His emails made me giggle. Four years ago, he wrote: “I am in Toulouse. The skies here keep toying with me. Like yesterday which was generally a beautiful day. I said ‘Great! Today’s a beautiful day’; and walked to an artisanal bakery near my house. But, while I was sitting out in the sun with a pastry, coffee and a short story, some clouds came and rained on me. Five minutes after forcing me up from my seat, the coffee now gone, the pastry now wet, they stopped raining, and let the sun out again. What is this?” His emails also made me a little envious about how well my economist friend described his daily life in France.
In Harsh’s words, Toulouse sounded lovely, almost like paradise. But to him, it wasn’t this French city where he pursued a PhD in, it was the west Delhi neighbourhood of Janakpuri he grew up in, that was truly paradise. He would often tell me how poorly informed I was about his neighbourhood despite being a journalist. I urged him many times to invite me home for a meal, so I can see this allegedly beautiful tree-lined neighbourhood. “Chalo, why not?” he would say with his characteristic hand gesture.
Nine years after we first met, I visited Janakpuri. This was my first time in the six years I had lived in Delhi. I went to meet his parents in a home that had been wrecked by bad news. His father, a retired government officer with kind eyes, told me he had heard about me many times.
The weekend before I met his folks, Harsh had flown to Goa for a holiday to celebrate six years of hard work on his PhD. He collapsed while out for a run, and passed away on the way to the hospital, leaving everyone who knew him devastated. He had turned 31 this January; we celebrated together over pizza, a low-key birthday, just as he liked it. His best friend, who saw it happen in close quarters, made the obligatory phone call. I received mine that Saturday afternoon, while standing in the middle of a small flea market in a city that I had only just moved to, in a country that appeared so sanitised in the way it reacts to its own tragedies.
It took me 24 hours to inch my way closer to India and Delhi, through which I openly bawled on Chinese streets, inside cabs, at the airport, inside the flight. The turbulence merged seamlessly with my thoughts, the abruptness of his end making it even harder to understand. I had lost a parent two decades ago, rather abruptly, but this felt different, gut-wrenching. I grieved, reading old emails of his, and absurdly, a part of my brain recollected every Mandarin sentence I had learned over the past three months.
Our last conversation in March, after I moved to Beijing, stretched for an hour. We spoke about nothing significant. From a seat in the last row of the flight, I scrolled through our last conversation on WhatsApp: a call from him a few days before he died, which I could not take. I texted asking if I can call back. “Yeah, yeah, whenever,” he replied. I assume he had called to tell me he had submitted his PhD, just like he had called everyone else that week. He would show up now that he was free, he had told friends.
I landed in Delhi over 12 hours after he was cremated and went to meet a group of his college friends in a bar he visited occasionally. I let my emotions soil my ex-boyfriend’s shirt — I had first met Harsh through him. Two years ago, Harsh was the one who helped carry two heavy suitcases as I hurriedly fled an emotional crisis. “We are there for you,” he had whispered in the cab on our way to a friend’s place who had generously agreed to put a roof over my head.
In that Defence Colony bar, I had become an honorary Ramjas College alumna, sitting around with Harsh’s friends, classmates, and DU debaters to recollect his jokes, his mannerisms, and his long giraffe-like neck. He was a powerhouse of ideas, a guy who, from his 6’3” perch, made Delhi so much more bearable.
In all the memories we shared together, I am happy for one thing: he visited my version of paradise — Chennai. On a December afternoon, after ambling across Marina Beach, he rang up to ask if he could come over. My aunt made him filter coffee, my grandmother made him watch a religious channel, while instructing me to pour and air out his coffee to make it easier for him to drink. Later, on a long drive on the East Coast Road to a friend’s wedding, Harsh and I chatted about friendship, love, happiness and the impermanence of life.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘That day after everyday: The loss of a loved one is a reminder of the impermanence, and abruptness, of life.’