Kids Corner


Part VI
Prem Kahani

A Short Story by T. SHER SINGH





Monday, November 19, 2012



Continued from yesterday ...



We had scheduled the visitation for four hours, but within two -- by 4:00 pm -- we could see that Mum was getting tired. Dr Nussbaum spoke to her; Mum was beginning to feel some pain in her legs.

I was standing close by. Dr Nussbaum caught my eye and beckoned me. She had decided we need to take Mum back to the hospice. I spoke to the crowd and told them that though they had raised Mum’s spirits, she was physically tired and needed to get back to her room.

They were gracious. The queue instantly dismantled itself. All who had been standing or waiting sat down in the seats.

Harjit Aunty, sitting in the front row, began a meditative recitation. I recognized the lines from the daily liturgy: Chaupai Sahib -- verses invoking God‘s protection. As we wheeled the bed out of the side door, dozens of other voices joined in. The singing wafted out to us as we boarded the ambulance outside, and still rang in our ears as its door closed and we drove away.

*   *   *   *   *

“She’s fine,” announced Dr Nussbaum. “She just needs rest.”

We were back in the hospice. She helped Mum settle down, made sure the IV had the right dosage of medication, mothered over us all for a while, and then left, promising she‘d be back in a jiffy if needed.

I spoke to the nurse and within minutes a cot was wheeled into the room. I would spend the night in the room with Mum, I told Kabir and Hari, and suggested they turn in at the motel and get some rest. I was all wound up, I explained, and could use some alone time too. Kabir wanted to stay for a while. Hari said he’d come back at midnight and take over from me.

Mum, overhearing all the whispered goings on, nodded.

“Hari,“ she said, “please come closer … the roses were so beautiful! But extravagant. Were you trying to make up for all the lost years?”

He laughed. “Of course I was. And, if you add up, I still saved some money, doing it all in one shot!“ His hand lingered over her hers for a few seconds. Then he took his leave.

With Hari gone, Kabir and I sat on either side of the bed in our chairs. Mum looked peaceful in sleep. Was it my imagination, or did her face really have an added glow to it? I couldn’t help smiling.

“It was a good day, sis,“ Kabir said softly. “It was a brilliant idea.”

I began to cry. He came over and held me.

*   *   *   *   *

I walked Kabir to his car.

“Come and sit down with me for a sec, “ he said.

I slid into the passenger seat. He put the key in the ignition but didn’t turn it on. We sat in the dark. He stared straight ahead into the night.

“You are bothered by Hari, aren’t you?” I finally asked.

“Yes, I am,” he confessed.

“But you seem to like him,” I said, “I’ve seen you looking at them approvingly as he pampers her, entertains her, makes her laugh …“

“Yes, I do, I do like him. Somewhat. Yet, I worry … what do we know about him? Nothing? Four days ago, we didn’t know he even existed. Today, he’s … well … he’s like … you know, family, almost.”    

“Maybe it’s oedipal,“ I said, mischievously. In the dark, he didn’t see me steal a smile.

“It’s what?”

“Nothing. I meant, maybe we need to give it time.”

“Time? We don’t have time. You know … a few more days … and then, what do we do with him? Lord, he could be an axe-murder, for all we know. Even Mum hadn’t spoken to him for years!”

I scoffed at him, but also reached over and rubbed his back, calming him down.

“You need some sleep,” I said, “you too have had a long day. Let’s wait for an opportunity, and then let’s grill ‘em both. I don’t know about you, but I’m dying to find out more.”

*   *   *   *   *  
Kabir relieved Hari at 6:00 in the morning. He was back, though, at 10:00 or so, not long after I too had arrived.

He had a thin little package under his arm. He kept it on his lap, as we reviewed the events of the previous day. Mum in particular was chatty, rattling off names of some she hadn’t seen for years. There had been many she had no idea who they were. Yet, they seemed to know her.

She had feared it would be too solemn an affair. There were some tears, she said, but what she really liked about it was that it was somehow, inexplicably, a happy occasion. Maybe it was the relief to see she was still alive, she quipped.

”Talking about happy stuff,” said Hari, “”I have a surprise …”

We looked at the large manila envelope he held up. “Each of you has one guess … you get it right, and I’ll personally fetch you another coffee, and serve it to you here, hot and steaming, even as you wait!“

It was thin. It looked padded. Had something squarish in it. Not a clue, tough.

