December 4, 2020

Bheek

(c) J. Singh, 2016

Amarpal Kaur glanced shyly at her husband as they walked across the grocery store parking lot to their car. He was holding all four of the heavy grocery bags, while she held the soft brown teddy bear that he had given her. It had barely been a month since their wedding, and she was still wearing the bright red choorian on both arms. In the past several weeks, her life had been turned completely upside down. Her comfortable, quiet life in her small hometown in India had been suddenly disrupted when her suitor and his family had flown in on short notice. Preparations for the visit had been hastily made, and everyone had waited in suspense while she and Ranjit had taken some time to talk with each other. As soon as she had given her consent, wedding preparations had commenced with urgency. It had been a whirlwind of activity and an emotional roller-coaster. Now, a month after the ceremony, she found herself in a foreign land, with strange customs and language, with a man she was only just getting to know. The first several days, she had called her mother on the phone and cried for fifteen minutes straight. Her mother reassured her and advised her to think of this as her second birth. She gave a blessing that she should have a blissful married life.

Amarpal was slowly adjusting to life in the United States. Everyone seemed so different here, so open about their feelings and very protective about their individual wants and needs. It was an interesting and often overwhelming experience, but she was taking it all in. Ranjit had tried to smooth her adjustment to the new country and her new life, but there was only so much he could do.

It was a bright, sunny morning. Noticing that she was still feeling glum, he had spontaneously picked up the teddy bear and bought it for her. It felt nice to know that he cared, and she hugged the plush teddy bear as they walked.

They had almost reached their car when a voice abruptly interrupted them.

"Excuse me, can you help me please?"

Amarpal saw a stranger block their path as he addressed Ranjit. He was short, wore a long dark green t-shirt and long shorts. He had bright green Nike sneakers on, and a pair of designer sunglasses pulled up above his baseball cap. He seemed like any other person who had come for grocery shopping that morning.

"Can you help me please?" he repeated, and then pointed across the street. "My wife and kids are over there in that Burger King waiting for me. We are out of gas, and I need some money to be able to take my family home. Can you help, please?"

Amarpal looked at where the stranger was pointing. There, across the street was the Burger King with the large round blue, yellow and red sign on the outside of the building. She wondered if his wife and children might be feeling anxious or worried. She was wondering how much money he needed. She knew Ranjit always carried some extra cash in case of emergencies, and was expecting him to ask how much the stranger needed.

Ranjit's face remained expressionless.

"How much would you need for gas?" he asked calmly.

"Twenty, maybe thirty dollars?" the stranger said, lightly shrugging.

"How come you're here in this grocery store parking lot, when your family is over there in the Burger King?" asked Ranjit.

"Well, I was going to go in to ask someone for help," the stranger replied, a little indignant.

Ranjit calmly continued. "Don't you have a credit card, which you can use to pay for gasoline?"

"I don't have my wallet. Look, I'm poor, ok?" The stranger seemed to be getting agitated. Amarpal thought his pride might have been hurt to admit that he was poor.

"You didn't bring your wallet with you?"

"No, I didn't."

"And your car is in that Burger King parking lot? How did you drive here without your driver's license? Or do you keep that outside your wallet?"

The stranger threw his arms up in the air. "You know what, forget it!" he blurted out almost angrily, then turned and walked away.

Without a word to her, Ranjit continued walking towards their car. He didn't mention anything about the incident during the drive home, but Amarpal was feeling uneasy. She wanted to talk about it with Ranjit, ask him why he didn't help the poor man. But she hesitated. She didn't want to start an argument, and wasn't quite sure how to broach the subject. But she was certain of one feeling she had - disappointment.

The next day they went to the Gurudwara. It had become a weekly thing for them, and Amarpal quite looked forward to it. She had made friends there from the local sangat, and it was something familiar and a friendly place. The sound of children running and playing outside in the playground, the familiar smell of Indian cooking, and the sights of everyone dressed up in traditional clothing, all reminded her of home and gave her an emotional connection in this strange new country. She was grateful and relieved to visit the Gurudwara. It was the only place where she felt completely relaxed. She would sit and listen to the keertan and it would give her a sense of balance and peace.

After the conclusion of the daily service and langar, Ranjit and Amarpal stayed a while to talk with friends, and then headed back home. On the drive back, Ranjit took a different route. He said, "We need to make a quick stop, shouldn't take long."

