In Memoriam…

 

I would like to remember my father as a happy man, playing his mouth organ, sitting in the garden in Dehradun and savoring the snows ranges of the Himalayas that surround the Doon valley and the dream home he made for his retirement; the warmth of the winter sun would fill us to the brim as honey birds hopped and chirped among the lush flower beds and fruit trees…I would like to hear him call out to me in his warm cheerful voice so full of love, tenderness and kindness. I would like to think of him as a vibrant, content, kind human being who has lived his life to the full…

As I got off the plane in Delhi, I got a phone call urging me to ask the hospital to take my father off his life support. But I wanted my father to live. I did not want him dead. I wanted him to have every chance to come back to normal. I wanted him to call out to me, to touch me, to argue and fight with me, to scold me… I did not want to face the new reality that stared me in the face…

We halted to dump our luggage in my aunt’s house, use the washroom, have a cup of tea and rush to the ICCU (Intensive Cardiac Care Unit) where my father lay unconscious. My father was lying in a huge ward, plugged to all kinds of gadgets his enclosure curtained off like the dozens of others. This was not the dad I knew…his hands cold from having been in induced coma on a slab of ice. He was moved to a normal bed a few hours before we reached. I kissed his hand as it was the only visible part and his face was too far. The hand had blue dots and it was as cold as ice. My father breathed deeply, a troubled breath on the ventilator. A big ventilator pipe was thrust into his mouth. He occasionally bit the ventilator.

“We had to tie his hands as they tried to pull out the ventilator,” said the attendant nurse helpfully.

“Does that mean he is coming back to consciousness?” I asked against all odds.

“ No. This is reflex.”

I sat and prayed in the armchair near the bed. I thought he would come back. Now that I had reached his bedside, his only daughter, he would come to. I felt sad leaving him. Where was his mind? Where were his thoughts, his conscious will? Was it back in the garden soaring with the birds in the skies? Were they flitting into a new reality filled with light and sunshine? Or was it travelling a path of suffering and pain because he was in a place that he never wanted to be? Please help him get well, O God, I prayed.

My father, a man of compassion and kindness, one who had strong beliefs, a brilliant doctor who tried to demystify the medical profession and find ways of taking healthcare to less privileged masses in India, one who had been very against corporate hospitals which imported high cost medical technology into India to serve anyone who could pay, was now lying in an unconscious state in one such moneyed concern.

“ What will happen if he suddenly wakes up?” I had asked a doctor from his hospital. I asked the same question to the doctor in charge of the ICCU, the counseling doctor.

“ We would love to see that happen. I am waiting for him to wake up and argue with me, to fight with me,” said the counseling doctor.

We waited, leaving my father alone in that impersonal, cold ward where he was just another body to be kept alive.

I had thrown a few warm wears into my suitcase and flown into Delhi from Singapore within a day in the hope of reviving my father and having him back in his hospital, in a way my sibling, because this was a man who loved his ideology and work almost as much as he loved his own daughter. He had left his work and retired to Dehradun more than a decade ago because he believed the time had come for new blood to take over, for them to develop the same values and principles he had, for them to be fully convinced that all humans, rich or poor, deserve the right to medical care. I felt moving him out of his own hospital had been against his ideology, against his wishes. Was it right for a person to choose to what extent he wanted medical support to contain him in this life?

My father had looked for mokshya, a Hindu concept of freedom from birth. He wanted to go into samadhi, a state where a meditating mind is supposed to ascend to unite with the source of all creation or God. Had his mind gone into such a state? Was he talking to God?

I could never understand why people look for this state because life in itself is so beautiful and there is so much to do in this wonderful world. But that he could not achieve this state had been his pet peeve as he waited to die in Dehradun. He said his body hurt. He had a huge fibroid in his spine, his ankles were swollen, his foot was misshapen and my mother died. The last probably made his heart ache more as my parents had an idyllic retirement till she died.

I could never comprehend his move in his last years to a place where he knew very few in quest of God. I also could not understand why he forced retirement on himself till he died.

Yes. He died. With the finality of death, his life ended.

We had managed to move him back to his own hospital while he was still alive. Within a few hours, he passed on.

As I sit by my window and write, looking at the ripples in the river that flows by, I realize why life saddened my father.

He hated the growing divides that are ripping the fabric of healthcare, economy and religion in India. He was saddened by the media projection of the violence all over the world. The media rarely dwells on positive news in India. He was unhappy with how people focus only on their personal needs and development and not on the needs of mankind. He was frustrated that majority did not understand the need for human excellence, where man would through unstructured learning, find the best in himself to serve humanity. Human excellence, for him, combined spirituality, happiness, ancient learning, with unstructured and structured learning to create a concept of holistic compassionate health care affordable to masses. He wanted to write a book and create a center for human excellence, again in his dreamland of Dehradun.

But his declining health got in the way of what he wanted to do.

In his death, my father has convinced me that as his daughter I must continue to believe in human excellence and strive towards it in my own field…to show compassion to the aged and less privileged, to lead a life where I can share every word with the whole world.

And somewhere, in the distance, I still feel that enigmatic smile and twinkling eyes fill my heart with happiness to soar with the birds and fly into my own distant realms of imagination…

 

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From a hospital bed…

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And then there was Su Yin.

I never saw her full face. I could only see the eyes and the penciled eyebrows etched above a mask that hid the lower part of her face as her straight thick hair swung while she swept and vigorously mopped the floor. One day she did take off her mask. A pretty young face with pale pink lips perhaps colored artificially, a cheerful face that greets me each morning wishing me good health and offering me a purple orchid as I grapple with post-operative pain.

