We were probably fifteen when we first met. I had moved to her school. And my first ever thought on seeing her was….”Wow! She’s gorgeous.” Even in those loose-fitting pale beige trousers and white shirts that was our school uniform, Heema stood out. As one of the most beautiful people I’d ever seen till then. Little was I to know that this particular brand of beauty went all the way down to her soul.
Heema was one of the few people who told me that they read my blog, a project I had started with very low confidence and very low expectations. She was one of the handful of people who bothered to read all that I put up and personally comment. And her interest encouraged me to write more. So it is befitting that she finds a place here.
When I think of Heema, the first image I get is of her dressed up for Navratri. Come hail or high water, she wouldn’t miss dancing on even one night of that nine nights festival. She would dress-up, like, literally, picture perfect dress-up, with matching jewelry, exquisitely picked chaniya-choli and accessories and go to play. She probably won whatever contests happened in her area each year. Even after a hard day at work with impossible deadlines on the next, I’ve known her to not miss this festival. And that is the spirit and gusto with which she lived her life as well.
Life probably wasn’t that easy for her. She had her share of struggles growing up and I learnt a thing or two about financing and saving from her. There is the mythical story of Shravan that we heard during childhood. Shravan, who carried his blind parents on a large sized scale for their spiritual journey. Shravan the ideal son as we were taught. Somedays I’ve known Heema to be the modern-day Shravan. Being an only child, I’ve seen her serve her parents as few kids her age would. I know I didn’t.
I’ve learnt a lot from her but the thing that tops the list is the grace to ask for help when needed. A lot of us often hold back on life and end up struggling unnecessarily because we’re too shy or too egoistic to ask for help and grow out of our bad times. I’ve seen Heema overcome this false ego and take help when needed and grow and give back a hundredfold more to her community and her society. That grace, believe me, is rare and unique.
I remember, in school, she would be one of the two most active girls from our class. Participating in dance, sports, I guess plays even, I don’t recollect. But I do have memories of her dazzling people from the stage. Now that I think about it, I’ve never known her to say “No” to any new experience. She was adventurous. A different kind of adventurous. The kind that says “Chalo…try kariye…” adventurous. As we grew up, I’ve known her to take up any job that provided an opportunity to earn and learn. And I guess that’s what made her a great teacher. Yes, she was a literal teacher for a large part of her life. I think she’s taught people as young as four and as old as undergrads.
And her commitment to her work was commendable. Whatever role she took up, she enjoyed and she learnt. She was an electrical engineer and when life gave her a chance, she chose to pursue masters in that field. I remember her talking very passionately about her time at MS University. Her projects, her subjects.
At that, I would say her second name could be “Passion”. Whatever she did, she infused it with her passion. I guess that is because she was passionate about life, the good, the bad, the ugly and the great. She embraced all of it and lived each phase with passion.
For most part of our lives, we were in different cities, different colleges, different work places. But she always kept in touch. I don’t remember a birthday that she missed texting or calling. And she would call, just like that, to check-in, for no reason. As good friends do. A thing I don’t do. Not often enough.
Of all the time I’ve known Heema, I’ve seen her to be happiest, most carefree in the last five years. I am glad that for all the things destiny didn’t give her, it gave her true love. And I, romantic that I am, do not use that phrase lightly. Heema was lucky, in that, she found genuinely true love at a very young age. A love that the universe created, sometimes, I think, for her, as payback for all her struggles. A love that dreams are made of. And five years back, after taking care of a lot of her responsibilities, she finally married her love. The last photo that I have of her, is in the week of her wedding when she was passing by Bangalore on her way to Mysore. She was still wearing the traditional set of red and gold bangles with a simple floral shirt and jeans, hair lose, grey-green eyes, shining like never before, standing in the midst of huge fully bloomed red roses that were growing in the garden of that hotel, smiling, a smile that began in her eyes. Metaphorical that picture is. A rose, amongst roses.
In the years that followed, we lost touch, except for birthdays. We would miss each other every time she passed by Bangalore as her time was now split between two sets of parents, work and a very loving husband.
Till last September. And then our banter continued as if there hadn’t been a gap of half a decade. She would share her pictures of Seattle, of fall, of snow of lights, of festivals.
And then life just flipped on her. Just like that, she got diagnosed with an impossible cancer. I sometimes still scrawl through her texts and every time I reach January 18, my stomach caves. In the days that followed, I got to know her more than I did in the decade and half that I’d known her. She had grown into a richer, a much more beautiful person, if that is even possible. I think stability, security and love did that to her. She shared smaller stories of how she got a tattoo, how they painted their house, how she was a great cook. Through her endless visits to the ER and ICU and her surgery and all the ups and downs of the various diagnosis, she kept talking, telling, consoling, reading, informing. Never once did she say she was tired of the fight. Never once did she say she wanted to give up. She was so incredibly positive and so hopeful that it was infectious. She would find joy in little things like the fact that she could keep her hair through the surgery and the plaits the nurse tied for her. She would describe the view outside her hospital room window and the nurse of that visit. She would be angry when the hospital didn’t treat her right and sad about the fact that her family couldn’t visit. But never once did she talk about pain or death.
And I guess that’s what kept her family sane. Two sets of parents, a husband and four couples who had become their family in Seattle. In fact, she was so full of life and hope, that when I asked her if I could get her anything from India, pat came a nice long list. Her cousin brought her some amazing chaniya-choli for this Navratri, her masi got chunda and spices, I got her some bandhni tops and snacks. She would send me tips about finding homes in Atlanta, things to do, things to carry. She checked on me every step of the way from the time I left home to the time I reached my hotel. All through her visits to the hospital. And in the weeks that followed she would look up flights that I could take to Seattle and send me tips for buying stuff. If I’d not known of her struggles, I wouldn’t have imagined the pain or horror she was facing each day.
And I kept thinking I have time to get her stuff to her. Till one day, I didn’t. Of all my texts to her, my last text to her was “Hm”. Nothing…just “Hm”… I had asked how she was feeling and for a change she accepted that she wasn’t feeling that great and all I could muster was a “Hm”….
Last week I finally did go to her home. A beautiful haven that she and her husband built. Every corner, every piece of décor, every wall reflected a part of her. And I handed over her things to her broken parents, relived some hazy memories and got to spend some time with the people who were closest to her.
Some very touching phrases were spoken at her funeral. She left this world in the midst of mountains, near a lake, in a very beautiful and peaceful part of the globe, on the shoulders of people who truly loved and adored her. As I stood there, holding her shattered mom, I said good-bye and the only silver lining I saw in that gloom was the fact that she escaped what would just have been a longer and terribly brutal storm of pain.
The pandit who performed her last rites, told us that we should just send her off with peace. Like she took a flight from Bangalore to Seattle, she had just boarded a flight from this world to the next. And in the world where she was going, she was going to continue to spread her goodness and joy. In a strange way, that thought was comforting. That maybe, unlike us, unlike her family, who was going to have to bear this unbearable grief, she had passed her test of life earlier and easier and so she was ahead. Like good people are supposed to be.
Anyways, today is the thirteenth day since her passing. I don’t know much of religion or souls or life or death, but I’d read somewhere that the soul lingers on in the world to wrap up it’s open tasks for thirteen days before it’s journey beyond. And so, it felt right to bid her adieu. With words, which is all I have to give to someone so gorgeous and kind and compassionate and just plain simple nice.
Dylan Thomas, in his famous poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” seems to have been describing Heema’s last few weeks in this world where she inspired so many of us as she raged and fought and gorged and punched and clawed at death …
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.