Traffic is congested as usual. The cars are honking and men are braying questions and answers to each other. Trucks blare. And three-legged green and yellow roaches, called auto-rickshaws in this part of the world, drift by my side, inch by inch, to their unknown destinations.
I am on my way to meet a friend from college, an old one. The two of us hung out with each other all the time. We would skip classes and run to the Zoo or Humayun’s tomb or to various book festivals and food festivals, dance clubs, and malls and newly opened restaurants; and there was the Ridge, where there were monkeys we would throw bananas at, even after being warned by the gatekeepers multiple times. Those were some good old days.
Right now, it is that afternoon hour when everything is slow as molasses. There is a scooter on my left, farting black rubbles of smoke into the thick air, relentlessly gifting the people of Delhi some more smoke, some more nectar for the lungs; and on my right, there is a man, in a 2005 Chevrolet Beat, yelling and throwing invectives at the traffic – like the farting scooter on my left.
We wait for the red to turn into green.
Memories keep him alive in me; sturdy ones, good, bad, all sorts of memories. In times of respite from the daily churning of life, I often find myself losing in them, in their sticky gluey river.
Memories, images, and sounds, different feelings like ecstasies, and sadness, and boredom… everything… they are a part of me, they make me. I go back to them time and again.
Delhi, India’s capital, is slightly overcast today. Brackish wads of cotton have enveloped it from west to east. There aren’t any birds though, strangely. Only humans seem to be shuffling hither and thither, in the smoke and dust of Delhi, in their collective madness.
The glass windows of a building sparkle and I close my eyes for a second. I remember… I remember it very well. How we had a crush on the same girl and how we would do everything possible to be the first one to woo her, and how that never affected our friendship. We were the famed pair of meethe in our college, the gay-couple. Stories of our bromance were known everywhere, furnished with all the ingredients and masala, and fictions were fabricated, various creative plans were made to tease us. We were inseparable.
Perhaps the wind outside is cool. I don’t know. My air-conditioned vehicle does not like the outside air, and I am too used to my air-conditioned air. I miss them – those moments, those adventures, those beer parties, those late-night walks in the campus, those innumerable cigarettes we smoked together, standing by the familiar roadside paan shop in Kamla Nagar, walking on its restaurant-lined lanes, checking the girls out, giving them ratings, eating bhelpuri after a concert at the IHC. Ah! those college memories! Something we cherish for life.
He was always a good friend to me; reserved, private, and poised. He was always lost in his books though… and comics and cartoons. But he never really got great marks and was studious in his own way. I remember the interminable telephone calls we used to have, especially during the exams, hung over the snaking wires of landlines. We would discuss good fiction, and literary news and critical points of various novels and poems; revising important questions and talking about how fucked up the education system was. He was more than a friend, he was my tutor and guide. He was always there when I was low, when I needed an ear. Today I am going to meet him, after almost five years.
He had called me yesterday. We didn’t talk much and it was awkward mostly. Though I wanted to tell him that I am married now and have a little daughter. I wanted to tell him my wife’s name and my daughter’s too, tell him about how I ended up marrying the girl, yes, our girl, the one we both had a crush on, once. He sure would find it funny.
“I think we should get together and catch up. Lots of things to share,” I said over the phone – a mobile phone this time, recently bought – a Samsung D600, black and red; not the grass-green landline I had back then.
I think we should get together and catch up, I had said. And isn’t ‘catch up’ such a fine little couplet of words? Encompassing a million stories – jobs, promotions and family, emotions… life. He said he would love to. His voice had changed a lot, I thought, it was harsher and more nasal. I remember him to be very soft-spoken, slow and delicate with words. Also, he would never hurry, and let the words take their own sweet time to come out. But then, ten years can really change a lot. Or it might be the meds, I thought.
He was always on meds. He suffered from some kind of heart trouble. Or was it kidney? I made a mental note of making fun of his voice when we meet. Maybe we would meet over a beer, like before, at a bar, or perhaps in the same old streets, the college campus, or the Ridge, where there was a particular spot we had chosen for ourselves near a set of canopied benches.
