She’s telling me about one of her cats. Taking her to the vet yesterday, the reason she couldn’t call. I’m waiting for a break in the flow of words. How are you? HOW are you? How ARE you?
The waiting, she says, is a prison sentence in itself. Life on hold. Life uncertain. Will it be just one of them? Or both? Who will look after the cats? Who will look after an aging parent? The architect is ready with his plans for the house she and her partner want to build high in the fog-draped northern mountains. Where I’d go from the smog-choked capital city, on my next trip. We’d sit out in the courtyard and look at the peaks now appearing and now not, as the fog rolls and tumbles not far above our heads. Drinking cardamom-laced hot tea, snug under my shawl; snug in the warmth of the caress and compassion of my two friends, today on the other end of the thousands of miles of underwater cables, crossing continents. How ARE you?
I was over sixty when I met her. It was she I met first. I’d read an essay she’d written in an online magazine about a misogynistic set of events at the famous college where such things weren’t supposed to happen, that we both had attended, though decades apart. I was agape at her forthrightness and brio. I wrote her. We began corresponding and then we met in person on my one of trips to her city. She took me to a café in the now-trendy alleys of Hauz Khas, the old Mughal medieval portion of the city near a reservoir. Hauz = tank of water; Khas = royal. The royal tank. There for the next few hours we cemented our relationship as only a long-seeking brother can for a sister.
Her partner, a gentle man with a soft voice and creativity to spare (filmmaker, writer, organizer) and I felt a kinship. They’d be my friends in college but here I was in my sixties and somehow, over vast distances, we became friends. Many of her friends are mine. I’ve never met them in real life, only on social media. We’ve traded messages, opinions and, rarely, when I say something snarky to one of them, they DM me to ask, like a sister, why I’m getting pissed. All this on that dark and nasty “social media highway” where trolls and hackers camp like thuggees (right, thugs, India’s contribution to the English language).
She had seven cats at one point. How could I not love this woman? She and her partner made short documentaries. Together and separately. They traveled abroad to tour with their films, mainly in universities. We’d have coffee and croissants in Harvard’s architecture school cafeteria without showing IDs (we belonged, right?) and look for sushi bars.
They belonged to a land where knifing someone because of their religion or caste wasn’t an anomaly. As vigilantism mounted in their homeland in recent years, she called for citizen protests through social media and a nationwide series of protests, “Not In My Name”, spread far and wide---without political affiliations or backing. And that was possibly where the glare of state surveillance first landed on these two souls. It intensified, no doubt, as they organized massive food distribution of cooked meals for migrant laborers walking from their cities to their villages when a national ---a national---lockdown was announced with four hours’ notice. The trajectory of public protests as the authorities of their homeland kept introducing more and more stringent and highly undemocratic bills reached pitch point in late 2019 and early 2020. The authorities had a bigger weapon than legislated bills, they had special powers detention laws that could be applied without trial. In that eddy of circumstances, my cat-loving friend and her soft-spoken partner have been swept up.
She’s telling me about what could be the worst-case. My chest is almost ready to explode. I’m holding my breath; my eyes swell with tears. I can’t speak. We hug across the featureless expanse, all three of us.
Amidst the churnings of the last few years, she’s written her first book, a subject that she’d first come across when she was researching a documentary, on tawaifs, the complex courtesans of the Mughal period. Her perspective was not the male gaze, which had been the case before but from the stories of many of these women. She won a big prize too. In it she quotes a song by one of them written in 1921, at the beginning of India’s independence movement:
“You can pluck all the flowers you want
You can destroy the garden that is India
You can try and silence us, throw us into jails
You can kill all those willing to die for the Motherland
But India will no longer remain your prison house
This age brigs with it the call for freedom
No one fears your jail, your oppression
Martyrdom has become for us child’s play
India is our country, we are the children of India
For our mother’s freedom, we will sacrifice our lives.”
I switch off the phone. I let my breath out. The tears roll out in spasms. I close my eyes and see the peaks as the sun eats at the edges of the fog, clearing the air. I wait for my tea and my friends to step into the courtyard again.