Dilip D'Souza salutes the memory of a dear friend, who we all mourn today.
The phone rang at 3 one morning. It woke me, and I struggled to say something coherent. The voice on the other end, though, was clear and precise. "It's Varsha", she said. "You must think I'm crazy calling you after so long, and at 3 in the morning."
I mumbled something. As I might have expected with this always direct, always no-nonsense lady, she saw no need for any further apology and went straight on to what she had called about. It was some explosive news she had involving a previous prime minister. "Yeah, I know I used to support the guy then," she said after spelling it out. "But that's why I can see through him and his party now, they're all the same."
And why me? Well, more about that later.
Varsha Bhosle and I were early columnists for Rediff.com -- we're talking about the late '90s and early '00s -- and earned some Internet fame (her) and notoriety (me) for, we were told, being each other's betes noires.
To this day, I run into people who will tell me, with a measure of nostalgia, of some long-ago gathering of friends who'd discuss Varsha's latest eloquent evisceration of something I had written, or mine of hers. ("You pulled my pants off in that last article," she once said to me).
The constant duelling sometimes got to me, I'll admit. Her language and ideological positions, jibes and attitudes -- they sometimes bothered me, I'll admit. (One particular jibe, I think, was not just unjustified, but uncalled for and unforgivable).
But here's the thing. Even while I was bothered, I knew she was doing what any fierce opponent should and must: Forcing me to be clear in my thinking, to spell out my own arguments and reasoning to the best of my abilities. I know I was doing the same to her (how I know, also later). That she pushed me to be at my best is something I am grateful for to this day.
She never came close to persuading me of her positions, and I never came close to persuading her of mine. How could either of those things happen? After all, I thought and still think her positions were -- and it would be a dishonour to Varsha if I pulled my punches here -- utterly repellent. Utterly wrong. After all, she thought the same about mine.
But in the middle of all that, out of the blue, she called. Then she sent me a letter, and I still remember the wonder as I read it. "I don't like your views and I'll always disagree with you," she wrote. "But I respect you too, because I've never known anyone like you."
Soon after that, she came for dinner, twice over a few weeks. She was warm, funny, bright, chatty. Talking to my 90-year-old uncle about all kinds of things, she charmed him no end. She was at home as if we had known each other for years.
She was -- cliched it might be, but it would be a dishonour again if I described her any other way -- sweet. Almost unbelievably affectionate and sweet. "When I come to see you," she said about those dinners, "I'm not looking for an argument. Leave that for us to disagree about in public. I'm just coming to meet you and your family."
When I heard of her suicide attempt in '08, I mailed her a card. "I'm here if you want to talk," I wrote, so she called a few times and we talked. Then, after quite a while, that 3 am call.
"Why are you telling me this, Varsha?" I asked about what she was saying.
"Because you're the only one I can trust with this stuff," she said.
That theme repeated. A few weeks later she called to say she was starting an organization to help street children. She had all kinds of plans that she ran through for me in great detail. She wanted me to be a Trustee.
"Why me, Varsha?" I asked again.
"I already told you!" she snapped.
She called yet again only days after that. Because of some health problem she had, she said, there would be some delay in getting her organization off and running. "But I still want you to be Trustee, ok? Don't forget."
That was the last time I heard from her.
Now Varsha has shot herself. I don't know what demons led her to that terrible step. But I do know a few things.
One: The things she said about respect and trust, given where she was coming from relative to me, spoke of uncommon substance and courage. I don't know that I have them. I don't know too many others who do.
Two: she made me better at what I do. Much better. That simple. It's the highest tribute I can pay her.
Three: It's mutual, Varsha. I never knew anyone like you either.