“What’s My Sister Got to Do With It?”
The thing about starting up a business in the third world is you’re pitching a tent on a surf board in a tsunami; your shit could reach the sky on a wave crest, or drown in an instant snap of rope and wood. You’re teetered like that between astronomical profits and selling your parents’ home to cover the losses. Take Yuckistan, e.g. You know what’s big there, of all things? Delivery. Urban delivery, door to door. Nobody wants to get out in the traffic and play chicken with seventeen different nut jobs just to get takeout from the new shish kabob joint. They want you to go pick up the order and deliver it piping hot in under ten minutes across a city of twelve million traffic violators. So what do you do? You set up that delivery service. Because you know really fucking awesome drivers. They’ve incised you out of the worst jams, finding open tarmac where just a moment ago there were gutters with bicycles stuck in the mud. They’re anticipators who curve and flow into voids that were filled up with other chrome and metal just the hint of a moment ago. They don’t let vacuums form.
This is how you do it. You come back from your somewhat papa-paid and mostly scholarshippingly-earned ivy league undergrad where you’ve worked out the hypotheses and melted down the different metals that constitute your personal alchemy to discover your golden calling: urban door-to-door delivery. Like a midwifing operation for food. Because food is where it starts.
At first there’s only a couple of cars in your fleet: your retired parents’ second car, and one borrowed from a friend. And you’re one of the delivery people yourself. You believe that working on the fundamentals (meaning, you being the primary deliverer) at the start of your entrepreneurship is a good thing; you’ll know your business from the ground up, and you’ll deliver excellent customer service to set the standard high and get a reputation built, based on which there will be a halo of goodwill surrounding all the delivery people you hire in the future. You’ve got plans of scaling things.
There you are, on the passenger seat of your own car, being chauffeured by the first ever Tiger Riders driver. On your lap and between your shoes are the sixteen bags of the sauna-hot Zakir Tikka order you’re poised to sprint out with as soon as you reach the delivery point. In the backseat are the two other orders left for the night. They came a half hour before this one, but this is the one that gets priority because of its size and for the area in the city where you have to deliver it. You’ve always wondered what it was like to live every day in any one of the mansions in this Falcon’s Ridge enclave that takes up twelve acres of prime land in the middle of the city.
When you and D#1—that’s how you think of the Tiger Riders’ drivers; D#2 is rushing out there on the city’s opposite end, delivering pizza and nihari in Defence—when you and D#1 roll up close to the gate, you launch out of the passenger side door carrying half the order. The cords of your arms and shoulders, and even of your neck, strain to carry the eight plastic bags that are stretching down to the floor with what feels like a hundred kilos of barbecued meat, chutney, yogurt, salad, and naans.
It’s a large wall, barb-wired on top, and just as tall a gate, that separate you from the inside world of this sprawling estate in Falcon’s Ridge. Cameras on either side of the gate face out; you smile. A bodyguard answers your ring of the video-capturing bell, by first opening an eye-slot in the gate, after which he nudges the sliding gate just enough for himself to come out. This man is two heads and a half taller than you. And you’re not short. He’s got a full-barreled pump action slung casually across his shoulder, a ten-gallon mustache, and a very gentle way of speaking for someone so massive.
“Jee?” he asks.
“Delivery from Zakir Tikka by Tiger Riders,” you say. “We Roar’n’Deliver.” Saying it out loud for the second time that night, proud, like you’ve built living tigers from the ground up. This is your third night of delivering food. It is your seventh order overall. The process, the company, your hopes—it’s all very young n fresh.
“Good, good. Thank you, thank you,” says the bodyguard, getting in on speaking English back at you.
You smile benevolently and hand over all the weight from your arms to the big man, who doesn’t even grunt; you have to make two rounds while he stands there. You go back to V#1 (that’s how you think of your vehicles now) for the second round of eight heavy plastic bags, while Michelangelo’s muscular sculpture stands there waiting on your weak bicep power. You can hear across the gate the garden party that the food will serve on this late evening, laughter and electronic sounds clambering up the twelve-foot ivy-covered wall to reach you. On lower volume than you would expect blares the music of the rich Yuckistanis: vulgar, full of unnecessary bass; live human voices fill up the gaps in the hip-thrusting beats, but you can’t make out any of the words. Must be over ten different conversations going on, by the chatter.
As you hand over the second set of bags, you say, “That will be seventeen thousand and five hundred rupees. Thank you for ordering with Tiger Riders.” Out of your pocket you take out and hand over the crisply folded paper emblazoned with the Tiger Riders® We Roar’n’Deliver™ logo and text, which is the receipt that lists the breakdown of food and delivery charges. Four crisp 5,000-rupee notes should be incoming, hopefully with instructions to keep the change. Overly rich people who live in Falcon’s Ridge are like that, you think. They give generously, because they can afford to. The twenty-five hundred rupees over and above the cost of the food and delivery will provide money for fuel, tips for your two drivers, and some leftover cash to get high quality stickers of the company’s blue-and-yellow-striped tiger printed and pasted on many high-visibility shop windows in the city’s poshest areas. Maybe you’ll split that with some more internet ad purchases so you get more traction on the Tiger Riders app.
You’ve been mentally spending the money since the order was placed. It thrilled you earlier that hour to receive such a large purchase on the app, good enough to cater an entire party. You got the food prepped by the restaurant in under twenty minutes, standing literally eighteen inches away from the coals that licked their heat onto the meat; you rushed over with D#1, having to take a hundred-meter reverse on a one-way highway that was shut down for some minister’s entourage to pass. Your armpits sweaty as D#1 swerved and lurched the car around oncoming vehicles that had the right of way, your heart racing the rest of the relatively straight route even though it should have recovered by the time you entered Falcon’s Ridge; you note in hindsight how your accent at point of delivery came across as a hammed-up mixture of American, South African, and Dutch. Like Björk’s Icelandic one. It’s worth it. It’s all worth it. This is the beginning of seed monies for your business, directly from the Tiger Riders customers.
