18 April 2015

Au revoir

I’ll begin at the beginning.

I met her in 2009, when we were asked to be co-editors of the International Press of the Model UN conference at our college in Delhi. Those were the days when an MUN was a big shiny exciting event in most people’s lives.



A few months after this big shiny event, I was to graduate. Being a sentimental and somewhat cheesy person, I asked my friends to write down a few words for nostalgia’s sake in a notebook as we parted ways.

Dear Kriti, it is most unfortunate that I got to know you only a few months before Fate was designated to tear us asunder... 

Her opening sentence goads me to this day, because: a. it seems terribly prophetic, if slightly belated, and b. it drips with her trademark sarcasm at the entire exercise, continuing thus:

I really wanted to draw you a cartoon or dazzle you with some linguistic cleverness that adequately expresses the friendship between two people who have also edited newsletters together (a truly special relationship, as I’m sure you’d agree. What can rival the joy of writing an opening sentence together? Or castigating people for bad grammar together?), but I was not given enough time. 

We’d meet in the corridors occasionally, whereupon I’d accost her to discuss my end of term literature papers, and she’d wax lyrical about Fitzgerald. “HELP ME!” I would scream, with the familiar deranged look of the ill-prepared final year student. “Okay. Write about The Great Gatsby. I’ll loan it to you. It’s short.” It was.

I didn’t see her much for the next few months while I worked in Delhi and tried to find a Purpose in life, but we chatted often. Her words of encouragement, as always, spurred me on:

[9 October 2010, discussing potential majors]  
me: Visual culture’d be photography, art, film, etc etc etc and extremely hard
S: And why should that stop you?
me: How am I gonna write a dissertation, meh. I don’t know anything about visual culture
S: Did Columbus say, “no, i’m not going to find a new country and help slaughter its indigenous population, it’s too hard?”
me: I don’t think he knew what he was getting into either. I mean, he “found” the wrong place
S: Ok ok, Hernando Cortez then. He knew where he was going. 

They would usually end with her cheery “au revoir!”

***

We were excited to move to London.

It was a busy time, and we went to different universities, but there were still birthdays, walks in parks, biscuit festivals, ice cream festivals (it’s London), crepes heaped with strawberries in Notting Hill, falafel while watching the French Open, falling around helpless with laughter watching Stephen Fry in “The Letter”.

With Shikha and Ria at the Ice Cream Festival, London, September 2012

And, a few months later, a mysterious pain in her knee that the NHS doctors kept misdiagnosing and prescribing pills for.

She found out about the cancer a few weeks before I left London to return to India because no one would give me a job that could extend my visa. We kept in touch through the written word that first brought us together; hundreds of emails, and a few meetings, a few Skype evenings when she wasn’t feeling “woozy” from chemo, a few gifts and cards. Through it all, I witnessed the heartwrenching arc of her illness unfold, and, ironically, at the same time she began to become the person - and the writer - I think she had always wanted to be. As she said on her blog:

Still, looking back over my own life, even when I was mired in the muck and mess of ordinary striving, I can see that some choices I made were wrong, and I’m writing about it so I can set my hypothetical future on the right track.

It’s all okay now, though: I dreamed, at the beginning, as a child, of living a life among words and books. And here I am, towards the end, doing exactly that. Ann Wroe was right. These are the times when we see who we are.

In the background, her weekly - sometimes daily - emails and messages:

...There's nothing to be too alarmed about because the condition I have responds very well to treatment….
...I'm holding up for now….
...Next cycle is on Christmas day, sigh. It isn't really painful, just exhausting and sort of annoying….
...Everything is going horribly...Even my oncologist doesn't know what to recommend….
...thanks for listening so patiently to all my woes and not saying "oh you'll get through it, I'm sure it's all going to be fine" like most people do. It means a lot just to have someone listen and empathise instead of offering blanket reassurances...It makes me feel as if I'm crazy. "It will be fine, I'm sure." BUT I JUST TOLD YOU IT MAY NOT BE FINE. Hmph. Perhaps I'll write a whiny blog post about it…
...I've never managed to read Shakespeare though. Teach me how?... 
...It was so lovely to see you again after so long. Hope you're enjoying your amazon books :)... 
...Yes, my final chemo cycle is this week, then I have orientations etc. next week and lectures start...So things seem to be moving really quickly now!...Well I feel like a five year old on the first day of school, so any advice in that vein is appreciated… 
...I'd really forgotten what it's like to be busy. The days really fly by! I'm really glad to be back in lectures and doing assignments, though I'm thoroughly sick of career fairs by now… 
...I started teaching a couple of weeks ago and it's fun! I also got my first paycheck last week and felt pretty good :-)... 
...Oh, DID YOU SEE THE HARRY POTTER REFERENCE I MADE IN THE BLOG POST? I was hoping you'd catch it…. 
...Last day of term today! Desperately need a break. How are you?...I've been using my teaching salary to buy my family presents (we never do it otherwise, so boring) though I can't think of anything to buy for myself… 
...Everything not ok. Will say more in a few days. x…

and then, slightly over a year ago, the dreaded words:

