The house in Pattukottai, Tamil Nadu, is unfinished, with reinforced steel bars poking out from the flat concrete roof. There are walls, ceiling, and floors of rough concrete, windows and doorways with frames, but no windows or doors, water or fixtures. It provides shelter from the elements but boasts nothing comfortable or delightful. Outside the house lie heaps of bricks, piles of sand, and a jumble of scaffolding poles. Stacked in the spare room are hewn boards from which he someday will make doors. A Hindu god whose effigy hangs from a rebar poking from the roof is given the challenging job of protecting Boomi’s house.
Boomi was awarded $30,000 Singapore dollars in compensation for a workplace injury that crushed his right leg and forced him to remain in Singapore for two years for numerous operations and recuperation. Prior to that, his job was to separate the parts of electrical appliances into plastics, metals, and precious metals for recycling. The hazardous part was the inhalation of heavy metals, but most of the companies he worked with required facemasks and protective coveralls. But in those countries the valuable metals were then sent to, standards were less stringent and it is those workers, often in India, who are at greater risk when extracting and processing the heavy metals without safety precautions.
Boomi’s accident occurred when a forklift driver backed into him, crushing his leg between the forklift and the stack of crates he was applying labels onto. Seeing the condition of Boomi’s leg, the Chinese forklift driver panicked and ran off to inform the safety supervisor rather than offer assistance. Soon after, the driver was repatriated to China, perhaps (according to Boomi) to reduce the culpability of the company in case he be required for an investigation into the accident.
Bone grafts, skin and muscle grafts saved Boomi from what might have otherwise been the amputation of this leg. Doctors in Singapore enjoy the challenge of migrant worker injuries. Construction and shipyard workers presenting with traumatic injuries involving fractured bones, crushed joints, and ragged open wounds provide opportunities to hone the skills and refine the expertise of doctors too often burdened with lifestyle problems of diabetes and jammed arteries of Singaporeans. This gives them a taste of Third World accidents in a modern high-tech medical setting. His doctor was given an even greater challenge when a year after the accident the wound became infected with a staph bacterial infection resistant to most antibiotics.
The medical treatment was so long and distressing that Boomi tried to change his luck by changing his name. Two other men in his village shared his name, Boominathan, and both of them had met with bad luck. It must be the name. The Hindu priest at the Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple in Singapore anointed and renamed him Shiva, the auspicious one, after one of the most powerful gods of Hinduism. He would be pure, and his fortunes would change.
But he soon realized that he had upset his mother by presuming to change the name that he had been given at birth. So, a few months before he was to return home, he reconsidered the new name and reverted to Boomi. His parents would not be pleased to welcome their son by another name.
Saddled with a massive hospital bill, his employer objected to the first medical assessment of his permanent incapacity hoping that the second assessment would be reduced and that the compensation they would have to pay would be less costly. Sure enough, by the time of the second assessment, the bone had joined and strengthened, and the amount was reduced by about $10,000 in spite of the extensive treatment and the unsightly injury. It might, or might not have been to Boomi’s advantage that the doctor who assessed his injury the second time was none other than the author of the Guide to the Assessment of Traumatic Injuries and Occupational Diseases for Work Injury Compensation.
Resigned to fate, Boomi accepted the S$30,000 and looked forward to going home, two years after the injury. If this loss in the compensation amount was also due to the inauspicious name Boominathan, it wasn’t the only stroke of bad luck. His beloved mother died only weeks before he returned home.
With the small fortune that his catastrophic injury earned him, Boomi planned to build his new house. Not an unusually fine or ostentatious place, but better than the house where he lived as a child and which held the memories of his dear mother and his still alive, cantankerous father with whom he has no desire to share his life. He spent half the money on his new house, thinking of the wife who would join him, who would cook and clean and care for him, and who would bear his children. He was modern-thinking in his refusal to accept a dowry for his bride, and furthermore he had no mother or sisters or reliable aunties to negotiate the bride price. His father was no help with this. There are too many instances of young women being sent back or burned with acid when the groom’s family isn’t satisfied with the dowry. He would not be responsible for disruptions in family harmony by arguing over the value of the woman who would learn to love him. He would not accept payment for his future bride.
