Patrick Bryson is a fiction writer and essayist. His work has appeared in Southerly, Tehelka, The Lifted Brow, The Times Of India, Motherland, Out of Print,The Shillong Times and Mascara Literary Review.
He was awarded his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle, Australia in 2009. His first novel, published in 2014, is The Sad Demise Of Manpreet Singh.
Read his interview here. Below you can read an excerpt from his novel, The Sad Demise Of Manpreet Singh. Courtesy: Patrick Bryson.
Christ. He hadn’t felt this bad since the morning he woke up naked out the front of McDonald’s near Red Fort, with the street children, egged on by the ear cleaners, taking it in turns to run up and kick him in the arse with their dusty feet.
Dominic McLeod, affectionately known as ‘Biscuit’ around the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, leant forward and rested his head on his arm, which he had propped on the railing of the toilet wall. He tried to imagine the throbbing in his head travelling down to his feet, and pulsing out into the fag-ash grey tiles of the visa department’s toilet floor. But it wasn’t working.
‘You in there, Dom?’
It was Avi, one of Dom’s locally engaged Indian colleagues.
‘Warwick is calling for you. He wants you to come out to Gate 2 with me and interview somebody.’
‘A bunch of sardars from Ludhiana who bought fake visas and now want us to do something about it.’
Avi started laughing – warm, hearty laughter – as Dom had known he would. His Indian mates loved to hear him curse, and Dom enjoyed obliging them. He couldn’t do much more than buy groceries and order at restaurants with his fledgling schoolboy Hindi, but he could swear at auto-wallahs like he was a local.
‘Alright. You go ahead and meet them. I’ll catch up. Tell Wazza I’m on my way.’
He stood up and flushed the toilet, even though he hadn’t lifted the lid, or pulled down his trousers. Avi didn’t need to know that he’d just been hiding in the cubicle, trying to steal a few minutes of rest before he went back to his workstation to battle the long, head-achy afternoon ahead. When he reached his desk he saw that the red light was flashing on his phone, indicating that someone had left a call-back request – probably Warwick.
Dom pulled out a draft report from his drawer, and took the scenic route to Warwick’s office, through the photocopying room. That way the bastard couldn’t see him coming. Dom walked through his door, pretending to read the report – as if he had just been doing something terribly important for the defence of Australia’s borders.
‘Avi said you want me to meet someone,’ said Dom.
Warwick Watson – the second secretary in charge of visa and passport fraud, and Dom’s mentor – rolled his eyes as he looked up.
‘Yeah, there’s a group of dickheads out there who’ve paid four lakhs each for fake Australian visas, and now the grubs want us to investigate it.’
‘Fucken hell. That’s a lot of money.’
‘It is a lot of money,’ said Warwick, ‘and the fools are stupid for paying it. And they’re even dumber if they think we can do anything about it – other than tell them it’s one of the worst forgeries I’ve ever seen come across my desk. Look at this.’
He passed one of the passports to Dom, who shook his head. Warwick hadn’t been exaggerating. The visa had been scanned, altered, printed out on A4 copy paper, using a very poor quality printer, and then pasted on with a glue stick. Dom counted four errors in the serial and visa numbers, and that was while hung-over, without trying. There was no way that anyone in their right mind could think that it was genuine.
‘What do you want me to tell them?’
‘You won’t be able to tell them anything,’ said Warwick. ‘None of them can speak English. Just go out there and stand next to Avi while he gets whatever info he can on the agent. And try to look stern and official.’
Dom walked past the sausage factory that was the visitor visa section, responsible for processing around one hundred thousand tourist applications from Indians each year, and headed for the front counter.
Avi hadn’t brought the group into the interview rooms, which were too small. He’d made everyone sit down in the waiting area, while he tried to get the group to speak one at a time.
It wasn’t working. Even though Avi was Punjabi, and spoke the language fluently, the Ludhiana boys and their fathers – most of them with long beards and turbans – regarded the unobservant, clean-shaven Delhi-born-and-bred Avi to be as foreign as Dom.
As Avi struggled on, Dom noticed an older man at the back, who wasn’t speaking or trying to push to the front. He was dressed in a white kurta pyjama, which matched the colour of his beard, and a navy blue turban. Dom caught his eye and noticed that he was on the point of tears.
Dom kept glancing at him as Avi got the basics – their names, dates of birth, passport numbers, and which agent they had used. Some of the boys sitting in front of them were the ones who had been conned, and some were the fathers or uncles of the boys who were there to lend support. To a man, the victims were all in their early twenties and uneducated.
