Let me begin with her faults, so we can get them out of the way.
Goodie Pua was a free spirit. She was the younger of the two daughters. The elder, whom I call Munni Pua (Pua because when I was a child I couldn’t pronounce Bua and so it became Pua), was conservative. Munni Pua was poised and believed in proper codes of behaviour. The typical Indian daughter, wife, mother and aunt. Who loved me and whom I loved and lost in March 2019.
Goodie Pua, her name was Harwant – ‘full of god’s grace’ – was a force of nature. She loved a good drink, she loved a party, she loved dancing and she loved to be attractive. Men were drawn to her. As she blossomed into her teens, she had the most enigmatic eyes that she lined with kohl. She loved being photographed. She loved wearing all the fashions of the day. She wore a bikini at the Sun and Sand swimming pool, in the late 70’s, and clicked awesome pictures in it.
She loved her family.
“Family first,” she would always tell me, “stop thinking so much of what other people think of you. Family should always come first – stop doing so many things for people who will use you and then leave you.” Family, family, family!
And then there was that fondness for the male gender. Yes, I used to tell her sometimes, “pua, you are quite the misogynist.” She would try and counter it, but she knew she would always take the side of a man in a movie or a show or an argument.
Another thing she did, was make a decision, and then the next day change her mind about it. Then she would go on and try and garner a deal so that she wouldn’t have to lose out on anything in the bargain. I used to call her “tikdambaaz company” – and she would get so offended.
I don’t know if these are faults – to me, they made her human. Her dressing sense in our woke world would never be offensive. In fact, when I was a child I would look at her and think that she was exactly like Zeenat Aman! She had this quintessential dressing style, and if you have seen her, you know what I mean.
Then the love for her family could never be a fault – I mean, to someone like me, being fair is a must. So even if a family member is wrong I would call him or her out – again, that is me. But to her, she would stand by family, by default – right or wrong.
I remember how she rushed to the help of a man we knew in our locality at Bandra. He had been stabbed before our home on the road. She was the first to rush out of the house and reach him to give aid. I remember how she would dress up late nights, when her brothers wouldn’t come home from the bars. She would go hunting for them and bring them back home. I remember how she managed with her mother’s, husband’s, brother’s illnesses and gave them care.
I would say I judged her unconditional love a bit, because she loved my father who abused me for a lot of years. She never could blame him, even though she loved me immensely. But then, she was my Scarlett O’Hara. Filled with flaws and with great love for whom she loved. She just couldn’t stop loving. I am grateful that she has passed this trait to me.
I was born when she was unmarried. She began dating Ramesh Uncle a little before the year of my birth. So as I grew into my early childhood, she would take me along everywhere with her. When I could speak, I began to call out to her when she would leave home. She would return and take ne wherever she was going. She loved me so much that through all her dating years, I accompanied her. She would take me to bandstand, to the seaside café, to Sea Rock hotel, to Sun and Sand, to Holiday Inn, to the Sheraton, the Taj, the drive-in theatre, for long, long drives…
She loved film magazines. My love for film comes from my mother and her. One of my memories of her would be her sharing the same bed with my grandma to sleep. Her head wrapped in a shower cap. She would apply henna in her hair for conditioning, cover it with a shower cap and take a book to read. I don’t know why this memory stuck.
Once, when I was in KG and yes I remember visions of the day! The teacher had left the classroom, and a few of the boys and I wandered out of it. The teacher caught us and she used a ruler to cane the backs of my knees.
Cecilia, our nanny, saw the welts after school, and she took me directly to Goodie Pua’s office. Pua’s office fell on the route of school to home, in Bandra. Goodie Pua saw the welts, she took my hand and marched right back into school and lambasted the teacher! At that moment, I should have called her my dad. She did what a father would do. Yet, she never raised her hand on me. Or on anyone else.
She was so in love with Ramesh Uncle. He was the love of her life. He brought happiness in her life as they courted. He was well to do and so he placed her in a job that she worked hard at. She was the first in the family to tour Europe and Russia in the mid-80’s. When I looked at her, she was a movie star, wearing a fur coat and standing before the Eiffel Tower. Tall, elegant and happy. Much later, she would tell me how she was beaten on one of the trips and left stranded in a hotel room by Ramesh Uncle. When I asked her why she stayed with him, she said, “I loved him. I had no other option.”
Goodie Pua was born to my beloved grandma, Naseeb Sandhu, and grandfather, whom I never met, Nihal Singh Jagirdaar. She was the second child, after Munni Pua (Rajinder).
My grandmother, Naseeb, hailed from Sahiwal, in Pakistan. She was the daughter of a zamindar and she used to narrate to us beautiful stories of farm life. It now feels like something from a dream. She married my grandfather, before the partition. In the partition, her family lost everything. Her father and her brother were killed in a train carrying refugees from Pakistan.
Goodie Pua had fond memories of her father. He was the last of seven brothers – six were in the army. But Nihal wanted to be an engineer. He left Kurukshetra and came to Mumbai to start up a chemical factory. He changed his name to Chhachhia. He started his business. He did it well. He grew affluent. He took a house, in Chembur, neighbouring Prithviraj Kapoor. My grandfather and Raj Kapoor would play tennis often.