We decided to meet in Connaught Place, arguably the best place to meet an old friend in Delhi. With good connectivity, it is also lined with many restaurants and cafes, where you can sit with calm, and flurry through a slow conversation. Catch up.
I remember that phase also when we were wannabe writers. We would haunt the libraries and bookshops of Delhi like musketeers. Everyone has those days, when they want to play the greats, like Kafka and Dostoevsky and Nachi. Looking for fiction and non-fiction, talking about how great Kafka is all the time, how mercilessly Derrida writes, and how huge a literary superstar Murakami is.
Walks in the central park, through the shaded corridors of Khan Market under the awnings, in front of shops and restaurants of Kamla Nagar were coupled with long conversations about people and professors, about one professor we didn’t like because he flirted with the girls of our class.
Connaught Place, or CP, is not very far now. I check my watch and call him to find how long he’ll take. He had said that he would be taking the metro since his car was in the garage.
Oh yes, his red Maruti 800, his red and ugly Maruti 800. How can I forget it? We mocked him about it all the time.
“Who paints his 800 with red?”
But whenever there was a concert in the IHC or a new hangout place to test run, we would gang up and take the same car through the stuffy roads of Delhi, music blaring, the AC at max shouting our lungs out. I even remember kissing a girl at its backseat one night, after a concert, Lucky Ali, I think… as he sat on the driver seat looking out for the cops. I will definitely ask him about the car.
“So buddy, where is your car?” That might be a good conversation starter.
It would be difficult to begin the conversation, for me more so; because I was the one who never kept in touch.
He picks up the phone on the first ring. He is already in CP.
In college, he was quite a loner. There was no one he was friendly with, except for me, and I would pester him, “If you can’t open up to regular people, how are you going to get a girl?”
“Perhaps this is who I am, someone who can’t open up to more than a few people,” he would reply.
He must be married by now. He wanted kids and was very fond of his baby niece, talking about how she was the best and managed to bring about a smile on his face. What was her name? Arya? Yes, Arya. Despite being such a lonely man, he was all about having and taking care of a family. He never wanted money or fame in his career.
“I just want to spend some quality time with family and friends,” he used to say when we talked about the future. One of his fondest plans was to sit with me and our wives and have brunch together, at least once a month, in a restaurant with paintings of Picasso and songs of Pink Floyd.
The traffic has mellowed down, and now, my newly bought Tucson cruises at fifty miles an hour. I turn the AC off, open the windows and let the outside wind hit my face. It feels good. I look outside, everyone is busy.
Delhi is a city of runners, joggers, those who consider it a crime to pause, to slow down and wait. I am one of them, definitely one of them. And it is all in our minds, we ‘believe’ that we are going somewhere, at the same time we are trying to know ‘where’. I don’t know what made me say that. It’s been five long years. I am sure a lot would have happened in his life… marriage, children, work.
I wonder how he looks now? I hope he has lost some weight. He was a bulky man back then. We called him Potato, in jest of course, and he never felt bad about it. He was one of those guys who accept themselves as they are – with faults and all.
I am the fat one now, having a paunch, which my daughter squishes with joy whenever she is in the mood. How beautiful it all is, to be in the stream of things, to fly, to merge, to feel. Was it Virginia Woolf who had written something like this?
I enter the parking lot. It takes me ten minutes to find a place and park the car. Delhi is full of cars, too full. It wasn’t so packed back then… when we were in college. There was this time when we spent an entire hour in finding a parking spot. It was Christmas and we were trying to find a restaurant whose biryani was supposed to be heavenly. We did find the place, but it was too full, and we had to make do with pizza.
I place the keys in the hands of an attendant, a young man with a two-day-old beard. He strips out a slip from a notepad and hands it over, the writing illegible. Arsh had said that he would be waiting somewhere near the ice cream parlor, the same joint where we met up before going party-hopping.
The clouds have dispersed and owing to the moisture and the accompanying wind, it is cooler now. I feel good, full of optimism. I pass a restaurant which is famous for its non-veg delicacies. I had brought my wife Smita and daughter here for dinner; and from the same ice-cream parlor where I am headed, I had bought a chocolate-cone for Sahna.
