Of Kabir and Karma

Supriya Bhatnagar

Yesterday, when I called Anju’s house, I let the phone ring while making chapattis for dinner. The answering machine with her voice was a jolt. I had meant to hang up after a few rings if her husband did not pick up, and I had not wanted the machine to come on. After a seven-month battle with cancer, Anju, my friend of almost thirty years, died on a crisp March day. She was two months short of her forty-ninth birthday. The disease had ravaged her body and destroyed her organs. She described the pain as someone scooping out her insides with a knife and then rubbing chili pepper in the wound. In the end, we just waited for her to go.

Death had visited me earlier, but that was a long time ago, when my father died just before my tenth birthday. And then we got on with our lives—my mother, sister, and I—putting Death aside. I had to grow up first, write, study, write some more, meet my soul-mate, marry, continue to write, have children, watch them grow as I struggled to write, and then be there as my children did all that I did. That was an unexpected death—my father dying at thirty-nine—and now, even with my turning fifty, Death is a distant cousin, one that I do not think of at all. Anju’s dying, however, brought Death back to us.

Anju painted. I wrote, and she did oil colors. I used words to express my feelings and she could translate her thoughts into color and brush strokes—she would explain the meaning of each canvas as I admired her work. Our aging process showed in her strokes as her paintings took on a more metaphorical and philosophical stance. We used words to express that stance, but visually they were there on the canvas, translated into shapes and swirls and colors.

Long before we vetted the philosophy of life and discussed the impact of religion, Anju and I knitted tiny woolen booties and sweaters and caps when we were pregnant together—each on our second pregnancy. She helped me with mine as I was expecting twins, and she had already finished hers for her baby. Our talks and discussions never contemplated the fact that either one of us could be gone before the children in our tummies reached adulthood.


Hindu philosophy divides our lives into Ashramas. An Ashrama (āśrama) in Hinduism is one of four stages in an age-based social system as laid out in the Manu Smrti and later Classical Sanskrit texts. Each stage of the human life has twenty-five years in it, based upon the assumption that one will live for a hundred years. Anju and I had finished the Brahmacharya—student life, and were now in the Grihastha—the household life. Soon we would have entered the Vanaprastha—the retired life. And we never even considered going through the Sanyasa—the renounced life.

The retired life would give us the maturity we needed—to give a deeper meaning to her paintings and to give authority to my writing. After all, we had the experience to know what we were expressing. Age granted us that authority. It gave us that cloak of respectability—our thoughts and words and canvases could have a deeper meaning.


When it comes to writing, I am a procrastinator. There is always a tomorrow or a new month or the next year. But is there, really? In school, we memorized Kabir’s Dohas (couplets). Their rhyme and alliteration delighted the tongue. They were the nursery rhymes of our teenage years, and we never paused to give thought to what they actually meant. The famous 14th-century Indian poet conveyed important life lessons in the simplest of words:


             Kaal Kare So Aaj Kar, Aaj Kare So Ub
             Pal Mein Pralaya Hoyegi, Bahuri Karoge Kub
[Tomorrow's work do today, today's work now
             if the moment is lost, how will the work be done?]


Now, I find it hard to concentrate on my writing knowing that Anju does not have that tomorrow. Or the next month. Or the next year. She left her last canvas unfinished. Just like her life.

I am also a closet hypochondriac. If my body itches, I am reminded of how Anju’s liver malfunctioned. Will my dark skin show the jaundice that made hers turn yellow? If I have stomach cramps, I am reminded of my removed gallbladder and the consequences of it not being inside me. If my chest hurts, I am reminded of the heart attack that killed Daddy instantly. I feel my heart fluttering rapidly sometimes, but at other times it is the pain in my breasts, or a twinge in my uterus. And what about my ovaries? The silent cancer. I remember seeing Gene Wilder’s stricken face on TV after Gilda Radner died of that disease. One of my uncles died of throat cancer, and cancer ate away at another uncle’s kidneys until it killed him. How many body parts am I to worry about? I stand naked in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to see if there is puckering around the nipples on my breasts. I feel them regularly, but will I actually know what a lump is? Or is it just a fibroid that moves under my probing fingers?


