Surekha Pillai

Her name was Shanti and she looked like she’d stepped out of a Raja Ravi Varma painting. Fairest than the fairest of them all, her skin glowed with such luminescence – I remember wondering if I would get gilt on my finger if I touched her. Her hair fell in a thick braid that snaked well below her hips. She had light brown eyes that had a hypnotising quality about them, and she smiled with a dazzle that made everyone want to levitate a little and flap their imaginary wings.

When my family moved to Delhi from an obscure, languid corner in Madras a little less than 30 years ago, I was still a child trapped in an adolescent. I had left behind a tomato plant in the common backyard of our colony, and my biggest worry, even in the awestruck early days in a shiny new city, was whether my other friends in the neighbourhood tended to it with as much affection.

I had painted and planted a big sign board in Tamil that screamed ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ next to the plant before I left – which, in retrospect, didn’t seem like such a great idea.I also worried about Johny, a playful mongrel I regularly fed saambaar and curd rice to.  I wondered – not without a tinge of envy – whose feet he rested his furry little head on.

I missed my friends as I tried to shake off our squeals that hung frozen in the corners of my mind. But none of this could steal from me the excitement of being in a new city. That was the second biggest move of our lives, with the first one being the shift to Madras from villages and towns near Kanyakumari, where we lived several years ago.

My dad got me into the only school in Delhi which offered Tamil as an optional language, promising the Principal that I would make the school proud someday. I spent much of my time in school by myself as I did not understand a word of English or Hindi and found it surprising that not many kids spoke Tamil.

It was not particularly a matter of pride either for my Principal or my Dad that my report card during that year largely showed single digit percentages against all subjects except Tamil, in which I scored 98%.

She chose to sit next to me in the class, putting the spotlight on me – and suddenly, I was visible to my classmates.

I managed to somehow get to the 10th standard, when the class sections were shuffled and we had new classmates. That’s when I met Shanti.

Shanti was an introvert and miraculously found comfort in my company. She chose to sit next to me in the class, putting the spotlight on me – and suddenly, I was visible to my classmates.

We spent the next three years becoming the bestest of best friends. She was oblivious to the devastation her looks caused, and would burst into childlike laughter every time I sang paeans to her beauty in my limited vocabulary.

Once, I was so mesmerized by a description of Betty’s lips (not Veronica, but Betty!) by Archie – “ruby red lips like freshly crushed strawberries” -that I made it a point to introduce it every time I reminded Shanti how beautiful she was.

We did everything together, and somewhere along the way I forgot how beautiful she was on the outside. We did each other’s homework, we completed each other’s sentences and thoughts, we laughed at the same things, and we ate from each other’s lunch box. I loved her puranpoli so much that her mother would send me some every month, which I realised (much later) must have burnt a small hole in their monthly budget.


My first letter ever was written to Shanti. We wrote each other letters during vacations using code words (essentially girl names) for our respective crushes. It was a lengthy monologue running into several sheets, strategically torn from the centre of my note book.

I wrote to her about how happy I was with the sighting of Shivika in the neighbourhood, helpfully adding a footnote in fine print that I actually meant Shiv but wrote Shivika just in case the letter fell in the wrong hands.

The classmate I was hopelessly in love with fell hopelessly in love with Shanti, leaving both of us to wonder what the word ‘aquiline’ meant when he sent a love note to her. It read something like: “You have aquiline eyes, you have aquiline nose, you have aquiline lips, you have aquiline face”.

She laughed that note off too, much to my secret delight. She told me she would get married to a guy of my choice.

After school ended, we eventually grew apart after staying in touch on and off through letters. A few years later – by which time we had completely lost touch – one day out of the blue, I remembered Shanti and I knew I had to meet her.

I wanted to get her introduced to a friend who I thought would be the perfect match for her! Just like that, after all those years.I called the friend, told him about Shanti, and set out to find her. I made a few calls and a few days later traced her location to Noida – not very far from where I lived.

Shanti taught me kindness. She taught me never to take oneself seriously.

I don’t remember being as excited as I was that day when I stood in front of her house, which looked strangely festive… it wasn’t the festival season. The door was ajar and her mother – a mirror image of Shanti – immediately recognised me, jumped up, and hugged me. “Why didn’t you come to the wedding?” she enquired, still holding me.

Shanti got married two days before I got there. I left her place a few minutes later, and never went back.

Shanti taught me kindness. She taught me never to take oneself seriously. That virtues worn lightly served one well. That you always smile, no matter what. That stripped of everything material and outwardly, all human beings were the same. That in friendship, you question nothing and give your everything.

I still wonder about her sometimes. I wonder if she has a daughter who looks just like her, and whether she makes people around her flap their imaginary wings.


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