Kids Corner


Part VII
Prem Kahani

A Short Story by T. SHER SINGH





Wednesday, November 21, 2012



Continued ... 



As I walk down the long corridor, heading to Mum’s room to relieve Kabir at midnight, it hits me that being in a hospice even as a visitor, especially for a lengthy period, is an experience like no other.

Up till now, I’ve been too engrossed in my own world to give too much thought to the umpteen stories of life and death I traipse through several times a day.

Everyone I see along the way, I note, valiantly maintains an air of normalcy. Doctors and nurses, a platoon of support staff, go about their duties around the clock, without a fuss, as if it is a mere branch of the hospitality industry. There are no pretensions, no dishonesties. They know they preside over no productivity, no successes, no progress. All they do is wait, perennially wait. 

Once inside, I see there is no day and night here: the personal struggles in each room no longer observe the demarcations between what one does in the day, and when it turns dark outside -- because there’s no longer any need to.

I look around me: nothing in the comings and goings in the corridors betrays what goes on past the threshold in each room, where individuals while away their time, privately coping with cataclysmic emotions. Some in quiet desperation, others in resignation. Everyone talks in whispers here, as if the ego has finally realized its limitations.

Each of the patients knows -- there are no ifs and buts -- that you’ve come here to die, that this is where the earthly road ends.

I realize I subconsciously brace myself every time I’m here, for I don’t know what I’ll see or hear as I walk by the open doors to the patient rooms.

A young woman sits at the edge of a bed, talking to a man lying down beside her, while a little girl fiddles with the curtains several feet away.

A middle-aged person -- man? woman? -- shuffling along, concentrating on staying upright behind a walker.

A nurse helping an aged patient open a washroom door.

Frozen images, all, captured on my retina. No button I can press, though, to delete them.   

I’ve noticed no one here is ever calling his stock-broker on his blackberry. No  checking up on updates on the internecine rivalries between the Israelis and their cousins. Or the latest polls in the perennial US election cycle.

Here, a few chosen ones have been given notice. Unlike most, they know their time has come. Do what you will, what you can, here are a few more days … before your boat arrives and you sail across the Styx.

An opportunity? A privilege? A curse? 

But the moment I enter Mum’s room, all existential thoughts disappear into thin air. Kabir is lying on the cot, but stirs and sits up as he hears me walk in.

Mum raises her hand to tell me she’s up, too.

“Trouble sleeping?“ I ask her.

“No,“ she says. “I think it’s my internal clock. It wakes me up for the change of guard.“

I walk out of the door with Kabir.

“All’s well. She’s sleeping a lot, but wakes up at short intervals.” And warns me: “And she’s got chatty.” He doesn’t wait. He gives me a quick hug and saunters away.

Mum’s wide awake when I get back. I perch on the bed and massage her legs. She ooh’s and aah’s loudly. It takes me a few seconds to realize she’s exaggerating purposely, reminding me of when granny, her mother, would visit us. She would tire herself out in the kitchen and then plunk herself flat, face down, on the divan and cajole me, a mere 6 or 7 or 8 then, to climb up and walk on her back, kneading the aches out of her muscles. Loud moans would emanate from her. I used to love it. It was a game, staying balanced atop her, imagining I was crushing grapes the way I had seen Sicilian women do on TV.

Mum groans loudly, but I can feel her rumble with quiet laughter. She grabs my hand and guides it to her shoulder. “Now, here,” she whispers, and blows me a kiss.

No more than a minute into it, and she says she wants me to crank up her bed so that she can sit up. “Are you sure, Mum? Shouldn‘t you be sleeping?” I ask.

“I’ve been sleeping. I’m wide awake now,” she assures me.

“You want the lights on?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “just come and sit beside me.”

I snuggle next to her, my head touching her shoulder. I play with her hair. We sit in the dark. Her eyes are closed.

I thought she was dozing off.

“Remember all the weekend conferences I used to attend those days?”

“Hm-m-m,” I said sleepily. “Now I know what you were up to.”

“Well, it was the only way Hari and I could spend time together. It was too early to figure out what we wanted. And too early to tell you guys anything. I didn’t want to turn your lives upside down for nothing.”

“I don’t know why you were worried, Mum,” I interrupted. “You knew we were so eager you start going out again.”

