I reached the Nursing home's consultation room. Our cashier was waiting for me. There was confusion on his face. Usually when he stood there, looking like that, it meant there was an emergency patient without money.
He knew that we didn’t turn them away but he always came to seek my permission. I waggled my eyebrows, a silent inquiry on my face.
“Sir there is a cardiac arrest case, the wife has no cash. She is offering to keep her earrings as a guarantee. Says she would get the money soon.”
I jerked my head side ways allowing him to admit the patient, the cashier smiled with relief. If I had refused this, I fear that the guilt of saying no, would have bothered him for days.
By the time I settled on my chair, there was a knock on the door. A lady, about seventy years old, nodded her dupatta-covered head. She asked permission to enter. Her fair skin was radiant between the age lines. She had huge eyes, high cheekbones, and a sharp nose, seen in affluent women.
My gaze wandered to her hands, they didn’t match the face at all. They were rough and unkempt. The greenish veins were swollen. They disclosed a life of hard labour. In those hands was a pair of gold chand balis. She kept them on my table. I saw they had a star in a half moon design, very common across the border. Unable to speak, she folded her hands, in request. The tear-smeared face probably had a choked throat below. I checked the Patient’s registration form the cashier had filled up- Tejinder Singh Sandhu it read. Signed in the spouse column was her name, Sakeena Begum.
I pushed the ornament pair back towards her, “We do not accept our payment in kind. Please take these back, don’t worry the treatment has begun. Get the money when you can.”
She spoke up, “God bless you Dr. Sahab. Please save his life, I’ll just be back and pay.”
Within an hour she returned with two packets of currency notes. Her ears were empty; she had probably sold the earrings to a jeweler. All night she prayed sat outside the ICU. She offered her pre-dawn Namaz in the corridor.
Next morning Sandhu sahib was shifted to a room. I was on my round when he gained consciousness and the nurse summoned me urgently.
Still drowsy, he forced open his eyes and licked his dried lips. His tired eyes surveyed the room and people around him. His gaze then rested on a silhouette behind me.
He squinted to look more intently. Suddenly a look of surprise crossed his face and he whispered, “What are you doing here Kinno?”
It was my turn to be surprised. Why was he so shocked to see her there? Wasn’t she not supposed to be there?
With brimming eyes Sakeena Begum forced a hoarse voice, “I thought of meeting you before leaving. When I went up, I found you unconscious, face on the floor. Everyone said it was a heart attack so I brought you here.”
Sandhu ji stared for a long tense moment then murmured, “You know you spoke to me after fifty five years, maybe I stayed alive to just to hear your voice.”
Her eyelids drooped; the old lady nodded her head, as though she was confessing her crime.
Their eyes were locked with each other, tears flowing without abandon. The nurse and myself as though didn’t exist. We quietly slipped out of the room.
Junior Sandhu, Manmeet Singh arrived in the evening. He inquired his father’s status in detail. He complained that his widower father lived alone and did not wish to come with them to Canada. He preferred to live in the house all by himself.
I accompanied him to the room. He broke down watching his father in the pitiable state, shaken that he could have missed meeting him. He touched Sakeena’s feet and thanked her for saving his father’s life.
For a week Sakeena begum and Manmeet took turns to look after the recuperating old man. One day I was passing by the corridor, Sandhu sahib called out for help from his room. The two caretakers had both gone to run errands and he needed some water. I entered the room. Seeing his doctor instead of the ward boy caused him surprise and awkwardness. I poured a glass and helped him sit up to drink it.
It was a relatively free afternoon I sat on the visitor’s bench. Reality was that I was intrigued. It began with some small talk with the septuagenarian. I learnt Mr. Sandhu owned an auto repair shop. His son had migrated to Canada and his wife passed away two years ago. Sakeenaji was his neighbor, the ‘Mirzas’. Ever since the Sandhus arrived from Lahore, they had lived in adjacent houses. They were childhood friends.
“Were you childhood sweethearts too, if I may ask?” I treaded on the guarded territory.
Sandhu Sahab looked peering in my eyes, whether I was genuinely interested or looking for some frivolous gossip. He then began, “You know Doctor sahib love can cure every ailment of this life, it is the answer to all problems, but then comes youth. with youth comes desire and that creates many complicated questions.”
Manmeet was entering the room; he probably heard his father and stopped at the doorway. Uncertain if he should hear further, he turned to go out again.
Sandhu sahib called him inside. “Don’t go. I am an old man now it doesn’t matter. I think you should know.”
“Our houses shared a wall. In the whole row of houses, the first floors had big terraces separated by low dividers. You could begin from one side of the street and go hopping over them to reach the other end. We were two families, surviving the trauma of partition, the children played together, ladies quietly exchanged sugar or gossip but the men didn’t mingle. Once our fathers’ left for work, we jumped the divider each day and played for hours.”
