Updated: May 29
Ronita Sinha’s work has been published in East of the Web, The Academy of the Heart and Mind, The Magic Diary, and The Literary Yard. In August 2020 she was awarded “Storyteller of the Month” by The Magic Diary. Ronita has recently joined the staff of Atticus Review as a Fiction Reader.
When I first saw the ash tree on the neighbour’s lawn, I thought it was a neem judging by its small narrow leaves. Then someone said it was an ash. In early August, the top of the tree turned a vivid yellow. The rusting of the ash was my first brush with Canadian fall, yet this beautiful natural phenomenon, that August of 1999, made me curiously pensive.
Summer was still not out. The cyber-world was rife with Y2K fears. The unemployment rate in Ontario was close to 7%, and the province was not hiring teachers, the only area where my life’s worth of training and experience lay.
While the Internet was making itself indispensable in the lives of ordinary folks, my computer skills sat at a pigeon-egg-shaped zero. The odds were stacked high.
A week ago, I had an interview with a leading publisher for a position that fitted my aptitudes like a well-worn garment. It was a lengthy but very sanguine conversation, and at the end of it, the job was mine.
“In September, I’d like you to drop in at Beaver Brae in Kenora and …” The interviewer’s voice faded as I saw visions of meeting with faceless educators at different schools, delineating with much enthusiasm, the merits of one textbook over another for a specific age group.
Hurray, shouted my heart.
Kenora, Kenora, now where is that? The map of Ontario was still a nebulous entity to me.
"Ronita, would you mind completing this form for me, please?”
“Not at all.” I focused back on my interviewer.
“Also, could you pass me your driver’s license, so I can make a photocopy?”
The innocent request dropped on my eardrums like the sudden crack of a shotgun. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I had never sat behind the wheel of a car. Ever!
“Oh, no!” My interviewer creased her forehead and etched a sad ‘O’ with her lips. “You need a driver’s license and a vehicle to drive yourself to the various schools.”
I neither had a car, nor a license to drive it. Tears pricked my eyelids, and I quickly lowered my face to hide them. At that moment, the feeling that engulfed me was not so much the utter hopelessness of being uprooted but the terrible fear of never being able to graft.
The job that minutes ago was within my grasp melted away like a popsicle on a sweltering pavement.
I returned to our family’s temporary home with a generous relative. I opened the closet to put my purse away. Amidst a vague scent of mothballs, the lush silk of a sari brushed my cheek. Valuable enough to have immigrated with us, the convenience price of my prized saris had plummeted sharply upon arrival in Canada. More valuable at the moment was a pair of dress pants and, of course, a Canadian driver’s license.
On a whim, I opened my jewelry box. The yellow gold of a tangle of necklaces, earrings and bracelets gleamed dully in the closet light. If I sold them all, would I have enough to put down the first and last months’ rent for our apartment? What good was old gold in a new life? Wedding jewels notwithstanding.
I tinkered around in the alien kitchen, steeping myself a cup of tea in yet another outlandish mug. My old life felt like an amputated limb, gone but wanting to be scratched constantly. If Samir had been the bread-winner, then I had always been determined to earn the peanut butter. Now, for both of us, it was a matter of survival, and I bickered with him about how best we should play Survivor. While the Cancer in Samir sought refuge in a shell of uncharacteristic taciturnity, I battled hard to dispel the universal ennui of the exasperated job seeker. His occasional despondency became my motivation. We took turns at the borrowed 486 desktop computer which opened up unimaginable possibilities for our job hunt.
Stepping off the elevator on the fifth floor of Shipp Tower, an imposing glass and steel office building, I found a substantial crowd milling around the French doors of the office I was about to enter. The crowd was like a single-celled amoeba with no face, no limbs and no identity, but it ground away with power and purpose. Here I was at a job fair, hoping against hope this was the day whimsical Lady Luck would smile upon me. Instead, the sheer size of the swarm of job-seekers set my heart on a downward spiral until it landed on the ocean floor of my frustration with a deafening thud.
A large poster on the wall screamed, “Come, Compete, Conquer.”
I manipulated my way to the reception desk through the press of the amoebic crowd. After the publishing house fiasco, this was my next foray into the world of job-hunting. We had already been in Canada for two months, our savings were vanishing like the summer, and I missed my folks back home in Calcutta dreadfully.
We called our parents on international calling cards as often as we could. Our hearts flying home, our eyes glued to the clock.
