Author Archives: Kelly Kaur

About Kelly Kaur

Some of Kelly's poems and works have been published in WordCityLit, Time of the Poet Republic, Blindman Session Beer Cans, Best Asian Short Stories 2020, This Might Help Audio Poems, BeZine, and International Human Rights Arts Festival. Her novel, Letters to Singapore, will be published by Stonehouse publishing in Spring 2022.

The Music of Laughter

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Collage by Leah Dockrill titled "Layers of Illusion" showing sheet music among other items.

Layers of Illusion by Leah Dockrill

I am eleven and standing in the hallway of my apartment in Block 545 in Singapore. From inside, I hear the horrible sounds of cats being tortured. The only problem is that we don’t own cats. In a panic, I fling the door open and I see my mummy sitting in front of her brand-new musical instrument, a table-sized pump organ. A harmonium that was screeching and bellowing. Mummy looked up at me and laughed; genuine happiness radiated from her. Her eyebrows danced and her lips parted as melodious sounds emerged from her belly. I had never seen mummy look like that. Something was different.

“I have decided that I am going to be the best harmonium player and temple singer in Singapore!” she said.

“But Mummy,” I screamed, “you don’t know any music! You cannot sing. Where did you even get that thing?”

She winked at me. “Meeta, my friend from temple, bought a new harmonium. I grabbed the chance to buy her old one. She even came in her car and dropped it off this morning.”

Then, Mum put her right hand up to silence me. She raised her chin in defiance. “Cannot? Why not? Just watch me. Everything is possible, beti, if you believe it in your heart. Whenever I go to the temple, I watch the priests play beautiful music on the harmonium. I feel happy from inside. It was fated when Meeta said she was getting rid of her old harmonium. The universe is showing me the way. Now, go and eat your cheese bread I made for you.”

My mom was thirty years old at that time. She had been a child bride at sixteen, shipped from Delhi to Singapore, and had lived in a prison of tradition and patriarchal rules. Always silenced. How on earth could she learn music when she was not allowed to go out, talk on the phone, have friends, work, drive, or go anywhere without my father? There was no chance of even getting a music teacher.

As a young girl, I was worried about my mom’s rebellion. I decided that I would keep a close eye on her. Secretly, I spied on her. I was puzzled by the nonsensical diagrams that she scratched in her palm-sized notebook. With intense scrutiny, her nose scrunched, she pounded each key on the harmonium, listened intently and repeated the sound. Then, she drew more secret diagrams with arrows. This went on for hours. She tried to copy English songs from the radio that blasted in the background and the harmonium bleated her Frankentunes.

She practised her music every day when my father went out. She cleaned. She cooked. She prayed. She played on her harmonium. My brother and sister learned to tune her out. We ignored her command to join her when she practised. We shook our heads and burst out laughing; then we ran for our dear lives.

There was more and more laughter in the house from everyone it seemed, thanks to mummy. Absorbed in her self-taught music lessons, she laughed and it filled the house with calm and peace. Papa was a strict man and he expected all of us to follow his rules, especially mummy. I recoiled when Papa’s angry voice boomed through the house if the TV was loud or mummy disagreed with him. Now, this innocent laughter from mum overshadowed the air of dread and smoothed my fears, at least when Papa wasn’t home.

But one day, Papa came home early while Mum was practising. The scowl on his face worried me. I knew that mom’s rebellion would fetch a price. He thundered in the door and bellowed, “You are wasting your time. You will never be a singer or play that thing. Now go and make my dinner.”

Mom laughed sweetly, so as not to provoke him, and said, “Why not?”

I followed her into the kitchen. She hummed her tunes and swayed her head. She winked at me and I swear she put extra chilies in Papa’s portion of chicken curry. Then, she hugged me and giggled like a teenager. Her quiet laughter reverberated round the apartment and cocooned me. The tension slowly dissolved. I even heard Papa chuckle.

And so this madness from my mummy went on. Music. Laughter. Singing. Two months later, I came home from school and heard a familiar tune I could not place. My mom looked up at me with her smile and said, “I am playing ‘Like Virginia.’” She played the tune again. Suddenly, it hit me. “You mean, ‘Like a Virgin’? By Madonna?” My mom threw her head back and the sounds of pure joy gurgled from her belly. The red dot on her forehead between her dancing brown eyes bobbed up and down. “Yes! The one with the pointy….” Her hands waved around her breasts. “Moooommmm,” I screamed and danced like Madonna while she played her bizarre Indian version of “Like a Virgin.”

Eventually, mummy joined the women’s singing group at the temple on Wednesday afternoons. The temple was the only place she was allowed to go alone, and my father dropped her off and picked her up. I heard such raucous laughter and music erupting from these gatherings on the rare occasions that mummy succeeded in dragging me with her. The women sat in assorted groups, cross-legged on the carpeted floor, enthusiastically discussing new tunes to play. Some would beat the tablas. Others grabbed finger cymbals. Together, each group created harmonious new hymns. They laughed without worry or censure, safe in their collective space. They clucked like hens when they disliked a new tune. They guffawed in approval when they perfected a tune. Even I picked up the finger cymbals and joined in with mummy’s group.

Today, mummy has sung in temples in Indonesia, India, Australia, and Calgary. No one can stop that five-foot-tall woman. With her megawatt smile and infectious laughter, she brazenly invites herself to any temple podium that she can, anywhere in the world. She has even played for the Prime Minister of Singapore at the Singapore National Theatre!

