It’s not supposed to be this way. But then, one way to look at it is--the way it is, is the way it’s supposed to be.
Barbara Kingsolver, in what is one of my favourite books of all time, Poisonwood Bible, says (paraphrasing here) that if there is one thing that all cultures, everywhere wish, it is that the young should outlive the old.
But we all know only too well that this is only a hope, and there is never any certainty about who departs first.
This part week brought this home rudely, with two young people I knew passing away much, much before their time (and I wonder even as I write this, what is that hubris that suggests we know or understand what ‘their time’ might be?).
One of the great joys and promises of working in a university is interacting with young minds that are full of ideas, plans and promise. While most of this engagement is transient, there are occasions where one forms connections that are more enduring, offering intellectual stimulation and even a rare kind of friendship. These grow beyond the conventional teacher-student transaction and become more interactive, and allow one to learn in new ways, about different ways of thinking and being. I’ve been fortunate to have a handful of such vibrant connections with individuals who were at one time students but have now grown to occupy important spaces in my mind and in my life.
But with every new connection that one forms, there is also the potential of loss. The more people you know and care about, the more people you are going to miss when they go away—either temporarily or permanently (key Cold Play here: “...they’re just living in your head”), having enriched your life with their presence. Of course, one must be thankful for these connections, as they are what sustain the life of the mind and, as one grows older, that of the heart and soul.
Sunil Bhadri was in the second cohort of students I taught at the University of Hyderabad. Due to a set of unfortunate circumstances, he ended up being in the course for an additional year, which meant I had a little more time to get to know him than I did with the average student. He was always the critical voice in the crowd, raising questions that either did not strike the other students or those they hesitated to ask. Passionate about classical music and veering between a desire to become an informed critic and losing himself in its magic, he ended up instead becoming a teacher of media studies. We met just a few times in the 17 years since he graduated, but he was part of a group that was special to me in many ways—they were the first cohort I had engaged with for more than one semester (I was just a visiting lecturer then), and many of them have stayed in touch over these years. Sunil’s health had been failing over the past few years, but even so, the news of his passing last week came as a shock.
Barely three days after this came another jolt, another tragedy. This was a student who had graduated only this year, and with whom my engagement was of the present. Abhishek was in the middle of thinking through his life and his future even as he was in the thick of the now, with all its political and social tangles. Our long conversations—often stretching to two or three hours—ranged from the complexities of gender discourse in the post #MeToo era to the nuances of film criticism and the place of art in creating civic and social consciousness. He had secured a place in a prestigious film criticism workshop in Locarno and came back full of ideas to share. While we only met infrequently after he graduated, we had long email exchanges where he always had recommendations for me on what to listen to or watch, often signing off with links to some of his recent discoveries. The last time we met, about six weeks ago, he was full of plans for the coming year, talking about how he was focusing on studying for the GRE and had discovered the therapeutic pleasures of baking. It was important to him that he balance his family commitments with his own ambitions. The connection with Abhishek was even more surprising because I had taught him only one semester, and had been on sabbatical for much of the remaining year he was in the department.
Another colleague in the university, who had known him well, told me just a couple of weeks ago that he was concerned about Abhishek’s health, and that he had told him to take better care of himself. I’d made a mental note to write asking him how he was doing, and in the manner of most mental note-taking, it soon faded into the background. But then, while one might be concerned about numbers outside the normal range on a blood report, one doesn’t really read fatality into it. Even a week ago, I had forwarded an announcement about a PhD program that I thought he might consider applying to.
As one grows older, you learn to live with absences. There is more time allocated to memory than to anticipated experience. But that doesn’t stop you from feeling sharply, keenly, each time a new absence is created.
This is the last sentence in the last exchange I had with Abhishek:
“I'll leave you with a TM Krishna performance I found today and liked a lot.”