/Harmony: Sister Love

Harmony: Sister Love

We are eight sisters and two brothers—who don’t really count in the context of this story. Yes we are a large family and when I tell people, I get to hear snide comments and lascivious remarks  regarding my parents!

 But then that is another story.

Lets go back to childhood; in hindsight that is probably the best place to be. We had a great happy childhood  with  a sprawling bungalow and large rooms to accommodate all of us; no one slept alone . There was a green  lawn  and a  huge  gulmohar tree  which shed its flowers on the lawn. Many a winter  afternoon was spent playing ‘fight’ with the curved stamens of the buds of the gulmohar flowers.

 We had no sleepovers , like kids today. Our  best friends   therefore were our sisters. Now mind you, we were no angels  and we fought like cats for things we wanted—like a particular dress which Ma  had got for my younger sister, was exactly what I wanted and would fight her tooth and nail! In fact these fights  carried on well into the years after my kids were born. It was  for all this  that  we sisters would plan to get to Meerut together so we could spend time together.

It is only after our parents passed on that we developed greater bonds and greater caring for each other.We have stayed in touch  and worked on getting together every year, till  the last few years when  the older brothers-in-law started falling sick and were unable to join the hoi-hoi !

Benu who is two years older than me has lived in Windsor , UK for the last  45 years. Every year, for the last 15 years, she and her husband Barunda( short for dada), come to India in the winter months and then head back  before the Indian summer really clicks in. Last November, we were getting ready for her annual visit when we got this message that  they have had to cancel  their trip  because she has to be admitted in hospital for emergency treatment for cancer. It came as a rude shock and all of us across the country were perplexed—she has always been the ‘healthy’ food and healthy lifestyle kind of person How could she get cancer?

But then the medical reports were irrevocable. My sister, Rina,  in Kolkata has both her sons in the US. The elder boy fixed up her tickets visa etc so by mid December, she was there in Windsor to spend a week with Benu. What did they do?

The same thing that Indira, my older sister from Delhi( so it will go on like this—my sis from Chennai, my eldest  sis from  Aurangabad,  sis from Bhopal  and so on!) and I did  when we visited Windsor in June. We laughed, we cried , we played board games  and we went for long walks and all of us tucked into fruits—peach from Spain, tangerines from Morocco and grapes from California!

 It was heart breaking to see this  girl who has always been so active, popping 8-10 painkillers  everyday. She has one before going to sleep, the pain recurs  in about 5 hours and she comes downstairs to the living room , has a pill , goes out to the garden to enjoy the lovely flowers, makes herself a cup of tea and when the pill begins to work, she lies down on the couch and dozes fitfully. I come down the stairs, trying to walk  as softly as I can with my heavy tread and just when I am planning to give her a hug, I see her watching me—‘why are you up so early?’

“So I could see sleeping beauty sleeping!”  She smiles and shuts her eyes again. With shut eyes she tells me, ‘get your tea and come and sit’

I do just that, while Indira returns from her early morning walk—-she is an early riser and she is enjoying the  lovely open spaces  and the fresh bracing air. She is sitting outside and doing her regular exercise advised by her physiotherapist because she dislocated her shoulder two years ago. She is huffing and puffing on the chair while I give her her tea—‘arre you are up early!’ she is also surprised because  Im known as the late riser!

All three of us are in the kitchen and I have my camera out. ‘C’mon smile for me, my beauties!’

‘Oh no all your faces are dark’ .  So I fidget and make them move here and there till I get the light is right! In all this fuss the kettle is boiling over, the sabzi on the hob is getting burnt—- Benu yells, ‘out of the way camera! We shall see u later!’

 I’m disheartened and wait for another time. Benu is  a little  down and out and her smile is struggling to come out.  She feels she looks like a monster—which is not true at all. She has all her hair and she has a lovely smile but I know she is avoiding the camera! I dare not tell her that I can understand her pain, I dare not empathize—then I know that I will break down and cry too!

 So Indira and I have decided that, whatever we  do, we shall not  spill  any more tears  about her condition.

Benus older son,  Bratin  and his lovely wife Rachel  are coming over to have lunch with us. They have two lovely daughters and they are regular sunshine. Benu is very happy and excited making   some fancy dishes for them. The sun is up and it is a bright day—Bratin tells his mashis, “thanks for bringing in the sunshine with you!”

We are frying puris and both Benu and Indira are at the hob. I need to reach a bowl for the salad—by the way Ive been named Ms Salad as cutting the salad is my job! I tell Indira to move her butt out of the way so I can reach the cupboard.. She refuses to move out and breaks into a dance step! A hippy hippy shake!

How do you like my thumka( a brisk flick of the waist line— a dance step in Indian dancing!)? and we all start giggling!!

So it is a picnic lunch—we carry all the food out and enjoy the bonhomie. In and out we all go with dish after dish. Barunda has made the meat curry with potatoes, and there’s a spinach  chochori (Bong style)   and some fries and dal!

Amazingly both the girls clear up their plates— they have eaten with their fingers and have enjoyed the morning!

