Gurbir thrashed her torso in grief on the lime green sofa, the one covered in thick, shiny plastic to keep it permanently clean. Her muffled sobs added to the unlikely squeak of friction of her bright pink silk suit against the sticky plastic. She beat her forehead with both her palms. Her twenty-four heavy, shiny gold bangles, twelve on each arm, jangled. Unable to contain her emotions anymore, the sounds of anguish punctuated the humid afternoon air. Suddenly, Gurbir paused in mid-grief and stared at the messenger of bad news. Her brother tried to touch her shoulder, to encompass the grief, but it only made her start another bout of convulsion. “Dead?” she uttered, over and again. Gurcharan nodded. “Heart attack. Gone. Just like that.” A shard of pain shot through her own thirty-year-old heart. Her husband was forty. How could he die? Leave her with eight children? How to survive? Disjointed thoughts flooded her head. That’s all she knew. Ma. Mummy. Ma-ji. She only knew how to reproduce. Give birth. Nurture. Feed. Bathe. Cook. Comfort. Scold. Discipline. Love. Endless cycle of children since she was thirteen. A girl child was only taught to marry. Not to survive. She recoiled as she remembered women ancestors long ago who were expected to walk into their dead husband’s funeral pyre.
One by one, the children ran out of their rooms, confused, drawn by the heart-wrenching wails of their mother. They encircled her, the youngest daughter pushing through to find solace in her mother’s lap. Except there was none. Gurbir was frantically removing the gold bangles from her wrists. They made a loud clanging sound as they hit the top of the glass table. She took the corner of her shawl and wiped her lipstick and removed the red streak in the parting of her hair. She wiped the large red dot in the middle of her forehead. She, unwillingly, transformed into the outward marks of widowhood. Symbols removed. No more colour. No more joy. The room was now eerily silent.
The children formed a circle around their mother, silenced by her grief, holding her spirit up in their unity. They didn’t fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. She was mother. She was here. That’s all they could grasp for the moment. Papa was never home, anyways. He was, mostly, absent. Gone to Indonesia. Gone to India. Work. Businessman. That’s all they knew of the tall, gentle man with his flowing black silky beard and long hair, well-oiled and coiled, tied in a knotted bun under his trademark red turban. The oldest children couldn’t fathom that Papa would never come home again. The oldest son was devastated to see mummy in distress. He pushed through, sat at her feet, and leaned his puzzled forehead against her shuddering knees.
Gurbir stared at her children. How had she carried eight of them? She blinked. A woman. A wife. A mother. Now, what? Being a wife was eliminated in that split second of death. Not even a woman, anymore. An outsider. A dreaded widow. To wear white in perpetuity. But a mother – what now? Who would feed her children? How could she even do that? She had herself, if uneasily, become a wife as a child. Married from her village in Punjab, her long, lonely journey to Singapore at thirteen had been fraught with isolation, confusion and loneliness. Now? How was she to survive with eight children? Rent? Food?
Despite the iciness that plunged through her veins and the fear that rummaged in her belly, she held out her arms and as many children as could fit clambered around her. She sank her wet face in the tumble of hands, necks and torsos. She needed, in that moment, to be soothed by her children, to be that frightened, lonely thirteen-year-old who had become a mother before she even knew how. When the midwife thrust the wailing baby into her arms, her motherly instinct – or whatever that was that ran through the veins of women like the blood that nourished them – had taken over.
Gurbir’s brother left, promising to return in the morning. Darkness fell and the night felt eerily calm. Gurbir hadn’t moved from the sofa. The thick plastic continually creaked even with her minute movements. Her children dispersed to their rooms, the older ones instinctively nurturing the younger ones. Gurbir’s mind raced. Grief clouded her thoughts. Her husband had been a beautiful soul. Never a harsh word from him. Always a loving embrace. Always a longing for her when he returned. Eight children to prove it. She reluctantly heaved herself out of the sticky embrace of the couch and stared at the twenty-four gold bangles on the table. She knew she would have to go to the goldsmith to sell them first thing in the morning. Everything she owned.
Mingled with heartache, her mind raced. Suddenly, Gurbir darted out of the living room upstairs and scrambled down the rickety stairs to the ground floor of the pre-war house. She trundled down the long, dark narrow hallway to the unused back portion of the house. She stared at the big, wide-open space where the children played hopscotch and with their skipping rope. The three squat toilets and two bathrooms were lined on the right. Silently, she took the tape measure and pencil from the drawer of the sewing machine in the corner of the room and started measuring the space. She wrote the measurements on the wall with the pencil.
Her sons came bounding into the back of the house. Four strapping teenagers. “Mummyji?” She heard one of them call out in alarm. She handed him the tape measure. She motioned the boys to work. Measuring narrow spaces, like coffins. Writing on the walls. Drawing boxes and diagrams. The boys were puzzled. Gurbir’s forehead was tense and furrowed in thought. They obediently followed her instructions. “Six rooms,” she murmured under her breath. Tamil labourers from India loitering in the alley were always looking to rent rooms. Many times, she had shooed them away when they came knocking door to door, looking to rent a bed to put their weary heads upon after a long day hauling bricks and stone at the construction sites.
What else could a widow even do to bring in money? There were no jobs for women. Not in 1950. Her motherly will to survive was stronger than the other option of prostrating at the feet of strangers to beg for help. Thoughts raced haphazardly. How would she even let men into the house as a widow amidst the prying eyes and wagging tongues of neighbours, friends and family and other people from the gurdwara? Survive or succumb?
Silently, she put her arms around her sons and propelled them up the stairs. Each step felt like lead. Each step was shrouded in darkness. Heartache. Anguish. Trepidation. Apprehension. Puzzlement. Defeat. Bewilderment. Suffering. The strong arms of her children gave her strength. Gurbir entered the living room an unwillingly transformed woman. She recoiled from the familiar essence of motherhood that viciously coursed through her veins, one she recognized since she had been thirteen.
She bravely threw her head back and whispered a fervent prayer to Babaji. Standing tall, she put her arms out to her anxious brood. They all dashed in, and Gurbir felt in the core of her womb a fleeting moment of clarity – she would be a mother who would surrender to no one and nothing.
Kelly’s poems and works have been published in Sanscrit, West Coast, Singa, CBC, Mothering Anthology, New Asian Short Stories 2015, Short Story Dispenser (Central Library), online YYC Portraits of People, Time of the Poet Republic, Canada, WordCity Monthly, Best Asian Short Stories 2020, Blindman Session Stories, Anak Sastra, The Rucksack Project, The Contemporary Canadian Poets Program, Namaashoum and Understorey. Her first novel, Letters to Singapore, is set to be published by Stonehouse Publishing in Spring 2022.