Kids Corner


Part III
Prem Kahani

A Short Story by T. SHER SINGH





Thursday, November 15, 2012


Continued from yesterday ...


Kabir called from the road; he was heading straight to the hospice.

I could sense that he was worried that I might not be telling him the truth, that I was merely trying to soften the blow for him.

I wanted him to have alone time with Mum. So, I hung around in my apartment till late morning, calling up clients, telling them I would not be around for a few weeks.

About to head out to Ethridge, I switched on my desk-top.

There were already a bunch of e-mails, offering condolences. Relatives and friends wanted info re funeral arrangements. I wrote back, saying the Saturday visitation was the only public event organized so far. Details of funeral and Bhog would be ready by then.

I switched to my blog. The number ’79’ leaped out at me.

There were 79 responses.


I stared at the page, afraid to scroll down, not knowing what I would find.

I took off my shoes, hung up my coat, and went into the kitchen to make a chaai. Was I ready for a tsunami of emotions, coming towards me from the earthquakes I had unleashed in distant hearts?

Or would there be complaints that we had given no intimation earlier of her situation? What if they knew that I had lied? Would they brand me a fraud and pillory me?

I sat at the desk, seeking comfort from the warmth cupped by my hands, praying for strength. Wish it was Kabir who was doing this, not me. He’s the strong, practical one in our tubbar. But then, this was all my doing, wasn’t it? I had to face the consequences.

I gently moved the cursor down the screen, and began reading.

It was a feast of love, sprinkled with pain and regret, but mostly celebration.

One by one, each wanted to reach out to Kabir and I and tell us of their connection with Mum, of how much she had meant to them, of how she had touched each of them in different ways.

I let my tears roll down unabated until the ducts ran dry. I couldn’t get to the end because the number kept on growing: each time I glanced at the counter, it was up. It was well over a hundred now.

I needed to take a break. I stepped outside into the crisp wintry air, and found myself walking away, as if fleeing. A few blocks cleared my head a bit, and I headed back. I knew what I wanted to do next.

I went back to the computer and began to print out all the comments. I was careful in leaving out the obituary; I didn’t want Mum to see how, clinically, I had reduced her life to a few words.

While the printer clacked and gurgled away, I scrolled down to read some more.

Leticia -- dear, dear Tish, as we knew her, mum’s secretary at the clinic for years -- had taken it upon herself to pursue her own project.

Mum had stayed in touch with the mothers she helped in the births through the decades. And as the babies too had grown older, and the magic of the internet had taken over our lives, they too had become part of the network. Tish maintained the site. Mum would send out regular missives on health-care, with do's and don'ts she thought they should know; they reciprocated by telling her how they were faring in life.

Well, Tish had decided to post the death notice on the website, and had also done a mass-mailing to all the mothers and children.

One by one, as the day unfolded, they too were being hit by the news. And had started to write in.

Some of their stories were gripping.

One described how, eons ago, after Mum had helped birth her baby, Mum had kept in touch, knowing she was an unemployed single-mother. Had sent her money every month … “This is not a loan, remember! Just spend it on the baby!” … until the mother found a job. But that wasn’t the clincher. The e-mail went on to say how the baby had grown up, had gone to school, got married … and had her own baby. Guess who she’d turned to for the birth?

Sure, Mum, I said to myself, shaking my head, you could’ve done more!

There were some quirky ones too.

One wanted me to send her Mum’s photo.

Another who lived in Amritsar promised to go to the Golden Temple that day. Would I like some parshad, she wanted to know.

Then there was one who said he had some things belonging to Mum, and would like to bring them. He was planning to be there on Saturday for the visitation. Could he meet Kabir and I briefly when he was here, and give them to us personally? It would mean a lot to him, he said. “I am an old friend of your Mum’s” … and he left a phone number.

I recognized the area code. From the other end of the continent … California.

I didn’t want him to be lugging things all the way, especially since I knew Kabir and I would be busy discarding Mum’s things at some point. She’s already been telling us for months that everything needed to be thrown or given away.

And then, I thought, I didn’t want him to fly all the way, given that I had made up the story of the death. Later, when it did happen, maybe, but not now. He would never forgive me once he came here and found out.

The printer was keeping busy. Obviously, there were more messages coming in and the line was getting longer.

I picked up my phone and punched in the number this “Hari Singh” had given.

Two rings, and someone picked up the phone.

“Hurry!” Said the voice. I wanted to laugh, but realised that’s how he pronounced his name. “Hari”.

“Hi, this is Biba .. I’m …”

“Hi, Biba!” he interrupted me, “I know who you are.” He paused, and cleared his throat. “Thanks for calling, beta. Especially at a difficult time like this. This is heart-breaking news … I had no idea …”

“She was ill.”

“I don’t know what to say … there’s so much to say, and yet I don’t know what to say.”

“How did you know Mum?”

“We were good friends. Been out of touch for several years. She used to talk so much about the two of you … but this is not the time. I’m planning to fly over tomorrow. I just wanted to tell you I have a few things of hers I do want to bring with me. I think you and Kabir should have them …”

“I’m not sure … what are they …”

“Well, it’s difficult to explain. But one is a Victrola … “

“A what?” I was getting irritated. I shouldn’t have called, I chide myself.

