She bore the face of Nutan, the film star, and the smile of a Hollywood celebrity. With ringlets of bobcut hair framing her face, she seemed an image of abandon. I envied Prafulla. Not only for her looks but also for her chic. Her mother made all her clothes, in the latest Bombay styles, with puffy sleeves and flouncy skirts.
My mother sewed my clothes too, but she had the annoying habit of leaving just one last detail unfinished. So that my outfits never lived up to the elegant visions of my imagination. No wonder I coveted Prafulla’s mother.
Our mothers were both beautiful. But while my mother was a fragile princess, Prafulla’s mother was a steely queen – she walked around the neighborhood draped in her nine-yard sari with its end looped in between her legs and commanding the admiration of males, females, and children alike. As the leader of the Women’s Association, she organized events such as the women’s running races during the Ganesh festival.
I longed for Prafulla’s life. Whenever we went over to her house, the fragrance of delicacies emanated from her kitchen as she sat on the divan, playing with two fluffy white kittens. She was the only girl I knew who had pets.
Every year, when school ended, she left Nagpur with her family to visit her mamas, maternal uncles. She was the only child I knew who went on a summer vacation.
When the monsoons arrived, Prafulla returned, with a trunkful of new clothes and tales of a Mumbai I had never seen. She would describe the sandcastles on Chowpatty beach, the aroma of bhel from vendors’ carts, the taste of hapoos mangoes on the coast. I would strain to envision the ocean waves but fail to understand their grandeur until years later.
From the age of twelve until our graduation from University, Prafulla and I, along with another friend named Shobha, were inseparable.
If there were dark vignettes lurking around the edges of her exotic life, we did not notice them. The bobcut, I would learn only years later, was her mother’s ploy to console her after the untimely demise of her father.
We never questioned why her mother and siblings assembled binders out of cardboard and glue for some local company. We never pondered the reason a part of her house was rented out. We did not wonder why her mother never offered us the delicacies she prepared unless they were made out of leftovers.
When, after college, Prafulla’s marriage was arranged to a most suitable boy, we thought it the fairy tale ending we’d always expected.
The first inkling of trouble came, when, a couple of years later, I visited her in Mumbai. She was struggling to be a mother and a housewife. Her husband and brother-in-law criticized her constantly.
But soon, I left for the United States. And soon, Prafulla stopped visiting Nagpur. Soon, my parents ceased to have any news of her. Gradually, I lost contact with her.
Until 2015, when, out of the blue, I got an invitation for our first high school reunion. By now, my parents had left this world. The long-lost friendships of my childhood seemed to be all that remained of the past. After a frantic search for her phone number, I was able to reach Prafulla.
“I have so much to tell you,” she said. She begged me to carve out a couple of days of my visit just for her.
Alas, during that hectic week of the reunion, we were constantly surrounded by other people. During the few moments we stole away, I told her of my disastrous first marriage. After a gap of five decades and two continents, she understood me completely. She mentioned her husband’s behavior, her eventual separation, and her strife to obtain a teaching credential to support her children.
Still, we only scratched the surface of our lives. So, with our friends Shobha and Viju, we planned an overnight trip to the Tadoba National Park to relive a decades-ago visit of our youth. In a pagoda set amidst a grove of teak trees, Prafulla told us of the poverty of her childhood, of her mother tailoring her clothes from her cousins’ discarded outfits, of her family constructing cardboard binders to make ends meet.
Such revelations would have been taboo during our youth.
The reason she had been married off at such a young age, she explained, was because her older brother had insisted upon it. As the family patriarch, he saw her as a liability and wanted her out of the house before he himself could get married. She never had an opportunity to build a career.
“I didn’t get to talk to you to my heart’s content,” Prafulla said to me when we parted. “Promise me that next time you will come straight to my house in Thane. Then we will sit together and I will tell you everything.”
Alas, I could not return for subsequent reunions because of family obligations in the US. I sent her my writings but it was not the same. I called her periodically to talk to her, but the long conversations only made us hungry to see one another face to face. I would return to India, I promised her, book a hotel room on Juhu Beach, and stay with her as long as it took to exhaust the stories of our lives.
But then the pandemic came. There was no question now of traveling anywhere. In November, when I heard of a mysterious liver ailment Prafulla had, I called her. Once again, we spoke for hours.
“I never had a chance to talk to you to my heart’s content,” she said.
Those were her last words.
On December 9th, she passed away. A death so far away, it seems unreal, mysterious, unreachable, and unfathomable. I phoned her son but could never fully understand why she had to die so young. I wish I had dropped everything just to see her one last time. Some incident reminds me of my youth and I think “I should tell Prafulla that,” before remembering that I can’t.
Her unspoken words haunt me in the night. The stories she never told rise like phantoms in my imagination, dark and ominous. But then I see her, exquisitely attired in a turquoise blue salwar kameez for our school gathering, in defiance of our principal’s edict to wear only our school uniforms, and I smile. This is how I want to remember Prafulla, a vision of beauty and gumption.
Sarita Sarvate has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.