The heartache of a lost friend

What is it that hurts so much when an old friend decides to part ways? Is it that you are aghast that your gift of unconditional affection, loyalty and steadfastness has been refused? Does it come close to a repudiation of your worth? Does his or her unwillingness to continue on a shared path of knowing and closeness make you think you are now essentially unworthy of any sustained meaningful contact with any other fellow human being?

I have spent many hours wondering what it is that I may have done wrong – did my becoming a parent do it? I do remember quite well how another friend and me were puzzled by how dramatically different a third friend of ours had become after becoming a parent. And how in some ways we were hurt for no longer being part of her inner circle in the way we were used to. Until her life changed with the coming of her first child, we were a close threesome who’d find ways to have walks together, coffee together with lots of silly giggling and shared laughs with not much worry about how time flew.

Is the fact that my life is arranged quite carefully now irksome? Is it an irritating sign of an illiberal, unexciting, rather drab life that my friend feels ashamed of being associated with through any extended contact with me? Because it’s true I can no longer step out on a whim and stay out for as long as I want. (It’s another matter that I never did very much before either.) Nor can I agree to meet anybody without thinking through what it would entail and what effects it may have on my immediate family. Especially if my friend decides to invite me to meet him/her when special security arrangements have been made in a part of our city in view of an extraordinary political situation: I would then be thinking of pretty dull stuff — what kind of commercial vehicle on rent will be safe enough to ferry my young daughter and my elderly mum and me to the proposed, undoubtedly hip but not convenient venue of meeting? Will there be access to clean washrooms on the way? Will there be the possibility of buying finger food if the need should arise? How long will the journey take? How much will it cost with waiting time?

Or does my managing various responsibilities seep into my conversations that are then wholly uninspiring and putting off? Should I be focusing instead of having interesting conversations about what books I have recently read; which coffees I have recently tried; whether I am planning to include long leaf tea in my morning breakfast. Or talk about the trendy new craft shops that have sprung up in our vicinity; the organic colours they use; how increasingly planet friendly some of our small businesses are becoming.

Should I be watching more carefully how much time I spend sharing my pride and joy at the hilarious things my little girl does or says including loving things she has to say about my friend; should I try to remember that not everyone is equally fascinated by what the theosophists have to say about the open nature of children; should I be more cautious that the insights I think I have gained about human beings at large as a parent are not somehow relevant unless the person listening to them shares a fundamental love for young ones.

Do the personal and professional choices I have made seem utterly unworthy of continued association? Should I have been clearer, braver, and spunkier to be currently leading a more unfettered life than the one that my friend thinks I seem to do? Does my ambivalence and willingness to experiment with unforeseen possibilities come through as a sign of cowardice?

Should I be feeling apologetic that my friend is not yet a parent? Could he/she possibly be envious that I am? Does the fact that my little girl adores his/her parents make it hard all round? Should it? Don’t most of us love children who love people?

Or is it just a break that some friends feel the need to take when the differences get all too much and can then there be hope of a return to what an old friend of mine once called the ‘refuge from life’?

A love for words; a love for song

One of my earliest adult memories of my father is about how deeply moved he was by an extraordinary turn of phrase, or a soaring song. In my teenage years I used to be puzzled by how his eyes welled up and then at times embarrassed that there seemed no immediate or evident cause for his momentarily altered state.

As I grew older, I understood more and more how receptive he was to the beauty of words and sound and how easily he was able to relate to the most distant and unfamiliar pieces of work irrespective of their place of origin and sometimes irrespective of the language that the eclectic music he gradually collected over the years and had us unconsciously partake of.

I cannot be gladder to have grown up in a home that every Sunday woke up to the scratch of a needle finding its groove on an LP – often classical vocal music from both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions but also a lot of instrumental music and a fair bit of western classical and an equally fair bit of folk music from what was then called the Eastern Bloc, from some parts of Africa apart from silly favorites of mine including an LP from the children’s film Annie.

Now when I read to my little girl at night and sometimes insist on choosing my favorite stories (including right now the fabulous Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale) I find myself morphing into my old man, throwing my voice to suit the rhyming lines, terribly involved in what they portray and unabashedly moved by the perfection and beauty of the story it tells. And I think to myself it’s no wonder I can already see my little girl looking at me with a mix of concern and puzzlement wondering why her mum seems to tear up about a story so distant and unrelated to our lives – and yet internalizing in her own way, a love for words and a love for song.

Becoming a parent: Nothing goes to plan

If there’s one thing you can be certain of, ahead of becoming a parent, it is that nearly nothing will go to plan. The perfect, compassionate, smart, supportive, baby and mamma loving mid-wife will have a personal crisis the very night you go into labour. She will call and half feign an apology and say you’re going to be fine, that its going to be an awesome delivery, and you’re going to do swell without her by your side.

