Kids Corner


Part VIII, Conclusion
Prem Kahani

A Short Story by T. SHER SINGH





Thursday, November 22, 2012


Continued from yesterday ...



I broached the subject with Kabir as often as I could. I could sense he was shying away from talking about it, but I could also see that he was curious and wanted to know more.

I think I understood. 

I knew he couldn’t stand talking to Mum about anything that had, even remotely, anything to do with sex or sexuality. Talk with her directly over what happened between her and Hari? Never! 

From time to time, he and I would leave Mum with Hari and take a stroll by the river, and I’d fill him in. He wouldn’t say a word in response, as if he didn’t care, as if he was merely humouring me by letting me go on and on.

Finally, one day, he broke his silence on the topic. “She’s certainly been a happy camper these last few days,” he said, ”and I can see it’s not been entirely on account of all you’ve done, sis, or my presence.” 

Oddly, both of burst into laughter. It was spontaneous combustion, as if he’d just told a joke. We wiped off our tears and then hugged.

He’s a good kid, I knew, and was going through a lot, having had to watch much of Mum’s struggles from a distance. He’d come on a moment’s notice whenever needed, and stayed as long as needed, but I was the one who would push him back to Chicago. It was easier for me, with my kind of work, and living close by, to tend to Mum’s prolonged illness.

We walked back to the lodge. “The next few days are only going to get tougher,” he said. “She’s getting weaker by the day. I know you’re strong. But how’re you holding up?”

“I’m fine,” I said, gulping back a surge of emotion. “It’s been a bit easier with Hari here … seeing Mum have closure.”

Kabir said he’s go pick up a coffee for Hari, and I headed for Mum’s room.

I knocked and entered. They couldn’t have heard me. Muted though it was, it was still loud: Bolero was playing on the Victrola. From the tempo it had already reached, I figured it was the flip side of the platter playing.

Hari shouted from across the bed, as I pulled up a chair: “Some find it sad and tragic. All I hear is unadulterated joy in it. Celebration. Don’t you?“

I nodded. Mum had her eyes closed, but I could see she was following the beat. 

We were still breathless from the explosive finale when Kabir returned.

He too pulled up a chair and nudged it right next to Mum.

“Tell me, Mum,” he said, “now that you have the three of us, ready, willing and available to carry out your bidding, what would you like to do … really, really, like to do. Have someone visit you? Or dig into a delicacy … anything … remember, you could use all the calories you can find in any single dish! Call some people? Anything!”

Great idea, I thought. We looked at Mum, eagerly.

She puckered her lips, the way she always did when in deep thought.

“Let your imagination wander, scour your memories … we can’t promise you anything, but we’ll give it a shot!” Kabir added. I could see from his voice he meant it.

Mum didn’t shrug it off casually. Her face showed she was searching her files, flipping through things one by one …

Slowly, she began to shake her head.

“Nothing … truly … nothing. I have the two of you, betay. And to top it off, Hari is here. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do …”

“Aw-w-w, you’re not trying enough,” moaned Kabir. It made me laugh: it reminded me of him as a child, like when he wanted her to skip work one day and take him for a baseball game.

Hari sat back and smiled.

“There’s only one thing …“ Mum began, and we froze in unison. “There’s only one thing I miss … and that’s home.“

Home? Kabir and I stared at each other.

“Well, I’ve been away for three weeks now, or is it four? And you know whenever we went away on a holiday, two weeks is the most I can take, and then I want to rush home to my bed and my own bathtub, the smell of the flowers in the sunroom, the view from the kitchen window … That‘s all I miss now. Nothing else. No person. No thing. No sight. No luxury ...  But no, I don‘t mean to suggest that that‘s what I want to do now, for heaven‘s sake.”

She giggled. Both Kabir and Hari had their eyebrows arched as high as their turbans would allow. They were looking at me, straight in the eye.

I nodded.

I thought about it for a bit, while Kabir continued to pester Mum with “That’s it, nothing else? Are you sure?”

I got up and left, saying I wanted to grab a coffee.

*   *   *   *   *

I called Dr Nussbaum on my cell phone.

She’s such a sweetie! She heard me out patiently, with no interruptions. When I was done, I waited.

When she hadn’t said anything, I asked, “Are you there?”