“Photographs!” I was the first.

Hari shook his head.

“A talking, no, a singing get-well card!” was Kabir’s try.

“Nope,” said Hari, and he leaned over and stared straight into Mum’s eyes.

We could see she was struggling with multiple possibilities. “Quickly, quickly, one guess!”  Hari pushed her naughtily.

A frown swept over her face. “Not letters, Hari?”

“No, no, no. Wrong again. Sorry, no coffee.”

He walked over to the other side, where the Victrola was sitting on the table by the window.

With his back to us, he fumbled with the package, pulled out something from it, let the envelope drop to the floor. And then, another piece of paper. He was doing something, but we couldn’t see what. He began to crank the handle sticking out from the side of the box. As if it was a Jack-in-the box.

“A record?” we chimed together.

He stepped to the side a bit, lifted the arm hovering over the plate, which was spinning by now. Ever so gently, he swung the needle and perched the needle at the edge of the black surface.

For several seconds, many long seconds, there was no sound, other than a barely discernible, cyclical click as the ancient machine struggled with its task.

And then, faintly, a few strains emerged.

A repetitive rhythm. Of a tuba? Had the horn come alive? Sounded like the A & W bear from the TV commercial, at first. And then, as the reed began …

“Bolero!” Kabir and I shouted in tandem.

Mum was clapping her hands, beaming from ear to ear.

How did he know? I stared at Kabir and he had the same question.

“How did you know?” I yelled at Hari.

“Know what?” he asked.

“How did you know this is Mom’s favourite?” Neither Kabir nor I were musicians, but we knew every strain of it. It was Mum’s favourite piece of music. Late every Saturday morning, it would thunder through the house, waking us up … the steady rhythms, the crescendo, the grand climax … it meant breakfast was ready. We danced our way out of our bedrooms, to find Mum too swaying in the kitchen, eyes closed, her head jerking in conjunction with the percussions.

“He knows,” Mum said.

Hari was excited. “This isn’t just ‘Bolero‘, Shani. It is the Bolero. This is the 1930 recording, the very first, with Ravel himself conducting!” 

“Where did you find it, Hari?” Mum asked, infected by his energy.

“Well,” Hari said, as he sat down again, “I found it a while ago. And was waiting to give it to you … along with the Victrola.”  

I looked at Kabir. He didn’t say a word. Well, I thought, now’s the time, then.

“Mum,” I said, “I think it‘s time you guys told us a little more. You owe it to us.”

She nodded. “Let’s hear this bit through, and then, yes, let’s talk.”

It was an awkward few minutes, each of us lost in our thoughts. I couldn’t rein in my imagination … it wandered far and wide. The mounting tempo of the music wasn’t helping any: it was feeding right into it.

Mercifully, the 78 could handle only part of the piece, before the cranked-up juice ran out, and Hari lifted the needle and put it back to its rest.

Hari stayed by the window, looking out.

“We need to know more, Mum. All of this is too much, too quickly. Tell us more.”

“Sure, beta. Bir beta, here, come sit by me.”

“Or better,“ she added, “please help me sit up”. We helped crank up the top part of the bed until she was sitting up. We propped her on both sides with pillows. I wanted her to know this wasn’t an inquisition. I took her hand in mine. With my other hand, I bent over and began to massage her leg. I knew it was hurting her a bit.

“We met in Los Angeles. I was down there to speak at a conference, a week long affair. Something about motherhood, if I remember correctly …”

“‘The Changing Face of Motherhood‘,” piped up Hari from across the room.

‘Yes, something like that. I had been invited to speak because of some papers I’d published, based on my experience as a gynaecologist. The thousands of women I had assisted through the births and the after-care …”

“You’re a doctor, too, Hari?” asked Kabir.

“Well, not really. Not a medical doctor. I teach in an esoteric new area called “Global Culture” -- different from “World Literature” -- and I had been asked to read a paper on how motherhood was depicted in works that were transcending borders and influencing people across national boundaries.”

He saw our blank stares. “Like Shakespeare, for instance. Hollywood films. TV shows. Things like that.”

“I wandered into a room,” Mum continued, “and was intrigued by the sight of this Sardar sitting up on the podium. I sat down to hear his talk.”

