An Ode is a lyrical poem. What is friendship if not one long, lyrical one, that is written in blood, the red of one’s heart? It is over-written, and rewritten many times over; it seeks out its own meter, a unique rhythm and a language all its own. I have gathered the blossoms of my long-distance friends, 7 in all, those that boarded my all-weather ship, and never dismounted. It’s the ‘bouquet garni’ of my life! We’re riding this out together, loving beings gifted with an innate capacity to share of ourselves, braving the storms, and being lulled by the music of affection.
In order of appearance.
To be noted: NOT in order of importance.
7) Neer / Tini (Neerja) – 1988
We met as two young students, and lovers of the French language. Was it destiny that brought her back to India from Brussels at the exact same time, as i left my education in Pondicherry? Without a shred of doubt- YES it was!
She was the shy, intelligent girl, pretty as a picture; I was the boisterous one who spoke to be heard; she was seen in impeccably styled pullovers, and long legs, wearing a beatific smile upon her face. She spoke little, but when she did, she was heard.
Our friendship bloomed, without much effort, between French literature and samosas, burgers and patties in the Alliance Française canteen in south Delhi. A group of young people flocked around, and we formed an alliance that would go trekking in Dhauj, in Haryana. We formed a bunch of eclectic adolescents – both girls and boys in their early twenties, seeking some meaning to their existence. It was a carefree era, full of laughter and romantic blues. We used buses, and spoke on telephones that stood in one place. Money was short, yet enough.
Between then and now, Neer and I formed an unshakable bond- one that has grown, with us, as we both got married, managing our homes in two different cities, and then as mothers. We’ve been there to witness our daughters’ births. We’ve talked through the night. We’ve wondered how and why life’s meanderings can be so challenging, and yet watched each other cull out the very best out of each dreaded, and dismal situation with equanimity. We’e admired each other from afar. We have written, yes, handwritten letters to each other, in another time. Later, we’ve bonded over emails, after their advent. We’ve celebrated our ups, and as we’ve wept together through our lows. We’ve played games, with our kids and hubbies in tow, and we’ve picnicked and danced. We’ve seldom fought, but later, apologized pretty quickly when it did happen. We’ve travelled and roamed together and watched each other evolve- retaining that essence of friendship, which warms the cockles of the heart on a dreary day. Distance does make the heart grow fonder. My husband loves her just as much, and they are so alike, in the way they analyse and think things through. It’s pretty amazing!
We’ve travelled away from one another repeatedly, to Bulgaria, England, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Gurgaon. She lives in Germany since 2013.
She’s taught me : a generosity of spirit needn’t translate in over-zealous material gifting; no tears does not signify an absence of pain; that often less is more, and more than enough. She has the wisdom of the sages, and she doles it out in her inimitable manner, in perfect measure. It has never failed me. She’s my best friend.
6) Anu (Aruna) 1996
My first foray into foreign lands, to set up a home, was to England. I’d heard much about its cold beauty, in autumn. It was a lonely land, for starters, and our little two-year old, missed India dreadfully. Being bereft of any other human company made us both very garrulous, and very quiet, in turns.
The solitariness was getting to me, so I decided, as is my wont, I would seize the day. This was a week after we had arrived in cold, autumnal London. From the heat of Delhi, its noise paths, and the family, we had been flung into a void. The husband would leave home in the wee hours of the morning, and return, tired and hungry, in the dark- at 6 pm, when the shadows were all but gone.
So that morning, I left the confines of my little home, on Nursery Road, and went a-knocking. All doors were tightly locked. My disappointed heart wasn’t ready to give up just yet. Our little girl, sensing her mother zealous mad hunt for human company- stayed quiet. All she needed was in her mom’s responses and the warm hand that clasped her little one.
I held my breath, when an ultimate knock was answered- will this pretty stranger be welcoming? What a beauty she was. She looked Iranian- or maybe Turkish? My mind was in a whirl. The lady’s smile reached her eyes. Her English diction was clear and Indian- wait, no way! Yes, she was a Gujarati no less, and a warm invitation was extended- I observed an Indian shawl draped on her elegant sofa, simple – classy interiors. I was in. She offered me chai, and twinkled at my daughter. A welcoming and curious encounter. We quickly made our acquaintance. I sipped the masala chai, and sat across from her, mesmerized. Within a matter of an hour, it became certain that we might, after all, be the friendly neighbours I so needed, and desired. This was the year 1996.
It’s 2018 now. We’ve been back and forth from London- and she was my neighbor once more in 2002. I live in Gurgaon now, and Anu (Aruna officially) and i have remained friends through thick and thin. In the interim period, she lost her second child Sheel, one whose birth i had witnessed. I lost my boy too, who is on his way to becoming a girl called Aanya. We have our stories, we’ve been living our lives as best as we can- and we’ve loved and supported each other through it all, even if most of it has been long distance.