“Yes, beta, but I wasn’t ready.”

She went silent. Again, I thought she was dozing off, but she picked up where she’s left off.

“These conferences were too few and far between. I wasn’t lying. They were real. It was just that I would go there and then play hooky. Time flew. Before we knew two, three, four years went by.”

“Four years? I don’t believe it!”

“Then along came one in the Bay area. I took a week off. It was summertime. The two of you were away to a Sikh camp in New York … you know, the one you went to for several years? Hari met up with me. I registered, picked up my bags, and we were off.”

Kabir was right … she was talkative tonight. I just let her carry on, uninterrupted.

They had driven down the coastal highway, but first stopping in Monterrey and then Carmel. On to San Simeon. They took a room in a motel right by the beach and went up to the Hearst Castle for a tour. The quirkiness of the place was appealing. They decided to hang around in the area for a few days, using it as a base to explore the villages close by.

They’d take a tour up in the castle in the morning, and then jump into the car and go pottering in the countryside. There were a whole string of tours you could take there: there was so much to see. So they decided to do them all, one by one.

One evening, they drove into a village, looking for a place to eat. They were directed to a place a mile away. They bounced along a dirt road that brought them to a ranch. It was swarming with cars. Looked like a popular place. When they went in, they discovered why it was particularly busy that night: a wedding reception. Disappointed, they were about to leave when an old man with a heavy Greek accent yelled out at them. “Come join us, be our guests. There’s lots of  food to go around!“

So they did. They sat outside, on the sprawling patio, amidst a couple of hundred diners. Just about when they were done with the dozen versions of baklava and mounds of loukoumades -- ah, I made a mental note, so that’s how they became regular desserts at our house! - the dancing began.

A bumping, thumping rhythm brought the bride and groom to the floor. They began a slow dance. Slowly, ever so slowly, the tempo began to build. The parents joined them, and then the brothers and the sisters.

As the beat became louder, the pace faster, one by one, everyone on the floor sailed in. But not as couples. They had turned into a whirlpool of bodies, gyrating Zorba-like, first with arms akimbo, then stretched out, as if making space, each in planetary orbit. In the centre, taking the place of the sun, were the bride and groom.       
Arms reached out and pulled Mum and Hari into the melee.

It was intoxicating, she said. They lost track of time and space. The music just went on and on, getting faster and louder by the moment; they were lifted and carried by the whirling stream.

And then, having gone on for an eternity, reaching an ear-shattering climax, it stopped. Suddenly.

They stumbled back into their seats, exhausted, but feeling magically transformed.

On their way out, they stopped a reveller and asked him the name of the music they had danced to. “Oh, the long one? Bolero, of course! What else could it possibly be?”

The following afternoon, having come down from the castle, they headed off in another direction. Stumbled into another village. This time, a dilapidated antique barn caught their attention. They ambled in. It was cavernous. They drifted around. When Hari found Mum a while later, she was standing before an odd  contraption: a wooden box with a huge brass tuba-like funnel sticking out of it.

She was mesmerized by it, fascinated by the fact that only a few generations ago, it had been a revolutionary source of music and entertainment. She let her fingers slide over the etchings in the brass, taken by its beauty. “I think Biba and Bir would’ve loved it,” she had muttered under her breath, as they moved to the next aisle.

They drifted through the store, until they were ready for food. As they got into the car, Hari excused himself, saying he’d left something behind, and ran back into the barn.

When he re-emerged, he had the Victrola in his arms.

*   *   *   *   *
I just got up and turned on the lights. It was two in the morning.

Mum was wide awake. So was I.

I dragged a chair over to the bed, and sat down in it.

“Okay,” I said. “So, what happened? It just doesn’t make sense ... What went wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice had died down to a whisper.

“You don’t know? I’ve seen you together these last few days. You tell me about the magic you had then. What happened?”

“I really don’t know …”

I felt angry. And sad. But when I looked at her, I could not decipher the look on her face.

“Sorry, Mum,” I said, reaching out to hold her hand.

We sat motionless for some time, neither saying anything.

I thought I’ll throw her a lifeline. “Was there someone else?”

She shook her head.

“Did you discover he had a past? Was he schizophrenic? Had he killed someone?”

