Connected by ink and paper

This quote from Roman philosopher and statesman, Seneca “The comfort of having a friend might be taken away, but not that of having had one”, rings so true to me today.

Early last week brought the news of the death of my dear friend Gerty. As I try to come to terms with this news, I keep remembering our many interactions, what the friendship with her and her husband Fritz has meant to me, and how amazing it is that this friendship even came about.

Moving away from the main theme of this blog today, I want to share this personal story that I had started writing more than a decade ago, soon after Fritz had passed away.

It all began with a letter

I still remember the moment I first saw Gerty and Fritz, in Bombay, in 1996. My younger sister and I were waiting for their arrival, with barely suppressed excitement. They were coming to stay with us for a week and Mama and Papa were to pick them up from the airport. When the doorbell announced their arrival, I ran to open the door. On our doorstep were our German guests. They greeted me with broad smiles and bowed, with their hands pressed together, in the traditional Indian greeting of namaste. All I could think of in the first instance was, “How white they are!” A bit shy in the presence of these strangers, I invited them to come in. Little did I know then, that I had also invited them into our lives!

‘Strangers’, I called them, yet I knew so much about them. I had always known about friends of Papa who lived in a far away country. It had taken me a long time to understand that Papa had actually never met these friends of his. It had all started when he was 19 years old. Just for fun, he had once sent a letter in reply to a pen friend request. That letter was to 16-year-old Gerty. What started as a mere curiosity, soon turned into a steady flow of letters, which continued through all the changes in Papa’s and Gerty’s lives. In India Papa entered into an arranged marriage with Mama. In Germany Gerty met and married Fritz. Each raised a family and got involved in the nitty-gritties of life. Three and a half decade passed. Until that historic week. That one short week when Gerty and Fritz visited us in Bombay, was the pinnacle of Gerty and Papa’s pen friendship.

And what a week it was. There was so much to be discovered. Papa and Gerty compared notes about what each of them had thought of their friendship over the years. They talked about how, each time there was a long gap between the letters, they had feared that the friendship was over. In those days of postal mail, every change of address, every misplaced or delayed letter, had spelt doom for this tenuous link. And yet, their friendship had survived and thrived!

We learned to pronounce each other’s names. They got their first taste of home cooked Indian food and we learned about ‘sauerkraut’ and ‘wurst’. I was surprised to hear that their idea of a fun holiday was lazing in the sun, and they were amazed that we avoided being in the sun at all costs. Our conversations were frequently punctuated by pauses to consult our German-English dictionaries. English, which was an oft-used second language for us, was a very foreign language for them. Gerty told us how she would sit down with a dictionary when writing to Papa, and how she once had to contact the Canadian consulate for translating one of his long letters! Fritz spoke only a few words of English, and frequently had Gerty translate things for him. But that did not impair his communication with us at all. He picked up several Hindi words from our conversation, and used them to hilarious effect by bringing them up at odd times. I have yet to meet someone like him who, while not speaking much, could become such an integral part of a conversation.

In the pleasure of discovering our new friendship, we had forgotten that our real lives were hundreds of miles apart. The week drew to an end and the time for Gerty and Fritz’s departure was soon upon us. We were all sad at the inevitable parting of ways. With the high expenses and difficulty of international travel, we were unlikely to ever meet again.

Once we had bid them a tearful goodbye, our daily lives took over. The memory of this exotic visit, although kept alive by frequent letters, slowly started fading away. Until about four years later. In 2000, I had the opportunity to move to the Netherlands for a PhD. Having lived all my life in India, it was a chance for me to see more of the world, while doing something I enjoyed. It was almost winter when I arrived at Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam. Moving along an airport that felt strangely silent after all the hustle and bustle of Bombay, I was suddenly struck by what a foreign world I was in. Filled with excitement, tinged with nervousness, I looked forward to exploring my new home.

