“Cheers Buddy”: Remembering Leo

We met for the first time around a week before his 26th birthday. It was a small gathering of Toastmasters meeting up at another Toastmaster’s bakery. He pulled my leg endlessly about a million things and made me laugh. A week later, I managed to get his number from somebody just to wish him on his birthday. Birthdays have always been extremely important to me, so I did not want to lose the opportunity to wish him.

Meeting Leo for the first time
First time meeting Leo (second from left) at a bakery owned by a Toastmaster in Pune

Just before the call, I’d left the tap running to get the hot water started so I could bathe. A few minutes in, I realised it was going to be a terrible waste of water and I turned it off. It was a good thing I did. That call lasted four hours. I have never wished anybody happy birthday for that long. That was the day I really began to get to know Leo.

DTM Leo Kurians Paulose. Such a fancy title, such an important Toastmaster, and so respected in the community. A quick scroll through his Facebook profile would reveal he was this loved everywhere: as an NIT-Rourkela alumnus and as an employee where he worked. He was an esteemed leader, guide, and mentor, ever ready to be there for other people in their time of need. People looked up to him wherever he went.

For me, personally, he was a little more than just a leader and mentor. He was a friend. Shortly after the first four-hour call, we went on to have many calls that lasted for hours. Once, he called me after I slept, and I somehow still managed to receive the phone and respond to what he was saying, even though I could barely recollect the conversation in the morning. He loved to listen to everything that I had to say, and he loved talking about what was going on in his life. The best thing about him was that he listened carefully and gave thoughtful responses. He didn’t just hear the words. He really paid attention. There aren’t really many people who can do that, and certainly not many who can do that for hours on end.

He was full of love and very, very fond of me. I badgered him with so many kinds of questions: do you know of internship opportunities for me, what should I write my speech about, where can I find a house after college? He always readily provided answers, no matter how busy he was or where he was. I pulled his leg innumerable times about how often he travelled and there was no need for him to even have a house in Pune except for his few belongings. Regardless of where he was, he still found the time to be around, to talk. We didn’t necessarily meet or even talk very often. But when we did, it was always full of anecdotes, laughs, and hugs.

Last year, I participated in a speech contest and my speech was based on the first time I experienced the death of somebody close to me: Boroma. I wrote about it later. It was a loss that I had never fully dealt with. I had not grieved. I had many doubts about being able to pull it off on stage. But Leo was confident I could. And beyond that, he let me talk about all my fears and sorrows regarding my speech and let me grieve in a way I had never done before. I had thought I would regret that speech, but I didn’t. It made me lighter. It allowed me to accept a loss I had tried to push away for ten long years.

International Speech Contest - Participation Certificate
Handing me a certificate at the Toastmasters contest where I gave the speech he mentored

Never in my wildest dreams could I have thought that about a year later, I would have to teach myself to come to terms with his loss in the way he taught me to. It has been a horrible few hours: right since 3AM yesterday when I heard of his accident and learnt he was in the ICU till seeing his coffin in the evening yesterday. Everything has been a crazy blur, like a terrible dream that I am going to shake awake out of any moment. Even as I type this, I can’t fully digest it. We’d talked about catching a movie together and we never did. It still feels like I could make a call and pester him to watch a movie with me right now… but for the first time, he won’t take my call. Leo taught me to grieve and move on and now, it is killing me to use that lesson for him.

But he taught me well and I will apply it well. I will remember that smile, the friendly ‘hello’ before every call, all his speeches peppered with his trademark word ‘folks’. I will remember the night dress he sat in when he listened to my practise my speech, the way he would make it a point to call even if it was an absurd hour at night, and the way he knew what the right thing to say was. I will hang on to every “good luck”, every “congratulations”, and every “I knew you could do it”. I’ll hear those words in my head in his voice and I’ll know he’s right here.

Leo was one of the best persons to have walked this planet and I don’t write these words lightly. He was kind, loving, friendly, humble, sincere, and selfless. He had accomplished so much and so quickly, and it never got into his head. And this is why he was deeply loved by every person he had ever met. He always knew how to make the person before him feel heard and respected. Leo was the embodiment of a person who did not go out of his way to help others; his way was to help others. It seems terribly unfair that when a person was exactly what the world needed, he was taken away.

