On 6 May 2016 came a lyrical letter from the hospital: ‘The sun is out and as I lie in bed I am going for a walk with you. Is there a green more dazzling, bountiful and soothing than the spring largesse on a tree? Some years ago I had written about the utterly selfless generosity of trees, their shade, their fruit, the constant separation of carbon dioxide which leaves the air so much purer. The earth we walk on is stable because the roots of trees are the network that grip the soil and keep it from turning to landslides. I was born in Bombay and we had two jackfruit trees at our front door. They did not bear fruit for decades and then one day I came back from Pune to find low-hanging jackfruits on both trees. Talk about miracles. Even then trees played no role in my life. And then one day without notice they suddenly came alive and I started a torrid love affair with them. It is beyond me how we are willing to butcher them. I have little doubt that you must have been a beautiful tree in your past life.’
I replied: ‘What a beautiful letter. Like everything you write it tells me so much about you. But this one is unique and it gladdens my heart. Thank you for taking me on this lovely walk. Thank you for your “and one day without notice…” And for making me a tree in my last life. The only sad part of your letter is “As I lie in bed”. I long for you to be up and resuming normal activity and for us to share some time together. Much love, Nayantara.’
I came to know Kiran, who had suffered illness, pain, and bouts of long lonely hospitalization during his childhood, and lived with the reality of more to come, as a man with an undiminished zest for life, a writer of genius known for the vigour and vitality of his writing, and his novels for their ribald riotous humour, their hallmark eroticism, and their gut-wrenching portrayal of the subjugation of women. His own unprivileged background made the marginalized, the brutalized and the helpless the central focus of his fiction. I came to admire a man whose answer to his daunting health problems was to make light of them, enjoy and engage with life and live it to the hilt. The last line of his last novel, The Arsonist, proclaims: ‘There is only one God. And her name is life.’ If Kiran had a religion, it was this.
‘Now why wasn’t I in Dehradun last evening?’ he wrote on 5 January 2016, ‘Would have loved to have seen The Great Dictator with you. It’s decades since I watched the Charlie Chaplin classic.’
I wrote: ‘It would have been great to see it together and laugh together in this otherwise grim time. Love, N.’
There was no respite from recurring afflictions. Anxious, and now involved with his health, I asked him to keep me informed about it.
From Udaipur where he and Tulsi were attending a wedding (of, I believe, one of her family) in early 2016, he wrote: ‘Udaipur is bearable in terms of the cold. As to the various functions of the wedding, everybody is very kind but I am the usual fish out of water. The wedding must have cost a bomb and a half but it was done with very good taste and understatement. The main problem was me since I went from bad to worse in terms of my lungs… Fortunately I was in touch with my doctors and was able to bring the problem under control.’
‘My silence has nothing to do with my not writing to you,’ he once wrote. ‘The air in Mumbai is very bad and as usual I don’t want to be left out of the competition in the matter of health problems. The pollution has done wonders for my operated eye, and I am amazed you haven’t heard me cough all the way in Dehradun.’ He said he might have to move for a while out of polluted Mumbai to some place where his breathing might be easier and I offered him and Tulsi my home in Dehradun, saying it was not the Ritz but a refuge if the need arose. ‘No it’s not the Ritz,’ he replied, ‘it’s the ten-star home of someone far too precious to talk about. Any time I listen to music, read something special, or see a film like The Third Man, I am doing it with you. Missing you horribly.’
‘Please don’t apologize for intruding on my time,’ he assured me, ‘you never intrude on my time. I think you know very well how much you mean to me and how much I value you.’
This mail from him moved me profoundly: ‘I don’t have to wake up to have your name on my tongue or echoing in my head. In Marathi we say “devache nav ghya” and “diwas suru kara”—take God’s name and start the day. There’s also one other name I’ve discovered that helps to get a good start for the day. Love, sleepless Kiran.’
Excerpted from Encounter with Kiran: Fragments from a Relationship by Nayantara Sahgal. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021.