Su Yin is from Myanmar as are May and My Shine. May and My Shine are nurses. The names are like twittering birds and bring to my mind what I imagine Myanmar would be… green and yellow fields and muddy lanes below the vibrant blue skies. There must be so much sunshine there, enough to light up the whole wide world; only if the Rohingyas did not cry in pain, this time not post operative but of losing their homes and lands again and again.

I always imagine that the rivers in Myanmar will be thick and yellow because once, long before I started flitting in and out of hospitals, I went for a ride along the River Kwai (Mae Klong river) in Kanchenburi, Thailand. The river there ran thick and yellow. The boatman told us that on the other bank of the river was Burma… I like to dream of the people of the two countries meeting and greeting along the river as they do in the wards of Singapore.

There are nurses and caregivers from different countries in Asia, helping heal patients from all over the world. What a multi-cultural exchange it is when a young nurse from Phillipines takes my blog details and discusses Harry Potter with me, or a Malaysian nurse chats with me about travel in India or an Indian one, newly arrived out of her country, takes down the details of the shop selling goat meat in the local Tekka market. I even heard a strange retelling of the Rohingya crisis!

Then there are young girls who cheer one up by their sunshiny smiles and call the older nurses ‘ ate’ (elder sister in Tagalog), exuding a charm of old world courtesy and graciousness in an age where children have started to address their parents by first name, a thing that always bothers me. Some of the ates are so gracious, friendly and yet professional. Each time, you achieve a small target, they make you feel like you have won a Nobel Prize and urge you to take the next step towards total healing. There are some who you feel could have been a friend, especially the ones who are moms and have children in teens and twenties. There is so much you find in common and not in common, things you can talk about. Just having this friendly and optimistic atmosphere around helps lift ones spirits and take one towards feeling well and whole again.

The most important thing is that these women, these unsung heroines, did for me what I would not trust anyone to do and, most of the time, with a smile! They sponge, shower, change and give you endless care, without making you feel belittled, till you are able to totter on your own legs and walk back home. The lady from the pantry found ways of appeasing my appetite when mashed and pureed food were my sole diet! Each day, she found a way that I could eat. And that was definitely a challenge!

The biggest thing I noticed was the cheerful optimism that exuded from the women on a daily basis. As I stepped out of my drowsy stupor and started experiencing extreme pain and, subsequently, lesser pain, I had a word of encouragement from each of these ladies till I was ready to walk out of the hospital.

Sometimes, I wonder what drives these women to their profession, often in a distant land, away from their homes and families? They do for absolute strangers what the patients would not trust their own families to do for them. Could it be only money? I think not and, yet, there is a phobia about foreigners worldwide now!

In the wards of the hospital, you find patients and nurses of varied nationalities and faith, including upbeat, optimistic local Singaporean nurses, weaving an ambience of friendship and harmony to heal the patients back to health.

Perhaps, those who build walls between humans could take a page of these ladies’ book and try to see the world in a more global perspective. There is a world beyond making wealth. There is a world of hope, happiness, twittering birds (not tweets and oil and coal), a world in harmony, where as humans we help each other live.

 

 

Happy New Year

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As I waited for the muse to smite me, I wondered what persona to take on while writing my first blog for 2019… Should I be a mother and shout out my kids achievements, or a poet and sing a paean to the beauty of the first dawn in the New Year, or a writer and do a story around the season, maybe something like Gift of the Magi, or should I just write what flows through my veins?

Two thousand and eighteen has been a year of learning for me.

I learnt to let my sons have more freedom to move around. I stopped trying to drop and pick up my teenager from all places. And believe me, to give children that independence; it takes effort, patience and trust on part of the parent, a tough thing for me to let go emotionally too. I let go my elder son much earlier because I had my baby to take care of. Now, my elder son is a confident young man who can sally forth anywhere in the world. It was more difficult letting go of my baby boy who now hates to be reminded he had a childhood. He is now a travelling teen who explores the world on his own terms, a difficult thing for an over-protective mother to accept.

To palliate my sense of anxiety, I have thrown myself more into writing. The resultant effect is this year six of my  pieces were fortunate to be among the top picks of a website I write for (https://kitaab.org/2018/12/30/blog-the-best-of-kitaab-2018/). It was a lovely surprise!

Other than that my first translation to English from Bengali of well-known Bollywood scriptwriter and writer, Nabendu Ghosh, was published as part of a collection of short stories in May this year (That Bird Called Happiness, https://www.amazon.com/That-Bird-Called-Happiness-Stories/dp/9387693619). I translated the story, Full Circle. Now I am translating a novella about thugees, by the same author. It is a unique experience as one discovers what poverty can do to people, how cults can create a culture that can annihilate morals and alter humanitarian values, how religion can be misinterpreted to justify violence and murder. To me, it is sometimes a microcosmic depiction of the world exposed by the media, especially in India. I did enjoy doing a spoof on issues highlighted by the media in my blog (https://432m.wordpress.com/2018/02/15/and-the-cow-jumped-over-the-moon/). I can never get enough done on cows, which despite being prominent in the Indian political scenario, never cease to terrify me! If you have not yet been chased by a cow munching meditatively at a garbage dump in Delhi or ambling through the streets, you will merely laugh and mock at me! Perhaps, I should put a halt on the cow front and steer to more serious subjects.

