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We first met when we were toddlers. He used to be extremely quiet, never known to using up his energies like I did. And as we grew up in two different geographies, we drifted away. Then came the first break in the ice. My father suggested that we kids go over to where our cousins lived, some 190 kilometers away from the Chennai where we had our residence, and spend the summer holidays with them. I guess he thought that we were becoming a bit of a nuisance and so decided to pack us off. But we did not realise that this would become almost an annual exercise. Nevertheless my brothers and I jumped in glee. This was the first time, we were being sent out of town ever since we grew out of our underwear.

That’s when I met him again, after so many years. He had an elder brother and a younger sister. Actually they were my nephews and niece. Their mother was my first cousin. But due to the disparity in our ages, we children generally introduced ourselves as cousins, and not as uncles and nephews. Though he was
younger to me by a good two years, we mirthfully got along well. He was more intelligent than his elder brother who was a year older to me. But because we were all of the same age, we went out together, played together, prayed together, had our meals together and slept the night together. There was a
wonderful manifestation of camaraderie between the five of us boys all the time. My niece, being a girl, was the odd one out. She would almost always be found cooking with a bunch of tiny wooden utensils using sand, water and leaves as the main ingredients. Some days it used to be her alone and a few other days, her friends would join her in the cooking feast.

While my niece cooked, we boys would bring the house down, jumping from the terrace onto the Chickoo trees, Mango trees, Neem trees and a delicate Guava tree that surrounded their house in a rather nondescript neighborhood. If we were not jumping from the terrace to the trees and from the trees to the
terrace, we would be playing ‘marbles’, ‘gilli-danda’, ‘French cricket’ and if our moods swayed or boredom got in the way, we could be seen playing ‘badminton’ with wooden table tennis rackets, that were available in plenty on the pavements in the town’s busy market place. And when we were fed up with all these games, we would most often than not play the all time favorite ‘hide and seek’. And guess where I would hide and never get caught? Up in the branches of the Mango tree. Oh! It was fun.

But the nephew I am talking about was a bit like my younger brother, quite diligent in studies. But sadly he was never into games or sport. In fact he was the only one who would hang onto the lowest branch of the Mango tree, when the rest us would swing like monkeys from the highest of highest branches. He was not the adventurous kind.

As time jetted around, my brothers and I would leave home and travel to different cities for our higher studies and work. And thus we boys got strewn around with the sands of time. But the elders on both sides faithfully kept in touch.

One day almost 10 years later, when I was working in Chennai I returned to my office after meeting a client. A colleague informed me that there was somebody waiting for me in the conference room. When I went in, I was aghast to see a skinny young gentleman perched comfortably on the leather upholstery,
leafing through a magazine. Recognition swelled on my face. It was my quiet nephew. He was working for a real estate company and had come to meet me regarding investments. I was thrilled to see him.

Thereafter we kept meeting at regular intervals, later on at his sister’s marriage, and further on at his elder brother’s marriage. The last was during my marriage. And every time I met him he continued to be the same skinny man I knew. At the same time his real estate business was becoming better and better
and he was gradually transforming himself into a young tycoon. I was glad. That was when his mother, my cousin, started scouting around for a suitable girl for him.

In October 2001, I had relocated to Bangalore. I got a call saying that he had been admitted at the Cancer Hospital in Chennai for Cancer of the Pancreas. I was devastated. I rushed from Bangalore. I found him lying on the hospital bed, all skin and bones. I was aghast. Tears swelled in my eyes. He smiled at me. I pushed the tears back, and went and gently sat down next to him.

Apparently, it all started with a simple stomach pain and constipation a month earlier in September. The local doctor in the town they lived treated him twice. But when the pain kept forging its way back, the doctor decided to take an X-ray. Doubtful of what he saw, my quiet nephew was asked to consult at this
famous Cancer Hospital in the Chennai. That’s where the specialist doctors attending on him detected stomach cancer. Soon many thousands of rupees disappeared down the drain. But gradually the treatment seemed to be coming alive. And two months later he was sent home.

A few months later when I met him, he was walking around, going to the movies with our other relatives and life seemed to be coming back to him. But he continued to look like the bag of bones I first saw on the hospital bed. That worried me. But I carried that worry close to myself and never discussed it with
anybody else.

