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A Novel



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About The Book

An “urgent and significant book [that] speaks to our times” (The New York Times Book Review) from the bestselling, Man Booker Prize–winning author of The White Tiger and Selection Day about a young illegal immigrant who must decide whether to report crucial information about a murder—and thereby risk deportation.

Danny—formerly Dhananjaya Rajaratnam—is an illegal immigrant in Sydney, Australia, denied refugee status after he fled from Sri Lanka. Working as a cleaner, living out of a grocery storeroom, for three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself. And now, with his beloved vegan girlfriend, Sonja, with his hidden accent and highlights in his hair, he is as close as he has ever come to living a normal life.

But then one morning, Danny learns a female client of his has been murdered. The deed was done with a knife, at a creek he’d been to with her before; and a jacket was left at the scene, which he believes belongs to another of his clients—a doctor with whom Danny knows the woman was having an affair. Suddenly Danny is confronted with a choice: Come forward with his knowledge about the crime and risk being deported? Or say nothing, and let justice go undone? Over the course of this day, evaluating the weight of his past, his dreams for the future, and the unpredictable, often absurd reality of living invisibly and undocumented, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.

“Searing and inventive,” Amnesty is a timeless and universal story that succeeds at “illuminating the courage of displaced peoples and the cruelties of those who conspire against them” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis).


Home 1:40 p.m.


Throwing its mouth wide open, the road demanded: And make that decision now.

Because he was at the place where William Street, splitting into curving branches that rejoin at the crest of the hill, allows a concrete tunnel to yawn open, revealing an orange spine of lights leading into darkness, and thus presenting the spectacle of day and night at once, while the Coca-Cola sign, overhead, rules over both realms.

Danny held his throat to soothe it.

On the very next date they had gone on, Sonja knew everything about the Sri Lankan situation, and the Tamil refugee problem, and had even sent a letter to her MP asking for a new policy toward asylum-seekers from that beautiful and troubled island. Danny kept quiet as she explained the peculiar and complex situation in Sri Lanka, beginning each sentence with “As you well know, the treatment of the minorities…”

Eventually, she let him speak.

“Look,” he said, “I reckon we don’t need more people to come into Australia.”

Grinning, and aware he was becoming ugly, he recited the facts of life to her confused face.

As you well know, there is no fresh water in Australia. As you well know, the builders, they’re the ones who want more immigration. They’re bringing in brown and black people and putting them in slums near the airport and the train stations. To be slaves for white people.”

“My God!” She gaped. “Danny is a conservative.”

Although she concluded that Danny “could do with a bit of empathy on the immigration issue,” Sonja had said nothing else. This was just, she must have assumed, in his nature: his deviated septum, his refractory sinuses, his cussedness. Perhaps she liked him all the more for that.

He had told her nothing about the bump on his left forearm. One thing would lead to another, and she would find out in the end that her man was just an illegal. The shame.

Breaking free of the overwhelming Coca-Cola sign, Danny’s eyes moved to the right.

He could feel Sonja at once—her fingers in his hair, playing with his highlights, pulling it all toward the back of his neck. Those strong fingers now tugged on his hair from the direction of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was just a short walk to the right of the big sign, saying, Come. Come. Let’s have a coffee together.

Didn’t she love coffee? Three fifty a cup, and she drank three a day. (The way Australians spend money!)

On the other hand, Sonja didn’t like to be troubled at work. That was a fact. Their fights usually began with a reference to her work, it was a fact. “A patient pissed on me in the shower today,” she had said last week. Danny had asked: “Isn’t that a nurse’s job?” “What the hell does that mean?” she had demanded. “And if you think you’re so smart, why don’t you become a male nurse? Or do something other than clean houses?”

But if Danny took a left from the Coca-Cola sign, and walked past the drunks, tourists, and pimps, he would find the Clinic, and in it…

Life is but a dream.

Nothing is simple for a man like this one. Not even being helpless. Life is a battle, and though unevenly so, everyone is armed.

He had a story; he had a power. Hefting his cactus in one hand, Danny cracked the knuckles on the other with his thumb.

Life is but a dream.

A fit young female body jogged past. The muscles in her back spoke to Danny of sex, and said, No, no, it is not a dream. Live today to spend tomorrow with your girlfriend.

Turn around, Danny. Intelligent Cleaner means a Cleaner who is Intelligent, no?

But then, coming in from the city, circling over the Coca-Cola sign, half a dozen sulfur-breasted cockatoos made a sudden noise before turning leftward.

Following the white birds, Danny walked into Kings Cross—the Central Pleasure District of Sydney.
Third Year as an Illegal
It is an Indonesia inside Australia: an archipelago of illegals, each isolated from the other and kept weak, and fearful, by this isolation.But after a while you observe that some little islands have joined into bigger ones, and the fear is less here. There is even hope.

On his way back from a one-off cleaning job in Parramatta that Tommo had arranged for him, his astronaut’s silver canister on his back, Danny had seen her. That woman who stood at the railway station. Screaming, “Do not turn a blind eye to Syria! Thousands being massacred, raped, and murdered. Sign a petition now! Massacred, raped, and…” She looked tough, that woman, she really looked like she could take on immigration and the police.

“So why didn’t you talk to her? Why didn’t you ask her for help?”

That evening, they had met, the local illegals, in the benches outside the locked Glebe library, and Danny had described the woman to the others. In reply to their questions, he said:

“I didn’t like her boots.”

“Her boots?” Ibrahim, the Pakistani, asked.

Danny had felt, somehow, that this woman with the long black boots was not really for Syria or Syrians: Pay attention to me, she was shouting to her fellow Aussies, pity the illegal immigrant, but pay attention to me.

Sometimes, it was said, raids in the suburbs were led by social workers, “to protect illegals from exploitation.” When they caught you, they asked, “Are you okay, brother?” and gave you a chocolate bar as you were handcuffed. In the end, you were deported anyway. So what did it matter if it was a good-hearted woman or a massive blue policeman with a gun chasing after you? Idealism and corruption flowed side by side in Sydney like parallel streams of sewage. White people would be lecturing you on your rights all the way to the deportation vehicle.

“Didn’t like the boots,” Danny said decisively.

Smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes, Lin, the illegal Chinese-Malaysian, who made tacos at a Mexican restaurant, said what he always said: “You can get a cigarette packet this thick”—he showedhow thick—“for eight ringgit in Malaysia. Just eight ringgit.” Yet Lin also said he was never, ever going back to Malaysia.

Lin, who did two shifts a day at the Mexican restaurant, blinked a lot when he wasn’t working, as if there were gaps in him where there should be anger.

But once he started smoking, he did get angry. “Kuala Lumpur”—he exhaled smoke away from Danny—“is full of illegals. Ten times more than Sydney. All Muslims. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Arabs. The government brings them in. They get their fake Malaysian identity cards. Chinese out, Muslims in.”

This was the first time Danny had heard that there were places in the world where the Chinese, despite their numbers, were the weak. But that made sense. He was beginning to feel that there was a reason some immigrants from Malaysia or Sri Lanka or Pakistan ended up driving big cars in the western suburbs of Sydney and others ended up in places like this, outside the Glebe library, whispering to each other. Two illegal Nepali cleaners he had met one day in Surry Hills hadn’t looked like he expected Nepalis to. Darker and shorter. Maybe they were the poorest people in Nepal.

Does it work like this? You’re not wanted to begin with in your own home. Then illegal immigrants come to your country, take what little you have, and force you to go to Australia and become an illegal there.

He asked Lin: “Those people from Bangladesh and Pakistan who are now in Malaysia—they’re the ones to blame, then?”

Lin shook his head. Danny understood. There must be illegals in Bangladesh and Pakistan who forced them out.

My God. Where does it end, then, and who is responsible for what has been done to us?

Lin smoked the way men did back home: the lit cigarette, in equal parts filter, stem, and ash, hanging from his moist lower lip as he stuffed his hands in his pockets. I too, thought Danny, have fallen to his level.

When you watch the Asian Games or Olympics at home, you are proud of your countrymen who bring a good name to all of you, right? Opposite of Olympics, which is bringing a bad name to their country by breaking the law of Australia, is what they were doing. All of them here outside the library.

“What do you tell them back home?”

The lies were modest, and similar. The Pakistanis claimed to be running the store they worked in. Same with Lin. Nothing about being a millionaire in Australia. The lie was just about their dignity.

“What about you?” Lin asked Danny. “What do you tell your people back home you’re doing here?”

“I don’t tell them anything. I don’t write to home at all.”

And now he could see that they wanted to move away from him.

Because there is a difference between us, thought Danny, looking at the other illegals. For them, shame was an atmospheric force, pressing down from the outside; in him, it bubbled up from within. Even if I were granted citizenship in this country, I would still be ashamed of myself.

Sending a level beam through Sydney’s hierarchies, the setting sun sank. Then the cloud of gloom, of desperation, that had grown so great and black in front of Glebe library, lifted.

Because Lin had begun talking of food. Of a feast. While smoking another hand-rolled cigarette, he had begun describing an outdoor food market, illuminated by incandescent white lights, a night market such as existed only in cities in Asia, one that went on forever and forever. Dim sums steamed in wicker baskets, glazed roasted duck, glazed chicken, skewered sausages, beef cutlets, fresh and fried frogs, everything you ever dreamed of. The two Pakistanis, excited by this description, added to it. Roasted lamb. On skewers. And those ice creams that come alive only at night and only in the open. All this, said Lin, was going to be placed on a large clean wooden table.

They gorged on make-believe duck, chicken, pomfret, and steaming jasmine rice.

Danny had something to add to the feast: hope. There is a way out of our shame, he informed them; the chicken and duck evaporated, and the illegals gathered around him. How? Come closer. The law of Australia can be broken. How? Even closer. See. Danny had been reading in the library. Back in the 1970s, a man named Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, and one day he announced in parliament, in Canberra, “Illegals of Australia, tomorrow is your amnesty.” You know how on Christmas Day, the bus conductor won’t check if you punched in your blue card or not? Same thing. You just go in to immigration and tell them, I’m illegal, and they say, No problem. Welcome.

Amnesty. Gates will swing open, manholes will fly, and an underground city will walk into the light.

Bullshit, said Ibrahim the Pakistani. He had stopped smiling. Not that way. This is how it’ll happen; the only way it’ll happen. See, the other day, from behind a picket fence in Seven Hills, the windscreen of a truck had emerged, emblazoned in Arabic and Roman letters saying—BISMILLAH—like a new sun waiting to mount over a new Sydney. A new law. And as he watched that big, noisy, Muslim-owned machine, Ibrahim knew: he knew what Australia’s future was.

Why not, thought Danny as night fell, and he walked through a dark crowd toward the Sunburst grocery store, why not. Convert the whole fucking country to Islam. That might make men of them at last.
1:52 p.m.


