A short story by Anu Shivaram

Our monthly team meeting was almost coming to an end and the last person had just switched off his presentation when Gavin from the other team came rushing towards us.  He looked totally confused and flustered. He walked towards our manager Andrew and whispered, “Man, that young intern of yours, Khem, is sitting on the floor in the men’s room bawling his eyes out. I tried talking to him but couldn’t get a word out of him; you better go and see him”. Though he meant to whisper his hoarse voice was rather loud and all of us heard him.

As we looked at each other trying to make sense of Gavin’s words, Andrew took charge of the situation. He looked at us and said in a calm voice, “I will go and talk to Khem and see what the matter is. We can regroup later”.

We got back to our workstations. None of us could concentrate.  Why would Khem be crying? What had happened? We exchanged unspoken words and looked eagerly in the direction of the men’s room.

It was not uncommon for such episodes in the ladies’ room. A domestic issue, a sick child, pressures of work, balancing home and career has driven many women to the comfort of the ladies’ room. They have walked out feeling much lighter after a hearty cry; as if solutions to problems were found in the rest room!

A man crying at work was not such a familiar sight. Most cultures have not allowed men that freedom, they are expected to put on a brave front at all times and ”˜man’ it up. From a young age they are conditioned not to cry, not to be sentimental and expressive. Not fair at all, I debated within myself.

After a while, Andrew walked towards his office with Khem. Khem Khaeng, was a young intern who was gaining work experience in our team.   He was in his early twenties, having migrated from Thailand just a couple of years ago. He spoke hesitantly with a thick accent but the eagerness in his eyes and the warmth in his smile communicated everything he wanted to say and more. Within a short time, his willingness to learn and take on additional tasks had made him a favorite of our small team.

He had told us that an elderly Australian couple had visited his village in the remote jungles of Thailand. They were crossing the jungle stream in a raft which had overturned causing injuries to both of them. They had been admitted to a ramshackle hospital in the nearby town. Young Khem had a smattering of English that he had picked up from the tourists visiting the jungles. He had volunteered to be their interpreter and had stationed himself in the hospital, sleeping in the hospital corridor and running errands for them and comforting them until they were fit enough to travel.

His innocent kindness was well rewarded when the Australian couple offered to pay for his schooling. After the death of his grandparents, they had also sponsored the move of this orphan boy to Australia and had helped him settle in the new country. Khem had narrated this story many a time always referring to the couple as ”˜Mother-God’ and ”˜Father-God’. His reverence for the couple and his new country, always made us smile.

Khem missed his home, you could tell. He would describe to us how his mother always carried him; how he snuggled up to her when the dark clouds rumbled, how she bathed him in the river and how she chose the best fruits and juicy sugarcanes for him. It was unusual for adults to share such intimate details at work, but Khem’s vulnerability and his rustic charm made it very easy for us to connect and accept.

When it rained, he would look out nostalgically recalling the lush green hills, the rapid rivers and the freedom of his forest. His affection for his mother and his jungle was almost palpable. Sometimes we even felt sad for this free spirit to be trapped in a city high rise.

Andrew beckoned us into his office and in a somber voice told us that Khem had just got news of his mother’s demise and wanted to go to Thailand but he did not have enough money to pay for an emergency air ticket. “Oh, that is so sad, no worries mate we will reach you home somehow,” offered Helen, giving him a spontaneous hug. “Didn’t he say he was an orphan?” I thought to myself a little confused.

“When would the funeral be? We can organise your ticket early next week” said Phil, his accounting brain quickly working out the details on that Friday afternoon.

“No, no, I have to go today. She died five days ago and they will take her body to the jungle soon. She is very, very big and her body will start rotting, said Khem amidst fresh sobs. We looked at each other absolutely unable to make sense of what he was saying. “Won’t there be a funeral?” asked Andrew in surprise. “No, we just leave her in the jungle” said Khem, tears rolling down unabashedly. We were all totally confused.

“Do you have a picture of your mother with you Khem”, asked Phil trying to work out what Khem was saying. Khem wiped his tears and pulled out an old black and white photograph from his shining new wallet.

All of us peered in at once to see the picture. Our jaws dropped looking at the picture!  It was young Khem riding a majestic elephant! So, he thought the elephant was his mother? Really?

Our sophisticated, urbane minds struggled to comprehend that an orphan boy growing up in an elephant camp could so firmly believe that an elephant was his mother! Young Khem had no such doubts. He was absolutely sure of his identity as he held the picture of his mother close to his heart!


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