I learnt to try to steer clear of controversies. While some friends supported the Me Too movement, others threw brickbats at it! A mentor suggested I do a spoof on Me Too. Terrified that I would be ostracised by the Me Too fans, I squirmed my way out of it. A friend, threatened by ostracism, was forced to put a post in support in the Face Book. Though I must say, that the women who spoke against the movement had a point too. Why were all the takers for the movement well-known, rich and educated? I saw a post where a Devdasi (young women who serve in temples, officially married to Gods and commanded by the almighty to service his male devotees) wanted to be a part of the movement too. I wonder if she made it… A friend asked me how much did the movement do to address the menace of street side Romeos who make a practice of toying with the honor of women in the open streets of India? Did it shake up their moms who brought them up to insult women and womanhood? Oops, what a faux pas in our thought process, moms are women and, therefore, not to be held responsible for their macho sons actions.

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind (2014), shook me out of my microcosmic confusion, complacency and candor, to a larger world inhabited by the race of mankind. A book that is written to have people think of the future of the race of mankind at a macro-cosmic level is indeed unusual and unique. It has raised controversies which could give a run for their money to dystopian writers and Hollywood/ Bollywood junta, including his observations on the breakdown of families, religion and tribal behavior of Madonna fans, Vegans and Carnivores. There is much to be learnt from a book that asks you to redefine your perspectives for a future of your choosing.

As for earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami, refugees, Rohingyas, Trump, Brexit May, minority groups and cows, they continue to be erratic factors in our day-to-day existence. They give a microscopic view of our future that contrasts with the macroscopic view mooted by Harari. I wonder if anyone could compare refugees to the nomadic herders of yore. They moved in quest of a home as do refugees, except during early migration of man, the countries had no borders as they do now and no angry citizens built walls to keep them out…

With its magic sprinkle, I hope the New Year will heal all breaches, bring us all brilliant luck and happiness and may we all soar into brilliant blue skies.

 

 

 

 

Malacca

Quiet, sultry, mysterious and alluring… that is Malacca.

Malacca beckons with its promise of cuisine, serenity and historicity. This was the town founded by a Temasek king on the run in the fourteenth century; in the sixteenth it was taken over by Portuguese, in the seventeenth by the Dutch and in the nineteenth by the British… You can see and experience the colonial past in the buildings and life of Malacca still… It seems to have ceded to the West and, yet, has integrated local colors with the past Colonial grandeur. I would see it as a very Nonya city. The Nonyas were a group of immigrants who evolved a distinct culture adapting the best of the East and the West. The cultural blend threw up excellent cuisine, a medley of linguistic adventures and unique architecture and artifacts.

The best way to see the city is to use Grab, the Asian answer to Uber. Rides are cheap, quick and the drivers friendly. As they take you from one place to another, they tell you interesting snippets of Malaccan lore or history. One of the drivers told us that in the Portuguese colony, they still use a dialect which is reminiscent of the old invaders and used uniquely still in Malacca. He claimed the dialect is not spoken anywhere else in the world.

The Portuguese settlement is now a little colony of homes with bars and restaurants that come alive at night to the sounds of music, food and liquor.

In the daytime, as you walk towards the beach, a huge statue of St Francis Xavier stares you in the face. It is stark and white. The sea stretches beyond the settlement to the skies. A beautiful spot for a quiet thoughtful stroll in the morning. The waves are gentle and the muddy beach is filled with huge mudskippers. One has to use the wooden platform and planks. It is impossible to walk on the sand as it is swampy. On the other side of the settlement stretches out the city tempting the visitors with its variety.

The first place to visit is of course, the famous, A Famosa Fort with its gate, canons and resurrected walls. The Portuguese built the fort in the fifteenth century below a little hill. Now all that remains of the original structure are the gates and canons and a church. The ascent from the gate of the fort to St Paul’s church on top of the hill is not difficult as it is sheltered by the shade of trees. The church itself is an empty, roofless structure now with carved gravestones dating back to the sixteen hundreds. There stands a statue of St Francis Xavier in front of the church, looking down at a breath taking view of the little town and the sea.

The statue was built in 1952. Its right arm is said to have broken the day after the statue was consecrated. Evidently, St Xavier’s had his right arm sent to Rome in 1611 before he was canonized in 1622. The tree branch breaking the arm of the new statue is often regarded as a miracle!

As one descends from the hill, there is a government museum of Malayan history with an entrance fee of ten ringgit. The place is a warehouse for expensive wear, furniture and antiquities and gives an excellent view of the church from the staircase. One is forced to return from the museum to the Church to find the way towards town. The descent along the stairs cut into the hill has again an amazing view of the city and the sea.

One of the remarkable sights that lines the sea front is the Maritime museum housed in a wooden ship along the seaside. It is modeled on the Portuguese ship, Flor de Mal, which sank in 1511 while carrying treasures looted from the Malaccan Sultan’s palace back to Portugal. Interestingly, this ship made its maiden voyage under the captainship of Vasco Da Gama’s cousin, Estevao Da Gama. The museum is truly unique structurally. It houses snippets of Malayan history… starting with the legend of Parameswara spotting a mousedeer that saved itself from a hunting dog by kicking the dog till it drowned. This inspired the king on the run to halt and build a city at that spot. He named the port Malacca, after the tree (also known as amalaki or Indian gooseberry) that had sheltered him while he watched the drama between the tiny animal and the dog.

Malacca had a multicultural existence right from the start. The king who founded the city was a Hindu king from the Indonesian Srivijayan Empire. He had a local wife, Arab traders, Chinese help and then, later,came the European traders who colonized as usual in those days in the name of trade.

