying for the same jobs, the same promotions, and probably, Surya considers, the same women.
Is Bobby’s imminent presence the reason for Ramana’s uncharacteristic shower?
A few months ago, Surya might have made a joke about it, but he finds that he can no longer be glib about Bobby. Something has changed in him.
‘You got your new shirt all laid out, going to a wedding?’ Ramana says, nodding in the direction of Surya’s bunk.
‘I don’t need any fancy clothes to impress women,’ he continues, vigorously drying his hair with a towel. ‘Lungi and banyan will work fine for me. Women like me just the way I am,’ he says, laughing.
Surya simply stares at him, unable to relate as he normally would to this type of banter. Surya can feel Ramana’s eyes scanning his face for answers.
‘Ask Raj to give it the once-over,’ Ramana says finally, changing his tone, demonstrating his uncanny ability to assess a situation.‘He’s doing his weekly ironing for Narsing next door.’
Surya is grateful Ramana’s let him off easy today. He grabs his shirt and wanders into the other room in search of Raj, Sous Chef of Golden Fort. Raj raises his eyebrows when Surya hands him the shirt but takes it without question.
‘I owe you,’ Surya says, heading at last for a shower.
It was through Ramana that Surya had found the job at Golden Fort. Back in September, when his student visa was about to expire, Surya had run into him outside the immigration office on Lee Street. Ramana was merely a friend of a friend then, someone Surya vaguely admired from a distance, like a senior in school.
Surya was there to apply for a fresh student visa for his new course in Hospitality Management, one the migration agent in Paramatta he’d paid a hundred dollars for a phone consult had told him was his best chance of obtaining Permanent Residency. It was a strange manner of choosing a career, but Surya had never felt a strong tug towards any particular field.
Back in India, he had whiled away a few years after college in meaningless jobs. Two stints as a low-level account executive at rival ad agencies were followed by a job promoting events for a local cola company. Surya’s only goal became to get away from home as far as possible and he was willing to give any field ago if it meant residency in another far-away country. He’d cast the net wide, looking at institutions in Canada, the UK and Australia.
When he’d turned up at Malli’s flat asking for his share of their inheritance, however, he gave her a different impression. He told her of his passion for starting a business and how much he wanted to leave the country to gain a different perspective, and that studying abroad would give him valuable experience. Sydney, Australia, he told her, held his dreams.
‘You’ve been given the bait and switch, like me,’ Ramana said, leaning over to peer at Surya’s form.
‘First, they put Chef on the Skills Shortage List. Then we come running in hordes from all directions to every institute offering a culinary course. We go nearly bankrupt finishing our degree. Finally, when we’re done and thinking how lucky we are our job is on the shortage list and that we are eligible for Permanent Residency, what do they do? They take that occupation away from the list, and it’s something else they want now, like a welder or a baker or an acupuncturist.’
‘I hear it’s the same story in the US with the H-1Bs. What can we do?’
‘You know what they say, he who owns the whip owns the buffalo . . .'
‘There’s got to be a way out,’ Surya said tentatively, waiting for Ramana to confirm it for him. Someone was always gloating about getting sponsored by an employer or finding a migration agent who worked miracles. Then there was always a chance he could meet someone in this country.
Ramana shook his head. ‘Don’t.’
‘Don’t be dreaming about marrying an Aussie girl, okay? That’s not going to happen,’ Ramana said, reading Surya’s mind and nudging his shoulder with his own. ‘We are all too short and too skinny for them. And not all of us have a personality to make up for it.’
Surya laughed, and Ramana put an arm around him as if he’d known him a long time.
‘It all depends if luck is on your side. And looks like luck is on your side because you ran into me.’
‘I think you made me miss my visa time slot,’ Surya said.
‘Take my number down,’ Ramana whispered. ‘This is not the best place to talk. Did you know they have a special number to call if you want to report someone for visa infringement?’
‘Have you ever tried calling immigration?’ Surya said. ‘I grew a beard sitting by the phone the last time I tried.’
’Not the regular line, guru. This is a special line for people who just want to call up and dob people in. It gets answered on the first ring. Afterwards, they take your address down and send you some lamingtons as a reward.’
‘Maybe I should be calling that number instead of potential employers,’ Surya said, chuckling. ‘Report you, bastard.’
‘Go ahead and call. What’s it to me? I am well on my way to my 457. I don’t mess around with illegal stuff in this country. Only the “barely legal” stuff.’
The joke hardly registered. The three magic numbers did:Four Five Seven.
‘Call me, okay? I’ll sort you out too.’
Not long after, Surya turned up at the Golden Fort. After assurances from Ramana that becoming a Home Delivery Guy was not a step backwards in his career but a smart calculated strategy, Surya moved in. The sun sparkled for days and was pink with possibilities.
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