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Sehaj Villa
Part I

A Short Story by T. SHER SINGH




I want you to know that I did not come here willingly. It was blackmail that brought me here. Without that incentive, there was a time -- much of my life, really -- when I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a place like this.

Somehow, Aggie had got it into her head that we were ready to move into a, you know, one of those places where they put away old people so that everyone can forget about them. A Seniors’ Home, they call it.

Senior? At a mere 77, I wasn’t ready to be a senior.
No way, I said, I‘m not ready yet. Yes we are, she said.

You know her. Once she’s made up her mind, there’s no letting go. So, we argued over it for ever.

“I’ve grown tired of all that we have,” she said.

That made me laugh, because almost everything we had -- the finest, the costliest, the classiest, the mostest -- she had carefully tracked down from somewhere or the other in the world and ensconced it in our lovely home.

“I think I’m coming around to beginning to believe that we ain’t gonna take any of this with us!”

My jaw dropped. I gawked at her. This was my Agya Kaur saying this? The same woman who had fought me tooth and nail to get me to buy a Picasso sketch -- all I could afford then was a sketch! -- to hang in our den? The same siren that hounded me until I agreed to commission the Singh Twins to do portraits of our family, all seven of us? Now she’s tired of it all? 

Moving in with one of our children was never an option ... at least, not for us. They'd be more than willing. We weren't. We loved our independence too much. As aging issues began to loom on the horizon, though, we had begun to scratch our heads a bit.

But why couldn't we carry on as we were? We could certainly afford all the help we needed ... every comfort, every luxury.

It's time for less, not more, she argued. I didn't understand this new phase she's got into.

Whatever! I’ve learnt through the years to humour her whims. So I dragged it on and on … we quibbled over it every now and then, and then I’d make my escape.

Until the day she decided to play dirty.

I didn‘t realize how serious she was. She actually came out and threatened to tell the children that we had left them out of our Wills. It’s true. Completely. Not a cent to their names. Neither of the five. But it was a secret between the two of us … and our attorney. We’d agreed that they weren’t to get even a whiff of it until we were both gone. 

She was serious … I saw it in her eyes. She always is, when she puts her mind to something.

Well, her threat certainly helped to bring me around. Slowly, dragging and screaming, I found myself convinced of the merits of living in an assisted facility pretty quickly.

I could handle the boredom, I said to myself, but there was no way I was willing to get into an all-out war with our sons and daughters during my final years. I simply love them too much to get into a dog-fight with them. Or to leave them any reason -- money, that is -- to get into dog-fights amongst themselves after we’re gone. But more of that later. 

So, once we decided we were going to do it, the question was when. And where.

If getting to ‘yes’ had been no cake-walk, going beyond it into the nitty-gritty details was even more tiresome. Everything is tiring once you’re in your 70s, but looking for a new home at that age simply isn’t easy.

There were too many must-haves. We had to be close to the kids. But we wanted to be in the ’burbs. Preferably at the edge of civilization … near the amenities, but far from the madding crowd. On an elevation. Near trees. With water close by. Lots of company -- good company!  -- but not too much.

And, of course, our dearest friends within hailing distance. At the very least, our twice-a-week SL poker team. (SL is for ’Sore Losers’, not ‘Senior Level’ as some of them claim.)   

It became a daily chore. We scoured the area, checking out each and every nest of seniors we could find. A few good ones. And a lot of bad ones.

But the good ones always had something that wasn’t just right.

Until we found “Hillside Acres.”

A 40-unit facility perched midway up a mountain -- an oversize hill, really -- lording over the city of Berksville. 22 acres. Some of them wooded. The hill sheltered the buildings from the cold winter winds, yet kept the city-view and the smile of the sun unhindered. A stream wound its way around the hill at the bottom, outside the property limits but giving it the look of a moat and a demarcation line, as if separating it from the world.