I draw from our friendship one huge lesson- distance is truly the line from one heart to another- and you can stretch it beyond measure, but the link remains unbroken.
5) Su (Suman) 2007
I was introduced to Su by one, I’m no longer in touch with.
It was a friendly get-together, and I can only remember Su’s raucous laughter, and twinkling eyes.Karan, her better-half, walked in later, a handsome sardar to boot. The couple, what can I say, they seemed made for each other. Her most endearing quality is that she makes herself the butt of jokes, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. That was that. We hit it off, as did our children. She has two boys- Anmol and Angad. We’ve never looked back since.
Karan, her man, a sporty outdoorsy fella, would take his family rope-climbing, trekking, picnicking, whenever he could. So my man was inspired too. If Karan could scale the walls around their condo, he would, was the impression we gathered. Together, we’ve roamed the wilds, as it were.
There has been no judgment – no envy – nothing that could take away from the core that we’d discovered- a simple friendship that has stood the test of time. We’ve spent evenings sharing more than just drinks, and having met as adults, we had a lot to catch up with. It was interesting that we were able to pretty quickly. Not all wine takes time to age.
Within a year of our acquaintance, she moved to England where she established herself beautifully. Her boys are all grown now, and she always says, “can’t complain.” That’s Suman in a nutshell. Only I know what she has had to plough through to get to where she is, both in India and England.
Suman, to me personifies the undying human spirit, working against the tide, with faith, and a determination I’ve envied ever so often. Never has she said, “No more, can’t do it!”. Karan was diagnosed with gluten intolerance, after being sick for months, and being left undiagnosed. The news was devastating especially for a north Indian Sikh, who thrives on chapatis and paranthas, all made from wheat flour. But our Suman wasn’t one to buckle, no! She made paranthas for her hubby with potato flour, some of which I tasted! At the time, gluten intolerance was sounding a death knell- not being as prevalent as it is today. There is so much for gluten-intolerants available today.
We’ve remained friends since 2007- and we shall remain friends till one of us calls it a night.
4) Jhunjhun (Nirupama) – 2006
I met Jhunjhun in Spain, where she was visiting with her young son and husband. A common friend introduced us, and being among the few Indians around, we made an effort to exchange more than just niceties. By the end of our tour, we had bonded, exchanged numbers and email Ids. It had been refreshing and a lot of fun.
She lived in England at the time, and has made it her permanent home since. She is a clinical psychologist. In the ensuing years, we’ve visited each other and our friendship has deepened. She’s got a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about her that had me then, and has me now. We’ve spent hours chatting over our children and how special they are, about the relationships that define us, and about what it is we need to shed, and what to hang on to. We have a spiritual bond.
She’s full of beans, and easy to please. Her positive outlook to life, despite both professional and personal pressures upon her being, is what has salvaged her, kept her going, and continue to.
When we do talk, it could be for over an hour, and time ceases to exist. Otherwise, months go by and we don’t communicate. Having said that, when we do connect, it is from where we left off, almost. There is a thread, that binds us- and now that there are a million ways to feel the presence of another, we know we can conjure each other up at the press of a button.
Our friendship has taught me that often just picking up the phone is the best de-stressor; she’s proven that one can be down and out one day, and braving the cold English winds the next day, with a plucky smile on one’s face and never saying die. 11 years on, and it’s a resilient, and hardwearing friendship we share.
3) Chitra – Chitré (2010)
I met Chitra at the same workshop as Katherine, in Goa, 8 years back. She was very giggly, and sweet and sang out loud with glee. I loved that about her instantly. She participated whole-heartedly and spoke with confidence, and with exceptional candour, especially with regard to what she churned out in writing. We got on just fine, giggly together. But it is only in the subsequent years, staying in touch, I observed a leap of faith in her. By the time we met in Pune, the following year, she was glowing in a different light. She began writing her books soon thereafter- which astounded me. I would question myself- how come I’m unable to. But her books were not the ones I would write, or even could: ‘Achieve your Highest Potential- Be the Best you can Be’, ‘The Art of Conscious Parenting’, ‘Stress-O-Paedia’. Where was she sourcing the knowledge? Who was this Chitra Jha? I was flummoxed, and I was delighted, all at once.
Her son, a monk then, invited her, along with us to the Ananda Ashram, not far from Lavasa in Maharashtra. We drove down. The three of us were regaled not just by what we experienced there, but by the sattvic food, the ambience presented and by her son’s astute understanding of life, at such a young age! We saw Chitra, the mother.
The transformation I was watching in this friend was miraculous. I started following all her social media posts, commenting on them, and learning from them, almost daily.
