Ajit died four weeks ago. Amar, a common friend, wrote last week to say that Ajit had succumbed to the insidious cancer that was preying on his lungs. Ajit belonged to the generation that did not own a computer or was not comfortable with it. That made regular contact from abroad awkward.
The last time I called him, he could barely talk. I surmised then that his condition had deteriorated. He said, “My days are numbered.” The curtain came down shortly after that. Ajit was always slight, recently slighter. With the advantage of a suave voice, he spoke clearly but gently. There was often a touch of humor in his choice of words.
If unaccustomed, you might think he was mocking you, but it was his oblique way of kidding you. You knew it from his radiant smile. He was a friend and he let us feel the warmth of his friendship. We were in school together. We were just kids.
As with Amar, we bonded together in utter candor, in a way we adults don’t seem to be able now. We had nothing to gain or lose; we just wanted to be with each other and bask in the pleasure of camaraderie. We enjoyed talking, joking, laughing, commiserating with each other.
We supported and sustained each other, without knowing that we were doing so. That memory endured even as we separated after school and went in different directions. As we aged, we acquired experience and wrinkles. We added lines to our face, but that was perhaps just a mask we sported. Probably we didn’t change all that much.
Our boyhood links remained important to us. Were I in town on rare occasions, we would try to get together. Mukul was the great organizer among us. He would invite us to his home or his club and we would gather and share stories. He had a large heart and a raucous laughter.
He would initiate a story about our school days, a temperamental teacher or a classmate’s contretemps, and we would join in with our own weird and wonderful recollections. Those didn’t have to be the best days of our life, but they were certainly memorable. More, those were our precious links.
Our lives might be distinct, even our lifestyles might be very different, but we had a treasure house of memories in common, a bond of ineffable affection that bound us together. What did this pool of memory mean to us? Mukul once said to me, “I run a business where seldom things go the way I want them to go. Even in my family life unexpected things happen.
These aren’t always pleasant. But those days, when we reveled in one another’s company, were golden. Not because they were perfect, but because I remember the perfect parts. Friends were those parts.” He touched a chord in my heart. I go around the world in my work and in my search for what I am not sure of. I encounter fun and fury, hurt and happiness. I make and break relations.
I find strange, unexpected things and maybe I find a little of myself. I realize more and more that I don’t realize much. I am just a wayward schoolboy in quest of something that I am not sure of. But whatever I do and wherever I am, I need a helping hand. A word of support and a gesture of affection. I need to know someone somewhere cares a little for me. Someone gives a damn whether I live or die.
Our small circle of friends in school, now steadily getting smaller, was a charmed circle. The nexus was the purest gold of friendship. We just liked to be with the others. That experience sustained us then. The memory of it sustains us still. Last year Mukul was to visit me in Washington. I did a spring-cleaning of my messy home in anticipation.
He never came: his pancreas gave way just two weeks before the day of his flight. And, now, Ajit too is gone. Leaving a trail of unspoken words and unshared thoughts. I know my days are numbered too. I live in exile, dreaming of the day I will walk again on the streets of my childhood town, in heat and grime, breathing unaccustomed air, bleary eyed and baffled at the changed landscape, looking at strangers’ faces and thinking of the friends I have known and lost. And cherishing the ones that remain.
(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected].com)