A GIFT: CHANCHAL SINGH BAL
Chanchal Singh Bal grew up in the Amritsar district and currently lives in New York. His educational background is in the area of mathematical statistics, although he has keen interest in literature. Along with his teaching career and writing, he enjoys gardening, growing fruits and vegetables, working on stain glass and basic carpentry projects.
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“I can’t believe they’ve ignored me,” complained Mrs. Chopra.
“I don’t think they have,” replied Dana. “They are young, ambitious and have a lot on their minds. You should be happy they are pursuing the American dream.”
“What about me? Where do I fit in their dreams? After all they are my children.”
“Well, you may go visit them once in a while. Besides you are a free bird. Do some traveling. Go see some exotic places.”
“I rather be with them. It wouldn’t be this way if we were in India.”
“Do you think about moving back to India?”
“I left India so long ago. I don’t have any close friend or relative living there. It is like a foreign country to me now. I don’t know where I belong anymore.”
“Don’t say that. You belong here. You like this area. You have some good friends living in Blue Jay Mount. Besides I visit you regularly,” comforted Dana.
“You are like a daughter to me, a precious gift from heavens.”
Dana got up from the chair and gave Mrs. Chopra a hug. The old lady had hard time keeping her tears rolling down her cheeks.
As a member of the university’s, Adopt a Grandparent Program, Dana visited Mrs. Chopra at least once a week. The young sophomore was a good listener and support with her laid back attitude. Soon they became close friends. Mrs. Chopra’s popular topic of conversation with Dana was her disappointment with her son and daughter even when Dana and Mrs. Chopra played scrabble or checker games.
The senior Chopras were in their mid thirties when they landed in JFK as immigrants from Delhi, India in 1970. Dr. Chopra was already an international authority in genetic engineering whereas Mrs. Chopra submitted to the hum drum of home front. They had two preteen-age children at the time of their arrival in United States— Dhruv and Anita. Anita was two years younger than her brother. Needless to say Dr. Chopra was on the go for at least seventeen hours a day; teaching full time at MIT, guiding Ph.D. theses and presenting papers at conferences around the globe. He did take three weeks off in summer and spent time with his family either in India or in the Adirondacks or Catskill mountains. Both Dr. and Mrs. Chopra grew up in Kashmir, known as the Switzerland of India. They loved the mountains.
Every now and then children complained about their absentee father. He was never there for children’s soccer game or a cultural event at the school. Mom made up for the busy dad. Somehow Dr. Chopra had convinced Mrs. Chopra that his hectic schedule was a necessity to have a secure financial life for them and a bright future for the children. In fact he was a workaholic and it felt so good to win another award or a grant. He had no plan to retire. In 2001, at age 66, Dr Chopra was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at an advanced stage and died within five months. Children were grown up and had left the nest. Mrs. Chopra was lost for the first few months even though she was financially fine; Dr. Chopra had left plenty for her in a retirement fund.
With Dr. Chopra’s blessing, Mrs. Chopra played an active role in arranging Sandhya’s and Druv’s nuptial tie. Sandhya was the niece of Mrs. Chopra’s best friend’s cousin’s neighbor. But few months after the marriage, the women realized they couldn’t stand each other. Mrs. Chopra, a college graduate, was traditionally raised bossy and had a burning desire to assert herself as the ‘know all’ mother-in-law, while Sandhya an M.D. heralded from a wealthy well-connected entrepreneurial family from Mumbai. The visible-invisible control battle began between the two; Druv finding himself caught in the middle while Dr. Chopra stood aside. The erstwhile plan that Druv and Sandhya would find jobs in the Boston area and they would stay with Druv’s parents had naturally to be dropped, when the young couple found promising positions in Columbus, Ohio. Being too busy with his work, Dr. Chopra showed little remorse at Druv and Sandhya’s departure, while Mrs. Chopra felt she lost her son to Sandhya. For few years, the two families routinely exchanged telephone calls and Christmas greetings but they were too busy to visit each other until the grandchildren arrived. Then the grandparents’ flying and short stays became more customary. Dr. Chopra’s sudden death put a stop to that activity; Mrs. Chopra didn’t like traveling. Moreover Sandhya and her mother-in-law were not particularly fond of each other.
