With Chandira Hensey
No stars were harmed in the making of this story. All astrological references are completely made up.
It’s a year ago that Bapu died: January 8 2020.
His brother Noel was with him. When he arrived at the bedside, Bapu was wearing one of those positive-pressure masks to aid his breathing. The machines that had been supplying his medications and support systems were gone, but the empty racking on which they had all been mounted was still in place. The lighting was soft and there was an air of calm and serenity in the room. “He looked a damn sight better and more at ease than the last time I saw him,” says Noel. “He had been washed and shaved, and looked about as presentable as I could have hoped for.”
After bracing himself, Noel sat down on his right and took his hand. He spoke quietly, and Bapu opened his eyes and looked at him. He smiled and mouthed silently: “Thanks for coming.” A while passed, Noel chatting quietly about this and that: his family and friends and what was going on in their lives.
Bapu only opened his eyes a couple of times after that. Each time, Noel thought he looked a little more impatient. Both of them knew what was about to happen.
Bapu’s lungs had been destroyed from the years of chain smoking. His body was completely fucked. He needed the machine to breathe. There was no hope of any recovery. The next time the nurse appeared, Noel asked for the mask to be removed, which it duly was. He had spoken to the doctor about this the day before, and he knew what the outcome was likely to be. The nurse sat with them for a few minutes and then left. After about 5 or 10 minutes, Noel could see that Bapu was taking shallower and shallower breaths. The nurse kept looking in on them as he grew weaker and more distant. Eventually Bapu took his last breath and Noel knew that he had gone. A minute later, the nurse appeared and said that his heart had stopped. Noel said that he knew.
Bapu passed away peacefully at 19.43 BST, in the critical care unit, Frank Stanshil ward of King’s College hospital, Denmark Hill in London. I’m sure there would be an astrological significance to this if someone were to do a chart. We have natal charts, why not mortal charts, to tell us where we would go next?
Noel says that just after Bapu’s heart stopped a bright light, like an evening star, appeared towards the bottom of the empty equipment rack by the bedside. The nurse had gone and Noel and Bapu were on their own. Noel smiled and said: “Was that you, you bastard? Had to have the last word, didn’t you?”
That tells you a lot about their relationship. They were always fighting as kids and loved to insult each other, in that way that people from working-class families often do. To outsiders it would have sounded like they were aggravated or annoyed, but the insults came from a place of deep, unstated affection. Really they loved each other, as only brothers and rivals can.
Bapu’s given name was Hugh James Davey. He was named after their father, so his family called him Jim or Jimmy to avoid confusion. The name “Bapu” was acquired in India. It means “father” and is a common honorific given to gurus, sages, prophets and people with a spiritual calling. That was how Bapu saw himself. He was always looking for disciples, but he never really found one.
I met him back in the 1990s in Glastonbury. He had this rumbling, earthy voice, and a distinct northern accent. I found out later that he was from Middlesbrough. His head was shaved, except for a little topknot at the back, in the Krishna devotee style. We were in a mutual friend’s kitchen, drinking beer. I was always a cynic when it came to new-age philosophy and had made some disparaging remark about astrology. People laughed and tutted and turned to Bapu for an answer. Bapu said that he could prove me wrong. He asked what my birthday was and then told me exactly what was in the heavens on the day of my birth: what planets there were, and in what positions. He did all this from memory. He didn’t quite convince me that astrology was real, but he certainly convinced me that he had an extraordinary memory for the layout of the stars on any day of any year, as far back as 1953, my birth year, at least. He was a professional astrologer on one of those astrology phone lines. Made quite a decent living out of it by all accounts.
We became sort of accidental friends. This was more by location than by having anything in common. He lived at one end of the A2, in New Cross in London, and I lived at the other. He liked to get out of the Big Smoke occasionally, to breathe some sea air and drink a pint (or several) on the beach. So he took to driving down to Whitstable every so often. We would meet at the Neptune, a pub on the beach, and drink ale. Afterwards we would eat fish and chips and then he would drive himself home. He liked his beer strong, so I always wondered how much danger he put himself into on these journeys, but he never seemed to get himself into any trouble.
