The late 90’s. As the afternoon drew to a close the cyclone warnings came alive. The wind howled like a banshee. With Sid stuck at work and unable to get home, it was not pleasant to be alone in the gathering noisy gloom.
Prem called to check on us. Once he knew Sid was safe at the factory, he insisted I go to them for the evening rather than stay alone. He stopped on his way home and picked me up. A scant few minutes of driving, we found most roads blocked by fallen trees. As we crossed Gigi’s school he slowed down. Neither of us really remember why. After all, I had seen that building numerous times. He said something like “look inside” – perhaps it was the Christmas decorations he wanted me to notice. Picking up speed, a split second later he slammed the brakes. A massive old tree came crashing down – the branches brushing the bonnet of the car. If he had not slowed down at the school gate, we’d have been crushed. Ever since he has said to me and others “we lived that day for a reason. We yet have something to do on Earth”. And I agree – wholeheartedly.
That is one memory. There are others. So many others.
“Kya peeyogi aaj” – what will you drink today? Every evening we have ever spent together at their home, we have been asked this question. For more than a quarter of a century. Often I replied, “kuch nahin” – nothing. Till one day he queried “are you sure?” Surprised, I assured him I was. And he hands me a bottle of whiskey called “Kuch Nahin”! The joke was repeated as recently as Christmas 2019!
I had once expressed a wish to visit the ruins of the Alhambara fort. For some reason I do not remember, the two of us were driving down from Madras and he suddenly turned off the road. “You have always wanted to see this place. Let’s do it today”. That hour of clambering around was magical.
Prem has ferried me around Pondicherry on his Scooty. I’ve been his companion when he wants to go buy beer, bread or bananas! He has taken me clothes shopping, gift shopping, grocery shopping. Simply because. And Gigi, always, always gives me that beautiful smile, sometimes a list and an “enjoy yourself”. Once in a while she joins us, often she leaves it to us. And when we come back – the table is laid, the most appetising aromas are wafting from her kitchen and she is sitting, relaxed, as if a Genie has waved a wand and done all the work for her!
Together, the four of us have explored plant nurseries and new restaurants. We have picnicked on beaches and pottered around handicraft exhibitions.We have done long drives across the country for a few holidays.
Gigi and Prem are the people who re-kindled in me the joy of celebrating Christmas. She makes the most delicious Christmas cakes with her own unique recipe. The special ingredients, of course, are the fruits soaked in rum a few weeks to a couple months before it is baked. I remember, one year, Prem was travelling. Gigi could find no rum in his stash. So we pretty much emptied everything that had a “few drops” at the bottom into the fruit bowl. It was the best cake ever! And Prem complained unceasingly about his precious hoard being raided by unappreciative women – until he bit into that cake!
Travelling the world as part of his job, he would get me Christmas decorations for my tree just the same as for Gigi. And those decorations are some of my most prized possessions – set out each year since he gave them to me.
He would return from his trips abroad and enthral us with his experiences. He would tell us all about the people he met and made friends with. Often we have teased him about his numerous “girlfriends” whom he kept in touch with regularly. His daily forwards of philosophy and jokes often got my inbox full and I have told him “stop! Let me get back to wifi coverage before you spam my inbox again!” I have hundreds – no, thousands – of unread messages that will keep me occupied for years to come.
We have had innumerable arguments over petty issues. Our squabbles always end with his saying “Let us agree to disagree”! Those make for special memories too. It is also a life lesson.
Prem has taught us the joy in being extra particular while cooking – especially a signature dish. He has taught us to appreciate the difference in flavour between chopping an ingredient and grinding it to a paste. We have in our collection some of those classic recipes of his. He’s shared his most special wines and liqueurs with us. We have spent many happy hours around their kitchen and dining tables. We have sat together evening after evening, glass in hand – mine often containing water or juice! – listening to old Hindi film songs on his prized “WorldSpace”.
Those same wonderful songs played on his and our car audio systems. He would sing along – as we drove – the melody perfect and the words gibberish! Another standing joke. Prem will sing whatever word comes into his head at that moment to that tune. And his invariable answer to our admonitions, “You recognise the song, don’t you”?
Once, for three whole months, I lived with them – when Sid was transferred out of Pondicherry and I wanted to make that one last Tanjore Painting. Four times a day he would drop me and pick me up, six days a week. That alone ensured I had a wonderful home-cooked lunch everyday, a short rest and lots of happy evenings together. And a painting.
After we moved away, he has never let us feel that we have left Pondicherry behind.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve asked him to buy me all my favourite handicrafts from this store or that – bed linen, marbled silk, candles, incense, hand made paper, perfume, medicated oils – he’s bought and couriered all these to me.
Visiting Pondicherry has always felt like going home. Sometimes we have stayed with them. Sometimes at a hotel around the corner. But it is always their home that has been the centre of our activity.
Prem has teased me mercilessly about being robbed by the “outrageous” prices at FabIndia – “daylight robbery!” And yet he has taken me to shop there every single time.
He calls the manager of an old haunt of ours – Hotel Surguru – and asks them to ensure that my favourite “khaara kozhamb” is on the menu for lunch. Every single time we visit.
Gigi and Prem are the heart of our attachment to this little town where we began and grew our marriage. They have patiently listened to us whine, cry, laugh, given us advice and often administered the much-needed kick. These two people and their wonderful son are what decades of our happy memories are made of.
They have been our friends, our companions, our family – sister and brother, surrogate parents. There is no one word I know of that describes our relationship.
Perhaps my most special memory is of Prem telling me – in the early days of our marriage when Kunal was still a baby – “Have a daughter just like you and Kunal can marry her”. Not once did I doubt that the daughter would be blissfully happy and blessed in their home. Some things are not meant to be. That daughter never happened.
And today. Today Prem has finally decided that his purpose on earth is served. I am left to complete my part of that long-standing unfinished job the tree spared us for.
All of us whose lives you touched, will miss you, Prem. Yet, you will be an integral part of each of us. Always. As you said to us, the last time we met “Ciao!”