The day before author H.S. Bhabra jumped from the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto, putting an abrupt, ugly end to what many believed could have been a significant literary career, he spent the afternoon in a public library, writing letters in his illegible scrawl to a handful of friends.
Most of them had not seen Bhabra for months. Others, for over a year. But that was hardly unusual. The four-time author, born Hargurchet Singh in 1955, was both mysterious and flamboyant, the type of personality you either loved or hated. He regularly popped in and out of people's lives, exiting for long periods, they assumed, to write. His moods ran to very high or very low, rarely in between.
A boarder who shared Bhabra's house passed the library at the corner of Danforth and Pape on Wednesday afternoon; he saw Bhabra gather up his papers and slip them into envelopes. They were suicide notes, mailed May 31, the day his rent was due and about 10 hours before he made the fateful plunge. The letters are only now being delivered to his friends' homes. And the recipients are just beginning to piece together why this formidable, difficult man, a week shy of 45, would take his life.
"I always, in a way, thought one day he'd commit suicide," said Monika Merinat, a producer/writer at TVOntario who worked with Bhabra on the station's books show, Imprint. "I just thought it would be much later. He talked about his dream of getting a Nobel Prize for literature, and he was emphatic about pushing and waiting, never giving up until he had it."
His companion, a 31-year-old woman named Vee Ledson who shared her home with him, found a plastic bag on the front porch, filled with more letters and burial instructions. In the text, Bhabra wrote that he'd lost all hope, had writer's block and was broke. He also made a shocking disclosure.
"He tells her everything was a lie," said a friend who read Bhabra's letter. "He tells her he was not a legal immigrant. That there is no book [the writer was working on a trilogy with Doubleday] no publisher, no money. That he failed at everything and everybody. And that he's sorry, but he has to go.
"It basically said, 'I'm going to be 45 in one week, and I have failed at everything. I don't want to go on.' "
On his desk, he left a pile of lottery tickets. "That was not H.S.," said another friend. "He was a man of reason, logical thinking. Not providence. The lottery tickets seem a desperate attempt to get a bit of money to give to Vee and pay the rent. It's all so sad."
H.S. Bhabra was born in Bombay, but his family moved to London when he was four or five years old. A graduate of Trinity College at Oxford, he came to Canada with his family in the late seventies. His father worked at Pearson International Airport; his mother, in a factory. His sister, whom he adored, remained in England.
For a time, he worked as a banker and moved around from Paris to New York. But it was in Toronto that he wrote his highly acclaimed first literary novel, Gestures, in 1986. Legend has it that it was composed in five-and-a-half weeks on his parents' dining-room table. It won Britain's Trask First Novel Prize and was the first winner of the Raymond Chandler Award for crime fiction.
Gestures explored the corrupting influence of power and the curse of anti-Semitism. Racial identity was a common theme for Bhabra; some say he never overcame the feeling of being an outsider, or felt completely comfortable in his skin. "Absorption is the key American experience," he once wrote, describing his experience as a foreign-born writer. "The key Canadian experience is feeling strange."
Fittingly, it was also the only book Bhabra wrote under his own name. Partly on the recommendation of his literary agent, partly because the idea appealed to him, Bhabra wrote a thriller, Zero Yield,under the name of John Ford, and two wickedly funny, sexy potboiler mysteries, including The Adversary, under the pseudonym A.M. Kabal.
Yesterday, Ledson, who met H.S. six year ago through a mutual friend, called her lover an "immensely complex person.
"Everybody admired his many accomplishments, his wonderful sense of humour and his abundant charm," she read, from a letter she had composed. "I loved him very much and, like his many caring friends and family, only wish he had called upon me. I miss him terribly. His internal demands exceeded his or anyone's abilities and overwhelmed him early Thursday morning as the sweet birds sang."
Bhabra, who had an office in the tiny house, also erased all his computer files, obliterating any trace of the trilogy he had talked about for so long. "Was he suddenly unhappy about the book?" asked Merinat, who spent several hours at Ledson's house Thursday, cleaning, making tea, mourning. "Couldn't he write any more? Or did his publisher say he didn't want it? We don't know."
