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The gift



Pahandi was barely managing to stay conscious after having fallen unconscious several times. But, she insisted, pleaded and cajoled her family into allowing her to remain outside the operating theatre. She begged her mother, who occupied the next seat, having a watchful eye on her, to pray for her husband, Sanuka’s recovery, though she knew her mother was already on it. Pahandi did not want to believe that her husband had met with an accident and was in a critical situation, fighting desperately with death. But her mother-in-law’s somewhat hushed but unstoppable sobs and deep sighs, together with streaming tears, continued to pierce Pahandi’s ears and eyes, reminding her of the harsh reality. She wanted to hug her mother-in-law, who sat opposite her, held by her equally worried father-in-law. But she felt too weak to get up.

‘Mom, will - will anything hap - happen to him? Oh! How - how can I - I live without him?’ she asked her mother instead.

Her mother kept quiet for a while, seemingly pondering an apt reply.

'Mom, Mom, please do say something.'

‘My sweetest daughter, the doctors are trying their best, and they are specialists. You know life is not easy. It's not predictable either. If not, Lord Buddha wouldn’t have guided us to get rid of samsara in the first place. Concentrate on all the merits you have committed, and make a wish for the operation to be successful,’ said her mother, gently bestowing a kiss on her forehead while continuing to stroke her head.

Pahandi realised that was all she could do at that moment, so she closed her eyes and tried to concentrate. She had heard of miracles happening when powerful wishes are made. So, she decided to suppress her urge to keep gazing at the theatre door, waiting for a doctor to emerge with some good news at any moment. She recollected herself and thought of her commitment to the five basic precepts she had to live by as a Buddhist. To the best of her knowledge, she had never killed any living being, at least a mosquito, stolen anything, consumed alcohol and drugs or smoked. She had never cheated Sanuka during their ten-year continuous relationship or their one and half year old marriage. She had not even had a single thought of adultery. Thus, she had never broken four precepts in her life, and it was such a significant commitment. Not that everyone could do so. However, she had occasionally lied to joke and, therefore, broken one precept, though lightly. Thus, she was making a wish on the four precepts she had never broken, and all the other merits such as meditating, helping others and donating things, when her mother called her in an agitated voice. She opened her eyes to see everyone flocking around the surgeon who had come out of the theatre.

‘We are extremely sorry, but we tried our best,’ was what the surgeon finally said after some hesitation.

This time it was Pahandi’s mother-in-law who fainted while Pahandi stood erect. She did not want to believe and accept that he could depart, leaving her behind. They always wished to die together.

‘I want to see him,’ she said abruptly.

But, she was not allowed in, to her great distress. She was told to wait until Sanuka's body was brought out from the theatre to be sent to the mortuary. Her feelings were so intense that she could hardly see, hear or respond to anyone around her. But, she could not help hearing her mother-in-law, who had gained consciousness, yelling while been taken away from the premises.

‘Oh deities, why-why did I - let my son marry this - this un - unlucky woman. If - if not - my son – my - my life – would – still - still be alive.’

Pahandi could not focus on what she heard, as she saw a trolley emerging from the theatre, with a body covered in a white cloth. She jumped at it and raised the cloth with both her hands. In the next instance, she hugged him gently and then gazed at his body. She could not bear that he lay motionlessly, with his eyes closed and no longer responding to her.

‘Oh! My lord, oh my life, you are not dead, right. You can’t leave me like this. Come back. Please come back, if not, take me with you, please…’ she continued to plead, making everyone around her cry.

Pahandi’s plea delayed the attendants from carrying the body away. She was holding his hand and staring at his body, almost without blinking her eyes, and remained silent as if she was meditating. All of a sudden, she jumped.

‘Oh! Lord Buddha! His pulse – his pulse is working. He’s breathing too! Doctors, doctors, he’s not dead! I told you.’

Everyone around her was looking at her, with tears rolling down.

‘My darling daughter, let’s go now,’ said her mother.

‘I’m not going crazy, someone please check. He’s still alive,’ she said fiercely.