The problem with Bapu was that he only had one subject of conversation: he only ever talked about astrology. Whatever the story, he always had an astrological angle on it. The war in Iraq? This was because of the conjunction of Uranus with Neptune. The election results: Saturn opposes Mars. The USA bombs Libya? Mercury retrograde. And on and on like this.
I never knew what he was talking about half the time. I was always having to ask him what he meant by this or that cryptic piece of information, and I was never any the wiser after he told me.
It always struck me that there was a circular logic to what he was saying. He argued back from conditions in the real world to what was happening in the sky. He was always right. He was always right because he couldn’t possibly be wrong. There was no way anyone could argue with him. You would just have to take his word for it that these particular stellar arrangements meant what he said they did.
Personally I found the philosophy unhelpful. So what if Mercury conjuncts Venus in Sagittarius – or whatever it was – causing Gordon Brown to bail out the banks? It wasn’t really an explanation, was it, and it didn’t give us any clues as to how we deal with it. It all seemed horribly fatalistic to me. There you are, that’s the sky: that’s our fate, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Life. Death. War. Politics. Economics. History. Art. Poetry. What you ate for breakfast. How big a shit you had. Whether you would fall in love or not. Whether you lived or whether you died. All of it was preordained by the shape of the sky at any one moment and which, let’s face it, has been moving around in an entirely predictable way from the beginning of time — which means the whole of life on this earthly plane is just a mechanical process reflecting the complex iterations of the planets against the eternal backdrop of the stars. I never bought into it myself.
On the other hand, I had to admit that he had a peculiar insight into the workings of the human soul, and he could sum up people, precisely, in a very few words. I witnessed this a few times. He would take someone’s hand, or ask them a question about their time and place of birth, and within a few seconds he would say something that would knock your socks off with its accuracy. It was uncanny, it really was.
The most extraordinary example of this was when he met Jon Harris for the first time. It was in the George Inn in Southwark. There were a couple of us gathered around the table. He asked people what they were into? That was a common question of his, and I heard him ask it on a few occasions. He meant: what is your philosophy? What are the motivations that make your life worthwhile? Once you had answered, it allowed him to talk about astrology.
Eventually he took Jon’s hand. He was looking at Jon’s little finger and saying how straight it was. “He’s a very straight man. You have good friends, Chris.”
Suddenly he said, after finding out Jon’s place and date of birth: “Do you have a staff?” It was this that made me and Jon both laugh out loud. Yes, Jon has a staff. It’s not a staff you can lean on, at least not physically. It’s a sort of gnarled, twisted knot of a thing, about three or four-foot long, that Jon has carved and polished and mused on over many years. It is central to everything that he does. Whenever he does a ritual, he brings his staff along. Whenever it is mentioned, he raises it in the air and says: “All Hail the Staff!” He has taken that staff all over the country, to the highest peaks of England, Scotland and Wales as a part of him sealing his ritual identity as the High Priest of the Church of the Burn in this the Magical Land of Albion.
Does he have a staff, indeed? If Bapu had told Jon his mum’s maiden name, or the day he got married, or the names of his kids, it couldn’t have been more startling.
Bapu said: “It is like your spine. It holds you up.” And he was right again, not only metaphorically but physically too. It does indeed look a little like a spine, albeit one belonging to a hunchback. It has a gnarly sort of gravity to it.
Was it the stars that gave him this insight or was it something else, something inside of him? A non-local grasp of the strange magical processes that underlie the human condition. I tend to favour the latter explanation, and it was why I remained friends with him despite our differences. It was not the only time I saw him do this.
He was always entertaining, and he used to say the most peculiar things. I wish now I had taken a note of some of them. They were so strange. There was something about the way his brain worked that was not like other people’s. It was associative rather than logical. Magical rather than grammatical. It was like he was wired up differently to everyone else. He thought in metaphors, not sentences. In describing someone he would create a word-picture that summed up their characteristics. There was a peculiar kind of garbled poetry to the way he talked which often made me laugh.
