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The Indian Uncle Sam

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
October 2011
The Indian Uncle Sam Standing in the baggage claim area, as he nervously waited for his mother and sister, Prakash unfolded the terse note and read it again. Got to have the rent check by Tue. Otherwise you’ll have to vacate the apt. Sorry. He had found it that morning, wedged in the crack of his door, just as he was leaving for the airport. The ultimatum came as a shock, considering that Rick—the manager at Sunrise Apartments—had seemed to understand Prakash’s dilemma when they’d talked the previous week about his outstanding payment.

“I need another month to sort things out, Rick,” he’d said. “Diwali is coming up.”

“What’s that?”

“A festival of lights that’s big in India. My mother and sister are coming from there and we’re going to celebrate. I can’t ask them to cancel their trip … it would be very awkward. They bought their tickets months ago.”

“I understand, Praycash. Best wishes for your festival. Unfortunately I have no control; I only work in this place. But I’ll speak to the boss and let you know.”

The place, Prakash realized, was beginning to look bedraggled. The property used to be well maintained, but that had changed after the staff cuts—and, sitting in Rick’s office, he could see litter in the parking lot, where there weren’t as many cars these days. Sad. In the wake of the economic downturn, more apartments had fallen vacant in recent months, casting a pall on Sunrise Apartments, which had been Prakash’s home for over two years.

At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, Prakash was putting Rick’s note back in his pocket when he saw his mother and…wait a minute! The other woman wasn’t Nandini, his sister; she looked like Chitra. It was Chitra. Stunned, Prakash waited as they looked around uncertainly, but when they spotted him, he quickly stepped forward to greet them. His mother appeared tired, even disoriented, after the long flight—and Chitra, smiling tentatively, was perhaps wondering how he’d react to her dramatic, unannounced arrival.

“What a pleasant surprise,” Prakash said, reaching for Chitra’s suitcase.

“Are you sure?” she laughed. For a moment he couldn’t figure out what Chitra was referring to, his remark or his offer to help.

He soon found out that the firm his sister worked at had been taken over, leaving all the employees unsure of their jobs. Nandini realized she couldn’t afford to leave India just then, but for reasons that remained unclear to him, he hadn’t been informed of the plan to recruit Chitra as their mother’s companion for her trip to the U.S. Was this a clumsy attempt to set them up … again? Prakash had first met Chitra, his sister’s former classmate, while they were still in college. But they hadn’t talked much until his last visit to India about a year ago, when his mother, after mentioning that Chitra was single and lived not far from her house, hinted that she’d make a good match for him. He deftly steered the conversation away from the topic. When she brought it up again, saying, “Prakash, why don’t you just meet her for dinner; I’m sure you’ll have a lot to talk about,” he surprised himself by responding, “Sure, I’ll be glad to do it if she’s interested.”

Their outing—Prakash hesitated to call it a date—started a little awkwardly, but soon the evening went smoothly and they ended up having a pleasant conversation over a drawn-out meal. As he saw it, they both knew that a relationship wouldn’t work when they were living so far apart. And there was no question of agreeing to marry, as his mother had probably hoped, after a couple of meetings. Getting to know each other was important. But that wasn’t logistically possible unless he moved back to India. Prakash left it at that— only calling Chitra to say goodbye before he flew back to the States.

After paying the airport parking fee, Prakash drove slowly in the traffic until they got on the highway. Glancing in the mirror, he noticed that his mother—sitting in the back, at her insistence—had already dozed off. Surreptitiously, he looked again at Chitra, who, seated beside him, was gazing at the passing vehicles. Prakash wanted to explain why he hadn’t been in touch with her lately. But the timing seemed inappropriate. In any case, his mother woke up soon—and it didn’t take long to reach Sunrise Apartments.

It was the start of a long weekend. So thankfully, for the next three days, Prakash didn’t have to explain why he wasn’t going to work. His mother and Chitra had many questions, as they gradually adjusted to the changes—and whenever they marveled at the novelty of America, Prakash was reminded of his own early days in this country. Soon, the two women began to do chores in the apartment, despite his protests, making him feel as if he was back in India. Although the Tuesday deadline loomed, Prakash was grateful for the female, not to mention filial, companionship that had lately been missing from his life.

The impending eviction, if he didn’t come up with the amount he owed, seemed unreal at this point. Yet it could happen, just like that. Prakash’s last job interview had actually gone very well, but the competition was stiff and he didn’t get the call. He had tucked away some money for expenses, but touching it to pay the full rent would be risky. Somehow, he’d have to defer it—at least until his mother and Chitra went back to India.

