She was my laughing Buddha.

Nearly seven years older than me, she never made me feel that distance. She was wiser, kinder, yes, but she was also infinite fun. Always eager for a joke, finding humour even in the most prosaic, turning a word, a person, a situation on its head and cracking up at the absurdity of it. Prone to giggles that easily escalated to peals and paroxysms of laughter. She would clutch her belly, crunch her eyes, her dimpled cheeks squished as her mouth shrieked, “Ooo-hooo-hoo-hoo!”, as if the thing that had tickled her simply could not be borne. I would laugh with her, not because that thing was funny but because she was. Incredibly funny. Blessed with laughter that was irresistibly infectious. Then it would slowly dawn upon me how that thing was funny too, only I had needed her to show it to me.

My sister, Pratima, the eldest of us three siblings. My parents’ first born. The one who helped them raise us, looking out for us, indulging us often. Tai, my mother would nudge us to call her, the Marathi name for older sister, and she would herself, leading with example, but we refused. No deference to mere seniority, Anjali and I thought, so Pratima stayed Pratima, sometimes shortened to a casual Pratu. But, of course, she was always my Tai, the one who came after Aai. And after our parents passed, she remained my image of home, embodying the stability and safety of it, its warmth and comfort. My refuge in storms. Where I could be me, simply, honestly and happily. Appreciated. Understood. Supported, unconditionally.

One of my earliest memories of school is of me flunking the admission test. I had been seated alongside a little boy who cried loudly throughout. I sat staring at him, curious about his misery, pitying him too, how his copious tears smudged all that he wrote. The task expected of me unbegun. They told my mother later that I was too little to join school yet, sort of letting her down kindly and Aai, embarrassed by my non-performance, took me away, head bowed. I remained nonchalant, sneakily happy perhaps that I was spared the grind yet. But my sisters’ friends would roll their eyes about, probably thinking that the Paranjpes had a dud in their midst. Well, I recall Pratima shutting someone up, saying loftily that school wasn’t ready for me yet. It took me years to appreciate the weight of her defence.

Oh, she was bright and bold, gutsy and strong, smart and quick-witted. Spiritedly advocating her side of any argument, but always choosing her side on steadfast principles. Espousing liberty and equality and fraternity with a boisterous energy that could easily teach les Français a thing or two. She would croon with the Beatles, “All you need is love. Love is all you need,” and the song would roll all around me, its many splendoured promise reverberating, and my head would bob in happy affirmation.

She loved her life, her family, her friends. Her room, her books, her paintbox and brushes, her notebook where she would copy down the lyrics of the songs she liked. Her cup of strong frothy coffee. Aai’s groundnut and til laddoos that made her drool, her large eyes lighting up at the mere sight of them. Her transistor radio which she would tune in to the Voice of America or the BBC. Listening to Elvis, the Beatles too and oh, so many more that I don’t remember. “Havana Nageela,” she would cry out ecstatically with Harry Belafonte, stomping about in step, her two pigtails flying. Her collections of records, books, magazines through school and college. Emsworth and Jeeves, Keats and Wordsworth, Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, Macbeth and King Lear, and her pencilled notes along the margins. Robert Redford and his buddy Paul Newman and the raindrops that kept fallin’ on his head. Usha Iyyer and R.D. All those greats that seemed greater because my Pratima had approved of them.

She moved well from one phase of her life to the next, from one role to the other, one calling to yet another. And while I got busy growing up and finding my own two feet, she moved out. Married, wife, mother, teacher, neighbour, friend. Her liberated, untethered love-is-all-you-need approach got tempered by the expectations she found she needed to fulfil, her abiding sense of duty steering her through. She shouldered all her responsibilities and did her every duty with love. Zealously guarding her trifecta of liberty-equality-fraternity for herself as for everyone else. Gradually she came to terms with her vulnerabilities too as she rode the roller coaster of her life. Ever watchful and protective of the growing fledglings in her nest, those that she was still teaching to fly.  Her heart pulled towards the ageing, withering parents, sensing their eyes peeled to the door, waiting for their girls to come, be with them. And she became that seasoned blend of sternness and compassion, motherly zeal and patient stoicism, allowing, denying, accommodating, rejecting, accepting, refuting as she was challenged by this, then that and then the other.

Pratima was Aai’s closest, most trusted confidante, probably from the moment Aai first held her. “Taidey,” Aai would call and Pratima would respond in a heartbeat. She understood every mood, worry, fear, hope, every inflexion of everything that stirred in our mother’s heart. She would patiently listen, empathise, and counsel. After our father went, she cocooned her, shielding her from pain, gently teaching her how to stay happy.