After a while it became apparent that he did indeed have something slightly wonky in the brain department. He said that he had died at birth, strangled by his own umbilical cord. He had been dead for several minutes and his brain starved of oxygen before they managed to bring him back to life. He said he had suffered brain damage and claimed he was on the autistic spectrum. That explained a lot. It also told us why astrology was so important to him. People on the autistic spectrum often have difficulty relating to other people. They love patterns and puzzles and simple facts and can have extraordinary memory retention, such as the ability to look at star charts and remember them in vivid detail. Astrology allowed Bapu to have endless conversations with people without having to understand them socially. It was the perfect architecture for building a conversation. Everyone likes to talk about themselves. Tell them their Venus conjuncts their Mars and their Saturn opposes their Sun, explain what this means — and watch them do the rest. All he had to do was feed them the technical details.
I think this was the point that I forgave him his astrology, and, indeed, gave in to it. It was just his way of relating, that’s all. Without it, what else was there to talk about?
So we carried on being friends for many years. I was at his wedding/handfasting. The whole of the druidic, magical tribe were there. It took place in Avebury in 2003.
I’ll let Chandira, Bapu’s friend of more than a quarter of a century, take over at this point:
I moved to Glastonbury in the spring of 1995. I was 23 years old and fresh out of living a very conventional life that just didn’t pan out for me.
I was lucky enough to find a great room to rent with a very lovely landlord, Ian. A few months in, Ian was kind enough to get me a ticket to Glastonbury festival. He wanted to encourage and support me by getting me a job at the festival as a tarot-card reader. I had only had a few years’ experience with the cards at that point and had never read for money, but I had a knack for it that Ian recognised, and wanted to support.
Anyway, the day of the festival rolls round and, as I’m leaving, Ian says to me, in very conspiratorial tones: “Whatever you do, avoid a man called Bapu, he will eat you alive.”
So I got to the festival. I nervously looked around for a place to put up my tent. There was one spot left, next to this old beige VW camper van. Bapu’s camper. I put up my tent, deliberately avoiding my new neighbour, as instructed by Ian. I spent a very uncomfortable night, being as I was mostly unprepared to camp in what turned out to be a very cold and noisy field. I lay awake shivering all night, finally getting off to sleep about 3am. I was rudely awakened about 7am by Bapu loudly and unceremoniously unzipping my tent and sticking his big bald head in.
“Jesus, you’re a RIGHT little princess, aren’t you! You kept me awake all night!” With that followed the offer of a nice hot cup of tea, and a blanket, and an invitation to sit in his van for a bit and warm up. And a long explanation about empaths.
We had the best festival ever, and I made more than a few friends that week that are still with me almost 25 years later, more than half my life. In that time I have learned many, many lessons from Bapu, some hilarious, some hard, some deliberate, some inadvertent, a lot astrological, some painful, but always, always, with love. The name “Bapu” means “father” in Hindi. He has certainly lived up to the name.
Bapu has always been there, in so many ways I can’t even explain. We always, from day one, had a very psychic connection. By that, I mean that more often than not I would dream about him — and he’d call me the next day. Or I’d be going through some thing, having some kind of bad day, and the phone would ring, and I’d hear: “Aayyup, everything OK, girl? What’s going on?” He always knew. I kept a lot of the voicemails he left me over the last few years, and some are hilarious. He’d always say to me: “I miss your voice”.
So many weekends between 1995 and August 2000, before I moved to the US, I’d jump on the several buses up to London and spend a few days in his flat in New Cross, either glued to his little computer screen, sitting on that old sheepskin rug on the floor, looking at astrology charts; or we’d zip about the countryside in that VW van and visit various gatherings, festivals, and friends together. I’d always spend a few days there when I was visiting home, too. He took me to see the Tower of London and Crown Jewels once, and he even made that a lesson in “sovereignty and owning your self-worth”. And we did have a laugh that day, playing tourists.