A few weeks later, I got a call saying that he had once again been admitted at the Cancer Hospital after the pain in his stomach resurfaced again. Scans and X-ray’s were once again taken, but nothing came to light. So they decided to cut his bust open to see what the problem was. There was a thin cancerous film that
had engulfed his body from his abdomen and right up to his neck. The doctors were dismayed. They closed his body and told his family that the cancer was very advanced and that his days were numbered and nothing could be done about it. He was given two weeks to live.

Two days later when I saw my quiet nephew, he was very cheerful. Apparently he had been told that the medications would take a long time to heal and that he would have to bear with the pain and agony that came with the illness. But in the dark corner of his eye, I knew he did not believe one word of what had been told to him. And from the same dark corner of his eye, I knew he was ready to go. Only he didn’t say it. He remained quiet all the time.

When he had survived the two weeks, his family was asked to take him home. Relatives and friends came from near and far. Days rolled into weeks. And weeks rolled into months. On one of my visits to Chennai – where his family had decided to temporarily take shelter and stay, on account of the continued
treatment – I called on him. He was delighted to see me. My mind raced back as we cracked jokes and talked about the old times. It all seemed like yesterday that we were playing ‘marbles’, ‘gilli-danda’ and jumping from the trees and playing ‘hide and seek’. And now here he was lying on a naked bed, beside a
naked chair, that sat in a naked house, with naked windows and waiting for his departure from this world. Ah! How cruel could life be?

Some three hours later as I decided to leave, he held my hands and said:
“Remember how you ran away from our home after quarreling with my elder brother and how I came looking for you with your younger brother? I will never forget that day. I found you, you know. That was an incredible game of ‘hide and seek’ we played, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t believe that he still remembered this little incident after all these years and the unimaginable part was that he made that little incident look like a game – as if I was hiding and he was seeking me out. As tears swelled in his mother’s eyes, I hurriedly walked out saying that I’ll be back soon. That night I took the train and went back to Bangalore where I lived. Three days later, at eleven in the night on December 23, I received a call saying that he had passed away and that the funeral was to be held the next day at 11 a.m.

I took the 6.30 morning train. Having traveled by this train a number of times, I knew that this train was in the habit of checking in late, every time. I hoped and prayed and believed that the train would reach Chennai without any delay at 12 p.m., for that was the prescribed time of arrival. And I also hoped and prayed and believed that I would get to see the body before my quiet nephew was laid to rest.

Miraculously, the train was on time. But the city was being battered by a cyclonic storm. I rushed out, hailed an auto-rickshaw and asked the driver to take me to the cemetery, which was some 15 minutes away from Central Station. I was fervently praying that they do not bury him and that I somehow got to see him. Suddenly, the engine of the auto-rickshaw chugging through a river that used to be a street coughed and died. My heart died too. But my mind sputtered. I jumped out, paid the driver his fare, hailed another auto-rickshaw and raced through the rivers that had flooded this concrete jungle.

As I sailed into the cemetery, believe it or not, I could see from afar, the coffin still resting in the well of the Chapel, as if waiting for my arrival. The last rites had been delayed because of the deluge that had filled the burial ground. But just as I finished paying my last respects, the rain stopped and a few minutes later we buried him. He was only 29.

As I stood there, watching the earth swallow him gently, it looked as though he was playing a new version of hide and seek. A version where he had gone into hiding and one in which I would seek him out when my turn came.

Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent – All rights reserved.

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The heavens thundered. And streaks of lightning slit the night skies into two, then three, then four, five and into six halves. Like an uninvited guest the skies then opened up, sending down a rapid drizzle. Before Vikku could realize its intensity, the sky’s bladder unimpededly transformed the drizzle into a blistering outpouring. Vikku stopped his motorcycle beside the deserted road and looked around. There was no shelter in sight. And it was cascading by the gallons.

“Thank God for these rains. Now Bangalore will not run short of water this summer”, he thought as he climbed back onto his motorcycle and rode out into the rains. The hostel where he stayed was experiencing a severe water crunch and these untimely thunder showers were more than welcome. He rode slowly, halting now and then to peer at a distant light that he thought could possibly be a home or a shop or some sort of shelter, where he could find a place to halt awhile. But the rains tore down Vikku’s thoughts. And he kept riding. He had no other choice. He had to find a place to rest his wet body. Just then a bus shelter loomed into view. He bent his back low over the fuel tank of the Yezdi 250cc and accelerated.