After college, we almost stopped talking. I moved to Pune for my master’s and with the freedom that comes from living away from home and new friends, I got so engrossed that I didn’t keep in touch with him, the way I should have. I stopped replying to his texts. He tried many times but I was always busy. I guess a new bunch of healthy friends was far more adventurous than a friend who was always sick.
He didn’t get into a college for further studies; or rather he chose not to. He said he was sicker than usual. He had a heart problem the exact details of which he would never reveal.
Arsh was absent from the college most of the last semester. Even on the last day of our college, when we met near the library, I had felt a certain kind of weariness in the way he carried himself, less energetic than before.
“Why don’t you take up a freelancing job,’ I asked, and he said, ‘I get too tired,’before adding the affirming: ‘the doctors had advised so’.
He spent a whole year at home, probably writing a novel and never telling anyone about it. Yes, he used to write and he was very superstitious about his craft. He was superstitious about almost everything. I think sick people have this peculiar tendency. Of being superstitious. Sick, and the highly ambitious.
But it was okay, I would argue with myself. We make new friends in new places, but that doesn’t mean that we leave out the old ones. And it’s not important to be in continuous touch. I thought when I came home for my vacation, we would talk and make up for all the absence. I had many stories to share, a lot of new things had happened in my life. I called him first thing when I landed in Delhi. I was eager to meet him.
But even over the phone, I could sense that he was tired. He said yes, it would be fun to meet. But there was something in his voice that betrayed apathy. Perhaps he was not as excited to meet me as I was to him.
I decided to ignore it then. When we met the next day… here in the central park in fact, he was not only morose but also kind of sad. He talked less, much less than what he used to when we were in college. He was a loner but he always had words inside him; so I was astonished. I concluded, then, that he wasn’t happy to see me, that he didn’t want to continue with the friendship.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Three years passed before we met again. Even though I came home for my vacations regularly, I could never make time for him. And when I shifted back to Delhi after the masters, I didn’t meet him. Extracting time out of my busy schedule was impossible, not that I had really tried. Things had faded, sort of, under the layers of new memories and new people. But one day, after his persisting entreaties, for old times’ sake, I gave him a slot of half an hour.
We met in an ice cream parlor in Saket. I told him everything about my life. I had landed up a big job by then. He was kind of happy to hear that, and I was relieved, that he relished in my progress. I was happy to see that he was still interested in my life. But when his turn came, to share things about his life, he said that his illness had progressed and that was all. He didn’t have anything more to add.
I pass by the famous Oxford Bookstore of CP, white, engraved in a red plaque. We had spent an afternoon here, I remember. We had come with the girl we both had a Smita, former mutual crush, and wife now, and there was another girl, whose name was Radhika as far as I remember. It was a Sunday and the store was full of book lovers, though I was not as interested in browsing as much as I was in making an impression on Smita. We lounged about the book-walled interiors of the store, the girls walking ahead while I walked behind them, trying to Google something about the books they were picking, and mostly listening to them because they were all new books, and I had nothing to add, except – a few crude comments about how such and such cover of a particular book was beautiful.
My wife works as an editor in one of the middle-level publishing houses in Delhi. There was something about the way he used to look at her, not with lust. No. It was a yearning, a kind of yearning which is only found in hopeless romantics. But he could never express it!
One particular novel he loved was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I haven’t read it yet, even after all these years, although I have a copy with me which Smita had bought and read. But he discussed it all the time, and I know that it had to with three brothers, one of whom ended up killing their father, but that’s all I know; I have never been a reader.
In his opinion, The Brothers Karamazov was the best novel, and he told me that he was like the middle brother in the trio. He would pester me again and again, to read it.
Even on a weekday, the bookstore is full of people. It is encouraging… to look at people spending more time in book-cafes. Though I could never find the time to read books. There was always something coming up, something which held me back, college, assignments, internships, festivals. I always thought that when I have a job, perhaps then I would have some time to read. do know people who read, like Smita; and I look out for them. He likes books, my potato friend, he really does like books. Maybe I should gift him one.
A book would allay his displeasure perhaps.
After the second meeting on campus, we never met. I got a job in another city and even forgot to tell him where I was and what I was up to.