One day we went to Longleat to visit his friend Ivan, who was busy building a stone circle on the grounds for Lord Bath. Bapu stopped the van by some trees and said: “OK then, lead me to Ivan!” I found a small leafy path through the woods, several lefts and a few rights later, there we were, in a small clearing, looking right at Ivan’s cosy bender. I’d led us right there. Today’s lesson? Trusting my sense of direction and gut instinct. I think the greater lesson, though, was learning that somebody actually had faith in me and could see me for who I was. Things were always like that with Bapu — there was always another layer, a deeper layer than what was on the surface.
My last visit with Bapu before I left to live in the US was memorable. His parting “blessing” for my journey was to wish that I had “a good shit, every day”. When I have thought about that over the years, that’s definitely been one of the best blessings you could wish for a person. Life without that gets pretty uncomfortable, pretty fast. I have often reflected on that fact.
Bapu’s handfasting weekend in 2003 was a riot. He picked me up from the airport a day or so before,and drove me down to Margate to meet his bride, Christine. She was of course, lovely, and a very gracious hostess. She was an interior designer, with an immaculate home, white carpets, and a gorgeous ocean view. Bapu was complaining about being made to go outside to smoke cigarettes. He left me there and drove back to London to get ready for the big day.
The morning of the handfasting, Christine, Chris and I drove to Avebury. That was a lovely journey, but it seemed to take HOURS. We arrived at Avebury, eventually, me worried that the bride was going to be late, and the place was PACKED. Pretty much everybody there was there for Bapu. It was a magical day. Lots of laughter and love, flowing freely; as was the beer, when we all piled into the pub afterwards.
The ceremony was wonderful. I remember Bapu strolling majestically into the circle, looking like the king himself in his brown robe and staff, accompanied by the one and only King Arthur, and his merry band of friends and brothers. I was there with Christine while she was waiting for him, looking like a queen. There was definitely something somehow bigger about that day than just an ordinary wedding. It was my first visit home since had I left for the States and it was a heck of a welcome home.
Bapu wasn’t easy to get on with. You see it so many times: somebody dies and the friends left behind suddenly only have nice things to say. He would have hated that. He was a very difficult person sometimes. He had Asperger’s, and his social skills weren’t really all that. Actually, he really didn’t give a shit what anybody thought, sometimes. Most of the time. He was always right, no matter what. I was usually OK with that, and could deal with him, but a lot of people weren’t. He could have made life a lot easier for himself than he did, but he never wanted to compromise on his own view of it all.
That’s the Asperger’s. It gives you a very fixed view of things. Astrology was Bapu’s gift, that came with the autism. You had to speak his language. If you didn’t, he could get frustrated. I was at a festival with him once — might have been that first Glastonbury — and he was wandering around buck-ass naked, with just a short T-shirt on. Shorter than it needed to be. There were people there who were definitely offended by that — I mean, think of the KIDS!! But his response was that it was a hot summer day, human bodies are natural, and that uptightness was not. He really could see no problem with his wandering around with it all on display. After a while, I couldn’t either. He was just like that. Of course. It wasn’t offensive, it was just a body. His body. And he most definitely was not ashamed of it. His attitude just kind of wore off on most people he was around, after a while.
But people didn’t always find that easy. I am guessing my old landlord Ian didn’t. The last few years, Bapu’s health got progressively worse. Being a chain smoker and drinking a few cans of beer most nights, he had never been in the best of health, but the last few years really took a toll on him. He hated doctors. I really think that some people are allergic to them, and he was one of them. So persuading him to seek treatment, or spend any time in hospital, or get any kind of help, was hard. He had SO many moments of us all thinking that was it — from which he’d rally round, like nothing had really happened. He had a stroke a few years ago and was hospitalised for a while. I sent him some money for groceries or whatever he needed it for. He bust himself out of hospital, filled his petrol tank, and drove straight to Avebury.