My grandma married him and gave him four children. Comfort filled Goodie Pua’s childhood. Then my dad, Baldev, was born and soon after, my chacha, Amarjeet. Goodie Pua loved them from the get go. Then my grandfather died, making my grandmother a widow at 26.
My grandmother refused to marry his brother and would not head back to Punjab. She called her maternal cousin to help her out. She could read only Urdu and Gurumukhi, and had no concept of how to handle the business her husband left behind. She needed help. But she didn’t get it. Instead, the opposite happened.
The days and months and years that followed I will not write about. I won’t chronicle the hardships my grandmother and her children endured. The courts, the lack of funds, the harassment – the hunger. I won’t elaborate on how they were cheated out of their inheritance by people they trusted. I will say, it made Goodie Pua realise the value of family and the value of food.
She would tell me stories about her child hood and then the very difficult teen age years. She made me understand that money was important, but character even more so. She made me realise that being true to oneself is important. She exemplified, if you love, you must love with all your heart, and to a great extent without pride and condition.
I didn’t come out to Goodie Pua first. I wanted to test who would take it better. I knew that Munni Pua was the politically correct person. When she thought of a decision she didn’t let emotion govern her, she let practicality do so. So it was her I came out to first – and she wrote me a long letter of love and unconditional acceptance. She told Goodie Pua about me – and Goodie Pua and I never really discussed it. Until I fell in love for the first time, a few years later – and I got my heart broken. She understood. But times were difficult and we could not connect then.
But, she was a good judge of character. The people she didn’t like, turned out to be terrible indeed. The ones she adored became strong supports in my life. All except my dad, of course. He got along with her – because she knew how to handle him. But then she bore quite a bit with him as well. Munni Pua and I would usually tell her off for this – and she would retaliate (Goodie Pua wasn’t the kinds to keep quiet.) Eventually, Munni Pua and I realized how it was for her. If Goodie Pua loved someone, he or she could do no wrong. And that was that.
Goodie Pua was a sickly-twenty something. She suffered from TB Meningitis in the 70’s that led to a melanoma forming in her brain. In the 80’s, the melanoma gave her convulsions. But it was inoperable and so she lived with medications all her life. But her spirit didn’t diminish and she never stopped working.
Like all the women in my household, she loved work. At the end of her life, she would crotchet, she would do bank work, keep her accounts, get into social media, and sort out her own needs. She was the smartest in her generation, at computers and gadgets. She liked being in touch with social media. She gained immense popularity amongst her own peers as well as in my friends’ circles.
In 2008, when Mumbai had its very first Pride March, Munni Pua, Goodie Pua, Mom and sis were all there, walking it with me. She tried making it for every one of those marches. The same three senior ladies were in the very first LGBT Parents Meet and all those that followed for the group I belong to http://www.GayBombay.org
They helped LGBT youth with their advice and with their acceptance. I wish I could keep these experiences alive, but I can’t. In time, things will fade away – but I will remember, and that must be enough.
My mom is a self-made woman. She worked all her life as a Bank of India employee. She built her own home. We settled into it in the late 80’s. It went under redevelopment in 2012. The project stalled and then halted because of issues with the BMC and the builder. We were on rent, which stopped. By 2018, my dad passed.
By 2019, Munni Pua passed. Her death came as a huge blow to Goodie Pua. The sisters were tied at the hip. They would talk everyday. Share stories, gossip and companionship. Always know that a lack of communication is the saddest thing to feel. Especially when death tells you, it will never happen again.
Goodie Pua was alone in her flat, and she would visit us daily for dinner. She immediately suggested that we should think of moving in with her. She decided to live in a smaller flat next door. I mean, tell me, who, but someone who loves, and gives freely, does that? I mean, there are members of my family who haven’t bothered to ask if we are alive or dead. So, we took up her offer and settled her in the next flat and became a closer unit.
At that point, she was the woman who was more man. She became the provider and the shelter-giver in the family. She became my dad. She was the eldest member of the family and I grew to respect her manifold. Love is all well and fine, but when one knows one is protected, love alters to comfort and peace. She would come over every day, and we would go there, it became the unit we used to be, when I was a child.
She and I grew close and then I got my heart broken again. The whole of last year, turmoil and depression drowned me. The lockdown of 2020 did not help matters and I became curt with everyone. In the midst of this, Goodie Pua sent my best friend a message.
“Hi Poonam, I know I don’t need to thank you but I want to, for being there for Harpreet, during the last 4 weeks. Surprisingly, we both gave him the same advice – let go of what has made you so unhappy, think about your happiness and yourself first. There has been an atmosphere of gloom in the house for a long time now. Just keep telling him to move on each time you speak to him. Nice people are difficult to find but I am so happy that you two have been such good friends.
Why do we always have a low esteem about ourselves, Poonam? If a person wants to stay, he/she will; and if not, there are many reasons to leave, all have our plus and minuses. Harpreet is a very honest straight forward and a good person. Yes, he is possessive about people whom he loves. I am hurting so much for him but can do nothing. You have been his best friend and he loves and depends on you for emotional support. Do give him a pep talk whenever you have the time to. Thanks Poonam, for reaching out to all of us. Love u. Pua.”
