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This month’s Sunday Short, “24 August 1985” is an extract from Kelly Kaur’s book, Letters to Singapore, published by Stonehouse Publishing.
24 AUGUST 1985
Ten days in Calgary, dear Mummy.
Papa left today. We waited for one hour in the cold for the Taxiwallah to show up. We were outside Ramada Motel at Motel Village, where all the motels near the university are located. This was our temporary home in Calgary. Taxiwallah, Papa’s new friend, had promised in his morning phone call he would arrive at 2 p.m. He never showed up. We panicked because Papa had to be at the airport to catch his flight, and it was getting late. Finally, Papa talked to the manager of Ramada Motel who called another taxi, and it arrived in ten minutes.
Then, it was time for Papa to leave. I stared at the yellow taxi in front of me. My tears made everything hazy. Papa stretched his right arm and tapped my back. I turned and put my arms around his neck.
He said, “Simran, you must be like a tiger now.”
I nodded and remembered. When I was nine years old, I fell from a bicycle. I howled like a baby, but Papa picked me up, shook me by my shoulders and whispered, “Be a tiger, Simran. Be a tiger.”
Our bones collided uncomfortably as I tried to stay longer in his embrace, but he pulled away, extended his left hand, and looked at his watch. He grabbed his suitcase and opened the back door of the taxi. I sensed he was worried about leaving me alone in Calgary, yet he was also exasperated I had disobeyed his orders and not gotten married to that man he had picked for me in Singapore—I had rejected all the arranged marriage suitors and begged to get a degree in Canada! Perhaps, it was not worry I sensed but regret he had given in to my rebellion.
My chest constricted with that thought. Maybe, I had made a terrible mistake in coming to Calgary, leaving everything safe and familiar behind. I wasn’t feeling brave and rebellious in that moment. Papa’s shoulders crumbled, and he blew his nose loudly into his tartan red handkerchief to hide his face. I was thankful he had even come with me to Calgary to make sure that I would be safe. I knew he didn’t want me to leave Singapore at all.
“I am your papa,” he declared that day when he came home with the flight tickets to Calgary. “As long as I am alive, I will take care of you.”
How hard it must be for him to leave me alone in this strange country. My gruff papa barked his last words to me before he shut the taxi door. “Now get your degree and come back home immediately, Simran. Three years and no more.”
I bowed my head and gazed at the road because I did not want Papa to see my tears. I had to be like a tiger! I couldn’t swallow. I could no longer speak. I stood there, waved, and watched the taxi speed off but papa did not look back.
Just like that, I was alone. Totally alone in Calgary. I didn’t feel that fearless anymore without my papa. Where the heck have I ended up, Mummy? What have I done? Twenty years old and alone, standing outside a motel, feeling the sharp chill of an autumn day in Calgary. Stupidly, I did not have a jacket. It was freezing, not the hot and humid thirty degrees Celsius of Singapore. It was ten degrees Celsius. I stared at the unsmiling, unfamiliar faces around me. People dressed in cozy jackets to wield off the icy fingers of the wind. Thoughts crowded my mind. Singapore. Calgary. Run away from an arranged marriage. Get a degree. Papa has left. I know no one. Conflicting contemplations.
Though as I shivered, a quivering feeling of euphoria slowly snaked from my belly to my throat. My eyes widened as I realized I had made it to the University of Calgary. To get a degree. Against all odds. The decider of my own destiny. What grand adventures would I experience? Sad but thrilled, I grabbed my suitcase and marched off in the direction of the University of Calgary. I knew it was about a fifteen-minute walk to my new dormitory room, and I needed to clear my head.
Suddenly, a yellow taxi screeched to a stop right in front of me. I jumped back from surprise. Wait. What? It was that bloody Taxiwallah that Papa had been waiting for to take him to the airport. That was the man we met when papa came with me ten days ago. When we arrived at the Calgary Airport, we went to the taxi stand and had gotten into this man’s cab.
You see, Taxiwallah drove us from the airport to Motel Village close to the University of Calgary. He told us that there were about ten motels next to one another, and we could easily get one. Papa talked to him the whole way. Papa told him our whole family history and plans for the next ten days. So, Taxiwallah gave Papa his phone number and promised to show us around Calgary.
Papa asked him where the gurdwara in Calgary was. Taxiwallah said, “Don’t worry. I will take you.”
He showed up two days later to take us to the Sikh temple in the southwest of Calgary. Then, Taxiwallah drove us to downtown Calgary and showed us the famous Calgary Tower and Bow River. Two new, unexpected friends! Papa made plans to meet him again the next day. Great—bonding with Taxiwallah. Papa was enthusiastic on the last evening together when we went to The Keg for dinner.
He put his hand on Taxiwallah’s shoulder and on mine and declared to me, “Now you have someone who can help you when I am gone. Take care of my daughter.”
Then, they both hugged each other like long-lost brothers.
So, here I was, Mummy. Papa had just left in the other taxi to go to the airport and here was Taxiwallah.