The names pulsated in red, green, or yellow wattage: GENTLEMEN’S CLUB. BADA BING. RISQUé ADULT BOUTIQUE. WELCOME TO KINGS CROSS.

Already, this early in the day, a few women in fishnet stockings and coral-red lipstick had started gathering beneath the lights. Concave in the cheeks, goggle-eyed, the palest women in Sydney, with legs from which the sunlight had long ago been sucked out.

In Sri Lanka, prostitutes show their breasts. Here they show their thighs. A bull-necked pimp with a shaved head, wearing black, the outfit of his profession, tried to hand Danny something. “Michael Jackson!” he yelled, even as two more pimps, both bald, both wearing all black, gathered behind him. “Would you like to see a woman right now? Michael Jackson!”

They were referring, he supposed, to his golden highlights.

No, thank you. Not for me.

“Gaaandhi!” yelled one of the pimps. “We got Indian women here!” And the other two grinned.

No, thank you. Not for me. Danny moved on.

He knew there was a kebab shop here (Five-Star Syria) run by a man named Haroun: in the old days, when he came here to clean House Number Six, Danny would always stop by to hear Haroun, behind his counter, complain about Australia; Haroun was growing old, working twelve hours a day; Haroun was becoming poor in Australia, spending twenty-five dollars for a packet of cigarettes—and how this jabbed at Danny’s heart, the legal immigrant’s prerogative to curse the land that had welcomed him.

But Haroun was gone, and a younger Arab man with a chopper made bright wounds in the mound of shawarma. As Danny watched, the exposed meat darkened in color again.

Guru Purnima day.

Where are you cleaner? his phone beeped. Danny could see the place from where the text messages were coming.

… on my way, Doctor, I am on my way…

Past the solitary prostitute looking for an early customer, past the dog shit by the trees, and past the branching veins of urine and spit superimposed on the grid of the streets, until he made it to a patio where pale men sat smoking and desperately watching the world around them, while dark glass doors indicated a place of deep privacy behind them.

Danny stood staring at an ellipse of white lights glittering around the word VEGAS.

This was the Vegas Hotel of Kings Cross, also known as the Clinic.

Warning noises came from above.

Up in the air, a seagull, catching a cross-building current, glided over the carnal entertainments of the Cross without moving a feather, only opening and closing its beak and emitting a series of loud squawks. Didn’t it just remind you of a cartoon of a village gossip—sitting in a tea stall all day, too lazy to move a muscle anywhere except in his powerful mouth.

Danny, assuming he was the subject of the seagull’s gossip, winced. He’s free, but that’s all he’s free for: gossiping up in the air.

Down here on earth, he, Dhananjaya, had already placed his hand on the glass door of the Vegas Hotel: he felt it glued down to the door as if no force could unbind it. There were people behind the glass. He saw an audience of a hundred people, dark, multiplied, expectant. Like Kiran Rao in his fine suit at the Sydney Festival, Danny addressed his imaginary audience: A man without rights in this world is not freed from his responsibilities. They applauded. Suddenly, everything made sense, from his hair down to his shoes, and his dark reflection was illuminated at once: half Gandhi, half pig. Let’s see what it feels like.

He pushed the door open and went into the Clinic.

The relief of shade and air-conditioning was mitigated by the tinge of sewage on each dark gust of chill air. The carpet may be moist. Or beer was going bad. Danny sniffed.

To his left he saw the red neon sign VIP ROOM.

And then below it, contradictorily, ENTRY FOR ALL.

He wandered about the machines, observing Aztecs, Zodiac Symbols, Taj Mahals, Bengal Tigers, Lightning Bolts, and Mexican Sombreros. A dozen men and women played at these machines. Some had placed beer glasses on their machines. An Asian woman at one station turned her head robotically from side to side, possibly to stretch her neck. A constant buzzing of mechanical happiness—bing-bing-bing—filled the room, now and then erupting into euphoria before subsiding again into repetitive bing-bing-bing joyousness.

It was like a snake shrine inside the Shiva temple. The gambling room inside the Sydney pub. Every bar had a quiet room where men watched glowing numbers on a TV screen or scanned newspaper pages with a pen. It was an odd vocation, this gambling, very technical, full of numbers, pencils, and calculations, done by the kind of brawny men who did not seem to be otherwise into thoughtfulness or calculation. Men went into debt because of those numbers. Men lost their homes, their cars, their friends, to those flashing numbers in the quiet room. Whites were the first to go crazy, but the immigrants were even worse. Chinese made up three-quarters of the customers in the casino in Star City. Now brown people were catching the disease too.

And Danny had known the King and Queen, the advance guard of the new Indian gambling elite of Australia, hadn’t he?

Dragons Myth; Indian Dreaming; Royal Diamonds; Dragon Master; Mega Moolah; 100 Pandas

Yellow diamonds showed in the dull red carpeting; the cashier, on an elevated desk behind secure black bars, looked like he had a shotgun under his chair. A printed notice read: FAKE FIFTY-DOLLAR NOTES BE ALERT. The best fakes come from CHINA of course. Study the three photographs below.

Danny walked around Central American faces, cactuses, eagles, snakes, and pink Martian landscapes, until he heard, beneath the mechanical noise of the machines, a human voice.

“… I was there in 1991, you know. When I was in the army. Four years. They train you in the forest in Queensland. You walk single file in a patrol, and suddenly, mate, watch out! A tree falls down, and everyone in the patrol, we’d look up to see a big hole in the canopy of the rain forest, right… and then we’d go on our patrol and return, an hour later, to the spot where the tree had fallen, and you don’t believe your eyes. Just one hour gone, and you can see the hole up there in the dark green canopy getting smaller, you can see the leaves of the other trees reaching toward each other to knit the hole in the jungle. Nature heals itself. I love Queensland, I tell you. Even thought of moving there once. Sydney, except for all those rich Chinese people that can’t buy enough of it, is a shithole, frankly. Don’t you agree?”

It appeared to be coming from behind a Super 100 Aztec gambling machine, and Danny walked around to see.

An Indian man in a white T-shirt, whose long black-and-silver hair was clamped down by dark reading glasses, was sitting at a table talking to a white couple and their little golden-haired daughter.

They were listening as if they could listen to him forever; but the Indian man’s smile and grace and kingly manner all crumbled at once.

He had caught Danny watching him.

Below his semi-silvery hair, the Indian man had thick, feathery black brows: Danny had forgotten those brows. And Dr. Prakash’s eyes, even in the dim light of the bar, were hazelnut in color.


There is a buzz, a reflexive retinal buzz, whenever a man or woman born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh sees another from his or her part of the world in Sydney—a tribal pinprick, an instinct always reciprocal, like the instantaneous recognition of homosexuals in a repressive society. Because even if both of you believe that one brown man holds no special significance for another in Sydney—a city and a civilization built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white, and which fully outgrew that principle only a generation ago—which is to say, even if you want to stay icebox or indifferent in the presence of the other brown man, you are helpless. You have to look at him just as he has to look at you. Eyeshock. Danny knew it well, but he had never before felt it in the presence of Dr. Prakash, who, though he was brown, though he was clearly born in India, had been living here long enough to become Aussie.

But today, those hazelnut eyes were again an immigrant’s eyes. Both men felt it.

Then Dr. Prakash’s eyes, relaxing, expanded in the friendly Aussie manner, and a dimple formed on either side of his nose.

“Well, it’s been good talking to you, my lady,” he said, and, raising the little girl’s hand gravely to his lips, kissed it, and then kissed it a second time. The little girl’s jaw dropped.

The parents were amused. Behind the counter, the cashier was amused. Everyone was amused except for the girl, who stood openmouthed in the presence of a god.

Prakash stood up. Danny walked up to him. Prakash examined him and then smiled. “You’re half a foot taller today, Cleaner. It’s the golden hair.”

Shrugging to indicate But life is full of surprises, no?, Danny smiled back.

House Number Six had gained a lot of weight since Danny last cleaned his place. His hair had much more silver in it, and he looked like the kind of man you would call, back home, an uncle. It’s not him, Danny.

“You came to clean the place, right?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Danny. “Yes, sir.”

“Nelson Mandela, our cleaner,” said Prakash, and suddenly, his voice changed. Now that Danny was closer, he could see the face better.

Prakash had that terrible look of a hungover fortysomething-year-old, now at the stage of his life when the drinking depletes some permanent reserve of strength inside. Is this the celebrated, amusing, intelligent, medically inclined occupant of House Number Six? Danny watched him.

No. This is just an animal inside him. An instinct is sitting here, not a man, and Danny had this same instinct inside him. When the Sri Lankan interrogating officer’s burning cigarette penetrated Danny’s forearm, and he himself felt paralyzed, like the one alert guest in a hotel on fire, this animal thing inside, this instinct, had responded: told Danny to stop screaming and to bend down and lick the burn on his arm, lick it again and again, to stop the fire spreading, until the interrogating officer with the cigarette, showing Danny some mercy, had himself splashed a glass of water on it. This is all that Prakash is today, an instinct to survive, a black rock in the center of a dried-out pond with letters inscribed on it: I AM YOUR SELF-LOATHING.

His old employer’s arms, though, were the same: and Danny’s eyes followed them down to where the half-sleeve shirt ended: the brown skin lightening a shade there in the exposed biceps, which were taut and irrigated with veins.

“Let’s play first?” Leaving the table and motioning Danny to follow, Prakash walked past a row of glowing machines.

Indian Dreaming. 5 Dragons. Sands of Time. Scattered Pyramids.

“I was packing my suitcases at home. Left everything to come here and see you. At the Clinic,” he said.

“At the Clinic,” agreed Danny.

“You want to go back right now to the place in Potts Point? Clean the toilets? My flight’s at six forty-five tonight.”

Does he not know yet? Danny wondered. Maybe he hasn’t read the newspaper yet.

But just below the doctor’s Adam’s apple, there was a fresh red wound.

“No,” muttered Prakash. “No, I see you aren’t ready just yet. You want to discuss. You want to discuss terms. I get it. All right, Nelson Mandela. Let’s play for a while. Pick a machine. Any machine. I’m paying.”

You always felt the temperature drop around this man. Danny remembered now, even as the Indian looked at him with his calm face and endothermic eyes, which could cool any Australian beach. What is civilization?

“It’s Guru Purnima today. You know what that means?”

“Full-moon day.”

Prakash smiled approvingly. “Very good luck, all the Indians in Sydney are gambling today, buddy. We’ll gamble a bit too.” He gestured about the gambling room. “I’ve always liked this room, Nelson: reminds me of the mines. I worked at the mines, you know. There’s just one difference.”

“Ambient light.”

Prakash drew his lower lip in, closed his eyes, and nodded. “Yes. You remember everything, don’t you. Sit down and play on that machine. It’s a good one. As far as machines in this city go.”