You would have certainly not slept as much and as well as you would have hoped as all the well-meaning nursing staff and mamma and papa friends had advised you to do before the marathon that labour usually is — and I’m not even going into the birthing itself. (Who ever told you the pain is natural needs to go take a walk.)

When labour starts, you will not be the picture of serenity, sitting criss cross apple sauce, breathing in and breathing out, calmly, rhythmically, shallowly, as your friendly neighbourhood pre-natal expert had so lovingly taught you to do the moment labour starts.

You will be by turn taken aback and too soon horrified at the intensity of the jabs, how they/it/whatever is in command, NOT, no not for a moment, you. You will have no shame in crawling the walls of your room, or whichever room you find yourself in when the jabs return, stifling a little cry, contorting your body in the most amazing ways to find some position of moderate comfort or escape from this incredible experience.

And no, you will almost not remember that all of this is about a little creature inside who is preparing to come out.

When you get on the phone to speak to the hospital you have selected for their emphasis on empathy, natural birth and mamma-baby centricity, you will not take too kindly to the trained, flat voice that you are met with which says the pain you are feeling is not yet good enough to come in with.

‘Jeez, lady, what do YOU know???!!!’ is what you will want to scream at the voice but instead, you will be caught mid-way in this primordial, involuntary convulsion that will make you feel infantile and make you do your breathing on the phone while the voice on the other end holds politely and encourages you to do your good work as though you were a young, anxious school-girl.

A couple of minutes or many minutes later when you are able to impress them with your raspy breath and they finally say what you’ve been dying to hear — ‘yes, you can come now’ — you will be suddenly aware that this is last time you are going to leave home as a woman with large tummy that has baby inside. And you will almost laugh and choke that your mind is able to think about this while being caught up in said primordial drama.

For all the tedious and loving preparations you and your partner may have made in reading up about, scouring for and investing in water birthing paraphernalia, you will not be flooded with images of how sublime the birthing is going to be. You will be consumed as you descend the stairs from your first floor flat (if that’s where you happen to live) or as you go down in a clunky lift while holding on tightly to your mum’s or partner’s hand/arm/wrist about how long anyone can possibly stay alive feeling the convulsions you are feeling and what if anything can make it stop.

When the cabbie comes, in the dead of the night (why is it always the dead of the night?) to fetch you and your attendants and the attending bags and said paraphernalia to the hospital, you will not be in the least interested in the small talk he will try his hand at. Although somewhere in your head you will wonder whether he understands the significance of his current undertaking, whether he has done it before and whether if the need should so arise, would he help with an emergency birth en route?

When you get through the gates of the tucked away entrance to the maternity ward, you will not be in a mood for wall-mounted phones with speakers attached. You will want someone to usher you in, show you your room, and leave you be.

If you’re lucky the room will not be chock a block with machines, artificial breathing equipment for an emergency, sterile trays, bright white light or anything at all that reminds you this is not home or a friend’s home or a hotel.

At which point I have to say, I managed in the middle of all this, to have a moment of epiphany. When all the ushering in rituals had died down, when a young, attractive, Greek mid wife had done her thing of poking me (why oh why is it necessary?) to make sure the baby was alright and at the same time inserted quickly a monitor on her head (while telling me the pain was worth it and gushing with pride on my behalf that the baby had a head full of hair, unheard of in the Nordic!), when I was happy to see my tired and spent attendants take a nap in their respective corners, I found myself marvelling at the quiet night outside, the geometic beauty of the street lights on the highway twinkling below, the reassuring and familiar sound of the rocking chair I was sitting on, rocking rhythmically to the dance of my body, and even if only for a few, brief moments, content and calm by myself with this creature inside me, on the cusp of being born, bewildered, moved and entirely accepting of whatever was going to come.

Celebrating the parent who is present

In having lost one parent much sooner than any of my close friends did, I have spent a great deal of time and heart in thinking about and celebrating my father’s spirit and presence and mourning his passing.

But I have never paid enough tribute to the parent who he left behind, who is alive, here and now, and whose daily and unending labour of love has given my young child and me the rock-solid home, refuge and tireless attention and care that enables and defines who we are and who we have become in our lives together, each in our own person, and together as a family.

Always the seemingly more reticent of the two, my mother was the quiet strength beside my expressive and gregarious father. Far apart in age, from different cultural, linguistic and social backgrounds, the two were always one of the best examples to me of a loving and respectful companionship.

During my teen years, when I was drawn a great deal to books and as a result of that drawn to and mesmerised by my father’s formidable intellect, I can never forget how he gently but firmly reprimanded me for seeming to put him on a pedestal writing in one of his letters to me at boarding school that the example my mother set with her effortless integrity, unflinching humility and unconditional humanity were by far the more coveted virtues, no matter how scintillating being widely read or a word he loathed, being intellectual seemed to be.