He jumped out of his taxi and said, “Sorry, sorry. Simran. I was stuck in a terrible traffic jam near the airport. Where is your papa?”
I glared at Taxiwallah and snarled, “You know he is gone. He left. You were late.”
“Acha,” he shook his head and smiled. “Ok. Ok. I’ll take you to your dormitory. Come.”
He grabbed my suitcase. I slid into his taxi in the front seat next to him. His taxi still had the pungent smell of stale cigarettes from the last few times I was in it. I cranked open the window to breathe the cold, crisp Calgary air. He glanced at me sideways while he reassured me papa must have made it in time to catch his flight to Singapore.
Thankfully, it was only a five-minute drive, and we reached outside the seven-storey building of my new home—Kananaskis Hall—the building where my dormitory is in, Mummy, and he parked in the visitor’s spot.
I jumped out of the taxi and said, “Thank you, Uncle. Goodbye.”
“No, no,” he said. “I’ll come up with you and make sure that you are ok. Your papa told me to take good care of you.”
What the hell. He would not leave. I put my hand up and waved him away. Nothing. He followed me into the front door of the building with my luggage in his right hand. I didn’t know what to do.
“Ok, goodbye,” I said. My smile froze like ice. “Ok. Go now. All good. Thanks.”
“No, no. Let me make sure you are safe in your room.”
I lunged to get my suitcase from his right hand. Taxiwallah laughed and waved me on. He walked past the elevator to the door next to it—the stairway. Taxiwallah followed a step behind me as I uncomfortably trudged up each flight of stairs. Third floor. I opened the stairway door and stepped into the common living area. I grabbed my suitcase from his hand, but he pushed me away from it with his other hand. He looked for my room number on the map next to the elevator and pointed down the wing on the left.
I stepped back and firmly shrieked, “Ok, Uncle, goodbye.”
“No, no,” Taxiwallah sneered. “Let’s make sure the room is good for you.”
I looked around the long empty hallway. Not a single soul. Trapped, I jiggled the lock and the handle of the door. I flung the door open and stood outside.
He said, “Ladies, first,” and waved me in.
He shadowed my steps into the room, twirled around, and thumped the door shut. He tossed my suitcase on the single bed in the tiny room. Then, the bastard stepped up right to my face, firmly put his hands around my waist, pulled me close until his groin touched mine and his tobacco breath expelled on my face.
“Acha. Simran. Beautiful girl. Your papa told me to take care of you. I am here for you, anytime day or night. You can call me. Anytime. Come, I will take you to Banff. Your papa is gone. But don’t worry. I am here. You won’t be alone anymore.”
I tasted bile in my mouth and whiffed putrid smoke and sweat. His leered at me like that villain in every Hindi movie we watched together, Mummy. Dirty old man. No wonder he came so late.
“Be like a tiger.” I heard these words in my mind. Loudly and clearly.
With all my might, I pushed Taxiwallah off. He tumbled. I sprinted to the door, opened it, and jumped outside.
“Get lost!” I screamed. “Hello. Hello, anyone here?” I shouted. “Hello. Hello.”
I kept shouting.
Taxiwallah stared at me and shook his head in disappointment. “Just like a sher. A tiger.” He chuckled and handed me his card. “Never mind. Here is my phone number. Call me.” He turned and walked away.
I jumped into the room, banged the door, dragged the chair, and leaned it against the doorknob. I threw his card into the dustbin. I picked up the phone and listened to the ringtone, which calmed me down. 999 to call the police, like in Singapore?
Shaken, I plunked on one of the two single beds; both had light green bedsheets and brown woolly blankets. Like a hospital room in Singapore. I glanced around the matchbox room—two single beds, two desks and chairs and two closets. On the wall opposite the door was a big rectangle window that looked out to a meandering walking path littered with brown leaves and bare brown branched trees. I stretched my legs out as far as they could reach and touched the other bed. My breathing restored itself to normalcy. With a sigh, I put my head down on the flat, squishy pillow and stared at the dirty, brown-streaked ceiling.
I know, Mummy. You must be thinking I have come to the dangerous jungle alone. I know. I know. I thought I was brave to come to Calgary by myself. Luckily, I watched all those Hindi movies with you. There was always a bad guy. Don’t worry, Mummy. Remember what the Taxiwallah called me—sher? Exactly. Tiger. Let’s see what else the jungle will bring. I am ready.
I am going to kill Taxiwallah if I ever see him again. I miss you, Mummy.
“24 August 1985” is an extract from Kelly Kaur’s book, Letters to Singapore. Copyright ©2022 by Kelly Kaur. Reprinted by permission of Stonehouse Publishing and the author.
Kelly Kaur grew up in Singapore, came to Calgary to get her degrees at the University of Calgary, and stayed longer than she thought she would. Universities appear to be her playground; as a university educator today, she must have taught over 10,000 students and graded over 60,000 essays. To take a break from marking, she decided to write her own novel. Kelly lives in Calgary, Alberta.