Saturday, August 17, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The Best Goodbyes
by Amrita Dhingra

IT was raining but I preferred to walk to the café. The puddles next to the sidewalk reflecting the neon lights bright red, blue, green, yellow. I hurried along wanting to get there as soon as possible.

Happiness. I smiled for the nth time at the audacity of the claim made by the name of our favourite café. Yet it wasn't all that incongruous, happiness seemed to fairly envelop me as I pulled open the glass door and stepped in. The party had already begun. I was late, as usual.


"You're late," accused Gin.

"I know," I said shrugging out of my coat disallowing the pang that said this was probably the last time she was saying it, "Everybody here?"

"Pretty much."

"Well then what are we waiting for — let's have a blast! Let the revelries begin!"

The music was loud, all the better to get to your soul. The lighting was muted and yellow, reflecting softly of the old woodwork of the café. All our friends were there. The ones that were leaving, the ones that were waiting to leave, and the one's that were not. New worlds beckoned but for now there was just tonight and a final, brave attempt to forget all this was passing into history.

"I'll mail you," I shouted over the din to Ginny where we stood getting refills of punch, "I'll mail you often."

She said something that I couldn't quite catch over the music and I made my way back to the dance floor determined to have a good time. And I had a great time. We all did. After the dancing we collapsed on the couches, a bunch of twenty something, bright young kids, riders of the information wave. We played all the usual party games and found out how drunk we all were by trying to say "British Constitution", walking in a straight line and doing the "She sells sea shell on the sea shore " bit.

"You know," said Karan, "They're going to pay me 1.8 lakhs a month."

"No kidding!"

"Yup. Wonderful, isn't it?"

"I'll drink to that," I said, "the wonderful future!"

The laughter engulfed us and the future seemed far away. And we could believe that it was far away. Not there, just around the corner beckoning, luring, casting its spell.

I ran into Ginny again at the punch corner. We didn't say anything. Just drank more punch. Soaked in the atmosphere.

Some people had to be carried home. We had all perhaps had a little too much.

And then it was time to take that cab to the airport.

"I'll write," she said.

"Ya," I said looking out of the window and thinking for the nth time how much I loved the night and the fat, bright moon, "we'll laugh, don't you worry."

And we didn't say how very sad we were or how very hard it would be. We could have been sisters the two of us. We had done so much growing up together. All those years, at school and college, all those hours of talking, laughing, turning our noses up at the world, dealing with illness and tragedy. But we did not say it all because we were adults now and because there was no need. Hard to say things because it is always difficult to leave behind a childhood.

Our families were there, waiting at the airport. There was a harried run to get the luggage trolley, to load the bags, to find the right gate, to jostle through the crowd. There wasn't much time for thinking or talking. Just the urgency about getting things done which was a part of life now that we were adults.

I always thought I would cry. I didn't. Our moms did. And when Ginny had waved goodbye and walked in, I stood there hugging her mom.

I stood outside that departure lounge at IGIA for a long time that night, waiting for the information board to tell me my friend had flown off into the wide blue yonder. I just stood there leaning against the railing, watching people. I watched families huddled together around the person who was leaving, I watched friends talking, laughing, teasing, putting it off till the very last moment. I watched people come out to say goodbye another time. I saw a grown man cry as he hugged his mom again, I watched children not wanting to leave their grandparents, uncles and aunts behind. I watched it all and watched some more. The pilots were dashing, dignified as they arrived. The airhostesses pretty and competent. I watched a young backpacking couple holding hands even while the airport officials checked their passports. As if they would never let go. Ever. And I smiled .

And I thought of all the things we don't say to all the people we love. How we pass this way but once and how we never see the things that really matter. I thought about the future and about my best friend who was sitting there somewhere inside an alien airport waiting to go off to an even more alien country.

And in my own small speck-in-the universe way I tried to figure out the things that were truly important. The mouthwatering salaries, the NRI marriage proposals, the bigger, better life full of technicolor dreams…or something else? The heart that stuck in the throat as you walked away, the tears that you held back with a clenched jaw. New life for old.

Brain drain and remittances didn't figure in weighing in, they jostled for space and lost to the image of the girl who squared her shoulders resolutely and pushed her trolley in. We all knew where she was going, she knew where she was going…to a magical place with that wonder of wonder — clean public loos and the latest BMW convertible. We quickly, efficiently, frowned away all thought of the lunches where you sat all by yourself and bit into your burger. Times when you would give everything you had to have a meaningful talk with a friend. I think we all knew, but we all thought what we were doing was for the best…the best for all concerned. And did we really have a choice…things would be so much better for all concerned. In the grown-up, sensible world where you always looked at the big picture all this didn't matter. And ever since we had learned to grow up, Ginny and I had been looking at the big picture with the best of them.

Standing there, nearly falling over the railing because my feet hurt so bad, I, in my brave new face-the-facts state of mind, wondered if we'd meet again. The same two people. Not the new-life-in-Canada girl meets the new-bureaucrat-in-India girl. But the two girls my mother called dumb and dumber, who drove a car called the Bat mobile and thought they owned the university and all its trees and all its roads. I already knew the answer, didn't I?

Yet there was reluctance, no, rebellion at the thought of giving all this up. Of course it didn't matter, of course we would have given an arm and a leg before we admitted to anyone the uncertainty, the chagrin, the grief, the angst. But that didn't mean there was no rebellion. It wasn't quite so easy to lie down and die.

Especially hard because we knew the road much travelled, especially when you are a girl. You give up your friends and your husband's friends' wives become your friends. A truth universally acknowledged and lived. Where was the problem? Did it matter that we were best friends, blood sisters? You have got to be kidding me.

So somewhere in the face of overwhelming, soul-shaking doubt we tried to find our voice. A voice once strong and rich in laughter, in chuckles and in half-snobbish opinions on weighty matters as boys, fashion statements and poverty in the third world. A voice that had now mellowed down considerably now. To maturity we liked to think, but we knew the truth, didn't we? Cleared our throats and tried to find our voice, our beliefs, our faith.

That was when we decided not to say goodbye. Never to say goodbye. No matter what. To be there for the births of our god-children, to buy each other puppy dogs, to be there for the weddings and funerals, for tears over heartbreaks and shouts of exultation over triumphs. To be there and never say goodbye.

It was past one o'clock when the sign on the flight information board changed, flight TG316 to Bangkok-Taipei-Vancouver had flown off. Overhead the muted roar of the jet engines. Which one was hers, I thought as the parents made last attempts to cauterise emotions, call taxis.

I took a taxi back to the café that night. It was too late, I was too tired to sleep and I was sure I could find some sorry bastard to beat at table tennis. As we rode through the quiet night, we were pretty much by ourselves, the fat old moon and I. And I think he knew why I could still smile as I rested my head against the window. The best friends are the ones that never leave you and the best goodbyes are the ones that are never said.