A mere decade or so old, it boasted state-of-the-art facilities. A pleasant ranch-style architecture with wrap-around verandahs and gardens. Decks galore. An indoor pool. And one outside too. A sauna and a hot-tub. A spic‘n‘span kitchen. Fine dining. A medical unit. A library. A movie theatre. A games room … you name it and they had it.

Aggie liked it instantly. I sulkingly nodded my head in agreement, still not happy about being railroaded into the idea in the first place.

By the end of the afternoon, we found ourselves in their office, talking lease terms and poised to choose a unit.

“You have an excellent choice of at least a dozen alternatives,” chimed the manager.

That jolted me awake. I pulled my chair closer, and leaned forward, paying a bit more attention. A dozen empty units out of 40? That could mean only one thing: that there was something wrong somewhere!

I poked and prodded until Aggie was blue in the face.

“Will you please stop being pushy for once?” she demanded in an angry whisper, as we walked down the corridor to examine yet another unit. “You’re not here to do business, you know! Just to sign a lease.”

Which got me thinking. So I poked and prodded a bit more -- Hey! can a leopard change its spots? The manager didn’t have all the answers. So I sneaked back to the office and scheduled a meeting, unbeknownst to Aggie, with the owner the next day.

It didn’t take much to wiggle out all the info I needed from him. I was right! Unwittingly, he confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: that the operation was doing poorly only because the business was being handled badly.

I tested the waters -- I’m good at what I do, even though I say so myself -- and realized that the owner would gladly be rid of the place for a song if a buyer came along. But, it appeared, there was no market for a struggling Seniors’ Home.

I had only one hurdle: Aggie. She was in a mood to divest, not to invest.

So, I launched a charm offensive. We’d been married for well over half-a-century, and I knew her inside out -- as she did me. So I knew all the buttons I needed to press.

We’d already been through the tough part of the argument a couple of years earlier when we had decided, jointly and through considerable soul-searching, that our children would be better off if we didn’t name them our heirs. The more wealth they acquired, it appeared, the more they wanted.

‘Good’ Sikhs each one of them is, each in his or her own way. But this gnawing hunger to add to and multiply everything they already had was disturbing. Had we contributed to it? We must have … and Aggie and I were bent on not contributing to their affliction any more.   

The rationale was a convoluted one, but our conclusions were joint and not too difficult. Each of our children was independently wealthy. Aggie had done a great job rearing them and making sure they were fully educated and trained and ready for the world. Each had reasonably decent partners, give or take a few bumps and stumbles.

I guess they had inherited … either through osmosis or via the relentless hammering of business common sense from me … my entrepreneurial acumen. Sure, I had sold my own business at just the right time to harvest a decent bundle, but by then each of them was well on his way with his own venture.

What also troubled us was that they were a little too competitive amongst themselves. Each was always out to outdo the other. It was ’keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ to a pathological degree! Unfortunately, they did try to work together for a while. Unfortunate, because it didn’t work out, none of their attempts to partner with each other, and they were in and out of court still trying to sort out the mess.

Leave them more money? Not only did they not need any more, it would merely add fuel to the fires, because each, Aggie and I were sure, had a different view of their entitlements to the family wealth. All had good arguments, but little of common sense.

I won’t burden you with the gory details.

But let me not mislead you: we love our kids endlessly. There is no greater joy than being with them and their broods. And they love us back. Only, there isn’t much love lost between them.

So, because of our love for them, Aggie and I have decided that they don’t need any more material wealth from us. Whatever outlasts us is best spent elsewhere.

With this decision long behind us, all I had to convince Aggie with was that maybe we can put our money into the Seniors’ Home. Invest, yes, but in order to divest!

Thus, not only can we live there but we can re-shape it in such a way that we can enjoy it all the more … by sharing it with others we love. And assign its ownership to a charity of our choice.

“What do you mean?” Aggie’s words were barely audible. I could see I had her total attention.

So, step by step, I laid out my plan. We moved from our bedroom to the dining room, cleared the table, wrote things out on sheets of paper and spread them out so that we could glare at them all, together.