Then I chose to attend one of Chitra’s workshops on Family Constellations. It was an eye-opener, and it transformed something in me. Chitra, a friend, Chitra, the mentor- and there was no conflict, only respect, a spurt of growth in fact. This friendship with her, it has taught me that life is to be lived in a flow…from one moment to another as honestly as one possibly can. She shows by example, how a person evolves by surrendering oneself to the cosmos- the Universe as it were. She and her now retired Army man husband, Somnath, are roaming the world, house-sitting, and being contented nomads. May more like her inhabit our world. I am so inspired to be this person.
2) Mary Mary (M.Coates) – 1996
Mad auntie Mary is what she calls herself, for our kids. We Natesans await her bi-annual visits with unconcealed eagerness. I met Mary in 1996, pre-second offspring era. Our little girl and us parents, had headed off to Liverpool to be hosted by this compassionate soul. She was a quiet, slim and kind woman. No longer since, is she quiet- but kind and slim she has stayed. Needless to say, the Liverpool outing was memorable.
Many years later, on subsequent visits to India, after our own return to our homeland, I had the good fortune of hosting her for two weeks in Bangalore. There has been no looking back since.
She has returned year after year, playing Christmas mother, loaded with cookies, chocolates, ready-to-bake cake flour, fresh bread, and great strong English Cheddar- you name it. She’s quite like a whirlwind- she and me, we are out and about when she visits. Inevitably, every evening a board game is conjured up, and the family unites to play. We do catch up and laugh till tears drop. The entire family is in splits….Yes, that’s one thing about Mary- one core quality she embodies: humour. She can make you laugh over anything, and I mean, anything can be turned on its head transformed into a laughable thing, its previous earnest view notwithstanding.
What would I do without such a friendship? What does anyone do without a friendship that lightens the burden of daily living? She’s the one, the batty Mary, who comes and goes, and leaves a trail of great stories, much vodka, rolled up tobacco, books that she’s picked up from charities, read, loved and left behind for her Indian friend. She’s generous to a fault.
Mary bakes, and Mary makes a great ‘chilly’ – a pot of red kidney beans, mushrooms, and peppers with tons of tomatoes. She loves my cooking and eats with her hands. She’s part Indian- at least insofar as her un-English manners are concerned. We certainly share tears as well, because while humour might save the day, it can’t plug the gaping hole caused by deep grief, not forever.
She has loved my kids with the true affection of an aunt, and chided them on occasion, without a moment’s hesitation, and our kids and their father reciprocate this, loving her to bits. The man and she can argue for hours, and end up laughing too. Above all she has taught me to laugh openly, cry uninhibitedly, and adopt her mad ways, shamelessly so. She’s fun all the way, with a shoulder that I can lean on. There’s more than something about Mary.
1) Katherine, my American artist friend (2010)
I met Katherine during a workshop 8 years back, in Goa, at a writer’s retreat house, overlooking the sea, boulders and much sand. She was our mentor, and guide. Her quiet demeanour settled us participants very quickly. A lot of affection was floating around, among much artistry and luxuriant discussions, as is the way with Katherine. A lien was established during that weeklong stay, when we let both our hair and our guard down.
She went back home to the USA, only to return to India, the following year, 2011.
I love emailing, and she writes prolifically- we stayed in touch. Our next encounter was in Pune, the following year, again for a workshop. The bond of friendship strengthened. Among idyllic surroundings, shopping, food outings and laughter, we wished we could’ve stretched the sojourn.
Thereafter I met her, some years later, when I visited San Francisco in 2014. She made the time for a beautiful meal, on a sunny terrace near Berkeley. After we were all caught up, she drove me down to her adorable cottage home, with a garden edged with fruit trees, and sun. There it was, everything i could have dreamt of, all one needs. She lives in peace and harmony with nature. I was overjoyed to have seen her in her element, in her own ambience.
With Katherine, I’ve never felt the need to be other than myself. She is both soft-spoken and articulate. Her writing encompasses her artistry in the most fluid and delicate manner. When we visited Varanasi last year, together with another friend (Chitra), love enveloped us. It was the togetherness leading to deep exchanges that make our every meeting, indelible. Before we travelled to Varanasi, she conducted a session at the writer’s workshop, at my home, using her sculptor’s heart as a valuable tool, very successfully too. Every participant was receptive, as she drew from her own life’s experience.
She has two sons and 4 beautiful grandkids, and has led a life worthy of the telling. I learn so much from her, from our email exchanges over the years. She’s definitely taught me to explore deeper and to continually refine, as well as to stop all inner noises to simply listen to the one that is meaningful.
In Varanasi, Chitra, Katherine and me, we shared the most cosy, amicable and intimate time- bonding. It was joyous and healing in so many ways. Ushering dawn, on the Ganges- unbeatable!