Then, an attendant checked for his pulse.

‘Oh! Lord Buddha! He’s alive! Oh! Doctors! Doctors!’ the attendants cried in unison as they pushed the trolley back into the theatre.

Sanuka’s brother was about to shout at the doctors for the blunder, but he was controlled by the others, that being a government hospital in Sri Lanka, where medical facilities are free, and doctors are regarded as deities.

***

‘Please don’t leave his sight until I come back. Either of you should stay here all the time. I won’t be long,’ Pahandi pleaded from both her mother and mother-in-law, as she was going into the bathroom.

‘Pahandi, don’t worry at all. Take your time. I don’t think you even had a proper bath all this time.’ said her mother, who had been staying with them since the accident took place.

‘Very true. I’m all right now. But Pahandi never listens. She should take care of herself. I feel terrible to see her blackened under eyes. I wonder whether she sleeps at all. Whenever I wake up, I see her staring at me. I’m scared. She may fall ill. I can’t bear to see her falling sick because of me. Please explain her mother-in-law,’ Sanuka begged.

‘Yes, that’s true. My son is fortunate to have such a devoted wife. She’s been on leave for more than two months already. She never lets the servant do anything for Sanuka. We're always ready to help, but she rarely asks for.’

***

‘Thanks to the deities, you are totally fine just in three months.’

‘The deities must have blessed. But, I got cured so soon, thanks to one superb nurse,’ Sanuka said, looking into Pahandi’s eyes, who only smiled innocently in reply while continuing to sweep.

‘Wait, give me the broom. I’ll sweep. Have some rest. You’ve been working harder since you sent the maid home.’

‘No way, you should rest. The maid needs some rest too. She’d been working so hard. How many visitors she got to treat while you were ill?’

‘Actually, you deserve some rest most. The doctors also asked me to live a normal life. So, please don’t make me feel sick anymore.’

‘But… you never swept. You used to say it was women’s work.’

‘Never! Did I say so?’

‘Hey, you just can’t remember. You’ve changed so much since the accident. Oh! Transformed, that’s the correct word,’ Pahandi said, winking.

‘Hmm, you don’t like it?’

‘No, my love, I don’t like it, but… I simply love it. You’ve become so thoughtful. I feel you love me than ever before! I must be the luckiest woman on earth!’

In fact, she was happier than ever, so much so that she did not worry about his having lost track of memories and his long ponderings. Besides, the doctors had asked her to be patient, considering it as an aftereffect of head injuries he had in the accident. However, she was happy that it had not affected his knowledge of software engineering so that he could function smoothly at work.

***

Pahandi had lit some exotic handmade candles that carried the aroma of roses. She served a special, homemade dinner, with all his favourite dishes and desserts, when he came back downstairs from his bath.

‘Oh! My love, are we celebrating anything special today? Forgive me if I have forgotten,’ Sanuka said, looking at her with eyes full of love.

‘Mmmm, not an anniversary or so. Just a treat for ourselves.’

‘Your food is awesome as always. It’s a grand dinner. But, why bother so much? And you didn’t even let me help.’

‘You’re not used to. So, how can you? And, if your mother sees me getting you to help, she would be unhappy.’

‘She has to understand. How can you manage everything by yourself while the maid is away? We both work.’

‘I do love the way you’ve changed, except for…’

‘Except for what?’

‘No, no, nothing,’ murmured Pahandi smiling, but the dancing light in her eyes told him everything.

***

Pahandi went to their room quickly, asking Sanuka to wait until she called him in. She locked the door behind her. She lit so many little flower-shaped aromatic candles, which carried the sensuous fragrance of ylang-ylang. She put them in a big, crystal bowl, full of water, which she had hidden under their bed, earlier that evening. She wore a dazzling wine-red nightie and let her hair loose before inviting Sanuka.

Sanuka gazed at her. She could see both love and lust pouring out of his half-closed eyes. She closed her eyes when he came towards her and expected him to kiss her passionately at any moment. But, to her amazement, he started speaking instead.

