Third Prize, Fiction
Mariyah Rajshahiwala X
Tires to Bridges
Workers scaling one of the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York, 1881
The Museum of the City of New York Print Archives (www.mcny.org)
A child is running barefoot across a dry field with a thin stick in one hand. He is losing the tire race today. He flicks the tire again with the stick, propelling it forward only for it to get stuck on cow dung. "Arey yaar! I'm disqualified'" he thinks to himself. It is too early for him to go back home. His mother and sisters would be in the middle of completing chores, and he didn't want to get stuck helping them.
He decides to sit on a rock and complete his textbook problems again. The school can't afford to get new textbooks this year, so they've been using the same ones for the past two years. For some time now, he's been solving the same problems repeatedly, experimenting with how to get the right answers using the wrong methods. Sometimes, he bribes the older boys with stolen fruit or information about his sisters, so he can get their questions.
It's his favorite time. Sitting on a high rock, clouds above him, book and pencil in hand. He spends hours writing equations, switching numbers, and conducting practical applications.
Fareed realizes he has reached home too late when he sees Baba's bicycle leaning against the side of the outhouse. He paces outside the door, contemplating whether he should go in. Baba will either beat him, make him sleep outside or beat him and then make him sleep outside.
The sound of Fareed's shuffling alerts his father to his arrival. "Fareed, stop wasting time and come inside! We have a guest" his father bellows, making him abruptly stop. He slowly opens the door and peeks his head inside. There is a large man in a suit sitting on the only table they own. Baba and Amma are sitting cross-legged in front of him, and his sisters are behind the curtain, preparing dinner. "Greet him, you insolent boy!" his father harshly whispers.
"It's ok, leave the boy be. He must be surprised at getting a visitor so late in the day" the fat man says loudly.
Fareed is still standing by the doorway. His mother gets up and guides him to where she was sitting. She whispers in his ear, "Be a good boy. Bade-saheb hei. He will take you to the best science school in the capital."
Fareed, always a lean child now stands as a tall, skinny man with straight hair combed to the side. His black pants are always marked with chalk, an occupational hazard for an eager engineer.
Fareed had recently started feeling comfortable in the large city after 6 long years. He reprograms everything about himself to survive here. "Don't walk like that. Don't eat like that. Don't breathe like that. Don't speak like that" was all that he ever heard. He no longer acted like the country bumpkin he once was.
His newest project is a collaboration between his university and the Soviet Union. Well, his newest project is funded and, for the outside world, conducted by the Soviet Union. Despite being a student, the head researcher allows Fareed to work independently on many aspects of the satellite model. He doesn't understand why his country depends so heavily on the USSR. He wants to design satellites and space stations for his country, not for the USSR. He knows that they are far behind compared to the USSR or the US, but he would like to be a part of the first satellite launch for his nation.
A few months later, the conservative party wins all the votes. There are whispers that they are backed by an outside force, allowing them to rig the elections. Along with the furniture in the PM's house, millions of lives are changed along with Fareed's. He had graduated with honors from his engineering college, but there are no longer any jobs for people like him. This country had once been a meritocracy, but with democracy came the era of connections and bribery. Despite being brilliant, Fareed is a poor, unemployed graduate stranded in a ruthless city. He has only one option left, to return home.
Hearing the whistle, Fareed climbs down the impressive ladder. In the beginning, he used to count the rungs- 120 up, 120 down. It had made the arduous climb easier. But, as the years passed by, the climb became mechanical.
Much needed shade awaits Fareed at the bottom. "He was never so soft," he thought to himself as he reached the bottom. He used to be able to work 10 hours shift up on the drilling rig before needing any sort of break. Since he became the manager-well, the assistant manager-he could only work for a few hours at a time under the hot sun. It no longer bothered him that "manager" and other supervisory positions in the AC offices are reserved for the Kuwaitis. After all, it is their country; despite their economy's dependence on immigrant labor. Fareed and the other immigrants work on the surface of and inside the rig. His engineering degree came in handy. He stayed inside the rig mainly, checking up on the structure, ensuring a smooth operation.
The job paid well. It paid better than being unemployed in his home country and slaving after his uncle in Kuwait. A few years after returning home, his uncle had called him over to help out with the business. Young, with a wife and two kids, Fareed had no choice but to leave them behind and take a job in Kuwait. What had seemed like a lucrative enterprise in his uncle's letters, was nothing more than a roadside stall. Luckily, through his friendship with other immigrants, Fareed had landed a job on an oil drilling rig. He eventually was able to call his wife and kids over.
Now, years later, he stands an established man within his community. His kids study well and are brilliant as he is. For once, he is comfortable in his place in life.
He had promised his wife that he wouldn't get like this, but he couldn't help it. Fareed is filled with a venomous bitterness. His life felt like a joke. Once an engineer on an oil rig, now he pumped gas for a few dollars an hour.
At the age of 44, Fareed had believed he would be spending his nights surrounded by his wife and children: eating good food, giving his kids life lessons, and relaxing to the sounds of gazal. Instead, he is managing a gas station every night, being exploited for his illegal status. It was only a few years ago that he felt at the pinnacle of his life. A well-respecting job, a healthy family, and a satisfactory amount in savings. He couldn't help but spend most nights wondering how did he end up like this?