Leo’s absence will be felt deeply by every single person who knew him. I know I will often find myself thinking ‘Leo would have known what to do right now’ as I am sure will many others. For all of us, I hope that we have the strength to ask ourselves what Leo would have done and do just that. Because nothing can keep Leo’s spirit in a box: it lives on in every single one of us and it is now our responsibility to honour his memory.

Leo Paulose
The way I’d like to remember him: smiling and happy.

Leo, you have left an irreplaceable void in our lives and we will miss you deeply. We hope we can always do right and make you proud. And until we see you next, let me end by saying what you would have said: cheers buddy!

Tirtha

Some people storm into your life and before you can even blink, turn your entire life around. You can pinpoint the exact moment they walked in and you knew that things would not be the same. Some people creep into your life the way trees grow, slowly and easily, without you even being aware of it. And then one day, you look at your relationship with them and realise that this tree has grown so strong and borne the sweetest fruits. Tirtha, for me, is the second kind of person.

My introduction to Tirtha was through her best friend, who was my roommate in the first year of college, Damini. I didn’t socialise much that year for many reasons, but I kept meeting Tirtha because she would come with Damini often. I have interesting memories of her from the first year: walking into the boys’ hostel with Damini on the second day of college, scolding somebody from Vodafone on the phone for not having started a service at the promised time, watching Game of Thrones with Damini and asking me to give her all the spoilers.

Through all of this time, we were not friends. We were friendly with each other, but we didn’t really know each other at all. Tirtha and I got to truly know each other in the second year, when a lot of things changed. I began socialising slowly. Damini left college to pursue music. Tirtha and I stayed on the same floor, in opposite apartments. The few friends I had made were also friends with Tirtha and so we ended up hanging out in the same circles quite often. But what was obviously the turning point in our relationship was the course we took together in the second year: Discrete Mathematics.

Tirtha and I studied and did assignments for Discrete Math together. We would plan the rest of our day around the time that we chose to do Math together. In this time allotted for studying, what happened was 30% studying and 70% banter. We would talk about everything: our lives, our other courses, our interests, memes, movies, jokes… you name it. With every passing ‘study session’, we got to know each other better and better. I think what stood out to me the most was how different we were: she was an introvert, I was an extrovert; she was focused and hardworking, I was demotivated and lazy; she loved all sorts of foods whose names I couldn’t pronounce while I preferred eating Maggi as a staple meal every day. Yet, we got each other. Despite all of our differences, we just clicked. And for this, I will forever be grateful.

Tirtha is one of the most intelligent, hardworking, and mature persons I have ever met. She is not impulsive and brash, she doesn’t get blinded by emotions alone, and she is always aware of the consequences of her actions. She always evaluated my choices with me and advised me on what would be best for me. When I didn’t listen to her and screwed up, she didn’t come and say “I told you so”. She put her arm around me and let me know that she was going to be there regardless. She didn’t give up on me on my worst days, she didn’t give up on me on her worst days. She stood by me like a rock. When I look at myself now, I realise that these qualities have managed to rub off on me as well and made me so much more emotionally-balanced than I was before.

Tirtha has taught me a bazillion lessons in three years without being preachy. I don’t think I can pen down all of these without making it a book. However, the most important thing that Tirtha has taught me is to not be defined by somebody else, to be my own person no matter what. I used to always rely on company to do things: go for meals to the mess, watch a movie, eat at a restaurant. Many times, I would cancel my plan entirely because I had nobody to carry the plan out with. Tirtha encouraged me to not care about company and do what I wanted to do anyway. She taught me to see myself as more than the many labels I clung to: daughter, sister, friend, best friend, girlfriend. She wanted me to be somebody who didn’t need somebody else to define herself. Just thinking about this lesson conjures such a specific image in my mind: sitting together on her bed, leaning our heads on the wall, and talking to each other while sheets from our unfinished assignments lay on our laps and by our sides. Most of our conversations happened in this way.

