If I Had Told This Story to Ankit, He Would Have Told Me Two More
He was too young, too brilliant, too alive, too full of untold stories to die that quick, that tragically.
A million untold stories
I never told this story to Ankit.
My mother’s home was haunted.
After being displaced in his hometown in communal riots, my grandfather bought a house in a Muslim ghetto. This house was a sprawling two-story structure, much like those you would see in the classic TV show Malgudi Days. When it was sold to my grandfather, the former owners told them the house had spirits. Based on their own experiences, they gave very specific instructions to my grandparents about how to respect the space of “other beings” in the house. Apparently, there were several. No child was to sleep near the door or block it. There must always have a space for one person to pass in the hall if someone was to sleep there.
My grandfather didn’t quite believe in ghosts. But he did believe in respecting and leaving ample spaces for all creatures–corporeal or spiritual.
So, these instructions were followed strictly. And the presence of “other beings” was felt often—sometimes quietly, other times noisily. The government tap used to flow at 4 a.m. My mother says we could hear someone—not anyone from their family—turning the tap on, washing their hands and feet, turning the tap off and walking away most every morning.
When she was about 18-years-old and preparing to turn in for the night, the long hall on the first floor, where all children and guests slept in, had about nine people lined up from the stair door to the other end of the wall. My mother was still awake when she heard someone call my grandfather’s name, sat up and saw a man in green clothes, white skull cap and a leather mushk (bag) on his shoulder. He was standing just outside the doors on the last stair. A water-carrier. A Bhishti on the door leading to the hall. But the door leading up to the stairs were always locked at night, my mother thought.
“I am not the one to be scared easily,” my mother says (can confirm), “My heart is made of steel. But that night I was scared down to my toes.”
She pretended to go back to sleep. When she woke up, she told her father what had transpired, and he laughed it off. My mother, to this day, says she saw the Bhishti ka bhoot, ghost of the water-carrier, with her own two eyes.
But the eight people who were sleeping near her heard nothing and told her it couldn’t be. They didn’t believe her.
If I had told this story to Ankit, he wouldn’t have just believed the story, he would have told me at least two similar ones from two different countries or cultures. He believed in all stories well-told. He believed in all things trippy, all things tilismi.
The Sadness of Geography
This is one of those times when you want to have a child’s belief that a note written on a paper plane surrendered to wild winds will take it to the right person. All I can do is write down the story I was meant to tell Ankit here—in a space meant for him—and hope it will reach him like a prayer. There’s no map, no Five-Stages-of-Grief theory for mourning a friend you met online and lost in a different time zone. Does the distance, the lack of physical contact make it easy? No. No, it perhaps adds another messy layer of guilt and helplessness to not see your friend’s face before the fire consumed him.
Even if I had made it on time, I am not sure I would have been allowed at the cremation ground, where I wanted to be. Burying or burning the dead is a man’s job. When my father died, me and my sisters wanted to carry him. Because none of those who carried him nursed him when cancer was eating him alive. We had. None of the people who had carried him had seen him suffer or guessed where it was hurting the most or helped him pee or ran around begging for blood donors. We had. Final rituals are cruel in all religions. Cold mud on a handsome face. A crushed skull for the soul to escape. There’s cruelty in last rites but there’s also closure in them. To use cruelty as a reason to ostracize women from the final rites is weak. No one is better trained to bear cruelty than us. We do it all day, every day, in big and small ways. I didn’t carry nor bury my father. I never saw Ankit burn. So, there’s no end to my grief.
Ankit and I collided on Twitter. Back then, Twitter was very different space from what it is now. It felt more like an eccentric square where, poets, writers and artists would assemble at night and tolerate anything that anyone threw out in the guise of intrigue in 140 characters. Vague jumble of words led to memorable conversations, which led to more conversations, people chimed in politely and benign threads led to real friendships, companionship and community. There were cons who were trying to rob people, trolls trying to ruin lives even back then, but I do remember how beneath the surface there were many who were looking out for each other, reading each other, saving each other and most importantly listening to each other.
Most people that I follow on Twitter, I have known them for almost a decade. Over the years, I have met some and loved them. And I have never met some and I still love them. We share history. We have seen people change, live, die. We have seen people grow from smart tweeters to smart reporters, accomplished authors and acclaimed painters. We have seen public meltdowns, breakups and nasty fights. We have seen marriages and pregnancies of our friends online. Hell, we have watched cricket and soccer world cups and even movies together like one big family huddled in one big living room. We have seen the platform change. We have seen the country change. And some of us are still together. Some of us still nod at each other from across the crowd and can hold a quiet conversation with a single like or tag. We know each other.
