Immortal for a moment

In dark times, a friendship that helped heal the hearts

The Internet had been Surekha’s stage, where she engaged with causes she believed in. Following her death, people collected there to share stories that featured her joys, angst and generosity

In dark times, a friendship that helped heal the hearts

Natasha Badhwar

I missed all my deadlines last week. I didn’t reply to urgent emails and failed to deliver work commitments. After a while, I could not tell whether I was not functioning because I was anxious, or if I was anxious because I was not being able to function. It was an unfamiliar, emotional terrain.

Last fortnight, I had shared that my friend, S, had been critical with Covid-19 in a hospital. Her name is Surekha, and she died last week. I cannot remember experiencing this kind of shock and grief in my life before — both of which are also clouding my ability to process any other memories, except those of Surekha.

When her condition deteriorated in hospital, a few of us who knew about it wondered how and when we should begin to break the news to others who were her friends. Surekha had been one of the early adopters of Twitter in India and, over the years, she brought to Twitter a spontaneity and creativity that was hard to define, yet magnetic in its appeal. She understood and exploited the best of the platform, using it to engage with and amplify causes, campaigns, ideas and people she believed in. Surekha extended herself freely to reach out to those who she felt would benefit from the interaction. She often described herself as socially anxious and grouchy, yet there was a captivating charm that drew people to her.

I had imagined that there would be an outpouring of tributes and memories but nothing prepared me for the deluge of Surekha stories that people began to share as soon as news of her death spread online. Soon her name was trending on Twitter. Online news portals published her obituaries; and columnists who had been friends wrote in mainstream newspapers about what she meant to them.

The Internet had been her stage, and it seemed only fitting that her people collected there to share their grief as well as personal stories that featured Surekha’s words, joys, angst and reckless generosity.

“With Surekha, there was no mask,” one person said. “She came as herself and others felt safe lowering their own guard with her.”

“She was everyone’s unpaid agent. She would critique your work but also be an unabashed champion of your creativity.”

“You believed the lies she said about you in your praise to the point that the lies became true,” another multi-talented friend shared.

“Considering I interacted with S only a few times, I have been wondering why her death seems to have affected me the way it has,” wrote one person, resonating the feelings of a collective. A pattern began to emerge as we read each other’s words on the common friend who had died so young. Each one of us spoke of a unique, intimate connection with Surekha. Each had felt cherished in this relationship formed via text messages and chats on Twitter DM. She had argued, critiqued, encouraged us.

“This is my friend,” I wrote, sharing a photo of her and me together as we stood at one of the stalls at our daughters’ school fair. “Surekha, the empath, the lover, the carer of people. Surekha, the wounded. The healer.

“She taught me so much, I could spend the rest of my life writing about it. No one can love like her. Although we have nothing left with us now except how to practice being Surekha.”

Exactly a week after her death, her friends and family came together on Zoom to celebrate her love and our sense of bereavement. Many of the friends shared that while they had known Surekha for years, they had not met her in real life. Most of us were seeing each other for the first time. Yet the sense of anguish at her death was so tangible that we were allowing our voices to break and tears to flow in the company of each other. We had loved and lost together.

We all agreed that Surekha would have forbidden this public display of love and adulation. Yet, we had no choice but to be disobedient now.

I learnt from Surekha to always put love and compassion before judgment. To know that everyone is haunted by pain, that we all carry unresolved trauma, but in our own way, we are fighting to emerge from it... Be true to yourself, be forgiving of missed deadlines and help others get in touch with their best selves.

— The writer is a filmmaker & author.


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