Sunday, July 30, 2006
The fine art of friendship
One of my dearest friends on this planet is Lou. He is an architect-planner, from Bucharest and Jerusalem. We met at a seminar-course in Salzburg in 1992. Through the two weeks that we were together in Salzburg, we grew closer and closer. We were naturally drawn to one another, intellectually, emotionally and in terms of temperament and sensibility. Mutual empathy. Amazing intimacy.
We stayed in touch intermittently after the seminar, through letters and then e-mail. In late 1996, Lou invited me to join him in his work on neighbourhood renewal in Jerusalem. I was thrilled beyond words, and this inspired and empowered me immensely in my own difficult work in Howrah slums which I had just begun. I became immersed in my slum work and in the all-India urban poverty research study I subsequently joined. In late-1998, after I had started working full-time in the Priya Manna Basti slum, in the midst of the acute despondency I was suffering on account of all the setbacks we were facing, I wrote to Lou after a long time. He re-iterated his invitation – and so in December 1998, I went to Jerusalem.
I stayed and worked with Lou for 2 months, and then I had to return to my family in Calcutta. Lou and I were together almost all day and every day during this period. A lot of work was completed by us. And I was in that awesome, unique city of yore, going about a regular daily routine of life, as well as social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual engagements, and taking in all the resonances of that place, which my work there also required me to study and fathom in essence very quickly. As if I had always lived there, as if that was my city, and I belonged there.
It is difficult to put into words my experience in Jerusalem, each day rich and intense with seeing, feeling, thinking, learning, self-realising. Some of this I recorded in my daily diary. And all this was enabled by Lou.
How a person can give so much to another! How can two people - from completely different backgrounds and cultures - be so close to one another?! It defies imagination and belief. That is how Lou and I feel. In Jerusalem, we met a friend of Lou’s for lunch. She told me: Rama, Lou is in love. Is it you?!
In the midst of serious work, Lou would wink at me. Or out of the blue we would just face each other and smile and hug one another, kiss each other’s cheeks, and say “Oh how I love you.” As if one is an extension of the other, the two flow as one.
Since that unforgettable visit to Jerusalem, I have been there again and again! In my first visit, I met someone who then invited me to speak at a workshop on environmental awareness in Israel-Palestine in January 2000. I was there for a fortnight. During this visit I became acquainted with Jean Claude, a gifted jazz musician and bassist. JC and I, two strangers to each other - yet we became very close. JC is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. The second intifada started later that year; so far, it had been “the peace process”. In February 2003, I went to Jerusalem again, on Jean Claude’s invitation, to sing with his bass accompaniment. I was there for 10 days. We did 3 public performances in Jerusalem, and also a recording.
Each time I was in Jerusalem, I was living with Lou, and felt I was part of the city. Each visit built upon the earlier one, my circle of friends and independent engagement with the city growing, my inner self opening up and finding increasing expression - the whole Jerusalem experience becoming richer and deeper. Lou enabled all that, like a doting father, a loving brother, an inseparable friend – as if seating me on his shoulder, so I could look far. He laid out, explained and shared his adopted city Jerusalem, and country, Israel.
Through JC, I met his friend Judith. In February 2003, I was really fortunate to enjoy her hospitality. Her house, the amazing accoustics of the space (as I discovered through my singing), the awesome spiritual experience I had there, Judith's refined sensibility, her erudition, eloquence, versatility and fun-filled personality, warmth, generosity of spirit ... I gave Judith a personal name, Tara Lakshmi, to express how I saw and felt towards her.
In between, in May 2002, Lou and I met again, at a city planning congress in Salzburg. I went because Lou urged me to join him there. That was indeed fortuitous. I made some new friends in Salzburg, like Einat, also an architect, and a university lecturer, from Haifa, whom I visited in 2003. She showed and shared her beautiful city with me, making me feel every city should have someone like her who was the heart-head-conscience of the city. So the reports of rocket attacks on Haifa - make me very sad indeed.
As I was in Europe in 2002 after 10 years, I was really hit by the meaning and implications of globalisation. Having recently taken the reins of a small manufacturing enterprise started by my father – this gave me the jolt and boost that made me think about the future of this enterprise, and work on export promotion. A lot has happened in the last 4 years. A tiny unit in Calcutta is sending its critical-care precision instruments to the five continents. But its a difficult job, and a long haul.
Lou’s daughter, Avigail, is also an architect. Seeing her just cheers one’s soul, she is simply a delight. And Lou has a 7-year old son Nimrod, whom I adore. Lou named our trio in one of our child-plays (perhaps inspired by Shrek which Nimrod loved to watch): Lou – Zulu-bulu, Nimrod – Zulu-trulu, Rama – Rama-bulu. That was so symmetric!
Much has happened in the last 3 years in that part of the world. And of course right now, we are in the midst of another violent crisis in Israel-Lebanon. I also have Palestinian friends, in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and am aware of how they see things and feel. So I despair, whether I shall return to Jerusalem, and be with Lou again. But thankfully, Lou and I can meet elsewhere. I’m eagerly looking forward to that.
Lou started his blog recently and sent me the link. That pushed me to start my blog. Now we are at least in regular contact through our blogs. His blog is also a good source of information and analysis about the "Middle East".
Life is essentially about the fine art of friendship, its what makes life worth living, and its what uplifts one from all the miseries and dismal realities of life.