In the memory of my aunt Asha, who taught me to be comfortable in my own skin

This past week dealt my family and me another blow, but with it came rich lessons in life and living. I lost my Asha Bua, a lifelong resident of Bombay (now Mumbai), to old age, in Bengaluru. Almost 90, she possessed energy and enthusiasm that couldn’t be matched by a nine-year-old in the best of times. Her spirited way of living and loving, nurturing and caring, discovering and sharing will be missed deeply, and her passing leaves a gaping hole in my heart that I will need to learn to live with, make peace with, and reflect upon, when out of sorts and not being generous to myself and others.

The eldest granddaughter of Dadi’s family, Bua was deeply Indian and old-fashioned, and yet very modern and of the ages. A tall, classic Indian beauty, she’d dress in colors that defines India, her jewelry rustic, voluptuous and bold. She shone brightest when not defined by her age, relations, class, caste, gender or circumstance. When free of these markers, she chased humanity and smiles, decency and love, that make a person who they really are, and left her indelible mark on all that she touched.

I arrived in Bombay in 1991, still in my teens, for tutelage in applied arts at Sir JJ School of Art, yet it was Asha Bua who would teach me the most inspiring lessons I’d learn there. The school, once headed by Rudyard Kipling‘s father, was at the time nothing more than a pedestal precariously placed to crumble. It had become all reputation and no substance, imparting anything but education. I was a disenchanted student and Bombay became my geography to lose both self and discipline. But luckily, Asha Bua filled in the gaps in curriculum and inspiration.

Bua’s life was in a flux of its own. She and Phuphaji were recent empty-nesters, making peace with a life that came with a newer pace and the challenges of being footloose and fancy-free. My self-composed mind, fertile for inspiration, found in Bua the much-needed muse it was searching for. True to her artistic nature, she was the elder presence, who came free of questions, queries and without interest in knowing those details that would reveal my disenchantment with school, and, thus, lead to further changes in my life. Uninterested in knowing how I got free time daily, she was just happy connecting and creating. We each found a puzzlement that gave the other just enough to be busy with and nothing beyond to be worried about.

It was at Asha Bua’s home that I furthered my desire to work with my hands. By my mother’s side, I had learned to stitch, cross-stich, embroider, knit, crochet, paint, sculpt, chop, prep, lay the table and play host. With Asha Bua, I learned to put these to work. Watching my mom work diligently to fulfill whatever desires Dadi and us children had while putting her own on hold taught me at a young age about selflessness and patience. In her, and through her actions, I observed firsthand what it means to respect the self and the other. Watching my aunt, who was living in another phase of life, I saw an unfettered life unfurl in front of my eyes. A life without obligations to another and one that needn’t pause to be questioned by self, let alone by someone else. She had passed the phase of elders steering the wheel of the car she was now both driving and riding in. Still a teenagerI had the good fortune of observing two very different sides of the human story.

There were days in Bombay when I knew Bua was hosting a party, so I would come early to help her prep and return later for the party. I’d leave late, after helping her restore her home to its impeccable calm and order. We would chat, I would burst into song and poetry, and she’d tell me the raga I just sang. She would complement me for knowing poetry that her mother and grandmother might never have read themselves. When she learned I’d tried my hand at a certain craft or skill, she’d promise to show me the ropes when we met again, which was often the very next day. I knew Bua wouldn’t judge me for being interested in the crafts and hobbies usually associated with women. She never judged. I felt safe around her; I felt respected and treasured. She didn’t question my manliness because of my interest in embroidery; she took it at face value.

In her 80s, rife with bodily pain and weakness that would break most others, Asha Bua would make annual trips to New York City to visit her daughter, Gauri didi, and her family. These trips would bless our farm with her visits, and her stay would bring alive those moments of tenderness that she and I used to share in Bombay, but with a slight reversal in flow. Now, I was the one doing the work and heavy-lifting, and she was indulging me with encouragement, support, inspiration, a helping hand, a fun conversation taking me down memory lane, and blessings that were showered 24×7. At the farm, I saw pride and joy in her eyes, smiles of awe and boundless love and heartfelt glee. She’d aged a couple of decades and yet had become younger and more unencumbered, even freer in her generosity of self and in sharing.

Just two weeks ago, in a period where she found little energy to speak at all, Asha Bua indulged me with a 16-plus-minute phone conversation. It was one of the last meaningful conversations she had. Her swan song, if you will. I knew she was labouring to keep up, but she also didn’t want to stop talking. She could have gone on, but I felt her fatigue. That was our connection. Feeling that I was draining her of her precious energy, I ended the conversation long before I wanted to.

Asha Bua has passed away in her human form, but she is alive in my veins, in our shared DNA. Even more poignant and lucid for me are the many memories she left for all whose lives she touched and enriched with her graceful presence and welcoming lifestyle. When I was lost to myself and life, when things were even slightly boring or challenging, I would call her, and in seconds, I would find myself joking and laughing, feeling connected and inspired. She told me once that we shared a bond that certainly had connections to another past and one that would find more connections in the future. And so, she is a loss that I will now fill with the inspiration she showered my life with. Asha Bua shall always be by my side when I need to be awakened to becoming one and whole with life.


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