My friend Vasu

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This heartfelt recollection of a cherished individual is a useful reminder that relationships may be ephemeral, but their effects on our minds and personality are, thankfully, lasting.

Friends are hard to get. Old friends are hard to forget.

In February 2010, sitting next to me during tea time in Rajasthan’s Tilonia village, where he lived and worked as a member of the Social Work Research Centre (SWRC), Vasu smirked, “Most people here are scared of me, you know.” As a hobbyist who challenges smugness, I was quick to take him down a notch,“Oh, please. That's not going to work on me.” Sure, with his towering frame, longish grey hair, and gruff exterior, ‘Vasu Baba’ did seem capable of swallowing a woodpecker alive when he knitted his brows. But then again, our tendency to resort to issuing disclaimers about ourselves is part of our vulnerability. His warning probably meant that he couldn’t be bothered with, as Wodehouse put it, “ordering his behaviour according to the accepted rules of civilised intercourse”. But that didn't change the fact that he was a captivating conversationalist. I could listen to him speak at length and not get bored. After this first tea-table talk we had, I was flattered that he considered me a ‘match’ who could be allowed entry into the friend zone.

It is only when writing this now that I realise our mail exchanges were, curiously, in polite, correct Hindi, although when we met we mostly talked in English. Maybe it was the language of the village that had percolated into our correspondence, since that was where our friendship began and where we would meet. We had met during the Lok Utsav, a festival of traditional Rajasthani music, organised by the SWRC. And music remained a constant motif between us. Having been a guitarist in his youth, he was into a variety of music. I would send him the latest Hindi film songs in which I recognised some musical or lyrical innovation; he introduced me to Alexi Murdoch’s ‘Orange Sky’.

Whenever Rajasthan went through dry spells, concerned for his Tilonia family in particular and for the State in general, he would to ask me to send clouds. I would willfully suspend my disbelief and then resurrect it to fervently add my prayers to his wish. A remarkable number of times, it worked. We shared a solidarity when sick and working, and make plans about when we would meet next. Though he wasn’t usually supposed to travel or exert himself because of his delicate health, on one of his better days he came to Delhi and stayed at my place. Another friend had come over, but Vasu, naturally, was the life of the party, revelling in the conversations and jubilant that he had finally been able to visit the city after so long. He was the one who lived in a village, but his awareness of national and international developments was greater than most of ours. I was once editing a dull, academic book on Sri Lankan political history. When he heard about it, he said he didn’t know much about the issue but what he did think was that —. His elucidation made me take a more active interest in the book.

 

“He taught me how to be accepting of all people and circumstances, and this has been the most valuable lesson I have ever been taught.”

 

I turned to his consistent friendship during the ups and downs in my personal relationships. I wouldn’t share details and he wouldn’t poke and prod. But without saying much he would reassure me with his mere presence. He had that kind of immaculate grace. Indignities disturbed and saddened him. For a free spirit like him, it was difficult to be restricted to one place due to ill health and he would often become irritable and later guilty for having let it show. Worried about something he felt he shouldn’t have said to a couple of people, on World Forgiveness Day (I hadn’t even known such a day existed until then), he wrote to many of us asking for forgiveness for anything hurtful he might have done or said. On days when I was struggling not to get sucked into a quagmire of editorial work, he would patiently enquire after me without feeling offended that I hadn’t been able to reply to his last two mails. As we grow older, we all come to understand how valuable such a person is, who would regularly check in to see if all’s fine with our world. He always spoke about being grateful for the people in his life — his work family in the village; his daughter, son-in-law and grandson; the friends he made while working with the SWRC and his JDs (judwaan dost, or twin friends, who, he said, were like his own extended self), of which I was proud to be one. He would say that as JDs even if we weren’t talking we were connected by ESP (extra-sensory perception).

His friendship was characterised by an absolute generosity of heart. When our theatre group was preparing a play on solar energy, Vasu’s domain of expertise, he was excited and quickly responded to my queries on the subject. Shortly after we first met, I had joined a new workplace and was still getting to know my colleagues. Vasu had the thoughtfulness to send a packet of balushahis to my office, distributing which I said my hello to all the staff members. Seeing the Rajasthani man with a turban who delivered the sweets, my colleagues assumed I was from that State. And in a way I was, thanks to Vasu.

A teacher of mine would talk about how it is easier to give solace to someone in sorrow than to share in their happiness. I sorely miss sharing my happy days with Vasu. When someone passes on, you always find yourself wishing you could have spent more time with them. But, like Vasu, I guess I should count my blessings and remember how fortunate I was to have known him, even as my Bollywood-ish mind imagines him strumming under the orange sky. When I spoke to his daughter Shruthi, she shared this feeling of being exceptionally lucky to have been a part of his life: “He taught me how to be accepting of all people and circumstances, and this has been the most valuable lesson I have ever been taught.”

On one of his birthdays, I had made him a blog, and he wrote over a hundred posts there. These are some lines from his poem titled ‘Snapscapes’:

Sepia prints memories mutations...

Trillions of bubbles in the air

Was it your breath that you blew?

No commotion, softly she comes

The harbinger of all that you dreamt

Daylight beckons, starshine travels...

Picture perfect reams of scenarios

Captured snapscapes.

When I type Vasu’s name, auto-correct tells me to change it to ‘vast’. For a change, auto-correct is not entirely off the mark.

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