Last year in Delhi, I hitched a ride with a friend to a poetry reading. He stopped en route to pick up another friend – a visitor from Goa, he said.
In the dark, I could barely see the petite woman who joined us. But as she entered, the car was suffused with a heady fragrance. While I am no perfume connoisseur, even I could tell this was exceptional. If I didn’t feel obliged to play nit-picking poet about my choice of adjective, I’d have termed it breathtaking. The word today is ironic.
“What perfume is that?” I remember asking.
“One that I made,” said a soft voice from the backseat. And I turned around to see a woman with an utterly radiant smile. That was my first encounter with Monika Ghurde. There are many reasons why I haven’t forgotten it.
It is not often that one meets someone who looks, quite simply, as lovely as their perfume. Monika did. She had the luminosity of a woman who has come into her own, whose laughter is not the easy giggle of youth, not the practiced smile of the social networker, but the hard-won, reclaimed mirth of a born-again, self-possessed adult.
It somehow seemed appropriate that I should meet her after inhaling her perfume. It felt like that first olfactory encounter gave me access – a password, as it were -- to the person she was.
Poetry is the most distilled verbal art I know. When you meet someone who has read your poetry with any degree of immersion, it feels like you both have a shortcut to a deeper, more authentic self. If the perfumer’s art is the ultimate in distillation, it is not surprising that I felt I had, in some way, accessed Monika’s happiest, truest version of herself.
In the next half hour, I sensed several things about her: refinement, warmth, curiosity, generosity, a disarming simplicity. Monika was not a woman on the make. That, for me, was the loveliest thing about her.
We spent the rest of the evening with each other. In a noisy bar, surrounded by people we didn’t really know, we talked about our histories with Mumbai, our love of Goa, her vocation as a perfumer, my poetry. The details are hazy. But by the end of the evening, Monika Ghurde was a friend.
As someone who believes friendship takes years of shared experience, I am surprised by my own use of the word. And yet, I’d use it again. She suggested meeting the next day. I couldn’t make it, but I knew that Monika and I would find ways to be in touch.
There comes a time when some people use their life experiences to subtract superfluous identities, and become who they fundamentally are. For me, that was the scent of Monika – the scent of naturalness. She didn’t talk of her achievements or her antecedents. She didn’t drop names. She simply seemed happy in her own skin. And so, I knew her without really knowing very much about her. The ‘about’ seemed irrelevant. I wanted to be in touch with Monika because of Monika.
In fact, the only antecedents we discussed were floral. I remember asking her about raat ki rani, my favourite fragrance. She told me it belonged either to the family of jasmine or the Persian tuberose – a detail I have never forgotten.
I met her again last December at a literary festival in Goa. We spent time on the lawns of the Goa International Centre, with fellow writer, Mahesh Rao. I have a photo she sent of that evening of the three of us, arms entwined. She is in the centre in a cream sari, laughing her warm infectious laugh.
‘Breathtaking’ was the first adjective I associated with her. If medical evidence were given the last word, that would also be the last. For her breath, we are told, was taken from her – brutally.
But facts are for newspapers. The truth about Monika Ghurde is different. And I hold fast to that truth: that the fragrance of crushed flowers lingers a long time after the horror and the prurient public gaze subsides, long after the last news reports are done and dusted. That is the strength of vulnerability. That is the strength of flowers.
What is the point of a perfume or a poem, really? None at all. Except that our lives are hugely impoverished without them. And precisely because there is no single point, they are not so easily erased.
There are no easy goodbyes, Monika. But the earth laughs in flowers, the poet Emerson told us. When we’re done with grieving, my radiant friend, we’ll join you in those places of enchanted distillation you knew how to delight in. We’ll join you in the laughter.
(This is one of several women-authored pieces published this weekend in tribute to Monika Ghurde.)