Antra, I know you expect me to write something on the first anniversary of your death. I always wrote to you first and complained that you never write. And you always said “that’s because you’re a writer and you love to write. So stop whining and make sure you write me a nice obituary.” Do you know how difficult it is to summarize in a few lines, the turbulent, rich, stormy, warm and vibrant friendship we had that spanned over thirty years? This, my dearest friend, soul mate and sister – is for you…….
I still remember the first day we met. I was the country ‘bumpkin’, new to Karachi and new to St. Joseph’s college. You were among the ‘elite’ of the college. Well known, popular and good looking. You were also spoilt and status conscious. I don’t know what made you reach out to me – maybe you took pity on my unabashed naivety in the big city – whatever it was, I was more than grateful to grab the hand of friendship extended by you. And I have never let it go.
It was a bonding of the spirit that was to last a lifetime. When I think about it in retrospect, it was a strange and unusual liaison. We were as different as summer and winter. You were unashamedly curious about people – I lived in a cocoon; I came from a conservative middle class family – you wore expensive clothes, owned exotic perfumes and were a socialite; I had many limitations on my lifestyle – you were free as a bird. But I looked up to you. You sort of took me under your wing and tried to smarten me up. I still recall the day you dragged me to the beauty parlour and had my waist length (but unruly) hair chopped to shoulder length. I looked in the mirror continuously to find the old me. You also helped me get a new wardrobe. You had a lot of say in molding my personality in those days and I accepted it because you were my friend and that was the most important thing in my life.
The fact that you were from a Bengali Hindu family and I am Muslim, did not faze us in any way. We were a strange blend – you would keep rozas and celebrate Eid with me and on your meatless days, I would share daal, bhaat with you and your family. Religion was never a bar to our friendship. Ammie accepted you as my close friend but made it clear that apart from your house, there were not too many places I could go without a chaperon. You of course, had a chaperon. Your fiancé, who you told me was a cousin!! I was so stupid, I believed you! Everyone in college except me knew what was going on. I could never understand what you saw in him but made a great effort to like him because of you. The feeling was mutual because I don’t think he cared much for me either and tolerated me because of you.
Your father, Baba, on the other hand, was very fond of me. Maybe I was seeking a ‘father’ figure in him, because my own father was dead, the same way you subconsciously found a mother’s love in Ammie. And of course, on the outlying borders of our friendship was your young brother, a pest in those days and Bebe and Bhaya (my older sister and brother) on my side. Soon you knew everyone in my family and vice-versa.
I never got a chance to tell you this, but I was committed to this
|friendship from the beginning. If Bhaya or Bebe tried to comment on your modern way of life, or your daring dressing, I stood up for you and supported you with all my heart and soul. I guess I had accepted that in every relationship, there has to be a ‘giver’ and a ‘taker’. I had willingly opted to become the giver and I think, over a span of thirty odd years it remained the same. I have to admit there has been great joy in this friendship – the hours we spent talking and philosophizing about life, love and laughter. I learnt a lot about real life from you. Remember the days we would come home from college, collapse on the sofa in your house, listen to soul music and talk non-stop? Baba commented that we talk at the same time and no one listens to the other – but he was wrong. We did listen. It was very important to listen to each other because our opinions were what mattered most to us in those days. We were selfish and self-opinionated like all other teenagers.
Over a period of time, we became inseparable. We went to college, came home, shopped, gossiped, talked, studied and were together 24 hours a day. Although you had other friends, I was the permanent side to the triangle. You went to many parties where I was not allowed to go, but I was happy to just see your new clothes and hear about it from you. You had all the freedom and things that I could not have – except for a mother. You never expressed any feelings about lack of a mother in your life. I don’t think you even recalled what it was like to have one because your mother had died when you were a child. However, you took to my mother and soon you were like another child in my house. In retrospect, I can see that my other two siblings were rather jealous of you and the attention you got from my mother and I. They could see that I was totally influenced by you but they did not dislike you.
You were the first one in our class to travel to England to meet your future in-laws and then get married. By this time I had accepted that your ‘cousin’ was really your fiancé, the dashing Dr. Anwar Ali. Your wedding was fun but traumatic. Since you had no relatives, we took it upon ourselves to get everything done. Remember how the dupatta in your shaadi ka jora didn’t match the gharara? We were so scared, we didn’t tell anyone! Then Ammie decided that you had to become Muslim and arrived with the Maulana on the day of your ‘Mehendi’. Baba did not object because you were marrying a Muslim so your given Muslim name became Aneeta. The funniest incident was when someone called Anwar on your honeymoon and asked “Is Raheel with the two of you?” – he was livid and always related that incident, even 20 years later. Then you left for England and I was left in a vacuum without a friend to turn to. Due to the depth of our friendship, I never made another close friend. The day you left I cried and howled so much that your father and my mother were astonished at the intensity of my despair.
