Many happy returns of the day, Anna! You always remember to forget my birthday – I thought of reminding that to you on yours!
I feel a dull ache within me every time I think of you, Anna. Because I don’t know when we will meet again. Or if ever. Our paths have no reason to cross.
I can’t imagine why you would want to come to Kolkata; and I certainly don’t belong to the miniscule, highly privileged class of globe-trotting, continent-hopping, jet-setting individuals who can travel to another continent just to meet a friend. Forget international travel, even travelling within India is expensive for me; and given the kind of job that I do, and the fact that I’ve had to re-start my career right from scratch after relocating back to India, I actually just about manage to foot my bills. Things may change in the future… but for now, this is the reality.
There was so much that bound us together, Anna – our shared passion for writing, our experience of motherhood, our heartaches. Any one of these would have been enough for a lasting bond!
Though we knew each other in Amsterdam from late 2008, from our ‘Mezrab’ days, it was not until 2012 that we became intimate. And how! Till then, there was this healthy respect for each other’s writing, a mutual attraction of sorts, which, before it could bloom, was cut short by the German interlude in my life in 2009. When I’d left for Stuttgart, Pippo was a toddler; when I returned to Amsterdam and got in touch with our writing group again, you had another baby (Juno) in your arms. And the venue of the group had shifted from the Iraninan cafe to your lovely ‘Zolder’.
I just loved those critique sessions in your attic. They were almost always full house – with Eric, Chris, David, Ben, Tori, Smruthy, you and me. We got better acquainted during that time – both as aspiring writers and individuals. But it was Srishti’s birth that really changed the dynamic of our relationship. Not her birth, actually, but the time and circumstance. I was off the writing group, once again, soon after re-joining it. You were full of concern for me and came to visit me often… and then we opened up to each other in a way we had not thought possible before. Our friendship blossomed that summer.
The sharing of heartaches, emotional losses and the challenges of motherhood were such a potent combination. And we shared all of that mostly in my living room and in our long walks in Buitenveldert, moving through a dense green canopy of trees. I can still picture us in my mind’s eye: you walking with your bike, your hands on the handle-bars; I’m walking beside you. We are engrossed in conversation. Sometimes we are quiet, just drinking in the beauty of the lush green of summer, with a soft breeze in our hair, the delicate touch of the late-afternoon sun on our skins.
You and your bike, Anna – inseparable! You biked down to my place in all seasons – in spring and summer (in those lovely summer frocks), in fall and winter (all padded up from head to foot). But bike you did – that part of you Dutch to the core!
In your company, cultural differences melted away… the way you understood me, my mind, my writing. We came from radically different backgrounds: you’d roamed the world with your diplomat parents, studied in different countries, pursued creative writing seriously, lived with your partner and became a mother pretty early in your relationship. Mine had been an essentially cocooned and boring middle-class upbringing mostly confined to one city, where I continued to live and work doggedly after marriage, till the point I decided to leave my academic career in India and join my husband in Amsterdam – to have a life together that didn’t seem possible in Kolkata. In Amsterdam, I came to writing tentatively, taking years to gather up the courage to admit to myself of its importance in my life. And my marriage with Shekhar was worlds away from your partnership with Sikko in every way, not the least in the time it took us to be parents. And yet, Anna, how we connected! – our Dutch and Indian selves totally oblivious of their national identities in the face of female bonding!
The irony was that, for a long time, I actually thought you were British because of your distinct Brit accent. Only much later did I learn that that’s because you’d spent a substantial part of your school and university years in the UK.
Srishti was born in Amsterdam and spent her first 5 years there. And though there were quite a few frequent visitors among my friends, you are the only one whom she saw consistently for all those 5 years. And with whom she spent time (in howsoever small doses) more or less regularly. She loved your company! That wonderful way you have with children. I remember the times when both of us mum and daughter fought for your attention – with me trying to discuss something or the other and she eager to show off her latest toys or doodles.
I regret the fact that I never got the chance to spend much time with Pippo and Juno. And yet, I feel, I know them well. I have heard so much about them from you. Your immense patience with and brutal honesty about both your children are qualities I’ve always marvelled at and learnt much from.
And I have always found your presence so reassuring: be it my writerly confusions or motherly worries (which I had an awful lot in Srishti’s initial years) or my eternal existential anxieties, you were always so comforting with your words – your responses invariably compassionate, and yet pragmatic. No ‘advice’ ever, just distilled wisdom framed in quotidian terms.
The only aspect about you that I found difficult to deal with was the way you sometimes vanished from the face of the earth without notice. Camping somewhere in France or Belgium or generally, just unavailable. I initially found those sudden silences – especially after times of great camaraderie – unnerving; but with time, I learnt to simply wait out those phases. You, too, relented a bit later, sometimes letting me know that you’d be away.
The special relationship that was initiated between us in 2012 grew in depth in the next 5 years, the last 2/3 being the most memorable. Especially 2017. My imminent return to India added an altogether different piquancy to our meetings. We met more often than ever before. Couldn’t have enough of each other. And till the last moment, I remember, neither of us could bring ourselves to believe that we were actually parting.
I will never forget the moment of our last goodbye, Anna – at ‘Le Pain Quotidien’ – when I waved at you, you waved back, both with forced smiles, and then your bike turned right from Gelderlandplein, taking you away from me forever.
‘Le Pain Quotidien’ – those early morning teas we had there in the last months after dropping off the kids to school… are the ones I remember and miss the most. Other people still meet there, don’t they? With the morning light pouring in through those long glass doors, the sun warming them and their conversations. How I envy them, Anna… friends who can continue to meet!
I don’t know when I will meet you again, Anna. I don’t even know when we will talk again. In 20 months, there has been just one freak phone-call between us. May be we’ll manage to talk again sooner this time. May be not. But I will always love you. And cherish the times we’ve shared. And… think of you with a dull ache in my heart!