Both were deeply religious, both with an unswerving devotion to their Ram that anchored them through the trials that life brings in tow. Every time she came home to Pune, she and Aai would visit the mandir in Tulshi Baag. She would celebrate every festival, especially the Ganesh Chaturthi with gusto, calling all she knew for darshan and prasad. Fast and feast as the Hindu almanac suggested, aid, succour, donate, all with conviction.

And yet she was the most secular person I have ever known, standing up tall to fight for the rights and beliefs of all others, even through some of the hideously stressful times that Mumbai has endured. She would fearlessly call out those that spread hostility against other sects and cultures. Reasoning calmly at first and then with fiery passion, her eyes spitting fire too, her patience swiftly wearing thin. Nor did she ever question my reluctance to believe or my abstention from rituals either. She respected atheists and agnostics as she did all believers, respected my thinking, my choices. As always, she endorsed everyone’s inalienable right to liberty to choose their system of belief, equality between all choices, and fraternity between all humans of all faiths. Oh, she made me so proud!

I would call her nearly every day, checking in. Asking her what she was teaching her students, which poem, which verse, which text, whether they were exam-ready. What she was reading. What she had cooked. How we thought our parents were coping. What our kids were doing. What the government wasn’t doing or doing very badly. Cribbing about Mumbai’s unchanging sweaty weather or Pune’s premature summer heat. About people we didn’t care much for. All that exasperated us. Buoyed by those that we admired. Digging up old memories. Unknowingly making new ones. Gossiping, giggling, swearing, sharing. Sometimes a line from a poem would come to her and she would quote it in a breathless rush, then leisurely recite the entire verse verbatim, elaborating on its context, its intent. Reading her beloved Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets to me, both of us sighing over her love for love’s sake. I would listen humbled by the profundity of her knowledge, dazzled by the translucent honesty of her emotion. Sometimes I would sing her a song I had composed. Send her everything I wrote. “Publish!” she would exhort. My sister, my rock, my anchor.

The one I took for granted, that she would sort this, fix that, mend the broken. Care, heal, soothe. Laugh away our worries. And always love. Her large heart flowing over with her immeasurable undying love. The one who held me as I flailed about in my abyss of bewildering grief on Aai’s passing. Who helped me mourn, come to terms with the finality of the loss.

One of the last few times the three of us had sat together was at Anjali’s house, reminiscing, laughing. Always laughing, uncontrollably. Both of them recalling the time many decades ago when they were first taught to swim, our grandfather sending them to a nearby facility in Pune, an old well really. The fiercely strict coach shouting at the two young girls standing shivering with fear. “Paranjpe! Udi maara! Jump!”

She didn’t. She held her ground all her life until she was rudely pushed across the edge. Swept away on the waves of cruel, treacherous fate. Much, much before her time.

I don’t know if she looks back. Not sure she can. I never had her belief.

Though I still look for her.

I see her standing large in her doorway, opening her arms to welcome me.

Humming her beloved Zhivago’s beloved Lara’s Theme.

Beaming at her pupils. Spectacles slipping to the edge of her nose, ploughing through their work sheets, showing them the correct ways to speak, write, express.

Listening patiently at the other end of the phone while I rambled on, taking her time as my own, squandering it on my silly questions and sillier grouses.

Speaking with gravitas as she reasoned with whosoever sat across her, cogently explaining her position after having noted theirs.

Sniffing out the goodies in my kitchen, pouncing on them with glee. Cooking up a storm in her own.

Sitting unfazed with her umpteenth gin and lime, Zen as ever, putting the callow youth who had challenged her to awkward shame.

Laughing. Loudly, unabashedly. Oh, I still hear her. Peals and peals of her irrepressible laughter ringing on, swirling around with the wind, echoing on through the years. What a happy riot!

It’s more than six years since you went, my dear, though it feels like yesterday, the wound in my heart still gaping, raw.

It would have been a milestone birthday today. But you had done travelling your road already.

I raise my glass to you as I wish you and yours the best. My eyes mist over, but then I hear the beginnings of a giggle and I chuckle too. Laugh on, my dear. I will too. And I will always love you. As you told me those many years ago, love is all we need.

Happy birthday, Pratima.

Calls from Beyond

It had been a quiet, peaceful, uneventful, everyday sort of day. I had been winding up the routine chores around the house, clearing the last pile of laundry in particular, as I remember. The phone rang and I reached out to answer it in an immediate instinctive reflex, a half folded shirt in my hands. My father’s voice came through, “Hello! Rohini?” and I answered as was my wont, “Hello, Dada! Tell me?” Only, it wasn’t him, but an old family friend who had been trying to reach my husband. The spell was broken and I talked to the friend. Coherently, I believe.