In through the gate with the food and the receipt goes Adonis the bodyguard (maybe you could get a gym membership at some point, start to build some muscle like this guy, you’re thinking; you’ll be able to afford one of the good iron-pumping, cardio-pounding, yoga-intensive joints easily once you go above fifteen medium-sized incoming orders a night—that, and the premium protein shakes you’ll need to primp up your diet). You think your thoughts. Within ninety seconds, out comes the uniformed bodyguard carrying your folded receipt. You reach out your hand to receive the money that’s inside that folded sheet of paper. You won’t count it too eagerly, you promise yourself. A casual flip through the bills to confirm the amount.
“Sir say come later for cash payment,” says the bodyguard.
“What?” you ask, unfolding the receipt to see no cash at all, just unfolded receipt with the blue and yellow tiger, and the text of your company’s name, plus, in laser-printed black-and-white the typed up list of items you’ve delivered. “How later? How much?” All your sentence-construction language skills betray you.
He shrugs. The barrel of the gun draped across the back of his shoulders goes up and down in an arc. “Tomorrow at night okay,” he says.
“Tomorrow night?” You calculate the amount of fuel left in your cars. Half a tank in this one and much less than that in V#2; not enough to last twenty four hours of delivery, should any more than four cross-city orders come in during the day. You collect what’s left of your courage, confidence, and desperation into the breaths that squeeze past your vocal cords. “Please tell Mister—” you want to add the homeowner’s name, but it escapes you, and you don’t want to look down at the receipt to confirm anything while the leftover desperation, courage, and confidence are leaking out of your voice. “—the gentleman, please tell him that the owner of Tiger Riders, the delivery service he engaged, is outside and would very much like the pleasure of introductions with him, to ensure that everything in the order meets his requirements. It would be a pleasure and a privilege, please tell him, to become a source of reliable delivery for him in the long term.” You stare and smile that aching smile of a new business owner without any backup plans.
“I not think good idea I again talk Sir,” says the bodyguard. He says it kindly, smiling down from his greater height. “I think tomorrow night you come.”
You want to switch to Yuckistani languages, to try and em-brother-ise this native who serves at the gates of one of the overlords of your country. But you’ve already set yourself up in English. There’s no way to switch codes just now without becoming less refined than you are trying to come across.
You cajole: “Please,” you whisper-speak, believing yourself worthy enough to speak to anyone and convince them of your refinement—the only basis on which you think people can earn respect. You’re not the driver or a delivery underling, is what you’re tying to convey. You’re the owner. But you can’t say something weighted like that to a bodyguard without sounding condescending. How do you condescend to someone so much more powerful than you anyway? “I would love the chance to speak to the gentleman directly. As I’m sure he can understand my need to invest in my startup company. The funds are rather urgent for fuel tonight, you see. I don’t think I’m carrying any cash, and the bank ATM won’t let me take out any more money since I’ve overdrawn the daily limit. So, would you please request the gentleman. . . just please ask him if he’ll meet me?” You nod with every tenth beat coming out of the enclosed garden while you say this. You’ve explained your plight in details that you hope are not seeming either too flimsy or unbelievable, or too desperate. Half of what you say is true. The other half just wants the money. A one thousand rupee tip would do. Even five hundred would get you going. Hell, if needed, for this hour, he can keep the tip to himself, this Falcon’s Ridge resident who can be your long-term benefactor. But the idea that the principal amount is not being paid—seventeen thousand and five hundred dry needles prick at your throat.
He looks at you with kind eyes, this leviathan at the gate. There follow a few seconds of silence between you two, while he twirls a corner of his mustache and contemplates the best course of action. Maybe he knows of other ways to convince his master than you have presented. Maybe he’s going to shove you off. Could you and D#1 tackle him together? Force your way through the small gap between the hardly-slid-out sliding gate and the great Yuckistani elitist wall of this estate? There’s no need to think so violently about this exchange, of course. He’s kind, this gatekeeper of the inner sanctum of the higher world. He doesn’t stare you down; he just soaks in the various emotions you are throwing at him with words unspoken and facial micro-contortions.
He gives a nod. “I try. Maybe Sir come.” He goes back into the house, sliding close the gate. You turn your smile away from the cameras and then let it rest. V#1 is parked ten meters away, and inside it D#1 is playing with his phone. The phone is throwing on his face and shoulders a cockpit glow that makes you think of your enterprise as an aerial venture.
A minute of vulgar music and chitter chatter passes. Then, for the first time that night, you hear an uncouth voice being raised above conversational volume. It’s muffled by the beat, and the monotonous melody garbles much of what the person inside is shouting, but you do hear some of the words: “. . . wo bhenchod. . . later. . . bhenchod... Party. . . entertaining. . . busy. . . guests. . . money bhenchod” is what you hear between the beats.
Ten seconds after that outburst, the gate slides open the same five percent of its sliding ability, and out of the gap pour two people this time: the gun-slung bodyguard and a much tinier man. Next to the hulk of a guardian this new being seems an almost offspring-sized miniature creature. He’s got a rat’s face, a rat’s whiskers, and he speaks to you with barely concealed impatience, his eyes flitting to D#1 inside V#1 and back to you: “Jee?”
“Hi,” you begin, constantly smiling, forever on the verge of breaking into enthusiastic introduction of yourself and the company. “I’m the owner of Tiger Riders, from which the gentleman resident of this house has ordered the Zakir Tikka delivery this evening. Could I please speak to him and introduce myself?” You don’t mention the payment. You’ll get around to it.