“Did Samir find a job yet?” Baba asked every time amidst the crackling. “Not yet … we are trying. It hasn’t been that long, only a few weeks, don’t worry…” More static and the hustle of the receiver changing hands. “How are the children?” My mother, forcefully upbeat. “We passed your flat the other day, and the balcony looked so empty without the laundry drying there.” A little choking sound, then, “Sumi, our neighbour, had a baby boy and the same evening her father-in-law died, can you imagine?”
“Ma, we have some good news. Tanaya got admitted to a class higher, she did so well in the entry test. So she’s going straight into grade 9.” “Ah, very nice. I always could tell she’s the smartest in our family. Watch, she’ll make it to Harvard one day.” A contented sigh falls warm on my ear. The dysfunctional dialogue is interrupted by several shrill beeps. The hello, hello, hello on both sides rose in steady crescendos, and the sixty-nine cents per minute on the calling card drifted away like autumn leaves. A chasm of silence yawned between our planets.
The children were slated to start school soon, and that gave me a sense of equilibrium. My two energetic, undemanding teens, navigating through a different nature of quicksand as they adjusted to life in Canada. They tested new friendships and dropped off resumes at local grocery stores. I laughed at the funny stories they had to tell, but if it is possible to cry tears of joy, then I laughed peals and peals of misery every day.
The girl at the counter handed me a yellow questionnaire with a bunch of multiple-choice questions and waved me towards an adjoining room. It was filled with people of all ages, gender, and colour. Some sat around random tables, several stood at bar-height ledges along the walls, and some were balancing the questionnaires on resume folders. Everyone was bent on competing and conquering. The sheet in my hands waited:
Circle the most appropriate answer:
Q1. What is considered business casual attire?
a) Three-piece suit and tie
b) Button-down blouse, and closed-toe shoes
c) Jeans and blazer
d) Tees and slacks
Q2. What does it mean to steeple your fingers at a job interview?
a) You exude confidence
b) You are cautious
c) You are nervous
d) You want to go home
And so they went. Questions meant to gauge the competency of people like me; jobless, driver-license-less, totally-Canadian-experience-less and, soon I would learn, another very-important-skill-less.
I nudged into a tight spot at one of the ledges when the woman next to me moved away. Hearing a clatter, I looked up. A skinny young man, his chest puffed out in a bid to add airy bulk to a non-muscular frame, flung his keys on the counter. The ostentatious three-pointed star of the Mercedes-Benz emblem blazed from the bunch. I felt the heat of the man’s gaze following my eyes, reading my thoughts, do folks driving fancy cars to attend job fairs?
“Borrowed my stepdad’s car.” He winked and smiled, displaying a set of remarkably happy teeth. He rolled up his sleeves, casting a belligerent look at the job-seekers around us as if they had no right to be there.
“Is it okay to cheat from you?” He peered at my yellow sheet.
“Sure, if you wish to flunk.” I laughed.
“Can’t afford that. I’ve gotta move out of my mom and her husband’s basement. I’ll tell ya something,” he drawled. “I may be living in a basement but I’m not biased, I gonna show them I can do it on my gas.” He grinned at the inadvertent pun and tapping his pencil on the questionnaire, muttered a nonchalant “easy-peasy” and set to work.
I wondered if the wood of the black and yellow striped pencil, clenched between his fingers, came from an ash tree.
Muddling through the questions as best I could, I handed my sheet to one of the pretty girls strutting staccato in high heels; left-right, left-right, collecting the completed questionnaires. Innocent yellow sheets on which hung peoples’ futures, lives, dreams. A sigh poured out of me.
Clueless about the next steps, I settled in a chair and like a jaded Estragon prepared to wait for Godot. Every now and then one of the Ms. Left-Rights popped a head round the door and called out a couple of names. The owners of those names, trying hard not to look smug, left the room. I assumed they had aced that yellow test and were probably being offered employment.
“Ronida Seenha.” A strange accent broke into my reverie. Another name was called along with mine. While I focused myself back on my surroundings, Mr. Mercedes-Benz shot up and sped ahead like a clipper on high seas. I bobbed behind, a paper-boat in daunting waters. As I caught up with him he glanced at me, his eyebrows arched.
Outside, a very efficient-looking lady led us to a small chamber with a table and a few chairs. She glided into one of them on the other side and gestured for us to take seats opposite her. She explained how the next few minutes were going to unfold. She was going to ask us questions, and we had to answer them. But, how? I had never heard of two strangers being interviewed together. Whatever. What mattered was, I had made it this far. They did not ask me to clean the antenna atop the CN Tower, hanging from scaffolding; I was game for any task.