“I don’t do gambling. No.”


Danny saw the face of an Oriental goddess set in a row with pyramids, hawks, golden ankhs, and other Egyptian emblems. This was the Queen of the Nile, and Danny had been ordered by the King to play it.

Holding up a dollar so Danny could see, Prakash dropped it into the machine. “Go for it,” he said. “I’m going to watch. Wait, wait, wait, I’m coming…”

Okay, thought Danny, maybe he hasn’t read about Radha’s death. Maybe he’s broken up with her. That happens.

Danny kept jabbing a green button that flashed, even as the machine simulated the sound of real cards being flipped (dob, dob, dob), while under the watchful eyes of a sultry Queen Nefertiti, the electronic screen glowed with the symbols of Egypt, and swallowed, in increments of two cents, the dollar coin that had been fed into it.


Sitting perfectly still, his head bent low so Danny saw his mop of partly silver hair, Prakash watched the screen—like an exam invigilator, thought Danny. Nothing rash or crazy about him. The King of the Nile.

The door of the pub opened, and an Indian man in an olive uniform with a bubble-wrapped parcel walked in, glanced around, checked out Danny and the doctor, and then squinted at the parcel’s address.

Every day one set of brown men wearing shorts crisscrosses the roads of Sydney to deliver letters, wrapped parcels, fresh flowers, and furniture, but before they can do this, they are intercepted by another set of brown men in starched shirts and black trousers, walkie-talkies in hands, wires spiraling into their ears, guarding every door and gate in the city.

Moving or watching brown, Danny—friendly or surveillance brown—which one?

Some white guy probably stabbed Radha out there in the creek in Toongabbie, and here you are, putting your bum down on the seat in front of the one Indian you know, to accuse him.

“Busy day,” said Danny. “Very busy day for me. I should go back to work now.”

“Legend,” said Dr. Prakash with a smile. “You just came. We’ll have lunch, and then you can clean my place. That is what you came for, isn’t it?” He held up another golden dollar coin. “Play once more.”

So Danny had to do it all over again, at the Queen of the Nile, in front of the coruscating rows of pyramids and sacred hawks, and lose that dollar too, until Prakash, satisfied, said: “Your luck really isn’t very good today, is it. C’mon. Let’s try something else.”

Leaving the machines, they sat at a wooden table picked by the doctor. Ketchup bottles, salt shakers, pepper shakers, Johnnie Walker coasters; and in between these things, racing forms printed in red, with a black sign above them that said:



A blue pencil rested in between the urgent red forms.

Two TV screens near this table showed a rugby match, and there were more screens behind them in a darker alcove that was reserved for hard-core punters: where men, pen and paper in hand, were performing the calculations, the scratchings on white paper, the professional-seeming rituals of the self-ruining gambler. Beyond, there was a black door leading to the street.

If I run now.

This is not the man, Danny told himself for the third or fourth time. He’s just an uncle in a pub.

Danny looked at the door of the pub.

Prakash scratched at his left jaw with his thumb.

“Want a glass? Red wine.”

“Don’t drink.”

“Right. You never drank. Just watched other people drink. Right? Yes, I…” Prakash smiled. “… remember you, Nelson. And you were funny. That’s why we kept you around. You said that funny thing about the peacock, didn’t you. What was it you said about the peacock?”

He remembers. What a great memory he has, for an Australian. Maybe he just hasn’t seen the TV. And he will see it later on. Let’s go, Danny. Up, up.

But when he turned to the door of the pub, a bus sped right past, and the sun’s glare ricocheted off its white sides into Danny’s eyes; he blinked, and then another car drove by, again irradiating his eyes.

“You okay, Intelligent Cleaner?”

Angling his body away from the door, Danny used his left palm as a shade.

“Too much light,” he said.

Right outside the door, the bright burning cars kept going by and going by; protecting his eyes with the purdah of his palms, Danny searched Prakash’s face for the truth.

“Cleaner.” Prakash lowered his voice, as if in sympathy for his painful eyes.

Excellent. Some evidence of human feeling. This was a normal man. This is what you came to establish, isn’t it? Now run.

“We wanted to say goodbye to you.” An Australian man brought along his daughter, the one whose hand Prakash had kissed. “This young lady is very impressed.”

“Would you like me to kiss your hand again?” asked Prakash, and the little girl held it out. He took it to his lips, and her jaw dropped again.

“I bet no one’s ever done that to her before,” the girl’s father said meanly.

Lowering his spectacles over his eyes, Prakash smiled. “I’ll be over to visit you one of these days in Queensland. I sure will. May even move there for good.”

Danny watched the father and his daughter leave the pub.

“I said, Cleaner.” Prakash summoned him nearer with his fingers, looking around, and whispered: “After you, we never had another cleaner.” He grinned with a nod. “I did it all myself, you know. I cleaned that damn flat. Even the toilets.” He laughed. “Certain people made me clean and watched me do it. You shouldn’t have left, you really… I don’t blame you, though, Nelson. I know what you are. I know your secret.” He winked.

Prakash handed Danny the racing page from the newspaper and indicated, Read, but Danny shook his head.

“… don’t know anything about betting.”

“Well, I do.” The doctor smiled. “Take a look at the dogs.”

Although he usually had a silver pen in his pocket to do this, the doctor today used his finger to draw a circle around the list of racing dogs.

“Punt on one.” He turned the newspaper toward Danny.

Danny pointed at the first name on the list.

Prakash clacked his tongue. “Nineteen to one, that’s no good, no good at all. You know how I play? By assuming a mispricing in the system, but only”—demonstrating a space between his thumb and index finger—“a reasonable mispricing. At nineteen to one, the odds don’t work for me. Pick another one. Then we can go back to the place and clean it. The toilets really need some work.”

This was rational, sensible, and reassuring. Leave at once, please. Just an uncle in a pub.

(Danny remembered an underground Internet café, right underneath the cinema at George Street, filled with Asian kids wearing white headphones and playing computer games for seven-hour blocks. If only he were in that computer cave, where, for ten or eleven dollars, he could sit all through the burning day. Koreans were strong and tight-knit. They’d protect him today.)

“No?” Dr. Prakash grinned. “No bets today? As you please. I’ll put the paper away.”

(But he also remembered Sydney Harbor as he had just seen it, on his climb up William Street, sparkling and silver: how it reminded him of the lagoon of Batticaloa, which he had seen from the rooftop of his Catholic school. It was the same great ocean, come all the way from Batticaloa to Australia, with no living space on either end of it for Danny.)

Prakash rubbed at something between his teeth with a finger, then ran it down his Adam’s apple. His thick eyebrows contracted. “Where’s your vacuum? You always brought your own along, didn’t you? Professional Cleaner.”

“I like Australia,” said Danny abruptly. “I like Australia very much.” Now the conversation could meander and digress, and then Danny could just slide out of the bar. What do you say?

Right above the bar was a TV screen that pronounced:


But only one man here had the power to change this conversation. All at once, Prakash, with a smile, asked, “Buddy, what do you do for Medicare? I mean, instead of Medicare.” Now the doctor looked up. “What do illegals do when they fall ill?”

Danny stood.


“I said fucking sit.”

Some great strain had ended: Dr. Prakash was no longer acting.

Danny looked at the door of the pub and then sat down.


“Don’t look at the door,” said Prakash. “Look at that man, Cleaner.” He pointed.

Leaning his head back, a bald stocky man in a black T-shirt was glancing up at the TV screen with the horses and the flashing numbers.

“Look at his neck, Cleaner. See how the base of his brain is glowing: the creamy fat packed into the occipital lobe, the root cunning? That’s called the Reptile brain. The Swamp brain. Now, that’s a gambling brain there.”

The bald gambler moved closer to the TV screen… The layer of fat at the base of his neck was throbbing again.

“That’s what you never understood, Nelson fucking Mandela. How to place a bet.”

Prakash gritted his teeth. He kept looking at the bald gambler as if he meant to assault him; but Danny felt the weight of a finger on his wrist, and that finger’s weight told him: Your intuition was exactly right. It is me. That finger’s weight on his wrist lowered Danny back into his seat. Prakash withdrew his hand and stopped gritting his teeth.

Everything seemed normal; and only the tension in the doctor’s jaw, the slight trembling of his white-and-black hair, and the growing pressure of his hand on Danny’s wrist indicated that this man was no longer living at that safe distance from reality that we call reality.

Turning to Danny, Prakash smiled.

“Tell me how you did it, Danny. Your secret.”

“Did what.

“You walk in the open,” the doctor asked, “and no one ever catches you? I know what you are, Nelson illegal Mandela. Tell me why the police don’t catch you.”

And he tightened his grip on Danny’s wrist.

Now you get it, don’t you, Danny? It happens to you too. Some mornings you wake up, and you’ve forgotten everything you’ve done. Same with him. See, this morning he wakes up, and it is like waking up on Bondi Beach: five seconds of paradise, then he remembers. Then he thinks, No one will connect me to the killing. Maybe he believes her body has sunk to the bottom. Because he filled the pockets of that Italian jacket with stones. And even if it is found, so what, who can link me and that body? All the time he is thinking, Maybe, just maybe, I’ve gotten away with murder. Then you call, Intelligent Cleaner. Today of all days. Think about how he feels. You call, and the nightmare starts again. His heart thumps like the horses at Randwick. He hasn’t escaped. Now he has to deal with you. And he will. The man who killed last night will kill again today.

Why didn’t you stay up in the storeroom with the panda bears tucked in to your sides?

Still holding Danny by the wrist, Prakash reached over and extracted the wrapped-up object from his other hand.

“Cactus?” He slowly unwrapped the object from its cellophane cover and sniffed around its base. “Cactus?”

Lowering his glasses from his head and placing them on his nose, Prakash peered through them at Danny.

Before Danny could say it, Prakash had responded to it.

“No.” He slapped both his hands on the table. “You called me.”

The table moved about, and the glasses on it and cutlery shook.

The bartender, who had been wiping beer mugs, turned to them.

At once Prakash leaned back, as if he had lost a point in an encounter. You’re right, Nelson. I can’t draw too much attention to myself.

Removing his glasses, he threw them, almost casually, on the table, and then he reached into his wallet; Danny felt his heels raise themselves off the floor.

His hand in his wallet, Prakash paused to ask:

“You haven’t been to South Africa, have you, Cleaner?”

“No, Doctor.”

“Then you haven’t seen civilization. They’ve got honest casinos there. Honest machines. I’ll win the Flexi Trifecta again.”

“Yes, Doctor. I’m sorry. Very sorry.”

“Don’t fucking call me that,” Prakash said. “Don’t fucking call me that. I am not a doctor. Don’t insult me.”