Growing up in that house, I learned the meaning of passion. Within the confines of her tradition, mummy created music and laughter—she created harmony. She permeated the walls with mirth. And as a young girl, I too started to believe in possibilities. I began to learn how to manoeuvre those restricted wings, quietly and covertly. Now I toss my head back and laugh from the depths of my soul whenever I think of my mummy. Because that’s how she now laughs. Eyes twinkling. Cheeks dancing. Unrestrained music that rises to the sky.

Listen to Kelly Kaur read “The Music of Laughter.”

A Feast to Die For

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Today, Amarjit was making Hardev’s favorite dishes. She wanted to make them perfect. She would prepare his favorites, masalah chicken with red and green peppers, lamb kebabs with yoghurt and mint, moong dhal, Aloo Gobi, rotis, and for dessert, she would spoil him with gulab jamuns. Peace offering.

Amarjit sautéed the onions, garlic, and ginger in the hissing oil in the frying pan. She looked at the washed pieces of chicken in the sinkah, the henand recalled her reaction at the butcher shop when the young man said, “Very good choice. Fresh young hen!” Amarjit started at the description. That was what Amro, her mother-in-law, had said about her all those years ago: “Just like a fresh young hen,” and cackled, showing her betel-stained lips.

Amarjit vividly remembered that rainy December in her village in Punjab. Barely sixteen, she was making chai for her father when the lazy afternoon was disrupted by the arrival of the foreigners from Canada. She heard her name lovingly called out by her father. With her dupatta covering her head, she barely raised her eyes to catch a glimpse of the smiling face of Amro and the leering look of the man, ten years older than Amarjit, that she was destined to marry. Just like that, her voiceless fate was sealed in the arranged marriage proposal. Those were her last days in Punjab before she became the wife of the rich Canadian wallah, Hardev.

“Lucky,” everyone in the bleak village had whispered, their eyes flashing with envy. “Going to Canada!”

Now Amarjit brushed her tears, still bitter, with the back of her hand and turned her attention to tossing the perfect proportion of pungent spices into the masalah chicken.

Twelve noon. Hardev banged the door open and thundered in, sitting down at the dining table, looking older than his sixty years. She noticed his deep wrinkles and bushy brows. With bulging but approving eyes, he surveyed the food she had slaved over all morning. Hardev piled his plate and noisily began shoving his mouth with pieces of roti wrapped around chicken, pausing to bite into the lamb kebabs. He noisily slurped the dhal from the bowl, scooped the cauliflower and potatoes with his fingers. A beast.


Illustration of a woman holding a tray of food

Food Plate by Ildiko Nova


Amarjit never ate with him. He complained she was too noisy. He complained she was eating too much. He complained she was eating too little. She just sat across from him and watched like a sentinel, noting each approval and recoiling at any dissatisfaction. Sitting back, Hardev pushed his plate away and said, “I knew that when I saw you in your father’s kitchen all those years ago, it was a good omen. You must have learned to cook from the gods.”

Amarjit could hardly believe her ears. Praises. Hurriedly, she waddled into the kitchen and brought out a big bowl of warm, fragrant gulab jamuns. His eyes widened in appreciation. He knew that she had been too busy all morning to have gotten into any mischief. “Acha. Wonderful,” he spat out. She glowed. This one day of praise was akin to months of bliss. Hardev washed his hands and left. No goodbye. No word.

With a sigh of relief, Amarjit cleaned up the mess, humming a Hindi movie tune. She silently savored Hardev’s praises. Thankful that the thali did not fly at her in unprovoked anger. No bitter words slammed into her gullet. Now, she looked forward to solitary bliss. First, she relaxed in the prayer room and chanted the beautiful scriptures from the Adi Granth that transported her to her father’s house where she sat at his feet as they prayed together. Then, she sang a hymn on her waja, turning her head towards heaven, forgetting her worldly sorrows.

Suddenly, the peaceful afternoon was shattered by the angry shrill of the telephone. Amarjit grabbed the receiver. For a few brief moments, it appeared that Amarjit had frozen into time itself. Her face drew a blank look, and her mouth kept gaping. There was not a single sound from her. When she put the phone down, she hung her head for a brief moment. Then she ambled into the kitchen.

She went to the leftover ball of atta and turned on the flame to heat up the pan. She slapped the atta between two palms and doused it in flour. She put it on the counter and deftly rolled it out to the size of a dessert plate. Again, she gingerly lifted the flattened roti and tossed it from one palm to the other before placing it on the hot black pan.

Amarjit watched as the brown spots emerged on the outer side, and she flipped it over as it puffed. With a dishcloth, she pressed the outermost sides of the roti, making sure all parts were nicely browned. She tossed the perfectly speckled roti onto her thali. She reached out for her homemade jar of mango achar on the counter and heaped an overflowing tablespoon onto the compartment next to her roti. Then, she opened the fridge door and took out the leftover bowl of fragrant chole and homemade creamy dhai that she had made the day before. Hardev had refused to have any because she had not made chicken to go with it; he had stormed out, as usual.

She never cared for the fancy food that Hardev craved and insisted that she cookall that never-ending preparation. Amarjit loved the simplicity of her village food: roti, chole, dhai, and achar. Divine. For the first time since she had arrived in Canada, Amarjit ate with gusto in Hardev’s house, their house. She savored every bite as if it were her first. Only when she had satiated her hunger did she finally allow herself to think about the phone call from the emergency room of the hospital barely ten minutes away. The caller told her that Hardev had collapsed in the parking lot of the shopping center. The voice on the other side of the phone whispered, “I’m sorry. It was a heart attack. Just like that. He died immediately. He did not suffer.” Could she please come down to the hospital and make the necessary arrangements?

With a deeply drawn sigh, she put on her sandals and decided to take a slow and leisurely walk to the hospital. She wondered if she would miss cooking.