Of course. If you’re Bapu, that’s what you do. I will never forget he said to me once: “Thank you. You’re the only person in my life who hasn’t ever ’ad a go at me about the fags.” Like I would have ever got anywhere if I had. I took that lesson on too, though, and he was right. Nobody learns by being nagged. People learn by being loved and by appreciated for who they are. He taught me that one an infinite number of times, and I will miss my dear friend, brother and mentor with all my heart.
So yes, that was me in the car with Chandira and Christine. The two of them came by my flat on the way to Avebury. It was such a surprise to see Chandira. I’d known her in Glastonbury some years before, when she was a librarian, and I was using the library. I never knew she had any connection to Bapu.
It was, as she says, a wonderful weekend, and I have always felt privileged to have been part it. Bapu was in full magical mode, dressed in a robe and dispensing blessings to all and sundry. He was so happy. He was beaming love everywhere and to everyone. I never saw him like that before or since.
What Chandira highlights in her story is the central problem in Bapu’s life. “He was always right, no matter what.” He could give advice but he never could take it. He saw himself as a guru, a teacher; but to be a teacher, you have to be willing to listen and to learn. He never was. It was a one-way street with Bapu. He could dole it out in bucketloads, but he couldn’t receive it. It was like a curse, one of those classical curses: like Cassandra, cursed to always tell the truth but never to be believed. In Bapu’s case, he was cursed to always give advice but never to accept it, always to know what other people should do — but never himself. For himself, he always made the worst decisions. In the end it cost him his life.
He wasn’t with Christine for all that long: maybe a year or two. She couldn’t stand his smoking, for one. She was scrupulously clean and she didn’t like the smell. She made him smoke outdoors, which was a problem, given that she lived on a third-floor flat. He promptly turned that into a complaint about her nagging. But it was much more than that: it worried her. He had a terrible cough. She must have known it would kill him in the end, and she didn’t want to have to bear witness to that. She gave him an ultimatum: it was either her or the cigarettes. He chose the cigarettes.
The irony of this was he hated junkies. He’d been at war with his neighbours for years because he thought they were dealing from their flat, and he fell out with a friend of mine because he smoked dope incessantly. But Bapu was a junkie too: a nicotine junkie. He smoked maybe 60 a day and his chest rattled with phlegm every time he coughed.
He went down hill rapidly after he and Christine split up. There were a series of problems, including a couple of strokes, and he started walking with a stick. He would arrange to meet up with Christine on the beach whenever he came to visit me. She would always turn up. Bapu would ask after her love life and it was always awkward and strange. He was so very gracious and noble about it, in that hip, free, alternative way that old hippies always try to affect, but you could see it was eating him up. Personally, I hate that pretence of non-jealousy. Admit it, Bapu: you want her back but you are too much of an idiot to do anything about it.
And then at a certain point he lost his job and had a life-changing illness. One of his lungs collapsed and he was rushed into hospital. As Chandira said, he hated hospitals. As soon as he was able to, he escaped. What this meant was that, instead of allowing paid professional care staff to look after his needs, he threw himself on his friends. It was us who had to carry the weight. He told me he was going to die. He’d read it in his stars. It was near his birthday, December 20, and he wanted to go to Avebury to die. Avebury was his favourite place.
I went up to London to help him. It was the first time I had seen his flat. I’d only ever met him at Christine’s before or on the beach. Talk about a contrast. She had white carpets. Bapu’s place was filthy. Piles of clothes everywhere and nowhere to sit. Inches of dust on everything, A brown-stained toilet and a yellow-stained bath. Thick black cobwebs hanging on the walls and from the ceiling. Cigarette ash and dust all over the carpet and the smell of stale smoke. Everything was stained brown with nicotine. The sheets on his bed had obviously not been changed for months, maybe even years. There was a layer of grease on all the surfaces in the kitchen.
There was a roll of grimy toilet paper hanging next to the toilet. He told me me proudly it was two years old. “You can use it if you want. Never use it myself,” he said. He used the Indian method, he said; that is, he washed his arse with water, after which he would wash his hands with disinfectant. Quite why he thought this was preferable, I don’t know. Perhaps he wanted to save money on toilet paper.
