His pillar of strength
“We were putting up decorative lights for the wedding,” relates Gurmit, 58, when we sit down for a coffee at her Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur, home.
“The bell rang around midnight and I thought it was him. Instead of seeing my husband at the door, it was the taxi driver. He was frantically shouting, ‘Sudah langgar YB. Sudah langgar!’ (YB has been hit).
“I ran to the car and Karpal was lying inside face down. He said his back was hurt. I pulled him out while my eldest son Jagdeep carried his body from the other end. It must have been God who guided our hands as we carried him out because one wrong move and Karpal would have been even more seriously injured.
“I was initially relieved that Karpal was still talking. Until he asked me, ‘Where are my hands?’ That was when I realised he couldn’t feel his body.”
Karpal’s accident was headlines in the local press but no one suspected that he had been so severely injured. Reports merely said he had suffered “neck injuries”. Throughout his hospitalisation, Gurmit remained by his side.
Sangeet's wedding was postponed to Jan 1 this year. She had wanted her father to give her away but it was not to be. Her four brothers helped organise the traditional Punjabi wedding, which lasted nearly a week. Eldest sibling Jagdeep gave her away.
“Do you know I never really sat down to think about the whole situation?” says Gurmit. “I’ve become so busy – the nights I keep awake and the days I am running around. Deep inside I really don’t know what I feel.
But there were times I was so overwhelmed with frustration and misery that I got into my car and just drove around and around where I cried and cried.”
Compared to 1987 when Karpal was detained for 15 months under the Internal Security Act, Gurmit says his present situation was “unimaginable”.
“It is something you can’t even fight against, I can only pray. When he was in detention, he could walk, I could visit him, speak and fight for his freedom. Who can I speak to now? As they say, anyone can make big plans, but only God can implement them.”
Gurmit is particularly affected by Karpal’s helplessness.
“I want to see him walk again,” she says, lowering her voice to an intense whisper. “I want him to live in honour again when he can have his own privacy. I don’t want people to help with even his bath. I did that for one year and I was so tired. We now have someone to help him.
Despite all that, Gurmit is grateful that Karpal remains “the same Karpal that I know”.
The couple have known each other since she was eight, and he, a shy student of 16. They met when he was helping his father herd cattle in Thean Teik, then the backwaters in Penang.
She was staying at Kampung Melayu in Air Itam and he was living at MacAlister Road. But he was good friends with her brothers all the while she was “the little sister”.
Gurmit was born in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat where her farmer parents had migrated to during the 1930s from Punjab, India. They moved to Penang when she was seven.
“We were friends for 10 years and never thought anything could happen!” Gurmit says, laughing. “It wasn’t until I had finished Form Five and Karpal came home from Singapore for chambering that things started looking different.”
The outspoken politician Malaysians know so well, never once approached the girl he had his eye on for a decade.
“He had set his sights on me a long time ago, but I was too young to know.
“There was always this guy looking out for me. I’d come out of school and sometimes he’d be at the bus stop. At the library where I frequently went, he would be there sitting quietly in a corner.
“He went like: ‘Can I meet your father? It’s because I want to marry you!’ That’s Karpal for you. He wanted to get my parents’ approval before we proceeded in our friendship. Through the year as I did my A-Levels, we’d meet for coffee, exchange birthday presents and did all those lovey-dovey things! The Penang library was often our dating spot.
“When he came to ask my father’s blessings for our marriage, my father told him, ‘There is no one better than you whom I can get for my daughter, there is no better son-in-law I want.’ Karpal always recite that to me!”
They married on July 30, 1970, the same year Karpal started his legal firm and joined the DAP.
The children came immediately with Jagdeep, now 36, Gobind, 34, Ram, 30, Sangeet 27, and the youngest, Mankarpal, 19.
They are also proud grandparents to four grandsons – Akhsay, three, Rohit, two, Jayden, one, and the newest addition, Sangeet’s son Johrran, who was born on August 18.
Twelve years ago, the couple bought the Damansara Heights house and Karpal planted saplings in the garden which have grown into fruitful rambutan, banana, mango and langsat trees today. Prior to the accident, his routine was to wake up to coffee and then potter around the garden with the dogs.
There are no more walks although he continues to enjoy the company of his bulldog, aptly named Babbar which means “lion” in Punjabi.
He also insists on going to office early every morning to help his sons with their cases in between daily physiotherapy and hydrotherapy on weekends.
The therapists who faithfully come to the house each day refuse to charge for their service.
“They are Karpal’s ardent supporters!” says Gurmit. “They take the trouble to come to our house after a whole day’s work, because they want to see him walk again.”
Just as there are caring, sensitive and sympathetic people, there are those who are not. Gurmit’s eyes narrow at the mention of the insensitivity demonstrated by a few MPs in Parliament.
“I was very upset. I don’t see how these people can stoop to that level,” she says. “I wanted to write a letter to the newspapers about them but my children would not let me. They said other people would do it.”
This woman, with large, expressive eyes, speaks fluent Thai and dishes up a mean Tom Yum alongside extremely fiery Indian food! Karpal insists he is not a “cat” at home but remains a tiger.
But it’s clear that this woman has been a pillar of strength for the family especially this past year.
Indeed, Jagdeep, who is based in Penang, credits his mother for helping the family cope after the accident.
“My mother has been holding up the entire family, but then, she’s always been an ‘Iron Lady’. Thank God my father is very strong and resilient. You can already hear him roaring in Parliament again! His spirits are high and we can’t even keep him from appearing in court with us. He is as sharp and focused as ever.
“After what we’ve been through, we don’t take things for granted anymore and appreciate the people closest to us. I’m so grateful my father is well and recovering, it has been a humbling experience for us all.”
Third son Ram Karpal, who accompanies his father to court and Parliament, as he is based at the KL office, says:
“Initially it was very difficult seeing my father in this condition, but eventually we got used to it. I was very upset of course, but my mother has been very strong for all of us.
“It’s not easy hearing what some people say about my father in Parliament, but politicians will be politicians. There is nothing we can do about it.”
Unknown to many, one of Karpal’s hobbies was in drawing little cartoons. He liked making birthday cards for all his children, each card having a hand-drawn picture and story.
“On my birthday on May 10, 1987, when Karpal was under ISA, I was feeling particularly down and lost, and went to his office. Suddenly an assistant ran in calling, ‘Mr Karpal has sent you a letter!’
“Inside the envelope was a little card with a drawing on it. It started off with ‘To my girl in blue…’
“You see, I had a lovely blue frock when I was nine or 10 which I wore everywhere. He remembered that!
“That was the most beautiful thing he had ever done just to tell me he was still there and that he loved me! I don’t know how he managed to get that card delivered right on time,” says Gurmit, her eyes misty, adding that she had the card framed.
While Gurmit refuses to give up hope that Karpal will one day be able to walk again, she also realises that they have been lucky.
“A doctor told me that Karpal could’ve very easily died. But his life was spared. Once when I was driving around in tears, I kept seeing disabled people: there was a blind man, another had no legs....
“That was when I realised now lucky we were and how much we take things for granted. He may not be walking but we still have him.”
‘I will walk again’