The last interaction I had with the late Paul Menezes aka @PSnide on twitter was not a pleasant one. I was having a conversation with @NigelBritto about the outrage in Goa over the accidental killing of four fishermen by a reckless coastguard ship and the lack of national attention to the incident vis-à-vis the reaction to the deliberate killing of fishermen from Kerala by Italian marines, when @PSnide got into the act.
Perhaps he believed he had to live up to his twitter handle; perhaps he had grown weary of my brash manner online and wanted to bring me down a few notches; perhaps he just happened to be in a bad mood that day.
Whatever the reasons, he made snide references to my father, a naval officer – who, incidentally, was on board the INS Delhi, one of the ships that liberated the Portuguese territories of Goa, Daman and Diu in 1961 -- and my supposed fondness for Kerala, a state I’ve never lived in though I am Malayali. A clueless Britto was tagged in on the conversation. The jibes about Kerala didn’t bother me. I would have been more affronted if he had attacked Mumbai where I grew up. However, though it’s been more than two decades since my father set sail for shores unknown I continue to hold his memory close and often wonder if death is a corridor to undiscovered continents, new ways of being, or an area of awful silence, the end of existence. I don’t play with Ouija boards or attempt to commune with the dead but I do continue to go over conversations I had with my father, fragments of which I remember with absolute clarity. I still seek his approval though he’s been long gone. @PSnide knew all this because he knew me, not in the way you know each other on twitter though you’ve never met, but in the way you know people in the real world, people you’ve met, people you’ve had long conversations with. The peculiar tone of his tweet was intended to act like a prod at an open wound. It worked. His tweet enraged me and provoked me into rudeness: ‘paul why don’t you fuck off’ I tweeted and that was that.
Less than a week later, @cyclingsultan stuttered down the phone line that Paul Menezes had been mowed down by a truck and that his new colleagues in Hyderabad were desperately trying to trace his next of kin.
Be Kind Rewind
Paul and I go back a long way, back to Mid-Day in Mumbai in the mid-90s when I was a reporter and he was a sub-editor. Back then, Mid-Day operated out of a precarious tin-roofed shack above its printing press in Tardeo. One of my recurring nightmares featured the office collapsing in on the press. But we were better off than the journalists at Inquilab, the Urdu language newspaper whose office, somewhere in the bowels of the press, was rumoured to be far worse. Ayaz Memon was the editor of Mid-Day, Ranjona Banerji was the assistant editor, Pradyuman Maheshwari headed features. J Dey, who was shot down by the underworld in June 2011 had just joined after – the ever active office rumour mill whispered - a stint in the armed forces, and was working on pieces about poaching and the destruction of forests – already a massive threat in a newly liberalised India. Shubha Sharma, whom he later married, was on the law beat and would regale other reporters with news of the bizarre goings-on in the courts. Meenal Agarwal, now a successful production designer in the Hindi film industry, was a staff photographer. Mumbai was still Bombay, the memory of the riots, that seared the country in the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the 1993 bomb blasts that killed 257 people and injured 700 in the city, were fresh; the slums covering the hillside behind the office hadn’t yet given way to shimmering high rises and a diminutive old Parsi ran the eatery across the road where Paul and I once grabbed a chicken puff and a Thums Up a few days after he joined Mid-Day. On that occasion we talked a lot, mostly about the office, and he said he had just moved from Goa.
Life went on. I got married – a trap I recklessly laid for myself. It was a disaster. For a while, I lived intermittently with friends because I couldn’t bear the sorrow in my mother’s eyes or the questioning looks of neighbours, or even worse the pity of my relatives. I abruptly changed jobs because I didn’t want my colleagues to know about my great failure. I joined the now-defunct Metropolis on Saturday, a Times of India publication, and set about trying to make some sense of life as a 25-year-old divorcee, someone whose marriage had lasted a ridiculous two months. A few months later, Paul joined the Bombay Times, which shared office space and an editor, Bachchi Karkaria, with the Metropolis. I was too busy huddling in my cloak of shame to focus on much else. Would I ever have a ‘normal’ life I wondered, would I ever find a partner or was I, in the unsaid words of my relatives, ‘damaged goods’? Slowly, as I emerged from my haze of self pity, I registered that garrulous Paul was an exacting desk hand who expertly weeded out copy errors… and that he was also peculiarly talented at pissing off the most sweet-natured girls.
