Seva Singh worked at Begumpur, the finest Indian restaurant on a fading High Street, mastering the steel pots of burning oil. His Samosas were ‘too much exquisite, a true taste of Punjab.’ That was what his boss wrote on the laminated menus that smelled of Lamb Bhuna no matter how hard the Bengali waiters rubbed them with tired washing up sponges. The same could have been said of Seva Singh himself: by the end of his twelve hour shifts his skin would be lacquered with the ferocious smell of turmeric and onions refusing to be tamed by the cheap deodorant he sprayed on it. He would laugh about it with Ali, one of the waiters so adept at scrubbing menus, telling him that no woman could resist the smell of his Brute spray, no woman except his wife that is. Ali would buckle over with salacious laughter, grabbing Seva Singh’s paunch, squeezing it until he was permitted a shot of the dubious aphrodisiac on his own fake Diesel jeans. Eight chefs and three owners may have passed through Begumpur since those times but he never did forget Seva Singh and his Brute spray. ‘He was a good man and his samosas were too much exquisite’ he would say, in a joke that only he was left to enjoy
When the ambulance came it sped the rag of his onion infused body through the High Street and on to the Hospital of Life. There he was laid, induced into a profound sleep, as white coats ran at him with surgical knives, embalming him from within with wondrous medication, as if that could have saved him from the fiat of his soul.
He was put on his back, his torso soft like naan dough, ready for his final battery powered expiration. I cried when I saw the mess of his dreams, smashed like bone china in the case of his body. No doctor could fix that. “Poor Seva’ I said. “Now you know that the west’s streets are not made of gold.”
Looking around, I gazed at hospital plaster crumbling off walls and ceilings, like dandruff off an old man’s head, congealing only on broken limbs. I gazed too at toilets, clogged and stained, and the bleach that perfumed their rancid air. What else could I do but thank the Lord that angels were relieved from moving bowels?
It was in the intensive care unit, next to a bottle of corrosive hand wash, fluorescent green and screwed to a wall, that the dust gathered on my feet, collecting in ringlets tracing their prints. For six months I stood beneath a television’s drone, immersed in soap operas less fanciful than the biographies of the patients before me. I smiled at the solemn doctors and nurses, enamoured with each other and the curative powers of sterility, washing their already clean hands. Relatives would file by me and I would register the kaleidoscope of their moods; happiness, sorrow, joy, disdain, and the plentiful types of slow burning pain. And a cold wind would blow on my weeping heart. If only they could know the depth of my love. Mostly I would see in them shades of damp grey, like an overcast ocean in fading light. There were days when I kindled in them small fires of hope that their loved ones would return to them blissfully unchanged. On others, it was my lot to extinguish the embers of their misplaced faith. There were times when I would look at people, awed by an intangible vastness they could not perceive, and the workings of the universe were a mystery to me. I too would call out for a miracle. How was I to help these people when their sick and dying were insensible to my prayers? Sometimes the answer is that there is not one and not even angels can make it otherwise.
In the nights of my days I would listen for Pedro, the cleaner, to know that another morning had come. Tall and slender and hunched and meek, he would sweep through the ward at 6am, brown eyes downcast, looking at linoleum worn thin and tired. A baseball cap covered his hair and a breast pocket covered a small pen within it that smudged the white cotton red like blood. The presence of the pen was a mystery to me: in bold letters like a child’s he could scratch his name but that was where the scratching stopped. His presence made no difference to the inhabitants of the ward running as they did their lives in dreams. But to me he was beautiful. Each stroke of his distracted broom spelled with love’s eloquence his daughter’s good name and reminded him of crumbs he would wash from her hair on light evenings, precious and rare, when he would rock her to sleep in his arms. He would sing to her Spanish lullabies holding back his smoker’s cough. Gifts of dark chocolate I would leave by his breast; I liked how his bushy eyebrows met and flew skyward when he found them and saved them from a red ink peril. That always made me laugh. And invariably when I laughed Mr Gyaltso, from bed 17, would wake from his dreamlike coma and turn to me his sleepy head. Adjusting to the artificial light above his bed, confused as to whether it was night or day, Mr Gyaltso’s small eyes would see me, standing in an aura of emerald green. Calling me in his mind, he would say, ‘Ma Tara, you have come.’
