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That morning, I awoke to something roughly vibrating beneath my abdomen. It was small but had a tickling sensation. I tried to turn away and burrow back into my pillow, rubbing my now-grey hairs, but to no avail. It made some sound too, disturbing me. I had been having a very pleasant dream for once, someone had paid all my loans. All installments paid. All headache gone.
But then, she shook me, the irriatating sound nearing my ears. Richa, my daughter, snickered, “Wake up, dad! You have a call!”
“Call?” I blinked several time but couldn’t rise. “Must be from the office. Tell them I am in the bathroom.”
I dragged my pillow over my head and tried concentrating on my incomplete dream. Loans paid.
I rolled to the other side of the bed and pulled the bedspread over me.
“No. It’s a different number. 98352 something. Patna?” she said, reading the number to me.
“Ugh! Must be your Govind Uncle,” I yawned and stretched my limbs. They were paining due to the continuos flights that I had been taking for a month. My knees, it strained too. I had just returned from Bangalore last night and was approaching my retirement age.
Richa gave me the phone and ran back to attend his five-year old son, Suraj. He was very naughty then.
“Hello!” I placed the cell on my ear and closed my eyes. I badly needed a sleep.
“Hello! Rajiv?” asked a feminine voice.
“Yes, Rajiv speaking. Who is it?” I asked in a husked voice.
I tried recalling the voice but it did not seem familiar. All my phoning relatives had moved out of Patna and my eighty-year old mother was living with me in New Delhi.
“I am Alka… Govind’s wife.”
Govind’s wife? Calling me? Now? I opened my eyes and shook my head, rubbing my itchy eyes. My back was straight and I looked around my small room. Yellow walls and an AC. A framed photograph hung on the opposite side of the bed. It had my family and Govind pictured in it. My piled files lay on the adjacent table and my laptop was kept on the TV stand which stood beside the cupboard.
Richa was running after her son who was flying a paper-plane.
“Look what I made, Grandpa,” he said, flying the plane in the air.
My memories raced back. Alka was Govind’s wife but she had left him long back and married another man.
“Govind’s wife?” I asked, frowning slightly. “What is it? ” What does she want form me? After so many years?
“Govind… ,” she choked.
“Govind is no more now,” she broke the news in sobs.
No more? How? Govind had high diabetes but I had got him treated in AIIMS just few months back. Though fifty nine, he was very fit.
I felt all the breath leaving my lungs with the shock of cold. My eyes stoned at Richa. She was standing beside my bed, confused. A lump gathered down my chin and my stomach tightened. All that I managed to say was, “When?”
“This morning, an hour back. He passed away in sleep,” she broke into tears.
Richa put her hand on my shoulder, sensing something bad had happened. A tear rolled down my eyes and I heaved. She massaged my shoulders and asked, “What is it, dad?”
I was too stunned to reply. My tongue was tight behind my teeth.
“Can you come here, please?” Alka asked on the phone.
“Yes, I am taking the next flight,” I said, cutting the call.
“What happened, dad?” Richa wiped my tears.
I hugged Richa and wept like a child on her shoulders.
“G-Go-Govind,” I cried. “He passed away.”
She tried comforting me, telling me it will be all right, but failed. Nothing could comfort me my Govind’s demise.
The next few hours were spent contacting the travel agent and arranging tickets for the flight. The fare was too high but it didn’t bother me. What do we earn for afterall? What’s the use of the money that cannot take you to your beloved ones? I sat on the first flight that I could catch and flew to Patna.
The flight that I took was a very uneasy one. I kept adjusting myself on the seat and asking for water. My body felt completely dehydrated and the flight attendant gave me a strange look as if it was my first trip. But no, it wasn’t. I traveled fifteen days a month and most of them were by flight only. This wasn’t my first but a different one. Images of Govind being laid on a pyre flickered in my mind, wrinkling my stomach.
I reached Patna around 2 pm and took a taxi to Govind’s residence. It was really amusing to see how the city had changed so much. Roads had less holes and the number of vehicles had increased exponentially. Markets looked much established and there were many parks now. I was visiting my hometown after some seven years.
The only connection that I had left with the place was Govind. My dearest and childhood friend. We had spent fifty-five years together. We even had the same birth date.