Once in a while, a funny message or a quote from a book he was reading at that time used to pop up in my inbox. He would send me snippets regularly, a funny story, or a philosophical piece. It was his way of asking me to get in touch after all the attempts at calling over the phone had failed. I never replied to them. I wanted to tell him that he should stop sending me such emails because I never really read them, but I couldn’t summon the required courage either.
I look for the shelf where I can find a novel from one of his favorite authors. Being the introvert he was, he never discussed his literary tastes with anyone, but for me and a few other select friends. Once at a Pizza Hut outlet, he had tried explaining, “Books are living beings. They grow on you. And sometimes a good book might grow so much in you that it becomes a part of your identity. Then you don’t want to share it with others, just as you don’t want to share everything with everyone. There is beauty in privacy.”
I pick out a copy of The Sea by John Banville from the shelf and ask the woman at the billing counter to wrap it up in a gift paper. I have no idea what this book is about, except that it won the Booker this year. She is in her twenties, perhaps an intern, and looks strangely familiar. She smiles and while wrapping a blue sheet around the book, says that it was a good book to gift someone. I smile at her and reply, “Yes, I guess, he is someone special and I am going to meet him after five years, a college buddy.”
Sometimes we were confused by his health problems, why wouldn’t he be clear… but then, perhaps, he wanted to extricate that bane from himself; it probably tormented his psyche; and he just wanted to throw it away by not being so possessive about it.
I knew him so well… and yet so little. And to be honest, I don’t know what I am doing here, meeting him after so many years when for all we know we may never talk again after today!
Life is strange, and people like him make it look like a stranger. I want to meet him and yet I don’t. I am ashamed of myself. I reach the ice cream parlor.
It is a busy place. There are men and women with their children, teenagers, college kids. I see a little, puffy kid, with strawberry and chocolate all over his face, with his brown teeth and dark gaps in between. I look for my friend. There is a man with thick glasses and a music box in his one hand and in another, a vanilla ice-cream. And vendors standing behind the stand are tired of smiling, about giving away ice cream. Arsh is nowhere to be seen. I dial his number. He picks up the phone on the first ring.
“Hello, where are you?’” I shout into the phone.
“Tell me the color of your shirt. I will find you,” he says. His voice has changed, I notice again.
“Madras check green. Listen…” But he cuts the phone.
I look at my watch and glance around, in search of him. For a split second it occurs to me that he is here, I sense his presence like a shadow floating over one’s head on a cloudy day. And yet the very next second I fear that I may not be able to identify him.
It would be sad… not being able to identify someone who was a best friend once. Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn around. He is not Arsh.
“Are you Ankit Mathur? Looking for Arsh?” he asks.
“Yes.” I reply.
“Hi, I am Arsh’s brother.’
I was surprised. “Hello. Where is he?” I say.
“He is no more.”
Something stops. The clock, the watch, the clouds. I feel an emptiness build up inside me, like an effervescent bubble of carbon dioxide bursting out of a soda bottle. Suddenly, I want to puke. And I want to fall down on the ground as well. The ground, it suddenly occurs to me, is slippery, and squishy. In search of something I realize I have lost; someone I have lost. But he is looking at me. His eyes are very much like Arsh’s.
“When?” I manage.
I was speechless, Arsh, my friend, from college. “Oh…I, I am sorry. Why didn’t you tell me over the phone?”
The brother nodded, “I am sorry to be the one to tell you this. Everything has been done. I came here for something, specifically, something he wanted. He had written a note, with his last wishes. One of them was to deliver this book to you. Here…’ He fidgeted for a few seconds and removed a tattered copy of The Brothers Karamazov from his bag and gave it to me.
I extended my arm to take it but his hand was shaking, and so was mine. His eyes were red; the book fell down and a note fluttered out from the book, swaying to the breeze of the central park, a few meters away.
I rushed forward, kneeled down and picked them both, the book and the note. I straightened up, dusting the book off, and stood on my feet.
“Thank you,” I said. He had gone.
In the note, in Arsh’s handwriting, was scribbled: Do read this book Ankit. A must-read! Adios! You were always a good friend to me.
And suddenly just like that, the name of the middle brother came rushing into my mind. IVAN.