In spirit, I do not feel any different at fifty than I did after turning forty. But to quantify that time can be depressing—ten years of lost opportunities, ten years’ worth of more traveling I could have done, ten years’ worth of words I could have put down on paper, ten years of more time I could have spent with my friend…

“I would have liked to see more of the world Supriya,” Anju said one day while I sat with her during her illness. “You will, Anju, you will…”

I flip through old photographs sometimes, when I have the time—time spent with family and friends—just to remind myself of what was. My three boys as babies, their friends, all grown now just like them. I see Anju’s boys too, along with mine.

“It is exciting to know they will have girlfriends soon,” she had said once. Simple things, simple pleasures that we had looked forward to.

Guilt is a heavy word… a heavy feeling.

“These are the consequences of the misdeeds of a past life,” she said about her illness. I had no response to that. Did I believe in past and future lives? Was this her Karma then?

Karma in Hinduism broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect and action and reaction that governs our lives. Karma is not a punishment, but rather a consequence of natural acts. It is a person’s fate. I would rather have the misdeeds of the present life affect the current life and not wait for a rebirth. Anju then would have paid for her misdeeds earlier on.

“I need moksha Suppy,” my dear uncle, ill and in the last stages of cancer that started in his kidneys, had said to me when I went to visit him. The Sanskrit word moka is a release from the cycle of birth and death. The body is the only thing that dies, but the soul lives on and is not subjected to occupying a body again and again. Daddy’s death was a sudden occurrence. We could not hold on. But my uncle then… and Anju now… before we got used to the fact that she was sick, she was gone. It was hard to let go. I don’t care if the soul lives on; I want the body with it.


I try to eat right and exercise regularly. And I tell myself that I do all that for my health and not to only “look good.” “Thin” is everywhere—Bollywood heroines are thin, top fashion models are thin. But “thin” is something I never was. I do look thinner now at fifty than I did ten years ago, and am proud of that. But is that enough? The joints in my body do not care how thin I am. They only know how old I am and so have started acting up.

“No! No!” I tell the aches and pains. “Can’t you see? You are not supposed to be here yet,” but to no avail. The pain is here to stay.

Anju exercised regularly and ate right also. She did that better than me, and that makes me angry. Why could not her body have rewarded her for that? Why attack her and kill her?

Inevitability is what makes me tolerate my many aches and pains. If my entering the next decade of my life means living with these minor irritabilities, so be it. Tolerance is an important Hindu virtue along with Ahimsa (nonviolence)—which is easy to follow; hospitality; compassion; respect; morality; austerity—which is difficult; wisdom; honesty; cleanliness; and celibacy—which is impossible. And so, I will tolerate the fact that I am getting older.

Mummy was a grandmother by the time she turned fifty and my grandmother was one many times over by the time she had her fiftieth birthday. Perceptions change. My grandmother looked older at fifty than my mother did, but I do not use verbiage that conveys “old” for myself. My boys have yet to find girls for themselves, and the term “grandmother” is something I have not thought about much.

Daddy is a distant memory now, and I have to pause to remember my dear uncles. Soon, I am afraid, we will get used to the fact that Anju will never be. I will, however, continue to wonder about the “what ifs” and “what nots” had she not fallen ill and died. I will continue to write, penning thoughts on paper, and I will, as we all shall, go on with life, which has a strange way of thrusting us forward, regardless.

Supriya Bhatnagar
Supriya Bhatnagar

Supriya Bhatnagar is the Director of Publications at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) and the editor of the Writer's Chronicle. Her memoir and then there were three… was published by Serving House Books in 2010. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Artful Dodge, Perigee, Femina, and 4Indianwoman.com. A version of this essay also appears in NEO: Literary Magazine and the anthology Winter Tales Two: Women Write About Aging.