I knew I had her hook, line and sinker when she began to interrupt me to finish my sentences … with her own brilliant ideas. Three hours into our discussion, way past midnight, and it had now become more her project and less of mine; she was off and running with it.

First thing in the morning, I summoned Yuan, our accountant, and Leo, our lawyer, and we spent the day with them thrashing out our options and the multitude of possibilities. Aggie and I charted out the parameters: keep us financially secure till we both drop dead; once the project is off and running, we don’t want to be involved, except in living there; and the charity of our choice is to be the only beneficiary, now and in perpetuity.  

“Do we have enough dough to do what we want to do,” we asked, “without jeopardizing the few years we have left?”

And how could we protect the project from our children? They should get no inkling of our financial involvement for they’ll instantly question our sanity … literally. Who knows, even have us certified and committed, if they could ... all in the name of love and protecting the estate.

“It just doesn’t make business sense, Pop,” I could hear my eldest saying at the top of his lungs.

“Have the gurdwara guys been badgering you again for money?” another one would inevitably want to know in his high-pitched voice. “Are they behind this scheme?”              

By the end of the summer, the deed was done, the final John Henrys having been affixed -- my scratchy "Mehtab Singh', her stylized 'A. Kaur' -- and the papers duly sealed and delivered. At the end of the day, we had done better than get it for a song … we got it for a whistle!

Yuan and Leo came over again for a strategy session. My business manager, Kabir, joined us this time around. One by one, we managed to put up all of our substantial assets on sale. Carefully though, so that it didn‘t turn into a fire-sale.

We brought in an architect and a designer, a decorator and a slew of consultants of every ilk. The changes we had in mind were not structural … but they would change it into something glorious, nevertheless, Aggie promised.

With the project well under way, we, Aggie and I, then turned our attention to planning our move … to Sehaj Villa, which is the new name Aggie had given to the erstwhile Hillside Acres.

And we braced ourselves to break the news, finally, to our children.  

Sitting at the breakfast table, Aggie and I looked at each other. I broke the reverie: “See what a fine mess you’ve got us into?”

She shrugged her shoulders in the way only she can. “We’ll see,” they seemed to say.
“You wanted to live in a seniors’ home … now we own one. Happy?“

We flung our heads back in unison and laughed. It was a happy laugh. She came over to my side of the table and fell into my arms.

I felt young. Well … younger.

But, that was eight years ago!

Continued tomorrow …
June 6, 2013


Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 07, 2013, 9:39 AM.

In dying business, this was an astute investment to have a sehaj villa to your own specifications. It might portend a future home for your own off-spring too. A farsighted project indeed. Here you could call your own tunes. Or, more religiously, it would be "mukat dwara mo-kala sehaj avo jao" [GGS:509.18] - "Then, the gate of liberation becomes wide open and the soul easily passes through." The siblings may even come up with a suggestion: "Pa and Ma, you stay here and we will move to Sehaj Villa.". Let's wait and see your other options as they unfold in the continuation.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 07, 2013, 1:18 PM.

Sehaj or 'The Middle Way' is found in all great religions ... and in Buddhism. Gautama Buddha had lived an extreme ascetic life, starving himself and torturing his body as was the way of ascetics. When he was weak and near death, he heard a group of dancers pass by, discussing how a sitar was tuned: "It should be tuned neither low nor high. If stretched too high it will break. If too low it will be dumb and music will die." According to legend, Buddha took the lesson to heart and renounced the path of excessive asceticism. Accepting nourishment, he recovered his strength ... and that took him towards ultimate enlightenment. Sir Edwin Arnold's 'Light of Asia' describes this beautifully in his poem. This is also the Sikh way of life: "kai ravidas hath pai nayraai sehjay ho-ay so ho-ee" [GGS:658.2] - "Says Ravidas, the Lord is nearer that our hands and feet. Whatever will be, will be."

3: Rosalia Scalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), June 07, 2013, 4:17 PM.

A wonderful story. Looking forward to the rest!

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Part I"

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