Sama and I went to bookstores.
It seemed only natural, given that we both loved reading. In our five years of friendship, this was a dedicated ritual: something that we did often and in every city we would meet in. On an afternoon in either Mumbai (her city) or Singapore (mine), we would peruse through shelves as we spoke about our lives, leaving hours later, after we had selected a book or two. We would repeat this ritual every few months, when we finally had the chance to meet in person again and resume our friendship just as we had left it. The most vivid memories I have of us somehow always has a bookstore in the backdrop. Books and their various environments were a part of us — the unit that was Sama and Meera. I thought these were things we would share forever.
From the start of our friendship, as teenagers meeting in school in Mumbai, words were present. We lived in the same city for only a few short months but somehow, through our many shared loves, she remained with me. For her 16th birthday, I flew back to Mumbai, taking with me two copies of The Soul of Rumi — bright red editions of poetry by the Sufi mystic, concerning everything from God to growth to grief. I still remember the Polaroid picture we took in her room on the eve of her special day, with our books by our sides, smiling in our pajamas. This began yet another literary tradition — reading the same book, together. Years later, for instance, we bought two slim volumes of Pablo Neruda’s poetry collection and vowed to read them alongside each other. The two of us had been oceans apart, leading incredibly and increasingly different lives, but always found that there was a mutual, guiding force that would keep us connected. Of course, there were other foundations to this friendship. Her nickname for me was ‘My Other Half.’ We were united by our fierce relationships with our respective sisters, our growing ambitions, our love for the Bombay Bicycle Club, and our affinity towards art in all its forms. Above all, however, we found a different and distinctive solace in literature.
In August 2018, just a month shy of her twentieth birthday, Sama died in an accident in Amsterdam. I still remember it word-for-word when I got the news over the phone. Every aspect of my life shifted in an instant. Sama had always been a part of my vision of the future — she would be my bridesmaid at my wedding, and vice-versa, we would have continued our tradition of coffee-drinking and bookstore-hopping, in whichever corner of the world we found ourselves in. I would text her every few days and call her every few months. Abruptly, our rituals and the dreams I had with her were torn away from me.
“I would read and re-read these conversations, as if rummaging in an overcrowded drawer for something I’d lost.”
The first few months after she died were a blur of mourning, with grief manifesting itself in every possible way. I was unable to drink a sip of water or walk across the street without her loss following me. I would frequent our messages often. Days were spent looking through our texts — remembering how she spoke, recalling our many conversations, and trying to make sense of a life that no longer included her physical presence. We spoke about memes and movies, love and family, books we’d read, and books that were patiently waiting for our attention. We spoke about Jhumpa Lahiri, and how the author sparked an interest in the art of the short story. We spoke about How To Build A Girl and the various connotations of womanhood and cynicism. We relayed our class reading lists to each other, lamenting over the allegiance of institutions to worn-out classics and the need for writers of colour and contemporary forces to be included more frequently. I would read and re-read these conversations, as if rummaging in an overcrowded drawer for something I’d lost.
Every mention of a book struck me with a force: a reminder that I no longer had my friend to turn to for a long winded conversation about literature or life. I no longer had this friend to turn to for everything else I found myself needing her for. I attempted to note down her past book recommendations, so that I could immerse myself in words she had read when she was alive. Most times, though, I couldn’t bring myself to get through any of those works. In that period, I was back at university and taking a seminar centred around Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning American novelist. I took the class because of Sama. When she was alive, she sent me pictures from her copy of The Bluest Eye, telling me how much I would revel in the book and what it presented to the world. During the class, in a light-strewn room, surrounded by like-minded literature students, I found myself steeped in silence. There were times when I would excuse myself to go to the bathroom so that I could hide my tears. Morrison’s books, which ordinarily enraptured me, were of no consequence without the prospect of discussing them with Sama. It was the same with her recommendations, which sat in the ‘Notes’ folder of my iPhone, untouched.
“Words transcended physical distance for the two of us, in life and in death.”
There are some literary clichés that somehow stand true. One of them is that time is a healer. As the months wore on, and against all odds, I was able to come to terms with the loss I faced. Slowly, the Morrison seminar transformed into a reflective space for me — there, Sama and literature sat side by side. Later, books that Sama had once recommended – Kafka on the Shore, or Americanah, or anything by Zadie Smith – that I’d found myself avoiding, morphed into consolations and received dedicated spots on my bookshelf. Within the pages of these books, I found a part of her.
A year after she died, I posted a tribute to her alongside a photograph of the two of us sitting in a garden amidst a quiet and muggy summer. It was one of the last moments we shared together that was captured on camera — her arms are around me, and I’m laughing. “I hope, wherever you are, you’re curled up with a cup of tea and a good book,” I wrote. I know that’s what she would want for herself. And for me. Today, when I pick up something she would have loved to read, I am reminded of her uncanny emotional intelligence, her passion for words, and her dreams of writing herself. These reminders are visceral, as if she is present. It’s what words can do. Through Sama, I had a realisation — when a friendship is birthed through the love for the written word, there is a certain permanence in it. Words transcended physical distance for the two of us, in life and in death.