‘Yes my child, I have come. I will lead you through Bardo, but first you must rest.’ Then, in gratitude he would sleep again knowing that all was well in his fading life. Nobody visited Mr Gyaltso but angels. For him, that was bliss.
To Mr Gyaltso I was Tara but you may call me what you like. It is all the same to me. One time in 1946, on the banks of the Broad river, a young black boy ran from a gun and the white hands that held it and two scrawny mongrels that chased him down. As he stumbled on the roots of an old hickory tree he crashed, face first, to the forest ground. No blood hit the buried rock spiking through the moss where his two lips burst like ripe clementines. Through them he whimpered, ‘save me Joe Louis.’ My bandaged knuckles still smelt of kid leather as I gripped him in my arms, turning his head to soft feathers smelling of lilies and the comforting sweated air of the old Baptist Hall in which he had been baptised and where his folk would shake its thin timbers with their songs of heart wrenching mourning. But not even Joe Louis could bring back that boy: once you are gone, there is no coming back.
As I passed my time in that ward, my vigil was a solitary one. In the beginning there was a handful of bowed heads expecting the inevitable and raging against it. Like arrows their prayers darted between parking meters and heaven. Even grief can be timed and quantified in pennies. And then the prayers grew faint with the passing days and weeks and in the end only one sound was heard and that was the chanting from mine own lips, murmuring the ancient mantra of the universe. Vanquished by the ache of their ambivalent grief, Seva Singh’s wife and two boys retreated, giving him to his fate, consoling themselves with their lonely and impotent love. It was the young one who took it hardest, his prescient grief hovering like a ghost over his heart. ‘Ma, will Daddy be home for Christmas?’ he would say, not knowing what he would think if the fiction was pierced.
‘He will never leave us but Christmas is Christian. Good Hindus like Krishna’ his diminutive mother would say while looking at her husband.
The young boy was six and would never forget that hard lesson in religious affiliation, particularly when two decades later his naïve heart swooned for some girl called Jill and fell in the chasm between the conflicting calls on his soul.
Cream sheets, once immaculate and white long before they were wrapped around the dying, covered Seva Singh’s feet. In solemnity, I stood by his bed like a church candle casting shadows on his face and, as the days slowly burned away, the nails on my hands grew dirty and long and my body grew thin with weary anticipation. At the slow guttural wheezes that scraped through his throat my heart recoiled and fled, seeking for wisdom from a nobler source. Only on earth must we angels endure pain as yours. Hence do we often fly above clouds in the warm substance of heaven, far from your cold suffering. Sometimes, you could say you are alone, observed from above as a cinematic tragedy, a lila of the gods, eliciting our love.
Deepa, who had wrestled Seva Singh into this world, would, years later, still recall the first piercing scream that he expelled from the ruddy mess that settled into his face. He had looked like a blanched tomato. His ghoulish appearance by candlelight had terrified her as his mother, in the battle for her son, lay unconscious and victorious over Yama, the god of death. As it is in the beginning so shall it be in the end. That is what they say, and sometimes life does indeed go full circle for here Yama was once more, albeit without the potent adversary of a mother to contend with, taking up his cudgel for the soul of Seva Singh, aged thirty six and draped like a rag on a bed, on its green mattress. It was made of tough plastic to ease the clearing of human mess. He was surrounded by the smell of disinfectant and me. His face was frozen in the bewildered expression of his youth, searching for a friend, a fellow voyager to the west who had lain down before him, only to awake in Seva Singh’s dreams. ‘It is ok’ I whispered. ‘He will be here soon.’
The ward was quiet, the lights were dimmed and his sallow complexion was unblemished; a trick of the dying luminescence, disguising the bloated discoloration of his ebbing life. The darkness was a mercy to my eyes.