Near the Maritime museum is a Melaka river cruise center. They take you down for a cruise to show historic sites. Along the ramparts built by the Dutch, who replaced the Portuguese, one can see the lowering water levels over the centuries and, if luck holds, huge iguanas at play.

Lining the river are the Dutch churches and settlements, now colored in bright red. The Stadthuys, built in the 1600s, was the administrative center of Melaka and currently houses a museum of history. It lies at the foot of the St Paul’s hill that housed the church. Most of the sites are within a walking distance of each other. The Stadthuys museum not only houses artifacts but also has murals of historic events, like the one about the first Chinese who visited the first king of Malacca in 1403. Parameswara, later is said to have visited the Ming emperor and got himself a Chinese bride too. The museum has maps and sketches from 1700s too. It was a nice, cool place to spend a hot afternoon after the pleasant cruise.

There is an interesting stone embedded in the red wall outside the museum. It is said to bear the coat of arms of the first king of Portugal who ruled from 1143 to 1185 under the name of Alfonso Henriques First. The stone was found on the hilltop among the archaeological digs.

Restaurants and shops line the riverfront. Some of them have murals depicting Indian and Chinese cultures that have added richness to the unique blend that created Malacca.

One of the most enjoyable foods by the riverfront is a coconut in a cup. The young boy selling the delicacy peeled the coconut whole with dexterity and then tossed it from the shell to the plastic cup and offered it to his customers. We watched the process with fascination as we sipped the cool coconut water from inside the white soft flesh with a straw and then consumed the succulent fruit with a spoon.

Later we saw the same skill exhibited by a vendor in traditional gear in Jonker Street, the night market area, which despite its crowds is a family friendly place. We had a wonderful Nonya dinner in a small restaurant and watched guady rickshaws flash past the roads with loud music, glitter and lights. Jonker Street is also a good place to pick up curios. Here you can truly experience the blending of the different heritages of Malacca. The whole of the downtown area around Stadthuys and Jonker Street takes on a festive atmosphere at night with its lighting, loud music and crowds. Rickshaw drivers, stall and restaurant owners lure the tourists with their goodies as the museums and monuments close their doors to the visitors.

Malacca is a perfect weekend getaway from Singapore by road. The highway linking these two countries is excellent with resting spots, gas stations, shops and cafes sprouting every few kilometers. The town with its picturesqueness, is friendly, interesting and modern and yet quaint, a convenient spot to relax.

PET

 

When you think of a pet, you think of a cute cuddly dog or cat or fishes in a tank or pond… my younger son had even asked for a pet elephant at a point. However, the only thing I could see were fishes on the ceiling. The pictures of the fishes looked almost alive trapped in colourful glass, perhaps an attempt to cheer patients undergoing the scan.

The full form of the PET in medical parlance is Positron Emission Tomography. One goes through this scan to check for various diseases in the body or the absence of thereof if you have already completed your treatment/ surgery as I had…what they called a follow up scan. It sounds like an intimidating procedure as it involves injecting a radioactive substance into your body and then doing a scan inside a machine, much like a futuristic gizmo. Perhaps, it could be a thing for putting the human body to cold freeze and storing it for posterity like they do in Star Wars! But currently it functions only as a scanner.

When I was called in for the procedure, a pink shirted radiologist (all of them wore pink shirts) came and explained the process to me in a PET suite, a little cupboard of a room with an austere bed and medicine trolley filled with needles, gauze and stuff. The radiologist told me about the radioactive stuff and then I asked him if it was similar to carbon dating… you know the stuff they do to unearth the age of Egyptian mummies and Neanderthal men…he seemed a little nonplussed and told me it was nothing like that!

The most intimidating thing for me was the insertion of the cannula (the plastic needle that is used for multiple injections or drips). They could not find the veins in my hands! It took nearly half-an-hour and a few nurses to complete the procedure. After that, I was given the medication and told to relax… again a hard task as I was also told not to move or turn or sing or read or talk. I was told to sleep. I could twitch my muscles and my mind had the freedom to swing. The nurse offered to turn off the light for me. No, I said, I wanted the light. I tried to rest as I felt the radioactive stuff course through my veins. It would have been nice to have some attractive pictures or tiles on the walls and ceiling to assist in making the atmosphere more relaxed, I thought.

Then there was the explosion of the matter and antimatter in my veins… I was drifting… my sons had told me there was anti-matter in the radioactive stuff… but here I was praying for a long life to the Creator of energy, matter and anti-matter.

I could actually feel the stuff coursing through my body while I lay like a stiffened mummy of the Egyptian genre, my stomach rumbled and grumbled. I had been instructed to starve over night for the scan. This time it was for the radioactive glucose to react exactly to the sugar absorption levels in ones body. Presence of sugars would distract the readings.

After half-an-hour, they toddled me off to the scan as the medicine has a short life of only a couple of hours. The medicine chose or chose not to light up during the process, bright lights indicated a concentration of sugar. The lighted-up part could be cancerous.

I had been thinking of going into the machine with my hands crossed like an Egyptian mummy and pretending to be Cleopatra, instead I went with my hands above my head, trapped by straps with Velcro like a captive prisoner… my turn to be nonplussed! I felt like a princess in harem pants or perhaps princess Leia of Star Wars fame, imprisoned by Jaba the Hutt. I tend to analogize with anecdotes from Star Wars and Harry Potter as my sons are addicted to these. But, then, I think that is a good thing as they have positive messages of hope. In Harry Potter, we are taught to dispel our worst fears (embodied in the form taken by creatures called bogarts) with ‘riddikulus’   and in the original Star Wars, the good always wins in addition to John Williams’s upbeat music. Despite all that, I was a little zapped (or taken aback) to have my hands tied above my head.

