I first met her two decades ago in Bombay: I was in college and she had been around for a long long time. She had seen many like me: upstarts, confident and wanting to partake of all that she offered. She had seen billionaires who behaved like children when they came to her; actresses who shed every emotion when they stood before her; industrialists who were robbed of their ego and their arrogance the moment they were in her presence.
But whenever I saw her, there was a beatific smile: a smile, which reeked of indulging me. I was almost child-like in her presence. I would play with all the toys she had so painstakingly gathered; eat from the various kitchens she put together with so much grace and elegance; the manner in which she would invent something I never imagined was ever possible. I remember the lullabies she would sing to me as she put me to bed with the hole of the next day being ever brighter, ever better. She would point out far-away exotica to me; tell me stories of pirates and royal landings; talk to me about the moments she was shy of and those very proud of. There was always shyness in her. A shyness borne out of good manners and an even better pedigree. She would never admonish but always silently acknowledge; she would never leap in joy but perhaps shed tears whenever she felt the tremors of injustice. After all, she had seen so much and was always willing to share.
What I loved most about coming back to her was the generosity of those she was surrounded by. She never made anyone feel left out. She never ever wanted anyone not to receive what he or she was seeking; she was there to help and partner; to laugh alongside and ensure you were always happy. Her family was equally large. I remember, my biggest delight was in coming back every time and catching up with her family members; they would tell me new tales with the same age-old panache and passion. Tales, which were at times silly; at times salacious but always delightful. Her family saw me grow up. From someone who was always asking to someone who was finally ready to enjoy whatever she offered. I grew up with many lessons she taught me; lessons in graciousness and lessons in simple living; lessons in preserving legacies to lessons in inventing delight: lessons which I cherish to this day and have made me what they are.
In many ways her family also became mine. I knew almost every one by name: there were some who you would address reverentially whilst others you could be playful with. They in turn knew everything about me. Pampered me and tolerated my idiosyncrasies. Gently played along with my ideas about life even though they in turn had seen so much more with such great intensity. Whenever I visited her, there was something new and something exciting about the experience I had. There was freshness in her timelessness and this is what always attracted me to her. She never ever let go of either her charm or her hidden persuasions. Like most elegant beauties, she too had many admirers. For many, it was she who represented all they were looking for. For many she was a whole world in itself. She had a voice, which spoke so many languages; a culture, which absorbed the finest of so many others and a demeanour, which was exacting, as it was exciting. The more I met her, the more liberties I took. I asked her how she thought of the new beauties in town. I asked her what kept her going; I often tried to pry into her past only so that I could predict the future. But not once did she hedge. Not once was there even a mild protestation. Not once did she even hint she was upset.
She had grown to like people. It didn’t matter where they came from; it didn’t matter how wealthy they were; it didn’t matter what they wore and what they spoke. Royalty or prime ministers did not sway her: she had seen most of them. In perhaps their most private moments. She was not concerned about their power or their reign: she had been around longer. All she wanted to be was that welcoming angel. The fountainhead of happiness and the harbinger of good tidings. She wanted her home to echo with laughter and peels of joy. She wanted people to live with calmness and peace and sleep a good night’s sleep. That is all she wanted. For all those who came to her.
Which is why I guess she welcomed those three men last week. Not knowing who they were and what plans they had. She was a welcoming angel neither suspicious nor judgmental. I left her home an hour before those three young men came in. But when I wanted to return an hour later, her family alerted me and said it would not be good to come back to her just as she was in a spot of trouble. Even then, she cared not for her health, but mine.
The next three days were savage days in her life and mine. But I know, through it all, she would have remained indulgent and unable to comprehend times and deeds such as the ones that were inflicted on her and her family. She lost many of her family only so that the larger family stayed safe.
She weeps now. Not for what happened to her but for what happened to us. She says a silent prayer not just for those who died but also equally for those who God so sadly misled. And I know she waits for the day when her family and she will be ready to receive people like me back to her home. She would not have it any other way. Nor would we.
She was, she is and she shall always be my favourite. The Taj. I know she’ll be back. Better, brighter, braver and more beauteous.