Usha Khanna died on Saturday morning at the age of 89.
I never met her, and this will always be one of my regrets. But I feel compelled to write about her because she was a larger than life personality whose warmth and hospitality and sense of humor and caring for the dispossessed were widely appreciated. She was a culturista in my native city of Mumbai, often termed as India's cultural capital. Usha was married to noted documentary maker, the late Rajbans Khanna.
If you speak to people of my generation not just in Mumbai but elsewhere, too, they will remember her as the founder of Café Samovar, a sliver of a restaurant in the complex that houses the Jehangir Art Gallery in South Mumbai. If Mumbai had anything close to a literary salon, it was the Samovar, which she established in 1964; the art gallery forced Usha to shut down the Samovar last year because it wanted the area to display sculptures, for which the space had been originally created.
All of Mumbai mourned the shutting of The Samovar, which attracted film stars such as Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya Bhaduri, and lawyers and political icons and writers and, of course, some of India's most successful artists including M. F. Husain, Jehangir Sabavala and V. S. Gaitonde. It also attracted a winsome woman named Jayanti Lal of Hyderabad, whom I married in 1978 (we divorced 27 years later, much to my sorrow).
It attracted the columnist and literary impresario Anil Dharker, who told the Indian Express, "It was entirely Usha Khanna's sunny personality that made the restaurant special. Her concept of a friendly, affordable restaurant was spot on because she realized that the people who dropped in to Jehangir were not necessarily the moneyed art patrons, but more ordinary people who dropped in on their way to work or college and would look forward to sitting down for a cup of chai and some substantial sustenance which was easy on the pocket yet filled the stomach. Usha must have been a great cook because the dishes she introduced, like the paratha rolls which I particularly liked, were tasty enough to be revisited again and again."
Although I never met Usha Khanna, I've been good friends for more than 30 years with her daughter, the celebrated columnist Malavika Sangghvi, who was once married to another celebrated columnist - and TV personality - Vir Sanghvi. Their son, Raaj, is a gem; if there were a trophy for the nicest and brightest member of his generation, Raaj would indisputably be its recipient. Maybe I should set up such an award: It would be no hyperbole to say that Raaj would win every year.
I'm a friend, too, of Malavika's older sister Devieka Bhojwani - a former designer who packs a pretty mellifluous singer's voice - and of her businessman husband Suresh. I don't know Usha's son, the Dubai-based Siddharth very well, but from all accounts he shares his sisters' characteristics - a pleasing personality, enduring interest in people's wellbeing, and modesty. It wouldn't take much guesswork to conclude that they inherited these values and characteristics from their mother.
They lit the funeral pyre for Usha Khanna today, Sunday, at the Chandanwadi Crematorium where, back in 1985, I cremated my parents who'd died just months apart that year. Ironically, a large square nearby is named after my mother, Dr. Charusheela Gupte; she was a writer and a professor of classical Sanskrit and Marathi, the main language in a polyglot city.
I wish that I could have been there. But I write this appreciation of Usha Khanna in Dubai, at almost the same time that the flames of her funeral pyre of sandalwood must be leaping toward Mumbai's skies. I write this never having met her. I write in sorrow for my friends Malavika and Devieka and Raaj. But I write also to celebrate a life that was so full, a life that spawned so much joy and happiness, a life in which she gave birth to smart children who, in turn, gifted wonderful grandchildren to her.
I pondered over how I should end this appreciation of a woman I'd never met. How to write a coda for such a life?
Well, that coda has suddenly sparked in my mind:
Usha Khanna has never really gone away. Usha Khanna will always live. And I know that one day I will meet her somewhere and tell her to her wisdom-etched face what a lovely and kind and remarkable woman she is, and what an extraordinary gift to mankind. I will tell her that her very existence enriched all of us - those who met her, and those who didn't.