Accessible Travel

Amnesia

Jasjit’s husband Jagtar had been fighting against eradicating the drug trade in Punjab and had fallen to the bullets of the mafia five years back. Jasjit sends her son to France to study and work as she fears for his safety. But she pays a heavy price for her sacrifice. A touching story by Ranjit Powar.

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“How’s the little one, son? What colour are her eyes? Brown like yours? Does she smile yet? Does she have thick hair? I hope she feeds well.”

“Mummy, so many questions in one breath! Amy is well. I cannot make out the colour of her eyes yet, but they seem greenish like her mother’s. She has brown hair and ruddy cheeks and has started smiling at Alicia and me.”

“Amy – so you have finalized the name?”

Jasjit was deflated. She had spent long hours researching and shortlisting possible baby names on the internet and student merit lists in the newspapers, forwarding them to Pal when they were expecting their baby girl. Not too yester-year, but not far removed from one’s ethnicity, she had thought. Pal could have run the name past her. Naming the baby was her parents’ prerogative, not a grandmother from India. What did she know about modern names in vogue?

“Amy, for a Sikh child? Are you giving her our surname or not that either?”

“Be reasonable, mummy. Names don’t define religion. Boparai? You know how bad the French are with pronouncing foreign names, so we picked a name that would not embarrass the child when she goes to school. A Punjabi name would be distorted beyond recognition, making the child a laughing stock. She is born in France and will live here. She is Amy Allard, after Alicia’s name.”

The Boparai sardars had a proud heritage of eminent agriculturists, educationists, freedom fighters and social activists. Jasjit’s husband Jagtar had been fighting against eradicating the drug trade in Punjab and fallen to the bullets of the mafia five years back. She witnessed the cold-blooded murder of her husband, dragged out of his bed from her side and pumped in with bullets. He lay sprawled in a pool of blood after the assailants fled, his eyes open in shock, his turban undone. Blood splattered all around- on the wall, the bed and the carpet. Shards of a table lamp he grabbed in self-defence lay shattered all around. Jasjit froze in shock and terror, her screams stuck in her throat.

Jasjit was hospitalized and kept under sedation for the next four days. The incident affected her deeply, impairing her memory. The psychiatrist diagnosed it as Transient global amnesia, a subconscious attempt by the mind to shut out painful episodes. Our minds are auto tuned to preserve sanity at any cost, even if it involves grains of insanity. Pal was badly shaken too. Who knew if the assailants would strike again? It would be safer for him to leave the country. A brilliant IT professional, Pal landed a job in Paris. Jasjit preferred her son to be safe, even if it meant living alone. She tried to normalize her life by taking over running the farm. Pal’s official duties multiplied as he climbed the corporate ladder; he called every other day in the beginning, cutting it down to once a week and gradually even lesser. He met and married his French colleague Alicia, facilitating his French citizenship.

Jasjit made her peace with Pal’s choice of marrying a French girl but could not travel to Paris for the wedding. She had not recovered from the five-year-old trauma of Jagtar’s horrific murder, relapsing into black periods of amnesia when she couldn’t recall events of the last few hours or even days. Avoid stress, the doctors advised. As though anyone actually seeks it out! A couple of photos showing Pal and Alicia on their wedding day in the church and her infant granddaughter swathed in a white blanket sat on her side table. Jasjit scrambled out of her bed to answer the late-night WhatsApp call.

 

“How are you, mummy? I hope you are regular with your medicines. Don’t stay alone. Make sure you have someone around you.”

“Well, some days are good and others not. My knees are troubling me too. It’s been two years since your marriage. How long will I make do with the occasional photos you send me? I want to meet Alicia and hold the baby in my arms. Please plan a trip home.” Her voice caught in her throat.

“I want you to meet them too. But Alicia won’t agree to travel to India with such a young kid and risk infections. Why don’t you come to us?”

“You know I have never travelled abroad before. How will I manage the long journey alone?”

“You cannot keep nurturing your illness. Have confidence in yourself. I will send you a return ticket.”