And then I noticed the ceiling in the room was like an underwater scenario… as much as it could be. So, perhaps, one could dream of being a prisoner in Nemo’s submarine hold! Or, princess Leia captive during an adventure to JaJa Binks underwater world… a new idea for another Star Wars episode, take note Disney films. Actually, I thought of neither. I just looked around because everything was so strange, so different from what I imagined. I was just very glad thinking this might prove to be the end of my medical journey battling with tumours and rumours.

My imagination could have taken flight across the Egyptian desserts and across vibrant blue skies. But wanting really to live, I prayed, I waited, I sighed… hoping this would be my last ride to realms of futuristic fancy under the influence of medication.

Once I was through with it and the radiologist came to free me, one look at him smiling and I knew I was free of cancer. Earlier, before my surgery, the radiologist who did the Contrast Dye CT Scan had looked so sad when she came to release me from my strapping.

It all happened so fast and I was cleansed off the deadly growth in a jiffy. I found that the journey back was not as daunting as I had feared. It was a matter of how you addressed your fears. I have learnt that the best way to overcome anything is a vivid imagination, laughter and support from family and friends. If one gives in to fear as one does to bullying, one crumbles to ashes. You just have to stand up to it, pray very hard and suddenly you are back to enjoying the sunshine, bird calls, children and life in general. It does take time to recuperate fully, but that is not so bad as long as you have hope, friends, love and happiness.

 

 

 

 

Pages from the Past

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Somya was researching Partition stories with the hope of writing a book. Her fascination with the subject escalated as she delved deeper. One day, a friend, Paulomi Sen, invited her home to meet a lady whose grandmother had suffered from the throes of Partition, the great divide that ripped the Indian subcontinent into multiple nations. The ripping, like all acts of violence, was characterized by brutality and angst. The lacerated wounds refused to heal over generations. And all this happened in a land that had earlier, for multiple centuries, witnessed syncretization of different cultures, creeds and religions.

Paulomi introduced Somya to the grand daughter of the Partition victim, Mona. Mona was a PhD student in her mid-twenties. She had been born and brought up in Singapore. She spoke with a Singlish twang at times with a mild smattering of ‘lahs’ but by and large she stuck to Queen’s English, quite different from the expat Indians who flocked to Singapore in the new millenia.

Somya belonged to the expat category. Singapore had been a difficult country for her to fathom. People had seemed cold and distant when she moved to Singapore in 1991. But what she eventually realized that people just did not know enough about all of India. They were mostly focused on the Southern Indians who were very different from the Northern, Eastern or Western culturally and in appearance. The consciousness had started creeping into the Singapore mindset as the number of expats increased. Somya herself was from Eastern India, West Bengal. That complicated things further as they associated Bengali, her mother tongue, with Bangladesh and Bangladeshi workers. Culturally, she was closer to a Bangladeshi than to a person from Southern India as their food and habits were more similar. A little more than two hundred years ago, when the lines had not been drawn, her ancestors had been chased out of Dhaka by a ruler who historians have described as ‘depraved’ and ‘ cruel’. Her ancestors had made a home in the Dutch colony of Chinsura that fell into the portion of India when the country was sliced. Somya’s family continued Indians and others became East Pakistanis in 1947 and subsequently Bangladeshis in 1971.

Mona was a person of Indian ethnicity but a Singaporean. She valued a past, she said, because the country was young compared to the antiquity of India or China.

As they talked, Somya learnt that Mona’s mother had migrated to Singapore long before she was born. The story grew more and more complex and interesting.

She said, “My mother was a child of the Partition, born in 1948. Actually, my grandmother’s past had forced the family to move out of Calcutta and eventually many of us moved out of India… you know lah… how it is for some families…”

Somya waited for her to continue but Mona was clearly struggling to explain things that may have been unpalatable to her or her family. She was also fumbling with her bag and pulled out a diary from it.

“This is the diary of a tenant who stayed in our ancestral home in Calcutta for some time. There are only a few entries. I have book marked them for you. Most of it is just appointments and meetings. Perhaps, it is best you read it yourself… But please don’t tell anyone that the story is about our family lah. You know how people are lah… “

Somya assured her that her book was fictitious and the diary would only help her recreate a fictional character.

“It was brave of you to come forward with the story in any case,” she concluded.

“ No lah. I came forward because I think that people need to understand that holding on to anger and shame is destructive. One needs to let go of the angst and move forward towards the creation of a better world… you know lah… You can return the diary to me when you finish. There is no hurry. But my family should not be mentioned… please lah…”

“That is a promise,” Somya reassured her.

Somya returned home with the diary and started reading. The diary belonged to Mr Debnath Mukherjee. There were a few written entries only… it was mostly filled with cryptic time schedules for meetings, appointments and deadlines, as Mona had said, except for the entries made on particular dates.

The first entry was located in the middle… on the date of 25 th April, 1973.

Calcutta, 25 th April, 1973

I have decided to write down these strange occurrences in this diary to maintain a record. I have never experienced anything this weird.

I was praying in the prayer room upstairs today when I felt someone had entered. I turned around and stared in surprise.

Before me, stood a woman who looked like the Goddess Durga herself. She was of an indeterminate age; anywhere between twenty-eight and forty-five I would say, clad in a white saree with a red border. Her parting was filled with sindoor. On her forehead was a big bindi and her lips were reddened with betel juice. Hip length hair fell in dark ripples down her back. Her feet were defined by the alta on it. Her head was partially covered with the pallu of her saree. Strangely, her clothes seemed a bit damp though I never touched them. In her hands, she held a copperplate of offerings for prayers with flowers, sweets, a small brass or copper container with water and a lamp. She smiled at me and beckoned…

I felt compelled to follow. I followed the mysterious woman.

