People like surprises, only if they are pleasant ones, thought Shrishail. He considered his visit certain to give immensely pleasant surprise to Abhay, his childhood buddy.
It is almost a decade since he last met him. Why, he had not met him after the final year of their graduation. Shrishail had written a couple of letter to Abhay, but the latter never cared to reply. It was simply not in his nature to be writing replies to his childhood buddy. From some common friends, Shrishail had come to know of Abhay getting a job in the Life Insurance Corporation of India, and of his marriage to a colleague. Thereafter, there was absolutely no contact of any sorts. Shrishail had obtained a bachelor’s degree in library science and after six months of search, got an appointed as assistant librarian in an industrial concern in Surat, Gujarat. By then his father had lost his due to old age. He was working as an unskilled labourer in one of the sawmills. His job carried neither job security nor pension. All his life he had toiled hard and in the process had become frail, old and infirm. The two-room house he had lived in with his family all his life was a rented house, and it was in shambles due to the neglect of the owner. Since he was paying a meager rent, he couldn’t force the neighbour to carry out repairs and maintenance periodically. The owner would have been more eager to throw his tenants out rather than incur expenditure on account of maintenance of the unprofitable blocks he owned.
Shrishail’s appointment came as a godsend relief, to both his parents and the owner of the house. Within a couple of months, he took his parents along with him to the residential quarters provided to him by the company. It was a two bedroom flat located in a 6 flat building, surrounded by lush green lawns and his parents thanked god that they had been bestowed with such a good son.
The only thing that they disliked about their son was that he had fallen in love with a local girl, whose father was a junior engineer in the company. But they couldn’t help it. The girl Savita, was not only good-looking, she was good-natured too. She was very compassionate, lovable lady. Her father had six daughters and a son. Although initially he too had opposed the marriage of his daughter with a South Indian boy, he later welcomed it simply because he will be spared of paying hefty dowry, a practice prevalent in his community. After all, he had five more daughters to take care of.
She had turned out to be a wonderful and ideal daughter-in-law and above all, within a year she gave birth to a son. The joy of his parents knew no bounds. They forgot that she belonged to another community, another culture, far too removed from their own. Severance of their roots in the south had instilled in them homesickness, and a deep-rooted grief and the marriage of their son to Savita had closed the door for bringing a bride speaking their own language. However, they soon forgot all this and Savita was already speaking sufficient Kannada. Shrishail was happy for his parents, and his own joy was boundless. His work was sufficiently remunerative and fulfilling. But…
He too missed the place he had been brought up. He missed his friends, especially Abhay, who was the closest and the dearest. Separated by thousands of kilometers of distance, neither he could attend Abhay’s marriage, nor Abhay could his.
Abhay had been his friend since both were in fifth standard, studying in a government school. They were poles apart, as far as nature and character were concerned. While Abhay was a bully, aggressive, impulsive, adventurous, rebellious, naughty and mischievous, Shrishail was a shy, well-behaved, hardworking and intelligent boy. But they were attracted to each other for quite unexplainable reasons. Evil does have a fatal attraction. In height, build and looks, both were similar and both belonged to lower middle class families. Abhay had two younger brothers and an elder sister. Shrishail was the only child to his parents. Abhay, like an elder brother, protected Shrishail from other bullies in the school, and was a great company to him.
While in the school, there used to be constant complaints about Abhay, from schoolmates, classmates, teachers and everyone that he always managed to annoy in one way or the other. He was too fearless and amoral to be hindered by any considerations while carrying out his pranks. Sitting behind the girls in the classroom, he would join the ponytails with a ribbon. He would bring live mice, cockroaches, and even harmless non-poisonous snakes to the school to evoke fear for himself. He would lift his leg and fart loudly without any hint of shame on his face. When he was thirteen, he wrote a love-letter to a shy looking, frail girl who was a classmate and handed it to her while the entire class was watching. The girl took the letter and instead of reading it, she began to cry. When the teacher came to the class, he noticed it and asked her again and again what was wrong. But she wouldn’t tell. Nobody had the courage to tell the teacher for they too feared the consequences. The girl didn’t reply, and to her relief Abhay too didn’t insist for a reply. Shrishail was relieved that the girl had not complained to her parents, for he knew that her father was a butcher.