The excitement did not last very long. Soon I started feeling lonely and homesick. Every which way I turned, I was confronted with unfamiliar things. The language, the social customs, the style of dressing, the climate, the food – everything was alien to me. I enrolled myself for Dutch language classes and forced myself to join the social gatherings at work, hoping to fit in. But even after several months, I couldn’t shake the feeling that people around me still looked upon me as a ‘foreigner’. I had never been a very outgoing person, but now my shyness and insecurities threatened to overcome me.

That summer I was at my lowest ebb and really homesick, when Gerty invited me to visit them. I had been talking with her regularly on the phone, ever since I had arrived in the Netherlands. However, the kinship I had felt with Gerty and Fritz in India had diminished considerably. Surely, this regular contact was more an attempt to keep the feeling from that visit alive, rather than a real friendship? What did I have in common with them? Their life was like that of the Dutch people around me and so different from mine. Why would they be interested in me? But I did accept the invitation, a bit for old times’ sake, and more to please Papa who was very attached to this friendship.

Fritz and Gerty were waiting for me at the train station when I arrived in Nürnberg. Gerty pulled me into a warm hug. Fritz, with his ever-ready smile, said ‘namaste’ and then hugged me. And just like that, the 5 years since our last meeting melted away! In the next few days, they introduced me to the delights of life in Bavaria. Thanks to them, I had my first swim in a lake, enjoyed my first barbeque, had my first ‘Nürnberger bratwurst’, and developed a taste for Franken wine. In the evenings we chatted till late. They both were interested in hearing about my work, the people I met, and how I was dealing with the changes in my surroundings. Their genuine interest and gentle coaxing had me pouring out all my insecurities into their ears. They listened with unwavering sympathy. Slowly but surely, they made me look at myself, and realise my strengths. They persuaded me that what I thought of as insurmountable difficulties were so because of how I looked at them. They made me realise that while learning Dutch language and customs were important for feeling comfortable in my new surroundings, it was more important to realise that I would continue to feel a misfit if I kept thinking of myself in that way.

I returned to the Netherlands feeling very positive and willing for life to happen. And it did! Once I had dropped the distinction of “them” vs “us”, and opened my eyes to the people, instead of the superficial differences in our appearances, cultures and customs, I discovered many shared experiences and interests with my Dutch colleagues. I made new friends, and one friendship grew very special. I fell in love, got married, obtained my doctoral degree, grew in my career and built my small family. Time flew. Throughout, Gerty and Fritz were there to cheer for me and share in my ups and downs. They had become an integral part of my family.

When life is happening so fast, you do not think of it ending. Fritz passed away in 2009. And now in 2023, Gerty is also no more. With time, I will come to terms with their death but I wonder if the pain of losing these dear friends will ever disappear. But even through the pain I feel immensely fortunate to have had them in my life. I cannot thank Gerty and Fritz enough for making me realise how irrelevant the distinctions of nationality, race and religion are in human relationships.


6 thoughts on “Connected by ink and paper

  1. I’m sad to hear of Gerty’s death, but touched by your tender writing about her and Fritz. How wonderful for a pen-pal friendship to connect people so long–not merely your dad and Gerty, but the other family members as well. It feels like a very narrow chance for you all to have found each other. I’m grateful!

    • Thank you Shelomit. It does feel like a series of fortunate chances that this friendship came about and thrived. It is the experience of such relationships, that have arose from no other purpose than a genuine interest in others, that keep me from becoming cynical as I grow older!

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. But thank you for a beautifully heartwarming little tribute to a love of a different kind – that was such a fulfilling, warm piece of writing.

  3. Such a beautiful tribute to Certy and to your father’s (and yours) friendship with her. I am weeping a little because I am also remembering the loved ones who have departed, never to return.
    My sincere condolences for your loss.

    • Thank you Anu and warm hugs to you. It’s not much of a consolation when I am yearning for my lost loved ones, but there is truth in the adage “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”.

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