Eventually they pulled into the parking lot of a large building that looked like it was supposed to be a house, but it was too big, and had adjoining buildings sprawling out from the main building. There was a short walkway to the main door. As they approached, the door opened and a heavy-set woman with dark brown hair came out to greet them. She was all smiles.

"Ranjit!" she said, hugging him, "long time! You're back from India! And with your new bride, I see. This must be Amarpal. So nice to meet you!"

"Nice to meet you, too," replied Amarpal, a bit surprised and taken aback by the hugging. She returned the hug and managed a weak smile.

"Amarpal, this is Joelle," Ranjit introduced them.

"Come in, come in," said Joelle, and led them inside. "I'll give you a quick tour so Amarpal can see the place. Ranjit has already seen it so many times, but come along anyway."

Amarpal was grateful that Ranjit was with her for the tour. She wasn't quite sure how she should react to this boisterous woman. But Joelle was very cheerful, and soon Amarpal felt comfortable with her, and began asking questions about the facilities. She didn't know what this place was, though, and Joelle seemed to assume that she did.

"This is the main hall, where we have activities and other social gatherings like birthdays and what not. We also do announcements and orientation here, since it's big enough for everyone to fit. Also the fireplace makes it nice and cozy for winter holidays, especially Christmas. Everyone hangs up stockings over there and we bring in a Christmas tree, it's all very grand!"

Joelle then led them down a hall into a children's preschool classroom. Tiny tables and chairs were neatly arranged in the room, and the walls had drawings of a rainbow, a garden and children's cartoon characters.

"This is our preschool for the children, and there's a playground just outside that door. Many of our residents have children, and while they're here, we have a place for the children to be able to attend classes and have that structure, you know, it's very important. We have four teachers on staff, and just hired an assistant, so we're very proud of what we''ve done here."

Next, she showed them the kitchen, which had huge stoves and steel tables for preparing the food. Several refrigerators lined the walls, and in the back, large deep stainless steel sinks had been installed for the dishes. It looked more like a restaurant kitchen to Amarpal than anything else.

"Yes, we do have industrial size equipment in here," said Joelle, reading Amarpal's mind, ""we have a menu that is prepared and distributed by the residents at the beginning of every week.  Three meals a day. And a snack and tea or coffee in the late afternoon. We're really proud to say that the kitchen is entirely run by the residents. We have produce delivery three times a week, and all the food prep, menu preparation, and cooking is done by residents. They take shifts and have a schedule and sign up for whenever they want to work. It's a great way for them to start getting back on their feet, and it gives them confidence in themselves and real pride in their work. And the food is delicious, too!"

Amarpal was beginning to realize what this place was. After seeing the kitchen, they walked up a flight of stairs and down a hallway with doors on both sides.

"These are the rooms for the residents," said Joelle, lowering her voice to almost a whisper, "I can''t really take you inside because of privacy reasons. We respect our residents' right to privacy and place our trust in them. Our rules are very clear when they come to stay, and we believe in the honor system. We give them trust and respect, and they honor it. In all the years I have been here, not one person has abused that trust. They know, when they come here, they are here to rebuild their lives. No one wants to ruin their second chance."

They saw a few more rooms on the tour: the small gym with treadmills and weights, the computer room which had five small computers, the laundry room, and a small room for counseling and other private conversations. Finally, they went to the tiny, cramped administrative office where Joelle worked. Her desk was full of papers and forms, and the filing cabinets behind were overflowing with file folders and papers.

Ranjit reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his checkbook. He wrote out an amount and handed it to Joelle.

"Thank you so much Ranjit. Your help is what makes everything possible," said Joelle, smiling with gratitude.

"You're doing all the hard work. It's easy to give money," Ranjit replied cheerfully.

Later, when they were back in the car driving home, Amarpal glanced at her husband. He didn't speak of their visit to the women's shelter. He seemed very nonchalant. She realized how sincere he was, he wasn''t putting on any airs or attempting to prove anything. He was just being what he was, and he seemed to be very comfortable with that. She smiled, feeling warm inside. A feeling of admiration and respect for him grew inside her, and she felt the strange but wonderful stirrings of love begin to germinate. She thought that this handsome man that she was sitting next to, that she was married to, was someone that she could spend the rest of her life with.

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