My Friend Papaya

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I do not remember the precise moment when we became friends. We went to the same college and she was a few years senior. Most juniors silently admired this affable and bright student, the Premier of Patna Women’s College.

I got to know her better when I came to Delhi for my Post-graduation in 1977.Those days few Bihari girls came to Delhi for studies and along with TukTuk we formed a comfortable threesome in the South Block of the Post- graduate Women’s Hostel in Delhi University. (Meena B as we jokingly called Meena Bhargava joined our group later as the only non-Bihari). Away from home we had found our comfort zone and it was here that we got to know Papiya better amidst extended gossip sessions, trips to Connaught Place , Arts Faculty, Coffee House, Tibetan Monastery, Empire Stores and begging for extra portions of meat or fish and dessert from waiter Sher Singh in the hostel mess. As we slowly became friends with this fun loving warm person the kind who makes you feel at ease, the kind with whom you dare to be yourself we started calling her Papaya lovingly. And it remained that way till the end. For any casual reference also to Papiya would be met with stiff resistance. "And who is that?” she would say. Papaya surely stood out as very special amongst a host of other friends that I made later on. That friendship continued for thirty years with only ups and no downs at all till she was forced to leave. 

We walked together in darkness and light slowly discovering mutual interests, thoughts, likes and dislikes, always trying to make life a little less difficult for each other. We shared our fears and failures, hopes and dreams becoming indispensable to each other. Through words or silence our communication was simple yet strong. Neither distance nor time could diminish our feelings for each other. We were friends for all reasons and all seasons. I loved her both for being what she was as well as what she made out of me. I had once read that “True friends were siblings God forgot to give you.” Papaya was really that. She loved me unconditionally rejoicing in my achievements, comforting me in my crisis, listening to my problems endlessly and counselling me patiently suffusing me with enough strength to fight back worldly woes. She held back nothing and expected nothing in return. She was simply there whenever I needed her. She was a true friend whom we all desire and continuously look for and only the lucky posses. The one who respects your space and freedom, the one you can simply pour out your heart to, the one who shines bright at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Her zest for life always reminded me of Osho the Zen Master’s saying “Be grateful to existence; enjoy the beautiful life that surrounds you. Love-because tomorrow is not certain. Don’t postpone anything beautiful for tomorrow. Live intensely, live totally, here and now.” She was happy despite of everything, living and enjoying the present moment and goading us to do the same. Happiness to her was a voyage and not a destination. She always had a long list of things to do and people to meet. She finished too many things in a short span of time and yet managed friendly “slots” for all she cared for. Unknowingly was she trying to accomplish all the jobs that providence had assigned her? 

Her celebration of life encompassed everything- sharing of daily joys and sorrows, professional advice, checking the new eatery in town, watching a nice movie, buying  new books, going for a good play or music concert ,bringing back thoughtful unexpected little gifts from wherever she went and sending heartfelt messages on all special occasions happy or unhappy or simple chitchat or Khissa. We reveled in the comfort of each other’s friendship savouring every good moment and trying to overlook the bad ones. I cannot even begin to enumerate her traits. One amazing quality was the skill of quickly transcending and transforming negative emotions. She fretted and fumed for a while and then moved on. She gave constant hope to others even if she was not in the best of situations most of the times. She made us look at problems as opportunities and sacrifices as love. Surviving against all odds she was still full of zest and joy blossoming within and inspiring others outside. Amidst the humdrum of daily life we had the liberty to connect with her whenever we wanted. She never complained even if one was eating into her precious time. For, she strongly believed that winning alone was not the most important thing. Helping others to win along even at the cost of slowing down one’s own pace was equally important to her. She understood many things without saying.

Papaya was my friend, philosopher and guide –virtually a soul mate. She was the only one who always kept me in sync with my spiritual self. “Aur ruh kaisi hai?” Her queries always touched my soul. While others made mundane enquiries about my physical health and material well being she was the only one concerned about my spiritual state. All our interactions would finally end on a spiritual note evaluating our personal growth.

Papaya was a role model for many expatriate Biharis who dreamt someday of returning back desiring to live and work in a more congenial and conducive atmosphere. Though teaching and research were her forte she wanted to do many new things-like Photography and making films on her most favourite subject Bihar. But for Papaya Bihar was not merely a subject .It was her passion her commitment. That she was born a Bengali was only incidental. She had many easier options by dint of belonging to that community but she never considered them ever. Be it research, teaching or writing she was Bihar centric. From regional literature, music, films, communities, gender, partition or Diaspora her focus was always Bihar.

Her perspective was both subjective and objective. Subjective because she was a true blue Bihari who wanted a place for Bihar in the academic firmament. Exposed to Delhi and having travelled abroad many of her friends, family and colleagues had taken easier, safer and more lucrative options but that course was not meant for Papaya. Being Bihar centric made her a butt of cruel comments sometimes. She lamented, "People in Delhi call me 'Mofussil' and in Patna they regard me as 'Dilliwali'. I belong neither here nor there."

