“Do you have a pen to spare? Mine has run out of ink,” I asked of the classmate next to me. He offered one with a decorous smile and said, “You can keep it.” That is how I met Kamal the first day of college. I kept the pen and kept talking. After class he took me out for a cup of tea. He loved tea.
Of middle height, Kamal had a large shock of hair and bright pair of eyes, peering at you through thick lenses. He had the most elegant style of talking in the entire class: a dulcet, deliberate pitch, starting with a considerate pause and ending invariably with an amiable interrogation, “Don’t you think so?” The last would be embellished by a sunny half-smile and a gentle turning of his palm. It was hard to disagree with him.
No wonder he easily won in the election and became a leader in the student union. I won too, but with a smaller margin and much greater effort. Yes, I spoke loudly and inelegantly, and I waved my hands too much.
We became friends nevertheless. The first bridge was politics. We were both enmeshed in student politics and we talked endlessly of the big issues of the day: Marxism, social transformation, economic justice and student rights. But we soon found the second and broader bridge of literature. We both read prodigiously and felt passionately about what we read.
I read to him poems, mostly modern poems, that I loved. I read them loudly and clearly, not economizing on emphasis. He read his favorites, a combination of old and new, in his characteristic fashion, slowly, gently and with long pauses. It was a completely different style, but strangely effective, and I fell in love with several of his choices.
We began by meeting in college corners, teashops and coffee houses, but, since I lived next to the college, my apartment became our default space. The apartment had two large terraces, one with a convenient awning, and we would sit and talk after college until sundown.
At that time Kamal lived in a suburban house, far from the college, where his father practiced medicine. The situation changed dramatically when his father died very young, and his grandfather, a famous physicist, invited Kamal’s mother, Nilima, to move into his large house in town, fairly close to the college. We now started seeing each other daily after college, often at his grandfather’s and now his home, and sometimes I even stayed back at his place. I loved sitting with him after dinner, drinking tea and talking about our life and loves.
Kamal was a most unusual person. He combined disparate elements to an extraordinary degree. He was a social person, cordial to people he met. In fact, mostly he left them charmed. Yet he was highly intuitive, and if he sensed someone as overbearing, he would leave the scene without a word.
An aspect that bowled me over was his extraordinary candor. Five of us friends were discussing the most memorable incident in our lives in a street-side cafe´. The rest of us talked about some curious event, but Kamal talked about a most intimate occurrence and put us all to shame with our lack of self-disclosure. At the same time, I knew he could be cautious and guarded with people he instinctively distrusted.
On one occasion I had invited him to a small gathering. He did not come. The striking thing was that when I asked him about it, instead of prevaricating he told me, simply and truthfully, that he had not felt like joining. I accepted that instantly. He could also be preternaturally sensitive to his environment. We dined with friends in an excellent Chinese restaurant one day, when Kamal came over to tell me that the scarlet wall color overwhelmed him. We moved to another room.
From the university I went to work for a corporate organization, while Kamal joined India’s reputed public administration service. He took his work as a mission and rose in the ranks until he was a very senior member of the giant Indian railway system. I lived in another country and traveled constantly. We rarely saw much of each other, though we always kept in touch.
Three years ago I walked into a college reunion and found him sitting with friends at a table, sipping tea as usual. The afternoon sun glistened on his hair, now touched with silver, as he spoke softly, his palm turned the familiar way, his lips carrying his trademark halfsmile.
That is the picture I will live with now of my friend. Kamal died last year of a definitive cardiac failure.
(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)