“I’m sorry,” said Danny, “I’m sorry.”

Prakash breathed out and smiled again. “You can beg, can’t you, Nelson.” With his finger, he pushed a piece of paper on the table toward Danny. “South Africa today. This evening. See. This is the plane ticket. Look at the time on the ticket, Cleaner. Look at the time.”

Departing SYD Arriving JNB


Gates close half an hour before flight

Premium Economy



Danny saw Prakash again wearing his dark-rimmed reading glasses as he awaited a reaction to the ticket.

“Look at the time on the ticket.”

“Six forty-five p.m. Today,” said Danny, reading off the paper in front of him. “Is this a confirmed ticket?” he asked the doctor.

“Confirmed ticket?” Prakash smiled. “You haven’t flown in a long time, have you?”

“Four years,” replied Danny.

Outside on Darlinghurst Road, a white bus moved through white sunlight; the beer glasses on the table refracted its beams and cast a watery shimmer on everyone’s hands. Danny closed his eyes.

Doctor, she used to call him. He must have hated it as much as I hated being called Nelson.

He heard someone say: “It’s too bright here, isn’t it? Let’s move.”

Danny knew a strong hand was holding him by the wrist and guiding him. He felt himself moved down to the darker alcove at the end of the bar, meant for the serious punters. Killer, Cleaner, and Cactus sat down at a new table.

Maybe Prakash just knows who did it, thought Danny, settling into his chair. He didn’t do it himself. Maybe his right leg is also shaking right now.

“Don’t worry about a thing, Cleaner,” said Prakash, sounding normal again. “We’ll have lunch, then go back to the old place. In Potts Point. And you’re cleaning it. The toilets. Okay?”

But he tightened his grip on Danny’s right hand, and that grip said: You and me are connected, Cleaner. You know my secret, and I know yours.

“Okay, sir. Okay.”

Now you have to do what you always do, Danny told himself.


Now you have to tell a story.

In the alcove, four conjoined television screens seethed and spilled over: chestnut horses on one screen, greyhounds on another, white women in wide green hats on a third, then a fourth pulsating with numbers, and all four arranged around another, giant TV screen, which was further subdivided into four smaller screens, each febrile with colored data, like the distinct compartments of a heraldic device. Danny remembered the Jesuit coat of arms over the doorway of his school. Lucet et Ardet.

“Do you know the fishes sing in my hometown? In a lagoon?” he said.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” asked Prakash. “Let’s order lunch. They have steak here. You want that?”

Three white Australians sat in the alcove with paper and pen; Danny wondered how they’d respond if Prakash began yelling about an illegal immigrant.

The TV screens began showing live images from a greyhound race. The dogs were ready for the hunt and awaiting a signal.

The doctor now had the cactus in one hand; with the other, he was still holding Danny’s wrist.

Prakash smiled. He was like one indicating that something very long and painful had only just begun for both of them, and they might as well be comfortable. And have lunch.

Like an electronic compound eye, the TV screens now examined Danny synoptically. The numbers flickered and changed and the big TV at the center of the cluster showed a close-up of a man examining the hooves of a chestnut horse.

What if he still has the knife with him? Has he got it under the table or in his pants?

“No steak,” said Danny. “I want vegetarian food.”

That caught Prakash’s attention, and he looked straight at Danny, who said at once:

“Doctor. What is an illegal?”


“Illegal means legal who is ill, no? That’s a joke, sir. I thought you’d like it.”

Before Prakash could respond to these unexpected sounds—vegetarian, or illegal, or the joke—Danny pointed to the bump on his left forearm.

“Do you see this? This…?”

Prakash nodded. First he placed the cactus down on the table, and then removed his thick-rimmed black glasses and placed them beside the potted plant. “What is it?” he asked.

“Did Radha tell you what it was?” Danny asked.

That caught the killer’s attention. Danny felt the grip on his wrist tighten.

Prakash squeezed his brow to focus his eyes; he looked at the spot on Danny’s forearm.

“What is that thing?”

“I’ll tell you, sir. We have an airport, Doctor, in Sri Lanka. Bandaranaike Airport, international airport. I was in Dubai for a year, in a hotel, working in a Deira business motel. Did you know?”

“You’ve seen the world, Danny. Haven’t you?” asked Prakash.

Danny laughed sardonically. Sure.

Dubai! Yes, he’ll tell you about Dubai, Doctor. Danny, from his little city along the lagoon, went out to meet the world and discovered the great Muslim city in the desert. He worked in a hotel. He wore a green suit and green tie and stood behind the desk of a business motel in Deira, Dubai, that was his job. Millions of men would kill to have a job like that. Brown men.

When he wasn’t updating the computer records, or delivering the morning’s newspapers to each door in the hotel, Danny spoke to his guests, one hand on the green tie, answering their questions about entertainment in Dubai, sometimes extending his answers into discussions of Shakespeare’s identity and the truth about America’s ambitions for the Middle East, if they were in a mood to listen. There was a little white bar in the hotel, and on any given evening, an Arab in a caftan from one of the more repressed emirates, still reeking of desert wind, would be sitting there to utter one word over and over again: “Whiskey.” When the day ended, Danny changed his clothes and punched his time card. Filipina prostitutes clapped their hands right outside the hotel. Standing in front of one of Dubai’s crazy glass towers, Danny thought, When I go back home, they’ll have a small function for me. Dubai Danny. A felicitation. Cross the road now. Gray lizards from the desert, twice as thick as Sri Lankan geckos, sat on the posts at every traffic signal, and when the electronic beeping began, it was as if reptilian diaphragms were pulsing, Cross the road, cross it at once. Danny returned to the hotel to clean up the little white bar and then slept in a room behind the reception with four other workers. His father sent him a letter each month amending a list of warrantied goods, mostly electronic, he was expected to bring home at the year’s end.

Around Christmas, the workers became tense; they had been promised, in their contract, a year-end 20 percent bonus. At the start of December, the bonus was canceled. The workers were powerless. They had been made to surrender their passports to the employer—that was the law in Dubai—and now the passports were held as ransom.

All that was normal in Dubai, it turned out. The employer even had the nerve, when returning Danny’s passport, with his salary but without the bonus, to say, “Would you like to work another year in this job, son? Customers enjoy the way you talk to them. The women, especially.”

“I said, ‘No, I don’t want another year of working here in your Dubai.’ Maybe I’ll try to go to America again, I thought, you know. After working every day for a year, except Sunday mornings, I had two full free days in Dubai. To do shopping for my father.”

Danny felt Prakash’s grip on his arm loosen.

“Not for yourself?”

“No. Not for myself.”

“What a bastard. Not you.”

“I bought what I had to for my father, and then I flew home. But when I came home to Sri Lanka, someone stopped me at our airport, which is Katunayake. A customs officer. I told him I had bought nothing in duty-free, thinking that was the problem. But it wasn’t. You follow?”

Watching the killer’s face, Danny raised and lowered his voice and posed rhetorical questions, knowing from experience that his manner of telling them turned true stories into false ones. He knew that he was always too eager to please.

“So why was he stopping me if it was not about duty-free goods?”

On the TV screen, the horses were getting ready to run. Two other men came into the alcove and looked at the screen.

“The customs officer called me to a room. He asked some questions. Then another officer, not a customs man, came in and asked the same questions while flipping through my passport. More men came like this. Right? After two or three hours, they drove me out of the airport, saying they had to get something sorted out. This whole time I still have no idea what is going on, right?”

Danny explained: the next few hours happened in a daze. He was in a room where he could still hear planes in the distance. Men came and left, asking him stranger and stranger questions.

“I start to understand that they were looking for an LTTE man who was supposed to come from Dubai on my flight. Was I the man? You know… LTTE? Tamil Tigers? Rebels. They asked, ‘Are you a terrorist? Were you raising money in Dubai for bombs?’ No, I kept saying, no, just a Dubai business hotel assistant manager. Then I fell asleep. In the middle of the night, the lights came on in the room, and three new men wearing a different kind of uniform came in and started asking me the same questions. Terrorist? Money? I was very hungry, but I answered them.”

“Excuse me, mate—” An Australian man asked them for the racing newspaper.

“Want a cactus instead?” Prakash smiled as he gave him the paper.

“Listen, Genius Cleaner.” Prakash leaned forward the moment the white man left. “Is this a story or is this real?”

“It is real. It happened to me. Now listen. And be careful about the cactus,” Danny said. “Don’t joke about giving it away.”

Radha Thomas’s murderer placed both hands on the covered cactus, moved it back and forth, and smiled.

Looking at the cactus, Danny explained. Though the interrogating officers changed every hour, the confidence with which each one kept telling Danny that he was a Tamil Tiger—and not just any, but a very specific and real Tiger, one given to use the nom de guerre Danny, also known to pose as a hotel manager in Dubai and fly back to Colombo on Fridays, also known to have a father in Batticaloa for whom he would be bringing back electronic gifts that could be recycled into bomb timers—and their utter imperviousness to his denials—meant that in the breaks from the interrogation, Danny did little other than speculate about this terrorist (also Danny) whom he had somehow been mistaken for upon his return to his own country: what did this other Danny dress like, which street in Batticaloa did he live on or claim to live on, who and what did he fuck; and as a new officer came in and the questioning resumed, becoming more and more specific (“In Kuala Lumpur, how long did you spend at the Tune Hotel on the twenty-third of last month?”), Danny felt like he was in one of those Tamil suspense movies where the hero falls asleep one night in his flat and wakes the next morning in a king-size bed in Bangkok in a blue jacket—finding himself the head of the criminal Mafia in Thailand. He touches his new face, fiddles with his jacket, counts his guns and minions, and has no idea how his life has changed in an instant, how he got to Thailand, or why people assume he is a Mafia boss. After a while though, the hero, confronted by photographs, begins to realize that he is, and has always been, a Bangkok don: and that his earlier life in Tuticorin or Salem as a simple fun-loving youth was the real illusion.

Then his next interrogator came into the room.

“This fellow was always going to be easy to remember,” said Danny. Because this officer had a tic—the right side of his lips twitched upward as he spoke, even as his right eye contracted—like a man who had to squeeze words out of his mouth.

Danny demonstrated; Prakash nodded. He knew the type.

So this officer with the twitch in his lip sat there with a cigarette in the fork of his fingers, looking at Danny.

“What is your name?” he asked. And the same questions again and again. “Do you know the terrorist named Danny? Do you know any terrorists? What is your father’s name?” And then, without any change of expression, he said: “Write your name on this paper.”

“I wrote it. He said, ‘Not in Tamil.’ I wrote it in English. ‘Not in English,’ he said. ‘Write it in the national language.’ Sinhala. I picked up the pen, and my hand was trembling as I wrote. He said, ‘That’s not the way you write it in the national language, I’ll show you how to write Danny in the national language,’ and he stubbed his cigarette into my forearm. As I was screaming, as he kept his cigarette held down, I could hear him ask the same questions again. What is your name? What is your father’s name? What is—”

“—Crazy shit,” Prakash whispered.