I asked the cabdriver to let me out at the starting of the quiet street, preferring to walk to Govind’s house and give myself some time to adjust. The nervousness fluttering in my stomach continued and seemed to increase as I got closer to my destination.
It was quite. The house haunted me.
As I opened the rusty and creaking old gate and stepped in, my feet slipped. The ground had fungi and some overgrown weed too. It was the same ground where we had spent our childhood, playing cricket, but it was very plain and clean then. Two guava trees stared at me.
Carefully managing my steps and my bag, I entered the verandah. The big old house was abnormally silent. Everyone sat on the floor, legs folded and eyes teary. They were mostly dressed in white and a few were running, arranging things.
I walked in, taking heavy steps. There had been a silencing charm placed, Govind.
There lay my school friend, dead. Wrapped in a white bedspread. Cotton balls corking his nose and ear holes. Arms straight. Eyes shut. Body stiff. Motionless. Without breath.
Few incense sticks lit close to his head.
A stream of tears released from my eyes before I could say anything. My stomach churning unpleasantly, I turned away, not being able to see my beloved friend like that. I glanced at Alka, his ex-wife, who sat there on the floor, stoned. Her neck straight, relying on the wall, a single tear making a silent track down her cheek. There were few relatives, mourning, and others were probably his officemates from his newspaper, busy browsing internet on their phones.
I dropped my bag and sat in a corner. There was his framed photograph and a garland hung around it. Govind was smiling in it, showing his sharp canine tooth. The site was distressful, at least for me. The dust-caked fan slowly spun, making every blade visible. There was a brief moment of shocked silence as everyone stared at me, apparently lost for words. I looked completely shattered, suddenly too old for my age. A separation form Govind was something I had never thought of. He was the closest to me and I was the closest to him.
His mother had died after giving birth to him and his dad passed away some fifteen years back. The few relatives that he had, had cut their relationship with him, saying he was rude with his words.
I sat there for minutes with my hand on my head and tears running down my eyes. There were curses against Govind in my heart. I had been asking him to shift with me in Delhi but he never agreed to.
“I am fine here, Rajiv,” he would say, laughing. “Besides, writers need some alone time. You won’t understand.” Govind was a writer in a newspaper in the editorial section.
Alka came and sat beside me. I was seeing her after many years, having long forgotten her face. She had left Govind a couple of years after their marriage.
She had changed a lot now. Hair grey at few places, her vermillion took my attention. If she hadn’t left Govind, she would have removed the vermillion today. I hated her for leaving my friend alone. She looked pale and her eyes were shining bright with tears as she gazed intently at me. She gave a gasp and pointed her eyes to Govind’s room.
I went into the room, following her. It smelt… so dead. The windows were closed and the floor was dusty too.
“What are you doing here?” I questioned, stoically, as she sat.
However, she didn’t respond but pointed her finger to a diary that had GOVIND etched on it. The diary had a brown cover and it was kept on a table. It was Govind’s old study table. It had the same framed photograph that I had in my room in Delhi. My hands on Govind’s shoulder, he was smiling in it. A few books, many pens and a table lamp were kept beside the photograph.
I didn’t ask Alka anything and pulled the old wooden chair out feeling the nostalgic vibe. It creaked. My mind raced back to the time when we studied together. He used to make me sit on the same chair and himself sat on the floor saying, “You study well and become a big man. I am worth sitting on the floor only. I will only sit there when I will achieve something in life”.
“It is his diary. He was writing a novel,” Alka had become thin now, her collar bone coming up as she spoke.
I opened the diary, touching his beautiful handwriting. Govind and I had spoken just a week back, he sounded well. How could he pass away so suddenly?
“He had written something for you,” Alka said, sighing.
“For me? And how do you know that?” I asked. Govind had cut his contacts with her.
However, she didn’t respond. Her eyes were dark and haunted, but remained free of tears. She silently flipped several of the pages and opened the lasts. Her eyes briefly registered surprise, looking at me, before she turned and stalked away, sitting with the gathered visiotors.
A few relatives whispered about her presence but no one dared to speak anything.
I leaned on the table and adjusted my glasses.
My friend Rajiv,
The very first line seemed to choke me with emotions. My tears were still flowing out, big drops wetting the page. I looked around the room, searching Govind. But no, he was nowhere to be found. There was just his bed with a pillow. Yes, he lived alone in the house, hadving not married anyone since Alka left him. The bedspread was neat and the mosquito-net hung around it.