Ankit and I knew each other.
But along the winding paths of growth, careers and time zones we took the depth and elegance of our friendship for granted. And we took the chance on the assumption that our whole life was ahead of us. We could play catch up anytime. We could take a rain-check on sharing stories.
“In our quest for perfect people we lose sight of the closest at hand,” He once wrote to me. “In pursuit of Godliness we miss out on the beauty of the earthy, the tangible and the messy.”
When I heard of his death, all I whispered was a single word: No. Over and over again. I didn’t cry till hours later. Then I found myself roaming around the city like a ghost. I remember there was a woman who was unnecessarily rude to me in an elevator because she was waiting for the elevator for a long time and I had entered it first. I wasn’t thinking very clearly that day. So, I argued with her in my own feeble way when all I wanted to do was scream: Quit your bickering. My friend is dead. My friend is dead. Oh God, my friend is dead.
After his death, I had found myself jealous of everyone who knew him and loved him. A lot of people knew him and loved him. At the time, I felt that everyone was racing to claim they were his closest friend. They knew him best. I found myself, quite pathetically, competing with them mentally.
I sent him books, he sent me letters. He told me when he fell in love. Hell, I knew he was in love with someone before he told me he was in love. We sent each other our first drafts. We loved the same songs. We loved the same authors. We were each other’s humraaz, we kept each other’s secrets. I read between his lines. He heard my voice in my written words. That should count, right? That should give me a place in the category of his closest friends. I so wanted to prove to everyone, I was his friend, too. I mattered to him, too.
I know him, too. I knew him. And he knew me.
The fact is I was mostly grieving for the last bit: He knew me. All of me. He read me. All of me. I had lost sight of him. And now he was dead.
“First – Chill – then stupor – then the letting go.”
He taught me how to grieve in a way. Ankit did.
On a cold January night in 2014, weeks after my father’s death, Ankit called and I couldn’t hide from him anymore, couldn’t lie to him. So, I sobbed and told him that my father had passed away. And he had whispered a single word in response: Fuck. I thought it was the most genuine reaction anyone had given me. Especially at a time when everyone was saying the same versions of “have patience” and “time will make it easier” and how “God doesn’t give more than we can bear.” But it was unbearable. It was like a million scrapped knees and a million bleeding wounds and what does one do when someone wants to touch your wound? He did not ask for details. He did not touch my wound. He just stayed close.
I was angry with my father and often felt that I should build a wall with my own hands—brick by brick—only to knock it down and scream at the sky, “WHERE ARE YOU?” Scream, scream till every drop of grief would leave my clenched body.
Ankit encouraged me to write it all down. To make sense of it all. I tried doing the same when he passed away. But it didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t ill. His organs were not failing. He was too young, too brilliant, too alive, too full of untold stories to die that quick, that tragically.
It’s been a year and I am barely scratching at the surface of what I had with him and the loss of it all. The fact that he was a brilliant singularity does not help. He was Heptullah.
“The Last Speaker of His Language”
“I am missing Hindi,” I once told him, acutely homesick. “Can you miss a language – just the flavor of it?”
He recorded and sent “Ganga ke kinaare” by Nazeer Banarasi in a voice note. There have been times when I have heard it on loop for days. He’s alive when I hear his voice. I have numerous voice notes of his first drafts, poems and results of Fal-e-Hafez for all the existential questions I threw at him. He spoke Urdu like he was born to it. I loved Hindi like he loved Urdu. It wasn’t amazing to me that he was so fluent in Urdu but the fact that he really got the romance of it. And then there was his love for Farsi. The love of multiple languages, the constant hunt for things that would tug at heartstrings in a combination of elegant words—both in meaning and pronunciation—drove him and lit him up.
All the evidence I have of his passion is his voice. Agha Shahid Ali wrote, “As I speak, he is freezing my words, he will melt them years later, to listen and listen to the water of my voice when he is the last speaker of his language.”
I am freezing his words.
The last letter he sent me was written on the back of Bhagavad Gita’s shloka and came from Sabarmati Ashram.
“I remember a lot of our conversations have revolved around fears,” he wrote, “I have been facing some of those fears while reading Bapu. Mostly we fear losing someone close to our heart, our self-respect or even worldly objects. But then I think, were any of those ever really ours?”
But the words that sent shivers down my spine were from a birthday mail he sent to me in 2014.
“This day,” Ankit wrote, “I pray that you realize the power within, to be born any day, any moment of your life. We die a thousand deaths in a lifetime, but we can also live a million lives in a lifetime. I hope someday, I will be able to live a life with you.
Or maybe I already have.”