My best friend shared this to me a few days ago… and it put so many things into perspective. Why do we hang onto people who don’t want us? There are people around us who want our company, who revel in it, and yet we hanker after those who don’t give us the time of day.
When COVID-19 happened to my family, it happened en masse. Mom, Cecilia (my nanny who was visiting from Canada and who is in 4th stage metastic cervical cancer) and I were positive first. Anand and Pua tested negative on the RT-PCR. Geeta’s antigen on the same day was negative. So they went into the next house.
The following days were hell. Geeta fell ill. Then Pua fell ill. Geeta and I developed viral pneumonia and we began coughing blood. My fever escalated to 103.8 and my 02 dropped to 88. But I couldn’t get hospitalized, because if I did, the family would not be able to deal with the medical stuff. People are capable; but in times of crises I become the management – and the advisor – and the admin. I went in over my head because my sickness escalated side by side. Then it all came down to a lack of Oxygen.
I made some hard choices. Like the one I had to make when Pua’s O2 dropped to 70, and the two 10 litre oxygen cylinders were not helping and were in fact, depleting. I asked Pua, let me take you to a hospital. She said no. My buas and I never believed in artificial life support. She did not want a ventilator! I promised her it won’t happen, but she needed the oxygen when she was lucid, she needed a BiPAP.
She lifted two fingers, in answer. Goodie Pua was a believer. She believed in Sikhism. She believed in Gurus. She loved asking pandits “upays” (solutions). She would keep asking me to read the tarot cards for her. She believed in fate and chance and the afterlife. With the breathing mask on, proning, she lifted two fingers, for me to choose one. It was pick and choose time. I chose her middle finger and she whispered, ‘hospital.’ I called an ambulance and we rushed her to Kokila Ben.
They didn’t admit her because they said they did not have place for any possibly COVID +ve patient. They made Pua wait in the ambulance for two and a half hours, in the heat and with depleting 02. They did not even come out to treat her! They asked us to leave the Emergency Room.
I can’t blame the system. I blame the people who put it there in the first place. People’s hatred has consumed their minds! Anything built in hate may have an existence. But rest assured, hate isn’t going to win against the virus. Viruses don’t care about what you have in your mind. They just know you can be infected. So technically, the villain has never been COVID-19. It just shows us who they actually are!
If it was not for my sister’s friend, Raji’s, influence, I would have to bring Pua back home to die. SRV Hospital gave us a bed because of influence and a down payment. She was taken into the ICU, but her 02 saturation didn’t revive. When I Facetimed her once she was settled in the ICU, she gestured that she wanted to return home. My heart has broken repeatedly over a long time. But the hammers that have descended on it these past thirty days have been devastating.
I lost Pua on 19th April, 2020. As I wrote a couple of days earlier, I do not regret that she passed. She lived a full life and over the past two years, she missed her sister, Munni. She was bored and lonely.
She wanted to pass her time and she had cut herself off from many of her friends. Her attitude and life could no more accommodate people who wanted a one-sided relationship. Basically, she just decided to cut off all the bullshit. She let go of so many things.
Goodie Pua was looking forward to seeing Geeta, my sister, get married. The wedding tentatively was around the beginning of May, 2021. So we went out and bought clothes. We had a great time shopping. We always did. We both shared a passion for clothes and gadgets.
Technically, my choice matches Munni Pua’s. I’m mostly into neutrals, browns, beiges, greys, blacks and whites. Goodie Pua loved colours! She picked reds, yellows, blues, greens – her home upholstery had colour. Never gaudy, but just the right amount of colour to bring about a splash.
She was and remains the only woman in the household with whom I could talk poetry. We had our common love for Sahir Ludhianvi, Khalil Gibran, Rumi and ghazals. She loved paintings. Van Gogh was her favourite.
She was a poetess. I am a poet. I picked up the craft from her genetic pool. I picked up creating art from my Chacha’s. Both poetry and art transformed me into who I am today…
Her last Urdu poem was this:
“Ab laut kar na aana jaane wale,
Milega na tujhe kahi ghar mera,
Tere intezaar main chokhat pe jo jala rakhi thi shama,
Usi na jala diya hai ghar mera…”
Pua was a poem. A love ballad. Something that would be written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She had an ebb and flow, smiles and tears, as we all do. These came when I was around, because yes, she and I were kindred spirits. She and I had different thoughts on a few topics. On hindsight, we both agreed on so many that the love outshone the topics we disagreed on.
I don’t wish anymore. I stopped a few years ago. I am an atheist. So I don’t believe that she and I are going to meet again in some distant future, or on some ethereal plain. As I dropped her ashes into the sea, on the thirteenth day after her passing, I said good bye. Good bye to my childhood, to the person who carried me with her on her dates of love, to the final security of fatherhood she provided, to the love she gave me without question.
Keep thinking of you.
I don’t regret that you have left.
It’s just the way you did.
It’s not that I am bereft.
It’s not that I didn’t try.
It’s just that I was dying,
And you actually did die.