The cab was speeding towards Heathrow Airport, its lights piercing the dense fog that had settled in London. It was carrying a single passenger whose heart was heavier than all the fog that this city had to offer. He was taking the early morning flight to Kochi with a change in Dubai, a lonely 13-hour journey that would feel like a lifetime with all the grief weighing him down.
How unpredictable life was, he thought!
A few hours ago, he was drinking in merriment at a party and lustily eyeing his blonde colleague whom he intended to take home that night. That idea turned out to be a damp squib, with the girl, having drunk more than she could hold, spent a good part of the night spewing her guts out in the washroom. Seeing his lustful dreams ending abjectly, he decided on the more practical option of going home and getting a good shuteye.
Reaching home just after midnight, he settled down in a drunken stupor on the couch.
“Ye dosti, hum nahin chodenge, Chodenge dum agar, tere saath na thodenge” blared his mobile. It was the ringtone of his best friend, Hari, from Palakkad.
“Why is he calling me at this time? He must be drunk” thought he, as he sleepily answered phone. “Hey Hari, you idiot. It is 2 am in London. Why are you calling me now?”
“Chandra etta*” wailed the female voice on the other end. “Hari had a stroke two hours ago. We have admitted him to Sai Hospital. Doctors are saying that a surgery is required. I am so frightened”. Her voice broke down into uncontrollable sobs.
Chandran’s mind was whirling. He couldnt comprehend what he was hearing.
“You take care Lakshmi. I will come there by the next available flight” was all that he could mumble, his mind in a drunken, sleepy haze.
The cab reached the airport. He slung the one piece of luggage on his shoulder as he hurried inside for the checkin. He was just in time and boarded the flight on the final call. He was thankful for the window seat. That way, he can keep his grief away the from curious eyes of other passengers.
As the flight took off and settled into a smooth cruise, his mind started racing back in time. It was 1995 when he first met Hari in a Palakkad theatre where he had gone to watch the rerun of Sholay for the umpteenth time. It was the interval and he was smoking a cigarette when a scrawny lad approached him and asked for a light.
“My name is Hari” he said as he exhaled a large plume of smoke. “My 10th viewing of Sholay”
“Mine too” Chandran said excitedly.
It turned out that Hari also skipped college that day to watch the movie. He was in his first year of BA while Chandran was pursuing BCom in the same college. They watched the rest of the movie together and that was how their friendship began.
Hari and Chandran’s backgrounds were as different as chalk and cheese. Hari’s parents were farmers and he grew up amongst the verdant paddy fields that dotted Palakkad in the 1990s. Hari always had an earthy, husk like fragrance about him. Chandran’s father on the other hand was a banker and he had a middle class upbringing.
They used to spend their time together in the barn in Hari’s farm, smoking in secret. The village pond was a favourite haunt for those hungry teenage eyes, watching the half naked women bathe. Sitting on a culvert on the side of the village road in the morning, watching the girls walking to college was a daily ritual. The girls with their long black hair running down the length of their back, a bunch of jasmine flowers nestling snugly in those lustrous locks, wearing the traditional pavada and dhavani* with their books held close in to their bosom were a sight to behold. When one of them shyly lifted their kajal lined eyes and gave them a flirty glance, the boys were transported to seventh heaven.
“I am going to marry a girl like that when I grow up” declared Hari.
“I will marry a blonde” said Chandran, obviously fueled by a diet of James Bond movies.
“You will die a virgin,” laughed Hari. “For nailing a blonde, you either have to become a drug peddler in Kovalam or migrate abroad which you will not do because then you have to leave me here”.
Palakkad is known for its hot and fiery summers. The dust laden wind blowing in from Tamilnadu makes noon time unbearable. Many such hot and sultry afternoons were spent by these two friends in the toddy shops that dotted the verdant fields. Seated on the mud floor on mats made from palm leaves, sipping on the cool palm toddy from clay pots and feasting on dishes like boiled tapioca, fish curry and fried frog legs served on plantain leaves was a favourite pastime.
