I met Geeta didi in unusual circumstances. We were introduced by a detective who was verifying a man’s matrimonial profile on a website. Both of us had been approached simultaneously by the fellow whose simplistic demeanour and doctorate degree masked a pathetic stereotype found on such sites – a loser who chatted up women online under the pretext of pursuing an alliance. We dismissed the creep within the first thirty minutes of conversation and blocked his profile as we continued to talk about life, careers, studies, love, marriage, friendship, rituals, customs, food, relationships…we talked for three hours on the first day, a conversation which would run into weeks, months, and eventually into seven years. She was not much older than me, though she was far wiser. Within a week of having met her, I had started calling her ‘didi'(elder sister). She loved it as she did not have sisters of her own and cherished her close female friends. In retrospect, she was never just a friend. She was always my sister. I realised it when she passed in August.
Being an only child who grew up surrounded by more books than people, I never knew what it meant to have a sibling. I could not connect to the cousins whom I saw once in a few years and disliked having to address older cousins with suffixes to their names. For those old-fashioned, charming terms: akka and anna, didi and bhaiya, they made sense only when one actually considered the person as an elder sister or brother and hardly fit people who were practically strangers. In all the seven years that I knew Geeta Didi, I never saw her in person. Yet I always thought of her as my sister. Di, Didi, Deedu…I could never think of her simply as Geeta. Just like tying a rakhi on his wrist can make a boy into a brother, a bond of sisters could be formed over endless online chats, emails and phone calls.
She was perhaps one of the most educated women in India with a doctorate in medicine, a masters degree in computers, more than one postgraduate management diploma and a masters degree in business leadership from one of the IIMs. Ambitious and successful, she celebrated the traditional roles of an Indian woman in all aspects of her life. A beautiful, intelligent, kind, affectionate and compassionate woman who loved life and the people around her, and was in turn loved by everyone who knew her. To know her was to love her.
Coming from Punjabi and Tamil backgrounds, we were two very different people with diverse interests and worldviews. She was not particularly interested in literature and often teased me about my love for classical music. Once when I pinged her, she responded casually with ‘ennadi’, having picked up the Tamil word from somewhere. I felt a thrill of joy on hearing her address me in Tamil, even though the term is not something that I am familiar with in real life, for it is colloquial slang that people rarely use in regular conversation. It was a beautiful moment which made me wonder for days afterwards about the significance of how language affects our interactions with the people around us, especially with those who are close and dear to us. Coming from a pan-Indian family with cousins and in-laws from across the length and breadth of the country, most of my communication with my extended family tends to be in English. Yet, there is something sweeter about talking in Hindi and also in Tamil, though I have not been able to analyse why. Strangely it is Geeta Didi whom I feel like asking about this. She loved analysing things, taking apart the pros and cons of every aspect of a statement or concept.
When we first started talking, three of us – Geeta Didi, D my good friend and colleague and I were looking for matches, three very different women looking for three very different kinds of men. Both D and Didi eventually found the kind of partners they were looking for (D wanted a rich man who came from the same village as her ancestors did and Didi wanted someone who was goodhearted and culturally compatible) and were happily married within the next two years. While I kept an eye open for an intellectually compatible partner – a quest that I gave up on last year, having decided that it was more value-adding to work on my novels than spend another ten minutes of my life talking to yet another guy who bolted at the mention of metafiction. I never mentioned my decision to Didi. Earlier this year when I congratulated her on her fifth wedding anniversary, she wished me once again that I might find the right person soon. I hid my reply behind a smiley, unwilling to upset her by sharing the depressing reality that there were few single literary men of my age, and the truth of Dame Muriel Spark’s words that literary men did not want literary women but girls.
In between the last two years when she was being treated for cancer, there was a period when the doctors felt that she was completely cured. She had started making plans to resume work when the malady returned. Even while undergoing the painful chemo treatments and hospital visits, she took time to advise me over chat messages, sending me recipes for French and Russian salads, urging me to eat well and take care of my health. She was always there on the other side of the chat, ever ready with advice, love, a listening ear, a virtual hug.
I did not post the gift that I got her for last Christmas – a tiny painting of two sisters, for I had intended to visit her and hand it over in person.
I got the message that she had passed on the first day of the study holidays. The lines blurred as I read them, evoking a sharp, searing pain in the heart. It was the last Sunday of August and the bees buzzed loudly around the table where I sat in the garden. I reached up to pick a flower and set it on the table imagining that it was an offering to my sister. A wonderful human being who lives on in the minds of all who had known her. I tell myself that this grief shall eventually pass, and what would remain is a feeling of gratitude that I had the privilege of knowing her, besides the joy of having known what it meant to have an elder sister of my own, if only for seven years.