by Mridula Koshy
My friend, Shakti Bhatt, went too soon. Our friendship was too brief. I remember her daily. When I can pull away from this grief it is because I am pulled by the memory of how huge her brief life was, and how much she gave me. I remember her as a woman who glittered and shared that glitter generously, almost squanderously, with her friends. This is what I wish to honour about her.
When I met Shakti I had not begun to see myself as a writer. It was exhilarating to have her read my writing and pronounce it good. And she did more than that. She sat me down and told me where to submit, how not to be discouraged, how to use a semi-colon correctly. She told me to lie to anyone who got in the way of my writing by telling them I was sitting on a fat contract deliverable in two years. That, she said, would give me enough time to write and make the lie a truth. She was bold that way. She pronounced me a writer, and made me believe her. She asked for that first meeting with me, she pursued it into happening, and she asked to read my writing. She read promptly and emailed immediately to express approval. Then she emailed later in the day, telling me of images that lingered from her reading. Our relationship in the beginning was all about my writing and that was a first for me.
That she saw something in me and knew to build confidence in me was of course part of her generosity. I have since found out that she was similarly generous with many, many others in whom she saw talent and whom she pushed to acknowledge these talents. I have to conclude that this was more than a character trait with her; it was a skill. She was skilled in seeing possibilities in people and in working to bring them out. At the memorial held for Shakti, her friends (many of them unknown to one another) repeated the same stories – of being selected for friendship, of being organized into it (the 'Shakti coffee date'), of being told what best use one could make of one's life. I was not the only one left exhilarated and abashed by her attentions. I was not the only one caught up in her whirlwind productivity. She had projects in the air, and she slotted us as she saw fit into these projects. I had the sense she was building something big, bigger than herself and bigger than me, and that that something was to be free of pettiness.
So I come back to her generosity. The door was always open. It takes a certain intelligence to know that open doors are how one builds community, whether literary or any other. And again, at the memorial, we talked about that open door – both the literal one at D-377 through which I walked to eat up hours of her time listening to her out-loud editorial mind at work on my manuscript, and the figurative one that had her carrying on introductions among one and all, opening up space where there was an absence. Again I have to wonder: was it her kindness or her smarts? And I conclude she was possessed of both.
Shakti Bhatt was beautiful, incredibly so. I wondered how it was that her lips were always so perfectly hued and asked her why she looked like New York in New Delhi. She knew how to take a compliment. She laughed. She was that easy with receiving one. When our friendship moved on to include clothes and shopping I understood her confidence. Why shouldn't she have been confident? Her beauty, no mere accident of biology (although it was that too), was a fundamental expression of her wit and creativity. I remember her trying on a petrol blue vinyl jacket at Sarojini Nagar. So terrible, so fake, but she slouched in it to charming effect and I was all over her to buy it. She didn't. Perhaps slouching all day would not have been fun. Her style - witty, sexy and fun - was singular. Original. And perhaps it is the shallow in me speaking when I say that I number among the many graces I miss, the grace of her stylish ways. I used to describe the clothes I planned to wear in minute detail to her and she would be as absorbed in the meaning of costuming as I. She endorsed self-creation.
Recently I saw pictures of her from her New York days. It hurt to see this evidence of the person in evolution that she was. I had not thought of her that way while she was alive. It makes me miss not only the Shakti I knew but also the one she was becoming.
I cannot leave out of this the place she carved in my children's heart. At least in the case of my then six-year-old son, it went beyond the belief held common to all three of my kids that she was a kid like them, someone to play with. For him, it was a case of enchantment. He fell hard for her and in complete sincerity and innocent in his besottment said of her, "Shakti has so many…." Here he described her with his hands, curving fistfuls of air. Then he added rather judiciously, "I think Jeet must have fun with her." I know my sons have both, each in their time, fallen for me and wished their father out of the picture. The elder one has yet to fall for anyone else. The younger one, apparently his own person in this regard, gave his heart to Shakti, maybe on one of those days playing frisbee, last December in Manali. And once back in Delhi , she responded, taking the time to write him. We set him up with an email account and he wrote at a steady pace in sixteen point emails geared to offer her his kid world where he naturally saw a place for her to romp. And she came and played. I know I loved her then. What else can a mother ask for but for others to love her children? When Shakti died we helped Akshay save the thirty or so emails that traveled back and forth between them into a folder. He named it himself: "Lost." The name speaks to the loss of Shakti and a little bit to the loss of himself. I told Jeet recently, years from now when Akshay moves in the bigger world outside our home, bringing back with him the young women he will love, I will be scanning their faces for Shakti's.
I dreamt of her last night, after going to sleep thinking I would wake and write this. In my dream I had trouble meeting her eyes and felt awkward and sad for her. She looked directly and—it seemed—tiredly at me. She looked as beautiful as she did in life and was wearing a beautiful coat – three-quarter length, rich brown, with a sort of illusory ostrich feather effect to it. She took the coat off and went to my kitchen and returned with a katori of oil which she rubbed on my back. I sat on a stool like a child being prepared for a bath and, instead of bathing, wrote on a tablet of paper.
The cave-dweller (or is it the Shaman in me) wants to believe I saw her and that she was telling me to write. But the me who lives in this century knows this was a visit from the imprint she left in my mind of the enduring kindness and hopefulness she embodied. And yes, in that sense, it was her.