‘OK Dom,’ said Avi, ‘I think we have enough. They’ve given us the name, address and phone number of the agent, but they said he’s paying off the police and is denying ever having done business with these guys. It’s a big company. You must have heard of it – Enterprise Begins. Should I ask them anything else?’
‘No. That’s fine. Just thank them for bringing it to our attention.’
Dom watched as Avi told them. The older ones knew in advance that nothing could be done about their lost money, but the younger ones were hopeful that the high commission would show some mercy and give them a visa to Australia anyway – or perhaps refund their money – even though they had fraudulently obtained counterfeit ones from a fixer who had nothing to do with the high commission. The amiable eager-to-please faces they had been using to answer Avi soon grew angry when they realised that their trip had been wasted.
Dom was turning to go back inside when the old sardar grabbed him.
‘Please,’ he said. Then he started in Punjabi, and Dom turned to Avi for help.
Everyone listened as Avi asked the old fellow what was wrong, and they remained silent as the man continued his story, pausing only to weep.
‘He says his grandson has disappeared,’ said Avi. ‘He thinks that it has something to do with the visa business.’
‘Have they lodged a police case?’ asked Dom.
The grandfather shook his head when asked by Avi, and then said to Dom in English, ‘No point.’
‘Avi, get a contact number for him, and let him know that we’ll call if anything comes up,’ said Dom.
Then, feeling like he might be sick, and knowing that the old man was right – there really was no point – Dom turned and left.
He threw up in the toilet nearest to the high commissioner’s lawn. Then he got his second large latte of the day from the Costa Coffee Cart in the canteen, before he went back to meet Warwick.
‘What did ya find?’
Warwick didn’t even look up from his screen as he asked the question.
‘Young males, working age, Punjabi. They’ve all been ripped off by one agent in Ludhiana.’
‘Good stuff. Write it up. It’ll make a nice quick and dirty report.’‘
I felt bad for one dude,’ said Dom. ‘He said that his grandson was missing, and he reckoned it has something to do with the visa.’
‘Yeah, the kid disappeared to Canada or the UK – whoever else granted the genius a visa first. You know, for a long time I’ve wanted to include directions to the Canadian High Commission with the refusal letter we give them.’
Warwick laughed at his own joke and turned back to his screen – which was the signal that the conversation was over.
Dom walked back to his desk, then sat and sipped his coffee. Avi joined after a few minutes and gave him his notes, with the name, address and website of the agent.
‘I’ll call the agent first and see what I can dig up,’ said Avi.
‘Fine,’ said Dom, already losing interest. ‘Just write it up and email me when you’re finished.’
‘No problem. How’s your head feeling?’
‘Terrible, and my stomach is worse.’
‘More drinks tonight in the Henry Lawson Club then?’
Dom thanked God for his workstation – it was out of Warwick’s sight, and around the corner from the rest of the team – and waited for Avi to head back to his desk.
He needed another toilet sleep.
Dom returned to his desk to find that he had a neighbour. She was being shown around by Rani, from the high commission’s HR section.
‘Dominic, this is Deepika,’ said Rani. ‘She’s just started today. Deepika, Dom is one of our local expat officers. I’m sure he can fill you in a bit more on everything.’
The visa section of the high commission followed a strict hierarchy. There were the officers on diplomatic passports from Australia – most of whom lived rent-free in the compound of the high commission, and complained about life in India ad nauseam: then the locally engaged expats like Dom, who lived in South Delhi, paid obscene rent, had no diplomatic privileges and did the work of diplomatic officers, but for cut-price Indian rates: and then the local Indian staff, who were paid less than both groups, did as much work, and had to commute for up to an hour each way in order to live in a place that was affordable. The diplomats didn’t mix with the Indians, with the expats like Dom occupying the middle ground between the two: the Anglo-Indians of the high commission.
‘G’day,’ said Dom. ‘What section are you in?’
‘Students,’ said Deepika. ‘Yourself?’
‘What does that mean?’
‘The Fraud Squad. I investigate all the cases of document and identity fraud that you guys miss when you grant student visas to farmers.’
She laughed, thinking that he was joking.
‘I’m serious,’ said Dom. ‘The only files that come across my desk are the ones from the bad guys.’
‘So if I see anything dodgy I should bring it to you?’