The rodent speaks: “Right now is party time. Sir is busy. He does not carry his wallet around in the garden. It is in the house. Come tomorrow evening, this time, and you will get payment.” You marvel at his locally-accented but grammatically correct English, and also at how he doesn’t answer your question, and takes care of the payment issue by side-stepping your offer to introduce yourself to his master.
“I see,” you say, “so I should come tomorrow evening then?” Rat-face nods, snivels his whiskers, turns around, and tucks tail back into the gate. That’s the last you’ll ever see of him, you hope.
The minotaur bodyguard stands there with his lips pursed lips and raised eyebrows, looking gigantically sheepish. But it’s pity he’s showing, not embarrassment. The shame is all yours, and it’s becoming a part of your physical being. A sheath of translucent slime that everyone can sense even if they can’t see it.
“I give ten-twelve thousand,” he says.
“What?” you ask, not thinking of walking away just yet, even though that’s all that’s left.
“I give. You take ten thousand,” says the bodyguard. “Sir give money tomorrow. You pay ten thousand back.”
He reaches behind him, presumably for his wallet, but you put up your hands and start backing away.
“No, no,” you say. Tiger Riders is already running on loans from your parents, your friends, and the credit card balance you left unpaid in New York when you quit your week-old job in a huff and returned to start the business you were born to start. “It’s okay,” you say. “I’ll try tomorrow. Thank you. You’re very kind to offer though. Really, thank you.” You walk back to V#1, your worst fear having come true. You’ve failed already. This coming back to Yuckistan—it was your worst move yet.
But nothing’s ever that simple.
You know you would have taken the money from the bodyguard had D#1 been out of the direct line of being able to see you take money that originated from the bodyguard’s wallet. But, given D#1’s ability to see the transaction, you would have felt degraded in some way because the money wouldn’t have come from inside the house. Right now you’re above the subsistence level of needing a payday every week to make sure you’ve got a full belly; you’re a second-class citizen, held up by the barely home-owning level of wealth of your parents. Not that you’re ungrateful. You know you’re one of the lucky three or five percent of people in Yuckistan to be so comfortable. But it makes you feel icky and yucky—very Yuckistani—to consider the class issues so up close. They’re uncomfortable, just like the shame you’ve been given to sort through just now.
You buckle down again on the front passenger seat of V#1 and say to D#1, “Next order. Let’s go.” You’re glad he knows the address already.
There is a faint Punjabi song running on the radio, and crystal clarity in V#1’s cockpit. In your childhood and teenage years in this overpopulated city in this godforsaken country, you were repeatedly, personally, witness to what’s happened to you tonight. Growing up, either you or the cook would be sent to the house’s gate when the newspaper vendor or the garbage-collector or the electricity repairman or the plumber would come calling; part of your job was to see who had come, and what they wanted. And later, once a month, when the newspaper wallah, or the garbage wallah, or the electricity wallah, or the fruit wallah came to collect his bill, you often had to say, as instructed by your parents: “Baba says come tomorrow for money.” They always went away, sometimes grumbling about the delay in payment, but more often than not leaving as if they’d expected just that response—to be turned away. You always felt bad for the man asking for his money. He was the poor one, the desperate one, the one outside the house, the one who more urgently needed cash. Now you know what it’s like from that end, since you’re the turned-away delivery wallah.
There’s that playing on your mind, as well as the repeated use of the word bhenchod in that loud voice that scaled the wall and found gaps in the music to reach you. Bhenchod. A sister-fucker. He called you a sister-fucker without even coming out to meet you, and without giving you the money you had earned from him. How did you become the sister-fucker? Because you let him get away with it? Maybe. But what could you do? You can’t do anything fair and square in Yuckistan. It’s why you call it Yuckistan. Nothing’s in your power. But you should never have handed over the food without getting the money first, or at least simultaneously. That’s an important lesson.
You’re being driven around by someone capable, someone who knows their place in the scheme of things. That’s maybe the only assurance you have left. You reach around to the back seat to take the two bags that contain the next order. This one’s for a couple of thousand rupees, and it will fetch a hundred or two in tips. That’s another tiny assurance. But even as the car swivels expertly around traffic, your sail is without wind.
Maybe it’s that same night, on that merry-go-round of depositing food at the two other places, that you scale back on the efficiency model that you conceived back in an off-campus basement in the far-off land of ivy league undergrad. D#1 and D#2 regain their names. How hard is it for you to remember two names, anyway? They’re once gain Mansoor, your childhood pick-and-drop school van man, and Khanjee the driver who has been living in the quarters on your house’s rooftop for the past eight years. You make the change in names on the Excel spreadsheet that displays the financial breakdowns of your floundering startup. V#1 becomes the “S.Swift LE7779” it is, and V#2 gets re-christened a more authentic “T.Corolla LE4534”. Something shifts underfoot.
That’s the takeoff point. That, and the cutback on your over-friendly delivery voice, because you’re detached for weeks when you say: “Tiger Riders, we Roar’n’Deliver. . . ” as you hand over the naans and the haleems and the siri pais and the chicken stroganoffs and the beef shashliks and the crispy ducks and the macaroons. You’re thinking about the delivery at Falcon’s Ridge every time you ring a doorbell.
You do return to that mansion the next evening, ask for your money very politely, showing the receipt, but a different giant bodyguard answers at the gate, and you have to go over the story of the unpaid delivery from the beginning. Unfortunately, nobody who can hand over cash to you is at home. You missed the family by fifteen minutes, says the bodyguard. You are asked to leave a copy of the receipt, with your cell phone number on it. Someone will get back to you. A similar thing happens the next night, and a night the following week, when you get around to taking another copy of the receipt, and even the next time, in the middle of the day a month later.