On the TV screen, the horses had begun running down the track. Danny could feel through the man’s tight grip on his arm their hooves thumping down his own pulse. Then he felt Prakash’s grip loosen.

In the dark, Danny thought: The story is good.

Moving his head back, Prakash retorted: “I don’t believe. I don’t believe the cigarette. I’ve seen you smoke. You’re not scared of cigarettes.”

“Yes, I used to, Doctor. You’re right, I used to smoke.” Danny showed him his teeth. “You see, I began smoking after what they did to me with a cigarette.”

And that hit the animal’s heart. Isn’t that just how humans are? Prakash let go of him entirely.

“You see, when I went to see the doctor in Batti about my wound on my arm, he said, ‘You also have a blood pressure problem. One forty-nine over one oh three.’?”

“Is that… is that…?”

Prakash began moving a finger slowly toward the bump on Danny’s forearm.

It never reached. With his free arm, Danny rammed a small potted cactus into the murderer’s face, knocking him off his chair and onto the floor of the pub.

By the time the man got up, it was too late—the door of the pub was open, vibrating, and Danny was gone.

Remember that boy in the blue sarong.

That Muslim boy, the one who wore a skullcap and a blue sarong, kneeling before an army officer on a halo of burning sand. A month earlier, the tsunami had struck Sri Lanka. It was 2004. Thousands died in a day. A new curse on this island, which had already had a civil war, and how the people responded: like heroes. Men and women who had been sending their sons to kill Tamils now sent money to save Tamil lives.

Danny too had caught the do-good fever, and he went around the coast volunteering in the relief efforts, helping get food and medicine and water to the people who had lost their homes. One particular village of fishermen, all of them Tamils, had lost everything and were living in a church with some blankets, boiled water, and packages of food in plastic. A bucktoothed Muslim in a blue sarong was the one who was bringing them the food and water. Danny joined up with the Muslim. Remember how things were between Tamils and Muslims in the East back then. Reprisals and counter-reprisals. The cycle never ended. But this goofy Muslim boy on a bicycle that was wobbly with food had become, no one knew why, the savior of these Tamils. Bananas, boiled rice, lemon pickles for the refugees, and fresh milk for the children. Everyone loved this Muslim. A cunning devil, they discovered he was, collecting supplies from the army and the rebels, each of whom distributed food and water on the strict condition that it should not be handed to refugees who were taking aid from the other side. After one day off for the tsunami, the civil war had resumed. The local army commander found out that the refugees taking his food were somehow also receiving food from the rebels; and one evening the church was burned down while the refugees watched. The army commander called the Muslim boy to him: “Don’t help the Tamils for twenty-four hours. They’ve been eating our rice and the rebels’ rice at the same time. This is punishment. Understand?”

“Understand, understand,” replied the Muslim boy in his awkward way.

“You know what will happen,” said the commander, “if you break my law?”

Next day the army men in their jeep drove down to the burned church, found that the Muslim boy was still distributing food packets to the refugees, and stopped in front of him. One of them ordered: “Get in.”

Danny was there too, helping, but hid and watched as they took the Muslim boy around the block to where the army camp was, by the water. Here they made the boy kneel in front of an officer who sat on a plastic chair. From a safe distance, Danny spied. The abject sight of that Muslim boy in his sarong, prostrate before the Sri Lankan army officer on that halo of burning sand, the blue Indian Ocean behind and infinite humiliation ahead of him, remains in Danny’s mind—and let it stay there: as an emblem of the fate of a do-gooder in our world.

This business of helping others will make bigger monsters of us than greed ever did.

Rights? You have the right to run, Danny.

You have the fucking responsibility to run.

And that’s all.
1:50 p.m.

He had come charging down William Street, taking one street to the right and one to the left to throw off his pursuer, until a man in an orange fluorescent vest stood in the middle of the road with a red round sign.


Danny gaped at the man with the STOP sign, who looked ready to scream if he came nearer.

Behind the man who held the sign, another was being lowered into a manhole by a metal pulley to which he was strapped by a green harness; three colleagues in orange watched from behind a sign that said, STEP BACK DANGER BY LAW YOU CANNOT COME CLOSER THAN 3 METRES OF THIS SIGN.

“Sorry,” said Danny, and walked away from the sign, even as the worker was lowered into it, and onto another narrow street.

He raised his eyes toward the sky. High up on the shining metal roofs, two bald creatures with drooping beaks looked down on him—the jabiru that had stalked him in Hyde Park had followed with a friend. They were the city’s scavengers: they had the first right over every dead or discarded thing in Sydney.

You won’t catch me today—and Danny ran again.

Hop, skip, and leap. Deep inside a side street, Danny stopped running at last.

No one was coming after him, no one else was in that alley. He was safe. That hungover forty-year-old man, Prakash. Imagine his tremulous chest. Dry throat. The lizard throbbing in the pit of his neck. The confusion in the sunlight.

He was in no position to chase a fit triple jumper. You’re safe, Danny told himself, safe.

Although his phone was buzzing and glowing.

Don’t touch it, Danny. You know who that is.

But Prakash will phone the dob-in number: Prakash will tell them the truth about me.


“Cleaner,” Prakash said breathlessly when Danny answered the next call.

“Cleaner. You hit me. In the face.”

“Sorry,” said Danny, and almost laughed at his own response.

“Where are you?”

Danny stayed silent.

“Illegal Cleaner,” said the doctor. “Illegal means legal who is ill, no?” He laughed.

The voice was concentrated and high-pitched, as if it had been forced into a third of its normal range. He must be seething out there. I got him smack in the nose, I think.

The killer chuckled. “You call me today—you call me, you say you want to meet me, and then you come see me and hit me.”

“Sorry, sir,” Danny said. “Very sorry. Mistake.”

“Well, come back, then. Come and apologize. Then we’ll go and clean the flat. I’ll give you sixty dollars. You want more? You want more?”

“No,” said Danny.

“Danny: I am walking out into the Cross now. I am outside the pub now. If you’re around, put your hand up so I can see. No. You’re not around. You bolted. Really bolted.”

The doctor was panting. He’s walking. Quickly. Searching for me.

“Sorry, Doctor. I’m sorry I ran.”

And sorry if you were too stupid to see that blow coming. Ha.

“You think I’m a killer?”

“Yes,” Danny said. The directness of the question caught him. “No, no,” he protested at once. “No, no, no, no. You’re not—I don’t think you are the—”

The phone went dead.

When it rang again, Danny heard no voice on the line.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.”

Heart pounding, he thought: The average weekly take-home pay, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is one thousand one hundred dollars, and I’m not even 60 percent there. If he had to say sorry to the doctor a thousand more times, he would. That must be how Kiran Rao did it—though he never mentioned that in his book.

“You know where I am, Nelson?”

“The Clinic?”

Prakash’s voice became soft. “Should I call the police, then?”


“Mr. Police, Mr. Australian Police, the man who hit me in a pub, his name is Danny. This is what he looks like. This is his phone number. And just because I was going to dob him in, he starts saying horrible things about me. That I hurt someone. Yes, he’s a bad man, this Danny. Shall I tell them that?”

Danny kept quiet.

The man with the advantage spoke.

“There is an immigration dob-in number, buddy. You know about it, don’t you? Wait. I have a question. I have a question, Cleaner. That lovely story… about the cigarette, buddy, did it really happen, or was it just made up? No, I think it did happen. It sounded right to me. Come back here, Cleaner, and I’ll hit you in the face with the cactus. Deal?”

Even if you called them and informed them the killer was in Kings Cross, in the Vegas pub, right now, the Aussie police would not believe you. Never. A man killed a woman last night, and dumped her body in a creek, and this morning, he is sitting in the pub, smiling and playing the pokie machines? I find it hard to believe, son. Danny touched the bump on his forearm. Of course, no policeman in Australia, for all their firearms and powerful physiques, for all the heavy gear they wore on their blue shirts, had that bump on their forearm. Their understanding of the world had not been expanded by a few hours of torture.

“Here’s my story, Cleaner. In return for your lovely cactus story. It’s called Cleaner Does Deportation. The story is this: You’ll be a hero for a minute on Twitter, and then everyone’s watching football while you are deported for the rest of your life. You think it’s a tall story I’m telling, Cleaner? Sure, no one will want to be the one to say, ‘Send the brave little cleaner back to Sri Lanka,’ and some may even ask, in customs and in immigration, ‘Shouldn’t he get a fair go?,’ and hundreds in the street will hold up signs for you, and some may even starve to death for a day or carry a little bomb on a Qantas flight or hold a painting show for you in Melbourne, but in the end, they’ll go home, and you will be deported. Am I lying? Am I fucking with you, Sir Cleaner?”

“No,” Danny replied.

He was right. Prakash was right. No felicitations, no garlands, no shawls, and no gold medals: doing the right thing was like turning the light off.

Do you feel whole again, Cleaner?

His left leg trembled. He smelled broccoli being boiled from an Australian kitchen somewhere nearby.

“Villawood. Yeah. That’ll be fun, won’t it? And you know where you go from there? Christmas Island. You heard of it?”

Danny nodded. Christmas Island. He had heard.

“People will eat nails, and drink things, and cut their wrists to get out of that fucking place. You’ll live pretty well in there, yes?”

The doctor had asserted the full force, the brute power, of his Australianness in that yes. Danny replied with:

“Please.” He lowered his voice. “My father spent all his savings to send me to Australia, and I must pay him back. I have to go to Rodney Accountant’s house and clean it, please. Please. He has a ‘No Uranium Mining’ sign on his fridge and he’s a good man. Please.”

“Danny, you know your voice trembles whenever you lie? Where are you? Come back at once. To the Clinic.”

“No,” said Danny, and switched the phone off.

Now an echoing no came at him, as if from the Coca-Cola sign but in truth from behind it, from the hidden back ways of Kings Cross, a place where men cried like nowhere else on earth—outbursts from bodies that had been untied by alcohol and heroin, and which spread like invertebrates on the pavement—until they suddenly found the strength to sit up straight and howl: It will never end, Danny. Your civil war will never fucking end!

Danny ran again.

He ran until he was between a tunnel penetrated by train tracks, and a raw sandstone cliff on top of which stood tiers and tiers of glass balconies. He was hidden from the Coca-Cola sign and from Kings Cross.

The phone had been ringing all the time. Pressing his head against the sandstone cliff, he answered it now.

The line went dead.

Why did you tell this man everything, Radha? I bet you told him about the dob-in number too. I bet you did. Why?

To calm himself down, he began moving from side to side along the cliff, plucking the ferns.