‘Absolutely. Me or Warwick – the rest of our team sits around the corner.’
‘It’s nearly lunch,’ said Rani. ‘Dom, can I trust you to show Deepika where the canteen is?’
‘No worries,’ said Dom. ‘Hopefully by then my hangover will be gone.’
Both women laughed as Rani guided Deepika off to meet the rest of her team. Dom reached for his bottle of water, then turned and stole a glance as the women walked away.
‘Hey boss, did you get my email?’
Avi was standing in front of Dom, noticing the direction of his gaze.
‘One minute. I’ll open it now.’
Dom had been looking at the Cricinfo website, watching the ball-by-ball updates on the Australia versus New Zealand test match.
‘We have another case for our site visit in Ludhiana.’
‘Seriously? Aren’t we already doing eighteen?’
‘This is because of those sardars we just met only. Warwick wants us to go and rough up their agent – see what we can find.’
‘Of course he does,’ said Dom. ‘And I’ll bet both he and Sean will want us to be finished and back in the hotel by six every night too?’
He liked both his bosses, but also enjoyed putting shit on them when he was with his junior colleagues.
‘Come on, yaar. We’ll be in a five star, drinking Bacardi together, telling each other what great investigators we are.’
‘I know, I know, I should be more thankful.’
Dom scanned the email.
‘OK, so you called up pretending to be a potential client of the agent, and he told you to come in for a chat. You said that you wanted to go to Australia, but had no documents. He said no problem. You asked him how much and he said just to bring your passport and come in to the office.’
‘You’ve got it. What’s the score?’
Avi had seen the Cricinfo tab down at the bottom of his screen.
‘The fucking Kiwis are killing us. I can’t believe it.’
Dom could see Deepika standing nearby, listening, waiting for an intro.
‘Avi, have you met Deepika?’
Avi went through the niceties with Deepika while Dom put his computer on standby, and got his wallet from his briefcase.
‘Come on,’ said Dom. His head was clearing, and he felt about seventy-five per cent as they walked towards the exit.
While they were queuing in the canteen Deepika got talking with one of the girls from her team and Dom found himself standing behind Manpreet, one of the junior visa officers in the student section. They had both played cricket for the high commission, but had never worked together on anything in the office.
‘Hey Manny,’ said Dom, ‘you’re from Ludhiana aren’t you?’
Manpreet turned around, a little surprised that Dom had spoken to him.
‘Yes, Dom. I was born and brought up there.’
‘When did you come to Delhi?’
‘I came for college and then stayed on.’
‘So you still have family there?’
‘Haan, I’m going to see them tomorrow itself,’ said Manpreet. ‘I’ve taken leave for Guru Nanak’s birthday.’
‘When do you get back?’
‘I’ll be in office on Tuesday.’
‘Good stuff. Will you do me a favour? Come and see me after lunch. I’m doing a site visit in Ludhiana next week. Maybe you could check out one or two things for me while you’re passing through?’
‘I don’t want you to ruin your holiday or anything. Maybe you could just take a few photos for my report while you’re there, if anything catches your eye.’
‘No problem. I get good pics on my phone. That’s easy.’
They’d reached the front of the line and Manpreet turned and started teasing George, the AHC’s resident wicket keeper.
‘What’s good?’ asked Deepika.
Dom scanned the board, but already knew the answer.
‘Either go for the veg thali or the chicken pasta. Or bring your own. That’s what I do most days.’
‘Except when you’re hung-over?’
‘So how’d you end up here?’
‘You haven’t heard yet?’
Deepika shook her head.
‘It’s his fault.’
Dom nodded to Goldy, who had just turned around with chicken pasta in one hand and a Diet Coke in the other.
‘Biscuit McLeod, I didn’t think I’d see you in here today.’
Goldy was Punjabi too, from South Delhi, but had worked in the British High Commission for years before joining the Australians, so he had quite a posh accent.
‘Were you there last night?’ said Dom.
‘Was I there? I was the one who suggested you should break-dance on the table, just before closing time.’
‘Jeez, I’d forgotten. That was you? Wow.’
‘And who is your lovely friend?’
‘This is Deepika. She started in the visa section today, and she wants you to tell her how I ended up here.’
‘Well, for that we’ll need to take a seat, isn’t it?
‘We’ll see you out there.’
They both turned and watched Goldy exit.
‘What’s with the Biscuit thing?’ asked Deepika.
‘He’ll tell you.’