...I've had a relapse. The cancer is back... I found out about this last week, but couldn't bring myself to tell anyone right away - you're the first person I'm writing to.
***

From her blog, Oblomov’s Sofa:

My writing pre-February 2014 is [...] a chronicle of dwelling in temporary lodgings, with one eye trained firmly on the door; my writing post-February 2014 has shifted focus to the process of accepting that these lodgings are now permanent, and deals with my attempts to build a new, different life within their confines.

I was one of many people that selfishly drank in her words, wanted more, and talked about how she had made us appreciate what we had. How painful was that to hear?

Are there not other, infinitely less miserable situations in which one can gain that advantage? Can the beauty of life only be fully recognised and savoured while it’s being snatched away from you? 

Reading her blog always left me with deep admiration and pain, but I never said “I understand”, because how could I? I could feel sad, but this was not empathy. Sooner or later I would be pulled toward something else, something that made me dream and plan and build for a future and forget my mortality in a way that she wasn’t allowed to - she who was now “permanently exiled from the world of the non-sick and non-dying”.

***

What she was going through didn’t change her personality, apart from a newfound - if slightly skeptical - appreciation for photographs (of herself), and sports: 

me: Fabulous Federer!
S: I wuv him. 

Which now also encompassed football:

I like Black Forest cake better than croissants, so I'm going with Germany 

including commentary:

HULK ANGRY. HULK SMASH BALL INTO GOAL NOW SOMEHOW. THEN SMASH REFEREE. 

She also kept up her encouragement of my work:

Shikha's card to me, New Year 2014. Because of course.

She kept up with every single thing I did, and cheered me on. It meant so much at a time when I was realising how rare that is, and people get busy, and they forget. She read everything I wrote without me asking. She even praised my average pieces.

She sometimes said the same of me, but I can't stop wondering. It is an acutely helpless feeling to be so far away, but it should never be an excuse. Was I available when she needed someone? Was I thoughtful enough? Did I say anything to hurt her? What else could I - should I - have done? And most importantly, did she feel like she could be herself with me?

*** 

But of course, it did change her. How could an experience like this not change someone? It meant days and days of complete exhaustion followed by socialising crammed into a couple of weeks when the “kraken would emerge”, and then repeat. It meant trying to tread the “fine line between hope and denial”, to find that balance, and underneath it all, an attempt to cope, and to hope without hoping too much.

So the irony is that not having much time has given me time, time that I never gave myself before, to become fully immersed in what’s important to me without any concern for how other people might view it, or how my actions will pan out in the future. I had feared, at one point, that it might go the other way - that because cancer had shredded the raft of my social identity and left me adrift for an unspecified period with little hope of winding up somewhere safely ashore, I’d spend my days in a sort of nihilistic depression - mindlessly browsing internet listicles, watching bad television, and waiting to die. Instead, I’ve found myself more curious about the world, reading and writing more than ever, and with a clarity and concentration I’d forgotten I was capable of. 

It meant finding solace in the fact that “not planning ahead at all is unsurprisingly quite liberating”, and it meant thinking about legacies:

We all think about our legacy from time to time, and what, in the end, we will have to show for being alive, and I’ve had to think about this much earlier and at a more accelerated pace than I expected. For myself, the answer so far is - nothing of any importance whatsoever. 

But as we sat here in horror and sorrow, but also happiness at being inundated with messages from all over the world: her friends, people she had met, people she had never met, and readers and fans of her sublime writing, I found myself vehemently disagreeing. As one of my friends said, "she sounds like such a force."

***

I won’t sit here and eulogise her fighting spirit, and her bravery and strength.

There could be people out there who enjoy being patted on the head and told how brave they are, but I find it patronising, and I don’t even think it’s true. I’m not being modest - it is human nature to adapt as best as one can when presented with a set of unalterable circumstances, which is what I’m doing. I had no choice - there was nothing I could do but get on with it. 

Because there was pain, and vulnerability, and desperation, and to me, those are equally worth remembering. They were part of her journey, part of her being, part of this terrible thing that happened to her. It seems to me that a good way to remember someone is by remembering the things they believed in, that they strived to change, and talking about or acting in accordance with them. For her, one of those things was, echoing Graham Joyce, the necessity for a new language for cancer.

