Given that this letter will be seen by the world (or as much of the world as reads my blog), my intimate salutation makes me feel vulnerable, but it’s fitting. So much of our friendship has been epistolary, and that’s how I began every letter I wrote to you after you left Pune in Std. VIII. The chattier “Hey Neeraja” of my emails and the salutation-free Facebook messages are more suitable for the age we live in (and for our age), but how I wish I could return to those “Dearest Neeraja” days of yore!
You were the first friend I said goodbye to – or at least, the first I said a proper goodbye to. When I was leaving Lucknow at the age of six, on my last day at school my teacher sent me to the garden tap with my best friend in the middle of class. I didn’t ask for it; it was her idea – perhaps because she knew I needed that goodbye. (Do they make teachers like that anymore?) I still remember what happened by the garden tap. It was one of those taps with a pump, and my friend and I pumped water for each other one last time, as we had done countless times before. I didn’t speak or cry, though I desperately wanted to cry and tell her I would miss her. I can remember how the morning sunshine fell on her white PT shoes but I can’t remember anything else, not even her name.
One of the many reasons I thank God for that goodbye is that it allowed me to meet you. Our goodbye would take place eight years later, in the balcony adjoining the Std. VIII classroom at St. Mary’s. What stands out in my memory all these decades later is how dark the balcony was – it was screened by the tamarind tree whose fruit had given us many a sore throat – and how I wept as I told you I would miss you. Thank you for allowing me to grieve, and thank you for grieving in return. I can still see the pain in your eyes as you stood there quietly until Neeta came to get you. If I didn’t like that sister of yours so much, I might struggle to forgive her for showing up before I was done grieving . . . But then, I wasn’t done grieving for months. Maybe years.
It’s a good thing I didn’t know that day that we would see each other again after twelve years. Our worlds had changed so much by the time we met in Delhi. Uncle was no more, Neeta was married, and you and Aunty were now living near JNU. I’d just finished my MA and was visiting the north before leaving for the US. I spent the night at your place and we talked until 4 AM! Letters are special, but nothing like a face-to-face heart-to-heart chat. I didn’t shed tears when we said our second goodbye (perhaps I was trying to act my age), but I felt the same grief I had felt at 14. The last thing your mom said to me was, “Don’t let another twelve years go by before we see you again.” Sadly, Aunty has passed away, and those twelve years are long gone.
Neeraja, I wish you had never left Pune. I wish we could have finished school and attended college together. I wish we could have been coworkers until I got fired for my writerly ambitions. But looking back on what did happen, I can see the hand of God in your moving to Chandigarh. It was best for your family, and it was instrumental in my growth as a writer. Though I didn’t know it then, all those “Dearest Neeraja” letters were writing practice. Thank you for reading them and for replying so faithfully.
On this, your birthday, I am writing to tell you (and the world) how deeply I appreciate your friendship, and how grateful I am to have you in my life. I’ll close this open letter by wishing you in Majrooh Sultanpuri’s immortal words:“Tum jiyo hazaaron saal, saal ke din ho pachaas hazaar.”