He continued gazing at the menu displayed on the wall in front of the restaurant. It was Christmas Eve. To everyone’s delight it was snowing; talk about a white Christmas! In spite of the bitter cold wind that blew across, the world around him was in high spirits and the mood, festive. However, for him the festivities and the happy voices seemed distant. He tightened the grip on his threadbare coat further, as if that would provide some blessed warmth to his shivering body. With freezing hands stuffed deep inside his trouser pockets and teeth chattering, he continued to read through the menu. It was the right hand column on the menu that was the focus of his interest; the column that listed the price.
He found what he was looking for, a vegetarian thali for £14.99. A pang of regret seeped in. He very well knew that if he indulged in the thali he would have to forgo his fortnightly underground tube pass. This in turn meant that he would have to continue his journey on foot around London in this harsh weather, in search for a job. It had been a good while since he had had a complete meal the way he loved it – plain rice, sambar, curries, pickles, yogurt, chapatis, poppadums and a sweet.
He was 27 when he had left the shores of India for London in his search for a job, having completed his medical studies 4 years ago. With no success in garnering a PG seat, several stints and endless shifts in poorly paid junior positions at various hospitals, he realised the futility of his dreams.
His father, a modest clerk in the railways had incurred significant debt to put him through medical school and also to marry off his two sisters, clearing which would take him forever. His father upon reading an article in the newspaper suggested that he try his luck in the UK, while allaying his gnawing fears of the exam fees, the expenses of living abroad and the mounting debt that would doubtless be incurred. His father reasoned, saying that once he got a foothold in the National Health Service they all could breathe easy. His father’s unwavering faith brought him some hope.
He remembered how five months ago this day he had trudged through the Piccadilly and Eastern lines, dragging his over sized suitcases to make his way to the East End; the only area that offered cheap accommodation for the likes of him. He lived in a hellhole of a dwelling crammed alongside 12 other sorry souls like himself who had no money to spare and lived in the worst possible conditions. The owners of the tenements had learnt the art of exploitation. In the dead of winter the heating would be turned off so that the owners could save money. The tenants could do nothing but battle the cold and live on. Money was a commodity that was never enough; he skipped meals and walked whenever possible instead of taking public transportation to save whatever he could. Weekends would find him at the Gurudwara for the traditional langar.
He cleared his exams within three weeks of arrival and his big push started – looking for a job. Every hospital he applied for an apprenticeship politely turned him down. Some hospitals were willing to give him an apprentice job if he parted with 45 pounds a month; an amount he couldn’t fathom paying. He resigned himself to applying endlessly for observer roles. On one such visit to a hospital he knocked the door of the personnel without an appointment. As he began to inform the overweight, bespectacled lady the reason for his presence she gave him an unfriendly stare. His presence was unwanted, the lady had a pile of workload already, thanks to the doctors who worked there. She had no time for someone like him who was more hindrance than help. She cut him short saying there were no openings and he would be informed by post if a situation arose. She was not interested in his hardships. He sighed, shrugged and moved on.
His savings continued to dwindle and he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. A few friends lent him money but that meant more debt. He decided he could no longer continue his existence based on the hope of landing a job one fine day; he had to do something soon. He decided to try his luck in other jobs, something that was illegal according to immigration laws. Deeply saddened but without much choice he went through the by lanes of East Ham searching for some opening in a back end job which he could obtain without much explanation. The back end labour jobs were plenty especially for someone who was willing to take peanuts as salary. Thus, he started working in a Sri Lankan grocery shop performing various chores like loading the cartons, chopping meat, transporting vegetables to households and so on. After working through the day he would fill an umpteen number of applications in the night. Each job vacancy asked for 10 copies of the multiple pages of the application form and his CV, which meant shelling out more scarce funds for photocopying, postage, paper etc. Sure, there were vacancies but for one job at least a hundred applied. The odds were low.
It was not about what he knew, it was about who he knew, and he knew no one. Finally, after working for a couple of months he saved up enough for an apprenticeship in a hospital for a month. He finished it with some success. There was no dearth for interviews but there was certainly a shortage of posts. His thoughts came back to the present wondering what he should do next. Suddenly, a deep urge went through his body and mind. It was no more about the food. It was about the constant calculation of every step that he took. It was the bind that he wanted to break away from albeit only till the meal lasted. Unflinchingly, he stepped into the restaurant.
He sat down to eat. It turned out to be the meal of a lifetime. He paid the cheque and walked out into the harsh wind with renewed vigour. There was nothing ahead to look forward to but the past hour was to be his most recent memory of pleasure and happiness.
He reached home after a brisk walk of twenty five minutes. As he turned the key and stepped in, the bitter cold and inky darkness inside the house further awakened him to his current reality. With a sigh he began sorting through the various bills that demanded immediate payment.
Wondering how much his cellular bill had come to, he opened the white envelope, the letter within which read, “Dear sir, We are pleased to offer you the post of a Senior House officer in St Mary’s Hospital, London. Could you please call on the above number to confirm your acceptance for the same within the next 48 hours? Signed, Medical Personnel.” He sat down, clutching the letter in his hand. No words, no thoughts, no tears, no smiles. It was a moment of relief.
For Vidyasagar, Christmas had finally arrived.