I composed myself and tried reading it.
My friend Rajiv,
It gives me a tickling sensation knowing that you will read it someday. Maybe not today but someday at least. I have asked Alka to deliver it to you after I leave this place. And since you are reading it now, I hope Alka has done her job and I am no more now around. How does it feel, by the way?
Anyway, there are a few things that I have to say through this letter that I never could say in person.
Rajiv, you know, you have been very close to me. Close to my heart. A great friend. A companion.
I heaved. Yes, Govind and I were companions. We had spent our lives together. Even if we were in different cities for the last three decades, we always called each other. We used to share slightest of the happiness or sorrow. And it felt terrible to not have him around. Who would I talk to now? A shiver running through my knees and shoulders, reached my hands. It shaked.
However, I continued.
But there are a few things that I always hid from you and would want you to know them now.
First, Alka never left me. Never. It was actually me who asked her to move away. I know you hate her but please don’t. She is a very sweet lady and a very nice human being. There are many things that you don’t know about her and I will reveal all that today.
The page ended there and it came as a surprise to me. I never knew that. Why didn’t Govind tell me then?
I asked myself, numbly, uncertained if I should feel shocked or enraged.
I looked outside. Alka was there, sitting beside Govind, weeping. A man came to comfort her, probably her husband, but she jerked his hand off.
I turned the page, perplexed.
She wasn’t ready for the marriage and was forcefully married to me by her parents. Do you think I could let her suffer this? No! So I asked her to part her ways away.
Yes, Govind has been just like this. Taking stance for what’s right. But was he right? Everyone adjusts in a marriage. Parting ways isn’t an option.
But this society, it is very cruel, Rajiv. Not a very good place to live in. Everyone blamed her, remarking her with bad names, questioning her character. I couldn’t fight them. Alka didn’t let me. She had asked me not to, as it would have affected many lives then.
I stopped there. It was a call from my daughter.
“Dad, you reached there?” Richa asked, concerned. After my wife had passed, she and her family lived with me. She was very caring about me, just like her mother.
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“And how are things there at Govind Uncle’s place?”
I sighed heavily. How could I describe the situation? What was I supposed to say?
“I understand,” she said. “We have got tomorrow’s tickets.”
“Take care of yourself, dad,” Richa said and cut the call.
I adjusted my glasses and after straightening my back, I continued reading it.
It would have devastated my name which I didn’t care about it. But it was you too who I could have lost. Lost forever. I feared being abandoned by you.
Why would I abandon him? Did he think like that? No, he shouldn’t have.
You know, I always had feelings for you.
My eyes stopped at that line. I flipped the page to confirm who it was addressed to.
It was for me only. Strange.
I continued, flipping the pages back.
Yes, this may sound abrupt but I did have feelings for you. Romantic ones. Ones that usually a girl feels for a boy. The sense of togetherness was there since the first day we shared lunch in school but gradually, it grew. Affection. A different one. I always wanted the best for you, better than anyone else.
And you did, you got a job at a bigger city, Delhi. I was so happy to see you rise. But then, I started missing you. A lot. I used to wander alone in streets, not doing my job and reminiscing you. And then the feeling grew with time. I started crying at nights for you. Looking at your pictures. Writing letters which I never posted.
No one could, but dad had sensed it long ago. He had read my indifferent behavior which even I couldn’t observe then. That’s why he was always rude to you and got me married to Alka at a very early age.
It was in those times only when I realized that love, for me, always meant caring about you. Praying the best for you. Sleeping beside Alka made me realise why wasn’t ever attracted to a girl. I just used to dream about you, hugging you, holding hands and a lot more. Alka would always try coming close to me and I would brash her out everytime. She had sensed it too, my mysterious affection and wanting for you. But she continued to be with me. Never cursed me. Supported me when I was finding my true and indifferent identity. The true me.
My eyes were stoned and face expressionless. I was too cold to think or judge anything.
Alka insisted on her working out as my job earned me too little. We used to live like husband and wife but were not. And after an year, a guy proposed her. Sumit. He used to work with her and Alka had brought her to meet me. He was a nice man, I could see love for Alka in his eye and, hence, nodded for their marriage.