Willing the seventeen thousand and five hundred rupees to materialize becomes a meditative haze. A mantra of sorts takes over your mind. when your mind nags you with the question of when you’ll ever get that money, you assert in a hoarse whisper, “Today.” But by the time you decelerate next to that sliding gate that may as well be a drawbridge, it all turns dark and fruitless. Even though you drive there repeatedly, alone or with Mansoor, because the incomplete transaction brings up bitterness even as the rest of your life is turning around, in the months to come you sort of stop going there for the money. It becomes more of a ritual. Sometimes you just drive past the gate and glance back at it in the rear-view mirror without attempting a collection at all.
Even though you can’t wash that initial distasteful event off your record, or maybe because of it, in a karmic universe-balancing, yin-yang kind of way, the next few months are good. The man in that Falcon’s Ridge manor doesn’t order again from Tiger Riders, but other people do. Your business doesn’t explode onto the city’s map; exponential growth doesn’t just land in your lap. By increments, though, via word of mouth and by interest generated in the ads you’ve put up, along with a B-list celebrity’s unexpected and welcome endorsement in one of her many, many self-promoting Insta-videos (she lets slip how pleased she is with the burger she’s ordered on the Tiger Riders app; bless her!), you get a bump in your orders; after that you’re able to purchase several more on-and-offline ads, and you’re able to build a business that deserves a better phone app and more than an Excel sheet for keeping all the metrics in order; for that level of tech-work you outsource the project. A better interface makes for easier orders; amounts as small as five hundred rupees, and as large as five thousand start coming in regularly, and food is handed over only once the money is in sight. You stay grounded through the growth mostly because tips for delivery are minimal in the third world, not the fifteen to twenty percent you used to give away in Manhattan. Every dollar wasted in the past haunts you, because you know its rupee value in a deeper way than conversion can convey.
Now that money’s flowing in, Yuckistan is becoming somewhat Easeistan. But money brings worries too. Those worries, and other minor setbacks keep you tethered to ground realities: some of the earlier drivers think they can get away with stealing Tiger Riders motorcycles. Bloody Robberistan. Most of the money coming is in dirty notes, indicating what levels of Greasistan you stoop to collect from. How Disgustistan. Worst of all, everybody’s got a hungry, slimy stare—eyeing your money or you up and down—showing that many parts of the country are stuck in the mode of Slimeistan. It all comes back to the one word you’ve come to call it, since the beginning of your disenchantment with your home country; the closes name that comes to describe it: Yuckistan.
A year passes, as years do. Then another flits by. In business, you’re doing well. Angel investors begin to fuel your venture and you’ve built a fleet of motorcycles (so much easier to maneuver around traffic) that deliver any meal in under twenty-five minutes anywhere in the city. You know each of your employees’ names, have ridden and delivered with most of them while auditioning their driving and delivery manners. Besides the three hundred leased motorcycles, Tiger Riders outright owns seven decent second-hand cars, and these carry the higher-end orders. One of these cars you bought for your parents, but they reinvested it into the business, while another is your own personal one. Even when you’re not out there delivering, you drive in large circles on the highway that loops around around the city, or on the backroads that keep transforming your view of the place and its various beats. That, and you’ve got a lust for driving well into the night; watching other drivers through the windows of the cars, you imagine the vehicles are transporting princesses and princes from the thousand and one Arabian Nights on their trysts with commoners. There’s a void inside you that kindles a loneliness that is both fuel and quench to the desire to be on the road. You’ve got the loneliness of the long distance deliverer.
Over time, in moving past them, you are able to admit your repressed fear of poverty to yourself: if you would ever have enough money—now tax-free income flows so fast into your accounts that you are paying excessive tips to the Tiger Riders employees, and they are in turn making enough to give charity just to keep their jobs unjinxed.
After long drives, you come home well past the point at which your parents have gone to sleep. Lying in bed, you watch your ceiling fan go round and round its axis, humming an electric tune that lulls you into picturing the hundreds of Tiger Riders motorcycles breezing out there on the open roads and trickling around traffic blockades, crossing over dividers in the middle of two-way roads. It pleases you to stay awake and take joy in this dream come true, just before you drift off.
All this success on the personal front doesn’t mean you give up on the missing seventeen thousand and five hundred rupees, however. You show now and then outside the Falcon’s Ridge villa, recognizing why you do it only gradually—inside one of these sprawling mansions is where you want to one day live. But even the by now exponential increase in revenues of Tiger Riders hardly allows you to dream of matching the other curve—that of exponentially increasing land and housing prices all across Yuckistan. You’ll never live like this. So you drive to, and drive past, linked by an incomplete transaction to a single Falcon’s Ridge resident.
It’s not like you simply and only detest the owner of the house. Thoughts of him are closer to you than your jugular vein; they’re implicit. You feel all the emotions for him that you ought to for God—fear, awe, a kind of love, because you want to be one with him—of his ilk.
Somehow, your life’s goal becomes to get Tiger Riders to the level that this one man can’t avoid you, that he feels a need to deliver and transport everything using your fleet of vehicles. Even have you transport his wife, his children, himself, his money, and the documents that testify to his ownership of his house and of all the lands of which you dream.
That’s not a point far off from where Tiger Riders is. Already, within two years, you offer the services of delivering groceries, luxury items, people—anything that can be delivered from point A to point B.
Speaking of transport from one point to another, this is when that other thing happens. A few months after the second anniversary of your return from New York, you get an email from your college bestie saying he’s scheduled to visit the neighbor country for business next month and would like to make a pitstop at your home city. You’re pink as a peach that he’s coming. “Rob, dude, my home is your home,” you begin your reply.
Rob was the one person back in your undergrad that every one of his peers expected could rule the world if he put his mind to it. “Rob, Robby, Robberson; robbin’ from the poor, givin’ to the rich,” you used to tease him. Oh, the amount of in-jokes that the two of you had. It will be so great to see him.