‘Pahandi, my love, my life, I love you so intensely. No words can express how much I love you —’

‘I know that love. I have always known,’ she said impatiently as she wanted to be mingled with his body more than anything at that time, having missed that bliss for three long months.

‘No, you don’t actually know. You don’t know anything.’

‘What? I know everything about you,’ exclaimed Pahandi, disturbed as he looked so solemn.

‘Pahandi, I could have hidden this from you, forever, like in the last few months. But, you are such a devoted wife. You are as pure as a jasmine flower. So, whatever, whatever decision you make, I can’t hide this from you anymore. I feel suffocated when I feel that I cheat you.’

“What, what, my love,’ asked Pahandi, utterly puzzled; she knew it could not be about another woman. He was not merely that type.

She felt him holding her by shoulders as he looked straight into her eyes.

‘Pahandi, I’m not Sanuka.’

‘What - what in the hell are you telling me?’

‘Pahandi, I’m not your Sanuka. I’m so sorry. Sanuka did die in the operating theatre that day—’

‘What? If so, who are you then? I think… you’re still confused, darling. It takes time—’

‘No, Pahandi, No. Please believe me. I’m in good senses. I was Thilina in my past life. I lived in Kandy, in this very same city. I met with an accident when I was only thirty. I died in the same hospital Sanuka died. Then, I was born without a body. But, I had feelings, just like a human. I was just wandering in the air when I saw you begging Sanuka to come back to life. I felt you loved your husband so much, so I wanted to own your love. I heard your mother-in-law cursing you. So, I felt sorry for you too. Then, I tried entering his body and was successful.’

Pahandi's body just slipped down along the wall into a seating position. She stayed like that for an unknown period, with him seated opposite her, looking devastated.

‘You mean to say, my Sanuka - Sanuka is no more?’ she asked finally.

‘Yes, Pahandi, life had already left his body when I noticed you crying, holding it.’

‘And - and you are a gho - ghost?’

‘No. Not anymore, Pahandi. Now, I have a body, the body borrowed from your husband, so I’m completely human. The only difference is that I still remember my immediate past lives in which I lived as a ghost and a human. I never mean you any harm. My love for you is true, Pahandi. You can’t imagine how much I love you. I’ve powerful feelings for you. But I didn’t want to make love to you without telling you the truth. I can’t just cheat you and be happy.’

Pahandi was much disturbed; tears were coming out of her eyes continuously. She did not know what to make of the things she was hearing. If he was Sanuka, how come he had heard his mother blaming her for his death? Is that why he could not remember their past and could not recognise many people after the accident? Is that why he was more polite and gentler afterwards? Is that why he waited so long to have sex with her? Sanuka never had so much patience. So, was he actually someone else in Sanuka’s body? Was her Sanuka gone forever? Her head was about to explode. Utter dismay and confusion had taken the colour out of her face.

‘Pahandi, even in my former life, no one loved me truly. I lost both my parents when I was six, and my girlfriend cheated on me. I seriously love you, for you are so truthful. I want to live with you until I die. That’s my only wish. But I don't want to put you into great confusion, either. If you don’t want me to be in his body, I - I can commit suicide and leave both you and his body,’ Sanuka said with tearful eyes.

‘Why should you commit suicide?’

‘What else should I do if you don’t want me to use his body? I ought to leave it.’

‘I never want anyone to commit suicide under any circumstances.’

‘What should I do then?’

‘Don’t do anything now. Just let me alone for a while.’

‘At least, can I put you on the bed and serve you some water?’

Pahandi nodded. He took her from both his hands, laid her on the bed carefully, and offered her a glass of water. He left the room afterwards, closing the door behind him.

Pahandi hugged her pillow and cried and cried and cried until she had fallen asleep. She suddenly got up in the middle of the night and sat on the bed. He was not inside the room. That was good. She cannot live with a stranger. Oh! How come he is a stranger? She had already lived with him, in the same room, for about three months, and he had not even touched her intimate areas. He could have continued to pretend to be Sanuka. But he revealed to her everything!

