by Parth Pandya
Prashant first saw Sanjeev when he walked into his classroom on the first day of fourth grade and found a new addition to his class from the previous year. A boy was hunched over a wooden bench, carving something intently into it with a metal compass. His hair was dishevelled and the pocket of his shirt was torn. A crimson line streaked across his arm.
He had clearly been in a fight and was worse for the wear. Whether he had been victorious – it was hard to tell.
Prashant found himself inexplicably drawn to this battered and bruised boy who seemed to be lost in a world of his own. He sat next to him and struck up a conversation.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“Oh, and where are you from?”
“What are you carving?”
There was an easy symmetry to their conversation. Sanjeev’s frugality with words was compensated by Prashant’s generosity with them.
Between the words and the silence, time ran circles around the clock, pages of calendars were turned many a time and the years piled on. Their friendship had grown as thick of the weeds lining the outer walls of their hostel.
On the last day of their school, they sat on the terrace of their hostel and drank beer for the first time in their lives. They could see the city stretch far into the horizon from that height, inviting them to join its masses.
Their lives took on different paths once they left the cosy confines of their boarding school. Prashant chose a path that would eventually lead him to getting an MBA. Sanjeev decided to join the armed forces. Prashant remembered being very surprised when he heard the plan. His friend Sanjeev, who had never vocalised his patriotism, was showing his admission letter from the National Defence Academy.
When pressed, the quiet fellow that he was, he merely said, “Someone has got to guard the gates.”
The two stayed in touch for the first few years. Slowly, new companions filled the void that they had left for each other. The words dried up between them and they fell out of being in each other’s lives. Prashant got his management degree, Sanjeev his military rank.
The fragility of the silence between them was broken when Prashant unexpectedly got a call from Sanjeev’s mother on a Sunday afternoon.
“How is Sanjeev, aunty?”, Prashant asked, surprised by the unexpected voice on the other end of the line.
“He is fine, beta. It takes a lot to get him to call us and tell us about what he is up to, but he is doing fine,” said his mother, laughing.
“Where is he?”
“Doing what?” Prashant queried, feeling silly even as he asked.
“Fighting the terrorists,” her voice quivered.
“You know, he is expected to come home at the end of the month. His sister and I thought we’d surprise him with a birthday party. We haven’t seen you in so many years; I thought he’d be really pleased to see you.”
“I’ll let you know, aunty” Prashant responded matter-of-factly. “Take care.”
Seven years, he sighed. “Seven years since I have seen him. How did we manage to do that after being so close?”
He opened the freezer and took out a bottle of cold Bira beer. Sanjeev would have liked it, he said to himself.
Sanjeev, my friend. He must be enjoying the famed apples of Kashmir while meditating on a rock covered with snow perched on a high mountain.
And now memories came flooding. Memories that were buried. Memories that were now the bottom layers of stratified rock, crushed and aged.
Suddenly, Prashant found himself opening up his laptop and starting to type, a subconscious drive coercing clicks on the keyboard from him. He imagined himself making a little speech in Sanjeev’s honour at the party.
“Sanjeev is a true friend.”
“In all the years that I had known him, Sanjeev has always been a rock. Never wavering, never dithering. Always sure of his beliefs and ready to fight for them.”
Prashant’s mind drifted to the solitary figure of Sanjeev standing in the middle of a circle, as the seniors who were ragging him, continued to heckle him for not going and proposing to a girl. But he hadn’t uttered a word.
“Sanjeev has always been a man of few words but the words he spoke were never said in vain. He has always been, above all, a genuine person,” he typed.
Prashant couldn’t help recalling how when his father passed away, Sanjeev had stayed by him for days at a stretch. In those silent days where Prashant mourned for his father, Sanjeev matched his silence, only breaking it once to put a hand on his shoulder and tell him, “I am sorry for your loss.”
The little speech took shape as Prashant emptied the vessel of his memories for his friend onto a Word document. He then pressed the Save button, shut his laptop and slept contentedly.
Days passed and one evening, when the neon lights across his building had come into life, Prashant’s phone rang. The voice at the other end of the line was unmistakable.
“How are you?” asked Sanjeev.
He had come back from duty a week early and surprised his mother. Her well-laid plans of a surprise party were thwarted.
It was his turn to surprise the people who had been there for him. Would Prashant like to meet?
“Yes, of course.”
The two old mates met the next evening at a bar.
“Beer?” asked Prashant.
“Whiskey,” Sanjeev asserted, smirking.
Prashant raised his eyebrows slightly in surprise. He sipped his drink quietly while a stream of words flowed from Sanjeev.
“Doing the right thing is overrated.”
“Why should only the bastards pulling the strings get a cut?”
“I am done with this job. Another six months and I am out.”
The city slumped into the depths of night as Prashant sat and listened to his friend from another age. That embattled, bitter pragmatist, who seemed to have buried the dreamer that Prashant knew, somewhere, much like his memories.
When the evening got over, they shook hands and went their ways. When Prashant got home, he turned on his laptop and pulled out the speech he was intending to give. As an afterthought, he typed:
“I missed Sanjeev. I will always miss him.”
Prashant realised that the last sentence read more like a eulogy. A remembrance to a person who wasn’t there anymore. And wasn’t that apt because the person he searched for was no longer there? Lost to life. Lost to war. Metamorphosed.