The shock in my face must have been apparent. She smiled wistfully and welcomed me, while I struggled for proper words. She had informed me that she had lost weight rapidly, still I wasn't prepared for this. The only time I had met her earlier was when she came down to Chennai a year and a half back. The change in her appearance was drastic, to say the least.
She put me at ease with her charming smile and took me in.
"I hope you don't mind if I park myself in the bedroom, since it is difficult for me to move about now a days" she said.
"How is the pain?", I asked stupidly.
"Oh it is always there, only the intensity varies from day to day. On days it is bad, it is really bad. Today seems to be better" she answered nonchalantly, almost as if we were discussing the weather.
Then the conversation steered to blogging and we were on safer ground. Her husband joined us and she proudly informed me that he is now a contributor to a music blog on classical Hindustani music. I nodded my head wisely and kept discussing about poetry and blogging and general stuff. She left us alone for a moment, and I turned to him and said, "Sorry Mr. K, hope we aren't boring you with our discussion. I know zilch of any music, leave alone Hindustani music". He smiled gently and said "That's ok. We don't discuss music all the time between us".
The conversation steered off to Madras, and both of them were shocked to know that Woodlands Drive Inn was closed down. "This is unfair, they are closing down all the places that were on our dating list. First Buharis, now Woodlands" she said sadly. K was hearing us out patiently interfering only to correct us now and then. "I think you meant superficial when you said superfluous, Lali" or "I think it was PL 480, not PL 64" when I was talking about wheat imports from US in the 1960s.
She had earlier mentioned that she was on liquid diet since the cancer made it impossible for her to swallow. So, true to form I had taken her half a bottle of Cognac ("Only you can think and do such things" chided my wife). As the evening grew older, Whiskey and Cognac added to the pleasant feeling of a great conversation. She has strong opinions about the quality of writing in blogs, but keeps them to herself. If only she wrote those opinions, we would have blog fights all over the place.
The next day, the maid and the watchman smiled at the familiar face and let me in without questions. We discussed about the progress of her disease, the various treatments she is taking (Along with allopathic medicines , she tried tibetan medicine and couldn't stand the vile black globules, she is now on homeopathy, which seems to be working in alleviating the pain). She was as sharp as ever, playing word games. "My oncologist was referred by my surgeon. The surgeon told me that he had sent many of his patients to this oncologist and they were happy with him. Were is the key word here, Chenthil".
Then we discussed about poetry, classification of poetry in telugu literature (grapes, banana and coconut, in the order of complexity), which modern Indian English poet she thinks is the best (Vikram Seth's Golden Gate), her distaste of cadence less non metered poetry, her appreciation of Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. Her cheeriness almost made me forget that she might be dying till my eyes wandered down to the stump where her toe was.
In one of our email conversations she had praised a young painter friend of hers and went on and on about his painting. She showed me his painting that was displayed prominently in her drawing room. I looked at it, and looked at it. And after a minute said in a small voice, "Honestly Lalita, I can't make out what it means. All I see are bold color strokes in random". Her house made me feel like a philistine - huge library, one book shelf full of mathematics and topology (his), one rack of Cricket books (again his), two shelves of telugu literature (hers), Will Durant and Bertrand Russel (his), all of Shakespeare (theirs).
I sort of gained K's appreciation when I could answer his favorite cricket quiz question - Persons of how many religions have captained Indian cricket team so far. He was pleased when I knew Vijay Hazare was a christian and knew his middle name too - Vijay Samuel Hazare. "You are a real student of cricketing history" he murmured and for some reason I was pleased a lot at this faint praise. We both agreed that though Nirad Chaudhuri's ideas were crazy he was a great writer.
By now it was time for me to leave. I bid good bye to him and she came to see me off. At the doorstep, my composure cracked. I held her hands and said, "I hope that this is not the final farewell, Missus Em. Hope to see you again". She noticed my misty eyes, and hugged me. "Come on, once they fix a stent in my throat and I can take solid food, I will come down to Chennai. We shall have a Masala Dosa in Saravana Bhavan, now that Woodlands Drive In is closed".
Do try to keep your word Missus Em. Don't leave us yet.