The thought of February sends a shiver down the spine. Not only because it snows heaviest at this time of the year but for another reason too.

There was a time when I was beginning to actually warm up to the snow clad peaks of Vienna . That is till Salman Rushdie wrote his satanic book.

This February it seems like eons have rolled by since I last spoke to Elise.

Once upon a time Elise was a friend. Then Iran got annoyed with Salman and Elise stopped to talk to me. When I feel really low I find myself angry with Salman for having deprived me of a friend.

I remember that February morning when the Iranian decree to punish Salman for writing The Satanic Verses had barged into my home riding high on frosty winds from Siberia over the electronic media. The chilling news woke me up, wide. I was on the telephone dialing Elise repeatedly but got to talk to her much later, only after she returned my call.

She was excited too.

She said that she had to see me, immediately.

We made arrangements to drop our respective sons at a common friend’s home and to meet in a coffee house.

“Please, on time, be there. I have a lot to say,” Elise said. So did I, like always.

After all who else was there except Elise, to talk to in Vienna ? Marriage had plucked me from the rice fields of the sun drenched plains of northern India to plant me in the midst of forests forever covered in fog. Here storms played see-saw with the blood circulation and wily winters walked through all clothing, to freeze the marrow. I spent many years feeling very alone and cold in Vienna.

One day the clouds parted. The Sahara inside was drenched. I felt like sweet ice cream held in warm clasp as I dripped in pleasure. From beneath a rare blue sky and under the arch of a rainbow Elise had walked into my life like sunshine. We met everyday. Our boys went to the same kindergarten. And I began to look forward to bumping into Elise around the same corner each afternoon. We talked about the weather at first. Then we had coffee together. She offered me a slice of cake baked by her. I invited her for tea and fried for her, a samosa. Our respective children were coerced into making friends with each other? Perhaps. I taught Elise to roll out kebabs in imitation of the chefs of the ancient rulers of Lucknow . She gave me recipes that were a favourite of Kaiser Franz Joseph, the last Austrian emperor.

She loved to slip into a kurta and I would wrap a Tyrolean skirt around myself. Giggling before the mirror she said that she did not have the courage to enter the enigmatic folds of a sari, yet. We listened to music together. She wept at the indignity Draupadi suffered in Peter Brook’s film Mahabharata.

One day she showed me that magical spot in the thick of the Vienna woods where the secret of dreams was first revealed to Dr. Sigmund Freud. Her son called me black mama while Elise was the white mama to my son. It was I who introduced Salman to Elise. My first gift to her was the German translation of Midnight's Children. And in the midst of all the tarantara put up by the boys we managed to also talk about Salman, a lot.

Like I said before I was at last beginning to feel almost at home in Vienna .

Together we waited impatiently for a copy of Salman's The Satanic Verses to arrive at the British Book Shop. As I read through the pages, I realised that I was not always amused. When I said this to Elise she looked at me as if I were a traitor. ”What do you mean?” she questioned in not a very friendly way. Since I was not sure what I meant, I shrugged and we talked of other things instead. We started to avoid Salman.

Once I just had to tell Elise that it made me uncomfortable that people were being killed because of the book. I told her that I could no longer look upon Salman merely as a novelist. What I waited for was some gesture from Salman that would show that he was a considerate human being along with being a great writer. Elise was so blind in her adoration of Salman that she was not prepared to listen to anything against him. She dismissed all sentiments that were in dissent with the writer and his work, with a funny wave of a hand. She interrupted anything I said against the Satanic Verses with a discourse on the freedom of expression. I was already irritated with Salman. Now I fumed at Elise.

In a shrill voice that did not sound like my own I said, “What freedom of expression and for whom? When there is no food there will be none to practice free speech. You too will have more time for the sacred if you were not so preoccupied keeping track of your bank balance. Once the poor of the world are caught in the ferris wheel of money and more money we will depend a little less on god too.”

Her white faced burnt red in anger.

She flared back, “You talk like a Muslim. Like a brainwashed employee of the Iranian embassy here.” I was horrified. I thought to myself. Is this the way Muslims talk? What does it mean to talk like a Muslim? How different are those from other religions in their talk?

All that I wanted to share with Elise was my concern that Salman did not express any sorrow for those who had died demonstrating against his book? Perhaps they had not even read the book. But perhaps they were also the only earning member in a family of widows, in an entire army of purdah-clad, illiterate women, and children? Elise who talked so much about an individual's right to freedom was nonchalant to the violence Salman's writing had triggered within a community. So I said to her in the meanest voice that has ever volcano-ed out of me, “And who do you think you are? A left over relic from the Roman Catholic Church that goes by the name of Nun Liberal?”

Holy smoke! It seemed as if it was not this millennium anymore but the Middle Ages. That we did not sit in a modern day coffee house but faced each other on top of the hill where the last battle between the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe took place 300 years ago. That we were not on chairs but astride horses impatient for a grand gallop to the end. That the loud chatter around us was not that of the literati and tourists but the bustle of two armies preparing for war. I felt like a confidante of the Turk Kara Mustafa while Elise was reduced to the trusted ambassador of the Catholic King Leopold of Austria .

Time rewound back to 1683 when the Turks had tried to conquer Western Europe in the famous battle of Vienna . Perhaps we were even about to strike each other before the waitress thundered in like bad weather to spoil it all. She laid out before us our third cup of coffee. But we dragged our chairs away from us and stood up without a glance at the mountain of whipped cream melting down the cups as if in deep disappointment. We paid for the services, separately. We picked up the umbrella, the raincoat. We flung handbags over the shoulder and waving our up-turned noses higher into the icy, cold wind outside, I walked away to the east. Through the corner of my eye I saw Elise disappear into the west.

That was a very long time ago.

The shrill ring of the telephone disturbs my bittersweet reverie. I rush to receive the call, wondering if it is from Elise?