Rising early on Tuesday, Prakash got ready quietly, as if he had to go to work as usual. He thought his mother and Chitra were still sleeping. But the light was on in the kitchen, where the smell of brewing coffee greeted him when he walked in and saw Chitra. Seated at his small table, she was flipping through a magazine.

“Going to the office early?” she smiled. “The coffee is almost ready. I can fix you some breakfast.”

“No, that’s fine,” he said, startled. “You’re up early, Chitra. Hope you slept okay.”

“Yes … I’m an early riser. But, Prakash, I did want to say something before you left. When I agreed to accompany your mother, I should have insisted on informing you. Making a surprise visit wasn’t such a good idea. We didn’t plan it well. I can see that it came as a rude shock. You may think we have nefarious motives.” She smiled again.

“No, no, that’s nonsense, Chitra. Believe me, I’m absolutely delighted to see you. If I seem preoccupied, it’s because of a work issue. But it’ll be fine. Let’s have a nice long chat this evening. We can go out for dinner.”

Prakash didn’t linger. Swallowing his coffee, he picked up his briefcase and hurried out after saying goodbye. Rick was not in yet at the rental office. Getting into his car, Prakash drove in the direction of his former employer. A mild panic gripped him. How did it come to this—so quickly? Not long ago, he had a nice job with no worries and was living comfortably, looking forward to the day when he’d be able to make a down payment on a spacious townhouse in a lively, attractive neighborhood. And now, unbelievably, he was close to being homeless. When the economy tanked and Prakash got laid off, he had thought—like many others—the setback would be temporary.

But even after turning his job hunt into a full-time effort, there had been no success. Sometimes, he’d gone for multiple interviews at the same company—and that, he now realized, had given him false hope. The money he’d saved was dwindling rapidly. Unless he found another job soon, his time in America may come to an end, dashing his dreams.

Prakash reached the building where he used to work, only to feel silly and self-conscious. It was a pointless drive. Not wanting to be seen by his former colleagues, he abruptly turned around and drove back to Sunrise Apartments and parked in front of the rental office—which was, fortunately, not visible from his apartment on the other side. Seeing Rick’s car, Prakash felt a surge of hope—and dread. Opening the door, he greeted Rick, who was looking through some papers at his desk.

There was an uneasy pause.

“Good morning,” Rick said. “Ah…do you have the check, Praycash?”

“No, I don’t, Rick. Can you give me one more extension? I’ll borrow the money, if needed, and pay you in full next month. My mother is here, as I said, along with another guest. Please let me stay until they leave.”

A look of irritation crossed Rick’s face. “Praycash, you don’t seem to get it. I also have challenges. But … here’s a deal. I’ll work with you if you can do something for us.”

“Sure, I’ll be happy to, Rick! I truly appreciate it.”

“Good. Can you be Uncle Sam?”

“Excuse me?” Prakash wondered if he’d heard correctly.

Rick chuckled, for the first time. “Let me show you,” he said, rising to go to the adjoining room. Moments later, returning with a box, he pulled out a red, white, and blue striped outfit that included an elongated, matching hat.

Prakash was still puzzled. Without speaking, Rick took out what appeared to be a sign. “Great Deals at Sunrise Apts….First Month Free!” it read. Prakash remained silent, waiting for Rick to say something. Instead, Rick took out another sign, with the words appearing above an arrow, and held it aloft. “Fall Specials on Fully Furnished Apts....Falling Rents!”

Then it struck home. Rick wanted him to don the Uncle Sam costume and be a sales promoter. For Sunrise Apartments! He was expected to walk up and down the nearby streets, twirling the signs, so that people would be—hopefully—drawn by the rental offers. Astonished, Prakash was slow to react; then he nodded. “OK, now I understand.”

“So, can you do it, Praycash? I have another costume. But it’s Lady Liberty…I don’t think it’ll suit you. The good thing is that a beard is not required for Uncle Sam.” Chuckling again, he added, “Listen, I’ll understand if you’re not keen. Not everybody is comfortable with it. Just a thought. This is part of our fall marketing strategy…we’re trying to attract more tenants. If you can do it, we’ll take care of the rent for now.”