In 1995, Bhabra was hired, along with Marni Jackson, to co-host Imprint, TVO's literary program. Mark Askwith, who produced the show that year, said that Bhabra's audition, an interview with writer André Alexis, was one of the most exciting things he had ever seen.
"He literally leapt off the screen. . . . I was very, very excited. I knew we had something when the lighting crew and technicians said, 'I think we've found the host.' "
Bhabra was filled with unlimited energy in his first year. "He wanted to write and host and produce and learn as much as he possibly could. He wanted to be the Orson Welles of literary television." His enthusiasm and endearing habit of sending bouquets of flowers to colleagues with whom he had shared a particularly good shoot, however, couldn't make up for his often prickly personality.
"Part of my job," said Askwith, "was keeping everybody from killing each other."
It was no secret that Bhabra came into conflict with people in high places at the public TV station, including his executive producer, Richard Ouzounian. Ouzounian, said that Bhabra was "refreshing," although difficult, and one of the most intelligent men he had ever met. "It was safe to say he did not suffer fools gladly. If he felt you were not at his level -- and I think this was one of the very good things about him -- he let you know. Many intelligent people condescend. He definitely did not. He would very directly tell you you did not understand what you were talking about. Some found it off-putting. To me, it was very refreshing."
Merinat seconded that description. "I loved him, but he was not an easy person to go with. He didn't take authority too well. He was a bit hyperactive. He didn't play politics at all. And because he was so brilliant it was hard to follow his energy and thinking. He was always so far ahead of you and everybody. For those people who were creative heads or directors of TVO, he was seen as a threat."
The show erupted behind the scenes in Bhabra's second year. Stories circulated about a nasty letter Bhabra had written to one of his producers complaining about his co-host, Marni Jackson, which hurt her greatly when she somehow found it. "I never saw a copy," said Askwith, who had left the show by then, "but it's sort of legendary."
For unrelated reasons, Jackson decided to leave at the end of the second season. Meanwhile, Ouzounian had decided to change the show's format. Bhabra and a third host, Cynthia Macdonald, were not asked back. "He took it with good grace," Ouzounian said. "He was not happy about it. And I heard, subsequently, that he said horrible things about me. But he was a gentleman. He never said anything to me."
In the post- Imprint years, Bhabra struggled to make ends meet, doing some freelance producing (including service-oriented shows such as $tarting Up and More 2 Life on TVO) and some magazine work. The rest of the time he worked on his fiction trilogy.
"It was my impression he was just in such a privileged situation in Oxford," said Merinat. "After Oxford he was not really prepared for what life was really going to be."
Friends recall his European flair -- his bright pink shirts, orange ties, puffed-up ascots, trademark cowboy boots and epicurean leanings (which included bizarre cravings for French-fry sandwiches). "On one hand, he was an elitist snob -- on the other, he was a man of real popular taste," said Merinat.
Askwith, who now works at the Space TV channel, ran into Bhabra five or six weeks ago outside the CHUM-CITY network headquarters in Toronto. Bhabra had come for an interview about creating a new TV show. "We stood on Queen Street and had a cigarette and watched the parade of beauties go by," Askwith said. "We gossiped about a few things, and caught up on people we both know."
They planned to meet again a few weeks later at poet Christopher Dewdney's book launch, and to go out afterward for a longer chat. But Bhabra didn't make it. A friend told Askwith that Bhabra had crawled into a cave and wouldn't come out until he finished the novel. To Askwith, it didn't seem portentous.
Early Thursday morning, several of Bhabra's friends -- including Margaret Atwood, who once rented him a house -- received calls from Bhabra in the wee hours. None answered, but some woke to eerie messages from him on their answering machines.
Reportedly, a witness saw Bhabra jump off the bridge at about 5 a.m. on Thursday. The previous evening, around supper time, a former colleague from TVO happened to drive by and see the former Imprint host walking the bridge in his favourite cowboy boots. He was limping slightly; Bhabra had hereditary arthritis. She presumed he was out for some exercise. In retrospect, he was most likely getting ready to walk through his final act.