The first question was directed at me.
“Where did you hear about our company?”
On the job fair ad, where else? I thought to myself, instead, I replied, “On the internet.”
The lady smiled as if that was the response she was hoping for. She turned to Mr. Mercedes-Benz and posed the same question.
He provided the same answer as mine, “On the internet.”
Expecting her to shoot the next question at me I braced myself, but this time she aimed for the other candidate.
“So what did you find out about our company on the internet?”
Mr. Mercedes-Benz looked visibly taken aback and began to mumble.
Turning to me, she repeated the question.
“You are headquartered in Ireland, and you have operations in the U.S. and are just striking out in Canada.” I replied, sending a silent thank-you to this new-fangled thing called "Internet".
This ping-pong questioning session went on for a few minutes. Finally, the interviewer asked us to wait outside. Melting into the ever-swelling crowd I waited, gawking at the ceiling and the landscapes hanging on the walls.
After what seemed like eons, the interviewer called me back into the same chamber.
“What’s your speed?” She asked.
Speed? Did she mean how fast I drove? Oh no, not again.
“I d-d-don’t ….”
Sensing my confusion, she clarified. “How many words can you type per minute?”
My heart slowed down. I had absolutely no idea but randomly picked thirty.
“Would you be able to come in to do a typing test tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I said, drying my clammy palms on the sides of my new pants. I guessed I could manage about five to six words, but I had a whole twenty-two hours within which I could potentially brush up my typing skill.
Hurrying towards the subway, I spotted Mr. Mercedes-Benz waving at me. Twirling his keys on his index finger he seemed to have regained his composure quite well.
“Did they offer you the job?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“I didn’t get it either.” He looked a little deflated. “I heard they asked some folks to go back in to do a typing speed test, well ….” The thunderous approach of a subway train beneath our feet drowned his words.
My heart went out to him.
Tat-a-tat-tat, tat-a-tat-tat, went the exhausted desktop keyboard the entire evening. Asking myself to type thirty words in sixty seconds was the same as asking someone on crutches to climb Mount Everest. I persevered late into the night until the words on the screen started to double up.
The next morning, they sat me down in front of a computer. “Start with typing your name.” A woman who introduced herself as Sharon Gray rapped out at the few of us in there for the test. Her voice was laced with impatience, her lips unsmiling.
I keyed my name, and it came out as rONITA sINHA. I pressed backspace and got rid of it and tried again. rONITA sINHA, read the obdurate letters still. Shoot! I knew there was a way to fix it, but my addled brain kept it a secret. A hollow voice inside my head admonished, this is a speed test of how fast you can type, so get on with it, will you? But I couldn’t even get past my name.
Dampness began to spread from my neck downwards, but before panic could completely drench me, an elegant finger reached over my shoulder. With a sharp stroke, it tapped the key marked Caps Lock.
Without looking up I mumbled my thanks to my savior, Sharon Gray. Making a mental note of the key’s position I carried on with "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” realizing that this sentence contains all the twenty-six alphabets of the English language. The list of things I did not know seemed to grow like the Christmas tree in the Nutcracker.
I managed to eke out thirteen words. Shucks, Unlucky thirteen!
When Ms. Gray walked over to declare her verdict, I stood and asked, “Do you think I could get another stab at it. Please?”
She looked into my eyes, and the hint of a smile touched her lips, transforming her entire persona. She nodded. My dad’s words flashed across my mind, “When your back is against a wall, you have nothing else to lose, just ask for the impossible and wait to see what happens.”
My blood was racing in my veins when I sat down and rattled out my masterpiece of twenty-five words and snared the job. My start date was the Tuesday after Labor Day. My job title a mouthful, my remuneration a tad above minimum wage.
As though joining the ranks of the employed had already bestowed upon me a new destination, I missed my scheduled bus stop, so preoccupied I was with my newfound delight. Walking those extra yards home, I marveled at how green the maple at the street corner still was.
My husband of nineteen years greeted me at the door, smiling as if a birdie had already delivered my good news to him. We sat on the front steps and he listened to the details of my fiasco with the computer keyboard. After many long weeks, we laughed together.
The next morning, I woke up to see Samir at my bedside fully dressed, tie and all.
“Another interview?” I ventured.
“No, I am starting a new job this morning. They called soon after you left yesterday.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I shot up in bed.
“I wanted to surprise you in full gear.” His eyes twinkling, he lifted his taut right palm to his brow in a smart salute.
I knew in my heart that was not true.
He had let yesterday be my day.