If Gauri Lankesh read all the tributes and accolades for her, particularly those that refer to soul and afterlife and heaven, she’s have had a good laugh. Well maybe not a laugh, but at least a chuckle. We had decided in our teens that heaven and hell and afterlife were a lot of b.s. There was enough heaven and hell on earth, and we should just leave god alone – he has enough on his hands – instead of begging him for things like many people do.
But part of our compact was we would not be hurtful to others – including family -- in our youthful irreverence even if we disagreed with their beliefs and practices. We didn’t always succeed – ah, the impetuosity of youth! -- but it was a good principle that served us well later. Which is how even when we divorced 27 years ago, after five years of courtship and five years of marriage, we remained friends, great friends. Part of the compact. Don’t be hurtful. Even to each other.
We met at a school that was the birthplace of the Rationalist Movement of India – National College. Our principal, Dr H.Narasimaiah, and the Sri Lankan rationalist, Dr Abraham Kovoor, were pioneers of the movement, and right from our teens we took to the thrill of questioning and debunking a variety of godmen/women, charlatans, frauds, superstitions etc that abound in India.
More on this another time, but I’m putting this out here early to provide context to the killing. Rationalists and agnostics are in the cross hairs of uber-religious bigots.
One of the first books we read together -- before getting into the weeds (I mean metaphorically) of religion, politics, and life itself -- was Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy. Neither of us was proficient in our mother tongue Kannada (at that time), so we regretfully forsook our own bounteous literature for everything from Wodehouse to Graham Greene, devouring anything that Premier Book Shop’s Mr Shanbhag could produce for us – at a matchless 20 per cent discount (others got 15 per cent). She returned to Kannada years later, but more that soon.
Meanwhile, we “skinned our hearts and skinned our knees, learned of love the ABCs.” Terry Jack’s sappy, saccharine “Seasons in the Sun” has just been released a couple of years before, and we hummed it between Dylan and Beatles. I’d return to Indian music years later; she was tone deaf. We read and laughed at Eric Segal’s Love Story, saw the movies Abba, Saturday Night Fever, and Gandhi on our first dates, and went to the boondocks on moonless nights to see billions and billions of stars and galaxies after reading and watching Carl Sagan.
Feisty wouldn’t even begin to describe her. She hated the fact that I smoked in college. Years later, when I had given it up for a long time, she had begun to smoke. One time, she visited me in U.S (crazy innit? ex-wife visiting me? But she was more friend than ex !) I insisted that she not smoke in the apartment because it was carpeted and the stink wouldn’t go away. It was winter.
“What do you want me to do?”
“If you have to smoke at all, go to the rooftop and smoke.”
“But it’s cold and snowing!”
“You tightass!...I started to smoke because of you!”
“Awww…sorry old girl. I’m asking you to stop.”
“Yeah right. You’ve become too *&^%$#@ American!”
“American has nothing to do with it. Being healthy.”
“Bollocks. I’ll outlive you!”
Many friends were and continued to be bemused by our friendship. Separations and divorces are often messy, bitter and spiteful in India, or anywhere for that matter. We had our moments, but we transcended that quickly, bound by higher ideals. On our day in court, as we stood next to each other and our hands reached out and fingers interlaced. "If you want to go your own ways, better disengage," the lawyer hissed. After it was done and dusted, we went out for lunch at the Taj down MG Road. The restaurant was called Southern Comfort. We laughed and said goodbye as I moved first to Delhi, them Mumbai, then Washington DC. She visited me in each place.
My parents loved her despite her rebellious nature, and remarkably for traditional, orthodox Indian parents, kept in touch with her – and she with them -- even after we went our own ways. One time, when I told her about a budding dalliance, she drew herself to her full height (all of five feet and HALF INCH – she never failed to emphasize the half inch) and said: “Ha! You can never take away the honor of being the first daughter-in-law of the family. When my mother passed away this past February, Gauri Lankesh was there, literally “live casting” me the final rites before I got home.
My ties with her family were as unusual. Through our separation and going our own ways, I continued to meet her dad P.Lankesh, a writer, playwright, film-maker – even after I began living on the U.S., when I visited India. Over a drink or two, we’d debate and argue about politics, religion, literature, movies, farming distress, health, the world. They’d tease me about abandoning the good fight, while I’d argue that it was temporary, and a little time and distance is good for perspective. Where he passed away in 2000, she truly became her father’s daughter, taking over the newspaper he founded and continuing the good fight.
There was no doubt she was left of center, even extreme left of center and there was much we disagreed about. She chewed me up for being an early proponent of technology, saying one time in the 90s, "Stop yammering about cell phones. Our poor can't eat cell phones." I never let her forget it. But her heart was in the right place. Some eight years back, after I had built a new home in Bangalore, she determined that I needed a housekeeper to manage the place. “I am sending someone over,” she declared over the phone. “She’s a widow with two young daughters. Make sure you take care of them and put them through school.”
Ramakka, her gift to us, is still with us; her daughters Asha and Usha both graduated from school, earned degrees, and now work – Asha in Syndicate Bank and Usha in an NGO. There are hundreds of Ashas and Ushas because of Gauri Lankesh.
Right now, between writing this, I am scrambling to get on a plane again, my mind a cauldron of fragmented memories. One phrase keeps repeating and resonating in my mind: Amazing Grace. Forget all other labels: leftist, radical, anti-Hindutva, secular etc. For me, there is just this: My friend, my first love, she was the epitome of Amazing Grace."
(The writer is Times of India’s Washington DC correspondent and former husband of slain journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh)
Gauri Lankesh: The epitome of amazing grace