You settled in England and proceeded to become a “pukka” housewife. I, too got married and visited you. Luckily Anwar and Sohail hit off right away and our friendship was clinched. I found myself spending more time with you in Birmingham, than with my own siblings in Karachi. I was there for the birth of all four of your children. You used to wait for me to arrive, hand me the latest baby and say “okay, now I can sleep and Raheel khala will look after you”. I loved it. I was truly a “khala” to your kids and even Anwar had grudgingly accepted me as the “saali” he never had. He always welcomed me warmly but warned me that if, in our gup shup, he missed a regular meal, there would be hell to pay. Of course, we talked non-stop and I remember that I always lost my voice in two days and Anwar would give me throat medicine and threaten us with dire consequences – but secretly he loved the hangama. Life at your house was always one big party. All your friends knew us as sisters. Every time there was a crisis in your life, you’d call me to come and do a ‘Quran Khatam’ and for all happy occasions, I organized the milaad for you. You were so proud of me and would immediately call everyone and announce
You saved up all your secrets, gossip and worries to tell me and we used to talk all night. The kids were surprised at our closeness. Once your daughter, Narmeen asked us if we ever fought and I remember your telling her “the true test of our friendship is that we can say whatever we like to each other, fight and still remain best friends. You kids will never have a relationship like ours.” During this period Ammie died and you grieved for her the way I did – like losing a mother, because every time she wrote to me, she used to write to you as well.
You and Anwar used to fret over my lack of kids – when I had my first son both of you rejoiced. When I was expecting my younger son, I came to you and stayed for six months. This was when Baba died in Bangladesh under stressful circumstances. You left for Dacca and met up with your brother after many years. In Baba’s death, the two of you found each other again, because he was the only blood relative you had. This is when I realized how inwardly strong you are because you weathered this crisis stoically although I knew you were hurting inside.
Many good things in our life originated from your house. The birth of Zain, my younger son and our immigration to Canada are two of them. You and Anwar shared in our joy. Some of the happiest times in my life were spent with you. Across the Atlantic, our friendship grew more solid. You came to visit me, Narmeen came and of course I continued to go whenever I could.
In 1992, I saw the film “Beaches” in Toronto and I called you to see it. I recall that you immediately called me back and said that you were the one who would die and would I look after your kids? I joked “No, of course not, because if I die first, I don’t want you to look after my kids”. Both of us sniffled and then laughed at our own stupidity.
We had the best of times, Antra and although our relationship was not one in which we ever became sentimental with each other, I think you know how much I miss you. Not a day passes when I don’t think of you or think about all the little news items I have to share with you. Your children are now the only link we have and I wish they were here with me. Maybe I didn’t have daughters of my own because I your daughters like they were my own. You do know that I care for them very deeply and will always look out for them.
Perhaps the most painful thing I ever did in my life, was to put away your personal things and itemize your jewellery. I had always told your girls about the wedding dress episode and sure enough when we unpacked your shaadi ka jora after 30 years, the dupatta and gharara did not match. In your bedside drawer were letters I had written you from day one, every cutting and pictures I had sent. That’s when I knew that you also cared for me deeply as a friend and sister – but you never said anything. Among your jewellery were some pieces of your mother’s that I knew you had, there were the little trinkets you had collected for your daughters and of course some jewellery that we had made alike. Your girls gave me some of your clothes which I wear with great love and reverence.
Was ours the friendship of a lifetime? I don’t know. All I know is that it was unique and that you have left a vacumn in my life that no one can fill. Ours was more than a friendship – we were soul mates and soul sisters.
Farewell my friend – I miss you and I always will.
In May 1995, Antra was diagnosed as having low grade lymphoma with 99% chances of recovery. I went to see her and we found that we were both touchy and sensitive – we talked about the ‘good ol days’ and cried a lot. I sensed that this trip was different from the others but could not pin-point the problem. I came back and Antra started deteriorating but she didn’t tell me. I would call and write and I worried but never even suspected that her health was so bad. She was always like a rock, strong, so alive, so overpowering – how could anything ever happen to Antra? Every time I asked Anwar, he said “she’ doing well – great chance of recovery”. End of October, he called and said “she’s going fast. Come and see her”. On October 29, Sohail and I flew to England to see her. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she saw us and burst into tears. She was a skeleton – already a dead body and I was not prepared for this shock. Still her spirit was so strong that she came home from the hospital for that weekend and what a soulful and touching weekend we had with me sitting by her side the entire time. We cried a lot but she had hope. The kids were subdued and sad. When we dropped Antra at the hospital on Monday, I knew it was goodbye, but I did not say it. I hugged her for the last time, and I wanted to say “kaha suna maaf kar daina” but the words stuck in my throat.
Three weeks later, on November 23, 1995, Antra died, free from her agony and pain. I went to bid my last farewell and found myself in the agonizing process of helping prepare her ‘kafan’, the same way I had dressed her as a bride. Antra died a believing, practicing Muslim, and more than a thousand people attended her namaz-e-janaaza. Anwar and the children were shattered.
Nine weeks later, on February 4, 1996 Anwar died of a heart attack.
Today Anwar and Antra Ali are buried side by side in a graveyard in Birmingham where fresh flowers are put every week. They leave behind to grieve for them, Narmeen 23, Meena 19, Shehla 17, Razi 15 ……. and me.