Tuesday, August 26, 2008 

Lone Star

Serendipity. A lovely word, with a beautiful etymological background to it. Perhaps it is but natural that serendipity led me to her blog. A chance set of remarks on a now forgotten site introduced me to her, and I must confess that I started with a negative attitude: I had been irked by something she’d said and not content with muttering to myself, wrote a frigid mail. She replied back with a puzzled civility, wondering why I had mailed.

By then I had skimmed her blog, and was impressed by both her easy erudition and range of topics. A series of exchanges later, we started talking, and it was then that I committed the first of a series of gaffes. We were discussing ethnic heritages and the importance of retaining an ethnic identity, even if chauvinism of a particular language was not acceptable. I asserted that I was diligently assimilating my Telugu roots. I asked her about her background, and was secretly pleased to see that she was a non-resident Telugu like myself. She casually tossed off a series of Telugu literature-based allusions, all of which I was blissfully ignorant of. She casually mentioned her father, and I ignored it as I blathered on about how she must be out of touch with her roots etc. Upon which she asked, not without some amusement, just exactly how much of my cultural enthusiasm translated into actual intelligence. Thankfully, a sixth sense told me to blurt out the exact truth: i.e, that all I didn’t know about the subject would fill several libraries. She laughingly said that she’d suspected as much, when I showed no reaction at the mention of her father, who was one of the foremost literary figures of the century.

That exchange also set the pattern of many of our talks : I would blunder into a new area of inexpertise with total enthusiasm, and she would benevolently let me go on making a fool of myself almost till the very end and then step in with a smile. I remember telling her in sepulchral tones about how difficult it was to write : oh, not her little asides, but serious writing, and the travails of a professional author. She was full of respectful noises. It was not long before I discovered that she’d published her first book of poems at 18. In her typical self-deprecatory fashion, she pooh-poohed any praise of her writing, but she sent translations of her Telugu poems, and I discovered first hand just how complex her thought processes were. I bragged about a poem I’d written with a crossword clue embedded in it, only to discover that eminent crossword setters were amongst her acquaintances, and that she routinely solved Guardian prize crosswords that I could only shake my head at.

I sent her long mails of ideas about writing and demanded that she read my entire blog, from the first post onward, and send me detailed comments (by which I meant praise). She lavished praise, and while her criticism was unerring, it was also gentle and coddled in enough warmth for it not to hurt. I continually badgered her about every conceivable topic in music and literature, and she never tired of answering me.

Over a year, she stuck by me while I swung between periods of dark depression, utter inebriation, wild elation and sheer cussedness. I demanded that she like all my friends and she assented. I informed her that I detested all of hers and she would dutifully agree that I showed excellent taste. I would type in ten lines to each of hers ignoring her interruptions, and then blame her for not responding enough. Always tolerant, she would only send me more mails about her day and her ideas. I would cascade puns, each increasingly wilder, till she would cringe and beg me to stop. I would make increasingly extravagant statements, sometimes sexist, sometimes just plain stupid, to prod her out of her prim manner and make it increasingly difficult for her to maintain her cool. Finally, just as she began to declaim in acerbic tones her opinion of my faculties, I would stop her in mid-spate and tell her I was only joking. She would splutter and swear that she would never talk to me again.

She never stopped.

I demanded attention and received huge doses of affection.

She insisted that I play Scrabble, a game I’d never played before. But it isn’t rocket science, exactly, I sneered at her. She proceeded to …no, really, this hurts, but she whipped me for the first 50 odd games that we played. We’d start a new game every time one finished, and despite my best efforts, I just could not seem to win. I was winning games with assorted strangers, even those with high ratings, but it seemed I just couldn’t beat her. There were games I’d coast along, inwardly telling myself that this was IT, and then she’d come out with a bingo when no tiles were left, leaving me cursing on the sidelines of a new game. The first game I beat her was when a mutual friend interceded to tell her that continually losing like this was sapping my self-esteem. She promptly lost a game, and chided me for browbeating a woman in this manner. Look, I said. Either I won, in which case it is a bit of a boost to the old ego, or you liked me enough to make me look good and win. In which case it is a MAJOR boost to the old ego. Any which way, I was a winner, chivalry be damned. To the end, I never knew if the 2-3 wins amongst the scores of games we played were gifts from her to pep me up when I was unusually subdued or whether I actually bested her.

You are now preparing for a last journey alone, my friend. You have far too many things unfinished, amongst them teaching me the Telugu heritage I now may never learn, teaching me music, teaching me about crosswords, and singing the song you translated for me. No, you never promised me any of those things, but on the other hand I’ve always made promises on your behalf and you’ve never let me down. I should be sad at your leaving, but as usual I am grumpy at goodbyes. Don’t be stupid, I seem to hear you remark. This idiot, however, always had the sense to know how lucky he was to come across you and thank you for it.

Once when it seemed I must cut off all contact for a while, I quoted lines that appeared to explain why we, random strangers who never once met, shared such a deep and instinctive bond. You not only found one of my favourite poems, but replied with lines from them that were much more apt. I repeat them today, my belief in them multiplied manifold :-

"Like the stars that gem the sky,
Far apart, though seeming near,
In our light we scattered lie;
All is thus but starlight here."

With respect, warmth and lots of love, Lalita. Always a star.