Kids Corner


Part V
Prem Kahani

A Short Story by T. SHER SINGH





Saturday, November 17, 2012



Continued from yesterday ...


The e-mails continued to pop up, fast and furious. Some were frantic, eager to help, to support, to be there for Kabir and I.

I drafted an auto-reply, as well as a phone message, telling them to simply come on Saturday, and that all was well with the two of us.

It was becoming obvious that there would be a crowd for the “visitation”. We asked the funeral home people to have an additional hall ready and available, for a possible spill-over from the main hall.

The Hospice director had called. She wasn’t sure if she could allow Mum to leave the premises, given her condition. Could I speak to her doctor?

This wasn’t good; her presence was crucial. Both Kabir and Hari joined me in the cafeteria to pow-wow -- we didn’t want to be making any calls in her presence.

We had to tell Dr Nussbaum.

I called her. She already knew, she said. She’d heard about the ‘death’ and was puzzled: how come no one had called her? So she called the hospice in a huff, and they told her. She’d been expecting my call.

I apologized. In all the running around, I had forgotten that she was the first person I should’ve called. No, she said, I’m glad you didn’t, because I couldn’t possibly be a party to such a ruse. I’m coming over this afternoon, she said, we’ll talk then.

I began to google ’florist’ on the phone … I muttered I had forgotten to order the bouquets for Saturday. I should’ve left it to the funeral home to do it, but I had wanted to speak to the florist and make sure it was just right.

Hari stopped me. “Please leave it to me … you have enough on your plate. I’ll take care of it.”

“No way,” I said.

“I insist,” he said, “I want to. Please …”

His eyes were pleading. I didn‘t have the heart to say no.

Kabir and I were with Mum when Dr Nussbaum arrived. I’m glad we met in Mum’s room, because she had to keep her voice down, and she couldn’t scold me.

We stood outside while she went about examining Mum, the poking and prodding, and the rest of it.

She was sitting down in a chair beside the bed when we came in. We stood around, as she explained that there were no surprises, that Mum was as to be expected. Mum said she was sleeping too much, maybe she could do with a lesser dosage. The doctor made notes on a chart clipped to the board in her lap.

“There’s no way I can let her go out on Saturday,” she finally said, turning to us.

Our hearts sank. “How’s Mum doing?” I asked, forgetting that Mum was listening.

“She’s stable. Not better, not worse. But that’s not news. All we’re doing is waiting. But in her condition …”

Mum touched her arm and stopped her. “So what’s the worst that’ll happen if I go … I’ll die?”

It was a straightforward question, but reduced to the essence, it brought us back to reality.

“Sorry, Elly, but what’s the harm? What’s the downside?”

Dr Nussbaum just shrugged her shoulders.

“So, it’ll kill me? That‘s what you‘re afraid of?” She was actually giggling.

Brought down to earth, Kabir and I didn’t know what to say. We stood by, helplessly.

“Here’s what I’ll do,” Dr Nussbaum finally said. “I’ll go with you. We’ll take you in a bed … it’ll be too much to have you in a wheelchair for that long … we’ll take you in an ambulance. I’ll make sure there are a couple of nurses with us. And I’ll stay with you throughout, on one condition …”

She looked straight at us.

“I want you to be upfront with the visitors as they come in, and tell them you lied, and why you lied … right away, as they walk in. Tell them this is not a funeral, it‘s a wake, a … sort .. of … pre-funeral …“ She turned to Mum. “Sorry … Shan …”

They hugged each other.

*   *   *   *   *

Kabir and I headed out to the funeral home an hour before the visitors were expected to arrive. Hari had offered to stay with Mum and come with her in the ambulance.

I had drafted a short note I wanted handed out to each visitor right at the main entrance. I had brought along a printed copy, exactly the way Kabir and I wanted it, and gave it to Jim, the funeral director, to print out a few hundred copies. Two ushers were to stand at the entrance, and hand out a copy to each person, and request them to read it first, right there in the hall, before entering the chapel.

My brother Kabir Singh and I, Biba Kaur, want to thank you for joining us today to celebrate the life of our beloved mother, Dr Gulshan Kaur.

But first, I have a confession: I have lied to you. Mum is seriously ill and dying, but she’s still alive. You’ll meet her shortly.

The reason I lied to you is because I did not want to wait until she was gone before you came here with your love and memories. She wouldn’t get to hear your words, to feel your love, to meet you for one last time. It would be too late.

My only desire has been to make sure that all the loving and caring you bring with you is not wasted, that she gets to receive it from you, and to take it with her.

Please forgive me for the pain and distress this has caused you. But, above all, our deepest and heartfelt thanks to each one of you from both of us, for sharing your love for Mum with the three of us today.


We’ll start with a congregational prayer, the ardaas. You don’t need to remove your shoes or cover your heads. There will be no further service today.

"Immediately thereafter, please come up to Mum, one by one, and say your goodbyes. She says she’d prefer smiles and laughter, and not tears. And your prayers.

... When the day and time finally come, we’ll let you know the details.

Jim handed the sheet to an assistant, gave the instructions, and then led us to the chapel. I had asked that there be absolutely nothing in the front. We needed no podium, no altar. Only a microphone. No signage, no icons, no pictures. Mum’s bed was to be wheeled in from a side-door and would be parked at the far end of the room.

Once the ardaas was done, people could file along the aisle in a single line, each spend a few moments with her, and then exit by a side door.