Hari was never interested in studies. His visits to college were more to satisfy his parents who were anxious for their son to get a degree so that there would not be any dearth of suitable brides in future.
Chandran on the other hand was more meticulous. He studied commerce in line with his father’s profession. He also excelled in cricket and was a member of the college cricket team. Hari used to watch the gruelling practice sessions in the college ground, seated under the huge umbrella shaped Gulmohar tree just outside the playing area, puffing on a cigarette.
One of their memorable moments together was in the final year of college when Chandran’s exploits in the cricket field, paved the way for the College to be crowned University champions.
During the raucous celebrations that followed, Hari hoisted Chandran on his shoulders and danced like a madman, the lines of the song from Sholay rising from their drunken breaths
‘’Arre teri jeet meri jeet, teri haar meri haar, sunn aye mere yaar,
Tera gham mera gham, meri jaan, teri jaan, aisa apna pyaar”.
Their freewheeling college life came to an end in the summer of 1998. Both of them graduated, Chandran with distinction and Hari with a just pass. They were at the crossroads of their lives together. Chandran wanted to pursue his MBA while Hari was clear that he will remain at Palakkad and tend to his fields.
For the first time in their lives since they have been together, there loomed the prospect of a long separation as Chandran had to go to Ahmedabad for his MBA coaching and subsequently try for admission in IIM there.
*traditional kerala dress
On a rainy monsoon evening of June 1998, the two friends along with Chandran’s parents waited at the Palakkad railway station for the train. The pattering of heavy droplets of rain on the platform’s metal roof along with the booming thunder made it difficult for them to engage in any conversation. No last minute smoke either as Chandran’s parents were around, equally sad to see their son go.
They all waited silently on the platform, counting the seconds before the inevitable arrival of the oncoming train that would slowly take away a son and a friend, inexorably far away for a long time.
Please make one STD call a week. Call after 10 pm so that the cost will be low. We will send you money orders every month.” said his banker father.
“Take care of your health, mone*. Eat healthy food” advised his mother in a trembling voice. I have kept 6 food packets for your 2 day journey. Don’t get down from the train to buy anything”.
As the train chugged into the platform, Hari embraced him and slipped a packet of Wills and a matchbox in his pocket. “Smoke for your journey” he whispered in his ear. “Please write regularly. Ye dosti hum nahin thodenge. But you are not going to find a blonde in Ahmedabad”.
Chandran lifted his bags and stepped through the open door of the compartment. He waited there, looking down at them standing on the platform, his mother sobbing, father with a stoic look on his face and only Hari with a hint of a smile, trying to hide the overwhelming sadness of loneliness. The cruel whistle of the train tormented their ears, clearly hinting that separation was inevitable. As it slowly chugged out of the platform, they waved to each other until their hands disappeared in the distance, and their faces remained only a memory for a long time.
“Excuse me sir. Can you lift down the tray so that we can serve your lunch?” His thoughts were broken by the smooth voice of the stewardess.
“I must have dozed off” he thought. It was already 5 hours into the flight.
“Yes please. Thank you”. He said. He had no appetite for food but he knew that he needed that energy and strength for the long journey, and more importantly when he reached the hospital. He prayed that nothing will go wrong with the surgery. His eyes welled up and he controlled his emotions with an effort. He gobbled up his meal and leant back on the window, lost again in his memories.
Post his graduation, Hari continued to live in his farm, self contended and at peace with the idyllic life Palakkad and its green environs had to offer. Chandran in turn had passed out of IIMA and made a successful career for himself as an investment banker in global firms in Mumbai. The friends always made it a point to meet up at least twice in a year, when Chandran used to come home for his vacation. It was on one such trip in July 2005 that Hari had told him about his intention to marry.
“I had told you that I will marry a traditional girl. I found exactly the person. Her name is Lakshmi. She is from Ottapalam. She is beautiful with long hair, not very modern. My kind of girl” he gushed.
“Congrats you chupa Rustom. You got the kind of girl you wanted. I am very happy for you” replied an excited Chandran.
“You are not going to get your blonde. At least find someone in India else you will die a virgin” mocked Hari.