“Yes,” she said, “I heard you.”

“I know it sounds wild, I know it’s not done, but …”

“Wait, wait, Biba. Hold your horses. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this …”

Had we gone too far, I thought, in our goofiness?

“Well,” Dr. Nussbaum said. I could hear her clearing her throat. “Here’s what I’m thinking. Your mum did remind me,“ here she laughed, “that what can go wrong? That she’ll die? How can you argue against that logic? But I’m worried about her going into distress mode … and no professionals around to help her!”

She was right. I didn’t know what to say. Maybe we should drop the idea …

“Here’s what I’m willing to do,” she said. “I’ll see if I can squeeze some time and pop over and examine her. If she’s stable and up to it, I’ll let her be taken home in an ambulance. I’ll have her taken in a hospital bed, and a nurse will accompany her. I can make arrangements for 24-hour nurse shifts to make sure there’s always one there with you. Be gentle with her. Remember, she can’t handle much now. No drama. No theatrics. And … no visitors.

“And I want you to promise … the first moment you notice she’s in distress you’ll call me. Oh, don’t worry, the nurse wiil, anyway!”

“Really? Really, we can?” I couldn’t contain my excitement.

“I’ll ask the hospice people to keep her room. All she’s getting is furlough, remember.”

*   *   *   *   * 

Mum was a different person altogether once we got home.

She wanted to direct the traffic, just as she was accustomed to, being the mistress of the house.

She couldn’t. And we wouldn’t let her.

She got used to it quickly.

We had cleared the centre of the living room and parked her bed right in the middle of it, facing the large bay window. Kabir and I settled into our rooms, Hari in the guest room. At night, the three of us took turns being with Mum, and let the nurse take a snooze in the second guest room.

I marvel at it, now that I think of what we did during those days.

The TV didn’t get turned on even once. The computers remained off. The cell-phones had their ringers switched off. Kabir, Hari and I had cleared our plates; neither of us had to report to our respective mother-ships.

We hung around Mum all day, chatting, reminiscing, laughing, crying, playing … sometimes, even moping a bit. And then, someone, usually Hari, would pull us out of our reverie, and we’d be off again …

It would warm up during the day. If Mum was up to it, we’d bundle her in blankets and shawls, and take her out in the backyard, and stroll around, over and over again, in large circles around our weeping willow.

Or we’d park ourselves in the sun-room, she in the wheelchair, looking out of the sliding doors, onto the deck.

It was good. Considering the Sword of Damocles that hung over us.

But it was good. Mum was content. No, she was happy.

We discovered each other.

On the first night, Hari insisted we swaddle ourselves, and then took us out onto the deck. The stars were out. The air was chilly, with a hint of moisture on our breaths.

He began humming.

Mum cried out, “Yes, he sings, he sings. I forgot!”

He began to sing the Sohela verses. To sing them the way they were meant to be sung, not merely reciting them like a chant.

I had never heard them like this before.

We were wiping off tears, each one of us, when he hit the finale. Even Marianne, the nurse, who we had asked to join us outside.

Were they tears of sadness? Or joy? Or both?

Lord, he sings well. That alone would’ve been enough for Mum to fall in love with him. Is that how he had wooed her, with his voice, addressing the heavens?

That night, Kabir told us about his adventures in the corporate world in Chicago. He had us bent over in agony, as he mimicked the pretensions of many he had run into.

We turned to Hari. It wasn’t difficult getting him to open up about himself. He told us about how he had come to England first as a student, then moved to the US for further studies. Of his marriage and divorce. Of the loss of his parents. Of the work he did.

From time to time, we’d simply sit around, quietly, lost in our own worlds. For an hour. Or more.

There were a lot of chaai sessions.

Hari got a tour of the house. And the clinic. Mum took him through a couple of photo albums, Kabir and I did the rest.

Mum wanted to go to the clinic one morning. I rolled her in, in the wheelchair. She didn’t say a word as we passed through one room and another. She just wanted to touch everything … I saw her drag her palm along the walls and the doors, reaching out and fondling the furniture.

On our third evening home, we gathered around Mum’s bed to eat dinner. When I brought Mum her fare, she looked at me and said she was not hungry.

“No more food. That’s it.”

