“Who is Nergis Dalal?”, queried the young assistant editor.Her question did not surprise me. Not many readers, and or for that matter even journos of today’s generation would have heard about Nergis Dalal. More than three decades ago, Nergis had deservedly won the sobriquet of the “QUEEN of the MIDDLES”. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the young assistant editor did not even know what the ‘Middles’ were.

There was a time when ‘Middles’ were much in vogue and regularly featured in most mainstream English dailies from the 1940s to the 1990s. Nergis Dalal’s middles appeared every other day in one or another newspaper. Raj Chatterjee was another big name whose articles, used in the ‘middle’ of the editorial page between the lead article and the letters and hence the name, carried interesting anecdotes from his days in the erstwhile British companies he worked for. Middles were short pithy pieces, providing the light relief on an otherwise laborious page.

The Times of India had first introduced the middle (a special slot in the middle of the edit page; hence the nomenclature) in the 1940s, and Dalal was one of its first contributors. Initially, she wrote under the pseudonym of “Aries”, but when the frequency of her middles increased, the then scholar-editor of The Times of India, Sham Lal, advised her to also write under her own name. "After all, I cannot publish too many Middles from one writer alone," he told her. It was only then that she also began writing under her own name.

However, writing under two different names had some funny fallouts; once a reader accused Aries of plagiarizing from a Middle published under the byline of Dalal. The generous editor was not amused. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that she was deservedly given the sobriquet of MIDDLES Queen of India. Now hardly any national newspaper barring The Tribune publishes the middle.

Dalal had been an inveterate writer for over 70 years; perhaps no other writer barring Ruskin Bond had written so continuously for such a long period. Until about nine years ago, she had kept a daily routine of regular writing; it was during that period that her collection of her popular short stories under the title “NUDE” was published by Penguin. Dalal had been one of India's most well known and prodigious writers. She did not confine her writing to a particular genre and her range included short stories, novels, 'Middles', and even books on cookery and yoga. Her output in seven decades was indeed enormous - it included four full length novels, over 125 short stories and more than 2,000 Middles, besides hundreds of articles and essays.

By October-November 2012, Nergis started feeling somewhat weak and debilitated. I would visit her quite regularly just to console and spend some time with her. Earlier in June that year, she had had a quiet 92nd birthday with just a few close friends dropping by to wish her. We then chatted idly about this and that; she much appreciated my write up about her that had appeared in some newspapers that day. Her friends Nayantara Sahgal, Chandralekha Mehta and a few others were all in a good mood. It was her daughter Roshen who looked after all of us.

“Raj, I feel half dead,” Nergis Dalal whispered as I held her hand. She was lying on a couch in her living room. In reply, I slightly tightened my grip on her hand; what else could have I said? Her daughter Roshen and my wife were sitting in the nearby chairs, concerned about her declining condition; the CT scan report that day was not good. Nergis had stubbornly declined to be admitted to hospital. Her US-based son Ardeshir was scheduled to arrive in India on 18th November and the older daughter Shahnaz was still in Hyderabad. It was the evening of 7th November, and I was to leave for Vietnam the following night for a nine-day family vacation. Even though her condition was bad enough, we all thought that Nergis would not die so soon; Roshen advised me to go to Vietnam as planned.

But the gods willed otherwise; Nergis was admitted to Dehra Dun’s Military Hospital on November 12 in a critical condition where she died in the early hours of November 13, before either her son or older daughter could arrive; Roshen was the only one in Dehra Dun and bravely managed with the assistance of her driver and others to perform her last rites. A large number of Nergis’ friends were there to mourn her demise. That was the quiet end of a prodigious writer for whom the mere act of writing was her staple diet.

(Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun-based author and veteran journalist)