Shrishail would accompany Abhay on some of his adventures, which were somewhat safe. They used to steal guava fruit and mangoes from the backyards of some big mansions. Once he even smoked bidis in a cinema house with him. But the smoke brought coughs and he developed distaste for the fetid smell of the bidis. At times Shrishail used to be afraid of being a friend of Abhay. His admiration for Abhay’s audacity would be overcome by his sense of rectitude. But it was like he was under magical spell. He couldn’t just shrug off his friendship with Abhay.
Another incident brings smile to Shrishail even today. There was a certain Ms Verghese, a Keralite, just into her thirties and a spinster. She was the strictest of all teachers. She used to teach science. All the students, even some of her colleagues used to be in fear of her censures and reprimands. She was a strict disciplinarian and a stern moralist. Nobody had ever seen her even smiling. At all the times a permanent scowl was stuck firmly to her face. Once she was conducting a class test and all the students had been required to keep all their belongings outside the classroom, so as to prevent them from cheating. It couldn’t evade her keen observation that Abhay was putting has right hand in his trouser pocket again and again. She concluded that he had concealed something in his pocket. She approached his desk and asked him to stand up. He stood up and put his hand again in his trouser pocket.
“What do you have in there? What are you hiding?” Ms Verghese asked in a cracked but raised voice.
“Nothing ma’m,” Abhay replied with wry grin, which instantly raised her temper.
“I will check it myself. Take your hand out,” she ordered him and he complied instantly.
Ms Verghese put her hand in his pocket and she withdrew it with a jerk as though she had received en electric shock. Now her face turned red and dark with anger. “Get out of this class this very instant!” she yelled at him. He calmly handed his paper to her and went out of the classroom with an even wider grin. Later when Shrishail caught up with him, he explained what he had done. “I had torn my pocket and had inserted my cock into it!”
“Shit. It was a nasty act man!” Shrishail replied but he couldn’t help laughing. Ms Verghese was wise enough not to make an issue of it and thereafter she never dared touch any boy or girl in her classroom.
It was when both of them were in first year of pre-university course that Abhay took Shrishail to a corner of the city that he not even knew existed. There was a cluster of hutments with stinking open drains. The smell of illicit liquor wafted in the air. Abhay entered a house which had brick walls and Mangalore red tiles on the roof. There might have been two or three rooms in the house. A large lady sitting on the chair stared at them with a comical look. “What do you want?” she asked.
“What else do you have?” Abhay asked her in reply.
“You are too grown up for your age. You have money?
“I certainly do. How much?”
“Fifty rupees for once”
“I will give twenty-five”
“Ok” Abhay gave her thirty rupees. Shrishail hadn’t the least clue as to what this was all about. “That is for the two of us,” Abhay told her.
“Nothing doing boy. It is for one. Otherwise I will throw you out and won’t even return your money,” the lady said calmly. Shrishail had his heart in his mouth. He was trembling like a grass blade. “What is this all about Abhi?” he whispered. Abhay replied, “You are going to have your first experience with sex boy.”
“I can’t. She is an old woman. I can be crushed by the weight of her single leg.”
Abhay suppressed laughter and said, “Are you crazy? There is a girl inside the room.”
“Even then I can’t. I don’t like it here. I am nauseated.”
“She won’t return our money. Ok. You are too pusillanimous. You are not a man. All right, I will go. You just wait here.”
Half an hour later, when Abhay came out of the room, Shrishail was even more relieved than Abhay was!
What a wonderful day! Shrishail said to himself looking at the clear blue sky and feeling the feather like touch of smooth, cold wind. I am back in my city and going to meet the dearest friend of mine. When he entered the compound of Abhay’s house every thing felt so familiar to him and he almost felt at home. A man in his twenties, with brush-like thick black moustache approached him. “Isn’t it Shrishail anna?” he asked.
“Who else? And I think you are Adi” Shrishail replied with a warm smile and placed his hand around his shoulders. “You are as tall as me,” he observed. Aditya, whom everyone called Adi, was a younger brother of Abhay. “What do you do?” Shrishail regarded him and asked. “Got a readymades boutique,” Aditya said with a smile, “ in the main market area.”