Tirtha has brought about some of the most unexpected, yet fortunate changes in my life, the craziest one being influencing (read: bullying me gently) the major I landed up taking in college. Applied Mathematics was not something I thought I had the capacity for, not because I didn’t like or enjoy Math but because I hardly thought it possible for me to work this hard. Tirtha was determined to take Math and she needed more people to have the major offered. I had been holding on to the idea of an Advertising and Branding major, even though I had regarded this idea with some level of skepticism. She convinced me to make the switch. Even though I will maintain for the rest of my life that she bullied me into a BSc. degree, I have to say it was one of the best decisions I have made and I will never regret it. We studied together, taught each other concepts, and complained together when we forgot to eat meals because we were working. We practised alongside each other on the blackboards in classrooms, spent endless hours in the Math lab whining about Java codes that refused to do their jobs, and wondered many times if we should get individual degree certificates or split one certificate between us. Tirtha and I always got a kick out of telling people we were pursuing Math because it always filled them with awe for us because Math is scary enough, but girls in Math seems even more intimidating somehow (it’s really not). Like Tirtha says so nicely: “Why do I need to pick between beauty OR brains? I’ll pick both of them and do just fine, thank you.”

Tirtha is a character full of surprises. The same person who stood first in the graduating class with a cumulative GPA greater than nine also once told me off for leaving her unsupervised with her laptop. “It’s your fault! Why did you leave me alone with my laptop? I didn’t do any work and I watched four episodes instead…” So much for studious and serious.

Leaving college has been a big jump. It’s been a month and it’s pretty weird. I recently came to terms with the idea of having to pay for my own WiFi and when I revealed this to my friends, Tirtha responded lovingly: “Welcome to the real world.” I have been told many times that the friends I make in college will be some of the closest I ever make. I think it’s safe to say that Tirtha is definitely one of the closest people I am going to have in my life and I am going to look forward to giving her bone-crushing hugs that she claims to dislike for the rest of my life.

I love you Tirtha Patel. You’re an inspiration and a weirdo rolled into one. I am so thrilled you’re back in the same city as I am because this means you can bully me into making decisions for some more time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank you enough for it. Since words are my best friend, this is a tiny thank you to tell you, you’re amazing and I am lucky to have you in my life.

Tirtha
A picture of her smiling in a photo, without looking like I forced her into smiling. Because likes being hugged by me.

About Grieving (Ten Years Too Late)

I have never seen death up close.

I have never lost somebody very close to me in front of my own eyes. I’ve heard stories of others losing a parent, a grandparent, a close relative, a friend, right before their eyes. But I have never seen it upfront.

In fact, up until I was ten, death seemed like a myth to me. It was just ridiculous. How could somebody just cease to exist? I couldn’t wrap my head around it at all.

When I was ten, I lost Boroma.

Boroma, translated from Bengali to English, means ‘elder mother’. She was my maternal grandfather’s aunt but only a few years older than him. She’d led a very rough life: she had not been educated, then she got married, the marriage was difficult and she chose to walk out of it and then she lived with my grandfather. She had no children, and nobody else to call family. These were not the things I knew through her though. These were things that my mother, father, and grandfather told me. The Boroma I knew was not somebody worn out by a tough life at all. She was a completely different person.

Boroma loved me. I think there were few people in the world that Boroma loved as much as she loved me, and there are definitely very few people in the world who will ever be able to love me like she loved me. When I was a baby, she bathed me and fed me. I have childhood photos of myself, sitting in a small tub, and Boroma looking at me proudly. When I grew up a little more, she made some of my favourite dishes. I loved aloo bhaja (potato fry) and whenever I would arrive at my grandfather’s doorstep, my first demand from her would be some aloo bhaja. And she always, always had some ready. She would tell me stories about the hanumans (grey langurs) in our locality. She would talk about how clever they are and how they could interact with humans. Boroma made me feel happy and warm in a way that I rarely feel anymore.

