Sophia died a couple of months ago. One day she seemed healthy and we were talking about diet, exercise and how people do not take care of themselves and the next time when I spoke to her she had been admitted to hospital. It came as a massive shock to me, as I considered Sophia to be really healthy, someone who took great care of herself. Neither of us have children so we had a running joke that we had to stay strong and healthy as we did not have our offspring to care for us in later life.
We live but by the grace of half a breath. A very wise physician once told me that many moons ago. This is one of the mantras I live by: not quite like a Damocles sword, more like a Sufi hat that symbolises a tombstone acting as a reminder that Death is not far off. And every time I hear of someone passing, I am reminded of this mantra of mine.
Sophia had pains in her abdomen which she put down to flatulence, initially treating it with home made remedies and not taking it seriously. As one does. Then as the pain became severe, she went to homeopaths and Ayurvedic practitioners, not believing in taking allopathic medicines, thinking she had stomach problems that could easily be solved with alternative medicines.
However her pains seemed to increase and with a swelling abdomen, she began to have other symptoms which then prompted Sophia’s husband to take her to a hospital. Doctors ran tests, finding lumps whereupon biopsies followed, leading to the big-C diagnosis. Doctors could not quite determine the hows whys and whats of the big C, so they sent her home till the reports came back.
“That was the time of intense self introspection”, said Sophia as I held her bony, weakening hand in mine. “What did I do wrong? I am going to fight it, I am going to survive. I have enough energy in me to get through this”, she said barely able to utter the words.
When I heard Sophia say this, I instinctively knew that she would not make it. These words appeared more as a solace to Sophia than her actual fighting spirit. But I wanted her to pull through, keeping my fingers crossed for a good quality of life, if she did.
Sophia was not her real name. Even though I had known Sophia for well over 20 years, I did not come to know her real name till after her death. Her husband showed me a newspaper notice he had had made to inform the world at large of Sophia’s passing.
“Sophia is not her real name?” It sounded strange to me as I said those words.
Sophia had always been a lover of books. She would forever have her nose in her precious books as a child and her father would scold her regularly as she would keep her study books aside, reading what was considered ‘trashy’ novels in the early sixties and seventies when Sophia was growing up. After she married, as they were discussing what Sophia could do with her love for books, her husband suggested she start a library.
They found a room to rent very cheaply which, very conveniently, turned out to be the lane my father lives in. That was how we struck up a friendship. I used to visit her every time I came down to visit my father and there we would sit for hours among her beloved books – she on a chair, me on a woven ‘modha’ – a cane footstool. Discussing our childhood experiences, health, exercise, spirituality, mysticism, we found plenty of common ground bonding us over the years. Sophia loved my father – a striking man – who, with a crown full of silver hair, a forties handlebar moustache, strode the lanes of Koregaon Park every day as he went about his business or his daily walks.
And now I learn that she has been struck with cancer and has but a few weeks to live.
“So how did she get the name Sophia?”, I asked her husband on my visit to him after her death. He rather sheepishly told me that he had loved Sophia Loren, the Italian film actress. And as the name also comes from the Greek word, Sophos – wisdom, they both felt it appropriate to name the bookshop – Sophia’s Bookshop. And the name stuck. I would be surprised if many people knew her real name.
Lying in her bed at home, a skeleton, mere skin and bones, her eyes were shining with a light filled at once with acceptance and resignation. Even with the illness ravaging her insides, she was not in pain. Her good humour and pragmatic views on life took me back to the days when we would sit together in her little bookshop drinking sickly sweet cups of milky tea and munching on tea biscuits.
Up narrow metal stairs to be transported into another world. At the entrance of a tiny room a ‘Beware of your head’ sign warned you to duck. This was to avoid banging your head at an unusually low beam. Or it could also have had a metaphorical meaning? Every inch of space was lined with books in English, German, Spanish, Hindi – neatly arranged according to subject. She would be found lovingly arranging and re-arranging the books every so often, dusting them or simply chatting to the doctors’ patients who visited the dispensary downstairs.
Loved by all, Sophia was warm, gregarious and extraordinarily available to everyone who visited her. She had an inordinate capacity to talk – non-stop – you could barely get a word in edge-ways. Bespectacled, tall – for Indian standards – and wiry, she was quick to show you a yoga exercise or two if she felt you needed it! She even made me buy a rather prickly, Reflexology board with magnets for my dad.
“No, Shruti, you must buy it. It will help him enormously”, she insisted. “Look, I do it everyday”, she said, dancing on it. Ouch!
Sophia is certainly a brave woman, I thought to myself when she told me she was going to be doing Santhara – a way of voluntarily ending one’s life with no food or water intake, meditating and performing a variety of rituals. Still practiced by the Jaina community in India, it is quite an undertaking. It needs to be done with utmost willingness, a submission to the divine and under supervision of a Jaina ascetic.
She had been heroic in her final few weeks, Sophia’s husband said through anguished tears, the pain clearly visible. But he too was stoic and accepting that Sophia had gone on her onward journey. That there was no way one could stop the process of life and death and that there was no need to. Both Sophia and her husband considered themselves Osho’s disciples but they also practiced a wide variety of other spiritual disciplines, “taking the best, most valuable elements out of each one of them,” according to her husband.
“Her death was beautiful”, he said to me. “She was in pain only in the last couple of days. Even the Jaina munis said that she had gone on to a higher plane with her Santhara.”
Whether you believe in this or not, Sophia certainly left her mark with her gentle humour, her loving ways and her inordinate love of books on everyone who had met her. So the bookseller of Koregaon Park now has left her books behind and travels on unburdened and unencumbered.
So long Sophia, it was wonderful to have known you. Fly high, dear friend!