“That sounds very nice! Is Abhay home? Today is Sunday.”
“Yes he is home. He is not keeping well for the last couple of months,” Adi replied grimly.
“Why? What is wrong?” there was alarm in Abhay’s voice.
“It’s a long story. Right now he is asleep. Let’s go to my room. I have too much to tell you,” Adi replied in a stern but stable voice.
“Last week we took him to the Medical Research Institute in Belgaum,” Aditya began as they settled comfortably in his room, “An Elisa Test for HIV was carried out and it turned out to be positive. However, the doctors asked us to have a second and more scrupulous test in Bangalore. But Abhay has refused to go to Bangalore and said he was sure the results from the Institute were perfect.”
It struck Shrishail as a severe shock and as the truth dawned upon him, he felt a seething pain in his chest. “What?” was all he could manage to blurt out. His face turned pale and he felt that all the strength he had had been swept away. It meant that Abhay was HIV positive and possibly the dreaded AIDS.
Aditya opened the window and slouched in the nearby chair. He too was feeling out of breath. “Shrishail anna, we haven’t told this to anybody, otherwise we all will be treated like lepers in the city. But I couldn’t keep it from you. After all, you have been the closest friend he has.”
After trying to compose himself for a while Shrishail asked, “How bad is he?”
“Too bad. May be another couple of months,” Aditya replied matter of factly.
“My God! Why is he not hospitalized?”
“Doctors said it is of no use,” again the voice devoid of all feelings.
“His family… I mean his wife and children…” Shrishail couldn’t complete.
“Perhaps you do not know that his first wife committed suicide by burning herself. That was five years ago. His in laws did not think it was a suicide. They lodged a complaint with the police and he was charged with dowry harassment and murder. He got life imprisonment. We appealed to the High Court and there he was acquitted.”
This was another blow to Shrishail, equally rude. His eyes widened and his mouth opened even wider.
“He did some time in the prison,” continued Aditya, “ He lost his job and then we took him into the business we are doing, that of readymade garments. A couple of years after his first wife died, he married again. He has a son from the first wife who is studying in the same school where you both studied.”
“What about the second wife?” Shrishail asked in a defeated voice.
“She too is ill and has been found to be positive too. She is staying with her parents now.”
“My goodness… The boy is all right?” Shrishail couldn’t desist from inquiring.
“He is clean, hale and healthy. He doesn’t know anything about this. He is a very lovable boy, obedient, industrious and intelligent; totally unlike his father,” Shrishail could feel an edge in Adi’s tone.
All along his journey, Shrishail had been visualizing how he was going to give a pleasant shock to Abhay, but now he was at the receiving end. He was battered by the shocks he had received one after another. He was stunned and felt as though he was in a daze, as if his soul had gone out of his body.
There was a long moment of stunned silence. Not knowing what to say or what to do, Shrishail asked, “May I see him now?”
“All right. Come along,” Adi said and rose from his chair.
If Adi had not pointed out, Shrishail would not have recognised the frail structure lying on the bed. There were only bones and bones and not even an ounce of flesh in the body. It was like a skeleton wearing clothes.
“Anna! Anna!” Aditya called out in a raised voice. Abhay slowly opened his eyes. “Look who is here to see you,” Aditya said. The eyes turned towards Shrishail in an unhurried manner and stared at him for a long long moment. Then there was a flicker of recognition.
“Shri…shail…” The voice was way below a whisper.
“Hello Abhi. How are you?” Shrishail asked, putting a lot of effort in keeping himself calm.
The eyes were filled with tears. Shrishail had never seen Abhay cry. He too began to sob. “It’s all right. Every thing is going to be fine,” he managed to say. It was a false assurance. Both knew it.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Aditya pointed towards a chair. Shrishail sat on it carefully. A boy, hardly eight years, came with a cup of tea and handed it to Shrishail. Shrishail didn’t know whether to accept it or not. Deep in his mind, there was some fear, although he was well informed about the dreaded disease. He took a couple of sips calmly.
Suddenly Abhay’s hand slipped from the edge of the bed. Adi rose quickly and held his brother’s hand and called out in alarm, “Anna!” Shrishail placed the cup on the table and approached Abhay. His eyes were open, but they were lifeless.