He was sat in a ripped T-shirt with nothing on his bottom half, ordering me around and, when I didn’t do whatever it was to his exact requirements, he told me off: “This soup is cold!”
“You said to do it like that.”
“Well you can just do it again and get it right next time.”
I had to hang around all day while various people came through the door. I was negotiating with his neighbours and the staff on the estate where he lived. It was a housing co-op, very right-on. They told me he had been insulting everyone before he’d been taken in to hospital. That’s why he’d lost his job on the phone lines too: he’d started insulting the clientele.
I found that quite funny. Imagine ringing up a new-age airy-fairy phone line expecting some sort of high-minded spiritual advice, only to get Bapu snarling down the phone at you, telling you to stop whining, you fuckin’ baby. It was obvious with the collapsed lung that he was wasn’t getting enough oxygen and had literally gone out of his mind.
I spoke to the social services to try to get him some homecare and to various other agencies. I spoke to his doctor. Every time anyone came in, Bapu was insulting them, ordering them around imperiously from his chair in the middle of the room, sat there in his holey T-shirt with all his bits showing, like the King of the Trolls in his grubby cave. I was so glad to get out of there.
After that there was a phone call. It was the ambulance. They were knocking on his door as they’d been called out by one of his neighbours, but there was no answer. I told them that from what I had seen of his state he couldn’t possibly have left the flat, so they broke the door down. He was nowhere to be seen. Later we heard that he was in Avebury. He’d managed to get into his old banger and to drive all the way there, despite being hardly able to walk. He’d gone there to die, according to his prediction.
He landed in someone’s drive with a boot full of beer and then refused to move. He was there for a few days. Later again he was arrested; he had stopped the traffic on the A4, got out of his car and was lurching about in the middle of the road. The police took him in to hospital. Later again there was another phone call. It was Bapu, speaking from the hospital. He wanted me to drive over and pick him up. “Please mate, get me out of here, I’m begging you.”
He managed to make his own way home by catching a train.
So now began a new phase in his life. He was so badly disabled he needed a careworker. He could hardly get from his seat to the bathroom, couldn’t bath himself, couldn’t shop or cook. He hadn’t died on his birthday, as he’d predicted, but his life had changed irrecoverably. He never left that flat again until he was carried out of it on a stretcher into a hospital, where he died.
That was his greatest fear, and the reason he hated hospitals so much. He always said he would die in hospital, and he was right.
I’d developed this theory about Bapu many years before. I called it the Macbeth Syndrome. If you remember, in Macbeth the eponymous hero is given a series of predictions by the Weird Sisters on the heath. They hail him as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and as king. He is already Thane of Glamis and is soon to be Thane of Cawdor — but instead of lying back and waiting for the final prediction to come true of itself, he sets about making it come true; he kills the king, thus creating the tragedy around which the whole play revolves. This is what I call the Macbeth Syndrome, the tendency, once a prediction has been made, to start acting in ways that will make it come true. In a way, that was the story of Bapu’s life.
In fact, the thing that was disabling him was a hernia. It wasn’t really all that serious. He could have had it treated, but he refused because of his fear of hospitals. As the years went by, the hernia got worse and worse, making him more and more disabled, and it was the hernia that killed him in the end.
My relationship with him changed too. No more sitting on a beach, watching the sunset, drinking pints of ale and talking about the stars: instead, our relationship was confined to that grubby flat of his, and me doing him favours. Not all that often, I have to say. I couldn’t bear to sit in his flat. I would feel sick just walking through the door.
He carried on smoking and drinking, against everyone’s advice.
I heard that he was in hospital on December 9 2019. It was a memorable week, for all sorts of reasons. I was on retreat, in a monastery in Crawley. For most of the previous two weeks I’d been travelling up and down to New Cross to help sort him out with stuff. He needed something to help him to breathe, something to help him keep warm. A bunch of other things. I was travelling by bus, having given up my car by then. It took several hours.
