An Ashtray I shouldn’t Have Gifted

Ashtray

I met Vera Jansen (name changed) in Jakarta while working with GIZ.  She worked with BAPEDAL (Ministry of Environment) as a consultant and was assisting them in the area of Environmental Impact Assessment (AMDAL as they call). Her mother was an Indonesian and father was Dutch. Vera was born in Wagenhagen and studied at the Utrecht University.

Vera spoke both Indonesian Bahasa and Dutch fluently. Her roots brought her back to Indonesia. She wanted to look after her mother in Yogyakarta and perhaps that was the principal reason why she returned. On the weekends she would travel to Yogya. My work with GIZ was on Cleaner Production – a program we had captioned as “ProduksiH Bersih”. In those days, BAPEDAL had a number of international consultants supported by various Bilateral Aid Agencies. I don’t know the situation today.

Every evening as the work used to be over, we the consultants used to meet for a drink at the Elvis Priestly Bar at the basement of Arthaloka building where BAPEDAL was located. We had a little group of four friends including me – consisting a Canadian, an American and a Swedish consultant.  We used to have a couple of beers, listen to Elvis and exchange notes on what’s happening in the BAPEDAL. This was more of networking meet to catch up.

One day as we were sitting and chatting, a tall girl by Indonesian standards and with a wheat complexion and a pleated skirt walked across to us and said “Hi Folks, My name is Vera. Vera Jansen. I work like you at the BAPDEAL as a consultant. Would you mind if I join you for a drink?”  My colleague Bob (from Canada) said “Most welcome Vera, feel free to join” and Cindy (consultant from the United States) moved a bit to accommodate Vera and pulled a stool for her to sit. Vera settled, sat cross legged and lighted a cigarette. That was in style. I passed on to her an ashtray.

Vera was really a very friendly and warm person and was extremely talkative. She must be in her early thirty’s that time. Vera lived close to Arthaloka, loved music at the Jaya Pub nearby, was single and a workaholic.  She had joined BAPEDAL just a week before and was looking for a company.

From then onwards, we became a gang of five. We didn’t realize that soon Vera took over our conversations as the leader. She had strong opinions and used to bulldoze us with arguments that we often found very difficult to confront with. Vera had opinions on everything and anything.

There used to be occasions when we hardly spoke and Vera used to give us a discourse. She used to hold her cigarette in a style while making arguments. She would raise her eyebrows sometimes to stress the point. That would lead to formation of two vertical frown lines on her forehead. Her face looked so intellectual then. I used to be simply mesmerized by this elegant and intelligent woman.


I love meeting with women who develop frown lines on the forehead when eyebrows are raised or they puff a deep smoke in grace. To me, it’s a sign of intellect. The vertical frown lines in particular exhibit rebellious attitude, independent thoughts and an outspoken behavior. And the style of smoking exhibits a confidence.

Glabella lines, also known as frown lines, are the lines that appear between the eyebrows when we frown. These little lines are formed by the repeated action of frowning due to the lack of elasticity in aging skin.

Many women who have permanent frown lines are keen to get rid of them. Most go for Botox treatment. I agree to Botox if the frown lines are permanent, too visible and make the face look wrinkled and rather “ugly”.

But if this is not the case, then why get rid of them? There are critiques who support the frown lines. “Age should not have its face lifted, but it should rather teach the world to admire wrinkles as the etchings of experience and the firm line of character.” Says Clarence Day Jr.

Alex Morritt of Impromptu Scribe quips ― “Wrinkles? Why all the fuss? Think of them as lines of distinction; marks of maturity.”

Some phrenologists have attempted interpreting the frown lines. To some, short vertical frown lines indicate personalities that show abrupt changes. When a single vertical crease is found between the eyebrows, the person is expected to be selfish, egotistical and ambitious. Two vertical creases if in parallel on the forehead represent a person who can see others’ point of view. When three vertical creases are found in parallel, the person is expected to achieve an early success and becomes a celebrity. I don’t think any of these described Vera’s personality.

Most celebrities “remove” the frown lines. But there are exceptions. Take example of Emma Thompson, Isabella Rossellini or Diane Keaton. These celebrities have maintained their frown lines in grace. And there are more.

collage_AshTray

But women who get frown lines when they raise eyebrows or smoke are special to me. Vera was that kind of a woman.


My missions to Jakarta were typically over a week or sometimes over two weeks at the maximum. During each mission, having conversations with Vera at the Elvis was an attraction. I used to really look forward to meeting Vera.

Vera was a voracious reader and so I used to get a box of books for her. She would in return book me at some of the Jazz places in Jakarta for a concert. The Cascade Lounge at hotel Mullia was our favorite. The Jazz at the Cascade was sophisticated and smooth. The coffee Luwak out there was the best. Vera used to choose this place because smoking was allowed at the corner sofas.

Cascade04

The Cascade Lounge

Our conversations used to be a lot on the work she used to do at the BAPEDAL. Vera had analyzed the Environmental Management Plans (EMPs) of some 600 AMDALs across Indonesia. Her finding was that most EMPs were boiler plate type and did not really require environmental assessments to arrive at. The EMPs were obvious best practices which should have been done anyway  Like take appropriate measures to reduce dust release during construction, dampen the noise during blasting, plant a green belt around etc.

