Memoir / Essays: Can I call you Ibi?

Kamalini Natesan

Ibiso was a Dutch American, who I met at an exhibition, which had a book reading by Marshall King, in the neighbouring hall. Nothing works like laughter, and we were introduced in a moment of humour, by a common friend who had invited us both. When you laugh together, you bond. It was something the writer had said, that we’d all found equally funny. Apparently, he had read something about himself, that humored him greatly, as it did us. 

She said she was an old dame who had had her day, but I saw her as a sixty-year old youth, and she saw me as an old soul. We connected over the meaning of art, and what reading books meant to us.  Dressed in a black skirt and a lemon-yellow tee, with a pretty scarf around her throat, I thought she looked the part of sculptor par excellence.  I was in a regular tee and a pair of faded jeans, the quintessential tourist. We went on to become buddies, swapping anecdotes about what we considered a slightly off-the-trail life. Hurdles we learnt to cross every time we stood at the edge of one, was the other thing. I was at the threshold of a new career as a writer, and she, a forever-sculptor; we struck gold.  

This unlikely friendship was born out of simple compatibility, or because we were at the right place, at the right time- in Madrid, Spain. The excitement in the air was palpable, and there we were, side by side, giggling at the author’s innuendos and tongue-in-cheek humour, we both had come to associate with him, through his writings. We were united in our admiration of this ‘big, tall guy’, who had come ‘all the way’ from New Zealand. 

Later we downed three cups of coffee each, and bonded, Ibiso and I. 
Her name made me smile. “So did your parents name you?” I’d asked as soon as we were comfortable. 
“No, actually I was named Iris, but as soon as I had the balls, I asked to be called Ibiso. A dog I had loved, bore that name. I wanted to be Ibiso, that’s the story,” and she giggled, “does it sound odd to your ears?”  
“Well, I suppose it’s as good a reason as any to name yourself,” I had said out loud, and giggled along. 
“And you can call me Kay, although I’m certain my parents would disapprove,” I said with confident chuckle. 
This sealed our friendship that night.

We didn’t talk very often, but when we did, we unhooked a can of ideas that fluttered above oceanic waters, dividing our physical worlds. 
We both laughed a lot together, during our subsequent conversations over WhatsApp. She was of Dutch origin, but considered herself American, and returned to California. She had two grandkids, whom she adored. Living close to her sons allowed her to babysit the grandkids when moms and dads were away working, fetching them from school, feeding them etc. She spoke in great detail about the lives her sons led, leading theirs surreptitiously, when described thus. The deep affection she bore in her heart, reverberated over the phone line, encasing me in her life.  Her own unique life, which she tried to make sense of, every day, was special to my Indianness. Weekends were spent sculpting. I listened and absorbed. Our cultures drew us to each other, rather than drawing us apart. 
I was fascinated and quite taken by her sense of independence, at sixty years of age, while I struggled with dependencies of all sorts- my kids, my husband, my friends, my mother, my sibling and her kids. I both wanted out, and in. I learnt that it isn’t possible to have it all, and we must choose to live with frayed edges, as long as the garment we wear is made of stern stuff. 

 “Can I call you Ibi?” I asked her a few months later, and I’m not sure why. 
She was elated, and I was granted permission right away. I was the only one to do so, ever. 

Over the years that followed, we bonded over her grandchildren’s antics and their short-lived distresses and joys, and my children’s progress as much as my own. Her first husband hadn’t been perfect, but they had remained friends.  She thought she had learnt enough from one marriage to get remarried. Tragically, her second husband left her with a child, and died early on, from heart disease. She continued to miss him dearly. Her sons were the only relations she invested in then on. 
Instead of drowning, Ibi pulled herself out of a situation which could’ve been far more tragic, and taught herself to sculpt. She engaged her angst and grief and bundled all her energies and gave them meaning, transferring it into her creative endeavours. When I asked her why she chose this particular form of artistry- i.e sculpting- she told me how she needed to feel the transformation of what she held within- it had to have tangible form. I understood. 

