Friends. Once Upon A Time.

We were three of us who made a tightly knit group in the Arts College. Our classmate who admired us openly would call us the National Integration group because we were a Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Religion never got in the way because politics was not a passion in those days as it seems to be now. Activism was a word that had not been invented yet.

We were just three girls who loved the English language and loved talking about everything. We laughed a lot and did not take life seriously, and found exhilarating freedom in just being out of the stifling atmosphere at home. We attended classes happily, and passed notes to each other when the lectures got too boring. We wrote poems about our professors and giggled over them. Occasionally we bunked our classes to explore the city and discover new food. Looking back, I can see that we were quite ignorant compared to our children at the same age.

My home was a place where laughter was frowned upon and attempted conversations ended in anger and tears. Being a girl then was to be unwanted or a burden. There were families which cherished their daughters, but mine was not one of those. In many households the youngest child was pampered, but my being the youngest didn’t win me any points. So I was just happy to go to college as an escape from home, and for the first time in my life, I received praise for my writing, and compliments from my friends and teachers. My class papers were even circulated in other classes by my teachers and strangers would come up to me and congratulate me. I was shocked and happy, and developed a little of the self-confidence that had been so lacking in me.

Our friendship continued down the years though we occasionally lost contact, but picked up where we had left off till just a few years ago.We met frequently or spoke to each other on the phone. We were all married by now and had families and the worries that beset all at our age. But it was still fun being girls when we were grown women and surprising our children by our giggles.

Unfortunately, my Muslim friend suddenly was overtaken by events in our country, to be charitable. She had been a very modern and confident young woman, but I suppose could not withstand the voices around her, and lost her way. She dropped out of our lives and though we mourned the loss, there was no desire to reach out to a friend who had become a stranger, because she was no longer the person we had loved and we were the object of her fierce hatred just for being who we were and always had been.

A few years later, my other friend called me to say she had breast cancer. One year of sharing her fear and emotional pain and trying to support her through it all, ended with her death, inevitably.

Thus ended our circle of friendship. It has been more than forty-five years since we met as young girls outside the English Department in the imposing Arts College building. One of us is lost, another is dead. I am the only one left.

Making friends anew is no longer possible because we grow more solitary as we age and it is now the time to withdraw into ourselves. Whatever the world had to teach us, we have learnt, or not, as much as we were able to. Now we can only observe, and draw upon what we have learnt, to carry us through the rest of our life. It is time to shed the leaves. Autumn is upon us.

My Books Are Not For Lending

After putting down the title I wonder if anything more needs to be said. The title is self-explanatory, after reading which any one with any desire to borrow my books will gulp down his words and change the topic.

However, if it is worth saying once, it is worth repeating, and hence I shall proceed. I am not one of those generous souls who offers to lend their books to anyone who wants to read them. I am certain no one’s generosity extends that far. I will lend my books to my children who have been brought up to treat their books well and that too because I love them dearly. They can have my jewellery, my sarees, and my books, in that order. No one else can bank on my generosity unless I am about to get rid of a book I no longer intend to keep.

I am not ashamed of being stingy with my books either. I have gone to a great deal of expense and effort collecting them, and intend to finish reading most of them before I exit the world. The would-be borrowers would not spend half as much to acquire these books but are only too happy to ask to read them at others’ expense. I wonder if they would find it just as easy to ask to borrow my jewellery or silk saris. I suspect some of them, like our erstwhile neighbour in Bombay, would. As an aside, we still fume at the neighbour who told us our acquisition of an aluminium ladder was a very good investment and proceeded to borrow it whenever he needed, and even lent it to his friends. In hindsight we realise he meant it was a good investment for his use.

The other day, a couple living in our building paid us a courtesy call. They are very nice people and I have nothing against them. R took the lady on a tour of the house. I have no objection to that either, as the house was not messy and I had nothing to be ashamed of. However, he threw open my cupboards and shelves for the lady’s inspection without my permission, which I would never have given, and she saw that they contained my collection of books. I keep my books in closed cupboards for a reason. As I was not in the room, he came out and told me she had seen the very books she had wanted to read in my possession. I stared at him, wondering if he expected me to offer them to her. He wanted to be benevolent at my expense, but I just laughed and did not oblige him. Then she asked me if I had a particular book which she wanted to read. I, being me, said I did, and lent it to her.

That was over a month ago. She has now left on a visit to her daughter who lives abroad. The day before she left, R said he would get my book back and asked her if she had finished reading it. She, as expected, said she had hardly touched it and offered to return it as she was going to be away for two months. Before I could say anything, her husband said she should just take it with her to while away her time in her daughter’s house. Feeling unable to be churlish, I told her it was a good idea. The book is now on foreign shores.

I did not fail to give R a good piece of my mind but he is not a booklover and as they say, we are not on the same page on this, or to put it more clearly, he cannot understand my feelings in this matter. One, that my shelves are my personal property and are not his for him to display their contents to a stranger. Two, my books are mine, and are not for lending.

The next day, I moved all my books to my wardrobe, without his knowledge, and if ever there is any further attempt to borrow books, I will steel myself and lie that all the books have been put away and cannot be accessed, I am so sorry.

Maybe I should put a lock on my cupboards because R cannot be trusted not to fling them open and say, “Why, here they are!”.

Bowing Out

The day my father retired, he began to clear the decks for his death. In his mind the next step after retiring from work was death.

It never occurred to him that after forty seven years of working in a dull government office, he would be master of his own life at last and would not need to do anyone’s bidding. He could wake up whenever he pleased, eat a leisurely breakfast, go out and explore the city where he had lived for nearly fifty years or even go to the market to pleasurably haggle over the price of vegetables.

Instead he set out to clear the accumulation of half a century as he saw it. He looked around at the rooms which had only bare necessities to furnish them, at the few cupboards that were half empty and contained very little by way of books and clothes. He decided much of it had to go.

There was a traditional swing in the verandah on which I had spent most of my teenage years. He took down the swing and sold the iron chains by weight. My mother refused to part with the wooden swing itself as it had been gifted by her father. So a carpenter was asked to fashion a divan out of it which made a useful bed in the other room.

My father decided the teak sofa set had no more place in his house. A cousin who had been eyeing it for years was only too happy to get hold of it very cheaply, considering its pristine condition.

My mother was instructed to get rid of various pots and pans in the kitchen and make do with whatever was left. She grumbled but obeyed.

On one of my visits back home I found the house to be nearly empty. If Mary Kondo had visited she would have asked them to fill it up rather than declutter.

We – my children and I – asked him to buy a washing machine and a fridge because they make life easier and my mother could stop asking the Nairs at the back to store our milk in their fridge. But my father refused, trotting out various reasons such as electricity bills shooting up and frequent power failures that would either cause equipment to malfunction or render them useless. But the real reason was his belief that his life was over and it made no sense to him to spend on what seemed to him to be luxuries.

He retired at fifty-eight. His expectations were not met. The house was emptied of possessions but my widowed brother moved back in with a toddler and some of his own possessions including a television and a fridge. He was not one to acquire any kind of stuff, and was happy enough to live a pared-down life.

My father lived to be eighty-seven.

When I see the same tendency in others to clear out the house and not acquire anything that might actually be useful, or we might enjoy having, I wonder. The reasoning that valuable things will have to be literally thrown away after our deaths has to be faced and accepted. Their real value lies in our having used them and enjoyed them during our lifetimes. Beyond that it is better not to worry.