How did Prakash put the knife in? Danny struck the sandstone again and again, in imitation of a murderer’s blows. I don’t know how a knife goes in, but I do know how a cigarette goes into flesh.

Merrily merrily merrily, came the voice from behind him, and he spun around.

It was just the wind sweeping dry leaves along.

Life is but a dream.

When the phone rang again, Danny let go of the ferns and looked up at the blue sky and yelled loudly enough to be heard all the way up to the Coca-Cola sign: “I don’t think you killed her, Doctor. I said it wrong.”


Closing his eyes, he tried to read the silence on the phone.

“Intelligent Cleaner.” After a pause, the killer laughed. “You always were an intelligent cleaner.”

The line went dead.

Danny laughed too. Crazy man still wants a way out. The King of the Nile still wants to escape.

Fern and grass grew in patches on the cliff; Danny plucked at the leaves and breathed it in, the fragrance of the continent underneath. It felt, for a second, as good as menthol. His nostrils cleared up.

Top-top-bada-daba-daba-bum-bum… Danny’s lips trilled; he played with small ferns growing on the sandstone cliff.

But it had started again: the phone was buzzing again.


Danny looked at the phone and clapped. Go away. Leave me alone.

In response, the cliff began vibrating.

The train to Kings Cross station was passing on the tracks down below, and Danny stepped back from the sandstone cliff. At the same time, his phone kept buzzing, as if it were being battered, again and again, by someone’s powerful muscles. As if it too were demanding, like the cliff, like the train thundering below, Why did you tell Radha you were illegal? Why did you trust an Australian?

Because she promised to help.

“Cleaner,” Radha had shouted over the roaring of Danny’s vacuum, “we won’t be going out tonight. I’m sorry about that. Prakash and I are going to a concert in Centenary Park. It’s for asylum-seekers. I’d invite you, but we’ve already bought tickets.”

“Okay,” shouted Danny. “No problem.”


Maybe it was that word: because Danny felt his forehead shift and his jaw tighten. He polished and cleaned everything twice as well that day.

When he was done, he found Radha on the phone, a beer in her hand. “Yeah, I want to know if I can place a bet on the phone? I’ll be going to a concert today. Can I call in there, or do I have to come in person? Great.”

When she put down the phone, Danny, gathering his courage, told her, “I need asylum.”

She laughed. “What?”

“I need asylum,” Danny clarified. “Because I don’t have Medicare.”

The skin between the Aussie woman’s eyes wrinkled. “Why not? Everyone gets Medicare in Australia. It’s the law.”

Danny shook his head. “I don’t have superannuation. I don’t have a tax file number. I don’t have a passport, and I don’t have a driver’s license.”

Radha’s forehead furrowed again. You could see her mind examining Danny from another angle, like a parrot going upside down with an odd fruit.

She asked: “Why not?”

She said: “Oh, shit. You came here on a boat?”

He had not come here on a boat: he had flown into Australia on Malaysia Airlines, economy-class ticket, and that was the problem.

For three days after Danny returned from Dubai, his father looked at him with a new sympathy, an unknown kindness, as if his son’s horror story had moved him; but before the week was over, he was gossiping with the brazen neighbor up on her first-floor terrace: Men from Sri Lanka, Tamil men, in Canada, Norway, and Germany, have built fortunes, own fleets of motorbikes and cars. But this boyhe goes to Dubaiand returns with what? A black mark on his arm. He doesn’t have anything from the list I asked him to bring. Not even the two-in-one DVD player. He’s claiming it was police torture, but I ask you, why will the police do this to a man unless he is hiding something? Why? The way Danny looked at him made his father shut up. “Come inside for a moment,” said Danny, and led his father back into the house. Closed the door. Raising a wooden chair from the dinner table over his head, Danny smashed it into a cupboard, making a large black hole in its cheap plywood. Then he dropped the chair and broke it too.

He lay in his bed all day, and when it was cool in the evening, he walked about Batticaloa, stood on the Kallady Bridge, and looked down on the lagoon. Sometimes Kannan, his first cousin, joined him on the bridge and, while the cars and bicycles went past noisily, talked to him in a low voice.

“Everyone’s trying to get out of here. I was waiting for you to return so we could go together.”

There were two options for leaving, Kannan informed him—Canada or Australia. They were the only countries still taking in Tamils from Sri Lanka. Europe and America were turning back people.

There was a boat that went to Canada every week from Rameswaram in India—they would have to pay the smugglers, and it was risky.

Australia? A boat went there too, but there was another way to get there, Kannan said.


So, early that Sunday, the two of them took a bus to Colombo to attend the Study in Australia Education Fair, held each year in a hotel by the oceanfront.

About Australia, other than the advertising images found inside the head of every human being on earth (red sand, white beach, infinite sex appeal), Danny knew only this: that a Tamil doctor had emigrated there decades ago, now owned a mansion in Melbourne, and invited visitors from Sri Lanka to play tennis with him and his Aussie wife on his private clay court and later to swim in his private pool. Wasn’t Australia thick with racists, though? the guests asked when his wife left. Don’t they have a law called the White Australia law? By way of answer, the doctor opened a safe-deposit box and invited them to see his collection of twenty-four-karat gold coins, which included half-sovereigns embossed with the faces of British kings and genuine South African Krugerrand.

On a merciless summer day, the conference hall inside the hotel—dominated by a giant STUDY IN AUSTRALIA, YOUNG SRI LANKAN poster—glowed with white lights and perfect air-conditioning. Danny and Cousin Kannan scratched up and down the goose bumps on their naked arms. White men wearing wool suits had brought photographs of their colleges, and in a corner of the hall, one of them stood with his right hand over a TV screen showing Mission: Impossible 2, featuring the one, the only, the legendary Tom Cruise. Set in the city of Sydney. “Now, we can’t guarantee,” said the square-jawed, carrot-haired representative of the Mackenzie Technical College, but added sotto voce, “but let’s just say I’d be a little surprised if you didn’t get a job and a visa at the end.” He looked at Danny and Kannan and added, “That’s irony, by the way.”

Is he telling the truth? Danny thought about it for a second or two. Didn’t matter, did it. The next time he left Sri Lanka would be the last time he left.

The cost of the course, the carrot-haired man added, was $17,400, which was cheaper than anything you’d find in Sydney (but Wollongong, with its vibrant nightlife, is just a couple of hours away). You’ll need a one-semester deposit and a $320 OSHC charge for six months. Overseas Student Health Cover. “I’m in good health,” Danny protested, and that was the first time he was told of this thing. Australian law. OSHC had to be purchased or he would not be given a visa: it was the Law.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” said Cousin Kannan on the bus back. “The smugglers, they don’t ask for this much.”

They had four days to decide, Kannan said. The boat left on Thursday evening. Danny thought about it, thought about it, and thought about it.

Kannan did not think. He went on his own to Rameswaram and bought a seat on the boat to Canada.

Sharks—smugglers—it was all too brazenly illegal. Honest Danny couldn’t do that. Besides, he had the money to go to Sydney—just about.

To his Dubai savings, his father added nearly eight thousand in Australian dollars. Now that the civil war was over, land prices were rising, and his father had recently sold a flat that he had kept all these years for this very moment. When he and Danny would go abroad for good. It was a lot of money to spend on a dodgy college, true, but Danny didn’t think he would need all of it, because he was going to Australia with a plan—a clever plan, which he explained to his father. The moment he arrived, he would apply for refugee status. His father, who had been avoiding him ever since he smashed the hole in the cupboard with the chair, expressed a mild form of skepticism. Look at him avoiding my eyes, thought Danny. This little man has been scared of the police and the state all his life, and now he is scared of me. I know, insisted Danny, what I am doing. “I meant that it is a good plan,” said his father. “First you go, Danny. Then I will come over. Then the cousins will come. You will bring us all over one by one.”

In Dubai, a fifty-six-year-old Pakistani waiter at the hotel, asked to tell stories of his roaring youth in Karachi, shouted back: “When was I ever young? Tell me when I was ever—?”

I will, Danny promised himself, become young in Australia.

So, Sydney. After a fitful sleep came a red dawn, and deep blue water penetrated by green bays of land that had the pattern of a frog’s splayed toes, before the plane turned sharply to reveal buildings that grew taller and whiter by the minute, creating in Danny’s mind the impression that he was, like Jack in reverse, descending into a city of new giants.

The airplane landed hard.

After arriving in Sydney at 4:30 p.m. I took the train and reached the Mackenzie College on a Thursday evening The city called Wollongong is about 95 to 100 minutes from Sydney Central Station.

Three days later, Danny composed to his father, via email, a progress report on what he had to show, so far, in return for spending $11,300 of the family’s money on himself.

I checked in to my room by eight p.m. [the Mackenzie College was a further forty minutes from Wollongong, on the first floor of a brick building—a warehouse; part of the ground floor was derelict, and the other part was full of fridges and washing machines; you went up the stairs by the side to classes] and by 10 that very evening, just before the college library closed, I sent a letter applying for refugee status via the Australian Immigration Office’s website.

Within twenty-four hours, the Commonwealth of Australia had responded to Danny:

Re: Change of Status from Subclass 500 to Subclass 866

Dear Mr. Rajaratnam,

We have received your request for a change of visa status from Student (Subclass 500) to Protection (Subclass 866). Please be aware that we have zero tolerance for vexatious and/or fraudulent protection claims. Upon reviewing your petition, we find that although you claim to be the victim of torture, and have included a photograph of your left forearm as evidence, your story appears to have a few holes in it. Sri Lanka is a diverse, multicultural nation, and we do not believe that any Tamil should fear to live there. If you were a victim of torture, it was more logical that you should have caught the boat, as quite a few of your fellow countrymen have done. You have clearly had the financial resources to fly to Australia as a full fee-paying student, and you have apparently purchased private health care as required by law, and it was only within the country that you have decided, it seems, that you are a victim of state persecution in your homeland. If you do apply for a Protection visa (Subclass 866) now, inside Australia, be aware that in the light of the zero-tolerance policy you will likelyhave to spend some time in detention, and your case may well be rejected after.

On the first day of classes, there was banging and yelling just outside the classroom because the Middle Eastern students found out that they had been charged twice what the Asian students had been.

The college gave each foreign student a job, to train for a new life in Australia. Danny was assigned to a curry restaurant on the first floor of a pub. A Tamil man named Venkat ran it—the other kind of Tamil, from India.

Now, Indian Tamils are loud; they don’t stop talking; and that is the difference.

Danny, my Sri Lankan brother, how nice to speak again in Tamil to someone, said Venky. He added: I have lots of DVDs from Malaysia, latest movies, tip-top condition, as he walked over pieces of blackening cardboard, avoiding plastic buckets brimming with soiled dishes, and entered the kitchen. Danny followed and listened. Four-week training period comes first, thambi from Sri Lanka, said Venky. Unpaid, of course. Oozing bilgewater, the cardboard pieces trembled as Danny stepped on them. I thought I was done with this in Dubai, he thought as he smiled back at Venky. Being cheated.

