I never stopped to think about it. You could say such is the folly that accompanies falling in love. But then, I’ve begun to believe people who say if one thinks hard about what having and raising children could be about, one may not have them at all.
It was dark in the tiny bedroom when I awoke, jet lagged. I heard my lover speaking on the telephone. ‘Ik’, I heard, then after a bit ‘ik’ again and then after a bit, ‘ik’. This is what I remember. Through the haze of my condition, a couple of things came sharply through. He isn’t speaking English. What is ik? My incomprehension terrified me. He had, in the course of a few minutes left me to inhabit another world in which I was not a citizen.
I know his English is not my English. I notice through the letters he writes to me that he has an odd way of replacing his t’s with d’s. So when he actually wants to say ‘spent’, he says ‘spend’ and the other way around. ‘It was lovely to spent a day with you’ or ‘they have build a house in the country’. Later, when I will do my best at writing Dutch, I will puzzle over words, trying to figure out if they should end with t’s or d’s or both t and d. Like, ‘Ik houd van je’ or ‘ik hout van je’ or ‘ik houdt van je’. When I look it up in the dictionary, it says ‘ik hou(d)’ confusing me to a point of no return.
Like I said, I never stopped to think about it then. You do what you have to do, right? So I came, on his invitation to Amsterdam. I heard him on the telephone and it hit me that he belonged to a different world from me in some ways. The fear gave way to discomfort in the days that followed with everyone doing their best to talk to me and make me feel at home in English and to each other in Dutch. A few days later, on his suggestion, I went to the buurthuis and registered for an evening language class to learn Dutch. We weren’t committed yet but were convinced that this action was as much about commitment.
One day about four years later, I got a call on my mobile phone while I was giving a presentation at work. Something made me answer it anyway. It was someone I knew from the ROC – the Dutch school I had studied in after I had stopped the evening classes in the buurthuis. He told me that my teacher had died and asked if I would like to go to the funeral the next day. Again, without thinking, I said ‘yes’.
A couple of years before her death, for three mornings every week, I had contact with my teacher for about a year. On the first day of school, she stood before the class and said, ‘I’m Louise de Vries and I will be your Dutch teacher. Please address me as Louise’. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand not because it was Dutch she spoke but because how does one call one’s teacher by her first name?
I solved it. If I wanted to ask her something, I went close to her and spoke without addressing her so I could avoid the conflict that would rage in me. Miss de Vries? No. Mrs. De Vries. No. Madam? No. Louise. No. If she noticed my discomfort she didn’t let on that she did. Just peered above her reading glasses at me, like she did with the rest of the motley group of international students in the class. She was our language teacher and she was there to help us fit our feet into the shoes with which we would take our first steps in this, our new place of residence. And along with this she gave some other lessons – like, the gap between me, the shishya (the one seeking knowledge) and my guru (the one giving knowledge) is to be bridged by one simple phrase, ‘ please address me as Louise’.
Today, in the funeral room is a photo of the Louise I knew. Looking at it after not seeing her in two years opens the lock to a part of me that I have not recognized. It is already too late to do anything about it. It doesn’t help that someone announces that Louise has chosen the music to be played on this day; the day I find myself tied to the people in her life, through her death. The song goes, ‘teach your children well, their parent’s hell will slowly go by and feed them on your dreams’. This is a song I’ve grown up with in faraway India. By what quirk of fate does it re-appear years later, here , on this flower bedecked, solemn February afternoon in Amsterdam?
Her nineteen-year-old son stands in front of the microphone before us, barely able to speak, the tears making their way down freely as he tries. He says you left his father several years ago and raised him yourself. You trained as a teacher and went to work. You ignored the pain in your foot for months in the period that I was your student. You never took a day off, but you did finally, to see a doctor. It was already too late for the cancer to be cured. You were strict – as much with yourself as with others.
But why am I crying? Because I see how when we were not sharing words, we were sharing silences – you and I in that classroom. While the other students took their coffee break, I focused on my books. I was strict as much with myself as with others. You were there at your desk – going through piles of paper. We were, in those brief interludes guru and shishya both in our places. The world was in order.
Your friend speaking before us today says you loved beautiful clothes. Yes, I see you – your sleek dresses, always black or grey; your delicate leggings and your smart shoes; your hair neatly gathered and tied. Your steel rimmed glasses. You never smiled much.
And now that the flood of tears has found their way out, I have no way of stopping them. This place I came to live in five years ago felt cold and dark empty. Silent. I couldn’t wait for those mornings to get onto my bicycle and ride from one to the other side of the city. I went, looking at the cafes and shops, at the people, the water and the boats, to the school where you taught Dutch. Like you, I never missed a class. Louise, I didn’t have many places to go to in those days. I didn’t have much to occupy my mind – just too much to occupy my heart. You never asked me why I spent the coffee break on my books, so I’m telling you now.
Your sister says you spent many months in and out of hospital, and the last couple you spent in a hospice, when death was imminent. She says when you first heard the prognosis of your advanced cancer you said to her, ‘Het is niet anders’. It is not otherwise.
Your photo looks on as I weep. In it you smile just a bit. Now it is all said and once more you and I may share some silence. I circle the coffin in which you lie. I step out into this February afternoon, the darkness surrounding me on all sides. The trees are black cutouts in the gloom. Tomorrow there will be more light but for now, het is niet anders.
Nandini Bedi – April 2012