‘Return ticket.’ She would return. She did not belong to the city of the Eiffel tower. But her granddaughter did belong to her even though she was a green-eyed child who would utter her first words in French.

“You have nothing to worry about, Jasjit. An overload of stress triggers your episodes of amnesia. Keep calm, be confident and visit your family. It will do you good,” her doctor reassured her.

Jasjit looked forward to the trip with a mix of excitement tinged with nervousness. She shopped for gifts. A set of silver baby utensils for Amy and a gold necklace for Alicia. Pal’s favourite mithai and pickles. She bought herself a couple of new silk suits, ballerinas and a bag. Packing her bags a week ahead of her flight, she checked and re-checked that her medicines, gutka and spectacles were all there.

“How long do you plan to stay, mummy? I need to let Alicia know,” asked Pal.

“It’s an open ticket,” said Jasjit.

“Send me your flight details, and I will pick you up from the airport. Do get medical insurance. Medical treatment is hugely expensive here.”

Jasjit spent a sleepless night before her flight, worrying about navigating her way at the airport and going through the formalities of boarding the flight. This would be her first overseas journey.

“Please fasten your seat belts. We shall shortly land at the Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris. Thank you for travelling with Air France.” The air hostess announced in a monotone.

Jasjit’s heart fluttered with excitement. She would see her son after a long wait of four years. Would Alicia and Amy be here to receive her too? Would the baby come to her or cling to her mother, taking her to be a stranger? Jasjit followed the other passengers to the luggage belt, intimidated by the large, slick airport thronging with crowds of brisk travellers. Women wore shockingly revealing dresses, yet no one gave them a second look. Everyone is so self-assured, she thought, hugging her handbag close to her body. Passengers grabbed their bags from the rolling baggage belt as Jasjit anxiously waited for hers. There were so many black bags! How would she spot hers?

Stepping into the passenger lounge after clearing immigration, Jasjit looked around for Pal. There he was in a blue shirt. The man turned around. It was not Pal. She scrutinized the crowd carefully, her anxiety building up by the minute. He was probably stuck in a traffic jam, held up at work; his car had developed trouble; he would be here soon. Calm down, she told herself. Was she waiting at the right spot? She felt a desperate urge to go to the bathroom. She had better not. Pal might come looking for her while she searched for the facilities in this large, confusing airport. Gathering courage, Jasjit ventured out to the pickup bay. A string of cars kept driving in, picking up passengers and leaving. She peered hard at the driver of each upcoming vehicle, hoping to see Pal. One after another, they drove past her, all strangers.

Two hours had passed since the landing of the flight. Jasjit felt panic build up as bile rose in her throat. She groped for her phone in her handbag with shaking hands. It was not there. Her mouth went dry as she searched every little pocket in the bag. Nothing. She had forgotten to bring it. His number and address were gone. There was no way to contact Pal now. She knew no French. Her head swam as she struggled to steady herself. Her mind went blank. What was this unknown place with so many strange people? Why was she here?

Pal rushed towards the airport, guilty that he had lost track of time at the office due to an important business meeting. It was ten at night; his mother’s flight would have landed at eight. He parked the car and ran into the waiting lounge, looking around frantically. No sign of her. He checked the coffee shops and waited outside the facilities. She didn’t show up.

“Did you see a petite, fair Indian lady of sixty-five around here?” he asked a security person.

“I did, sir. I remember noticing her for her Indian dress. She walked out of the lounge some time ago. You late to pick her up?” asked the man accusingly.

Pal hung his head in shame and guilt. An episode of amnesia had struck her again. But his own amnesia had been worse and unforgivable.

Ranjit Powar

Author of 'Dusk over the Mustard Fields' and 'Living a Good Life', Ranjit Powar writes freelance and reviews books for newspapers, most often with her dog Teddy sprawled next to her desk. After serving in the Punjab Civil services, she presently runs a non-profit organization, Nishan Educational Trust, training school teachers in psychological orientation in pedagogy. Deeply involved with humanitarian issues and cross-border peace efforts, she hopes to resume her second passion soon – travelling.