By Lim Wei Zhen

The slip of a drill left his right thumb fractured, and the hole in the road unfinished. It also punched a hole in Sivaraju’s dream of a Singaporean road to riches.

Growing up in the fishing village of Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu,  his face clouds over as he recalls the time when a tsunami left him – then just 13 years old – lying unconscious in a hospital bed for three days. He recalls fondly his uncle flying back to visit him in the ward.

“My uncle good, he pay hospital. He ‘rich’ – money from Singapore after five year,” Sivaraju (not his real name) says, his face lighting up.

Thus inspired, he ventured to Singapore to seek a job in construction, following his uncle’s footsteps. Alas, his uncle’s rag to riches story was not meant to be his own. His thumb fractured, he was put on the Special Pass, with a condition that he should not work. Thus ceased the monthly remittance of his entire salary of $900 to his family for the next five months.

“My mother, she cry two week.”

But unlike the tsunami that swept away his wooden home but soon receded, the flood of tears persist. Stranded in a foreign land with no work, his family’s only income now comes from his 22-year old brother and 58-year old father back home. Fishermen by trade, they earn 5,000 rupees a month – a far cry from the 40,000 rupees Sivaraju’s $900 used to provide.

Sivaraju had paid $4,000 to an employment agent for the job. Since the accident, he has paid a further $750 in medical fees and $300 in lawyer fees. And that’s not all. After countless nights in back alleys looking for a spot to sleep, he found his ‘home’ at no small price – $200 a month for a double-decker bed in a small room housing 6 men. But his nightmares do not cease; they extend into his days. A sense of emptiness haunts him – despondency at his inability to work.

He laments the lack of work he can find or do. He can do only small work on the sly, like carrying 10kg loads or buckets of water, but such casual jobs are rare. He worries. With barely enough cash left for the $28 he spends on phone calls, he skips lunch, eating only breakfast or dinner at TWC2’s soup kitchen.

Longing for his family, his only comfort is that he will soon be reunited with them. Finally allowed to return to India for surgery, he hopes to be back at his beloved fishing soon. But his return is not a completely happy one. He will likely need more surgery in India, which will slap a hefty burden of 250,000 rupees on his family. Fortunately for him, his uncle is footing the bill once again.

“Bad luck, bad luck…” His mother’s plaintive cry continues to haunt him.

Yet, when his thumb is fixed, he hopes to return to Singapore to work again despite his painful memories of this place. There are debts to be repaid. He needs the money that only working in Singapore can provide.