'I will have nothing to do with trade unions when I grow up,’ Bimal told his father with tears in his eyes.
The dramatic declaration only elicited a chuckle from Chittaranjan who fondly patted Bimal on the back and told him, ‘that’s fine. When you grow up, you can go into business and make more money than you know what to do with.’
‘And I won’t give you any!’ Bimal added in between his sobs.
‘My boy Bimal is going to be a big businessman and make a lot of money,’ Chittaranjan told his wife who was standing nearby. However, Chittaranjan’s wife shared her son’s resentment of his father and she refused to play along.
‘Don’t worry. He is only ten years old. Soon he will realise that there is no point in asking his father for anything. He might as well learn to fend for himself. Just like me.’ The last bit was added after a thoughtful phrase.
‘Come on. Don’t be so nasty. What do you lack?’ Chittaranjan asked his wife who gave a toss of her head and went back to her work. As for Bimal, he stalked out of the house, muttering curses about a father who could not buy him a bicycle, something which all his classmates seemed to have. Bimal knew exactly why his father could not afford to buy him the bicycle, despite being a supervisor at the jute factory. His mother’s railings against his father made it difficult for either Bimal or his younger sister to not know that Chittaranjan’s trade union activities had brought them all to the brink of destitution. If only his father had not been a unionist, he would not have been suspended from his job so many times, he would not have his salary withheld for such long stretches and he might even have managed a few promotions.
The worst sin committed by his father in his mother’s eyes was that he was agitating for the rights of workmen in his factory, even though he was a supervisor and was meant to keep the workmen in line.
Bimal never forgot how important it was to have nothing to do with trade unions. After he finished school and scored a very high rank in the IIT entrance exams, he opted for the IIT in Mumbai, rather than the equally good one at Kharagpur, just to make sure he was as far away from the corrupting influences of trade unions that permeated the state of West Bengal.
Every term break, he went home to be with his parents, more out of necessity than choice. He would have liked to travel around India rather than spend his vacations in Howrah, but he just didn’t have the money for it. However, he made it a point to behave like a tourist while he was with his parents. He pretended to not remember the names of any of his school friends, especially the ones who were around in Howrah, and whom he could have visited. When his father talked of his union activities which still took up a huge chunk of Chittaranjan’s waking hours, he listened with a very disinterested air, as though he were listening to a report on sub-Saharan Africa on the BBC.
As soon as he passed out of the IIT with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering, he was snapped up by a Japanese car maker for its factory in south India. Bimal called up his parents to tell them the good news.
‘Son, I’m so happy,’ his father told him. ‘But I wish you had found a job in our state.’
‘Thanks to the unions, we Bengalis are forced to work else where,’ Bimal observed quietly.
Chittaranjan quickly changed the topic. ‘Who cares? Your starting salary is going to be much higher than what I earn after almost thirty years of service!’
‘I wouldn’t have achieved this if it hadn’t been for you and mother,’ Bimal had the grace to say, though he didn’t mean any of it. If his father hadn’t fooled around with unions, he would be earning a lot more than what he did now.
After working for three years in Chennai, Bimal persuaded his employer to sponsor him for an MBA at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila. Being an engineer was good fun, but management was where the big bucks lay. After his MBA, Bimal was given a two-year posting in Japan.
‘Why don’t you ask them to post you in India?’ his mother wondered over the phone.
‘Do you seriously expect me to prefer India to Japan?’ Bimal asked his mother incredulously. ‘In any event, I’ll visit you people once or twice a year, irrespective of whether I am in Japan or in Chennai.
Next time you come home, we’ll get you married,’ his mother told him gaily. Bimal promised himself that it would be a while before he went home.
Japan was a revelation to Bimal. Until he went to Tokyo, Bimal thought that Calcutta, Howrah and Mumbai were the most crowded places in the world. Tokyo showed him how even a clean and modern city could be so incredibly congested.
The people were unbelievably polite, but the food was horrible, so much different from what he was used to. Why can’t they cook the fish? Bimal wondered again and again when faced with a sushi or a sashimi.
The people were all law-abiding, but some of the rules seemed to be quite draconian to him. He was required to carry his passport with him at all times. This was a nuisance. Bimal knew how painful it would be if he were to lose his passport and had to approach the Indian embassy for a duplicate. He was relived when he found out that as a long term visitor, he was expected to register himself as an alien and obtain a Gaijin card. The Gaijin card too had to be carried with him always, but Bimal was sure that replacing the Gaijin card would be easier than obtaining a duplicate Indian passport.
Bimal made his way to the city hall, wondering how he would figure out where the foreigners’ registration desk was, since all the signs were in Japanese. He needn’t have bothered. A middle-aged man, most probably a bureaucrat, came up to him and asked him very politely in very bad English if wanted to register for the Gaijin card. It was plain sailing after that.
After a month in Tokyo, the trouble began. Bimal had another month to move out of the apartment arranged by his employer and find a place of his own. He was told by the first agency he rang that they had nothing suitable for him. They were very apologetic about it, the apology taking a few minutes of his time. The second agency was a little bit more curt, but they too did not have anything suitable for him. Could they take down his details and call him when they found something appropriate? Oh no! They could not. They were very unlikely to find anything suitable for someone like him. Bimal spoke to five agents with varying degrees of politeness before one agreed to find an apartment for him.
‘Why should I have so much trouble finding an apartment,’ Bimal asked a few Japanese colleagues who shrugged their shoulders.
‘You ain’t one of them man,’ an American in his department told him, when they were out of earshot of every one else.
Bimal was shocked. This was horrible. Why should Japanese landlords mind renting out to an Indian? There didn’t seem to be any answers on offer, until his agent told him very politely that all Asians, other than the Japanese, are very dirty. They cooked everything they ate in oil, didn’t they, which did not help keep the kitchen clean, did it? It took the agent almost three weeks to show Bimal an acceptable flat, though it was a basic affair with peeling paint in a predominantly Korean locality.
After his ordeal in finding a flat, Bimal tried to settle down in his job. He had to spend another twenty months in Japan before he could go back to Chennai and there was no point in moping about. He was learning so many things at his work place which more than compensated for the flat-hunting ordeal.
Even though Bimal’s neighbourhood was not at all posh, his ethnic Korean neighbours were very friendly towards him. Soon Bimal found himself reading up on the history of Koreans in Japan. Many of them had lived there for two or more generations, their parents and grandparents having migrated to Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony. A large chunk of the Koreans who came to work in Japan during the Second World War had actually been conscript labour. Even though they were all now eligible to become Japanese citizens, and many of them had accepted Japanese nationality and taken on Japanese names, they continued to face a lot of discrimination in all spheres.
Bimal found a Korean maid to clean his apartment and wash his dishes every morning. Soo was always cheerful and friendly and soon Bimal found himself looking forward to her visits in the mornings before he went to work. All said and done, Soo was the only local person other than a colleague whom Bimal had befriended in the last two months. Soo’s English was very rudimentary, but eventually Bimal worked out that she was taking classes in English in the hope of eventually working for a good hotel.
‘What sort of job will you get in a hotel?’
‘Oh! I be maid.’ Soo giggled.
‘Is it easy to get such a job once you learn enough English?’
‘No. Not easy. And I, Korean.’
Bimal was incensed. ‘You Koreans ought to form a union and fight this sort of discrimination you know,’ he said.
Soo was silent.
‘I could show you people how to start a union,’ Bimal added.