Once my father returned from a work trip to Orissa. He carried a colourful umbrella decorated with Pipli applique’ work. All umbrellas we had seen were drab black. This had all the colours of a rainbow stitched on to it. I shouted out to Sakeena to see it. She suggested we make a tent with it and play ‘house’. I carried it to her side of the terrace. All afternoon we hung balloons from the umbrella spokes. We crawled in and out of our little tent. Shared our meal below it. It was the most beautiful house two children could have. That day Mirza Sahab returned home for some urgent work. He heard our giggles and excited chatter and climbed up the stairs. He saw us both lying below the umbrella, we were too busy admiring our colorful balloons against the patterns.
I saw Mirza sahab’s furious face loom over us. With one blow he sent the umbrella flying in the air. It fell and shut with a jerk. Our toys lay scattered over the floor. Sakeena was trembling like an autumn leaf in the face of a storm. He picked up the umbrella and used it as a stick to hit my back. With each blow Sakeena cried louder, shouting for her mother. He shoved her down the stairs, warning her never to be with me again. I also nodded and promised him. Still both of us were back on the terrace next day. “
Both Manmeet and me let out a chuckle. “Kids!”
Sandhu sahib continued, “Sakeena had carried an ointment her mother sent. She rubbed it on my black and blue skin. Her tears fell like rain on my parched soul. Although I had hardly understood what vexed her father so much, but whatever it might be I forgave him there and then.”
Sandhuji’s story had transported me in a different era. When the nurse came to get some papers signed, I quickly scribbled and dismissed her with a wave of my hand. After she left I urged Sandhuji to go on.
“After few years we were about fifteen and joined high school. Our schools were in different areas. Everyday I left late to escort her to her school so that the older boys do not tease her. We caught up on each other’s day while riding our cycles to and fro her school.
If it was Lohri, she came with me door to door asking for goodies. Danced around the fire in the giddha and sang the boliyaan with my sisters. On Eid she would secretly sneak a bowl of Ksheerkorma over the terrace. Our festivals were shared too.
“We were about fifteen when we joined high school. Everyday I escorted her to Girls school so that the older boys did not tease her. Mine was in a different area.
There wasn’t a single pushcart that we had not eaten from. The gol-gappe, ice-lollies, candyfloss. Little money we got was spent on sharing the spicy treats on the way. One day Sakeena told me, she wanted to go for a movie ‘Mahal’ starring Madhubala and Ashok Kumar. For a week we did not eat anything and saved money for the tickets.
At the ticket window I covered my face with a muffler. The front line was just chara anne. Fifty paise for two tickets. I off loaded a fist full of one paisa, two paise coins. “Have you brought all the change you had in your house?” the man at the window quipped. I ran to my home and staright rushed to the terrace. I peeped down Sakeena was at the hand pump, filling water buckets for her mother. I waved the tickets in the air. She left the water and climbed up. M.A.HA.L..sheread loudly. “You really got them! I will wear my new sharara suit.”
“It’s a film not a spring fair, it would be dark in the hall. Who will see your clothes? These are matinee tickets, we will skip school and go. Take your burqa. You will have to sit in the ladies section.”
“What all alone? I will be so scared. I thought I can sit with you.”
“Don’t worry, I will come at the ladies exit to take you.”
We left home that day and reached the cinema. My school did not have a uniform and Sakeena’s burqa hid her school dress. As planned we rushed to the aisle seats. We could see each other. Sakkena was watching the film nodding her head with full expressions, the actors were as if talking to her.
In half time I bought two cups of tea and asked the hawker to give it to her. He refused, for the ladies side there was a different boy he claimed. The last coin in my pocket was spent to bribe him for crossing the three feet aisle. Sakeena was thrilled that she was served like a queen. On the way back we talked about the mystery, songs and the magic of moving pictures. It was our big escapade, a secret that we were going to guard all our lives from our families.
We could not talk much at home so we caught up on each other’s day, while riding our cycles to and fro school. One day it was raining, I had carried my umbrella to save her from the rain. I kept it on her head and balanced my cycle with the other hand. We were passing through the wheat fields. A pebble sticking out of the muddy road turned the front tyre, I lost my balance and fell in a ditch. Sakeena was perplexed at first, but burst in to laughter.
It was lush green all around us, rain drizzling from the overcast skies. I was lying in a ditch, covered with wet mud that smelled heavenly. Her wet clothes stuck to her shapely body and her laughter sounded like a thousand wind chimes in the wind. Spell bound I could not move. My heart pounded like festival drums and a strange excitement seemed to flow though my body. When she extended her hand to help me get up, I made the mistake of holding it. Her touch made my body respond in the erotic way. I sprang up and without a thought took her in my arms. It was an instinct to kiss her.
Sakeena’s laughter was muffled in my rough kissing. She tried to push me away, I tightened my grip, soon she was pounding my chest with her fists, and I could feel her trembling too.