Things came to a head when he got into a fight with a colleague over, of all things, an office chair. There was a scuffle and the matter was reported to Malavika Sanghvi, the new Bombay Times editor. I don’t know the details because by then, I had married the colleague I had been seeing for a year, and paying heed to the deafeningly insistent ticking of my biological clock had promptly become pregnant. I was advised bed rest and was completely cut off from office gossip because The Husband refused to talk shop when he returned – a practice he bizarrely clings to 16 years later. He did tell me, though, that Paul’s needless aggression with female colleagues had cost him his job, and that he was going back to Goa where his father was dying of cancer.
Fancy meeting you here!
I didn’t see Paul again for more than a decade. I didn’t even think of him. I had my sons in quick succession, I threw myself into domesticity, I took on silly jobs that bored me to death but allowed me flexibility. We moved to Pune and then to Delhi, where one fine day, Paul Menezes walked into my office at Nehru Place. He had come in for an interview at the edit shop where I worked and we chatted animatedly about Mumbai like the weary migrants we were. He didn’t get the job but we promised to keep in touch. Of course, we didn’t.
About this time, a Pravin Dabre started following me on twitter. He seemed to know me, to know details about my life though he was careful not to let on the extent of his knowledge. At first, it was amusing; then it became maddening. I scoured my memory for clues and one day as I was staring at yet another overly-familiar tweet, the pieces fell into place. Is that Paul? I asked. Pravin Dabre laughed it off saying I had thrown the most common Christian name possible at him. By now he had also sent me an FB friend request, which I didn’t accept because I was entirely convinced perverts were trawling the net especially for a glimpse of my kids.
A while later, maybe it was a few weeks, maybe it was a month, maybe it was more, Paul Menezes called to tell me he had joined a new neighbourhood paper in Gurgaon. By this time, utterly bored of editing soporific business reports and being polite to corporate assholes, I had quit my job and set myself up as a freelance journalist. I figured the family wouldn’t starve if I didn’t bring in the money and I was sure I’d make enough to occasionally treat the kids to junk food and buy myself the things I absolutely needed like that silk scarf or that irresistible leather tote. We had a longish conversation and discussed the possibility of a retainer for me with the new paper. Then, as I disconnected, I realized in a flash that Pravin Dabre WAS Paul Menezes. Immediately enraged, I dashed off an angry SMS accusing him of deceit. Dabre/Menezes responded with an equally affronted SMS and that’s where things stood until I began to feel remorseful.
Conversation started 29 July 2011 on Facebook
10:26 Manjula Narayan
you’re right. i do go off the deep end sometimes. I don’t know why I flipped out like that. But then I’ve always been like this too! I just hate deception which is strange cos its not like I’m some Harishchandra... Anyway, I’m sending you a friend request on your proper fb id. Im surprised you didn’t send a friend request under your real identity - I think that’s what freaked me out even more.
Hope you can forget that stupid sms.
What SMS? (",) And yeah, I’m sorry for the deception. Pls undrstand that it was not on purpose. Probably would have sent U a Fb request by now. Only we ‘met’ on twitter first and then it got complicated... What a tangled web we weave... etc.
It strikes me now that Paul Menezes’ life was all about weaving tangled webs. During the six months that I freelanced in Delhi, we met often. After a meeting at his office, he treated me to a cold coffee at the cafeteria and entirely unprompted, began talking about his life. His partner of many years had left him and he had just learnt of her marriage through her brother’s post on Facebook. She was a teacher he said and they had always presented themselves as man and wife. At work, he had made it known that he was divorced. We talked for more than an hour that day. Or he talked and I listened. He spoke admiringly about his father, about how he had escaped dire poverty in 1940s India – like my own father did – and had worked as a cook on British merchant vessels (I might be misremembering the details), about the pervasive consciousness of caste among Goan Christians and about his sisters, one of whom was a nun. I don’t recall him mentioning his mother.