On the other hand, how come she could not recognise that she was living with someone else? What can she do for Sanuka? Her dearest Sanuka! Is anything there left for her to do for him? What could she do with this new man in Sanuka's body? Where was he? Has he gone? Has he committed suicide? Why should she bother about him? But, how can she be cruel to him? He revealed the truth after all, and he never used her sexually, even when he could.

When she finally opened the door to look for him, she saw him getting up from the chair he had placed opposite her bedroom. She realised that he had not slept at all but had been waiting outside her room.

‘Are you OK? You need anything?’

‘No, nothing, but don’t stay up like this. I’m fine. Sleep in this room,’ Pahandi said, pointing at the adjoining room.

‘Oh! Don’t worry about me. How many nights have you stayed up for me! Can I prepare you some coffee? You would gain some strength. I heard you sobbing for hours. But, I didn’t want to disturb.’

‘No, I don’t want anything. But, I do need to talk to you.’

‘Sure, with pleasure’.

‘So, have you tried to enter any other dead body earlier?’

‘No, never. I was going to places of worship and where people commit meritorious deeds. I used to approve and be happy about the merits they achieved, so that —‘

‘You collect more merits.’

‘Exactly.’

‘So, you were a Buddhist in your previous life?’

‘Obviously.’

‘Can you or will you just leave Sanuka’s body when you like?’

‘No, Pahandi. I can’t do that now. This is unlike a normal possession. I’m now completely human-like I told you earlier. That’s why I said I would commit suicide if you don’t want me to be in his body. ’

‘No, you can be in his body. Sanuka is no more to use it.’

‘I’m very grateful Pahandi. But, the whole purpose of my coming into his body will be lost if you don’t accept my love.’

‘Can’t say anything for now. I do need time.’

‘Oh! Extremely sorry, Pahandi. I don’t want to pressurise. I can wait… maybe for years, for you are my whole world, the meaning of my existence.'

***

Just as Pahandi got up the next morning, she was reminded of everything, everything that suddenly turned her world upside down. Her heart wept for her dearest Sanuka. What could she do for him? How could she forget his memories, and live with another man? How could she cheat everyone? How could she face his relatives? But, what had happened was not her fault. Should she ask him to leave? What would be the outcome? How could she explain to anyone what had happened? She had heard that such possessions occur very rarely. But she never thought it could happen for real. What would happen to her, ultimately? Suddenly, she remembered how her mother-in-law cursed her for Sanuka’s untimely death. So, if the one in Sanuka’s body disappeared or committed suicide, she would get that blame too.

Can she live alone as a widow? If so, she would have to face numerous troubles. She knew the hardships her cousin had to undergo, as a divorcee, with so many men trying to take advantage, with so many women unjustly suspecting her whenever their husbands and boyfriends paid her any attention. Her cousin wanted to remain single but finally remarried because she could not resist the pressure from society anymore. So, Pahandi knew that she would one day have to follow her cousin. If not, could she become a Buddhist nun and suggest that man in Sanuka’s body do the same?

***

Pahandi organised a dhamma sermon, and grand almsgiving to twenty-one Buddhist priests, at her home. She and the one in Sanuka’s body were the only people to know that it was arranged in the name of Sanuka. Pahandi felt quite relieved after having fulfilled her duty by her deceased husband. She decided to repeat it yearly for Sanuka. That is all she could do for him, after all.

She went to the Temple of the Tooth afterwards, with the one in Sanuka’s body, wearing white clothes. They offered flowers and worshipped Lord Buddha separately. Pahandi pondered for a long time, seated on the wooden floor, facing the stand full of flowers, which was placed directly in front of the room that houses the sacred left canine tooth of Lord Buddha. The fragrance of flowers and the joss sticks also had a soothing effect on her. Finally, she got up from her meditating stance, worshipped Lord Buddha three times, touching her forehead on the ground, and turned to the man in Sanuka’s body.

The End

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