I grasped from our exchanges, that coming into one’s own is not an end in itself- it’s a voyage into ourselves, a scape that transforms all the time.  Love was not about giving or taking.  Love wasn’t about erasing oneself either; it was about melting into many different shapes and then remolding oneself into something one might recognize later as an original. 
I also understood the practice of exploiting my various attributes to sharpen mind muscles, and letting go of that which scraped my insides. Novel spaces were allowed to emerge, and form of their own will. 
“Kay,” she had said one morning, “don’t analyze who said what, and why- try the face value system, it truly works.”

I learnt from Ibi, that it was possible to acknowledge newfound elations in the smallest of triumphs, use them to fuel us. She was wise, and kind. She made me believe I was wise too. Ibi told me one day, as I heard her smile, that she too learnt from me, that she envied me my, ‘spontaneous joie-de-vivre’ which she severely lacked. 

The transfer and exchange of energy that passed between us, lent my days bounce and energy, whenever we communicated.

Ibi’s age, and the difference that lay between hers and mine, was anything but in the way. We met when I was forty, and she, sixty. Our friendship lasted all of ten years. We met, perhaps, only four times, but in the interim, we wrote each other long emails, sprung conversations that went back and forth over an entire week sometimes. They were invigorating and awarded my days with fine reading material. I found reasons to pick her brains, and vice versa, and it was inexhaustible. We laughed, we cried and swapped tales. Her grandchildren were her life. When her son moved away, from her neighborhood to a different state, she was heartbroken. As luck would have it, within a year they moved back because the kids wanted to be ‘near gram’. 

Her thrill was palpable, even as she tried to conceal her overwhelming mirth. I find it impossible to forget her breathing on the phone- it was hard, and it spelt a universe of love.  

I learnt to let go from her- to cope and to fill my days with creative activities. She never let me down. I hope I didn’t either. There were a couple of months when I didn’t write back, being taken up with my child’s move to university.  I retired into a sad place. It is she who threw me a thread, which she tugged at, gently, and drew me back out, helping reinstate my natural bounce.  
Ibi’s corny sense of humour, and the ease with which she turned my woes on their head, showing me their lack of worth, was her greatest attribute. She illuminated my qualities, and threw a spanner in all my complaints. She did not, however, minimize the reasons for anxiety, but subtly taught me to flip them, to help me see these as learning opportunities. We ended up agreeing that I was given to exaggeration. 
Ibi’s sculptures are moving, and I remember prodding, demanding her to reveal sources of inspiration. She muttered, “You know Kay, I’m no award-winner, or a master of her craft, but every time I finish a piece, a sense of fulfilment pervades my being. This is what drives me, this flow I am in, when I sculpt.” Flow was a word that stayed with me. 

I pondered over my own sense of worthlessness on days, when nothing moved, at least not as I wished for. I was no one without my appendages, my relationships, my family- so I began to redefine and redraw my own sense of worth from her words and her reasons for turning into a sculptor. 

Ibi, my friend, left an imprint upon me that is impossible to ascertain. Ours was a friendship that was natural and beautiful. I am grateful for it, and perhaps the difference in our age, made us both equal and unequal. The foundation of a solid friendship like ours, was a lightness of being that we perceived and encouraged in one another. 

I miss you Ibiso. I miss you Ibi. 

Bio: Kamalini Natesan, originally from India, currently resides in Bangkok, Thailand. She is a French teacher, blogger and Indian vocalist (Hindustani Classical, Sangeet Visharad); author of debut novel  'Naked Beneath the Midnight Sun' (Olympia Publishers, UK). She has published short stories, travelogues and poems in online literary magazines: ColdNoon, Oddball, Café Dissensus, Twist & Twain and The 
Curious Reader, as well as some print media. She has also published an essay in an anthology on differently-abled children: 'Twilight's Children, Chronicles of Uncommon Lives’, and three short stories in an anthology with 6 other authors (‘A Life in Transit’). She speaks many languages, German, French, Spanish, Bangla, Tamil, Oriya and Hindi. 
Author website:  

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