Essentially all her life she tried to bridge this gap.

She was a true Guru who opened the window of the world on her students with her vast knowledge on a wide range of subjects. Through her innovative methods she taught them to think, analyze and question. She was clinically objective in her academic approach and analysis because she knew that her hypotheses would have to stand the test of time and that her students would have to meet professional challenges outside the classroom. 

Her ghastly murder has jolted many out of their reverie of repatriating to Bihar. If an innocent academic who had harmed nobody and had no vested interests was killed so brutally who else could flourish there is the big question. Nobody can deny that Bihar desperately needs an image makeover and people like Papaya who work quietly, incessantly and selflessly can only facilitate this process. Their invaluable contribution needs to be taken cognizance of so that no well meaning Bihari is ever undeterred in his/her efforts in this violent manner.

Francis Bacon says “The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship” Exactly so. I would be lying if I say I am not suffering and I do not grieve for her whenever the truth dawns upon me that she is actually no more. Other times of the day I carry on thinking everything is fine and that she is there in Patna and one can simply reach out to the phone and connect with her.

Papaya, through falling leaves and changing seasons the ache of losing you lingers on. Life is not the same without you. My first journey after you to your cherished homeland was a difficult one. I set out towards your home without any joy in my heart for the first time. I went empty handed for you were not there to receive my gifts. Your freshly painted home (your retreat as you lovingly called it), the lush green lawns, the garden in bloom, the humdrum of the traffic crossing everything was just the same. Only the gates were locked and you were not there to receive me with open arms. In a haze of tears a host of memories faded in - of the good old days at 168, of Kaku sitting on the verandah roaring Borsha Rani aaya hai (Varsha Rani has come), of Ma sauntering out of the house saying Aye, Aye (Come! Come!) followed by you, TukTuk and Malti. All our animated discussions over myriad issues ranging from "fender to gender" over well cooked lunches by Ma or Aunty Ghosh as you would jokingly call her and Malti successively.

Malti Devi and Papiya GhoshMalti Devi and Papiya GhoshMalti, who kept Ma’s culinary and housekeeping traditions alive. Malti, who never forgot to smile and greet me with a salam. Malti, who made me my first homemade Chiraiya (a container shaped like a bird) of Kajal on Ma’s instruction that you never forgot to bring. I now scrape the Chiraiya stingily to make it last forever wondering why this ten- year -old practice continued even after Ma had to come to such a brutal end. Only Malti proved to be your true companion in both life and death. You both bid adieu to this cruel world together creating an irreparable vacuum in many lives. If you had loved and served each other in life how could you be separated in death? As the red orb of the setting sun reflected its fading light on the closed window- panes of the living room, I retraced my steps back helplessly knowing one precious phase of my life was over and done.  No more looking ahead to your Delhi trips, no more gossip sessions in the room with a view to the lush green lawns of the India International Center, no more getting together with TukTuk and Meena B for relaxed lunches, no more movies, no travel plans, no more gifts, no more counselling, no more discussions "dil se" as you would say on anything, no holding hands till we were doddering and old, no more… no more… no more,… Papaya you were my time- keeper. I do not remember buying a New Year calendar or diary ever. You gifted them to me. The little red 2007 diary given in advance will remain one of my most precious possessions. Alas! The miniature painting Calendar from Cottage Emporium which you always gave me on the new year was not to come.

Initially I always complained to God for taking you away but now quaintly enough, I pause sometimes to thank him also. And profusely at that for bestowing a good friend like you. A friend that others can only dream of having. Never mind if it were for a short time only. After all good times don’t last long. The miracle of having known you today has changed my perspective on life. By going away again you have reinforced two important things - one that life is short and in between meeting deadlines and goals it has to be loved and lived fully. The other is of detachment from this world because attachment leads to untold suffering. We may not interact physically anymore. Yet I feel your presence your “Ruh” the true Sufi that you were always around me. You may have travelled beyond the shores of time but your memories still fill my lonely moments, ”Ujale apni yadoon  ke hamare saath rahne do, Na jane kis gali mein zindagi ki sham ho jaye “ (Let your radiant memories be my cherished companion .Who knows in which blind alley this unpredictable journey of life might end.”

I know I can still touch base with you in your cherished homeland where absorbed by the Panchtatvas (the five elements) your spirit still dwells. And despite the untold suffering inflicted on an unsuspecting and warm person like you and knowing your forgiving nature who harbours no malice towards anyone, I know you have quietly been reborn somewhere in your cherished land to complete your unfinished work while we are still lamenting your loss. It may be curtains for your body but not for your soul and certainly not for your endearing spirit. You will always live in the hearts of your family, friends and students whose lives and souls you touched with love and compassion. Surely the dissolution of body is not the end and as Leo Tolstoy says “And all people live, not by reason of any care they have for themselves, but by the love for them that is in other people.”

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