Kabir and I wanted to check things out. Jim swung the doors open. We stepped in.

A blast of aroma washed over us instantly. It was dark. Jim reached over to the switch panel and turned on the lights.

The soft, golden oak that covered everything in sight -- the pews, the walls, the ceiling -- was highlighted by a splash of deep red running from the end of each facing wall on our sides, all the way to the front, and meeting at mid-point in the front.

Roses. Red roses. Only red roses. Everywhere.

“A thousand,” Jim whispered from behind me.

I swung around and stared at him.

“Mr Singh said it wasn’t a funeral. That it was a celebration!” he said, almost apologetically.

All I could do was gasp: “Mum will love it!“ The rich red went so well with the deep blue of the carpet.

*   *   *   *   *

Mum lay in her hospital bed, waiting in the ante-room. Kabir and Dr Nussbaum were with her, along with the nurses. Hari too. Mum had said she wanted him with her.

I waited outside, just within the chapel doors. They had read the note by the time they walked past me. They sat down in the pews. In stunned silence.

They had come prepared for a difficult afternoon. Now, it appeared, it was going to be twice as difficult.

It’s always been the big enigma in life: what do you say to the loved ones at a funeral? Now, they were being hit with an even bigger task: what do you say to one who you love and who is on her death-bed? There are no guidelines. There were no precedents.

The hall filled up quickly. And then they started packing the aisles. They wouldn’t listen. They did not want to wait in the next room, even though it had a live TV monitor.

What I particularly liked was that many had brought children along. Babies and toddlers and young, fidgety ones. And teenagers of all sizes and shapes.

Now, Mum, I said to myself, tell me that your life has been a waste.

The side-door opened. The hospital bed was wheeled in to the centre, right in front of the crowd, the wheels locked in. I walked over, past the pin-drop silence, and cupped my hands over Mum’s.

“Are you okay?” I whispered in her ears.

“Yes, beta, “ she said.

Harjit Aunty stepped forward from the front pew. Kabir had spoken to her earlier and asked her to say the ardaas. He was adjusting the microphone to her height, when I felt Mum tug at my hand.

I bent over, my ear to her mouth. “I think I should say the ardaas,” she said.

“You can’t!” I said. She looked me in the eye. “Are you sure?” I moaned.

I waved a hand to Harjit Aunty, motioning her to wait.

“Yes, I think I can handle it. Bring me the mike, please.”

I looked at Kabir. “What?” asked his eyes.

“Is she alright?” asked Dr Nussbaum.

I nodded, and stepped over to Kabir to explain.

“Sure. Why not?” he said.

I explained to Harjit Aunty. She was gracious; she smiled and gave me a hug.

I removed the microphone from the stand, and brought it to the bed. Mum curled her fingers around it, letting it rest on her chest.

Her voice was barely audible, even over the speaker system. But past the first few words of the invocation, you could make out the words clearly. She was always one for enunciation! “Enunciate! Enunciate!” flashed the words from my childhood. Never knew one could enunciate in whispers, though.

She did the short version, of course. And in English. Exactly the way she had taught us, once we had learnt the full, Gurmukhi version. “One’s for the gurdwara,”  she had said, “the other for you, when you’re alone.”

Once past the invocation, she went straight to the personal plea in the ardaas.

It was so like Mum, her words:

“Lord, forgive me my failures, my omissions, my mistakes. Thank you for the wonderful life and all the blessings. Thank you for Sikhi, for Biba, for Kabir. For all the love. Please bless them all. And bless this sangat for its generosity.“

And then the magical closing words:

“Please bring us all into the company of only those who remind us of You. May Thy Mercy and Thy Good reach all of humanity.”

A dozen little voices had punctuated her words with their coos and gurgles. How fitting, I thought. A string of jaikaras followed. The little ones took that as a cue for the fun to begin, and began running around, playing hide-and-seek.

A line quickly formed, snaking all the way into the hallway behind us. Dr Nussbaum sat down on a chair behind the bed. The nurses hovered. Kabir and I stepped away to a distance: we didn’t want to distract the visitors; we wanted each person to be able to spend time with Mum, and not feel obliged to comfort us.

Couldn’t see Hari anywhere. I scoured the faces, but he was nowhere to be seen.

I was worried about him. I made my way out of the chapel, past the crowd waiting outside. And then spotted him. At the far end, almost out of sight, he was sitting on a bench in a corner alone. Looking into space.

He saw me and sprang to his feet, breaking into a warm smile to greet me. 

“Are you okay, beta?“ he asked.

I nodded and sat down with him.

“And how’s Mum?” he asked.

I don’t know why, but I shook my head and laughed in response.   



Conversation about this article

1: Manjit Kaur  (Frederick, Maryland, USA), November 17, 2012, 12:01 PM.

Beautiful scene ... this has left me in tears. This is the true essence of life - compassion from each and everyone, especially her love, Hari!

2: Sarjit Kaur (Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.), November 18, 2012, 11:49 AM.

True Sikhni with a generous heart, and love for gursikhi ... definitely smiling gently in sach khand now! :)

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 18, 2012, 5:53 PM.

This has become a tad fetish and I wonder if, with the sense of humour they have, Gulshan with all her friends rushing to hold her hand, has implored: "Please don't disturb me. Can't you see I am busy dying?"

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Part V
Prem Kahani"

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