12 May, 2007

Days of Shakti

by Kathleen McCaul

I met Shakti on my second day in Delhi, unsure why the hell I had moved to the city. In a blur of unfamiliar faces she immediately stood out, stalking into the room in a bright red tight top, black trousers and killer heels. A take-no-prisoners woman who filled the room despite sitting in a corner. She immediately started smoking, unapologetically. I was a bit scared of her actually, but I still asked for a cigarette and we got talking.

She'd been a journalist, she'd been to Kashmir, like me. We drank wine together and she told me about her husband and New York and asked me how old I was. We were practically the same age but she'd been married for four years. How did she do that? How did she manage to be young and grown-up at the same time? So attached and so free? Shakti seemed very romantic to me.

It was December. I filled my days with trying to work out what the hell I was doing in Delhi and wondering how India could be so cold. I visited Khan market to look at heaters and radios to stop our new flat seeming so empty and lonely. There were Shakti and Jeet filling up a car with two extravagantly huge heaters. Shakti had on her black boots and huge purple sunglasses which went with her lilac lipstick and made her look like a movie star. She was unashamedly glamorous.

"Come," she ordered.

We went to have coffee - well, I had a tea and Shakti had, as always, her thick black coffee. We talked about writing and Delhi and Bombay and we talked about her novel.

"God. Everyone in Delhi is writing a novel!" I said.

"I know," she said, with a half-confident half-smile.

I got busy with commissions and Shakti helped me with a story. She helped me with everything -- where to get a haircut, where to buy T-shirts, where to get good food, where to have fun. We met again and talked about everything and we gossiped about everyone. Our coffees spread into lunches, spread into shopping expeditions, spread into lost afternoons laughing in rickshaws; whole days and nights of hanging out with Shakti. Delhi is a big city with big distances between people and places. Shakti strolled around making it seem smaller.

I think my favourite day with Shakti was when I woke up one morning morose and uninspired. I sat on my sofa glum with the idea of a day spent in front of my solitary laptop; tapping, tapping. I thought Shakti would be busy, but I phoned her and asked if she would come to Old Delhi and review a tea shop with me. She agreed straight away; no "ums" or "ahs" or "maybes". I went round to her light and breezy flat. She gave me a midday breakfast of upma and squirted herself with perfume before we went out. Always a little bit of glamour.

Old Delhi was hot and busy and fumy. We found this miracle teashop, a small quiet wooden pilgrimage site for tea connoisseurs, a few yards away from severed goat heads and piles of deep-fried birds. We sat in the shade of the slatted blinds and tasted tea and talked and talked again. She had this great way of opening her eyes really big and arching her eyebrows and saying "No!" She talked about when she was in Florida and she was a hippy who didn't wear bras. She confessed her biggest crime to me which she made me swear not to tell a soul. I'd like to write it here, the crime was hilarious and pretty bad, but I've promised. We talked about children and our futures and food and what we liked to cook and what we were going to cook for each other. I'd just learnt broccoli and tofu stir-fry. Shakti had lived on it for a year.

We could have just gone back home after we'd both bought our earl grey and green tea, but Shakti was easy and free with her time. Being with her was like being back at university, stealing away from lectures or libraries. You knew you should maybe be working but deeper down you knew having fun with a friend was not only far more pleasant, but far more important and beneficial.

We examined oversized steel juicers and coffee-making machines shining on the roadside. One said Shakti. I got overexcited.

"You have to buy it!"

"Maybe," she said. I think she was probably used to her name, one of India's favourite words, written all over the place. I wasn't and I looked it up on the Internet later. It means power, energy, life-force.

We wandered through the market to the Jama Masjid, examining the oil-filled black woks and the fish heads and the chickens in wooden baskets and the Urdu books. Shakti was as entranced as I was, perhaps more so. She had her phone and was taking pictures and making tiny films and crouching down to talk to children. She bantered charmingly with old bearded shopkeepers and narrated overheard snatches of conversation to me.

"Those two men are arguing about who is going to die first," she told me.

We wandered through the mosque, pigeons flew around us and we talked about Islam and India and political correctness. We held onto each other, climbing up the minaret's narrow, black spiral staircase. We emerged high on the Delhi skyline and squashed in with all the dark boys in their flapping pyjamas and white caps, clinging onto the rail in the tiny tower top. Shakti took more photos and played some tunes; inappropriate hip-hop I think. She'd never been to the Jama Masjid before. We were tourists in the city we lived in. We got a cycle rickshaw back. The sun was just glowing and the shadows were long and we smoked.

"It's days like these that make me think I can still live in this city," she said. And I was so happy.

For me, Shakti was unconventional, creative and clever. She was giving up smoking by reading Anna Karenina. Underneath this immediate brightness, I found a thoughtful softness which made her more special.

She has taught me to be friendlier, more open and more spontaneous. She's taught me to phone friends on a whim, invite people I don't know so well over to mine, and be kind to strangers I meet at parties. I feel I'm a better person for knowing Shakti.

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