He really was very smart, always had a witticism ready to fill up the next millisecond after an insult. Never one to fail at getting the other person to grin first. You thought the world of him, and he inspired you to do so much with your life. He hadn’t yet become what you thought he would: a speech writer for the UN Secretary General—his writing really was that good. Instead, right after college he went to work with his father, Robert Kensington Moore Senior, and the two of them traipsed all around the world, offering their consulting services on how to convert old palaces and mansions into hotels and guest houses for the ultra-rich. A niche market, for sure, but a handsomely ka-ching-ing one one.
Thinking of Rob inevitably leads you down to that singular evening at the Harvard Club in New York, where Rob invited you to hob-knob with the offsprings of American playboys, and European dukes and duchesses. Near the end of the evening, to top off the champagne clinks and the foie gras and caviar-type appetizers being carried around by waiters and waitresses dressed better than yourself, who else but Prince Charles walked into the room, accompanied by his then-single son Harry. Even as you grinned incessantly, basking wide-eyed in that royal glow, you saw for yourself that before they went into a more private room, Rob greeted ol’ Charles ’n’ Harry like he was their equal. You felt a vicarious tremble at that touch of hands. That colored you seriously impressed. Of course, you open your house to Rob.
“Cheers, dude,” Rob writes back. “See you in Fuckistan in a couple of weeks.” You mind that a little, that he calls your country that even though you don’t.
Mostly though, you’re excited. You can’t wait to show off your self-built business to the one friend and peer whose intellect and opinion you value more than your own.
At the airport, you stand at the gate holding up a placard with that old tease: “Rob, Robby, Robberson; Robbin’ from the Poor, Givin’ to the Rich!” Below that, you’ve written in smaller script “Wanted: White caucasian male, 6’3, with a wide grin and a sharp chin.” It gets you a few stares from those around you at Arrivals who bother enough to read what you’re holding up.
The flight lands, your pulse quickens. And then here he is, all six-feet-three-inches of the white caucasian male in a sharp grey suit among the hundreds of Pakistani brownies in shalwar kameez or jeans-style attire. Trust Rob to travel like he’s about to step into a meeting with royalty any second. He spots you and the sign you’re holding up, and gives a loud cheer, wheeling his suitcase to you.
“Dude, welcome to Yuckistan,” you say as you hug him.
“Welcome indeed,” he says, looking you up and down as he pulls back from the embrace, “you have not changed at all.”
“It’s only been two years, dude,” you say. But while you may not have changed in the twenty six months since you last met him, Rob looks better than before, more chiseled in the face, and relaxed like he receives two-hour massages every single day. But he’s been flitting from one seven-star hotel to another; what can you expect? He’s getting double the stares your banner got, and it makes you proud proud of having your handsome foreign bestie come visit; you’d never thought you would meet inside Yuckistan. That’s how the six days of Rob’s stay in your country begin: on a very positive note.
Your parents instantly love him and you let Rob work his wit and charm on them even though he’s probably forcing himself through banal dialogue with your parents while most of his mind is working on the hotels project he’s heading for right after this pitstop. Your parents retire early to bed though, so you and Rob get plenty of time to catch up.
Instead of staying in, you take Rob out in your car, meaning to show him your city and how you’ve turned its entire span into a venue for your business. He leans the seat further back than you would like for a passenger friend to; jet lag catches up with him quite early that first night, and he falls asleep in the middle of a rehash of old times. What irks you is that he apologizes only once for how tired he is, and that he doesn’t even bother fighting the jet lag; you’re good as alone out there in the city, umbilically cut off from home, driving around aimlessly on the open roads.
The second day is better. Once Rob wakes up in the guest room, late in the afternoon, you begin to catch up some more. Many of your old college friends have gone on to graduate school, and even Rob is thinking about a degree or certificate in hospitality studies from some Swiss institution starting with Ecolay something something. That you’re not even considering such intellectually interesting steps to further your education makes you feel out of touch with the workings of your brain. To compensate, you feel the need to show off, so you take Rob into your home office to show him the hub of your business: all the metrics that you can visualize in real-time; every number, every driver; and then you show him qualitative analysis reports on what works best to enable faster delivery times: division of sectors for the motorbikes; semi-pre-prepared meals at restaurants with high turnover—something you have worked out in deals with the owners, and are always looking to improve upon; off-the-record deals with police and army checkpoints to let your delivery people through on sight. You save the best for last. You shut off the room’s lights until the only illumination in the dark room is from a lime-green LED dot, a lone firefly, which indicates the positions of your computer. You click a button on a remote, and a large wall becomes criss-crossed with a network of white, yellow, and blue lines against a black backdrop; on the lines move over four hundred tiny red dots. This is the map of your city, showing in real-time the traffic on each road, and the position of every Tiger Riders vehicle on its way to deliver its cargo of food, groceries, people, and expectations. You press a button on the remote while pointing to one of the red dots, and the zoomed-in picture shows a car, while in hovering text appears information about the specific delivery it is on, how much estimated time it will take for the completion of that delivery, and what next is being scheduled for the vehicle on the fly. You show Rob two more sets of other vehicles’ specific details, one of a Tiger Riders motorcyclist carrying a passenger, and another of a car delivering groceries. Then you zoom out again and stare with new eyes at how far you’ve come from when Rob saw you packing suitcases for a third-world homecoming.
To most of the miscellany of your business, he nods and sounds impressed enough to say a “Wow” here and a “Nifty” there; but when, after seeing the map on the wall, he says “Lovely, this is lovely,” over and over, imperially, in a clipped, faux-British accent, you wonder how much his father, Robert Kensington Moore Sr. has groomed the human being out of him; he’s a shadow of the friend you had in college.
By comparison, it makes you feel empowered to still be your own person, to be the one among the two of you who has built something from the ground up. Back in college, Rob’s approval mattered because he was smarter than you. But what has he done with that brain power? Leveraged it to join his papa in selling hotel-space in old buildings—if you want to get really crude about it. You begin to wonder whether it’s intelligence that he possesses, or just privilege.