Before the house was completed — it’s still not completed — his neighbour mentioned that he knew a man, Siva, who could arrange a lucrative job in Canada where the minimum hourly pay is C$10.00 (S$12.50). This would be Boomi’s good chance to work abroad once more, before taking a wife. The comfortable working conditions in that glorious and spacious Western Country of White People wouldn’t stress the injured leg the way a construction job in the Middle East or Singapore would. His house could wait.
The neighbor wasn’t such a shrewd guy, and wasn’t very well off himself. He’d made money working for six years in Singapore and now couldn’t stop talking about the subway system that he worked on, and how he one day hoped to ride on the sleek sparkling underground trains zipping through the modern transportation system he had helped to build. But with his handicapped daughter unable to walk, confined to the house and watching TV all day, he wouldn’t be spending money on luxury trips to Singapore. He would never be able to marry her off; he and his wife would have to take care of her for the rest of her life, or at least for the rest of theirs.
By coincidence Boomi met several other men who had been promised jobs in Canada by agents who were duped by African men. These men were sent to South Africa to wait for their connection to Canada, where all looked fine for the first few days. After that they were provided only bread to eat, beaten and abused for money, then neglected and abandoned to fend for themselves. Their troubles forced them to sleep under bridges when they were expelled from the house and to work illegally to make enough money to return home. Boomi ignored the warning not to get involved with Africans. That wouldn’t happen to him. He’d had enough bad luck already to last a lifetime.
Of the S$30,000 (Indian Rupees 1.3 million or 13 lakh) that Boomi was awarded for his work injury compensation, he felt obligated to spend S$4,000 for gold to pay back family and friends who’d helped him pay for the job in Singapore. Then he spent Rs 9 lakh (S$20,000) for his new house, Rs 1.5 lakh for the land (S$3,340), Rs 1 lakh (S$2,300) for the bore well, and the rest for the sand, bricks, cement and wood that would go into the construction. He had only Rs 50,000 ($1,150) left when the opportunity to work in Canada arose.
The neighbour introduced Boomi to Siva, the job recruiter, from whom Boomi learned that, to secure the great and unexpected opportunity of a job in a First World economy like Canada, he needed Rs 8.25 lakh (S$19,000). He sold some of his father’s land and borrowed to make up the full sum. He refused to sell his mother’s gold, it wouldn’t have been right only two years after she had died. The borrowed money could be paid back easily from the money he’d be making at the fish processing plant in Canada: C$10 an hour, a monumental minimum rate.
According to Siva, his Nigerian counterpart, Liady Furaima, would arrange for them — it would be a group of eleven men — to enter Canada as skilled wood carvers, though they would actually be employed in a fish processing plant. Whatever the work, Boomi was eager to do it and learn the skills required. All looked good for a prosperous future built on easy money from Canada.
Due to the limitation on the amount of cash that can be taken or sent out of India in a single transaction, the total sums had to be sent in small amounts to Liady Furaimo’s contacts in other countries. Siva sent the men’s fees to Liady’s partners in Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai, Thailand and many other places, who in turn transferred it to Liady Furaimo in Nigeria. Someone with this many contacts surely knew how to make things happen, Boomi told himself. Liady Furaimo had directed plenty of people to jobs in countries in the Middle East and even to countries like Canada and Australia, Spain and England. This spoke well for his expertise in arranging visas, documentation, passports, transportation, and most important: lucrative jobs.
More important than credibility, to Boomi, was the enforceability of the arrangement. Here too things looked good. Siva lived in Chennai. If the plan didn’t work out, Boomi knew Siva’s house and could ask for the money back. Siva’s father and uncle in Puttukottai had collected the money from the eleven men; Boomi too had passed the initial Rs 825,000 to the father. Siva’s sister’s husband Kothandabani operated a small shop in Puttokottai, not far from Boomi’s house. Siva’s brother Rajeesh would accompany them to Benin and would be responsible for holding the money they’d paid and working out the logistics. The whole family was involved in the operation and at least one of them could be found and held accountable if something went wrong. If the plan didn’t work out, Boomi would do what it took to recover the money, even if that meant making life miserable for Siva and his family.
And with that comforting thought, Boomi was set to go.