The photograph, I find I can't look at it without a catch in my throat. It sits on a table, surrounded by wisps of smoke whose fragrance lightly scents the air across this little garden. There are also yellow flowers laid on the table, and a vase of rajnigandha, whose delicate fragrance I also think I can sense. Yes, she sits amid it all, wearing a simple necklace, a bordered sari and that radiant smile; I see her and the tears well up.
There's quite a crowd by now. The men are mostly in shades of grey, the women mostly in white. Everyone speaks in low voices. Through the trees, I can see buildings all around and I'm reminded, for no particular reason, that this is such a little island in this great city that throbs with life. The late afternoon sun threads through the leaves, and all in all this could hardly be a more peaceful place for what we are gathered for.
And she sits there still, smile undimmed.
There was something breathless about her, most of the speakers say. She was always in a hurry, and yet she always had a smile. And that's how I remember her too, from all those years ago in Austin. That always hoarse voice, the warmth in her, that ready smile.
In 1988, she was part of a team of five architecture students there who entered a major competition. They had to plan and design a vision for a decaying industrial city (Milwaukee was the model, if I remember right), looking ahead 30 years. Four Indians and a Pakistani, all young women. There were 250 entries from dozens of countries, and these five won the gold medal. Somehow all of us who knew them were almost more thrilled than they were. There was something heartwarming in their achievement, maybe because these were not cynical battle-hardened professionals, but still wide-eyed and idealistic young students.
She returned to Bombay in the early '90s, not long after I did. Over the years, we'd bump into each other here and there -- once at my office, once at a film ("Boys Don't Cry", I still remember) -- speak to each other on the phone. Turned out she knew my wife separately, going back even further than Austin in the '80s, to when they were kids. So she and I, we'd always say to each other, we have to meet more often, talk about old times, renew the links. As these things go, we never did.
And meanwhile, she threw herself into the growing efforts to preserve and restore heritage Bombay, winning awards and recognition for her work.
And then one day last week, she went to the hospital for what I understand was to be minor surgery, and didn't come out of anaesthesia. Didn't come back.
And I'm sitting in this little island, thinking of her and that smile. Thinking of the good people who remain on the fringes of our lives because somehow we don't make the effort to meet and talk. And I'm so sorry, so suddenly sad and sorry.
This is for you, my friend Sandhya Sawant. How glad I am that I knew you. Yet how sad I am that I left it till too late to know you better.