The grand feast is over, the kids and grandkids have gone.   The dishwasher is loaded and we are sitting down in the  living room, with our cuppas. I am on the carpet catching up with my knitting  when I look up at Benu who has stretched herself out on the couch. Her eyes are shut.

 Hurting? I ask in a whisper.  She nods.

 Can I get you something?  She shakes her head. Slowly she gets up, goes to her medicine bank, has a pill while the kettle is on. She goes back to her couch and stretches out. I make her coffee, the way she likes it. She feels better and reaches for it.

I have been watching the peeling nail varnish on her toes. So today is her pedicure day—Im also the in- house beautician!

We clean up the nail varnish  and Im aghast—her nails are black. She tells me it is because of the chemo. Her feet are soaking in hot soapy water  and she shows me the soles of her feet where some of it is still black.

“ That was the color of my nails and my feet—now they are much better. This is why I keep my toe nails painted in this dark red color.”

 I scrub and scrub and take off a lot of dead skin, I trim her nails, apply loads of cream  into the skin so that the skin stays soft.

“Shammo, you should open up a beauty parlor!” says Indira. “ Maybe   the two of us should do it here. All around there  are advertisements for buying a house in a  senior community. Lets do it here. “

 ‘What? Buy the house? Or start a parlor?’


Ok so who does the hard work? Me or you?

 You – see how well you are scrubbing her feet!

 And what will you do?

 I will collect the money!

 How we laugh! Benu is in splits!

 So I tell  her that  we shall paint the nails  after a few days. This is to let  her nails breathe so  that they can get better.

Next morning Ms Benu is  up with the lark. While that is   nothing new for her but she  has come back with a 3-pint  jug of milk and the most sinfully  tasty croissants from Tesco.

 How did you do that? It is not even 6 o’clock yet .

They are open  all night—24×7.  Oh! That is  Great!

 So she has done her morning walk and come back with food stuff for us.

Benu and Barunda  want to take us out to Camber Sands, a little town on the seaside which has caravans on hire.

Indira and I tell her that they do not have to do this  as we have no need to be ‘entertained’ as we are not ‘tourists’. We have come with the express purpose of being with her  and we do not wish to go on any excursion. When I tell this to Barunda, he says that it will do Benu good to get out for a while and she loves the place.

 So we go. It turns out  truly lovely and serene. But when we reach there Benu gets us truly  worried. She lies down on the couch and  just shuts her eyes— she is exhausted and Im sure she is in pain. Indira and I are whispering  between us and we tell Barunda our fears. He reassures us that she is okay—she needs the breaks,   especially after the painkillers. Half an hour later she is up  and wondering why the  food has not been warmed up yet. We have  a delightful  rice and curry and salad ( ahem! My work!)

 Now we have to collect ducks eggs from John who sells them  from his home. We decide to walk and leave Benu to R&R (rest and recuperate) John and his ducks are in a class apart—he has about 50 different kind of  ducks from across England. They recognize him and follow him wherever he goes – a lot like ‘Mary had a little lamb….”

We go out to walk on the bund that is now a proper road although cars are not permitted here. It is only meant for walkers.

Next day Barunda does his magic omelets with the Ducks eggs and we have  a huge lunch! Delightful!

 We are out for a walk again, this time to the beach—it is beautiful and clean and since it is low tide, we can walk  a long distance into the sea.Amazing beach—no shells, no shallow pools of water, only flat  wet sand for miles together.  Barunda does a lovely photograph of the three of us with the vast sea in the background—a keepsake.

 Shreya , Benu’s foster child is here from Senegal and she has brought mangoes for Benu kaki. And we also have strawberries! So a  dabba of vanilla ice cream is essential in the order of things! So Benu has vanilla ice cream and Indira , Shreya and I have strawberries and ice cream.  Barunda has only strawberries because  he cannot have ice cream

The next day we go to Harvesters  for  lunch and pig out on fish n chips— ever since we had been hankering for it at camber sands, Benu had been telling us about this place . We tucked into the salad and after  my second helping of the  fancy salad and fancier dressings, she tells me in a stage whisper, “keep some space in your tummy ! your fish and chips is a huge serving!”

And then I see it coming – it is served on a plate the size of  our rice plates of yesteryears! A huge mound of chips and an equally large chunk of batter fried fish! But it was a treat!

It is time to say goodbye. Rina’s son   from Chicago is meeting us at Heathrow  because he is here at work. I ask Benu  if we are to see her  at the end of the year and her classic answer—– Que sera sera.

And when the tears spill over—she says,  we don’t cry, we take one day at a time  and live it to the fullest.

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Shyamola Khanna

The first one in her orthodox Bong family to marry a Punju fighter pilot, Shyamola Khanna has never had a day’s regret, except for the fact that her dear husband of 36 years did not live to see the day her book came out. He would have been proud. From teaching kids in schools across the country, she made a tentative foray into writing lifestyle and soon acquired quite a professional level—she has been published in all the mainline newspapers and magazines. She continues to write for magazines and is now a volunteer teacher at the AOC centre and at the Denver School for the Blind where she helps kids with English.