When I wrote my July 2 column on the death of my friend Shun Chetty, I was unaware that another good friend, just 51 years old, also lay dying. Nina Sibal, diplomat and novelist, had already featured in this column — when I praised her last novel and suggested her memoirs would be worth looking forward to. Those will never be written: breast cancer carried her away in her prime. It is less than a year since I wrote her a recommendation for a fellowship that would have allowed her to take time off from her job to work on a new novel. Now she has run out of time too soon.

With Nina’s passing, I mourn the loss of a warm and generous — as well as gifted — human being. But it comes at the end (I hope it is the end) of a grisly six months in which I have lost no fewer than seven friends and am becoming somewhat morbidly obsessed by the capricious cruelty of death. Nina battled cancer with courage and optimism, as well as remarkable dignity, but she knew the end was coming. In Shun’s case there was no reason to anticipate the worst: after mild chest pains, he had gone to the hospital for a routine angiogram. The test revealed there was nothing wrong with him — no blocked arteries — but when the doctors removed their probe, they ruptured his heart. A freak accident, perhaps, but this was in the best hospital in Pretoria, capital of the country that gave us the world’s first heart transplant. Massive internal bleeding followed, Shun lapsed into a coma and died without recovering consciousness.

Two of the other deaths I mourned this year were equally unexpected and inexplicable. I had long intended to write in this column about Ansar Husain Khan, author of the polemical The Rediscovery of India which received excellent reviews when Orient Longman published it a few years ago. Ansarbhai’s was an exceptional story: one of the first Pakistani officials of the United Nations, he fought for years to obtain an Indian passport because of his rejection of the two-nation theory. When he finally obtained his Indian citizenship, it was at a high price in human terms; he was ostracised by his former compatriots, who refused him a visa even to visit his parents’ graves. A man of wide reading and great erudition, this secular Muslim offered me one of the best definitions I know of the Hindu concept of dharma: ‘‘that by which we should live’’. He was living in retirement in Geneva, Switzerland, with his gentle Swiss wife Anita — whom I often thought of as a better Indian wife than many of the Indian wives I knew — when he pulled out a gun one morning and shot her dead. He called the police, turned himself in, and succumbed himself to a heart attack in the police station on the very same day.

There are some stories you strain hard to believe, let alone comprehend. I did not even know Ansarbhai owned a gun, let alone that he was capable of using it. And against such a target — the kind, patient and loving mother of his two teenage sons! What makes people snap, what drives them to acts of such horror that their own hearts cannot abide what they have done? I keep turning over the accounts I have heard of the incident and can find no answers in its terrible finality. For years we had been discussing a summer visit by the Khan family to New York, where I live; I keep expecting to hear his cheerful voice on the phone, asking me to inquire about apartments available on short-term lease. Life itself, I realise, is something we each have only on a short-term lease. A moment of anger, of madness in a marriage, of carelessness in a hospital, of a rogue gene running amok in your cells, and your lease is up.

Three other dear friends left the world more peacefully in this period, at the culmination of lives full of accomplishment. Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, was a delightful companion (especially at the dining-table, where he loved Indian food), a witty and kind-hearted man whose literary eminence never impeded his interest in younger writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous. One of my proudest possessions is a photo his wife sent me of Joe stretched out on his sofa reading my novel Show Business. A healthy and vigorous 76, he died suddenly one night of a massive heart attack, depriving the world of a brilliantly original satiric voice.

And finally, two remarkable women whom I had known since my childhood passed away after long and debilitating illnesses. Sakuntala Jagannathan, the dynamic head of Maharashtra Tourism in the 1960s and a wise and accessible author (her book on Hinduism is a model of its kind), had written to chide me for giving, in an earlier column, all the credit for Kerala’s literacy to its Communist rulers. She felt rightly that I should not have overlooked the earlier contribution of her grandfather, the formidable Dewan of Travancore, Sir C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar. I promised to make this point when I next returned to the subject: sadly, I never expected it to be in an elegy for her. Pearl Padamsee, my mentor in theatre and a close friend and counsellor for many years, is someone whose bouncy vivacity I have written about elsewhere. The last time I saw her, illness had reduced her to a wisp, but her strength of personality shone through. I can imagine her in Heaven, organising a cast of angels to mount a celestial production of Godspell.

If there is any consolation at all in the voyage of these seven friends to that undiscovered country from which no traveller returns, it can only lie in their own release from the burdens of this world. No one is truly happy, Euripides wrote two millennia ago, until he is dead. I hope these friends are happy wherever they are; it is us they have left behind who are filled with questions, longings and regrets.

Source: Indian Express