“I am moving to London. I am joining an investment banking firm there” announced Chandran.
There were a few moments of silence as Hari imbibed this new development, which probably was more life changing for both of them, as their meetings then would become more infrequent.
“When do you have to leave?” asked Hari.
“In the next couple of months. I have to wind up my assignment in Mumbai” replied Chandran.
“Good. I will fix up my wedding date before that. I want you to be there at the function” quipped Hari.
The wedding was held in September. It was the Onam festival season and there was gaiety and festivities all around. Everyone seemed to be drawn in to the festive atmosphere, which made the wedding a memorable event. Chandran was with Hari every minute. They were inseparable. After all, it was the first time that a new person would intimately share Hari’s life and be more than just a friend which Chandran never can be.
Chandran had a few opportunities to interact with Lakshmi. She seemed to be a mature and grounded girl. She seemed to know the closeness of her husband’s relationship with Chandran.
“Chandra etta, I know that Hari is your closest friend. Don’t worry. I will share his life in the most intimate and closest way possible. But I will not take him away from you. I will not stand in the way of your friendship” she told him. “I also hope you find your blonde in London” she quipped cheekily. Chandran realized that day that Hari was very lucky to have found a girl like Lakshmi as a life partner. He silently promised himself that he will take care of Lakshmi like his own sister.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we will be landing at Dubai International Airport shortly. Please fasten your seatbelts” came the announcement from the cockpit.
Chandran’s heart suddenly felt like lead. His mind was filled with dreadful thoughts and images of his friend dying. He dreaded the prospect of meeting a devastated Lakshmi and their 10 year old daughter. But he knew that he had to be strong. He disembarked the aircraft and made his way to the airport bus to take the connecting flight to Kochi. He phoned Lakshmi.
“The surgery is still going on Chandra etta” she said, her voice feeble with grief.
“Be strong. I will be there soon” Chandran consoled her as he boarded the Kochi flight and strapped himself to the seat. This time it was an aisle seat and there was no way to hide his emotions or tears when they roll out. Chandran closed his eyes tightly.
Another 4.30 hours of torture and then the reality for him to confront face to face. The cruel face of death stared at him. It was as if a part of him was dying. He tried to steer his mind clear of such negative thoughts.
His mind went back to the one time in 2010 when he and Hari had a serious disagreement that almost cost them their friendship. It was a frivolous thing and Chandran regretted then and now that he had blown it out of proportions.
The friends had met on one of his visits to Palakkad.
“I am planning to start an organic rice export business. I can grow organic rice in my farm. It is in high demand in the UAE.” explained Hari. “I want your help to partly finance this project. Can you support me with about 25 lacs?” requested Hari.
“I am planning to buy a house in London. I am saving up money for that purpose. I will not be able to spare that kind of money,” replied Chandran. “Anyway, why do you want to get into such ventures where you don’t have any experience? Why don’t you just stick to what you know?” He mocked.
For the first time in his life, Hari felt insulted and stripped of self respect. He had never asked for favours from anybody in his life and now when he asked his best friend for one, not only he refused, but also belittled his expertise. He vented out his anger at Chandran in no uncertain terms. “Chandran, if you can’t help, just say so. You might be an MBA and a big guy in your field. But don’t advise me on what I need to do”.
Chandran left Hari’s house in a huff. Lakshmi who sensed that something was wrong tried to call him back but to no avail.
Logon ko aate hain do nazar, hum magar dekho do nahin,
are ho judaa ya khafa ae kudha hai dua, Aisa ho nahin.
The gods did not quite smile on their friendship that day.
As Chandran flew back to London without informing his friend, he felt a pang of remorse. On reaching London, he called him.
“Hari, I am sorry for what happened. I will give the money. You start your business” an apologetic Chandran told him.
“It is ok, Chandran. I have decided not to go ahead with the business. I had second thoughts as some experts told me that it was risky” replied a forlorn Hari.
There ended the quarrel. But Chandran came to know through Lakshmi that Hari had actually gone ahead with the business with another friend and had suffered a big loss. Lakshmi had asked him to promise that he will never discuss the matter with Hari ever. So that matter rested there, dead and buried.
