Although weeks and months have passed, I still find that whenever I think of Shakti I must remind myself that I can't just dash off an email to her. Her mails in my inbox sink, day by day, further into the past. When I try to summarise our meetings over the few years that I knew her, I am astonished at the speed with which she rocketed through life.
When we first met in an espresso bar in Bangalore in 2004, she and her husband Jeet had just returned to India, and as I recall, she had plans to go to Kashmir to shoot a documentary on the poet Agha Shahid Ali.
We met again soon for an evening of drinks at one of those old joints from colonial days that still dot the Cantonment area, then there was a gallery opening and dinner at a Goan-style restaurant, followed by more drinks at an Irish pub. A typically Bangalorean mishmash! And I found out that they were moving to Delhi. Once there she started editing a lifestyle magazine and asked for our contributions (my wife, Anjum, did write a piece on Hampi during the year that followed).
Before I had time to think of writing something myself, I ran into her towards the end of 2005, Christmas shopping in Bangalore's Commercial Street. She was excited to tell me that she had chucked up the magazine job and joined Random House as an editor, and she asked if Anjum or I would like to submit manuscripts for her consideration. At our favourite espresso bar, a few days later, Jeet filled us in on the details - the interview process Shakti had gone through, the 32 book ideas she submitted, the Random House executives who flew down from New York and London to interview her over two and a half hours at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, while Jeet waited outside in the car... Without any previous experience in book publishing, Shakti bagged the job. We were all rather amazed. And to top it off, a few days later she was back in Bangalore, early in the new year, to receive an award for young authors. As a matter of fact, she had written a splendidly well-crafted short story, which made me realise that she was somebody whose literary instinct could always be trusted because she was a writer as well as an editor.
I did ultimately send her my latest novel, after about half a year, when I was done with the editing. This was around the time when Anjum had her book launch in Delhi, and afterwards the party sort of seamlessly shifted to Jeet's and Shakti's Defcol house where we listened to old LPs and ate fruit—what an amazingly healthy cocktail snack!—late into the night. While she did send me an email saying that she'd like to accept my book for publication, she also informed me that she was leaving Random House... to set up her own imprint. The publishing house didn't have a name yet, but she asked me if it was okay to bring the manuscript along with her to the new venture. Already hugely impressed by her, I couldn't but agree.
As her publishing house took firmer shape, she gave it a name—Bracket Books—and asked me to send the latest edit of the book; I noticed that the headquarters of Bracket Books had the same Defcol address as their home in New Delhi. When she acknowledged receiving it, she wrote how great it felt to see, for the first time, the name of her new publishing imprint on a manuscript package. The sheer joy she displayed about being a publisher made me happy at the thought of being published by Bracket Books. She also told me that she had two other novels lined up for Bracket Books' first year—2007—"an edgy urban romance and a thriller based in Pakistan". What she didn't tell me, but I learnt later, was that she was simultaneously penning not one, but three novels of her own.
The last couple of times I met Shakti, in late 2006 and early 2007, she was full of projects. Bracket Books was all set to take off. There was talk of launch campaigns. Shakti said she was interested in acquiring good non-fiction, so I brought along a British writer friend, who happened to be in India doing a stint as a foreign correspondent, to a party at their Defcol house—where I was beginning to feel quite at home. One of Shakti's own short stories had just been selected for the shortlist of a prestigious British competition. Jeet's writing was doing spectacularly well, with several book projects at hand. So much was happening around her.
But March turned to April and she was already somewhere else.
I pass your block all the time and so naturally I think of you and then I think back over this past year and I realize how much I saw of you, how many, many conversations we had, how much of a part of my life here you were.
Most of the people I meet now I feel like I met with you, or through you or at some gathering where you also were. When I see people we both know I feel sad we'll not all be in the same company again.
I think of you a lot. It's been exactly two months. But two months and a day ago you were still here. I thought about calling you that night to see if you were around and wanted a drink, but I didn't. I had worked till late at night and was feeling low-energy. I remember you being amused at how early I could fall asleep.
I first remember meeting you on a rooftop in Nizamuddin and chatting for a really long time, bonding over being ex-New Yorkers. I was so wrapped up in the conversation that I never even had time to notice that there was a shaven-headed man lurking always in the background around you and that you were married.
