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from the August 2017 issue

The Man with a Guava Tree

Calcutta native Shumona Sinha describes a communication breakdown when a French immigration officer interviews an immigrant circus performer.​
 

He looked perpetually amazed and stupefied. I recall having to ask him at several moments if he understood what I was saying. At several moments I thought he was simple-minded. He always took a few seconds before opening his mouth, to swallow his saliva, like a fish gasping for air. Only then did he utter a few hesitant, inaudible, frightened words. I knew then that in his mind there ran a slender thread of a tale, upon which he swayed, with faltering step. A trapeze artist, he wasn’t. Rather a village boy whom the traveling circus had found to be sufficiently goofy that he didn’t care how goofy he appeared, and would put on a show. They got him up on the tightrope.

“We hunt down those who cross the border. But what about the ones who make them come? The ones who make them work illicitly? The ones who constructed this slavery machine?” asked the officer with exasperation.

She’s a triumphant forty-something. Hair cut short in a blonde bob. From time to time she sweeps back a few strands with a brisk hand, meaning that she is excited and tense, like a cat that has spotted a far too stupid mouse.

“Slaves?”

I am polite but I can hardly hide my joy, believing that I am on the point of discovering one of life’s great truths.

“That’s correct. They bring them over as labor. And who profits? You guessed it! By making them pay for the passport, the voyage, and the story, too.”

“You mean they also buy their stories?!”

She shrugs. Raises her eyebrows. It’s obvious. She doesn’t say it but I get the message, loud and clear.

She stubs out her cigarette and I take a final swig from my bottle of orange Oasis. White clouds scud across the soaring gray windows of this complex of buildings, doubling in volume then fragmenting, before merging to form clusters of strange, distant, unexplored planets. They penetrate the simple geometry of the glass panes, progressing like some unknown gas, like smoke from a fire, frightening and invasive.

We continued the interview with the boy from the village circus.

“Right, do you have any brothers and sisters?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“Two.”

“Two what? Brother? Sister?” 

“No, no, three.”

“Three what?”

“One brother and one sister.”

“And the third one?”

“He’s dead.”

“OK. Why didn’t you say that from the start?”

“Well, because he’s dead.”

“In what circumstances?”

“The terrorists killed him.”

“Right. Are you married?”

“No.”

“Do you have any children?”

At this, the circus youth wails like a clown who’s picked the wrong mask. Indignant, he wonders how we can ask him if he has children. Didn’t he just state that he was unmarried? The protection officer tries to understand. Where is the problem? I sidestep the social and moral niceties, and tell her in a nutshell that for him it is quite impossible to conceive children outside of marriage.

“Well it’s not exactly difficult, is it?!” the officer goes.

We let it drop and move on.

“Did you work before coming here?”

“No.”

“How did you earn your living?”

“My father had a grocery store. I stayed with him at our grocery store.”

“I see! So you worked with your father.”

“I didn’t work, I told you. We had a grocery store. Sold bits of . . . er . . . stuff . . . things to eat.” 

“So you did work, in your grocery store!”

“I didn’t work. I sold things.”

“How many days a week? And how many hours a day?”

“Monday to Sunday. Closed on Friday. Eight o’clock to ten at night.”

“You worked a lot in your grocery store.”

“I told you I didn’t work. I had a grocery store.”

Now it’s the officer who looks at me, astonished.

“Is there a problem? Do you understand each other? Does he understand you? Or is there an issue with the language?”

“He understands me perfectly,” I reassure her. “Maybe it’s the word ‘work’ that bothers him. He understands ‘work’ as being employed. He’s the owner of this grocery store. Therefore superior to those who work, who work for other people.”

“OK, well, we’ll leave that there. Otherwise we’ll never get through this,” says the officer, and she hits the Enter key with her forefinger, the nail of which is damaged by dint of typing terrible tales.

“What made you leave your country?”

“The terrorists . . . everywhere . . . they harass us . . . I am Hindu . . . the fundamentalists torture us . . .”

“What was the incident that forced you to leave your country?”

“Well . . . the terrorists . . . the fundamentalists . . .”

“What was the precise reason you left your country? What did they do to you? Be specific.”

“A young woman from my village killed herself. That’s why—”

“How does that relate to you?”

“Well . . . she was Muslim. She was dating a friend of mine.”

“How does that relate to you?”

“Er . . . my friend was Hindu. Like me.”

“But . . . how . . . why was that a problem for you?”

“This girl’s brother was a terrorist in our village. He had beaten up his sister’s boyfriend. He had prohibited him from seeing his sister. And the girl hung herself. And they accused me of murder.”

“But how were you responsible? You weren’t her boyfriend!”

“No . . . but the terrorist and his men had brought the woman’s corpse and had hung it from the guava tree at my place.”

“Why? Wasn’t there a guava tree at the other guy’s place?”

I burst out laughing. Impossible to stop myself and translate the question for him. He stares at me, amazed and stupefied. A fit of giggles before a man in distress. Enough to make you blush with shame, bite your nails, lower your head right down to the table, and slyly laugh even more. I think of the woes of the world. Woes I myself have known. Or that I will know. Get myself knocked down by a car before I can take a bite of my meat and plum sandwich. A flowerpot fallen off a balcony right onto my head. Shattered skull—my cell phone rings right at that moment, but I can’t reply. It’s like the flowers were laid in advance for my funeral. I die. I cry. I cry for the people who would have cried for me. Nothing to be done. My body shakes with laughter as if a host of sparrows were flitting, fluttering, and chattering inside my skeletal cage. 

 

From  Assommons les pauvres! © Shumona Sinha. Published 2011 by Éditions de l'Olivier. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Roland Glasser. All rights reserved.

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