Guyana Journal, November 2007
By Richard Rupnarain
One of Sumita Bindrabans childhood delights was to have her mother come into her room every weekday morning to rouse her for school. A delight you say? Sounds strange, right? Well, here is why.
Her mother Rosita would sneak into her room, stealthily, like Sylvester sneaking up on Tweety, and she would sit quietly at the side of the bed closest to where Sumita lay under a heap of cotton bed sheets. And there she would remain, looking at her sleeping child, searchingly, contemplatively, endearingly, as though she was regretful of having to rouse her sleeping beauty from a much needed rest. After a minute or two of keen observation Rosita, in a soft voice so as not to scare or shock her daughter awake, would then begin a dialogue, between her and an imaginary friend, aimed at rousing her daughter in a gradual way. In this imaginary conversation Rosita would extend her thumb and pinkie across her ears in the manner of a telephone and she would tell her friend, in between sighs and expressions of anxiety, about her daughter and the problems she has in rousing her for school every morning. She would pause, intermittently, and say yes and uh huh and things like that as though she was listening to someone at the other end of the phone. By this time Sumita would be roused but will pretend to be still asleep just so she could hear the end of the conversation. Rosita on the other hand, aware that her daughter was awake but pretending not to notice, would tell her imaginary friend that she goes through the same thing each and every day and that she is at her wits end how to solve the problem. Then she would begin to repeat the advice her imaginary friend was giving her. She would say, You mean I should put a little spider under her feet and let it crawl up along her legs and to her ribs and let it settle under her neck? Then she would pause and say, But that is so cruel. I cant do that to my daughter. By this time Sumita would be closing her eyes ever so tightly, stiffening her body to resist the effects of the spiders crawl on her skin, while making every effort to suppress her attempts to giggle. With nimble fingers Rosita would then simulate the movement of the spider along her daughters taut body, pausing where she knew the skin was more ticklish, and before she reached the ribcage Sumita would jump out from under the covers with hysterical laughter, her hands clutching her sides to insulate them from the spider-like tingle and her eyes overflowing with tears. After the laughter subsided mother and daughter would chat a little and then Sumita would head off to the shower. Those ten minutes with her mother at her bedside, the imaginary conversation, the suspense of the tickle, the laughter, the two of them chatting about simple things of life and school, were the ten minutes she cherished most every morning.
Even to this day, now that she is twenty-two years old and living abroad, she still wakes up many mornings half-expecting to see her mother at her bedside. But after wiping her eyes and realizing it was just wishful fantasy she would drop her head back disappointingly into the pillow. Finally, on the first Monday morning of June 2001, it seemed like she was going to have her wish come through.
It was a hazy morning, the portent of another sweltering summer day in New York City. Sumita awoke to the sensation of someone being close by, just like when her mother would ease herself unto the mattress, and she, still half-asleep, still disoriented, cracked open her eyelids an indiscernible fraction and saw what it was that made the depression on her bed.
A woman was indeed seated on the edge of her mattress but this time there were no simulated spiders, no imaginary friends and no mother-daughter conversations. And the explanation for that was simple. The person at her bedside was not her mother. It was a woman she had known from childhood, having had to pass by her house on the way to and from school. The womans first name was Kamla. She was a pleasant woman, always on her verandah, always smiling, always asking how everyone at home was doing. Her husband was also a very nice man, reticent but amicable, much older than his wife, but it did not show because he was in good shape and he conducted himself with poise and dignity.
Then one day without warning adversity struck a deadly blow on the family. Sumita was in second standard at the time. She remembers coming home from school when she saw a crowd gathered in front of Kamlas house. She had stopped, along with other curious school children, to enquire as to the reason for the commotion. Some women were crying and Sumita knew something bad had happened. She soon leant that Kamlas husband had pressure and had collapsed from a heart attack at his workplace. He died before reaching Public Hospital in Georgetown. She remembers going home feeling really sad for Kamla and her four young children and wishing there was something she could do to help them.
Still, as the years went by and her life became more complicated, Sumita never forgot her wish and she made a solemn promise to help the family in whatever way she could. After she graduated from high school and completed Government Training College she landed a nice teaching job at a popular high school on the East Coast close to home. With a good salary and hardly any overheads living still at home and being able to bike to work, she was able to assist Kamla with donations of food and clothing and sometimes a few dollars. Sumita felt good doing her little charity for her unfortunate neighbor and Kamla was not stingy in her praise and appreciation.
