Friday, October 1, 2010

Kumar Lived in the Flat Below Mine

cover of "Kumar" from Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) blog
Kumar lived in the flat beneath mine  in what I called Bernal Depths (just off Mission Street, in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights)  in the mid-1980s. He was a skinny, smart, sweet, energetic guy in career and personal transition who had about him an air of mystery. We talked sometimes on our shared porch steps and went out to dinner once, but both of us were so busy that our mutual regard and affection never blossomed into a deeper friendship. His presence was both enshadowed and supportive in those months. I had just begun singing, was finding my footing with managing my diabetes, and was immersed in various turbulent and exciting romances, and Kumar could be relied on to smile widely and warmly and to share insights about life whenever our paths crossed, while still pulling an invisible curtain around his activities. Not long after, he moved without leaving much of a trace.

More than 20 years later, Kumar found me online and we began a sporadic correspondence. Then, in late summer 2009, he asked me to work with him – first as a clairvoyant reader and healer, then as a writing coach. I discovered quickly that the warm and sparking spirit I had glimpsed in the ’80s had endured some harrowing suffering before, during, and after that time. Yet he also had since learned a great deal about the contours of his body and soul, gained success in his career, and created a satisfying marriage. I was thrilled to be in touch again, relishing his agile mind, sweet heart, and questing spirit. And I was pleased by the great deal of talent I saw in his writing  a brand-new pursuit, and gift to himself, after years of relentless effort in the high-tech industry.

Beyond our work together, our delayed friendship found its footing. Kumar introduced me to his wife Jenifer via a lovely dinner South of Market. I confided in him on the phone about yet another dramatic romantic episode of mine, reminiscent of what I’d gone through more than two decades ago. He revealed that he was trying out a new medicine to help manage depression, but that his doctors feared it could cause a seizure because of some other physiological conditions he was managing, so he couldn’t drive himself anywhere for a month. Then he was given the all-clear. We had plans to hang out in a coffee shop after Thanksgiving. “You’d really like to do that?” he asked, with the guilelessness of a kid.

Then there was a silence of a few weeks between us. Too silent and too long. Kumar was gone. A seizure had caused his death.

I was robbed of the friendship that we were finally to have.

And yet now I have a gorgeous book: Kumar: A Love Story  stories and poems by Jeyakumar Shanmugam along with paintings and an introductory memoir by Jenifer Bacon, his widow and a longtime accomplished artist. Bacon also designed the book with unusual flair.

Bacon’s introduction reveals the intimacies and rewards of her challenging relationship with Kumar through evocative prose as well as journal and email excerpts. Kumar’s stories, augmented by a few poems, portray a childhood marred by vicious abuse from his father; wartime experience with Americans that’s both amusing and touching; the sometimes hilarious perspective of an adult newcomer to the U.S.; and the internal life of a suburban worker grappling with drug use, rage, and recurring painful memories – all of it conveyed with a well-constructed grit and accuracy that strikes at the reader’s heart. Bacon’s paintings dynamically illustrate a journey to “put some visual form to what it might be like after we die,” subject matter with which she had been “struggling for some time, long before Kumar died...imaginative landscapes of what we cannot see or even feel completely. This great mystery that someday all of us will experience."

Get the book from at

copyright 2010 Lisa Bernstein

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