Mrs. Chopra’s first choice was to live with one of her children, a natural thought of an Indian parent. You take care of your children until they grow wings and fly away from the nest and they take care of you when you need them as the prevailing saying goes in India. She tried both the routes, at the daughter’s first for few months and was totally disappointed. Anita was busy pursuing a career in journalism and her ultimate goal was to be an anchor woman at a major news network someday. She was rarely home. Besides she had an American boyfriend. Mrs. Chopra sensed that Anita rather be with her boyfriend than her mother which she found so hard to swallow. To entertain her mother, Anita subscribed to couple of Indian channels on the cable but you could watch only so much T.V. in a day. Mrs. Chopra longed to see her daughter alone for a few hours in a day; have meals together and talk about old times. Anita’s schedule and activities denied her this luxury. Mrs. Chopra felt disgusted, packed up and went to her son in Columbus, Ohio. She knew it was a semi-hostile territory, but she had no choice, she thought. Besides she figured the enemy, Sandhya, would have a kinder heart considering the situation she was in.
Druv and Sandhya were pursuing their own careers rather vigorously, Druv in the academics and Sandhya in medicine. It seemed husband and wife had every minute of their waking hour planned, without Mrs. Chopra in the schedule. Druv aspired for the presidency of a college while Sandhya wished to be the chief of staff in the hospital she worked. They had two boys, Kavi three years old, and Raul five, both in daycare during the day, since Mrs. Chopra was unable to handle them.
One evening Druv and Sandhya were out at the charity dinner for the benefit of Sandhya’s hospital. The young baby-sitter from Druv’s college had an emergency and had to leave after three hours. By then the boys were in their bedrooms, hopefully ready to doze off. Little after 9 pm when Druv and Sandhya returned, little Kavi was inside the refrigerator looking for pudding, with just his feet sticking out. It seemed the door would shut any moment if he pushed himself in little more. Mrs. Chopra was snoring on the sofa with Indian channel going at full blast. Druv was dumbfounded and Sandhya outraged. She couldn’t control herself and lashed out at her mother-in-law while Druv watched in silence. He couldn’t even utter a few conciliatory words when Sandhya gave the ultimatum, “Either she stays or I.” She was heart broken at her son’s silence; she had raised him with such hopes and aspirations. That was the end of her stay there. Next morning she told Dhruv to do her a favor and look into the possibility of renting an apartment at the Blue Jay Mount, an assisted living complex, outside the tiny hamlet of Sleepy Lake, in the foothills of Adirondacks, NY. A unit with two bedrooms was available. Mrs. Chopra moved into her new home at the end of 2003.
Dana finished her fall semester a week before Christmas. She was anxious to go home and see her boyfriend. The night before she left campus, she went to see Mrs. Chopra and stayed about an hour. When she got up to leave and gave Mrs. Chopra a parting hug, the old lady asked, “When will you be back?”
“In the third week of January; almost a month from now.”
“It seems so long. I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too. You take care of yourself.”
“Hi Dana. I have something for you from Mrs. Chopra,” said Mr. Murphy, the man in-charge of Blue Jay Mount. He was standing in the hall outside his office as Dana walked into the building.
“Where is she?” Dana got worried.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Chopra passed away in her sleep the day after Christmas.”
“Oh, no! I will miss her dearly.”
“We found these items in her apartment with your name on them.” Mr. Murphy handed Dana a cardboard box and an envelope.
Dana was saddened even though she knew Mrs. Chopra was in her late seventies, had trouble with short term memory, arthritis in her knees and hips and had a heart problem. Just last year in 2006, she had a quadruple by-pass. But she was a stubborn lady and managed to carry on with her life with some help; although, she often complained almost about everything.
Dana went back to her car. She decided to open the envelope first. Mrs. Chopra wrote: “I waited for you every day. I forgot when you were coming back, if you were coming back at all. There is no fun in living when no one needs you. These items in the box are for you. They are made of 22-carat gold. My mother and mother-in-law gave them to me when I was engaged to Dr. Chopra. I was going to give them to my daughter and daughter-in-law. But they don’t deserve them. They don’t seem to care whether I live or die. You’ve done more for me than my own children. May God bless you.”
Dana opened the container; a small sandalwood box inside contained two bracelets and two hoops. The jewelry was dulled in color but heavy and hand carved. For few seconds she was dumbfounded at such an unexpected gesture from her friend. She wondered if she really deserved such an expensive and personal gift.
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