[I don’t know what will be the outcome if we were to analyze say 1000 Indian EIAs for the “gold” we could get from the EMPs. We probably will see more of “stones” than the “gold”]

Vera used to stress the importance of regional and cumulative assessments to come up with planning and policy related measures. “These measures really matter”, she used to say. The Indian EIA system today still operates on the project level and that’s a pity. I really hope that one day our EIA Notification matures and addresses strategic EIA and lays down the guidelines and procedures. We are couple of decades behind the world.

Vera used to take me along to Barik Keris– The well-known handicrafts shop for Indonesian handicrafts. She would always insist shopping something for me. Her art sense was amazing and she introduced me to some of the exotic and abstract Indonesian fabric and paintings.

Ashtray

A Moroccan Ashtray that I gifted Vera

I was in Morocco for some work and came across a nice Moroccan ashtray. I remembered Vera and picked up one for her. When I gifted her, she said “So Prasad you want me to be a chain-smoker – do you? … Ugh?” And I said “Well, I just want you to remember me every day!” And she smiled. When she turned around the ashtray, she saw my name engraved there with a scribe “Complements from Prasad”. “Oh, I like that” – she exclaimed. “I will carry this ashtray wherever I go”.

I had a conference to attend in Yogyakarta. Vera was excited. “I will be there a week before. You will stay at my house. My mother will love to meet you”. I told her that I will book a room in a hotel nearby to her house.  So I booked at the Phoenix, a boutique hotel of my kind.

I checked in the morning at the hotel, dumped my luggage in the room and left straight for the conference. I thought of calling Vera on my return.

When I came back and reached the reception, the Lobby Manager was waiting for me “Sir, you have been checked out. Your friend sitting in the lounge asked us to do so – he pointed at Vera who was sitting on a sofa smoking. My luggage was neatly placed next to the counter.

“I told you that you must stay with us”.  Vera said angrily. “I found out your hotel and I know the Lobby Manager here. So I could pull you out without your consent”. The Lobby Manager was standing next to her with an apologetic face to me “Sorry Sir, Ms. Jansen told me that you are her Guest and a Close Friend”.

So I landed at Vera’s house. Her house was a quaint place – a bungalow with garden, lots of teak wood used in the interiors, lovely paintings hanging on the walls and artifacts placed on the shelves. Vera’s mother greeted me warmly and hugged. “I know so much about you already as she keeps talking about you. Vera loves you my friend”

I stayed with Vera and her mother for two nights. The dinners were really enjoyable with all the authentic Indonesian cuisine. They had a great cook who used to follow Mothers instructions diligently. Vera and I used to sit late in the lounge discussing her favorite topic “The EIA”!! “Can you not talk about something else?” I could not resist but ask her this question. We then spoke about Indonesian and Indian versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

After two days, when I went to say good bye to her Mother, she pulled me towards her side and whispered “Prasad, you are a close friend of Vera. Please – please ask her to give up smoking. One day this heavy smoking is going to kill her! She doesn’t listen to me, May be to you”

I said “Mom. I will try to. But to me Vera looks great when she smokes a cigarette. And I like her style”.

Vera’s mother stared at me and said “I hope you are not serious Prasad and only joking”

I returned to Mumbai. I saw Vera again couple of times in my next missions. My Project “Produksih Bersih” was nearing the closure. My last trip happened after a gap of nearly six months. I was busy. I exchanged a few emails with Vera but later found that her responses were delayed.

So on the very first day I was at the BAPEDAL, I went down to Elvis looking for Vera. My gang of three was there. I asked for my beer and asked Bob about Vera.

There was a pause – and a silence that made all of us uncomfortable. Nobody spoke. Then Cindy held my held and said softly – “Vera passed away last month. It was a galloping Lung Cancer. She had a painful death. She asked about you when we visited the hospital”

I was shell shocked and was choked with emotions. I didn’t know what to say. How could this happen?

I remembered meeting Vera the first time. Sitting cross legged in a pleated skirt on a stool, with a cigarette in her hand and those interesting frown lines appearing on her forehead as she took a deep puff of the cigarette….

I decided to go to Yogyakarta and see her mother. When I met her, she hugged me and wept. We sat together in the Verandah and remembered her.

When I got up to say goodbye, she said “Wait Prasad, I have to give you back something that Vera told me not to forget”. She opened a drawer of the camphor chest that was carved and polished in red. There was a box packed neatly like a present that she handed over to me “Don’t open the box here”, She said this in a cracked voice.

I left for the airport. As soon as I reached the lounge, I tore the packing and opened the box. It had the Moroccan Ash tray that I had gifted to Vera.

It was the ash tray I should not have given. And I broke down.


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7 thoughts on “An Ashtray I shouldn’t Have Gifted

  1. Prasad,

    Very touching!

    This is how we all feel when we loose a near and dear friend.

    All the memories of the time spent together coming rushing back , time and again.

    Have a nice weekend.

    Like

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