But Nature does what it wants, when it wants, and that is why we need to abandon this talk of “battling” and “not giving in” to cancer: we don’t lose to it, it kills us. 

It’s all very well to tell someone that they’ve been so brave (how do you know how they were really feeling?) and commend their “battle”, but, as she often wondered: is it encouragement or just a way for us to make ourselves feel better for having said something noble? And even now, as we “honour her memory”, is it not important how we honour it? Is it for us or for her? The mind boggles.

Regent's Park, which she loved. Photo by Shikha for the last issue of Bricolage Magazine.


Another quote by Joyce that she highlighted was: "And with that uncertainty of the time previously taken for granted comes the prospect of grace."  

Whenever she had the chance, she delved into writing, visiting parks, book benches, plays, concerts (she went to The Sound of Music Sing-Along dressed as “the lark who is learning to pray”, with a beak made from an egg carton and yellow paint, and a handmade book entitled Prayer for Dummies in her hand, which is the best costume in the whole universe and doesn’t fail, to this day, to send me into fits of laughter), and, of course, books. As she wrote to me once,

My life sounds amazing, actually, now that I've re-read what I've written, it's just that the cancer thing does spoil it all somewhat. 

She certainly found the prospect of grace. In her own words, “ars moriendi is ars vivendi. The art of dying is the art of living.

***

She may have taken her last breath a few nights ago, but today she’ll be at Kensington Gardens. The first time I went there was with her. It was evening, before the dusk had taken from the stars its pleasant veil (not mine, Keats). The Serpentine lay before us. We walked around, and she told some swans about their purposeless existence, and then tried to placate them by offering to take one home as a pillow. It was a happy day.

So most of all, I don’t want to remember her as a sad story. She didn’t want to “become her cancer”, to have it take over her identity, and it didn’t. I will think of her when I read Wodehouse and Larkin, and watch Gilmore Girls and Mad Men, and when pandas show up in my news feed (she hated them), and when I take walks in London’s parks. We’ll still banter, and “fangirl” over Teju Cole, and maybe she’ll still complete my weak punchlines with some of her own.


Au revoir, ma chérie. I will visit you soon.

***

Update: Three songs, chosen by her, were played when her ashes were scattered today at Kensington Gardens (Hyde Park).

01 The Boxer - Simon & Garfunkel  |  02 Pas à pas - Paris Combo  |  03 Hasa Diga Eebowai - The Book of Mormon

16 comments:

  1. Kriti, thank you so much for sharing your memories and thoughts about a very special person. We all have so much to learn from her. Snimer

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    1. Yes, indeed. Words to live by, read, re-read.

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  2. This. Perfection. Her.

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  3. My word. Marvelous stuff.

    Shikha might wonder about the 'both' in the second sentence. Tautologous and hence redundant? I think I'm allowed to say that given the photo caption just below. Unless I'm wrong of course.

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  4. Kirti, this is beautiful, your rendition of her.. I am glad she has friends like you who will always help her live on with your words.

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  5. Thank you, Kriti-- many thanks for this. It is a wonderful and fitting tribute, and I am grateful that you have shared it here.

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    1. I'm glad you think so, Susan, and thank you for reading.

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  6. Thank you very much for this Kriti. Beautiful words for your friend. I'm absolutely stunned despite the silence leading up to it. Thanks again and all the very best to you.

    Barry.

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    1. Thank you very much for your wishes, Barry. It all feels surreal sometimes.
      All my best,
      Kriti

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  7. Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to dear Oblomov. My daughter and I know her as a fellow book bencher. Shikha will always be part of our memories. I noticed that her twitter account has been removed, it would be nice if her blog could be preserved. Best regards, Amit.

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    1. Thank you for reading, and for your kind words. The book benches were the highlight of her summer last year! She was even a little disappointed when she got to the last, 50th, one (such commitment) only to find that they had installed a 51st. :-) I'm sure her blog will be preserved, if not more.

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  8. Thank you for writing this Kriti. Shikha would be pleased.
    Regards,
    Smita

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. Dear Kriti,

    She popped over to my end-of-life blog, The Departure Lounge, and was immensely kind.
    http://thedeparturelounge.co/

    Like many, I found her through Clive James.

    I felt my own untimely end was unfair, but hers, hers was cruel.

    I have had three tough months but had hoped to spot again the elusive Oblomov and read her Siren words now that I had surfaced.

    .


    Thank you for blogging about your relationship: it was a beautiful post and I can only imagine at the embroidered conversations you two writers shared.

    My heart is heavy, to tell you the truth. She touched me, in passing.

    My condolences to you and to Oblomov’s family. The suffering ends for one but continues for others.

    All the best, and write, write, write!

    x Barbara

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