I have never forgotten that. Both for what it taught me about me and my blinkered view then and for the renewed admiration and love I felt for the way he loved my mother.

Although my mother has of course told me over the course of the years, that the usual, gendered differences existed between them too, she has always said my father was rare in considering her at all times with the deepest respect for being the kind of woman she was and for the kind of mindful, attentive and unbelievably generous mother she became.

I cannot ever be grateful enough to her for having always let me make my decisions, no matter how flawed, and often contrary to her expressed wishes or opinions, for never withholding her support, labour and love simply because I have found myself face down after following some of my mad plans, for having stuck her neck out for my young child and me when I have needed someone to rely on unconditionally and for being the kind of loving, patient and fun ‘present in the moment’ grandma who despite her getting older and frailer never whines or protests or grudges the entire lack of ‘me time’ and who runs this house and home for us in a way that makes the hardest and most invisible work and labour seem like a cake walk.

An unobtrusive, luminous thing

I have never thought of it like this – the special kind of ‘empty’ unstructured time you get to have when you are mainly home watching over a young child – gives you moments that you never expected – or ways of looking at the same, familiar sights, in an entirely new way.

Nearly 20 years ago, when my parents were able to invest in this house and make it their own, they took great pride in giving it personal touches to mark their particular aesthetic sensibility on its walls and interiors – my father would have thrown his head back and guffawed if he was around to read this – ‘sensibility?’ he would have said – ‘what exactly does that pretentious word mean anyway?!’

Both shared an interest in the crafts, both were drawn to simple, earthy design, and both had discovered a wonderful architect at a local Laurie Baker centre not too far from our new, and for the first time, owned home.

So even though resources were tight and a complete makeover was impossible, they found ingenuous ways with the architect, now part of the family as son and brother, to remove the sordidness of a banal, basic flat.

One of the improvements they decided to add was to cut a long room into two by building a trademark Laurie Baker feature – an exposed brick arch – which discreetly announced the separation of two spaces – a dining and living room area – and my father in his desire to add his own flourish to it requested Anna (the architect) to insert asymmetrical marble planks underneath the two half arches adjoining the main structure.

I used to be a tad embarrassed by their incongruity, the fact that they didn’t look like marble and that they were asymmetrical. But I knew better than to argue with my father about it.

Yesterday, as T and I lay in the hall, with our old water cooler blowing lovely cool air towards us and further on down the length of the house, I noticed light bouncing off the marble plank as though it were a piece of glass, and I thought to myself, what a wonderful quirky presence it brings to an otherwise deliberately draped and darkened space to stave off the hot sun; a quiet, unobtrusive, luminous thing.

And that reminded me of my father of course and I thought 9 years after his passing I’m at greater peace with my grief over his physical absence and quite certain in ways that sound ludicrous and mad that he is not and can never really be ever gone.

The gift of sight

Nothing clarifies to me the preciousness of being alive than the renewed knowledge of a physical limitation.

When I close my left eye and try to read this page with only my right eye I don’t see so well – the vision is mildly blurred and accompanied by a faint darting black dot that no spectacles or surgery can remedy.

13 years ago, around this time, in the first few months of the new year, on my first visit and stay in London, I had suddenly lost vision in my right eye while working on the editorial desk of the BBC’s South Asian Regional Unit at the now historic and former Bush House.

Thankfully, despite all the doleful and flat-faced diagnoses I was given at the various clinics my dear friend Aasiya dragged me to, my vision did return over those first few scary weeks, but it has never come back in full.

Lots of case studies I have read since make me feel grateful that I ‘got away’ with just a diminished quality of vision – and not a complete loss.

And this evening, when I accidentally closed my eye and realised that I do indeed live with an eye that doesn’t see as well as it could have, or as well as the other, does, it comes to me so clearly how futile all the other fights and nagging and arguments and rages are; what is not futile is being reminded how lucky I am to have been loved the way I was by people and friends who had just got to know me in a place so far from home; to be alive at all and to have sight; and to have at least a handful of people around me who care about how I am.

The hard part is remembering all this at every moment, without having to shut one eye, every day!


The smell of freshly fried fish fingers at a cosy little elementary school in Rome.

The strong, pungent smell of garlic bread fresh out of an oven just beneath my parent’s one room flat on Via Panisperna.

The romance between Peter and Mauri on the winding stairs down from ours to the office below.

My gawking at them when they kissed wondering how they didn’t tumble-down the stairs while doing so.

The ancient, clunky lift in the well of the ancient building housing my father’s news agency and our flat above.

The sight of my father, thickly bespectacled, with scores of newspapers before him, and a cigar or cigarette perennially lit between his lips, impatiently turning the pages of what he was reading while smiling benevolently at me when I went by, on occasion, to hang out at his office.