Boroma’s rough backstory caught up with her as she grew older. She had fallen and dislocated her hip joint, which had to be replaced. After that surgery, she never really walked properly again. And I think this led her to feel like she could not really contribute to the family anymore, like she was a burden. That’s what I think now, anyway. At that age, I didn’t know any better. All I knew was that she was Boroma and I loved her and that she could never possibly be a burden to anybody in the whole wide world.

When I was nine, going on ten, Boroma fell again and dislocated her other hip and had another surgery. Doctors discovered bedsores. When they discovered them, it was already quite severe. Without doubt, Boroma was not going to survive.

My mother explained this to me in the gentlest way she could. I never really grasped it. We weren’t in Kolkata when the bedsores were discovered and we were not going to back for almost another ten months or so. But I wasn’t worried. I’d seen Boroma that summer, hardly two months ago. I was confident I was going to see her again. Everybody had always told me Boroma was really strong, really resilient, that she was a fighter. She didn’t have a single unhealthy cell in her body: perfect blood pressure, no cholesterol, no sugar, no problems at all. How could something as insignificant as sores take her away from me?

I was wrong. With each passing update from my grandfather, it seemed like Boroma was getting worse. The sores were horrible. I heard about them: the way there were gaping holes where her skin was supposed to be. Yet I was convinced that Boroma would survive this. She is a fighterFighters do not die.

But fighters do die, and so did Boroma. That morning, I was woken up a little earlier than normal for school. My mother informed me that Boroma had passed away. I listened in shocked silence. I didn’t really react. It didn’t seem real. Boroma couldn’t go away. She would never leave for anywhere where she wouldn’t be able to see me.

I went to school, went about my day, and life went on. We did not go to Kolkata for the funeral. I never got to say goodbye.

I never shed a single tear.

The next summer, we went to Kolkata. Boroma’s regular space on the bed was empty. Her walking stick wasn’t there. A real, living, breathing person had once taken up this space. And now she just was not there anymore. It was one thing to see her spot empty. It was quite another to have other people sitting there. My heart would leap into my mouth with only one thought swirling around my brain: “That’s Boroma’s place. You can’t sit there.”

During that Kolkata visit, I recalled the previous year, when I’d last met her. And I remembered an incident that I carry with me till date, something that haunts me over and over and over. Boroma, in her later years, had begun throwing tantrums. My mother and grandfather could not understand them and at nine-and-a-half, neither could I. At that age, I was quite cranky myself and Boroma’s daily tantrums had been driving me crazy. And one night, when she was throwing a tantrum before dinner, I shouted at her. I told her to stop creating a fuss, I told her to eat her dinner, I told her to stop creating a ruckus every single day. She didn’t even fight back. She listened.

I am sure that before I left for Muscat a few days after that incident, I hugged her and I touched her feet. But I never forgot that I’d shouted at her. I’d raised my voice at somebody a good seventy years older than me, somebody who had always treated me with tenderness and affection. I never forgave myself, more so, because I never got a chance to ask her to forgive me.

Nobody really talked to me about death. Nobody helped me deal with Boroma passing away. And I never talked about it. I allowed myself to be immersed in everyday life, without paying too much attention to the ache in my chest. I never really dealt with her death at all. I just pushed the the pain it caused me far, far away, hoping that it would never catch up with me. I thought if I would run away from my hurt, it would not be able to find me.

Around two months ago, I began preparing a speech for a contest in my Toastmasters club. Having spoken to many senior members about how to write my speech, I decided that a simple message with a personal story would strike the right chord. And somehow, Boroma sprang into my mind. My speech’s message was about not waiting to tell the people you care for that you love them. My personal story was about how I never really told Boroma that I loved her.

It was a simple enough story. I gave it flawlessly at my club and came first. I represented my club at the Area Contest and gave the same speech and came second. I received lots of comments on how important the message of my story was and how well I delivered it.

Nobody knew how many times I’d cried in the shower while practising that speech. Nobody knew how many times the words had choked in my throat as I practised. Nobody knew that ten years after Boroma passing away, I still hadn’t really grieved enough to move on.

