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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

Friends Across Oceans (for Shafali, the newest one)

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Grab your cup of tea, glass of wine, handkerchief, tissues if you are up for this sentimental post. All set? Here we go.

One summer afternoon, a month and a half ago, I took Shafali to the airport.

Who is Shafali? you ask; I’ll tell you shortly. Which airport, you ask next? San Francisco International. Where was she going? (Full of questions, aren't you?!)

She flew off to Germany, to start a new chapter in her life. A new job. And as I drove back home, minus Shafali and her multiple suitcases, I sent an Irish blessing into the ether:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

She came into my life like the full moon rising, bringing not just a rich and wonderful light, but laughter, fun, wonderful conversations, and comfort. Shafali, night-blooming jasmine, “Sheuli” in Bengali, “Pavizhamalli” in Malayalam.

And in her physical embodiment, the most creative person I have ever known. You only have to state a question, or design consideration, or a problem, before you receive, within minutes, a variety of spectacular, equally viable options. Which, of course, I would never have thought of on my own. She spoke of herself in an interview as “The Third Stonecutter.” Don’t know the story? Here it is.

A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

And so it is with Shafi, the third stonecutter, whose visionary brilliance has touched my life and made it so much better. (As one tiny example, it transformed my backyard redesign!)

I was rebuilding my life after divorce, raising my teenager, building community. Shafi became my friend of spontaneous walks, by sunlight or moonlight, by the sweeping vistas and oak trees at the Stanford Dish, or along the streets of our neighborhoods with old stately trees and inspiring gardens. Of garden talks, what to plant next and where. Admirer of my limoncello and rose jam. Sensible and kind advisor on parenting.

And then short phone calls or long conversations on the whirlwind of activities in her life around work (finding it), home (selling it), life (change, so much change). Saying goodbye to Shafi made me think quite a bit about friends, friendship, and the sadness when a friend moves away.

You see, so far, I have been the one to leave to go to another country. The sadness of staying is new to me. I remembered Lali, who stayed in Calcutta (yes, Kolkata now), who would come to bid me goodbye before I left. Time after time. The momentous time when I left the first time, sick as a dog, 18 years old, about to go on my first plane ride ever, to the US of A. And then again after my first visit. And again, the next time. I left, and she stayed, as did my parents. The first goodbye is perhaps the saddest. It takes a few reunions to establish that your friendship is deep and lasting, and that when you meet again, you will pick up a conversation as though it was just yesterday that you spoke last. A couple of years ago, after about 30 years, I met my friend Sabina again. My first buddy at Smith College, both of us fresh off the boat from Kolkata, we bonded closely as we navigated everything new that we were thrown into. Life took us in different directions for decades, and then brought us back together in San Francisco a couple of years ago, when she was in town to give a talk. Excited to meet after so long, we planned to have dinner together. I wrote this the day we met again, on returning home.

Continuing my musings about my distant friends, I found myself singing nostalgic songs in Hindi and Bengali. There is no song that captures nostalgia as much as Rabindranath Tagore’s “Purano Sei Diner Kotha” (Memories of the Old Days). Tagore wrote it in the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” that old ode to friendship that has become the song of the new year.

In West Bengal and Bangladesh, the melody was the direct inspiration for the popular Bengali folk song "Purano shei diner kotha" ("Memories of the Good Old Days"), composed by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and forms one of the more recognisable tunes in Rabindra Sangeet ("Rabindra's Songs"), a body of work of 2,230 songs and lyrical poems that form the backbone of Bengali music.

Here are the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne (For Old Times’ Sake), and rendition by Dougie Maclean. The parallels with Tagore's song are evident in the words, not just the tune....


Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne? Chorus: For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne. II And surely you'll buy your pint cup! and surely I'll buy mine! And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne. Chorus III We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine; But we've wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne. Chorus IV We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine†; But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne. Chorus V And there's a hand my trusty friend! And give me a hand o' thine! And we'll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne. Chorus

And here are the lyrics to Tagore’s song, first in the Bengali script, then in an English transliteration, and finally loosely translated by me (in purple prose, no pun) with phrases from my dear friend Lali's translation. Listen to this version sung by Hemant Kumar Mukherjee, if you will.

পুরানো সেই দিনের কথা ভুলবি কি রে হায়। ও সেই চোখে দেখা, প্রাণের কথা, সে কি ভোলা যায়। আয় আর একটিবার আয় রে সখা, প্রাণের মাঝে আয়। মোরা সুখের দুখের কথা কব, প্রাণ জুড়াবে তায়। মোরা ভোরের বেলা ফুল তুলেছি, দুলেছি দোলায়-- বাজিয়ে বাঁশি গান গেয়েছি বকুলের তলায়। হায় মাঝে হল ছাড়াছাড়ি, গেলেম কে কোথায়-- আবার দেখা যদি হল, সখা, প্রাণের মাঝে আয়॥

Purano shei diner kotha Bhulbe kii re Hai o shei chokher dekha, praaner kotha Sheikii bhola jaaye How can we ever forget the memories of those days?

The meeting of eyes and joining of hearts. Aaye aar ektibar aayre shokha Praner majhe aaye mora Shukher dukher kotha kobo Praan jodabe tai

Come, my friend, once again,

Come into my heart

Let us speak of our joys and sorrows

And once more, join our lives and hearts.

Mora bhorer bela phuul tulechi, dulechi dolaaye Bajiye baanshi gaan geyechi bokuler tolai Hai majhe holo chadachadi, gelem ke kothaye, Abaar dekha jodi holo shokha, praner majhe aaye"

We gathered flowers at dawn

Swayed together on the swing

Played the flute and sang songs under the bokul tree On our journeys through life, we drifted apart

Oh where did our paths take us?

If we meet again, my friend

Come right into my heart.

Years ago, we wrote letters to our friends and other loved ones across the oceans. The letters took 10 days to two weeks to arrive, at best. Some years later, we wrote emails. And now we have WhatsApp. We exchange pictures and notes with much greater ease. (All well and good, but I continue to wait for the transporter.)

How grateful I am for the many friends who live nearby, who hold me up practically every day.

And to Lali, Indira, and Rina, from whom oceans and 10,000 miles separate me. Decades later, our friendship continues to mean the world to me.

To all of you across oceans (to which list I now add Shafi):

When we meet again, my friend

Come right into my heart.

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