But we knew dad would be against our decision, so I asked them to run away. He was the one who could give her the love that I never could, the happiness that she deserved.
I remembered how cold Govind was when he had broke the news that Alka ran away with someone else. He was strangely chilled about it, happy in a way. In fact, I was the one who was going mad, saying, “I will find that guy and get him killed.”
Alka knocked and came in with a glass of water. “Everyone has come, they are asking to take the body,” she said, carefully putting the glass on the table.
“I am really sorry,” I said looking into her eyes. The hatred had gone.
“Has he mentioned about me too?” A grin passed her face and her eyes shone.
“Govind was a gem of a person,” she said, patting my back. “You were very close to his heart”.
“Did you two ever meet after your marriage?” I asked.
She smiled, “Always.” Her smiled said a lot, they were close, not as husband and wife but much beyond that. Closing her eyes, she said, “He used to come to my place at weekends and our meetings became more frequent after dad passed away. He used to ask us to shift with him too.”
“And where is your husband now?”
“There,” she pointed to a man in green shirt. “He worshipped Govind.”
I looked at him. He was stoned too, just like me.
“Do you know when did Govind write this?”
“Two years back. When his diabetes was getting worse,” she said looking outside. “Come soon.” She walked outside, leaving me alone in the room with Govind’s letters.
And that day, when they ran, I felt freedom within myself. I was free, free from the guilt of destroying a girl’s life. I had called you, thinking you had same feelings for me. The sensation of your tight hug lingered senses and smoothed my soul. I was your only friend, so you had to love me, I thought. You never had an option. I was even planning to move in with you.
But no, I was so wrong. You were with a girl then. Sarita. I couldn’t notice when your colleague came so close to you. And that was the day when I realised you weren’t made for me. I had cried a lot that day.
I wanted to snatch you from her and drag you to live with me. But then, Alka made me understand that loving someone doesn’t mean being loved back. Love is beyond that.
I couldn’t destroy your life, and that was the moment when I decided to distance myself from you. I never wanted to contact you again, fearing spoiling your name in the society.
But it was you who used to call me everyday and I just couldn’t resist myself. Soon, I found solance in loniliness, knowing that you have succeeded in life.
Yes, I used to call him. But just to comfort him. I knew his dad would never be with him in his tough times, times when his wife had left him.
Years passed and you became a big man, got many promotions and bought a home for yourself. You had a wife, a child and a family. You built your own world, a world which didn’t have a place for my love. I just had to be your friend.
Not just a friend but I was more than that for Govind. It surprised me. The letter made me realise how disconnected I had been with him. I could never understand him. Our friendship was a failure.
And this, this is the end of this letter. This is what I just wanted you to know. This is the burden that I couldn't carry to the other world.
I was the one who lost. You were the one who achieved. You achieved money and a family. A family that I could never have. I was the one who couldn't achieve much and remained in this small town. I was the friend, the friend who was left behind. Friend distanced from you. Alone. Thinking about you before every sleep and after every wake. Wishing that someday you would come and hold my hand, hug me and tell me how much you loved me.
Obviously not in this birth but maybe in another. Maybe in some another birth we will be together. Loving each other, building our own world. A world that would be a better place to live in. Maybe that would be the place where I won’t be the friend left alone.
My eyes went empty. I just closed the diary and touched GOVIND engraved in it.
It was getting late and the next proceedings went hazily. We bathed the body and drapped it in a fresh, washed cloth. I asked his relatives to let me perform all the rituals and rites to which they happily agreed. No one wanted to be a mourner for my Govind.
Putting uncooked rice over his mouth and applying the sacred ash on his forehead, we carried the body for cremation. I heaved to see him lying on the pyre and my heart jumped in to my mouth when I set the pyre alight with the flaming torch. I looked away, feeling the heat on my back. The air was reverberating with religious chants. I felt a breeze coming to embrace. It was my Govind, I felt it. The river seemed endless, just the like memories we had of togetherness. He always meant the closest to me but I could never know his true feelings. His words echoed in my head, “Love, for me, always meant caring about you.”
Two hours later, a lone sparrow flew to it’s adobe. Govind was into ashes. Gone away. Very far. Never to come back. And I, I was the friend left alone.