I met Geeta didi in unusual circumstances, through a detective who was verifying a man’s matrimonial profile on a website. Both of us had been approached simultaneously by that fellow whose simplistic demeanour and doctorate degree masked one of those pathetic stereotypes who hound such websites, of a loser who routinely chatted up women online under the pretext of pursuing an alliance. She talked with me for over three hours on the first day, a conversation which would run into weeks, months, and eventually into seven years. We dismissed the creep who had been the catalyst for our meeting within the first thirty minutes of conversation and blocked his profile. He was never mentioned again as we continued to talk about life, careers, studies, love, marriage, friendship, religion, rituals, customs, relationships…nearly everything under the sun. She was not much older than me but she was far wiser. But within a week of having met her, I started calling her ‘didi’ – elder sister. She loved it. She did not have sisters of her own and cherished her female friends. But she was more than a friend, she was always my sister. I realised how much I had thought of her as my own, only when she passed in August.
Being an only child and having grown up surrounded by books, I never knew what it meant to have a sibling. I disliked having to address cousins who were older than me with suffixes to their names. Terms like akka or anna, didi or bhaiya made sense only when one actually considered the person as an elder sister or brother and did not fit people whom one saw once in a few years, I would argue. In the seven years that I knew Geeta Didi, I never saw her in person even once. Yet I always thought of her as an elder sister. She was my Di, Didi, Deedu…it never struck me once to think of her simply as Geeta. Just like tying a rakhi can make a boy into a brother, I found that a bond of sisters could be formed over online chats 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.
Coming from Punjabi and Tamil backgrounds respectively, we were two very different people with diverse interests. She was not particularly interested in literature and 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 people 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.
At the time we first started talking, three of us – Geeta Didi, D who was my good friend and colleague and me were looking for matches. 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 and Didi wanted someone who was goodhearted and culturally compatible) and were happily married within the next two years. While I found a publisher for my first novel, moved cities, switched jobs, moved countries, and continued to pursue my writing. For a 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 hour 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 wedding anniversary, she blessed me once again to find the right person soon. I replied with a smiley.
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 and 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 of French and Russian salads, urging me to 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 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 were buzzing 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 and the joy of having known what it meant to have an elder sister, if only for seven years.