I t could very easily be imagined as the incoherence of the smoke rather than a sudden rise in his voice or a mercurial drop. I believed I was listening to the smoke, rather studying it like a graph, in order to keep up with the monologue of a man, high as I was after two straight joints.

It was much like school, getting the measure of the tone of my teachers and relieving myself a bit with a diversion before catching up later. I mean, I needed that; he was dragging it a bit. But not his fault, you see, weed fills you with the enthusiasm for explaining a bit more. Gets a bit painstaking!

But I had no intention of letting him be stoned or getting stoned myself. I knew I had to keep him from going beyond, and for that he needed to believe that I was making a meaningful conversation. It’s just that, allured into the comfort of the monologue of the smoke, I had lost track of our actual conversation completely.

When I tried to be methodical and imagine what kind of stories this guy was most likely to throw up, I realised I could hardly recollect who was telling the story in the first place. I just remembered I could not afford to do that.

I wanted to laugh! It was so much the story of my life — waking up to the fact that I couldn’t afford doing what I had been doing, but having no clue as to what I was supposed to do either! If that was not enough, I had to pretend involvement, rather interest, to look the part.

But let’s not open this new frontier; my life is already as messy as one can call it without looking for further outrageous adjectives. The situation at hand was not that desperate.

It was just that in such an inopportune moment was I weaned away from my inertia that nothing came back easily, and it felt as if I was sinking more in the quicksand of anxiety the more I tried to force my way out of it. May be I was trying too hard, when all I needed to do was to keep quiet and listen to my companion.

“They were so engrossed in love that it was worrying. You see, good things last only till the time they degenerate into ordinary experiences. If they don’t, they are bound to be stopped altogether, without any warning. It’s audacious to have it perfect for too long. They were making it perfect, you know, like fairy tales.”

A fairy tale gone wrong. I saw the smoke slithering up the ray that had managed to penetrate through the foliage overlooking this deserted hospital quarter.

“It filled him with pride; made him reckless. Mind it — neither his association nor habits but love made him reck less beyond correction. It made him righteous and suspended common sense. Being righteous is being predictable, and there are scoundrels everywhere looking to capitalise on that. Love fooled him into being righteous and full of self respect, but nobody can see that. All they see is an ‘anti social’; a boy neck deep in alcoholism and other things. He has made us all ‘anti socials’. Even the newspapers wrote so.”

Somehow, I couldn’t agree with the resentment in his voice for the “boy”. Even though it could hardly help me remember who he was, I felt protective towards the boy. If he had done something wrong, it was clearly not done for the wrong reasons, and that was all I needed to know. Couldn’t tell why, but I wanted to protest. If not for the handicap I was facing, I would have said something with enough reproach to make my companion ashamed of his insensitive attitude.

He seemed to get a whiff of my feelings, but didn’t seem too moved, “You know, it does feel bad, but you got to be pragmatic. This place, the hospital backyard has become cursed. And the likes of you, going to college and gearing up for a respectable future, should mind it before anything else. What if your parents come to know about the reputation this place has acquired? Would they be innocent enough to still believe that boys come here to play and chat only? Even if they did, would the so called ‘well-wishers’, the paparazzi for you little devils of celebrities, let them?

“I’ve heard he was a goon…the place is teeming with hoodlums…no boy of decent origin would go there,” I could almost smell the joys of my neighbours, the residents of a “respectable” locality, in insinuating that I actually had stooped to that “low”, the twinkle in their eyes as they visualised me, and not Nata, my unfortunate friend, having a drinking brawl and smashing the bottle on someone’s head!

Nata was not a goon. He had the steel to stay afloat in this rough world. His father had left his mother and him when he was a child, so this guy had to scrap a living when I was going to school. He worked at tea stalls, drove an auto rickshaw to manage whatever he could. Of course, he fell in love with a girl who was there to make a home out of whatever they could gather. They were accumulating for the day till some drunkards thrashed him to death him over some old dispute, in front of a market full of people. The people, those sneering “bhadraloks” watched and concluded that they shouldn’t meddle in a brawl between “two groups of anti-socials”.

“He was my friend, and I know he was no goon,” I wanted to scream, but something stifled my voice.

And it came back to me like the pain rushing through blood after the initial lull of an injury —the confusion following his death not even allowing the reality of losing a friend to dawn upon us. It seemed grief, like whisky, was slow to act while fear and shame struck unawares like weed.

We had disowned our friend, our place. We, the boys of the so called respectable families, had not been ready to talk about it. We didn’t go there when his coarsely stitched body had come back after the post-mortem, nor did we attend when the last rites were performed to let his soul rest in peace.

We had stopped visiting the hospital backyard by then. We were afraid of the police coming and quizzing us at any moment, and were terrified of our parents knowing about it. Even the boys who didn’t have to worry that much about their families had disappeared from the place. We had not met for days.

In the afternoons and evenings we wandered down the lanes of our town like lost children pretending to be going somewhere. Self-exiled, we feigned maturity that should accompany grim words such as that, and never discussed our plight. We acted as if we just happened to find each other on our way, and went on walking without stopping.

It was probably out of fatigue from our aimless wandering that I had sneaked into the hospital backyard one afternoon. It was deserted, as I expected. I had sat at my usual place, where I was still sitting at this moment, and had decided to leave after a quick smoke. Turned out that someone came, and then someone else. Seemed like none of us could resist a quick glance every now and then at this deserted Garden of Eden.

“Of course, the others would not understand. They would say it’s my superstition that I find this place ominous too. You tell me, don’t you get the creeps? I can almost feel being watched.”

I don’t know if it was his words or some thing else, but I saw the beam of light blocked, even if for a moment. Why was he saying that? I felt uneasy, but thought the better of interrupting him.

“He is not one of us anymore; he has set foot into another realm. He is just a dissatisfied soul right now, who once had the life we have now, but can never have it. He sees us that way now, and not as Avishek or Bittu.”

Oh, Bittu! A smile must have crossed my face. I held my breath to keep me from giggling, and took my time to manage the serious tone, “Absolutely, I also feel the same. The living and the dead can’t be friends. The unfulfilled wishes of the dead can never augur well for the living.”

“Yes! That’s what I am saying,” he cried out. “And they would call me superstitious for that! As if I were his enemy, I enjoy saying these things. Tell me, did I not love him like all of you? Did I not cry alone?”

Tears rolled down his cheeks, I could say without seeing. The faintest hint of a crack in his voice sufficed to make me understand.

I wanted to hug him and console him with the tears that now raged inside me, the tears that a gentleman would attribute to weed, but I didn’t. I remembered what I was supposed to do. If I was in doubt though, his words, still so unlike the respectable families, dispelled that, “And tell me, who but you and me came back here for him? Who among those rational suckers?”

“They have all come,” I wanted to say and that how each of them had struggled with a theory about Nata’s death, and how insignificant and frivolous each one was. I had an unbearable urge to divulge how all of them had agreed to deny death by accepting it as just another incident.

These were the last rites performed by us for him, but by not letting him go, but by making him part of our story, our backyard stories, forever.