My love of the sights and sounds of a busy newsroom.

A thick yellow light drenching my father and his colleagues. Their always seeming to be talking unnecessarily loudly in order to be heard above the din of typewriters, always clanking away in the background.

The wonderful smell of apple shampoo in our tiny bathroom.

The bubbles it made – fragrant and huge.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee from my mum’s little kitchen.

The noisy arrival of my father, his protegé, Peter, and other hanger-ons up the stairs, into our little flat, their heavy collapsing into the few pieces of furniture that we either rented or owned.

Long leisurely lunches filled with conversation and laughter often ending with someone or the other knocking down nearly empty wine flutes.

Peter playing Bob Marley and the Wailers, John Lennon and Genesis.

My father playing Ravi Shankar whom I distinctly remember he didn’t much care for, back home.

My playing for hours on end, behind the door leading to the small sitting room, with an immense and colourful UNICEF puzzle that consisted of putting a group of children’s hands correctly into each other’s, as they stood half-smiling at me.

The noise of Rome’s vegetable markets. The smell especially of celery.

The stink to my nose of its various meats.

The beautiful and delicious pastries down the street from home.

The numerous ice cream cones my mum and I devoured after she picked me up from a school bus-stop.

The dark, deep delight of chocolate.

The one time I travelled on the school bus with my classmate Peter to his home when mum wasn’t at the bus-stop.

His mother being so kind and attentive to me.

The game machines, rudimentary back then, in the ‘corner stores’ where I played and won small trinkets – which were always surprisingly appropriate to the desires of an eight year old girl – hairpins, rubber-bands, scented erasers.

The gorgeous stationary.

The Italian Pablo and the Spanish Pablo gifting me handcrafted leather-bound sets of colour pencils and deliciously thick crayons.

The tall, cold glass of milk at school.

My best friend Bianca so eager to learn English from me.

My embarrassment at being ‘too attached’ to my mother in comparison to her seeming independence from her own mammy. Feisty, bright-eyed, sun-speckled Bianca.

My insisting on wanting to see Venice as part of school ‘field work’ on Marco Polo.

The pigeons in Venice: so many, so tame, so willing to be fed.

One sitting on top of my head.

The wonderful way my father’s colleagues loved my mother. The open home she kept, the delicious food she made, the lovely saris she wore, the way she always made it seem as though working hard was fun, enjoyable and deeply satisfying.

The larger than life, Indian intelligence officer who loved to see me giggle when he drove us around, at great speed, in his always immense automobiles, always nattily dressed, always smelling of cigars and strong, manly perfume.

My mum getting drunk once. Really drunk. At an Indian embassy party. Her crying. My crying. My father trying to console us.

A window in the sitting room at home out of which I saw clothes flapping on lines tied between our building and the one next to it.

The easy banter between neighbours.

My speaking Italian easily, fluently. My becoming my parents’ translator.

People on our street calling out to me, ‘Ciao Bella! Indiana Bambina!’

My wanting to have ‘bangs’. The high-end barber at the end of our street turning red with embarrassment when my mum offers to pay for what he says ‘izz not, NOTTT a hair cut ATT ALLL!’

Visiting the British Council library and feeling at home in the midst of English language book titles.

Sensing, without being able to describe it, how ‘un-Italian’ the staff were.

The way the most ordinary streets were full of extraordinary beauty.

Door knobs, flights of stairs, water fountains, shop windows.

The way children were always ALWAYS heard and seen and loved.

The visit to English Vic’s Italian family.

The delicious pasta his large, gentle, bespectacled mum-in-law made. Ripe tomatoes, abundant garlic; the warm sun, the beautiful, golden Laura, then Vic’s wife. My little friend, with golden locks for hair, Lorenzo, their son.

Going out with Peter and Mauri in their car to the sea.

Riding on Peter’s back as he swam out, me shrieking in delight, him proud and happy like a young father.

Our returning late.

My worried parents.

A late meal at home. My falling asleep in the midst of it – listening to their conversation.

My writing a stupid letter to the Queen of England and handing it to Peter whose mum worked for the Queen!

My receiving a reply from her office thanking me for my wishes and my wonderful drawing!

And yet despite all this, a nagging longing for home.

My missing my aunts, the smell of earth, the rains, the trains, the people, the sounds.

Our journey back with Michella, my Italian speaking doll in tow.

Her ‘talking’ button accidentally coming on in the airport making for some embarrassed apologies from my parents and eventual joviality among the airport staff.

The flight home. Alitalia. My loving the way the word sounded and looked. So many A’s, all perfectly placed.

The memory of my aunts receiving us.

The feeling of time well spent in a magical world. Happiness at getting back.