One more thing, said Venky. The legal quota is just twenty hours of employment a week for a foreign student (or forty hours in two weeks), but we can work around that, at ten dollars an hour, “a bit” less than the legal minimum wage, okay?

Little ways existed to get even with Venky as he washed dishes in the kitchen, and Danny knew them all from Dubai. He stole plastic cutlery, tissue paper, and condiments. Why not? Every foreign student in the college was doing the same thing. Getting even. Some downloaded essays from Google and handed them in. Some were not even bothering with classes, just looking for work as fruit pickers in orchards.

This was the racket: Mackenzie College wooed foreigners to Wollongong and sucked fees from them for two years, at the end of which, arming them with framed certificates of post-graduate competence, MBAs and MTechs, it turned them loose to tar roads, install windows, and wok-fry noodles around Australia. White people were cheating foreigners, and foreigners were cheating white people, and no one in the college seemed happy, except for a Chinese girl who hugged a backpack to her chest and always had a big smile on her face, like Jesus Christ with a lamb in his arms.

At the start of his third month at Mackenzie, Danny saw an Asian student striding out of the college building with a dictionary in his hands: a hardbound edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. He began following the dictionary boy. “Hey!” shouted Danny, and the Asian boy stopped, and changed into a Japanese-Brazilian man with long black hair and a goatee: name was Abelardo Nishida, but you could call him Abe. Rhymes with sake, mate! He was from Rio, Abe explained, so he did not speak much Japanese. Just a bit. As he walked, he kept offering Danny cigarettes. Free cigarettes. Thank you very much, said Danny, lighting one up.

“How do you have money for cigarettes in Australia?” asked Danny. Abe, the abseiler, just tapped on his forehead with an index finger.

Danny walked behind as Abe led, drumming on the big dictionary. This Japanese guy looks like a fellow, thought Danny, who has no blood pressure at all.

Three days after this meeting, the Japanese-Brazilian stopped attending classes in the college.

On Saturday Danny took the bus into Sydney and followed his map down to Castlereagh Street, the heart of Sydney’s CBD, where he saw, up there, on the glass skyscraper, the smiling Abe (rhymes with sake!) now transformed into the Legendary Abseiler. Someone had to keep the city clean, so Abe, in broad daylight, glided down glass windows on Castlereagh and Pitt streets, wearing his blue helmet and all his hooks, loops, and chains around his waist, showing his 100 percent illegal arse to all the Aussies down below. Just like Mission: Impossible 2, Danny thought.

They paid him in cash.

Into a green slot machine Abe dropped a blue bus card; then he turned and signaled to Danny, I’m paying for you, and they were both taken by fast bus from Taylor Square to a one-room studio in Bondi full of ashtrays and sea breezes and an unimpeded view of ocean, where Abe swam every morning far, far away from, he explained, all the bloody Asian tourists.

Abe lit a cigarette. Abe had made a long list of observations about Australia, which were accompanied by tapping on his forehead. For instance, “Have you seen how the two-dollar coin is smaller than the one-dollar coin, and the fifty-cent coin is bigger than both of them combined?”

No, Danny had never thought about the meaning in that.

“Do you know how big this country is?” asked Abe. “See this.” He opened the dictionary and showed Danny a map of the continent they were on.

From the window, Danny could see waves creaming at Bondi Beach. Creases tightened around his eyes, making him feel simultaneously wiser and more juvenile. Then Abe offered Danny a cigarette and asked about his life.

“I am never going home,” Danny said, summing up his life.

Abe looked at him from the corner of his eye and nodded. Okay.

“Let’s go,” he declared, and brought Danny, after a bus, a train, and another bus, to the Sunburst grocery store in Glebe.

In front of the spray-painted mural of a strange-looking Lord Krishna, an old white man, alerted by phone or simply by scent of the illegal, stood waiting for them: glossy-faced and shock-haired, Tommo Tsavdaridis looked as if life had been good to him, and he had been good to life. With a grin, Tommo led them into his Sunburst grocery store. Inside, though, his froggy-white hands struggled to open the big glass jars in which he kept plastic-wrapped sweets, each as hard as glass, which he tossed one each to Abe and Danny, an apparent token of his goodwill.

“Glebe is a very good area”—he said to the chewing men, as if advertising real estate to rental tenants—“buses take you everywhere from here Central, anywhere if you can pay for it. So where are you from? Ah… following the cricket, surely? No? No?”

A touch of arthritis, just a touch, you see, meant that Tommo Tsavdaridis could no longer quite do all the work in his store, he explained as he showed Danny the storeroom, up the metal stairs, thrown in as living space for whoever worked in the Sunburst store, at just $120 a week.

“Only one thing,” the old store owner added. “Last man from India I had, he was working here—months.” He held up three fingers. “One day the store is smelling, and I come in, asking him, ‘Vikram, Vikram.’ He says, ‘I make coffee.’ Okay. You make coffee, but why the bad smell.’ Then I see: he is boiling milk in the kettle, and who has ever done that in human history? You must never ever do that, Danny,” the old man said, smiling, “never boil milk and make my store smell bad. Or I murder you.”

Honest men are all honest in the same way: each rotten thing on earth emits its own special stench. This white-haired Greek grocer was not like Venky. His desire for exploitation was, Danny sensed, much more ambitious.

Your call, Abe the Abseiler replied when Danny expressed his reservations. They were back in Bondi, walking along the beach. Danny was thinking of the map of Australia in the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. As big as the Roman Empire. As big as America minus Alaska. And most of it red and empty, which somehow tripled its size.

In Dubai, Danny had seen what happened to illegals. He had seen it at the airport. Two Filipino men, handcuffed to each other, due for deportation, had been made to sit in front of a boarding gate. A uniformed South Asian guard sat with them, and the men had to ask permission from him when they wanted to drink water from a faucet. As one deported Filipino tried to bend down to drink, the other, handcuffed to him, had to twist his body contrapuntally. Like two chained monkeys.

Go back to the college, Danny. Go back and give the college a chance.

Standing above the sands of Bondi, Abe watched the women who were sunbathing, providing a running commentary—bikini on this one, towel on that one, and guess what’s on that one—nothing!—while Danny listened to another commentary. At the edge of the beach, a sulfur-crested cockatoo sat on top of a Christmas pine like a rooster on a weather vane, saying, Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you incessantly to the seabathing bodies, now extending his neck and now contracting it, as he kept cawing, Fuck you, fuck you: to the beach, to the ocean, and to the slender airplane moving through the immense sky, while Danny sensed for the first time the power of a new continent, raw, red, and pagan, which was yelling at him in that cockatoo’s voice, And fuck you too, for being a coward.

“If you are scared, go back to the college,” advised a Japanese-Brazilian he barely knew. Abe explained how that racket worked too. “You switch from one course to the other every semester, right? Two years at the college becomes four years. Even five. You can earn money on the side as a fruit picker. After five years, who knows?”

Danny kept looking at the cockatoo on top of the Christmas pine.

He didn’t go back to the college that night. Nor did he drop out. For three days and nights, he stayed with Tommo Tsavdaridis on an experimental basis, working in the Sunburst grocery store, putting toilet paper and condensed milk on their proper shelves, and sleeping in the storage room, thinking, I’m sick of being cheated. I can’t keep paying the rip-off college all that money. On the second evening, he picked up the two panda bears, discarded on the pavement outside, carried them in, tucked them under his arms, and slept tight with them. But in the morning, he saw Australian policemen right outside the store, and his left leg trembled, and no, his throat whispered down into his stomach, no.

No, you can never fuck the law and get away, he thought, going down Glebe and Broadway all the way to George Street, phantasmagoric George Street, a current of healthy young people of various races, Malays, Indonesians, Arabs, and Pakistanis, until pushing through them he discovered the open plaza of Martin Place, the financial center of Australia, a sandstone brag about the wealth of a young continent, full of oversize carved lions and unicorns and emus sitting on top of bank doors, but what made Danny gape here was a man, a white man who did not seem connected to the banks in any way but was nibbling on something from an open paper bag, and looping aimlessly up and down the open plaza, raw freedom radiating from him like the odor of sweat from an athlete’s legs: and the next thing Danny knew, he was again at the mugathwaram, the magic breach in the lagoon that had encircled his whole life, and the wide silver ocean was just a leap away from him. In the distance a clocktower watched. His two hands were trembling. But what more can anyone do to you here, Danny, after what they have already done to you back home? Knowing that there is no way in life to be slightly less fearful, is there, no three little jumps this time, is there?—Danny clutched his hands and leaped. Into ocean. He wrote to the Mackenzie College saying he would not be paying his fees, and hence was dropping out, but he knew he was not going to leave the country. Twenty-eight days after he sent that letter, he became free forever in Sydney. Twenty-eight days after he sent that letter, he became trapped forever in Sydney.

“And now you give this man half of everything? Half of what I give you? O-kay,” Radha declared, shaking her head. “O-kay. How much does that leave you a week?”

He told her. Yes, he knew. It was not much. “But I’m free,” he said. “I’m free in Sydney.”

“But you live in a grocery store.”

Danny shrugged. “I live on top of it.”

“O-kay… Where is this place?”

Danny smiled. It was too late now: why stop. Why stop. “Glebe. I’m next to the Sunburst grocery store.”

“I know the store. I’ve been there. It has the famous weird Krishna mural by the side, right?”

Yes. That mural. Point one, Danny didn’t approve of the way Hindu gods appeared on these murals in Sydney. What can you do, though? Everyone everywhere makes fun of Hindus. But point two, there was art, real merit, in this mural, in the way Krishna had been reimagined as a dreadlocked surfer with a Rastafarian dharma, no denying that.

“Yes, it’s that store. Sunburst. It’s been in Glebe for thirty years.”

“I’ve been in there. I’ve never seen you.”

He smiled. Because I’m just the brown man working at the back of the store.

But Radha was making important discoveries about the city she’d been born in and lived all her life in. “I guess you’re not alone here. Other day I was in Carlingford, and six Chinese guys in singlets look out from above the restaurant, just for half a second. Then they go back in. They looked like monkeys.”

When you’re an illegal, you are exactly that.

“Clean that up,” said old Tommo Tsavdaridis, pointing at the moist dog shit on the pavement outside the store, about two hours after Danny told him he was going to stay. “Yes: clean it up. Customers shouldn’t step on that when walking into my store.” Danny went down on his knees with white tissue paper and wiped the resinous gunk, holding his breath as he carried the paper and its contents to a public waste bin. He returned to placing cans of tomato soup on the shelves. Half an hour later, Tommo called him again. Dogs had begun shitting four times a day outside the Sunburst store. They must have heard there was an illegal there.

