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.