My father had passed away years ago but at that moment it had been his unmistakable voice in my ear. Gruff, strong, assertive, distinctive. Not that friend’s. I tried to shake off the oddness of the incident as an auditory illusion and returned to the ordinariness around me. But something within me had been jerked alive. A tingling, unsettling sense of the extraordinary. And as I worked through the rest of my day a question flitted in and out of my head: Why would that friend’s voice which I was familiar with suddenly come masked as my father’s?

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That evening while sitting down to my customary riyaz, I embraced nostalgia like a warm, comforting shawl. Bandishes that my father had loved listening to surged through in my consciousness and I wallowed in them as one would in memories that are both vividly and vibrantly alive yet steeped in swirling sentiment. Dada had been a staunch Bhimsen Joshi fan, and the maestro’s Sakhi, Shyam nahi aaye in Chhaya Malhar was much loved. He would point out to my mother excitedly, “Do you see how he calls out to sakhi? A different approach every time!” and they would both listen to that old LP, over and over again, completely enraptured. I too tried to emulate Bhimseji’s sakhi but, of course, there is none like him and his sakhi was also equally unique. But that evening I came as close to him as was possible for me, remembering and reproducing the fine variations he introduced every time he sang the word, the lilting love, the sense of urgency, the insistence, or then the resigned acceptance of Shyam’s disappointing non-appearance. Hope and loss playing hide and seek, Shyam’s sakhi and Dada’s daughter swivelling from the one to the other, back and forth on the tides of unrestrained emotion. That night after dinner I ate a small bowl of mango ice cream, again a firm favourite with Dada. It felt appropriate, feeding myself, feeding that dearly beloved parent of mine who had reminded me once again that he had never really left.


Well, both my parents have passed on. I miss them, of course. That is the inescapable quotient of attachment and bereavement, being reminded of what once was when one’s dearly beloved were still by one’s side. In fact, I miss the air that they breathed with me, the sunshine that would bathe their skin and mine, the mildly fragrant breeze that fanned the summer evenings in our garden, the song of the koyal that we heard together. The sun rises and sets as always, the seasons follow each other as before, gardens bloom and birds sing, and I appreciate it all every day, yet there is that fine edge to all my experiences and emotions today, an awareness of the difference in the seeming sameness. The undeniable presence of loss.



Both my parents, Ai and Dada, lived full lives, loved each other, their children and life itself to the fullest. In retrospect, I know and accept that their passing was inevitable, perhaps timely too. But I remain their child, a greedy one at that, still hankering for that one more moment of togetherness, wanting to bury my head in Ai’s lap, inhale the caressing love that she exuded with every breath, hold Dada’s hand and step out into the lane outside our old house where I grew up, step out into the world as it were knowing that he would always have my back. Hear them call my name. Hear their response when I called theirs’. Hear them talk, laugh, hear the sound of their footsteps, the rustle of the newspapers they read, the sound of their TV, their rhythmic breathing when catching an afternoon nap. Smell his eau de cologne, her fragrant hair oil. See the faint depression on the sofa chairs they vacated. Pick up the phone to call them, talk to them. Drive over to their place and see her standing on her balcony, waiting in welcome. Not to be. Not anymore.


But is it all really final? There are instances when I feel that all I need to do is close my eyes and call out to them and I know that they will be there. Friends tell me that spirits of people live on, that death is certainly not the end. There are philosophies I have explored that are based on the continuing existence of the soul, of cycles of birth, death and rebirth, where the body is the garment that the soul wears during a particular life period, that garments change over the cycles of birth and rebirth, but the true spiritual essence, the soul, lives on. Until it is absorbed into the infinite, supreme, divine power that is God. That nothing is final, that death is just a separating façade, that we need to look beyond it. That all is a continual ceaseless flow, that the sentient and insentient may metamorphose and evolve, but never disappear. That just as matter and all that is material is constant in its sum, the spirit is equally indestructible.


There are times when I am sorely tempted to imagine that the souls of those I have loved and whose earthly presence has ended, linger on around me, like a nurturing loving wrap or a protective guiding ambient light. But I stop short of belief. For I do not know. I remain a hopeless sceptic. But, and this is just as important, I do not disbelieve either. For while I accept that souls, rebirths, god, salvation and so on are concepts born of the human intellect driven by a striving to pierce through the limiting walls of our pitiably finite knowledge, to make sense of this world and our life in it, I do not know for a fact that they are fallacious. My Ai and Dada may still be there, floating somewhere in this infinite universe, hopefully blissfully. Or, they may not. The dear young nephew I lost a few years ago, and my dear dear sister, my dearest confidante, friend, philosopher and guide, who followed some months later, may still be floating too, perhaps still invested in those that they tragically left behind. Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is that I do not know. And I am mostly okay with that.