In the evening, the old store owner laid down an iron rule: Danny was not allowed to talk to customers. The Persian woman with the hair salon across the road? Has the same rule for her Chinese girls. The illegal ones.

At nine in the evening, with a click—a patriarchal click—Mr. Tsavdaridis turned the lights in the storeroom off. “No noise, Danny,” he whispered, “or I call the immigration.” A roar of laughter.

Twenty minutes later, when Danny, his toothbrush and Colgate in his hand, began walking down the metal steps, the old man came and shouted: “I said no!”

“Toilet,” protested Danny.


Back in the storage room, Danny held on to his two pandas and shut his eyes. If he were writing his own story, he thought, he would call this moment “First Hour of Understanding What It Is to Be Illegal.” He closed his eyes and pressed the pandas into his sides.

He felt his blood pressure going up.

The metal staircase outside tittered. Perhaps the grocer had come around to check that he was in his cage. Yes, Danny thought he could smell the man.

He thought his BP must be at 150/110 already. Even higher. But Danny knew a few old tricks to deal with a bursting bladder. Because when he was a boy, his father never let him go to the toilet once the lights were off.

Things to do when you’re lying in the dark and your bladder is full and about to burst open. First. Breathe. Close your eyes. You are sticking a long straw down your throat. When the straw pierces the wall of your bladder, suck hard. Your mouth is full of fetid piss. But your bladder is light, oh, so light. Second. Crawl to the mattress’s edge. Lick the ground until you find a large crystal of sand. Twirling the sand crystal on the tip of your tongue, intone: “This is a grain of rock sugar slowly dissolving in my mouth. This is a grain…” The thought of sugar will soothe the limbs, relax the mind. Third. Flipping over on your belly, contract your thighs, and…

… the whole time he could feel his fingers walking down his forearm of their own volition, until they touched the bump there, and then his fingers, thinking for themselves, asked, What more can they do, Danny, after what they have already done to you.

This was the second hour as an illegal.

Getting up, opening the door of his room again, Danny left his storeroom, walked down the steps, entered the store, went all the way to the back, and used the toilet that was behind the shampoo and conditioner and coconut-cream soaps. Tommo gaped at him with his legal Australian eyes and said nothing. He didn’t call immigration. In the morning, he didn’t even talk about it.

Weeks went like this. Danny followed some of the rules of the Sunburst and broke some. After three weeks, Abelardo Nishida phoned. There was an opportunity for freelance work.

That evening, after stacking the tomato cans, Danny confronted Mr. Tsavdaridis: “I have to go out on Tuesday. A lawyer in Erskineville has a vacuum cleaner in his house, but I have to bring everything else. If he likes the cleaning, he’ll pay me fifty dollars.”

Old Tommo just gave him a look. Have you gone mad, monkey?

No, he had gone to the library.

“I was reading the law in Glebe library, Tommo. And you know what it says? Any man who employs an illegal and knows he is doing so is going to jail. They’ll put you in jail if you put me in jail.”

Me no dob, you no dob.

He agreed to pay Tommo 50 percent of everything he made. And to work late into the night when he got back on Tuesday.

His career as a legendary cleaner in inner-city Sydney had begun. “Because of me, every illegal in Glebe now asks for more from the boss. Every single one.”

That ended the story, the Australian woman clapped, and Danny found himself, for the first time in Australia, felicitated.

“You’re a bloody revolutionary. Like Gandhi.”


“Yes. Yes. Like Nelson Mandela. This country needs people like you.”

Her limbs pulsated with a sense of his freedom. She saw an athlete of the underground.

Danny sensed this, her exultation at his story, and he shared in it. He was the tiger of her eyes. But no, he wanted to tell her, no, this is all wrong. Because even when he was playing the game Abe had introduced him to, even when he was beating the blue-uniformed policemen, even when he was winning, Danny had been losing. He had not even played the game right. Because he was in a game—a big, international World Cup or Olympics. In this game, people were running from countries that were burning to not-yet-burning ones; catching boats, cutting barbed wire, snuggling into containers at the bottoms of ships, while another set of people were trying to stop, stall, catch, or turn them back; and though it was all chaos on the surface, it turned out there were definite rules in this game: either you braved it, got on the boat, got caught by Coast Guard, went to special jail—in which case there were lawyers, social workers, and people like the librarians at Glebe and left-wing women at train stations who would help you (would rush to help, then to post photos of their generosity on Facebook)—or you arrived by plane, legally, with a visa printed on your passport, went to their dodgy colleges, said Sorry sorry sorry when they yelled, and cleaned their toilet bowls for five or six years, before becoming a citizen in the seventh, when you could finally tell the white people to fuck off. What you did not do was fall in between these two by coming to Australia legally and then sliding under, appearing to be one thing and then becoming another, because that made you an illegal’s illegal, with no one to scream for you and no one to represent you in court. And this custom-made cell within the global prison was Danny’s own: a personal hot coal he had forged for himself to stand on.

But that was not the story she wanted to hear, was it?

“Tell me, Nelson Mandela,” his Australian employer raised her voice, “tell me who’s after you. What do they do. Tell me everything.”

“Who’s after me? They all are.”

“Who’s they all?”

“Customs, cops, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, which they renamed Immigration and Citizenship, and then renamed Customs and Border Protection, then renamed Immigration and Border Protection, plus the ABF.”


“Australian Border Force, plus they now have Immigration Taskforce Pegasus, and Taskforce Cloudburst, specially for illegals.”

“What are you talking about?” Radha asked. “I never heard of these people.”

“Rule number one,” said Danny, “is they have your tax file number, so you have to close your bank account. Rule number two is you absolutely can’t work at a twenty-four-hour shop like City Convenience or 7-Eleven. Always being raided by immigration.”

“No shit?”

“No. Another place of danger is any Hindu temple in the city. Immigration raided one last year and arrested everyone, including the priest and the holy peacock.”

“Hilarious. You are a fucking legend. Next time we go out, you have to tell Prakash everything you just told me. This is incredible.”

But now Danny shrank in size and begged: “Please don’t tell Dr. Sir my secret? That I am illegal…?”—and the effect of that question was to demolish some image of him that she had constructed for herself, for she said in a weary tone: “Sure. I’ll keep it a secret. And we will help you, Nelson. Sit down.” She pointed to the spot.

“Everyone wants Radha to help them, don’t they? And no one does a thing for me, Nelson. Fine. I won’t mention any names, but I’ll ask a friend of mine at Legal Aid. Hypothetically. No names. No address. Promise. But you know”—folding her arms, she arched her back before smiling at him—“that the moment you came here to work for me, you implicated me in an illegal act, do you understand?”

Danny nodded.

Arms still folded, she leaned from the hips toward him. “And what do you say when you put other people in trouble, Nelson?”

“I am very very sorry,” Danny replied, and then, “Thank you very much,” and waited, but she didn’t mention it the following week. And he realized that she had never meant to tell anyone about his situation—except Prakash, that is. She must have told the mad doctor about Danny again and again, discussing his case and all its gory details. We should help him, shouldn’t we? We should save him, shouldn’t we? Let’s do it tomorrow. Tonight we’ll have fun.

Which was why Prakash remembered everything.

About The Author

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Aravind Adiga was born in India in 1974 and attended Columbia and Oxford universities. He is the author of the novels Amnesty; Selection Day, now a series on Netflix; The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize; and the story collection Between the Assassinations. He lives in Mumbai, India.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (February 9, 2021)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982127305

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"I like to read Adiga’s novels almost as much as the poet James Dickey liked to drink. He has more to say than most novelists, and about 50 more ways to say it… Adiga is a startlingly fine observer, and a complicator, in the manner of V.S. Naipaul… Reading him you get a sense of having your finger on the planet’s pulse… This novel has a simmering plot…[but] you come to this novel for other reasons, notably for its author’s authority, wit and feeling on the subject of immigrants’ lives… Keep reading."
The New York Times

"Searing, inventive ... Amnesty is Adiga’s most accomplished novel yet, a gorgeously crafted page-turner with brains and heart, illuminating the courage of displaced peoples and the cruelties of those who conspire against them.”
—Hamilton Cain, The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“What makes Amnesty an urgent and significant book is the generosity and the humanity of its vision. The abstract issue of immigration, fodder for cheap politics, comes starkly alive in the story of this one man, his past troubles and his present conflict. Amnesty is an ample book, pertinent and necessary. It speaks to our times.”
Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The New York Times Book Review

“Adiga shines when documenting the ways in which immigrants are marginalized by those who claim to care about them... Amnesty succeeds in wrenching attention toward systemic injustice.”
—Kristen Millares Young, The Washington Post

“A universal story with particular relevance and urgency today.”

“A near-hallucinatory guided tour of Australia’s largest city as observed by an endearing oddball who, out of necessity, keeps to the shadows… In fresh and playful prose…Adiga places you smack in the middle of Danny’s buzzing mind… With its pleasurably off-kilter sympathies and style, Amnesty compellingly captures Danny’s tricky plight.”
—Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

“Adiga is one of the great observers of power and its deformities, showing in novels like his Booker Prize winning White Tiger and Last Man in Tower how within societies, the powerful lean on the less powerful, and the weak exploit the weaker all the way down. Telling the tale of Danny’s immigration along the story of one tense day, he has built a forceful, urgent thriller for our times.”
—John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor

“In all of its minutiae and incredible detail, these pages call attention to the real heartbreak of undocumented people who dream of a better existence ... the writing is beautiful (at times lyrical)."
—Jennifer Forker, The Associated Press

“A work of deeply consequential fiction.”
BookPage, starred review

“Like Valeria Luiselli in Lost Children Archive, Adiga bears witness to the disruption, pain, and hardship inherent in needing to leave one’s country and find refuge elsewhere. Highly recommended."
Library Journal, starred review

"In this smart twist on a classic whodunit, Danny, undocumented and working as a house cleaner in Sydney after fleeing Sri Lanka, has information about an unsolved murder. He must decide whether to stay silent—or come forward and risk deportation."

“A taut, thrillerlike novel... A well-crafted tale of entrapment, alert to the risk of exploitation that follows immigrants in a new country.” Kirkus, starred review

"Engrossing...vivid...Adiga’s enthralling depiction of one immigrant’s tough situation humanizes a complex and controversial global dilemma."
Publishers Weekly

"Scrutinizes the human condition through a haves-vs.-have-not filter with sly wit and narrative ingenuity... Adiga's smart, funny, and timely tale with a crime spin of an undocumented immigrant will catalyze readers."

“Adiga's facility for the cadence and vernacular of street talk and self-talk gives voice, literally, to figures that are often unheard.”
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More books from this author: Aravind Adiga