Updated: June 17, 2021 8:29:24 am
I never met Surekha Pillai. I do not know her outside my smartphone screen — and yet I grieve for her, as I would an old friend. I am not alone. As news of her death from Covid-19 broke last week, a wave of grief broke on Twitter in India. Hundreds of us mourned the @surekha we knew, leaving reminiscences on her timeline like flowers, and suddenly realising that she had drawn so many of us in a circle of care and love. But who was she? How did she touch so many lives via a Twitter account?
Obituaries demand credentials and achievements, the stuff of “importance”. But human lives, online and offline, are touched by kindness and connection, love and friendship. On Twitter, Surekha was a woman who spread a spendthrift joy by inviting us to share the things she loved — poetry, trees, good food. Not to forget the pictures of hairy Bollywood actors that left you giggling a little too loudly at work. She was goofy and vulnerable, wearing her love for her “little one”, her daughter, on her timeline. She used the word “love” generously, drawing out crusty, inhibited people into giving something of themselves. “There couldn’t be a better love note,” she wrote to me when I sent her a picture of my mother’s fish curry. “You know I’m always here, no”, she told me another time, aware I was struggling with a new city, old betrayals. Surekha was unafraid of giving, and her courage cut away our cynicism. We became a part of Surekha’s world.
If you followed Surekha, you’d feel — perhaps share — her rage at the many injustices of new India. But it was hard to find anyone as magnanimous with her time in fighting for the better. She was a regular at the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and at the hearings of the defamation case that journalist Priya Ramani faced for speaking up about sexual harassment. Her politics was in being present — not only at protests, but in being there for complete strangers. Sending books to young people, pretending to be a detained young man’s mother when the police broke up an anti-CAA protest, taking young people under her wing,making sure they do not break in a harsh world. She was “the person from Twitter who is kind to everyone”. Weeks before she passed away, Surekha — like other volunteers who plunged into the second wave’s crisis — was organising oxygen, verifying leads, amplifying appeals for help.
Around 2009, when many of us discovered Twitter, it was a smaller, more intimate place, where introverts basked in attention, where the too-shy found the confidence of a new persona. Nested in Twitter, away from breaking news and opinion, were hidden whorls of fun in frivolousness, cat videos and food pictures, politics and poetry. Some tweets were notes-to-self sent out into the world. Fragments of who you were, and who you wanted to be. Followers and friendships resulted, some of which spilled out into the real world. Others didn’t — and they were not the lesser for it. Four years ago, when I had abruptly disappeared from social media because my daughter was in the hospital, my Twitter friends checked in — and kept checking in till we were back home. Like all friendships, they mattered because they made you feel seen and held.
Some of that mischief, pleasure and wit survived in Surekha’s Twitter, when much of it had become a snakepit of hate, misinformation and rage. It was a cocoon for the parts of us that remain unsure if the world welcomes their metamorphosis. We have felt that sense of community in the second wave’s devastation, in the attempts to crowdsource the phantom limbs of an uncaring state. In this season of death, our hearts have learnt to hold the grief of strangers — a son bidding goodbye to his mother through a song sung over a video call; or a cancer survivor’s battle against Covid — even if we thought it would break us.
I scroll down Surekha’s timeline: “We read about personal loss and grief of people we don’t know haven’t met and your heart expands each time to hold them and their loved ones, to create space for them to sit with their sorrow in peace.”
Surekha sat with our joys and sorrows. Farewell, friend with a beautiful heart.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 17, 2021 under the title ‘Farewell, @surekha’. email@example.com