Buff and Fluff
That New Year’s Eve, we threw a party. Almost all the invitees were journalists or had been at some point. We are an incestuous a bunch. The Husband ensured the bar was well stocked and ordered food from the one Mallu caterer in Gurgaon. Vats of chicken and mutton curry arrived, along with a packet of Keralite beef fry. I’d say I’m a pretty pathetic Hindu, but the one meat that fills me with revulsion now is beef. Strange considering that as a student I thought nothing of ordering plates of beef chilly at the St Xavier’s College canteen. Perhaps it was the visit as a cub reporter to the Deonar abbatoir that changed things. The sight of animals wading to their death through streams of blood at that cavernous chamber of horrors, of exhausted cows collapsing on the butchery’s ratty strip of lawn, the awful reek of blood made me give up meat for years and left me with a particular revulsion for beef. So when the friendly neighbourhood Keralite caterer handed me that packet of beef fry – buffalo meat, really, since the slaughter of cows is banned in northern India – I began whining at The Husband. I don’t want it in my house, I said. Why did you order it, I asked. And then, now that it’s here, I suppose we’ll have to serve it, I said, because that poor buffalo shouldn’t have died in vain.
The party was a success. Everyone loved the food and I pointed out the dals, the pulao, the bhajis, the chicken and mutton curries, the raita and the quadruped fry.
“Beef fry!” Paul exclaimed immediately fixing on the one obvious taboo item on the menu.
“Yeah, don’t you know, Mallus eat beef, all sorts of Mallus – Hindus, Muslims, Christians,” I said nonchalantly, which is certainly not the full truth because my grandmother would have killed herself before she touched the stuff. Paul, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely and who told me it was the first time anyone had ever invited him to a party at their home, piled buff fry onto his plate. When dinner was done, I was touched that he offered to help wash up the gargantuan pile of crockery in the kitchen sink before he left.
“What do we do with this leftover piece of buff fry?” I asked The Husband when we were alone.
“Buff fry?” the man said puzzled, “You were so put off that I asked the chap to take it back and bring fried chicken instead.” Perhaps the excellent Scotch had made everyone forget about the not-so-fine difference between buff and fluff. I never enlightened Paul about the faux beef fry.
Afterwards, I met him a few times at his office but things were beginning to sour there for him. Perhaps he wasn’t used to working at a small organisation where the boss had the last word. Perhaps he didn’t understand that often it’s best not to say too much. Perhaps he understood all that but couldn’t repress his personality. I gave him some numbers and hoped that would help. It didn’t.
He stopped calling me and we interacted only on social networking. In hindsight, everything appears portentous but one of the Facebook memories I have of him relates to the time both of us, with our shared fascination with death, clicked on the eerie ‘When will you die’ app on FB. In one of those coincidences that made my teeth chatter on the evening of May 6, I recalled that the first person to put it up on his FB wall was Tarun Sehrawat, the young Tehelka photographer who died last year of the malaria he contracted in Abujhmar, Chhattisgarh. The app predicted he’d die in 2030 of heart disease or some equally mundane condition. Mine said I’d go at around the same time ‘of natural causes’. I laughed uproariously because I’m given to laughing uproariously at things I can’t control… like the time of my own death. Paul’s prediction said he’d die in 2013. I don’t remember the cause.
“Come on, you can’t believe this rubbish; It’s just a stupid app!” I said when he pointed out the date.
Our interactions in the last year have been mostly on Twitter, where he became increasingly unpleasant. I noticed that his targets were usually tough, cheerful, intelligent, entirely admirable women his age. Perhaps, it’s the result of losing a woman and a job – that sort of thing can unhinge anyone I thought as I struggled to be nice to him. Until, one day, entirely unprovoked, he made a reference to my disastrous first marital misadventure – an experience I would gladly erase in Eternal-Sunshine-of-the-Spotless-Mind fashion if
Paul’s great talent was to sniff out the suppurating sores that you were ashamed or frightened of, the pustular boils on your psyche, the raw emotion that you hid from the world. I stared at the screen for a while, and threw a mock threat at him. I asked him, dear God, if he had a death wish. And I resolved to never interact with him again. I unfollowed him on Twitter though I didn’t bother to unfriend him on Facebook – it’s not my favourite place anyway – and mostly ignored him when he tweeted at me. My last unpleasant interaction with him on April 30 convinced me that I had been right to drop him.