“You know one of those old gramophones … they had a huge funnel … His Master’s Voice …”  

“Yes, yes, I know … but no, I don’t need it. Please don’t worry. And you needn’t come all the way for Saturday. I’ll let you know when the Bhog is and then …”

“I know it sounds strange, and I’m sure I sound weird … but, please … your mother would’ve wanted you to have it. I’ll explain when I get there …”

“No, please don’t …”

“Your mother was dear to me. Anything I can help in … in anyway … for Saturday, whatever, please let me know. But, I’ll be there early, tomorrow … sorry to have bothered you at a time like this.”

I hung up. I didn’t want to worry about it. So, he’ll come. But I shouldn’t have called … my fault.

The printer was still rattling along. It was a stack of pages now.

I waited until it had exhausted itself. I put the sheaf in my knapsack and headed for the hospice.

*   *   *   *   *

I could hear Kabir laughing before I entered Mum’s room. He was sitting on her bed, right beside her, leaning against her, both her hands in his. She was smiling too.

“We’re talking about you, sis,” he said, as he came over and hugged me. His words and face hid his sadness, I could see. He clung to me for a long, tight embrace. Did I feel a couple of sobs rumble through his body? He was being strong.

And he looked tired. His turban was a bit askew. The long drive couldn’t be expected to help his usual sartorial instincts.

“Tell me all that you’ve been up to,” he said, turning to me, as we settled down on either side of the bed. “Everything. How we’re going to handle this … this situation!”

There was anxiety in his voice.

“First things, first,” I said. I pulled out the stack of pages I had brought with me, and started reading the messages, one by one.

Kabir stretched out his hand, and I gave him half of them.

I read each, slowly, loudly, and then read out the name.

Mum recognized them all, until we started getting into the mothers and their grown-up ‘babies’. Most of the names meant little to her … they were so long in the past. But she did remember the one whose grandchild she had delivered last spring.

“You never told us you were giving these people money, Mum … instead of charging them fees!”

She gently shook her head. But said nothing.

“Look how much joy there is in these pages, Mum.”

I think it was too much for Kabir. He said he was going to the cafeteria to get a coffee. He’d bring me one too, he said, as he left hastily.

I slowed down my pace, but continued reading more, sporadically, picking them out from the stack at random.

And then I remembered.

“There was a weird call, Mum. From a guy who wants to bring me a gramophone he says belongs to you.”

She frowned and puckered her lips, thinking.

“A gramophone?”

“A Victrola. Hari Singh. California. You remember any Hari Singh.“

She continued staring at the ceiling. Didn’t seem to register. I shouldn’t be bothering her with these piddly things.

“Sorry, Mum. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. He said he’s flying in tomorrow with a bunch of things. I’ll deal with it … not to worry.”

I went back to reading some more. After a while, she lifted her hand, motioning me to stop. “I’m tired. Want to sleep a bit.”

I nodded. Put the stack on the table beside her. Hoping she’ll pick up pages later and want to read them herself. I pulled out her glasses from the drawer and put them beside the pile.

“I’ll go and sit with Kabir a bit, Mum. Let you sleep a bit, then.”

She nodded, eyes already closed. I think she was dozing by the time I closed the door behind me.

*   *   *   *   *  

That afternoon, I pulled out my lap top and put it on the bed, while Mum and Kabir gawked at me from across the blankets. More notes had been posted. There were well over three-hundred by now.

“You aren’t making these up, are you?” whispered Mum. I figure they thought I was capable of any mischief now.

We laughed and joked together, interspersed with tears here and there, but we pretended as if there weren’t any.

Close to supper hour, Kabir decided to head to the motel; he too had taken a room to be close by. He needed to get some sleep.

I leaned over and snuggled next to Mum’s shoulder. Now that things were quiet and we were left to our thoughts, I felt I could openly ask for comfort. Who else but Mum could give it?

I must have been nodding off when I felt Mum shaking me awake with her shoulder. She was saying something.

“Sorry, Mum, I had fallen asleep. What was that again?”

She motioned me to come closer.

“I want you to phone Hari,” she said. She waited until she was sure I was paying attention. “And tell him the truth.”

Always thoughtful, always worried about others. She didn’t want this fellow to come all the way, of course.

“I will. But I don’t know if he’ll listen.”

“No, please call him now, and tell him the whole truth. Tell him … yes, I’m ill, I’m dying, but that I’m not dead yet.”

I nodded, digging through my purse to retrieve the phone.

“And,” she said, “please do me a favour. Ask him the flight details. And pick him up yourself at the airport.”

Ever the worrier!

“You’re thinking of the stuff he’s bringing, are you? M-u-m! You‘re worried about him hauling the gramophone around?”

She smiled and shook her head.

“And, beta” she continued, “please bring him here. To the hospice.”

“Sure, Mum, “but …”

She lifted her hand. “Leave the Victrola in the car.” 



Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 15, 2012, 12:39 PM.

This 'marna' is being treated with a clinical detachment - a sort of weird celebration. "kabeeraa martaa martaa jag mu-aa mar bvhe na jaanai ko-ay, aisee marnee jo marai bahur na marnaa ho-ay" - "Kabir, the world is dying, but no one knows how to truly die. Whoever dies, let him die such a death that he does not have to die again". Biba, Kabir and your Mum are no ordinary mortals.

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Part III
Prem Kahani"

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