A short story by Jnanesh Roy Choudhury
As we settled down for Sunday dinner, ready to relish chicken cooked with Koldil (Banana flower), my father said, ‘Deben Das called me today and told me that Simanta Barua’s son got married. What was his name?’
‘Akash?’ I said.
‘No, his younger son who was with you in the same class in your primary School.’
I was too engrossed in enjoying the chicken cooked by my sister and disinterested in anything about Abhi who was my school friend in that primary school situated inside our Campus. I am in contact with Abhi’s elder brother Akash Barua who is a renowned writer and a faculty at a New York college. But never has I once asked Akash da about Abhi or what he is doing in life.
Abhi and I grew up in the same place, called Jalukbari nestled in the lap of nature next to the hills where chirruping of birds welcome you every morning and the howling of foxes announces the end of the day. It was where swans glided in the pond in front of your house and the Johamols(Indian Civet) left behind a sweet fragrance of joha rice. We used to stay in one of those University quarters in the road that leads to Government Ayurvedic College and Assam Engineering College and they used to live in a rented house nearby, attached to the campus.
Our father used to drop us at school while going to his Department and Abhi’s father did the same while going to his workplace. Abhi was plump, had red white cheeks, and hence, soon got the nickname ‘Appal’ (Apple). Abhi was never bright in studies but was full of robust energy, which he tried venting out by fighting with our fellow classmates but never with me. His favourite time in school was the lunch break when he could go out under the open sky and play sports, mainly football and fighting. Abhi hated to study and books were probably his greatest enemies. He would only be happy again once the school got over.
While our Aunt used to come and pick me up and my sister from school, which was perhaps at a 2 km distance from our quarter, Abhi used to return with us along with three of our other friends- Rajashri, Tapashi and Chayanika. By the time we made our way home from walking under a canopy of Gulmohar and Laburnum trees, Abhi’s clothes were already soiled, his shirt button torn, shirt untucked. Abhi reminds you in certain ways of Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s novel. He would pick up pebbles, twigs of trees from the road, throw them, and tease the stray dogs. During the season of lychees, our mandatory stopping point was the Vice Chancellor’s quarter to collect lychee from the tree near the gate by pelting stones at the tree. Obviously, Abhi collected more lychees than us as he used to keep the stones ready in his pocket. Sometimes the guards sitting in a bench under the tree would shout and shoo us away and on other days they would themselves offer us the juicy lychees. In those days, there was no such terror of the monkeys in the campus as people had not yet destroyed their habitat for building houses.
In the evening, Abhi would again come to our quarter to play cricket with me and take a longer circuitous route to go home. Those were the days, when campus kids still used to play outside in the evenings.
One Saturday evening, he came to our quarter not to play cricket but to watch the Hindi blockbuster movie Sholay. During those days, we hardly get to watch Hindi movies in Doordarshan, the only channel available in our T.V. sets, it was an eagerly anticipated day. For the last few days, he had been constantly telling me in the school itself that he would come to watch the movie. By Saturday, he had memorized by-heart almost all the famous dialogues of the movie, ‘Yeh haath mujhe de dey, Thakur. Yeh haath mujhe de dey.’ (‘Give me these hands, Thakur.’) At the end of the movie, Abhi cried and held my hands. Then, together we sang the famous song of the movie, ‘Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge/ Todenge dam magar tera saath na chhodenge.’ (‘We will never break our friendship/ Till my last breath I will not leave your side.’) It was already past 8 pm and Abhi’s father, Barua uncle came searching for him. Next day, he told me in the class that he received a thrashing from his father. For the next few days, he would hum that song ‘Yeh dosti hum nehi todenge’ while returning from school.
We were in class IV when his parents decided to shift to another busy heart of the city where concrete buildings make it difficult to breathe and the constant honking of traffic numbs your senses. And Abhi was transferred to another city school. The day before they left, Abhi came to play with me. We sat on a culvert outside our quarter and talked.
He said. ‘I want to become a don in Bombay.’
‘I want to become a filmmaker,’ I said as we dreamt under a scarlet sky watching the sun set behind the hills.
That was probably our last proper meeting and as in those days, we did not even own a landline phone, we could not exchange phone numbers.
During my higher secondary days in Cotton College, one day, my father mentioned that he met Barua Uncle but they could not talk properly as Barua uncle was in a hurry to pick up his son from School. I was a little shocked to learn that Abhi was still in school while I was doing my H.S; I surmised that he probably failed in his school’s annual exams and did not think much about it nor about Abhi as I had new friends and other challenges in life to worry about. After my H.S, I went to Delhi to study for my under-graduate and post-graduate courses. Once during my summer vacation, when I was at home, my father met Barua uncle and when enquired about Abhi, he told my father that Abhi met with an accident some years ago and therefore lost some years of his academic life. However, I soon learnt from an old neighbour that Abhi was quite disturbed and got into bad company, took to substance abuse etc
As it happens, in this rat race, we leave behind those who cannot run the race, I too forgot about Abhi. Later when I met Abhi’s elder brother Akash da, I hesitated to ask him about Abhi thinking he might not be comfortable to answer me just like my aunt feels uncomfortable to talk about her son in a society where a person’s worth is measured in terms of success he achieves in life.
That Sunday when my father mentioned about Abhi, I displayed an indifferent attitude. It was only after my sister who sternly said, ‘Don’t you remember your friend in school, Abhi?’ that I realized how insensitively I had behaved.
After that I tried to collect his address from a person and decided to pay a visit to their city residence. So, on the next Sunday, I booked a cab and went to his place. It was after more than twenty years that I was going to meet Abhi. The sky was light blue with wandering clouds. When I rang the bell, a young girl opened the door. I guessed she might be Abhi’s wife.
I said, ‘is Abhi at home?’
I heard that Abhi ran a small stationery shop near his home. She went inside and Uncle came out after a few seconds.
I said, ‘Uncle, how are you and where is Abhi?’
Uncle sighed and said, ‘Abhi expired a few days ago,’
I became dumb. I didn’t know what to say. I somehow managed to ask, ‘How?’
‘He fell down in the bathroom. He had a cardiac arrest.’
I could not stay there any longer. A sudden pain filled my chest as if it was going to burst. I could not fathom how a thirty-two year old boy can leave so early. As I was returning home, childhood memories of Abhi kept flashing back into my mind in their never-ending train of thoughts. The sky had turned crimson as the sun was about to set. As I looked out of my car window, I noticed Abhi’s radiant face smiling at me from behind the clouds in the sky.
Jnanesh Roy Choudhury
is currently working as
Asst. Professor (English) at the
Bajali College and lives in
(This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.)