Saying yes, Prakash put on the slightly loose-fitting costume in the other room and left the building, walking self-consciously. He decided to start at the far end of the complex and work his way to the street closest to his apartment. The hat, especially, felt ridiculous when he stepped on the pavement and saw the traffic flowing down the street. Wondering if anybody was laughing at him, he forced himself to not look at the passengers when the cars stopped at the lights. Initially the signs remained frozen in his arms, as if he didn’t know what to do with them. It was a humbling experience. Prakash remembered, a little shamefacedly, how he would sometimes catch himself staring at oddly dressed sign holders, as they walked or gyrated near intersections and in front of shopping plazas. How unfortunate, he’d think, that they had to settle for this unpleasant, low-paying job.

Slowly, Prakash began to lose his inhibition, although he still avoided looking directly at the people driving by. Holding the signs up, Prakash swayed and turned, making sure the words were clearly visible to passers-by. His attempt at twirling was less successful. A sign slipped and fell, to his embarrassment—and though nobody else seemed to care, Prakash decided he was not ready for twirling. Moving to another street, he wondered how Rick would know if this strategy was working. It was going to take time, no doubt. Still, would Rick ask prospective renters how they’d come to know about the specials?

Prakash thought he should be more theatrical to draw attention—that he should look at people, smile, point enthusiastically towards Sunrise Apartments. But it wasn’t easy. Maybe a mask would have helped. On occasion he had seen sign holders with their faces covered, dressed up as Disney characters, bears, even Sesame Street characters. Why did the owners of Sunrise opt for Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty, anyway? Before Prakash put on the costume, he’d wanted to ask Rick but felt the timing was not right. Now he could see a plausible explanation. Many tenants at Sunrise Apartments were immigrants. Presumably, iconic American symbols like Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty would resonate most with immigrants who had moved to Atlanta and were looking for a place to rent.

Reaching the sidewalk near his apartment, Prakash stopped. There were no pedestrians now. Still, he hesitated. The sun was out but not sharp, keeping the weather balmy, and a gentle breeze prevented him from sweating. Without lowering the sign, Prakash resumed his walk—and, almost immediately, stopped again. Shocked, he was unable to move when he saw Chitra and his mother walking towards him. What were they doing here? Alarmed, he wondered if anything had gone wrong, but then realized they were actually strolling in the neighborhood, perhaps because they’d felt cooped up in the apartment.

Spinning around, Prakash lowered his head and walked fast, then almost broke into a run. They saw him, of course. But did they recognize him in this costume? Unlikely, for wouldn’t they have called out his name? Nevertheless, Chitra seemed puzzled. Or was he imagining it? What he needed to do was get away, keep moving in the other direction.

Rounding the corner at the intersection, Prakash decided to cross the street even before the lights changed. There wasn’t much traffic. Stepping off the curb, he didn’t notice a car hurtling towards him—until it was too late. Then, in a moment of horror and terror, Prakash saw that he was going to be mowed down, annihilated in the prime of his life. But as Prakash later realized, the driver’s amazing reflexes led to a miraculous escape, with the car screeching to a halt just inches from his paralyzed body.

The driver got out, shaken and quaking with anger. “What are you doing, moron?” he shouted, gesticulating wildly. “Watch where you’re going! Do you want to get killed?”

Though stunned by this narrow escape, Prakash managed to apologize and swiftly move out of the way—just as some people began to honk irately, forcing the driver back into his car. The traffic resumed. Without looking back, Prakash cradled the hat in his arm and walked briskly, not stopping until he reached his car. He was calm now. Leaving the window open to let in fresh air, he closed his eyes and sat quietly. What he felt, above all, was overwhelming relief. This was a turning point for him. And though he didn’t know what lay in the future, he knew there would be no more denial or deception.

Equanimity. The word came to him suddenly, resonating in his mind. He liked the sound of it. Prakash hoped—no, he was sure—that he’d face the road ahead with equanimity. After returning the costume to Rick, he’d transfer the money from his savings account and write a check for the full amount. And then, a cup of tea would be nice, in the company of his mother and Chitra. Prakash also looked forward to a nice long chat with Chitra, as he’d suggested to her that morning. He was so glad that she’d chosen to come.

No matter what happened, he was going to be prepared. And now, unlike the previous year, he wasn’t alone. They would all have a great Diwali. The Indian festivities in town would be worth checking out. It would be a grand celebration—with fun, laughter, food—reminding him of the good time he used to have in India during Diwali every year.

[Murali Kamma’s fiction has appeared in AIM: America’s Intercultural Magazine, South Asian Review, and Asian Pacific American Journal, among other publications.]

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