“I didn’t get very far,” Hari said. “Mid-way in my presentation, she put up her hand and questioned something I had said. I answered her query, but she then tore it apart. I hadn’t done my homework …”

I liked the way they were finishing each other's thoughts. Like twins do sometimes. Also, it gave Mum time to catch her breath. She hadn't talked so much since ... lord, months!

“He cornered me in the food area," she went on. "I was sitting alone, having a coffee. We got talking. I apologised for my rude interruption. He for his error and his irritation, when I had ripped into him.”

“She said it was her first time in LA. She hadn’t ventured out … said she was afraid of the city … she’d grown up watching CHIPs.“

“He wanted to show me around. I said no, I was too tired. He said fine, we’ll just have dinner, then. And dragged me to the Santa Monica pier that evening.”

“The next morning I went to her session. All I wanted was to catch her after she was done, to see if she’d play hooky and let me show her Hollywood.“

“Our session was scheduled to start at 9, I think,” said Mum. “When I came down from my hotel room to the convention level, there was a crowd, a large crowd, milling around, outside the lecture rooms, in the corridors.”

“I hadn’t turned on my radio, driving to the hotel that morning,” said Hari. “Had no idea what had happened. All I saw was the crowd. Standing around, doing nothing, saying nothing. Just staring up at the TV screens.”

Mum looked at me. “Two planes had flown into the World Trade buildings in New York. Separately, one after the other. Other planes were missing … you know the rest of that story.”

“My God!“ I gasped. “Nine-eleven.”

We looked at each other incredulously. Kabir broke the silence. “I do have a faint memory … yes, you were away when it happened. You were gone for a week, and we were worried as hell. Kept on phoning you to make sure you weren’t going to fly!“

“I was worried to death,” I jumped in. “I remember. You had flown on one of the same flights, only two days earlier.” I could feel the terror of those days once again.

Hari picked up the story. “The conference organizers tried valiantly to continue. Things spluttered along for a bit, but they couldn’t go on. Some of the presenters for the next day had been on three of the flights that had gone down …“

“And then …” said Mum, “we found out that all flights had been grounded. There would be no more conference, but I couldn‘t go home.”

“So,” said Hari, “I got to show her LA.”   

“One by one, the days ticked by. I began to get worried. I knew I had a whole line of patients on my slate for Monday next. But you kids didn’t want me to fly … you made me promise. So while Hari introduced me to the delights of LA, I had to plan a route back home.”

I remembered we had waited anxiously for her return. And then, she’d called me from downtown and I had picked her up at the Hyatt. But I realized now I didn’t know much of how she’d got there.

“Hari offered to drive me all the way. No. He insisted. He piled my bags in his car. And we drove. Across the states. Virtually non-stop. Except for meals. And the sight-seeing. We took turns driving …”

She went quiet, suddenly.

I felt terribly guilty. We were prying.

“Mum,” I said, “let’s stop for now. You should rest.”

She nodded. “Just a bit more, betay. You were right. You have the right to know.”

I looked at Kabir. I could see he too was getting uncomfortable.

“Hari was single. Long-divorced from a rough marriage. I was single ... We fell in love.”

Kabir stood up. “Mum, you should rest a bit now. We’ll talk more … later. I know this has been tough on you … sorry!“

“Tough?” Mum laughed, loudly. “I’m dying. Nothing is tough. Not for me. You’re the ones I’m worried about, betay …”





Conversation about this article

1: Rosalia Scalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), November 19, 2012, 10:57 AM.

I see you are cultivating your inner Charles Dickens! :)) Not only in the serial form, but as you can see by this quote: "I loved you madly; in the distasteful work of the day, in the wakeful misery of the night, girded by sordid realities, or wandering through Paradises and Hells of visions into which I rushed, carrying your image in my arms, I loved you madly." (Charles Dickens, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood") ... Looking forward to the next part!

2: Simar (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), November 19, 2012, 3:53 PM.

Very touching story. When I wake up, I check the next part first thing in the morning. As described, 'love' has such immense power and can bring smiles and charm to someone in great distress. It is indeed very powerful, but then why are we so afraid to 'fall in love' or even afraid if one of our sons and daughters does so?

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Part VI
Prem Kahani"

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