In any case, you’ve got the upper hand in Yuckistan. You take him out again on the second and third night on long drives, telling and showing him how things work in your country. You stop some Tiger Riders drivers en route to their deliveries, and you chat with them at length in Yuckistani languages even as Rob waits uncomprehendingly in the passenger seat, fiddling with his phone or just staring out at all the things that are strange to him and home for you.
At this point, there’s no driving back your ego from the precipice. You sense the plummet before it comes within sight. And by the time it’s visible, there’s already too much at stake.
What happens is this: after two years of delivering that unpaid-for meal, worth seventeen thousand and five hundred rupees, the one that you delivered in Falcon’s Ridge, the owner of that house uses the Tiger Riders app once more. You’ve created an alert on your mobile hub for just such an occurrence. Here it is, with the warning sign of a screaming tiger next to the text: “THAT F’s Ridge resident has ordered! Rs. 2,400!” A two thousand and four hundred rupee order for Tiger Riders to pick up pepper chicken, dry beef chili, and veggie chow mein from Lung Fung and deliver it at the same Falcon’s Ridge manor outside which you were sent packing without money two years ago.
Mahboob Ali is the Tiger Riders employee your mobile hub indicates as the automatically assigned driver for this order. Good guy, Mahboob, he’s been with you almost since you began scaling up the business. You call him on his cell phone and make the arrangements in the local language. You’re already in your car with Rob, outside your favorite fresh juice shop, sipping at a grapefruit-pomegranate-rocksalt concoction, and, after the juice is finished, it will be a ten-minute ride to your destination. But you’re excited and this can’t be missed because of freak traffic jams.
“Drink up, dude,” you tell Rob. “And buckle down.” In seven minutes, you’re parked under thick overhang of foliage outside the Falcon’s Ridge area.
The dense cluster of trees—that’s another way to tell it’s a rich people’s area. Always a good indicator. Sky-reaching eucalyptus and centuries-old oaks speak of old money kept within the gates, away from the dustbowl that is the rest of the city where the masses live.
“So trees is what we came to look at?” Rob asks when you explain your theory of correlation of greenery to wealth. “When do we go eat that spicy beef stew you keep talking about?”
“Nihari, dude, nihari.” You don’t understand why he can’t remember one single food’s foreign name: nihari. You’ve only talked about it seventeen thousand and five hundred times. “Soon enough. Just one more thing to do.”
A few minutes after you’ve parked, Mahboob Ali shows up on his Tiger Riders motorbike with the order from Lung Fung. He hands you the plastic bags containing the food, and the paper receipt.
“Thanks, Mahboob,” you tell your employee. “I’ll take this. You can go on to your next one.” He bows and vanishes on the buzzing bike.
“You’re making a delivery?” Rob asks. “You’re serious?”
“Always serious, Rob,” you say, mock-seriously. “This one I have to do myself.” You reach over and open the glove compartment, where you have kept two extra copies of the receipt for the unpaid seventeen thousand and five hundred from two years ago.
“What’s that?” Rob asks. “Don’t tell me—are you making a switcheroo?”
“Of course not, dude,” you say. “This is an unpaid bill. This guy owes me some back-money.”
“Let me see.” He reaches for the folded sheet of paper, as one would out of curiosity. You can’t jerk it away from him without seeming rude, but you try to gently keep the paper out of reach.
He takes it though, unfolds it, and looks at the numbers, including the date.
“This is from two years ago,” he says.
“Thereabouts,” you say, starting the car.
“And he didn’t pay this?”
“He will today,” you say, and get the car into gear. The house is two turns away, and you’re at the first within a few seconds.
“Dude,” Rob says softly, almost as if he’s talking you back from a ledge. “Don’t do this. Let it go. It’s like. . . what? Seventeen thousand would be about seventeen dollars?”
“A hundred and seventy,” you say, bothered by his reduction of the amount to a tenth of its value. You’re past the last turn, near the gate now, sliding the car into the same parking position beside the gate where Mansoor had parked it that first time you ever arrived here.
“Right, that’s what I meant,” Rob says. “A hundred and seventy dollars. So what? It’s still nothing, right? You can totally afford to let it go.”
“Of course I can,” you bristle; it’s come to this from that first day when he arrived in the city; five days, and you’re raging at how he doesn’t understand anything you’re trying to show him. “The amount is not the point, Rob. It’s the principle of the thing.”
You open the car door, and pull out the bags of food and the two receipts.
“All right,” says your college bestie. “Your funeral.” Not a witticism, the way he says it. He’s feeling the tension too, of course. The unpleasantness is a two-way street. Whatever. Without answering, you shut the car door and walk up to the gate.
You look without smiling at the cameras; you press the video-capturing door-bell’s button; and you stand there as the eye-slot in the gate slides open for the guard to see you. Then the gate slides open just the small amount, and out from the gap squeezes a large man without a mustache. He’s huge, just like all the other guards you’ve met at this gate over the course of coming here repeatedly. But this one doesn’t have very kind eyes, and the gun, much more threateningly, is in his hand rather than slung around his shoulder; even though the barrel points to the floor, it angles close to your feet. His voice, too, is gruff as he says:
“Tiger Riders,” you say. “We deliver and we roar. I’m here with an order from Lung Fung. Please call your master.”
“Hainjee? Order? Money.” He thrusts cash at you with the gun-free hand. You refuse to take the money.
“I need to see the owner of this house,” you say.
“Jee?” comes back at you from the guard. You’ll have to switch languages.
But you don’t. Your fury, whether at all the goddamn residents of Falcon’s Ridge, or at the caucasian bastard leaning back in your car’s passenger seat, is all too real.
“Call your master,” you say to the guard. “There’s a problem with his account.”