She led me to the courtyard. It seemed to have changed completely… what had happened? I moved as if in a trance behind her.

A huge bonfire burnt in the middle of the courtyard. And a sturdy Brahmin priest in a traditional dhoti was feeding the flames with papers and books and shouting, “Om Agni swaha! Om Agni swaha!”He seemed to be in a tremendous rage. He seemed larger than life with his pent up anger and violence. I could sense it…feel his bloodshot eyes and angst. Some women sitting and wailing added to the tragic and frightening effect. A woman dressed in bridal finery lay on the floor in a faint. She looked exquisitely beautiful too, so young and so innocent.

I turned towards my strange guide seeking an explanation. My guide had disappeared from my side…

Where was she? Was she among the wailers?

I looked around. Suddenly, I saw her.

There she was … by the side of the old brahmin…

I could not move or call out… what was happening?

The flames from the bonfire leapt higher and higher. Everything was covered in a haze of smoke and the chanting filled my head till I felt myself ready to swoon…

Suddenly, everything was back to normal. I could move. There were our potted plants and the swing and my birdbath. I could hear my wife’s voice from the kitchen calling out to check if I was ready for tea. My wife had obviously not seen or experienced anything different. I did not alarm her by telling her about my strange ‘encounter’.

I was intrigued and shaken by the whole incident. I decided to write to my landlord and ask him if he knew what was it that I had witnessed. Did this house have an unholy mystery concealed seething in the superficial calm of its ambience? Was it safe for my family and me? Or should we move house?

My landlord, Mr Avinash Bhattacharya, lived in New Delhi. He wrote back quickly, urging me to continue, saying there was nothing dangerous in the house and he would describe the incident to me when we met.

I decided to give him a chance to explain himself and agreed not to move out if there were no recurrence of such events.

New Delhi, 23 rd June, 1973

Thankfully, there was no repetition of the weird experience I had this April in the house I rent in Calcutta.

We are in Delhi for my children’s summer holidays. We are staying with my elder brother, Manibhushan Mukherjee, and his family, comprising of three sons and his wife. Today, I went to visit my landlord. My twenty-six year old nephew who works for a law firm in New Delhi came with me. He took me to the landlord’s house in Chittaranjan Park after lunch.

Avinash Bhattacharya seems to be a kind man. He had a strange story to tell.

It seems in 1947, his parents from Noakhali (now part of Bangladesh) took shelter in his home during the Partition, leaving behind their eighteen-year-old daughter, Gouri, to the mercy of ruthless kidnappers who raided and razed their home and their tol (village school, mostly religious). His father was the pundit (learned teacher) who ran the tol. Gouri had been married for four years but was childless. She had been visiting her parents during Durga Puja that year. As the flames of hatred and violence devoured the village and burnt their home, some of the Islamic hooligans picked up the beautiful Gouri and carried her off. The helpless parents were forced to flee holding on just to their lives. The father and mother managed to evade the fire, blood and fury and make it to the safety of their son’s home in Calcutta.

Avinash had just bought the home he had been renting. By then, he had a son and daughter. His twenty-two year old brother also lived with him. He himself was just touching thirty. His other sister was twenty-seven and safely living with her in-laws in Jamshedpur, Bihar. Only Gouri remained unaccounted for.

The family lodged a report in Calcutta. But the police could do nothing. Six months passed. The Bengali New Year was limping its way towards their home as the bereft parents tried to adjust to life in Calcutta. Mr Bhattacharya’s father could not stop looking for his sister, Gouri, on his own. Her in-laws, who had also fled to the safety of India, visited them. They assumed Gouri was dead. They praised her to the skies but were certain she was no more. Only, her own father could not stop feeling that she would return.

And then, one day, she did.

It was the 5th of April, 1948. The cold nip in the air had given way to flowers and blooms all around. But, the pundit, instead of visiting the gardens in Calcutta visited police stations and the railway stations in the hope of gathering news about his youngest daughter, Gouri. How could she just disappear?

That day, he found her at the railway station. It seemed that she was being sent to West Pakistan by her kidnappers along with two more girls. They were all made to wear burkhas. Despite that, Gouri’s father recognized her walk and managed to rescue her with the help of the police and crowds. The kidnappers were handcuffed and taken away. Avinash was a bit fuzzy about the whole episode, probably because he was not present.

Gouri had become shrivelled and dark with manhandling. Many men had handled her. But she was regaining her strength and looks under the loving care of her family. They rejoiced at her recovery. Her father decided to invite her in-laws so that they could take her back to her own home.

The Bengali New Year on 15th April was one filled with hope and happiness for the Bhattacharya family.

On twenty fifth April, Gouri’s husband, Mukund, and her father-in-law were invited to lunch. They lived in Vardhaman now. They took a train to Calcutta and it was only after resting and lunch that the pundit had sprung the joyous surprise on them. Only they did not find it joyous, they left without so much as wishing her well. Her father-in-law declared her to be ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ for having survived the trial. Her husband, his father’s obedient son, left his wife for life in a lurch for good and followed in his father’s footsteps… except he had tears in his eyes when he left. Again Mr Bhattacharya was at work and he could not describe the scene exactly.

