College Friendships and Ikan Belis

Biba Prakash Kaur Gill

I met Biba Prakash Kaur Gill in 1966 when she joined the Christian Medical College and I was a 2nd year Med student of the batch of ’64. She was from Malaysia and I was from Singapore and I believe I ragged her a tad more than I did the others. We did not meet very often after we left College, except for the times when we traveled to the other’s neck of the woods, when we would meet in Preima Doraisamy’s home in Singapore. We did however keep in touch and whenever Biba came to India, she would come and visit Sam and me.

The class of 66 had a reunion in Trivandrum last week and Biba took the time , the trouble and the effort to make the tedious detour, seated in a chair car for 7 hours on a train from Trivandrum to Madurai. Sam and I picked her up and we stayed over in Madurai for the night, as Bibs wanted to see the famous musical pillars of the Meenakshi Temple. The next morning Sam left for his appointment and Bibs and I were supposed to do the temple before he returned, so that we could make our way home in the afternoon. Bibs and I went down for breakfast at 9 am and we were still catching up and laughing over old times, in the Dining Room ,when the Hotel staff informed us at 12 o’clock, that the temple was closed and would open only at 4 pm.

We rang Sam and told him about the change in plans and went shopping promising to be back in the hotel by 4 pm when he would return. Biba has 2 grandsons and a little grand daughter all under 6 years. It was great fun choosing clothes for the little ones , especially for the little girl, a new experience for me, as both my grand kids are boys and teenagers now, limiting my retail expeditions to predictable T shirts and jeans. We had a wonderful time shaking out frills and choosing buttons and bows.

We met up with Sam later and drove to the Temple, winding our way through the narrow streets of Madurai interrupted by traffic jams and irate drivers honking in irritation. It was drizzling and Sam sat in the Taxi while Bibs and I went to the Temple. I wore a cardigan to cover my bare arms and borrowed one of Biba’s dupattas and we walked barefoot turning around wherever the sign boards said No Non Hindus beyond this point. Bibs is a Sikh Sardarni and I am a Christian. Unfortunately it was too late to see or hear the 1000 musical pillars but we did get a feel of deep faith and devotion in the long and tortuous young and elderly queues that wound all the way up to the Darshan with the Diety.

Eventually we drove back to Ganguvarpatti in the night and opened our Doll house in the Anandam Retirement Community. Biba could not have come to stay at a worse moment. We had just lost the aircons, the fridge, the microwave , the dishwasher ,the washing machine, the whirlpool water purifier and the 3M filter in an electrical holocaust a few days ago, when the incoming electrical surge crossed 440 volts to blow the brand new stabiliser. We have downsized to a 1000 square foot single bedroom cottage with a living cum dining, a galley kitchen and 2 bathrooms. I had insisted on 2 bathrooms when the plans were drawn, because there can be no greater strain on a marriage than having to hammer on the bathroom door, with geriatric bladders that reached the clavicles and with one’s legs crossed, imploring the other to come out.

We have a bed at one end of the living room and a small round dining table at the other end, two lazy boy chairs that face a large TV and a treadmill that cries out to be used.. Since Biba was single, there was no question of renting a cottage for her to stay alone, far from us . She never complained and slept on the bed in the living room while we crept around her trying not wake her, all the while bumping into the furniture we tried so hard to avoid in the dark.

I could not believe my eyes when Biba opened her bag and took out all the goodies that she had brought for us. It seemed as if Xmas had come early. Right on top of the assorted pile, was a large packet of anchovies affectionately known as Ikan Belis in Bahasa. If someone carries the smelly Ikan Belis for you amongst their clothes and finery, they must really love you. Not only did she carry the Ikan Belis in her luggage for a multiple stop class reunion, she even cleaned it and packed them in a container for me to keep away. Who does something like that these days, I ask you.

She cooked in our narrow kitchen , which barely fits two and crowds three and showed me a tip or two, on how to roll out rotis and parathas the Sikh way. We spent the nights watching Netflix and talking into the wee hours of the morning. She sat with us for our prayers when we sang hymns from the You Tube and read from the Digital version of the Daily Bread and I marveled at the cozy comfort of a multi-faith Alumni friendship that had survived over 50 years, celebrating our diversity. The jarring debates of the News channels that rolled out of the TV did not disturb the peace we felt in 170 A.

We had a great time and even managed a day trip to Kodaikanal with a quick visit to a plant Nursery, where we picked up some potted herbs. We had great plans to visit the cheese factory but had not the time to do it. When I heard she was coming I ordered Scrabble, Sequence , Chinese Checkers and other Board games from Amazon as I thought we might need the entertainment. We never got round to opening the boxes, let alone play.

Sam and Biba left this morning. Sam dropped Biba off with Vicky and Becky Vedamanickam ,CMC batch of “65, in Trichy on his way to Namakkal for the clinic. Sam was excited, that he was meeting Vicky his fag master after several years. When they spoke on the phone, Sam told him to keep all his shoes ready for polishing, as he was coming to renew his vows with his beloved fagmaster. They had a lovely afternoon together and it was a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Thank you Biba for coming to share our lives and thank for all that you mean to us. Everyone needs a friend like you.

Image may contain: Prakash Kaur Gill, smiling, standing

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