I met Brij after many years on a visit to Delhi. I could not have recognized him. He recognized me, I guess, only because somebody addressed me by name in the library of the India International Center. He immediately came over to me, said his name, and added, “We were in college together.” He need not have added that, for his name was enough to locate him in time and place.
He was not just a classmate, he was – I fear to sound maudlin – a soulmate. We joined college the same year, he to get a degree in literature, I to study economics. We met in the college common room and played table tennis. I beat him handily, for I had practiced in the YMCA against formidable foes. We met as foes again in college politics.
When I signed up as a candidate for the student union, I saw his name just before mine. He stood for a party, professing some political beliefs. I stood as an independent, claiming that political loyalties had nothing to do with the good of the college or its students. We both got elected. I hadn’t voted for him. By asking others to vote for me, and stressing my non-political bid, I had, in effect, prompted others not to vote for him. Yet I sensed no enmity from him. I liked the little I had seen of him.
He seemed earnest and decent. I invited him for a chat. When I met him, I told him candidly that I did not invite him to the coffee house, because I had no money. He smiled and said he had none either. Since the students’ common room was noisy, I suggested a walk on the college grounds. He readily agreed. That walk lasted an hour or so, but it seemed to have changed my life.
I went home and told my parents that I had met somebody wonderful. I remember father saying that such a friend was precious. He was right: miraculously, I had gained a friend. We had a special link, and we found it quickly. We both came from low middle-class families, with no shadow of any pretension.
Our parents were nobodies, with no contacts or strings to pull. They were improvident teachers. They did not have a house or a car. Except a few friends, nobody knew them; in turn, they knew nobody worth knowing. I played soccer with slum children; he played nothing and had picked up table tennis in college.
For a vacation, I went to my aunt in central India; he went to his uncle in Howrah. His mother was a full-time homemaker; my mother too was a homemaker, except she was an occasional substitute teacher. None of us ever received any allowance from our families; they had nothing to spare. We both studied on a meager scholarship. Yet we were rubbing shoulders in college with people whose parents were judges, bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers and executives of substance, or well-known professionals like professors, administrators, scholars and politicians. They were aristocrats who knew other elite members of society. Brij and I were nobodies among somebodies.
They went to theaters and performances; they attended parties and august events – with others like them. They talked of common interests and common friends. We were just commoners. Some in our class even came to college in cars. We walked. Brij came from some distance, but he still walked to save the bus fare, less than a cent. Brij and I saw a lot of each other. His political faith wavered, until he became disillusioned and apolitical. I had few political beliefs, but strong social values, and they became stronger. So too our bonds of friendship.
When I later took a well-heeled commercial job, some thought I had become kosher, while other believed I had become déclassé, but Brij knew better and imagined neither. He remained my friend and confidant. Even when I moved to Washington, we talked periodically and exchanged letters. He taught in a college and I worked in an international group. It was then I noticed a strange undertone in his conversation. He sounded, for want of better words, moody and unreachable.
Since international calls were expensive, I asked him to call me and reverse charges. He seldom did. I asked other friends and was told that he was suffering from acute depression. Nobody knew the reason. This was worrisome because he lived alone. His parents had died, and he had not started a family of his own. I called and urged him to take help. I believe he did, at least briefly. I don’t know how much it helped. But he would not call me. When I called, he was rarely accessible.
Common friends were few; in any case, they knew little. He had distanced himself from others. Meanwhile my work changed: I moved from country to country and travelled often. After repeated efforts, the link snapped. Eight years later, a redirected letter from him surprised me. He mentioned a ‘recovery’ but did not mention details.
He was teaching again but did not say where. Still it was an affectionate letter and it touched me greatly. I replied promptly but did not hear from him. I wrote again, but there was no response. Now, after a lapse of several years, we were face to face. It nearly brought me to tears. I wanted to shake him and demand why he didn’t call or write. But I was too happy to find him, to do anything but hold his hand. He had thinned, his hair had thinned, but his quiet smile was unchanged.
Child-like, I kept repeating how happy I was to see him. I told him a great void in my life had been replenished. I had to leave for a meeting quickly. I gave him my card and took his telephone number. He said he was about to move and would give me his address later. He promised he would stay in touch. When I called him three days later from Mumbai, a voice said he had left the apartment. I never heard from him again.
A valued friend, who had miraculously reappeared in my life and filled my heart, had disappeared in the mist of time forever. I grieved as one grieves the loss of a brother, for he was a brother. The loss, I knew in my guts, was irrecoverable.
(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])