“Jee? Problem? No English,” he grunts in deep bass, but with fear in his eyes, pulling the hand with the cash back to himself, grabbing the gun with both hands, as though you’re swearing at his mother or casting a spell in this foreign language.
“Call. . . Sir,” you enunciate, and mumble the rest of your thought: “he’s needed at least for interpretation.”
“Yes, okay okay, call Sir, jee,” he says, backing into the gate, sliding it shut.
You allow half a smile to flit across your face, and you run a hand through your hair, but you don’t turn to look at Rob.
In a hundred and five seconds, someone on the other side of the gate says in a familiar, coarse voice, “Open it, bhenchod,” and the gate slides open a full twenty percent of its opening ability; you’ve never seen it so slid out. That’s a hell of a long, gleaming black BMW in the parking slot; there’s other cars too, but this one is the only one you can make out; must be a 7-series.
In front of you, blocking the view to the inside of the gate, stand three people now: the guard you just scared out of his wits by speaking in tongues; good old rat-face the sniveling rodent you never wanted to see again; and, in the middle, standing closer to you than his underlings, thrusting out his pot-belly, a man as tall and wide as any of his bodyguards—here stands the owner of the estate, dressed in a white pajama suit, and a luxurious maroon robe. The bhenchod who called you a bhenchod.
“Jee?” he thrusts out his chin and raises both eyebrows, “what’s the problem?” He’s got a bloody brutal way about him. There’s at least some muscle under all that fat, you remind yourself.
“I’m from Tiger Riders,” you begin. “In fact, I’m the owner of the company, and I’ve come to deliver your food personally.”
“Great,” says man whose name you have invoked and cursed every day for two years. “That was quick service.”
“There’s an issue though, sir,” you say, letting that “sir” slip out from habit. “You owe us from a previous order.”
His eyes go red. Or were they already so? You can’t remember. He looks at his food in the bag in your hand.
“I owe you? How much?”
“Seventeen thousand and five hundred rupees was your bill last time.”
“Let me see,” he says, reaching for the bill. You hand it over. He unfolds the receipt and scratches at his jaw while looking at the figures. “Zakir Tikka,” he says. “Long time ago.”
“Two years ago, yes,” you offer.
“You want payment for this?” he asks, as if not believing you would want to be paid for the service you provided.
“Yes,” you say. “I just want your account to be clear of past dues.”
“Past dues,” he says, chuckling in your face, a drop of spit flopping out of his mouth onto the receipt. He looks at you, and then turns his head to look at your car. It’s only a second-hand Honda Civic. That’s what his eyes say: only. Then he switches codes. He does it first. “Bhenchod, okay, I see what’s going on. You’ve got this white man in your car and you think you can show off in front of him by being all customer servicy, and business ownery, eh? I remember that order. It was your stupid phone app. Someone wanted me to try it. So I did. The owner of Tiger Riders brought the Zakir Tikka order.”
“I did,” you say, “I brought it myself.”
“I thought the business owner would be a sensible man,” he says, his eyes dark and without life, “but look at you. Bhench—, do you even know the a, b, c of business?”
“I am sensible,” you say, “and my business is doing very well, thank you.”
“Doing very well—of course it is. You know how things work here, right?” he asks. “Seventeen thousand—twenty thousand—fifty thousand is nothing. Peanuts. What you did when you brought that food, that was you bringing me a gift. A favor. That’s it. You should then have forgotten it. Scratch my back, I scratch yours; that’s how I have always worked. That’s how everyone works. And you’re a business owner and you don’t know that?”
Something shifts underfoot. Why did you bother? Who would ever have known about the missing money? Why did it matter so much? Because. . . because you were humiliated? That’s it?
“I want what’s right,” you manage, trying to hold your voice steady.
He scowls; you understand where he’s coming from, this bastard. But even rat-face behind him grins his rodent grin, while the guard keeps a lookout for any morsel of understanding that can come out of this.
“What’s right is right,” says the man who withholds your money. He reaches deep into his luxurious Hugh Hefner robe’s pocket and pulls out a wad of what looks like hundreds of thousands of rupees. He counts out four notes of 5,000 each, and then adds one more for good measure. And then he shuffles further into the thick bundle of cash and picks out a few hundreds, which he puts with the twenty-five thousand; he folds this unknown amount within the two receipts. “Here’s your money. Keep the change. Go share it with your white bhen—boyfriend.” He throws the folded receipt, aiming for your face. Your only grace this night is that the thick folded paper hits you not on your face but on your chest before falling into separate piles of receipts, hundreds, and five-thousands.
You stand there, staring, as he turns, re-enters the gate, leaving the money he has thrown at you. You look down at your hand, wondering what’s weighing it down—of course, it’s holding a plastic bag full of Chinese food. He didn’t take the food.
“Fuck you,” you whisper. It’s too soft. Nobody can hear it. Rat-face and the owner of the house have disappeared into the inner sanctuary. Only the guard remains outside the gate.
You bend and pick up the money you have earned. You count twenty thousand rupees, which covers both the previous order and this one, and you stretch your hand holding the food from Lung Fung out to the guard, along with the excess money and the receipts.
“Here,” you say. “This is for the asshole inside.”
“No, jee. No,” says the guard, as he puts up his empty hand, backing away from you.
“Take it.” You put the bags of food near his feet, and start shoving the money into his pants pocket, but he pulls up right against the gate and swivels out of your way. The money and the papers with the logo of your company leave your hand but they don’t enter his pocket. Once more they fall through the air and hit the ground.
“Bhenchod,” you shout. “Fucking bhenchod.”
Without looking at the guard again, you take your twenty thousand and head back to your car.
Once you get in, there’s the six-foot-three-inch caucasian friend of yours.