Three years after graduating from the Government Training College Sumita enrolled at The University of Guyana and four years later she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree. A year later, in September1999, she immigrated to New York. The New York State Board of Education was in dire need of teachers and had found a ready market in graduates from the University of Guyana. Sumita took advantage of that window of opportunity and sponsored herself through the points system. She bade farewell to all her friends and family and, the night before her departure, she made a special trip over to Kamlas house to say goodbye. She wanted Kamla to know that even though she was leaving the country she would still remember her and do whatever she could to help her family. But that night Kamla was not at home. She had gone up the coast to visit an ailing relative in Mahaicony and was not expected back for a few days. Disappointed, Sumita hugged the children and obtained assurance from them that they would relate her message to their mother.
She arrived in New York and with the help of a girlfriend, who a year earlier had taken a similar path to the Big Apple, was able to settle into a one-bedroom apartment and assimilate into the society without much difficulty. As the weeks turned into months she became so engrossed in her new job and with going to school at nights to obtain her Masters in Education degree, a requirement if she were to secure her teachers license, she found little time for anyone or anything else. But she had not forgotten Kamla and her children and, in her weekly phone call to her parents, she would enquire about the widow and ask her parents to let Kamla know that as soon as she settled in she would try to help out in whatever way she could.
Unfortunately having to deal with the vicissitudes of life, especially for a single girl trying to resettle into an alien culture and society, she meandered away from those promises. While completing her studies in education she met and fell in love with her study-buddy, a man five years her senior, and one undertaking a similar journey into the education system. He too was a Guyanese, hailing from Black Bush Polder, and he also graduated from the Government Training College and the University of Guyana where he studied mechanical engineering. He graduated about six years before her and had come to New York as a teacher and he too was working on obtaining his teachers license. He was not a handsome man, and with graying hair and moustache he seemed more like her father than her husband. But he was a kind man and he offered her the kind of security and support that a single woman welcomes in a hectic and scary metropolis like New York City.
They planned to solemnize their marriage at the registry and return to Guyana for a real wedding, something the parents of both parties wanted. The date for the wedding was the last Saturday in July of 2002. Sumita was excited and she spent every free moment shopping or on the phone with her parents to see how the arrangements were coming along. Engrossed in her wedding arrangements she had all but completely forgotten about Kamla. Until this moment, that is.
Kamla sat quietly at the side of the bed and looked at her, just as her mother would, and then she spoke, softly. Sumita!
Sumita jumped up to a sitting position and rubbed her eyes. She was puzzled and seemed unsure of where she was and if she was dreaming or not. Auntie Kamla? Is that you? What are you doing here? How did you get in the house? she asked.
Yes, Sumi, its me. Girl, I havent heard from you a long time now and I was wondering if I did something to you. So I find out where you live and I came in when I saw the door was left open.
No! No! Auntie Kamla. I was just busy, you know moving to New York and trying to settle in. But I didnt forget you and in fact I was coming home next month to get married and would have come to see you.
Well, I really thought I upset you because when I heard you left the country and didnt tell me anything I couldnt imagine why you would do something like that.
It all happened so fast but I came by your house the night before to tell you and the kids said you had gone to Mahaicony and that you wouldnt be back until a few days later. Didnt they tell you I was there?
No, they didnt say anything. But you know children how they are these days. Anyways, I want to let you know that things are really bad and I have nowhere to go.
What do you mean? Where are the children? Did they put you out of the house?
No, girl, the children are good and they are all doing well. Baio went to Port Mourant training school and he is now a mechanic at Blairmont sugar estate. He fixing motor bike, Land Rover and tractor, all things, you name it. He married a girl from Canje and they are living near the estate. They have two children. Boyo and Galo. Ramu went to GTI and he did technical drawing. He has big job with some private construction company. You know he is drawing all kinds of houses and offices and things like that. And Radha doing bookkeeping for a firm on Water Street and she is studying accountancy at the same time. She is married to one of the accountants there and they are expecting their first child in December.
It seems that everyone is doing well. So why are you so unhappy?
Girl, you too would be unhappy if you had nowhere to go.
Why, I dont understand, what happened to your house?
The house is still there. Baio is living in it.
So did he put you out?
No! I had to leave.
What do you mean?
Wait, dont tell me you dont know.
You mean you didnt hear?
Girl, I get cancer and
Oh, auntie, I am so sorry. So you came to New York for treatment?
Girl, they tried everything on me, radiation, chemo, you name it but they say the cancer spread to too many places and they couldnt do anything more for me.
I am so sorry, auntie. So does that mean they are sending you back home?
What do you mean?
Since they cant do anything more for you will you be going back home?
Going back home? I dont understand what you mean. I went back home already.
I am confused. You went back home and came back to New York. Why?
Sumi, I died six weeks after they sent me home.
What! What are you saying? You are here sitting on my bed, talking to me, arent you?
Yes, but it is my spirit you are seeing. I have nowhere to go.