When I raised my head and loosened my hold, searching for the same excitement in her eyes, I was shattered. Sakeena was pale and scared. There were tears in her eyes. It was not excitement but fear of my brute force that had petrified her. I could see her chest heaving up and down. Her breathing was like a storm. Her palm struck my cheek like a bolt of lightening. She picked up the umbrella and hit me with it several times. Guilty I did not resist. Without a word, she picked her cycle and rode again. When I called out, she flashed the umbrella as a threat.
I let out an audible gasp. The tension in the room was palpable.
“That was the last day we talked. The incident stood like an invisible wall between the two of us. If I went up the terrace and saw her drying her long hair, she looked away, picked her things and went down. Turned away when our paths crossed.
She was just eighteen when her marriage was fixed with a rich merchant of Lahore. I was heart broken. There were a thousand things I wished to say but did not have the courage. For a week I worked like a horse in her wedding arrangements. On her ‘Bidaayi’ I cried more than her mother. When the horse carriage left the street, I felt my heart would burst. I had lost all the right on her she belonged to a stranger.
My nights were a torture, if I slept I dreamt of her in her husband’s embrace sleeping peacefully. If I kept awake and thought about her. Every year that she came to visit her parents, I waited hours to catch a glimpse. Seven years passed, she always came home alone. I asked my mother, why she didn’t have any children. My mother sadly disclosed that Sakeena could not conceive, her in-laws were unhappy and threatened to remarry their son, if another year passed.
Then one morning we heard Sakeena’s mother’s loud cries. My mother forgot all the restrictions and rushed to their house. The worst had happened. Sakeena’s husband had got a new wife at home. Her parents were leaving for Lahore. Ever since the day Mirza sahib had beaten me I had avoided him. But that day, I gathered all my courage and confronted him. Please get Sakeena back. I don’t want any children. I will marry her.”
The tension in the hospital room was palpable. Manmeet shifted uneasily in his chair. I had also moved to the edge of the bench.
“Mirza sahib returned empty handed, Sakeena’s husband had humiliated Mirza sahib for marrying his sterile daughter by deceit. He told Sakeena to choose between him and her father. Sakeena refused to return, she told them it was her destiny to stay in her husband’s house. She would make her stepchildren as her own. Mirza sahib looked at me with helpless eyes. I had forgiven him years ago but it seems he had never forgiven himself.
Sakeena’s refusal filled me with rage, was I that bad that she had still preferred her husband over me? Let her be I thought, I would live my own life. Next year I got married. Whenever I was with my wife, a faint fragrance of wet earth and Sakeenas wet body filled my memories. Earlier I fussed over her in matrimonial bliss and my suffering. Now I was satiated and she lay alone in a room suffering her self imposed exile. I felt sick. Love is a treacherous emotion. You suffer in every way.
Manmeet let out a sigh. His eyes were soft imagining his father’s anguish. Pointing to him the old man said then our kakka was born. I felt on top of the world holding him in my arms. My wife beamed and said, “When a woman loves a man she wants to bear him his child.” Her words struck me like a whip. They were a revelation; I understood why Sakeena had refused to come back. I contacted my friends in Lahore, they told me Sakeena lived like a glorified maid in that house. In her step children she was trying to live the motherhood, brutally denied to her. She looked after them like an unpaid slave and the second wife graced the social occasions in the best of finery. Her husband passed away last year, he left all the money to his children. Sakeena served them all her life for nothing.
Our eyes were moist. How much were the two people meant to suffer.
Sandhu sahab wiped his eyes and sniffed. He added, “She came to attend her nephew’s wedding last week. It broke my heart to see her. She was a pale shadow of the chirpy girl I loved. She sacrificed her happiness for me and I wanted to teach her a lesson. How does one talk to a lady like her? When she sat in the car to leave, once again I felt my heart would burst. This time it really did.”
I pressed Sandhuji’s hand with mine. “Do you know she did not have any money? She sold off her earrings to get you admitted.”
Sandhu sahab’s eyes welled up once again. Can she ever forgive me? Why is she going again? I wish she stayed, she has seen no happiness. I want to make up for all the lost time.
I was unable to hold my tears. A lump rose up in my throat. I pretended to look at my watch through my tears and told them I was late. I got up and looked expectantly at Manmeet.
Outside the door I saw Sakeena begum weeping silently. I forgot I was their doctor. I wiped her tears and hugged her. For the first time in my life I patted the head of a woman older than my mother. I opened the door and gently pushed her inside. She shook her head and raised a silent protest, I continued.
Next day Manmeet collected the discharge papers. I shook his hand and wished him good luck. I met a few patients and asked for a cup of tea. The sun was shinning too brightly, I got up to draw the curtains. Out of the window, I saw Manmeet keeping Sandhu Sahab’s belongings in the car boot. Sakeenaji was slowly pushing the wheelchair to the car. Her Chandbalis were dangling in her ears. She looked up squinting at the Sun, and then opened an umbrella to get some shade over Sandhu Sahab. It was an old worn out applique work umbrella, in all colours of the rainbow.