2 April 2017 was the Division Contest. Having come second in the Area Contest, I had gotten the chance to represent my area at the division level. It was a big deal. Winning this would mean going to Mumbai for the next round, speaking in front of Toastmasters from my District. I was really excited.

Somehow, with the lights, with the audience, and maybe with the lack of sleep the previous night, I fumbled. For the first time while publicly delivering the speech, I felt my words choking in my throat, my mind going blank, and my body aching for Boroma to wrap her arms around me. To most of the audience, I looked fairly composed. I work well under pressure so the stage doesn’t frighten me. But inside my head, I was falling apart. The moment I left the stage, I was in tears. I had told so many people the story of Boroma and with each retelling, I had been forced to say out loud that she had passed away, something I had refused to accept despite not having seen her for the last ten years. And so now, ten years too late, I am allowing myself to grieve.

I am allowing myself to remember the way her curly black and white hair looked, pulled back in a bun. I am allowing myself to remember the way her face looked when she smiled her nearly toothless smile. I am allowing myself to remember the wrinkles on her skin. I am allowing myself to remember how I would wrap myself around her lovingly and receive aloo bhaja in return. I am allowing myself to remember how she would lovingly run her fingers through my hair. I am allowing myself to remember that once upon a time, she was here, and she held me and hugged me and told me many stories. And most importantly, apart from everything else, I am allowing myself to cry. All the tears I never shed ten years ago have come tumbling forth now. I am allowing myself to feel the emotions I didn’t let myself feel for all of these years.

It’s true when they say that ‘when someone you love becomes a memory, your memories become treasure’. I may not get any more time with Boroma ever again, but I will treasure the fact that I got the chance to feel her unconditional love for me for the first ten years of my life.

I really, really hope that no matter who I become, I always remain someone that Boroma would have been able to look at with love and say, “Aamaar shona Bibil.” (My dear Bibil).

Boroma

In an Alternate Universe

In an alternate universe, I am not hurting over you. You see that you were wrong and you apologise, you ask to have me back, you tell me that it was a mistake. In an alternate universe, I am aware of how wrong the way you treated me was and I don’t think about letting you come back into my life. I respect myself and walk with dignity. In an alternate universe, I am not shattered into a million pieces on the inside, with each shard piercing into me till I bleed, bleed, and bleed, until I can bleed no more. I am not a broken little thing that people look at with pity. Poor girl.

But all that is in an alternate universe. In this universe, I am hurting over you, I want you back in my life, and I cry myself to sleep wondering why it cannot happen.

In an alternate universe, you are in love with me. We are so in love and the world is perfect. In an alternate universe, you hold my hand in front of your friends and carelessly put your arm around my shoulders. Everybody knows that we were made for each other. In an alternate universe, we fit like pieces of a two-piece jigsaw puzzle. You hug me and I melt into your arms and feel like I am home.

But all that is in an alternate universe. In this universe, you are not in love with me, you hid me from all of your friends, and we fit as well as Cinderella’s glass slipper fit on her step-sisters’ feet.

In an alternate universe, I am at peace with myself. I don’t toss and turn at night, wondering what I could have done differently, wondering what I could do differently now. In an alternate universe, I don’t look at my phone a million times a day hoping you will send me one message to acknowledge my existence. I don’t care whether you care at all. In an alternate universe, I am okay. I am alright and I can handle whatever is thrown at me.

But all that is in an alternate universe. In this universe, I have made elaborate lists about every single thing that went wrong, I open your chat window over a hundred times a day, and I am struggling to get up because I don’t have the strength to get out there and walk, talk, and trust again.

On the Same Boat

It was a large, unending ocean. And in that ocean was a single boat, small and weak, with a lone girl in it. Her hair was matted, her eyes sunken, and her arms and legs covered in scars. The waves would toss the boat dangerously and sometimes, the water would splash onto her, causing the salt to sting her wounds. She spent most of her days curled up into a ball, wanting either to die or to be found by somebody else in the desolate ocean.

The boat had been stuck in this ocean for months. She didn’t know where exactly she was. She didn’t know which way land was or how far she was from it. She didn’t even know how she’d landed up here. Everything before her life on the boat felt like a hazy dream.