But when he returned from work a little early, around 3.45pm in the afternoon, he found the scene I described being enacted. The enraged pundit, who had tried to justify the ‘purity’ of his daughter by calling her heart untouched and clean, was burning all his religious books, which condemned the abused girl as ‘impure’. His sister was lying in dead faint dressed in bridal finery. She had been decked up for her husband and in-laws as she would be starting her life anew… but now… now there could be no fresh start.

Mr Bhattacharya saw the chaos and his heart wept for his young sister. He rushed himself to get a doctor.

The doctor had the girl carried to the bed and examined her with care. At the end of the examination, he congratulated her parents for their daughter’s pregnancy.

Gouri had been impregnated by the unholy seeds of a rapist!

Her mother passed out clutching her heart. The doctor stood there. He could do nothing. By the time he reached out  to her, she was no more… that was 25 th April, 1948, twenty-five years ago.

However, today, the biggest shock I had today was seeing the girl who had been decked in bridal finery and one of the wailing women, enter the room with tea and snacks!   They had aged but I could recognize them. Gouri was still alive as was her sister-in-law who had helped dress her. She was Avinash’s wife.

After Gouri came in, nothing more was said. The story had been related while the women were preparing tea. Gouri’s daughter joined them a little later. She had been watering the garden. She was really beautiful with fair skin and black hair and tawny eyes. I could see my nephew gape at her!

I was dying to know the rest of the story. After the women served us tea and joined us, there was no possibility of finding out anything. The conversation moved to generalities like the weather and how beautiful a city Delhi was.

I looked at my watch and indicated it was time for us to go. Mr Bhattacharya smiled and accompanied us down the drive to the gate. He lived in a bungalow with a garden. My nephew had parked his car outside the main gate. As we walked out, I could not help ask Mr Bhattacharya, “Was that not Gouri, girl in a faint decked in bridal finery?”

“ Yes,” he replied, “and her daughter. You mean you recognized her from your vision?”

“ Yes,” I responded. “How are they now? What is it they do?” I blurted out.

“ To conclude my telling… You will find all your answers there. We were forced to leave Calcutta because of the scandal. I took a transfer to Delhi and my younger brother to Bombay. My father died before we left Calcutta, before the child was born. We do not really go there anymore. I use my home as an investment. Here, we pass Gouri off as a widow and her daughter, Mala, has grown up believing her father was killed during the Partition… but there will be a time we will have to tell the child the real story…”

Calcutta,10th August, 1975

My elder brother is very upset. My nephew, Nikhilesh, the one who drove me to Mr Bhattacharya’s house, has eloped with Gouri’s illegitimate daughter, Mala. Mala was doing her PhD in History from Delhi University. It seems Nikhilesh had been smitten by her the first day he saw her! He met her again and now he has married her.

My brother is very angry, especially now that he knows the girl’s background, which has been explained to him by his son in a letter. My brother has sent me a photocopy of the letter asking me for an explanation if I have one. I am gluing the letter to the diary.

The letter

Dear Father,

By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore.

I am marrying the girl I love, Mala, and we are leaving for Singapore tonight. By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore. I have taken a posting here. I told you that I will be going on tour and left.

Mala is the love of my life. I cannot live without her. Yet, you are both so against a love marriage that I cannot even mention her to you. That is why I rejected all the matches you suggested.

I also need to tell you that Mala’s mother was a victim of abuse faced during Partition. Hence, Mala’s father is an unknown factor. Her mother passes herself off as a widow. Mala, as of now, still thinks her father died during the Partition, killed by Muslim mobsters.

Mala’s family will have already received the note that she would have left for them two days ago. I posted my letter on the way out as I wanted to take no chances.

If you find it in your heart to accept Mala and me, please write to us at my office address in India and they will forward it to me in Singapore.

We would love to live with your blessings, love and goodwill.

Regards, love and best wishes,

Nikhilesh

After that the entries ended.

Somya was left thirsting with curiosity to know what happened in the aftermath in Singapore.

The next Saturday, she contacted Paulomi again saying she was through with the diary and would like to return it to Mona.

This time Paulomi asked Somya to meet them in her office in the NUS campus. She was a professor at NUS and Mona was her student.

Somya reached there just as Mona entered for her discussion with Paulomi. Mona was surprised to see Somya, who returned the diary to her and asked, “ Would you like to share the rest with me?”

“ There is nothing more to share. My parents lived happily here. No one from both the sides contacted my parents. My mother did write to her mother and send her the address. In response, my grandmother sent her blessings by post, and died in 1980. My father received a letter from his uncle, blessing him but making it clear that the family was upset. My father’s family never contacted him.”

“Does your mother know her past?”

“ She does now. Her mother wrote to her all the details when she sent her blessings and said it was better that she stayed where she did, making a fresh start. By what I figured out she had not been much of a mother to mine… always caught up in her own world of angst and anger. My mother did not have a very happy childhood but she gave me a fabulous one… The outcome of the revelation, I have heard from my father, made my mother sad for a few days. I have only had love and support from my parents as far as I can remember. It was a wonderful childhood for me. I think my parents had too much happiness between them to let the past destroy the present.”

