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.