It was just another day. There was still no sign of help. She wasn’t sure if anybody missed her and was worried enough to actually look for her. She looked out into the never-ending grey sky and sea and suddenly, spotted a speck in the distance. She couldn’t believe her eyes. All these days, she had let the water toss her around. Upon seeing the speck, she got rowing. She had to get to the speck in the distance because for the first time in many months, she felt a flicker of hope.

She rowed furiously and as she got closer, she realised that, after what seemed like a lifetime, she was not alone. There was another boat in the ocean, with another person in it.

He was exhausted when she found him. His hair was dishevelled, his eyes barely open, and his clothes hung loosely from this thin frame. When she extended her hand to hold his hand to remember what it felt like to touch another person, he recoiled. Confused, she retreated to her own boat but she was determined to not let this boat out of her sight. She wasn’t going to be alone again. Most importantly, she wasn’t going to let somebody else be as alone as she had been.

“I’m tying your boat to mine,” she said. He looked up and watched as she tied their boats together so that they could not drift away from each other. She couldn’t have been happier. She still didn’t know which way land was or how far it was but she knew now that there was somebody else who was with her and they could look for it together.

Every day, she talked to him, passed him snacks from the supplies she had, and sometimes she sang him her favourite songs to pass the time. As days went by, he began to sit up and take interest in what she was saying. Some days, he talked back. Some days he ate what she offered. Some other days, he even sang.

Sometimes, one of them would get seasick and cry. One would cry while the other would talk. But he never let her touch him. He never let her hold his hand. And so, she didn’t ask.

And then one day, her boat sprouted a leak. She woke up in the morning, her clothes wet, and she looked around and panicked. Quickly, she began to untie her boat from his. He woke up, confused. “What are you doing?” he asked. She gestured towards the water in her boat. “This boat won’t last. It’s too risky to stay together. You can find land on your own. I’ll give you my supplies.”

He stared at her. In the days that they had spent time together, it had never occurred to him that one day she might not be there and he would have to be alone again. They had never crossed into the boat of the other because they were afraid but now, there was no option. He would either have to call her over, or let her go.

She threw her supplies over to him. “When you find land,” she said, “write down what it’s like. Toss a bottle into the sea with a letter telling me all about it.”
“Are you insane?” he asked.  “I am not letting you go. Let your boat go down. You don’t have to go down with it. What’s the point in finding land if I can’t find it with you?”

She looked at him. “Are you sure? You won’t even let me touch you. How will we live on the same boat?”

“I don’t know. It’ll be difficult. But all I know is I can live without finding land and living on this boat. But I can’t live with finding land if you aren’t with me to find it. Come over, come over, come this side.”

She looked at him for a few minutes. And then, in a quick motion, she jumped over to his boat. Without speaking a word, he untied her boat and they watched as it sank. Slowly, hesitantly, she took his hand in hers. And for the first time, he didn’t withdraw. They were on the same boat.

Inspired

My sister wrote a speech about me for a class in school and it moved me to tears. I had to share it.

Journey to the Centre of My Heart

We had to give a speech at school about something which inspired us and I was really blank till I remembered the person who played a huge role in my life and shaping it. When I started working on the speech the words flowed almost automatically because they were from the bottom of my heart. So I decided to share it 🙂

Since we are supposed to talk about something which inspires us, I would like to talk about someone who has played a major role in the sixteen years of life, my sister. My sister was my first friend, my first role model and my first hero. My sister was 3 and half years old when I was born to become a part of her world. She was assigned with responsibility of being the ‘older sibling’ at the tender age of 4 and she accepted this responsibility gracefully. When…

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he’ll make promises. you’re the one. your flaws are beautiful. your insecurities will be looked after. and so you let go. you let it all out, raw and pure, and the fire burns him and he can’t take it and he leaves. and you crawl back into the crevices of your own mind and stay there. today he leaves, tomorrow she leaves, they all leave. that’s why you hide. that’s why you you break before you can be broken. you take that head start but you lose the race anyway.