For My Avva, Gauri Lankesh

One of the feelings I have thought about the most, is pain.  And not the kind of pain one feels when you are physically hurt, but the kind of pain you feel when you lose someone. I used to think about it a lot when I was little, afraid that there will come a day when I lose those who are dear to me, but it never felt real until it actually happened.

One evening, my grandmother and I heard that my aunt had collapsed. We were alone at home. My grandmother drove me to my aunt’s house, scared and crying all the way, because she was afraid of what could have happened. When we reached my aunt’s house we were shocked to know that my aunt was shot dead.

My mother was already there, crying and heartbroken. I broke down too.  I cried like never before, because the pain was something I had never experienced, or even imagined. And what had happened was so shocking that it was almost unbelievable. Till today, I still feel like she is here, and that she has really not gone away forever. They say time heals, but a year has passed but I feel the pain as if it was yesterday. Maybe I am not crying anymore like I was back then, but the void inside me still feels just as deep as it did that day.

Initially, I felt very angry towards the killers. I wanted to hurt them the way they hurt her. I wanted them to experience the pain we felt. I still do. But the bitter truth is that my aunt will not come back even if they suffer. I realise, “An eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind”.  All we can do is wait for the pain to subside, get justice and the murderers to be punished legally.

There has never been a day that I haven’t thought of her. When I remember the love she had for me, I miss her terribly.  My aunt did not have children of her own, but she called me her daughter, just as I called her “Avva” which is another word for ‘mother’ in Kannada.  She was almost like a second mother to me. They say sometimes one never realises the true value of someone, unless you have lost them. I did not realise how much I really loved her until I lost her. I had never imagined a world without her.

When I was little I would go to her house over the weekends. She would tell me bedtime stories of her own various versions of Cinderella. In my aunt’s version, Cinderella was a strong and independent girl. Cinderella would be a working woman and every time my aunt would change her profession; sometimes Cinderella was a chef, other times she was a writer! And most of all Cinderella was no meek girl who would wait for her prince.

Each time the story would have a slightly different setting or challenges she faced. I loved listening to these stories. As I got older she would tell me stories of Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson and even gave me books by Poorna Chandra Tejaswi etc. She was a voracious reader. Apparently even when my aunt was a young girl, her siblings would go out and play, but my aunt would be happy immersed in the world of books.

My aunt adored me so much that she never introduced me to her friends as her niece, always calling me her daughter. She would regale her friends with anecdotes about me, even when she was extremely busy. She would tell me I should always speak for myself and be a strong woman. She would always keep me updated on current events and would even take me to listen to speeches, or make me watch talks by young student activists such as Kanhaiya Kumar or Shehla Rashid. She always said that the youth should be aware, as they are the ones who can bring about a change.

On her birthday a few years back, she presented herself with a tattoo of a peacock feather – symbolising my grandfather’s newspaper logo and my name under it. Every weekend she would come home and spend time with my mother and me. My aunt loved non-vegetarian food, but she hardly ever cooked. So whenever she came home, my mother would cook chicken for both of us.  Both of them would share funny stories of their past, and we would spend the afternoon laughing.

Being secular and equal was very important to my aunt, which was also ingrained in us. Our family would celebrate the Ganesha festival in my uncle’s house, Christmas in our house and Ramadan at my aunt’s house. She would tell me and my cousins stories about the significance of the festivals. To her, it was important to understand and empathise with all religions and communities. Needless to say she fought for women’s, Dalit, Muslim, Trans rights and other marginalised sections of society. She was a strong, ethical journalist and a fierce activist who consistently fought for the downtrodden and addressed issues concerning them. She tried to persuade Naxalites to give up their guns and negotiate peacefully with the government.

She worked very hard, day and night, almost never took a break. After her death is when I realised who she really was and how much she had done for other people For me she was simply Avva, who loved me to bits, but I realised she was also Akka, Amma, friend and colleague to thousands of people – and a mentor to many youngsters.

I knew what she did, I knew what she loved and I knew especially what she hated, but I did not know how many lives she had influenced, the young and the old, the weak and the have-nots. The day of her funeral, we expected some people, but were amazed to see thousands turn up.

There were protests in every nook and corner of Karnataka, across India and even across the world.  People held candlelight protests near India Gate. Journalists protested in every city. Even after a year, protests for justice and safety for journalists who speak truth to power continue in France, New York, Germany and Malta. Reporters Without Borders even inaugurated a pillar in Avva’s honour in a French town called Bayeux.

The only factor that lessens the pain of losing her is how proud of her I am. And how the killers did not silence her, but made her voice louder by catalysing us to stand up for her – and everything she stood for.

Before I lost her, I never knew how it felt to lose someone. Although I constantly feared that I would lose someone I love deeply, I never thought it would be the end of everything, and I assumed things would go back to normal. Unfortunately it is both. Some things came to an abrupt end, some things in life moved on as though nothing had happened at all.

When I think back, I wish I had spent more time with her. I wish I had  told her more often how truly I loved her. I wish I had told her how proud I was of her and the work she did.  I wish I had understood what she stood for, better.  I wish I had known she was not merely my aunt, but also much more. I wish I’d gotten to tell her that I respected her immensely.

I also know regardless of whether I expressed all this to her or not, she knew how much I loved her, and I know how much she loved me. And if I could tell her something now, I would say thank you, for spending 13 years with me and being my role model. I cannot believe she won’t be there to share so many things with me now, but I know in spirit she will always be with me.  I also know that in the short span of her life, she did so much that she will live in my heart and many others’ for a long time. A very long time.