It suited you so well.
And then we exchanged numbers–as one often does at parties in Delhi. And we met randomly the very next day at brunch in Safdarjung.
I didn't really expect to hear from you–one exchanges so many numbers that sometimes I look through my directory and I don't know who most of those people are–but then you called to make plans to go for coffee, to tell me about a poetry reading, to invite me to hang out when you and Jeet still lived at your mother's. You expanded my life so much in those early days when I didn't know very many people here.
Sometimes I wondered if you weren't too cool for us to be friends. Yes, I know that's a little high school. But I don't think you thought about things like that.
If time went by and I didn't call you, I would hear from you. You were so good at making friends. I think it's because you were a good listener, you were interested in what other people had to say. Sometimes talking to you felt like sharing secrets, even when you weren't, you always had this vaguely conspiratorial air about you.
But I liked that aside from meeting at parties and other things, we met separately and talked. I always came away from those conversations feeling so stimulated, so refreshed. I felt we were both sort of in wonder and awe at where we suddenly were and at our physical surroundings and it was so good to exchange observations with you.
You loved gossip. That's something I'll always remember so fondly about you. You were the nicest gossip ever. You didn't have a mean, "gossipy" way, but you just liked to talk about people and their doings or sometimes their antics. And then you would analyze whether you would do such-and-such a thing yourself if you were in X's place, or what did it mean that so-and-so did that other thing. Sometimes I think it was a way for you to ponder the vagaries of human nature. I'm glad I had a little gossip to share with you the last time we met. I wish I could update you on developments since then.
This is stupid and meaningless but I keep wishing I had treated you to brunch that time.
You had to send back the eggs because they were sweet. The bacon was too salty but we ate it anyway. I complained to the cook that he shouldn't automatically put sugar in the eggs since no one expects it. You said it was very "gujju."
I was late to meet you and you picked me up near the drain in a cycle rickshaw. There was something so funny about that. I just saw you approaching in the cycle rickshaw, telling me to get in, and I remember telling you it was the first time I had ever been picked up in a cycle rickshaw. It seemed so unorthodox. You were wearing a lemon yellow t-shirt and big sunglasses and you looked so well.
I remember one time we were out after you had just been unwell and someone greeted you with, "Shakti! You look so tired!" You weren't impressed.
You gave up dark lipstick and most everyone was pleased. Me too. I didn't really think it suited you, it was just too distracting in your pretty face. But I thought maybe it was a left-over goth thing from earlier days so I didn't comment on it until you dropped it.
You told me in the rickshaw that you had been all around Defence Colony in a cycle rickshaw just to explore it. I liked that.
Once we talked about doing "field trips" in Delhi together. One of the ones I suggested was Darya Ganj. You had already been and you screwed up your nose and said it wasn't all that.
I went later and meant to tell you I agreed but I forgot. We never did go on any field trips together.
I wish I had seen more of you after New Year's. I was a little out-of-touch with most people, distracted by something, which I told you about when we finally had a chance to catch up.
I thought I'd have more time to spend with you.
I'm so sad I'll never get to know you better than I know you now, or to keep knowing you.
One day I was seized with a blind panic that of all the people to fall out of touch with, it couldn't be you, my friend almost from the beginning. I called you up to go for brunch. I thought you'd like the departure from the usual drinks or coffee outing.
Many times I tried to become a bard for her but found my tongue lost to the screams in the mouth of my last night’s dream — the dream where I run to catch the sorrows singing on his homely wall & find them black with my own blood, the dream where things happen without a reason, or logic, or forewarning, & towers fall with no more provocation than a breath of flat air, the dream where I try again to run after & catch the japing sorrows but they fly straight into the premises of a noble spirit, guarded by snakes of dust & sweat & fearsome tears, so I can only look at her cradled between the branches of parijat, wearing a band of 7-colour peacock feathers & a rope of charcoal, & my entreaties to her to remember him go unheard, my summons to our commonalities of age, once love, to no avail, my conjuring of that tangy summer evening disregarded where perfectly formed couplets were spoken & soared before our collective delighted eyes, & I give up & think she has returned to her own species, or else the trace of blue under her eyes will become one day a blue bird resting its head at the tips of the branches, but the thought hurts so much I wake up in a shrieking silence.