Upon hearing the rumblings of trouble between Iraq and Kuwait, Fareed had reached out to relatives. "Should they move back home? Should they go to the US? The land of opportunities. He had a distant cousin there. They would lose everything here." These were the conversations that had kept him and his wife up most nights.
Shortly after, Fareed and his family managed to escape Kuwait before it had embroiled itself in the Gulf War. The first few weeks in America passed with them moving from relative to relative's houses, feeling more and more like a burden each time. Fareed struggled to find a job.
One can only be an unpaid guest for a temporary amount of time. But, no one would hire him. In the eyes of this country, he had a degree from a mediocre recently freed country.
When a fellow immigrant offered him a position as a manager of a gas station, it seemed like his prayers had been heard. But, now, Fareed stands, chewing furiously on a candy bar, while pumping gas in the middle of the night. Candy bars. Something he had recently discovered, to the detriment of his teeth, in this new country. Crisp shortbread cookies with a line of caramel covered in milk chocolate, he was quickly becoming addicted. He knows that for the past few months, this man has manipulated him into working countless hours for an unfair wage. But Fareed is desperate and stuck. He needs the money for his family. So, he resigns himself to working nights while studying for the engineering exam that will give him some sort of credibility in this strange country. A country meant to be inviting to immigrants but stripping them of everything but the identity they carry at their fingertips.
Two years later, Fareed brags at a celebratory dinner that "Luck is written in my stars. I stand here today as a legitimate engineer and a company's offer to sponsor my family and me. Not just any company, but New York City's Department of Transportation!" He bends down to kiss his wife on the cheek, ignoring the shocked expressions around the room. His wife pushes him away, disappearing to the kitchen to grab dessert.
Fareed has moved past the anguish and guilt that consumed him some years ago. Later that night, while Fareed and his wife are in bed, he tells her, "This country, this city isn't like the one back home."
"How so? What do you mean?" she asks.
"The system isn't out to get me. No one is going to steal my title, my place from me."
"Of course not, they have rules here."
"Exactly! They have rules here. And, I followed those rules, so I got the job. But, no one will take this job from me now. I was a poor villager back home, and that allowed them to steal my position, my research. If I work hard, do my job properly, no one can take it from me. You know? There is security here."
"I'm glad you no longer hate this city. I've always told you, be patient and keep an open mind."
"Nanaji, look the bridge! Tell us the story again!" his grandchildren scream from the backseat. The Brooklyn Bridge begins appearing in front of them. The impressive cables and splendid arches standing silent yet proud, as if proclaiming the history of this great city.
Fareed has repeated this story every time his grandchildren see a bridge. "Beta, not again. Nanaji has said this story so many times. Nanaji and I are having a conversation, na? Go back to watching your movie," his daughter says, trying to quell their demands. The children are adamant and Fareed doesn't mind retelling the story. He adores his grandchildren.
"Acha, ok. I'll tell the story. But, no interruptions. So, ten years ago..." "Was I born yet?"
"No, you dummy. You're only five, and this happened ten, t-e-n years ago." "Eh! What did I say about interruptions?" Fareed says sharply.
"Sorry," they both say at the same time.
Fareed continues, "Ten years ago, I used to work on the Brooklyn Bridge. In the middle of the night, we close almost all the lanes in the bridge and fix it. When you walk across the bridge at night, it goes up and down, up and down." Fareed makes a wave-like motion with his hands to show them.
"Woah! That's so cool!" the youngest says, mimicking Fareed's hand gesture.
The story takes Fareed back to his first days at DOT. During his first walk across the bridge, Fareed became doubtful of the bridge's sound construction and lies down on the road, fearing the bridge's collapse. The men laugh at him, telling him to believe in the physics he has studied.
In the rearview mirror, Fareed sees his grandchildren making bridges with their hands. As he drives, he recalls the bridges and tunnels he has worked on. When he looks back on it all, he can't believe that the young boy that played with a tire and stick has overseen the maintenance of such vast structures.
A box containing a mug, two picture frames, an assortment of pens, and an engineering degree is carried by a pair of brown, wrinkled, slightly arthritic hands. The sleeves of a shabby, old-fashioned brown suit end at the wrists, disconnecting the hands from the rest of the body. The hands are bare except for a ruby ring on the right pinky finger. The arms seem to strain under the weight of the box, evident by slight tremoring of the box. Below the box are a pair of cracked, worn, leather shoes that have tassels in the front. Wide-legged pants hover slightly above the shoes, casting them in a constant shadow. The bottom of the pants is frayed with little strings touching the floor. The strings of the pants create the same shadows as the few hairs on the head. With every gentle breeze, the hairs are lifted from the scalp, like dandelions in the wind. Fareed looks up the windows, one after another. Like these windows, he has moved from one phase of his life to another, one after another. From a bright student to a young engineer to an assistant manager to a gas station clerk to a senior engineer to an auditor.
He lets out a deep breath, knowing that where one journey ends, his life will take him on another one.