And then he died.
A Man AloneI have never thought of Twitter as a place where real relationships are forged. I was wrong. Bhavana Nissima, @tw_bhav, Paul’s colleague at the firm he had just joined in Hyderabad could find no details about his immediate family, no address or telephone numbers among his personal effects. She spoke to @IamRana in Dubai, one of those whom Paul interacted with on twitter, who spoke to @cyclingsultan, who called me. The thought of Paul, dead among strangers and all alone, was horrible. It seemed hideous that he would have no one to take him home, to bury him in a family vault, to pray at his grave because no one knew his next of kin.
I walked around the room wringing my hands for a bit and then began to text people in Mumbai, people who would have known him from his time there in the 1990s. Author Jerry Pinto, @mahimkajerry, had no recollection of him; neither did Shefali Vasudev, former editor of Marie Claire, who began her career in Goa and whom Paul had mentioned in passing during one conversation… Another former colleague put me through to Ashley - a journalist in Goa, whose last name I never found out but who spent a good part of the night trying to locate Paul’s sisters and actually managed to track down the priest of the island of Santo Estevam where his family lived.
Before I froze him off my list, Paul had tweeted about the beauty of Diu and I thought he might have worked there before moving to Hyderabad. I remembered Naresh Fernandes, former editor of Time Out and author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot, whom I’ve known since he was a lanky, curly-haired student, had written a beautiful piece on Diu. This is a man with a real eye for detail and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated facts, which contributed to the success of Time Out in India. A mutual friend had once (a-decade-and-a-half ago!) jokingly referred to him as “the squire of Bandra”. I was sure the squire would help.
Naresh called the Catholic church in Diu and texted: “He came for mass every day, says parish priest. But knows nothing about his family”.By now, the few people who conversed regularly with @PSnide were expressing their shock online. The man was cantankerous and couldn’t resist torture-by-tweet but he didn’t deserve to die. And what was to become of his body if no family was traced? I made a mental note to always carry identification on my person, to label The Husband’s number clearly in my phone list just in case I ended up under some truck too, and I wandered around the house, after the kids had fallen asleep, worrying about the fragility of existence.
Two hours later, a text from Naresh clinked into my cell phone: “Catholic mafia came through. Lady on next street has uncle who is married to his aunt”. Turns out Naresh had once sent Paul a friend request. Paul being Paul had said he couldn’t accept “because one of his cousins was on my friend list”. Working with the knowledge that they had friends, maybe even relatives, in common, Naresh made enquiries in the close-knit Bandra Catholic community. And managed to trace Paul’s uncle.
Things moved quickly after that; Bhavana informed Paul’s sisters, the body was moved to Goa and at 4 pm on the evening of May 8, a funeral service was held for Paul Joseph Menezes, aged 42, at the St Stephens’ Church at Santo Estevam in Goa.
A Requiem for Paul
Go gently, Paul, I don’t understand you any better now though my feelings for you have softened with your passing… mostly because of the guilt I feel at our last rancorous interaction. Perhaps there’s something for me to learn from this. Perhaps your sudden and premature lighting out into the shadow lands destined to stay mysterious a while longer to the rest of us has helped me recognise that I need to rein in my own snide voice, one that I expertly employ to hurt when I’m annoyed, which is more and more often these days.
I wish I had been kinder to you, Paul, and I wish you had been kinder to me too. But perhaps loneliness can eat a man alive; and perhaps it transformed Paul, the young man who munched puffs with me in that grimy Tardeo eatery long years ago, into @PSnide.
I don’t pray. I’ve always believed that God, if He (or She) indeed exists, helps those who help themselves. But at 4 pm on May 8, at about the time the funeral service was being conducted in Santo Estevam, I sat at my office desk and clasped my hands together. I prayed for Paul, I prayed for his sisters and his mother, I prayed for his dead father and mine.
The picture of Paul Menezes was taken from his Facebook page. The funeral notice appeared in a local Goan paper. A thank you to Nigel Britto for twitpicing it.