Meandering to Machu Picchu on Morphine…

 

As I sped through the jungles of Amazonia, I could feel, hear and see the splash of grey green water on my face. My hair flew wildly in the breeze created by the speeding hydrofoil as blue, emerald and red parakeets flitted among the trees. The sky was almost invisible amidst the foliage. The creepers and huge palm like leaves on the banks of the river studded the bottom of the tall trees that sped past in a haze…Then I skidded down a long road with corn fields on both sides. It was a sunny day. The road was a blur of tar and white paint. The soil was brown and the corn, yellow. Could I have arrived at Peru? I had always want to go there to visit Machu Picchu, the amazing city of the Incas with wandering white Llamas…

And every time the monitors beeped me back to reality, to the fact that I was being revived after a surgery. Each time I came back to the reality of being on a bed and not a speedboat or a sleek race car. They anaesthetized me and later had me on a drip of morphine… which is why I had all these wonderful trips to places where I have never been and have always wanted to visit.

Doctors, dentists and nurses are nice to know socially… very kind, vivacious, people who can relate to all and sundry and all kinds of good things can be said of them… but at a professional level, I prefer giving them a wide berth. However, when I had this searing pain in my upper abdomen, I was rushed to the hospital. Then started the preparation for my imaginary trips to various places of interest.

First they put me on a drip. I had only had a toast with honey and chamomile tea at 6.30 in the morning. They wanted to do an ultrasound, they told me and I needed to be starved. I argued, I had ultrasounds through my pregnancies and had never been denied food. With a patient voice, the senior physician informed me that this time, it was the abdomen, the food churning machines, and therefore I had no choice. I was made to lie down.

An enterprising young man came and beat my hands till the veins started to show and then he jabbed. They put me on a saline solution so that I could starve without getting dehydrated. My stomach started craving for food. But I lay there still, on a drip.

Around noon, they let me walk with hands pierced by the drip needle to the radiologist. I was asked to lie down on a narrow shelf-like couch that seemed to grow out of the wall, only it had a soft rexine-like finish. It could barely accommodate my ample girth! Then she asked me to relax. They always do… is it not? To avoid plunging into the depths of an abysmal chasms of frozen fear, I recited Wordsworth’s Daffodils under my breath as her cold scanner smeared a colder gel on me. Then, with due apologies to the great poet, she scanned and scanned but little thought what curiosity in me it wrought, especially when she put me on hold and ran out to get a full abdomen scan order from the doctor. And then, she did her stuff and let me go. I was sent back to the drip.

Every now and then, the needle poking young male nurse ambled in to check on me and offered me pain-relieving injections, which I politely refused. What would be more painful, a needle or the pain I had?

I tried to converse with the young man but the conversation always reverted to poking needles or starving me… he seemed to be obsessed with jabs.

At last, the senior physician came and said, I needed to go for a CT scan with a dye injected in me… How comfortable does that sound on an empty, rumbling stomach?! This time they did not ask but put me on a wheel chair. Again I was made to lie down on a long, narrow, plank-like couch that would go into a circular tunnel. Then they warned, it might hurt and they put a drip of a brownish liquid. The radiologist told me I could relax then and breath in and out as the machine instructed. She made me wait ten long minutes with my needle poked hand positioned above my head savoring the brown fluid coursing through my veins. The machine started talking and asked me to hold my breath in and out as the plank on which I lay moved in and out of the tunnel. I felt like I was going through a futuristic process and wondered if the medical investigations in Star Wars or Agents of Shield would be as intimidating in reality.

At last around 6.30 pm, I was freed off machines and told that I could eat. But by then, I had lost my appetite. Remember, I had been starved for twelve hours. I found it difficult to eat. So, they continued me on the saline and would not let me go home till I had a hearty breakfast and they took me off the saline.

The doctor gave me a three-day break to ready myself for a surgery scheduled for that Saturday. He said as it was a major surgery, he wanted to be relaxed! So, it would have to be the weekend!

On Friday, I had to go to visit not just the doctor but also the phlebotomist. In case you are wondering what the latter is, they have the jobs of vampires, except the vampires draw blood for the selfish intent of consumption and the phlebotomists do it for the noble cause of medical investigations. The lady phlebotomist was nice. As she drew vial after vial of blood, we chatted about our lives’ works…

The next day was Saturday. I remember, going to the hospital, being visited by the anesthetist and the pain doctor who explained to me how to use the morphine shot that would be given to me after my surgery, saw my doctor and his team mate, another surgeon. The anesthetist was kind enough to say I had veins like a lady as he found them difficult to locate and then it all blanked out.

I lost a whole day and woke up in the evening with my family at the ledge of my bed, bringing me back to reality. I was strapped to all kinds of machines and could barely move!

I could not sleep well the whole night at the High Dependency Unit for the beep of monitors. When the anesthetist came in the morning and I complained of lack of sleep, he told me that I was not meant to sleep but to wake up. I still had the morphine drip and shot when I was wheeled into my room.

I lay in on my high-tech bed with drips dripping saline, morphine and medication. Though I was surrounded by friends and family, again I found my bed encapsulating me and whirling me into outer space. I flew among the stars in my white and blue space ship and the machine that massaged my legs to prevent thrombosis became the controls of my ship. As I glided noiselessly in a dark vacuum studded with stars, I was drawn back to reality with the look of concern and affection on a friend’s face by my bed.

Next day I was taken off the morphine and my journey towards heading home started.

Now, I sit at home recuperating and writing. I had always wondered how ST Coleridge could write a description of Xanadu without ever stepping into China… His Kubla Khan written under the influence of opium made me a fan of Kublai Khan. I not only read on him but lived in China for eight years and walked the Great Wall four times, only parts of it, not all of it.

Now I wonder if my trip through Amazonia and Peru on morphine will take me to the real Machu Picchu ever… or, perhaps, the Egyptian pyramids on camel back…or maybe, to Easter Island among those huge rocks where like a shaman or a druid of yore, I could feel the elements tear at me and wrap me with their mystery…