For the essence of who and what they were still lives on in me. I carry them with me in everything I think, feel, do. As time passes and the jagged edges of memories get rounded and smoothed, comfortable and mellow in warm sepia, those that live on therein grow more loving, more forgiving, more endearing. And I grow increasingly loyal to them, fiercely possessive of every word they spoke, stoutly defending or even espousing every value, moral or ideal they lived by, tenaciously guarding every single thing they left behind for me, be they letters, books, photos, sarees or memories.


There have been days when I have been preparing something in the kitchen, a recipe that Ai had taught me, and I call out to her. Aloud. Ai, dearest, come and taste this, tell me if this exactly how it is supposed to be. No, she doesn’t answer, but that has never really mattered. For I still hear the echoes of all her previous approvals and affirmations, her genuine heartfelt appreciation of every single thing I ever did, whether it was a cake I had baked or a plateful of pakoras I had fried, a Raga that I had been singing or a story I had just written. There are days when I look at my reflection in the mirror and I see my mother’s eyes smiling at me. I wave out to her quietly, happily. And we both smile. That umbilical cord that once tied me to her still holds on.

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I am still awash with the impact of an incident that occurred soon after her passing. Pune had been reeling under exceptionally heavy though late monsoon showers, I had been driving to my French class, the wipers swinging furiously to and fro, the radio playing old Hindi songs, and my eyes streaming unstoppable tears of overwhelming grief. In the secluded privacy of my car I hollered out to her. Ai, how could you leave so suddenly? How could you not even wish me a goodbye? This is so unfair! Where are you, Ai? Show me where you are. Now! The radio crackled and a rather inane song that she had been inexplicably fond of started playing, dheere dheere bol koi sun na le. Speak softly, else … My heart flooded with gratitude.


Memories, illusions, moments of willing delusions, there is nothing tangible or measureable about them, is there? It’s all in the mind, as they say. An intense yearning to reach out to those who have left, a bullish resistance to accepting that they are no more, a bewildering vulnerability in their absence, a refusal to accept that death is unshakeable or a wild hope that there may be ways in which we could outsmart it and continue to communicate with those it has taken away. Any or all of that could be responsible for the games that our minds may play with us.


But just because it’s all in the mind, is it less real? I agree that my random moments of connection with my deceased parents could well be mere illusions, but does that negate their validity for me? When Darcy insults Elizabeth in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I fondly and perhaps foolishly believe that the tears that gather in my eyes are actually my sister Pratima’s, the ones that she had shed for the wounded pride of her loved and admired Austen heroine. That may be completely irrational. But is the heartache that I feel irrational too? Is it unreal? That erupting anger against the arrogant young man, is it exclusively mine or is it laced with what was once hers? Every girl and woman who has read and watched this classic wants Elizabeth vindicated, I more so because Pratima wanted it too. And Pratima is not sitting here with me feeling angry or wretched or sad or relieved or happy or satisfied. No, she trusts me to feel all of that by myself and on her behalf too. That may be my self-deluding assumption, but is my enduring love and longing for her to reclaim her earthly space a delusion? No.



Parting and grief teach one as much about togetherness as togetherness itself. More, I suspect. Loving intensely makes losing that much harder to bear. But we survive, don’t we? Beautifully and gloriously, I think. For there is then wrought in us a refinement of our very humanity. Our capacity for empathy and compassion grows. Our appreciation of all that life has to offer is keener, heightened, for we know that life itself is ephemeral, our experience of loss and sorrow has handed us that wisdom. We value and cherish all those who stay on with us, holding our hand, leading us from crushing grief to a lightness of being and then on to an embracing of our everyday joys with as much lust as before. To be ready to love and lose again. And again.


And every happy or bizarre experience that reconnects me to those of my family and friends that I loved and continue to love dearly, those whose love for me survives in the memory of every cell of my being even after their physical presence has faded away, is like a precious gift. My lurking cynicism warns me that I am probably gifting these experiences to myself. Maybe. But I see no reason to refuse those gifts. If there were to be another time when my father was to miraculously speak to me on the phone, I would not turn away from him or remind him that he’s dead, just a sentimental memory I am clinging to, a vestige of my attachment taking refuge in my head, and that he has no earthly business to call me from the beyond. If there is a beyond.


The beyond may not exist. But are we sure that the here and now is not an illusion too? All is Maya as our sages insisted through the ages. Well, give me the Maya, I say. Any day. Every day. It is my inalienable birth-right as a human, the Maya of fulfilling love and of equally fulfilling illusions. Then death shall not do us apart.