“I just have to say,” Rob says, having seen everything out of the windshield, “that I knew you would let me know if you needed help. You did well to stay composed despite what that obese jerk did.” You start the car in response to what he’s said, wishing him to be quiet. But Rob keeps talking. “That was totally too dangerous a situation. You should have let it go like I warned you. But, despite my natural inclination, I won’t say I told you so.”
“You can say it,” you say surprising yourself at how even-keeled your voice sounds. But you sense the blaze behind the coolness of your voice. You get the car in gear, pulling away from Falcon’s Ridge’s scum.
“You said that word,” Rob says. “The one that means sister-fucker. I’ve never heard you say it like you mean it.”
“Yes,” he says, “and you got your money.”
That stings you, that Rob thinks it was about the money.
“Dude,” you say, your head burning, “go back to where you came from.”
He laughs at that, thinking you’re mostly joking. That turns up your internal thermostat. You steer the wheel and come onto the main road. Without planning to say anything too serious, you start talking: “It’s because of people like you that this country doesn’t work. You. . . ” and you can stop there, but you want to lash out at this son of a hotel-creating-consultant bastard and cut him down to his bare self. “. . . your people enslaved millions, you know that? Around the world. The whole fucking world, Rob. Even here. There was uncountable rape. And there still is. You’re fucking with our minds so we can’t even talk to our own people. Do you know what I mean? Do you?”
“Look,” he falters. “I don’t excuse. . . ” he stops. Silence except sounds of the road. You and Rob, you’ve never been this serious. Not between yourselves. He knows his wit hasn’t worked past your defensiveness on this trip, so he doesn’t even try. Good. You would have hit him.
“What good have you fucking people even done, Rob?” by you fucking people, you mean the colonials, the white race, yes, but specifically you’re talking about Robert Kensington Moore, Senior and Junior, the hotel-habitating dynamic duo. But that’s too personal a line of attack, and you want to hurt him where he doesn’t even know his fundamentals are. You generalize again: “You’re just turning old shit into new shit, and we’re just watching you. Right from the way you treated indigenous people around the world like vermin, we’ve been watching you. I mean, why did you people do that, Rob? Who do you think you fucking are? Wasn’t there enough land? You didn’t have to fuck everything up, bhenchod. I mean, your direct ancestors were probably slave-owners, right? They had plantations and stables full of slaves, I’m guessing. So, knowing that, how do you get off trying to make the most of your life?” You want to froth at the mouth when you say this, but all you can manage is is a single strand of spittle that falls on your own shirt and tethers it to your lips, lassoing yourself to you. “And you go around like you didn’t cause all this shit we live in. Even this country that you so easily call Fuckistan. How dare you call it that? It wasn’t always like this, you know; your kind have made it this way. It’s like you see a whore offering herself to you for free, and you’d still rather rape her. That’s what your people did, Rob. You know? Tell me—is that fair?”
You take a quick glance at him. Rob’s looking out his window.
“Answer me, sister fucker,” you say.
Rob turns to you and shrugs. “What’s my sister got to do with it?” He looks you in the eye, but you turn your gaze back to the road.
“Everything,” you say. “Every fucking thing in the world.”
But Rob’s right. He doesn’t even have a sister, and if she did, she wouldn’t have a thing to do with any of this. He will leave. His ticket has always been a round-trip one. But where do you go? You’re the sister-fucker stranded in this place. Looking at it all through Rob’s eyes, you do see nothing but a Fuckistan.
So you pull back from looking at the world through him. You sever something between the two of you. And, instead of going on a long drive with him on his last night here, you go by your parents’ house and say, “We’ll have nihari some other time. I’ll be late. Don’t wait up.” He’s amenable to cut short the drive too; he gets out and walks away without saying anything; just as well. Tomorrow afternoon, he will fly away from your world, and likely never be your guest again.
You drive, turning when turns present themselves, going straight past open lights. Letting go of Rob as your closest foreign friend means having to wonder at the worth of the memories you made together. Within a few minutes, you know why he said what he said.
The first word in your language you taught him, as you were becoming friends—it was bhenchod. “It means sister-fucker. We use it like you guys use the word fuck.” You remember saying that in a dorm-room gathering, one of many in which you swapped stories from childhood and confessed your fears and hopes as you were getting to know each other. And you remember him answering, “Fair enough, but what’s my sister got to do with it?” You both had rolled, laughing, on the floor, giddy, delighted, infected with fearlessness at the morbid yet unimaginably intangible thought of an unborn sister being cursed with rape. It was the beginning of a morbid-quips-filled friendship that lasted—what, six years?
That’s what he was trying just now. He was trying to diffuse, with an old fucked-up in-joke about sister-fucking, the tension your rant against the system had piled into the car. You didn’t recognize it ten minutes ago. But you do now. The understanding, however, doesn’t change things.
You keep driving like there’s no end to roads in the city; you will arrive at only one tall white gate tonight. Sure enough, and soon enough, here you are. At the far end of this enclave of mansions, you see the white gate—the one that it slides open to reveal the land that will never go back to the masses, whose voice of reason you consider yourself.
Will you let the owner of this unfairly large house tell you that you, or any woman like you, isn’t enough to run a business here?
Will your second-hand Honda Civic ever top a hundred and twenty kph before you crash through that gate?
You’re on the hotseat, always have been. You left the pin-cushion job in Manhattan, you came back and started your own little universe of deliveries, keeping faith through the busts, expanding through the booms. Your business has ridden a long and fruitful crest, and may still keep riding it for a while; yet, is it time to beach the whale in one swift crash? If you were a responsible man you’d never press that accelerator all the way down, because it won’t topple the gate, let alone all the other dominos of patriarchy, feudalism, colonial plunder that lie behind the gate, that make up its past, all of which has been stacked up against you and your kind since long before you were born.
Still; you rev the engine like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do. And you will do it.
But wait a minute. Why are you smiling?