“Why don’t you go into hospital, Bapu? It’s not fair of you to expect your friends to do all the work for you.”
As always he refused. As always he knew better than everyone else.
He was ringing me up all the time, asking me to do this or that for him. In the end I stopped answering his calls.
Then, on the Sunday, in a pub in Clapham, there was a call. It was an unknown number. I answered the phone and the name Bapu was mentioned. The pub was too noisy so I couldn’t quite catch what was being said. It took till the following day to find out. I was walking through the woods near the monastery when I finally got round to answering the call. It was Bapu’s careworker. Bapu was in hospital in an induced coma having suffered a catastrophic collapse of his vital organs. I knew immediately he was going to die.
That week will go down as one of the strangest, most bleak times in my life. I was isolated with a bunch of monks who didn’t talk, in a monastery miles from anywhere, my computer crashed, my friend was dying, and then Labour lost the election. All in the space of a week.
The last time I saw Bapu was the day before he died. Once again I was the nearest person to him, despite being 60 miles away, so was the one who was visiting most often. He’d come out of the coma by then and could nod and smile and make hand gestures. I went up a few times, held his hand and talked to him, passed messages on from his friends. His eyes lit up and a lovely smile came over his features whenever I mentioned certain people’s names. It was obvious he had loved them all.
This next bit is very difficult for me. I was about to leave. I asked Bapu if he wanted me to come back tomorrow? He shook his head and gave me this look. It was unmistakable. His lips curled with such anger, such scorn. He would have bared his teeth if he had any. I didn’t know where it came from or what I had done. The anger was almost palpable. There was no denying it. He made this hand gesture, putting the fingers and thumb of one hand in a circle as if clutching something, and then moving it back and forth. He was calling me a wanker.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
I spent days trying to work out what had happened, why he had suddenly shifted on me. What a legacy to leave your friend. Earlier he’d tried to get me to get him a cup of coffee. He was cheerful… or as cheerful as you can be trussed up in a hospital bed with tubes down your throat. I scoured through our conversations to try to figure it out.
There was only one possible explanation. I’d spoken to one of the nurses about his family earlier, saying they were not the sort of family to show their affections openly. As I said at the beginning, they were more inclined to insult each other than to say corny stuff like “I love you”. That was true. But Bapu had only just reconciled with them after years of estrangement. He was the black sheep of the family, the crazy hippie, the mad astrologer magician with strange habits and a flat full of idols. The rest of them had lived conventional lives, with regular hours and mortgages. I guess I shouldn’t have spoken to the nurse. I guess it was a bit crass and a bit clumsy under the circumstances. But I’d been up to see him a number of times and it was not always easy to know what to say. It’s hard sitting by the bedside of a dying man. All the normal props of conversation were missing. We couldn’t even talk about astrology. I guess I just blurted something out unthinkingly, which had led to this: my last moment with a friend of 25 years or more, being called a wanker and told to fuck off.
So that’s it. You can’t get more final than that.
But there is one more thing. He did actually leave me something other than a bad memory. It’s a statue of Shiva that he had obviously bought on one of his trips to India. Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, made of polished brass which catches the light, just over 10 inches tall. Exquisite, graceful, energetic, wild, expressive, Shiva has four arms and three eyes, with a nest of dreadlocks flying out from behind his head and a snake around his neck. He is dancing on a corpse in a circle of fire, poised in a classical dance pose, making these precise hand gestures. He’s not calling me a wanker.
I knew it was coming. Before he went into hospital, Bapu had said he was going to leave me something. I was supposed to have received it at his funeral, but of course that never happened because of Covid. His brother finally sent it towards the end of the year. It arrived on Christmas Eve and was the best present I ever had.
I’m looking at it now. It’s sitting in front of me as I write these words. It is speaking to me. I wanted to ask its forgiveness for having said such a stupid thing the last time I saw my friend. It’s too late to ask Bapu’s forgiveness. But the statue just stands there in its eternal poise, a benign look upon its face.
It’s no use asking me for forgiveness, it says. You have to forgive yourself.
CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.
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