On occasions, in the space between delirium and sleep, his eyes would open and look to me from beneath a film of milky scum. He strained his eyes in the soft light, not knowing whether he was here or there and wondering whether he had distilled me from the drugs that blunted his suffering. Above him were the bright murals of the life he would rather have forgotten in the narcotic numbness of his sleep. Where was the village now where he had walked as a boy, barefoot on the hot dust so as to save the tread on his chappals, or the corn field in which he had once kissed a girl, palpitating all the while in fear of her brothers? Madan, his friend, had laughed so hard when Seva Singh had told him that his face had turned red and it looked as if his breath had left him for good. Eventually it did of course, when the poor boy was sixteen. That was ancient history now. For here Seva Singh was, in the west, having fulfilled the promise he had made to himself while standing one time outside a mud house, his father’s, knowing there was more to life than sweating with every sweltering step thanks to a sun with a disdainful sense of humour.
I recall the moment when he died. It was a winter afternoon. Snow had settled on the Victorian brick wall outside the ward window, masking the pigeon droppings that caked it. A nurse had just checked his temperature and wiped a silvery trail of spittle from his chin. The tissue had scraped against bubbling hairs in need of shaving. The television was on, The Ricky Lake Show, and when his left leg shook twice beneath the cream covers his lungs stuttered to a halt. ‘He’s a liar’ screamed a woman as poor Ricky frowned in fine honed surprise,but nobody heard her on the sleepy ward. Grey phlegm frothed, collecting in small pools in the corners of Seva Singh’s mouth. It dribbled through his stubble as his eyes clamped shut.
A faux leather armchair faced him. It dwarfed his diminutive wife in salwar kameez seated within it. She was waiting, distracted, for the ward bell to ring. That was her signal to leave; to clock out. Beyond the chair and obscured by it he lay, stagnating like a stunned animal on a butcher’s table. All I could see were his brown limp feet and two misshapen ankles, swollen with prolonged sedation. The heart rate monitor that sat by his side still beeped steadily to a beating heart. And I could still hear that guttural wheeze. I rested my hands on the faux leather chair, ignored its occupant, and looked upon his melon round face, bittersweet and rotted from within, and the distended neck bursting from the seams of his skin. Bruised and overstuffed with drugs, his body lay inert and vacated by all but the mechanics of life. His soul had escaped.
I gazed around the ward, searching for a ray of light, the aperture through which his soul had flown. The lime washed walls were still as they were, blotched in corners with spots of damp, and the solitary ward window was bolted shut. The rust on its hinges was left undisturbed. A waning light, the aura of Mr Gyaltso, shone on me as I left the ward, fixing on the swing door before I was gone. He thought, in hope, it was his time to go. ‘Not yet’ I whispered and walked along the corridor, avoiding the coffee stains on the linoleum floor.
Outside, at the entrance to A and E, the melting snow had tuned brown and before me an aging ambulance emitted black smoke and obscured a narrow grass verge that separated the hospital from a congested road. Upon the verge a rosemary bush was rooted deep into the ground, surrounded in early spring by daffodil buds and always by cans and cigarette butts left by those who visited the hospital and paced its contours, waiting for one of the thousand and one things for which the unique strain of hospital patience was necessary. There amongst the foliage and trash was Seva Singh, sitting cross legged in the snow, dressed in a cotton shirt the colour of figs. It was buttoned to his smooth and baby faced chin. He looked sixteen and was flaccid and curved, like a boxer in remission from jumping ropes. I liked his black hair, smoothed with coconut oil, and the plastic Casio watch that weighed his left wrist. It was the first watch he had owned, given to him when he boarded a plane for the first, and only, time; the model of sophistication in the swaggering mind of his youth. Unencumbered by his body, he was clothed in an image of when his soul met life and embraced it and dreamed.
I watched him, uncertain of what to do. You may think it easy to reach out a hand, to offer a gentle word, but these man to man things never are, not even for angels versed in the science of compassion. What else could I do? I arched up to heaven and spread out my wings, beatifically smiling in the cold air. I was a picture of heaven, of irresistible bliss. ‘Seva Singh, raise your eyes. I am here’ I said. After an agonising moment in which a gust of ambulance smoke grazed my soft feathers, he looked at me, startled, and walked away.