Chandran’s mind raced to the year 2017. It was the worst year of his life. He was finally living with a blonde English girl. Just when he had decided that she was the one for him, he saw her intimate WhatsApp message exchanges with another man. To add to this problem was the stress of the new job that he has taken up. He started drinking heavily and when he reached Palakkad in that summer of 2017, he was a mental and physical wreck.
Hari got him admitted to an ashram in Palakkad. Chandran spent one month in the ashram, detoxing his body and mind. Hari and Lakshmi visited him daily. They gave him strength and hope to continue with his life. “I had warned you about blondes” teased Hari whenever they met. Before he left for London, he embraced Hari and wept. He knew that without Hari by his side, he would have lost his life. He promised himself that he would be Hari’s guardian angel if at all, God forbid, anything happened to him.
The flight landed at Nedumbassery Airport at Kochi at 2 am. “Surgery is over Chandretta. However, doctors have told that the next 48 hours is critical” informed Lakshmi when he called her. Chandran quickly steered through the immigration formalities and booked a cab for the two- and half-hour drive to Palakkad.
As the car raced on the unusually deserted NH47, its headlights slicing through sheer drops of relentless rain, Chandran’s mind went back to all the moments that he missed in Hari’s life. Hari had never wanted him to go to London. He ardently wished that he had stayed back in India. He could have met Hari more frequently. He prayed to God to give Hari a chance to come back hale and hearty.
“Tune ye kya kiya, bewafa ban gaya, vaada tod ke
Chal diya iss tarah, raah mein tu mujhe, peecha chodke”
He fought to keep his mind off dreadful thoughts and tried to sleep. Lighting and thunder ran amok through the hills of Kuthiran, threatening to split the earth into two with their ferocity. It was a lonely ride in that puny car with not even the lights of an oncoming vehicle to draw comfort from. Yet the prospect of the terrible desolation that he might face was more frightening to Chandran than anything that nature had to throw at him.
He reached the hospital just as dawn was breaking, the rains having taken a break after venting their fury.
He rushed inside to see Lakshmi, who was sitting on a bench along with a few relatives for company. On seeing Chandran, she rushed to him and broke down, tears running down her eyes which were puffy with sorrow, grief and tiredness.
“He is in ICU now etta. We have to wait for 48 hours” she said. That was the most excruciating 48 hours for Chandran as Hari battled for his life. Finally, after two harrowing days, the doctors said that Hari was conscious now and they can meet him for two minutes. Chandran and Lakshmi went into the ICU to the edge of the bed. Hari was lying there with tubes protruding everywhere from his body. His head was heavily bandaged and an oxygen mask was covering his face. Lakshmi broke down when she saw Hari while Chandran controlled himself with a superhuman effort. Hari opened his eyes and looked at both of them for a few seconds before he slipped again into a tired sleep.
The neurosurgeon called them to his room. “Hari is out of danger now which is the good news. However, the bad news is that the left side of the body is paralysed. He might have a problem with his speech. He needs continuous physiotherapy. It will be a long road to recovery. He would need lot of physical and emotional support”, the doctor explained.
A wave of relief swept through both of them. At least he is out of danger now, was the immediate thought.
After ten days, Hari was discharged from hospital. He was very weak and unable to move or speak. Chandran and Lakshmi set him up in a room at their farmhouse. Chandran tended to him like a child, taking care of his every need. He slept on a mattress on the floor in the same room.
One day, as he was sitting beside Hari’s bed, he saw Hari open his month and stutter “Chandran” with an effort. There was also a weak smile on his lips. With tears of happiness streaming down his face, he bent down and embraced his friend for a few seconds.
Hope rising in his heart, he went to the window and opened the curtains just as Lakshmi came to the room. “Chandra etta, coffee” as she offered the cup. “When do you plan to go back to London etta?” she enquired.
He looked at the lush green paddy fields swaying in the breeze. Palakkad was at its best after the rains. “I am not going. This is home” he said as he sipped his coffee.
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