Hari heard her too, but didn’t say anything. I went to the kitchen to put back her food. When I returned, he was with her, holding her hand.

No one said anything. We ate quietly.

It had turned dark, when Hari bounced up, his bubbly self again, and said, okay, let’s go out.

No one protested. How could we … it had become such a delightful routine.

Wrapped up in our shawls, we wheeled Mum out in her bed. She didn’t want the wheelchair.

We stood around, admiring the firmament. The air was crystal clear. One could see why the Milky Way was named so.

Hari slid open the patio-doors and slipped back into the house.

As he re-emerged, he left the doors ajar. Softly, barely audible, we heard something within. He had put a CD in the player, and turned it on.

Then, he began to sing. It was more ethereal than ever before. He played with the words, lingered over them, repeated them over and over again. The Sohela in Jazz, I said to myself.

"gagan mein thaal ..."

The sky is our platter, the sun 'n moon the lamps,

Studded with pearls, the starry galaxies,

The wafting scent of sandal is the incense,

The gentle breeze our whisk,

All vegetation is the bouquet we offer Thee                                                                                                                                 

He was slower paced today. Each word, each phrase, hung in the air, and then reached out and grabbed us.

But there was something more. I looked around, searching for what it was.

And then … then, I recognized the strains emerging from inside. In whispers … I had never heard it like that before … it was Bolero!

As the beat picked up inside, so did the volume. And Hari’s voice rode it and rose to the heavens.

“kaisi aarti ho-e bhav-khandana teri aarti …”

What an act of worship!
This truly is Your worship, You who sunder life from death.
The unstruck sound within is the drum to which we chant. 

I don’t remember much else of that evening, just the song. We were all looking towards the heavens.

It was prayer and worship, but we couldn’t close our eyes or lower our heads.

The drums were getting strident, the horns more aggressive.

Hari hadn’t raised his voice, but we had. I heard Kabir singing. I joined in. I looked at Mum … her lips were moving. We could hear more instruments joining the orchestra.

“har charan kaval makrand lobhit mano …” 

My mind is needy as the bumble-bee,
Night and day I long to drink the ambrosia of Your lotus-feet.

Nanak says, grant nectar to this thirsty bird,
Grant it dwelling in Your Name.

As Ravel’s crescendo built up, steady and strong, so did we. Hari guided us, his voice doing the conducting. The verses that followed began to hand-in-hand with the musical crescendo. And then, with a flourish, both concluded simultaneously.

*   *   *   *   *

We sat around for a long while, sipping chaai.

Mum’s voice pierced the silence.

“Biba, Kabir, come here, please. Hari you too.”

She reached out and grabbed our hands. Oh, she looked so beautiful. The crisp air had been good for her.

“Betay, it’s time for me to go. Please call Elly and tell her I am ready to go back to the hospice in the morning.“

*   *   *   *    *

We left early, sixish, Mum and I in the ambulance, Kabir and Hari following in a car. I couldn’t see the world outside as we shot through the countryside, silently. I could see it in my mind’s eye, the mist parting and letting us through, and then covering up all traces behind us.

Like a comet, we left the city. Here one moment, gone the next.   


[Translation of the lines from Kirtan Sohela are by Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh.]




Conversation about this article

1: Amardeep Kaur Gill (Sydney, Australia), November 22, 2012, 7:18 PM.

... and I let out a sigh as I read the last lines - Beautiful!

2: Harkiran Kaur (Oregon, USA), November 22, 2012, 7:53 PM.

A-aa-aa-a-h ...

3: Jimmy (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), November 23, 2012, 10:18 AM.

Great series. Having endured the passing of my father recently, this story really struck home. I loved how the kids did 'shift work' staying with their mum; reminded me of us at the hospital. I saw so many people at the hospital who had nobody at their side :(

4: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), November 24, 2012, 5:24 PM.

Poignant and touching, especially how the characters loved each other for their individual selves, allowing each to have closure.

5: Aryeh Leib (Israel), November 27, 2012, 6:20 AM.

Beautiful story. "Like a comet, we left the city. Here one moment, gone the next." Like life itself, we shine as brightly as a comet, leaving behind a fiery trail of our doings in this existence. Here one moment, gone the next - re-absorbed in Akal Purakh.

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Part VIII, Conclusion
Prem Kahani"

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