Some stories seem so implausible that even as they unfold around us in real life, we refuse to believe them. Our doubt makes us hesitant to share them. We love grand stories in the movies, but we hold on to our cynicism in real life. It is safer, perhaps. It is also cowardly.
I didn’t grow up watching Roger Ebert on television. Unlike many others in India, I had never read him either.
Then one day, three years ago, I followed him on Twitter. It was just after the Oscars and I had seen many of his tweets re-tweeted to my timeline.
The act of following @ebertchicago changed my life forever. Twitter had been my secret writing place for a few months. I was writing there without always understanding what the words conveyed. There were feelings, anecdotes, conflicts, moments. I had 60 followers and most of them were not active. I knew no one there. I hadn’t bothered to find out how Twitter worked. I had never checked my “mentions” column.
The brevity of the medium was a literary challenge I had set for myself. Say it in exactly 140 characters.
I checked my e-mail a few hours later. I thought it was Twitter’s birthday or something. I had a few hundred new followers. What’s going on here, I thought. Who are these people? I scrolled down and right at the bottom was the first e-mail, which said: Roger Ebert is following you.
I picked up the phone to call my brother. I put it down. I looked at that mail again. I looked at Twitter. Roger Ebert had read me before I had had a chance to read Roger Ebert. It was the beginning of a very precious connection that is making my eyes well up with tears right now.
Over the next year, Roger Ebert kept on RT-ing my tweets, new follower mails kept falling into my mailbox, I became hooked to mentions and I wondered how long this was going to last. Roger Ebert seemed to understand my words in a manner that I certainly didn’t.
This was Mr. Ebert in 2010, newly recovering from cancer and surgeries that had taken away his ability to speak and eat. He was embracing life anew, reconnecting with the world via the Internet with an urgency and generosity of spirit that so many people would witness firsthand.
Reading and writing became Roger Ebert’s superpowers. His ability to see the whole film in its first shot was now turned towards the people he met on the Internet.
Loss that leaves behind depression and melancholy also offers us the great gift of perception. An instant ability to spot the truth. Honesty. Love. You have been this close to losing it all. Your fears and pretensions have been peeled off you. Your mask has fallen off.
I knew because I was in similar emotional terrain. Roger Ebert looked at my words and he saw that in one go. As one recovers from trauma, one returns with a sharp sensitivity towards every moment of beauty. Every turn of phrase, the dance of light on the leaves, the flicker in the lizard’s eye before it darts away.
Roger Ebert was writing, blogging, tweeting to make himself whole again. So was I. We were both in a kind of personal rehab and there was an instant connection. He searched online and tweeted the only films I had uploaded at that time. I had a secret blog that had been seen by two people besides me. He asked me to show it to him. There is a great novel in this blog , he wrote.
Twitter featured my account on its homepage. “You are a great teacher,” I wrote to thank him. He replied: “I am a better student.” I said: “You inspire me.” He answered: “ I’m a good reader .”
He blogged about how Twitter had become a substitute for the real-life conversation he missed. “When you think about it,” he wrote, “Twitter is something like a casual conversation among friends over dinner: Jokes, gossip, idle chatter, despair, philosophy, snark, outrage, news bulletins, mourning the dead, passing the time, remembering favorite lines, revealing yourself.”
He celebrated the connections he had made online and mentioned me too . I wrote back to him , revealing a story I had not articulated even to myself. “I write to console and entertain, to live in the moment, I replied. Words help me create a world that I can live in, that I do live in.”
I read everything Roger Ebert wrote. His ability to be present in the moment made him see in the movies what few others perceived. His prescience helped him read people and relationships both on and off screen with miraculous clarity. And he was not afraid of memories. He had the courage to let his memories hold his hand and take him back to see the movie of his life.
My children would recognize his Twitter profile photo and arrange their hands in front of their faces the same way. I sent him a photo. He was so proud, he shared it on Twitter and his Facebook page.
Why do we extend ourselves? Because that is the meaning of life itself. Meeting another version of oneself and extending one’s hand in support. It’s the way to heal.
All this leftover love one feels, you want to give it away before it is too late.
There is only one life and the survivor can never forget that again.
The news of Roger Ebert’s death came to me in the form of condolences. Around the world, people stunned by the sudden loss called and messaged each other, hoping for solace.
I read the words of Chaz Ebert, his wife, online. “He looked at us, smiled, and passed away,” she had shared. “No struggle, no pain, just a quiet dignified transition.”
Roger Ebert taught me to recognize and trust my voice. I learnt that no one is a stranger and inhibitions are just useless baggage.
“Roger Ebert strengthened my belief in God,” I tweeted. “He lives in our spontaneous generosity, in love so strong, we wonder where it comes from.” In a second tweet I wrote: “I know that will make you laugh out loud, @ebertchicago. Yeah, I said God and your name together.”
Roger Ebert was gone but I was still talking to him on Twitter. He might check his mentions. I think he will.
Natasha Badhwar is a filmmaker, media trainer and columnist based in New Delhi. She tweets at @natashabadhwar