A week ago, I reposted an opinion piece on my Facebook page. It said that our present government is appointing not-as-well-respected heads to prestigious government institutions. These men and women are in favour with Hindutva groups, and that too would be alright, except that they do not have much of a standing among their peers.
The first comment my post received was from my schooldays friend, Katya. She wrote back an angry rejoinder about “left-of-centre, so-called-liberals” who were “undermining Hinduism” with their criticism of our government that is “just trying to stem the age-old rot” of the previous (secular) governments. She said she hated the word secular, too.
I was shocked by the phrases and the fury. My response was to delete her comment. I worried that the post itself may fuel negativity… in my mind, life, and on my liberal-artist Facebook page!
I deleted the post.
I sat thinking, sifting through albums of memory – pausing to examine pictures from a time when we were 14 years old, like my own daughter is now.
Katya and I were in the ninth standard together at a school in Bangalore: both of us slender children, of medium height. I was below average at Maths and Science and quiet, a follower. She was good at every subject, not just Maths and Science. She spoke with an American accent, having just returned from a few years in the U.S, standing out for her quick humour, clever mind and leadership skills. I was in awe of her stories of the boys and girls she’d shared a class with through her years at a public school in Alabama. Our school here was a strictly-run all girls Convent where we wore our ties tight at the neck, and spent most daylight hours in chilly, bare classrooms in a grey granite building. Katya, with her stories and her teasing laugh, stood apart.
She decided to pick on and bully Rina, a stolid curly-haired rather serious classmate, who in the first weeks of the ninth standard was the third member of our group. We crept up on her and littered her curly mop with bits of paper and other waste, and secretly marked her notebooks with ink blots. We wrote her notes, calling her pig-nosed and fat. We ignored her patience with us… an overture of friendship in itself.
That Rina neither confronted nor complained about us seems strange now and I don’t know how, but to this day, I remember the jet-black gaze that followed us unblinkingly. Her dogged silence soon bored Katya into turning to other things. Katya and I continued that year and the next, to be best friends. Rina sat alone for some days, then made new friends. I didn’t notice her much. I didn’t notice anyone that Katya didn’t bother with.
After we graduated from the 10th standard I moved to Chennai to live with my parents and to attend school there. Katya wrote me long letters full of descriptions and news of her new junior college and her sisters whom I had gotten to know well. I did not reply to any of them.
She phoned up months later to ask me, gently and worriedly, why I would not write back. I said I had been busy, and not knowing what to else to say, she asked me to write to her sometimes and hung up the phone. Bullying Rina had left me with guilt that I did not want to deal with. I’d been bullied in my earlier years in school so perhaps the feeling was magnified.
Years went by and we lost touch. Then I moved to Mumbai to study for a degree in English Literature. I had a cousin in Pune and through other friends, Katya and I crossed paths again.
Being young and free in Pune meant breezy scooter rides, steaming cups of chai and vada pav under the trees at the outdoor canteen at Pune university, and discussing books and boyfriends and well, life, late into the night.
Katya and I started anew. Slender 19-year-olds, light-hearted with tentative ideas of the world. She was a bit under confident, had become a keen listener and laughed very easily, especially at herself.
She was in love and talked about him all the time. She’d given him a funny nickname after an Enid Blyton character and told many sweet stories about their friendship.
He left her and she was like a lost child: bewildered. The smile remained, but it was shadowed, though she never cried in front of her friends.
She left Pune after completing a Masters degree in Science and over time, I stopped going to that city. The old haunts, so ordinary without Katya and the others in our group, would not have been the same.
We kept in touch, this time around, with letters and phone calls. She married a man of her parents’ choice. He was good to her and they were happy together for a time. But his parents treated her in ways she simply could not understand. She wrote that no matter how hard she tried to please them, they were nasty to her. Her husband got a job in the U.S and Katya and he moved away.
By then Katya had developed a weight problem from stress. The slender, yoga-keen girl I knew, who was completely vegetarian and never ate from greed, became overweight. She worked out obsessively, cycling and running in the faraway University town where they lived, to lose weight but also to counter depression. When she’d eventually fought her way through her issues with her in-laws, she had a baby. There was trouble after trouble, with her health, her little son’s, her husband’s, her parents’ health and bad luck with jobs and money. For me by now also busy with my growing children, her life’s troubles were beginning to blur into phrases of lament on sms. Until the day she sent an sms that said, how much more ill luck will god give my son? On top of eczema, he’s been diagnosed with very poor vision.
He has you… God gave you to him, so he is not unlucky, I replied. I think it eased her somehow, that message. She said she hadn’t seen it that way. She would have smiled that shadowed smile. Even though we were far away, in different cities, I imagined it.
In all her conversations with me Katya spoke of an uncle who was a guru to many, who had started a retreat on the banks of a river in a village in Andhra Pradesh. She thought of him as her guru and adviser. I was often glad for his presence in her life. It seemed to give her strength. Was that her introduction to feeling her political identity as a Hindu very strongly? Or her troubles, like the huge boulders you see from the train window when travelling through middle-India’s hill country, that she’d had to grit her teeth and struggle against… I wonder about it all now.
Her Facebook comment and my knee jerk response to it didn’t leave my system. I was uneasy, more at my reaction – my instinctive blocking out of the whole debate – as if I couldn’t address an opposing take on the issue.
Still upset the next day, I went through my Friends list… and found her gone. She had “unfriended” me, possibly right after scripting that comment. While I, the liberal writer, had sat sifting through our memories, as people like me are wont to do, she had used a simpler, unequivocal way to deal with things.
Do I understand her action? Perhaps not, but I accept it. In a liberal, left-of-centre world too, you rave and rant. But the practice of envisaging new worlds and new circumstances helps you concede that each is entitled to her view. And that there are many worlds and no dearth of ways to live and die.
Some questions remain. If not for Facebook, would Katya and I have kept in touch? Perhaps we would have. Possibly our emails and phone calls would have been an exchange of family news, a sharing of confidences. We’d have steered clear of political viewpoints – the elephant in the room. The only animals visible would’ve been her or my child’s stuffed toys and we’d have laughed over those.