She laughed. “Nothing like that at all.”

I grabbed her hand again. “What, then?”

“I really don’t know, beta … all I can say is that the older we get the stupider we get. We do silly, grown-up things that make no sense at all. And when we know we’ve goofed up, we don’t know how to get out of the mess we get into.”

She looked me and shrugged.

They had had a perfect few days. They headed back to San Francisco, with a couple of days to spare, before she had to fly out.

They knew it had been special. They savoured every moment of it and relived it, as they walked on the boardwalk the next morning, with the sun rising over the city behind them, uncovering, pixel by pixel, the island of Alcatraz through the distant mist.

The days together had made them hungry … for more time together. It was a gnawing hunger now, demanding gratification.

They began talking about being together, about permanence. 

No matter what they looked at, it looked like a dead end. The distance. The careers. Their age. Who would uproot, who would move?

There were no easy answers.

It became frustrating. They became short with each other.

They dropped the subject.

But it resurfaced every few hours. They talked a bit more. Still no  answers. More frustration.

It followed them like a cloud. They couldn’t let it go. One moment they would agree to let things sit for a while, until some solutions came up: let time resolve them. And then, suddenly, one of them would raise the issue again.

It invaded their sleep that night. And hovered over them over breakfast. And then, still, over lunch. As it got closer to the morning she had to fly, they became more irritable.

And then, then someone said something.

She couldn’t remember who. Or what. But it was something that burst the dam and brought down the flood of emotions. One reacted. The other over-reacted. And so, back and forth, it escalated.

How can you even say such a thing, each demanded. All the frustrations poured out but in unexpected, unrelated ways. Things were said that should never have been said. Hurtful things. From both. Each tried to outdo the other.

They went to bed exhausted that night. Annoyed. At each other and themselves.. And hurting.

They were up in the early hours, packing, getting ready to leave. They hadn’t slept much. They were grouchy. It was the lull before the storm.

Things had festered overnight. Things once said can’t be unsaid. Though meaningless, said in anger, they grow, magnify, and become ominous.

“For years,” Mum said, grabbing my arm, “I’ve tried to remember what exactly we were fighting about. And, for the life of me, I can’t remember.“

Things exploded as they stopped en route to the airport to pick up coffee. Two minutes of relentless fireworks. And then, nothing.

Hari drove in eerie silence.

She insisted he let her off curbside. The box containing the Victrola sat on the sidewalk as she wheeled away her bags into the terminal.

*   *   *   *   *

“And then,” Mum broke the silence, “and then, it really got silly. I was too proud to be the first one to call. So I waited for the call. He was too proud to be the first one to call. So he waited.

“So we waited. And waited. And waited.

“As the days went by, I got angrier. Not because of what we had fought over, but because he hadn’t called. I’m sure it was the same with him. Each wanted the other to call first.

“It then became a different issue: why hasn’t he called? Why hasn’t she called?

“Then … ‘Maybe it was a mere fling for him. There’s no love‘.

“And then … ‘I don’t know him well enough. Can I believe anything he said?’

“And then … ‘I think he’s met someone … that‘s it!’

“I’m sure he was going through the same stages. Before long we got busy in our careers … the waiting stopped. The hurting atrophied.

“That’s it … we lost to our … simply put … stupidity … childishness … pride … ego … whatchamacallit.”

I slid back into the bed beside her.

“Sorry, Mum. It must hurt terribly,” is all I could come up with for comfort.

“No, it doesn’t. Actually, I feel blessed. Just look at this wonderful man … I’ve been in love with him, non-stop, unabated, for a decade. We’ve had wonderful times together. And, guess what, even though years have gone by, nothing has withered. Every moment since that first time, we’ve wanted nothing more than to be with each other. That doesn’t come with getting what you want. That intense, passionate desire only dissolves when you get what you want.

“We’ve had the gift of both. The fruit and the yearning. The having and the eating. I think it’s the combination that makes it ‘love‘.”

I stare at her, incredulous. She is sincere.

“How many have been as blessed as I have been? Thrice in a single lifetime, I’ve found love. Twice, with the same person. And with neither did I have the misfortune of tiring of him, of falling out of love!“ 



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Part VII
Prem Kahani"

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