This Article is From Nov 18, 2020

She Fought For Life With A Might That Left Us Breathless

About seven years ago, I defied my acute shyness to make an effort with a stranger. We had just met at a large birthday dinner and stood there, swiping easily between a host of topics to find many of our interests overlapped. Geographically, too, we were on common ground, our houses just a short walk away. "We should get a coffee or drink soon in our neighbourhood," I said as our conversation was winding down. "That is such a Delhi thing to say," she replied," everybody says it and nobody actually does it."

"I will," I said with a self-assuredness that came from such a foreign part of me that I could only assume it would hold good.

It did. A few days later, I texted her and we arranged to meet for dinner at her lovely red-balconied flat. At that first entry into her space, internal and external, we were struck by how much we liked the same things. Her living room lamp was identical to mine. Her sandals, left near her front door, had a set of twins in my closet at home. She had another friend over, a young writer. The three of us talked easily about books and movies and where we liked to travel. When she served dinner, with all sorts of fanciful fare, I said I loved the salad best. "The salad is your favourite?" she asked, incredulously. "It's the caramelised walnuts," I confessed, "I can't stop".

Years later, during a respite from her illness, she celebrated her birthday in her new home, a beautiful space that looked and breathed just like her. There were about 10 invitees. The dinner was, as usual, sublime. I served myself and was about to sit down. "Come with me," she said, leading the way into the kitchen. "Here you go." Onto my salad, she liberally sprinkled a constellation of caramelised walnuts. "I did these for you."

This was the Anjum I knew. This was the Anjum we have all lost. Immeasurably generous, dedicated to making her friends comfortable, a stickler for detail, especially if she thought said detail could in any way make that moment a little more special. It did.

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The unforgettable Anjum

It is my eternal thanksgiving that I forfeited my customary reticence and got, in return, what is indisputably one of life's biggest wins - a friendship so complete and genuine that the absence of it seems one of those hypothetical possibilities that bulk up around 3 am, the rush hour of insomnia, and is cut down to size later by the reliability of a new day announcing itself. The potential disaster recedes. Life takes its next step with you tagging along.

That some day, the night-time monster, too cowardly to survive the early morning light, will stop lurking as Dread and, instead, Do, is where the chain breaks. However temporarily, however benignly or malignantly, break it does.

I was in my late 20s when I lost a close friend. Since then, losses have accumulated, as losses do. Sometimes, it can feel like we are all Russian Dolls walking around, one loss folded into another, undulating within as we move around, trying our hardest not to tip over.

Nothing about what struck Anjum was benign. Her early diagnosis of breast cancer was made by our neighbourhood doctor, who, too, is no longer with us. For the first two years, the cancer was a threat, a danger that was colossal but could be contained.

She changed her life immediately and with the sort of wholesale fastidiousness that was typical of her discerning eye and being as an artist. The picture had changed. There were things that no longer belonged, they would be put back on the shelf with other material that no longer served any purpose for her. She would come over for dinner with us having carefully discussed and finalised the ingredients. If it sounds tedious and un-fun, it wasn't. Not in the least.

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Anjum Singh, architect Ambrish Arora and the writer

Our schedules saw us travelling often to different places. Sometimes on WhatsApp, other times in my mailbox, would arrive a message from her describing what she was painting, doing, reading. For three months, while I was in London for a writing course, she wrote regularly, asking for vivid accounts of my student life as an adult. I would love to write, she said. You can, I replied, just as I would like to paint. You can't, she replied, straight away. We collapsed into laughter at opposite ends of an e-mail thread.

We were the same size, though she liked to inveigle into any relevant conversations the point that she was an inch taller. There was a constant exchange of items between our houses. A sweater she knew I would use more than her, a dress I thought would look better on her (it always did). Books, so many books, migrated between us with follow-up conversations on what parts we had liked and why.

When the cancer doubled down on her, she spent many months in New York. Her dispatches spoke of wigs, hats and window fronts that impressed her on her way to medical appointments. Her impact on people, those who started out as hers and others who enlisted quickly to be hers, is evidenced by the steady troops of friends who travelled to be with her during her illness and hospitalisation at Sloan Kettering; she spoke often about the strength of her parents, her absolute sentinels against her illness, coaxing, inspiring, willing her to get better.

When she did get better, she messaged to say how excited she was about being able to return home. The airline needed a release form, she wrote, she would travel with an oxygen tank. The dots were getting bigger and bigger, we all knew they would insist on being connected. The Dread that would Do, someday.

Upon her return to India, she was careful in how she expended her time and energy. She sent a Save-The-Date months in advance of the opening of her new exhibition. There are others who are far more qualified to discuss her art than me. What she said to me was that this work represented her inner self, not abstractly, but her actual cells, embedded with cancer, pushing to find their way back to life. "I Am Still Here," her exhibition was titled. It opened just as she seemed to have wanted - with a huge audience on a lovely Delhi night followed by reviews of her maturing and authenticity as an artist. She sat, visibly tired, elegant in all-black, at the end of her opening night, watching her art's inter-play with those she liked and admired best.

The months after were a siege of complications and setbacks. Her closest friends handled her treatment, a circle of trust and competent care. She described in a few conversations and messages the force with which chemotherapy would set her down in her bed. Of how Day 2 after it was the worst. Of how, as she tried to surpass the pain, she would think of Day 3. In the spirit of all Day 3s to come, she got a black Labrador whose every antic she related, asking if my Retriever, as a puppy, had been equally bountiful with energy and love. "I can't keep up. I wish I could play more with him," she said of her Rufus. "He knows," I replied.

There is a surfeit of accounts from those who tended to her of her determined fight, her continued affirmation of life, her want of new experiences even as they seemed improbable. That she did not give up ever. That she sparred and fenced with her cancer with a might that left us all breathless. But she did not romanticise or philosophise her pain. "I am worried about how weak you sound," I said to her one day on the phone. "I am too," she said. No frills.

About a month ago, we spent a conversation working on a Netflix playlist for her. What about books, I asked. I don't have the concentration for it, can you send me TinTin and Asterix comics, she said. Their delivery promoted a message of excited thanks. I am laughing, she said. The last time we exchanged messages, I sent her photos of my latest haul of fresh flowers, a fixation for both of us.

The flowers stood not two feet from a sketch she gave me a few years ago for my birthday. "For Soupiness," it says, using the name she drafted for me and only ever called me by. 

In 2014, I took a chance on making friends with an unknown quantity. It meant turning my back on my usual reserve. Nothing much to it, as it turned out - her smile, you see, could colonise an entire island of reserve in a second.

The Dread can at any time materialise into Do. That is its job. Ours? Perhaps it is to take that chance anyway. I hit treasure when I did. We should all be so lucky. 

(Suparna Singh works with NDTV.)

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