The bus shelter was like a mini general hospital. While scores of people stood jostling each other, some sat huddled puffing away on beedis and cigarettes and some even managed to find some precious real estate upon which they lay down trying to catch some sleep. They looked like snakes wriggling with each other
during the mating season. There were also a few chewing ‘pan’ and spitting its juice on a freshly sprung rain water stream running beside the road alongside the walls of the platform. And as the red beetle juice snaked its way down the stream it looked as if an injured water snake was trying to make good its escape
from some of its enemies. Vikku parked his bike close to the bus shelter and ‘flew’ inside. One youngster smoking a ‘beedi’ gave him a quarter of an inch’s place so that Vikku could survive the onslaught of the rain.

He surveyed the scene around him. It resembled the days during partition. Most looked like villagers carrying household goods wrapped in bed sheets, towels, lungies and what have you. With every rumble of thunder a child would scream and cry helplessly, while with every streak of lightning a mother would cover the face of her child with the ‘pallu’ of her ‘saree’, lest the child go blind seeing the lightning. The rains were incessant.

Vikku having stood there for over an hour was growing impatient. He was returning to his hostel from a get-together of friends and classmates. Why did he ever take this route, he asked himself petulantly? He could have taken the busier road that wormed through the city. That way at least he could have found a
better place to halt. But now it was a little too late for doing a post-mortem report. He felt like calling a friend… a relative… but where was the phone? Where was the nearest telephone booth? There were no street lights and he couldn’t see a thing. He felt angry and brutally assaulted by these thoughts.

Just then a car sped past the bus shelter. Then a screeching noise rang through the darkness and pouring rain. The car braked and reversed at breakneck speed and hurriedly stopped outside the bus shelter. It was a black car with the windows rolled up. Some of the people trotted a few steps back and froze. Were
they gangsters who had come to rob them in this pall of gloom and ruin? As Vikku watched patiently, the rear window closest to the bus shelter rolled down.

“Vikram!” a voice pierced through the unbearably cold air and cascading rain. Vikku hesitated. He could not see the ‘voice’ inside the car. Pangs of fear mounted on him. The city had seen a spate of murders the past week and he wanted to make sure that he was not going to be another innocent victim. So he stood
rooted to the concrete flooring of the bus shelter.

“Vikram!” the voice pierced through the unbearably cold air again.

This time Vikku stepped out and shouted, “Who is it?”

“It’s me… John! Going to the hostel right? Hop in. I am going there too.”

Vikku stepped out into the rain and peered closer at the rolled down window of the black car. He recognized the face and at once seemed relieved and smiled unabashedly.

“What about my bike?” quivered Vikku, a sudden gust of wind throwing him off his feet.

“It needs a good bath anyway”, laughed John. “Leave it behind the bus shelter. We’ll pick it up tomorrow”.

The black Toyota Corolla belonged to Prithvi, a friend of John’s. They were both returning from a fashion show and Prithvi was planning to drop John off at the hostel till Vikku’s wet appearance changed their plans. They sped to a pub in the pouring rain gulped down a few beers, got dropped at the hostel gates,
climbed stealthily over the wrought iron railings and disappeared into the warmth of the hundred year old Jesuit institution.

That was how Vikku and John became good friends. They were not only going to the same college but were also staying at the same college hostel together. And that night the cascading rains had altered their relationship. From mere college mates and acquaintances they were now on the threshold of becoming the best of buddies.

As days swept into weeks and months, John and Vikku’s friendship grew closer and closer. John was pursuing his final year B.Com while Vikku was doing his BA. They rode on the Yezdi 250 cc wherever they went. To the movies. To the nearby shopping mall started by a prominent MNC. And even to romantic ‘dates’ hastily arranged by John. So much so that even if John had to go to a cousins’ place or to attend a function somewhere or to a book shop and sometimes even to the barber’s saloon it was Vikku who made sure that he dropped him off. For John it was always a free ride. And the money he saved by way of Auto fare went into beers, beers and more beers.

One evening after dinner John told Vikku that he was deciding to pursue an MBA programme in the US and for that he needed to complete one year of Masters. And that Madras University was going to be the venue. Because John thought that if he did his Masters from Madras University, he was not only going to get the 3+1 years’ that was required by all American universities, but also procuring the American visa would be simple and easy. John was a master tactician. Everything he did was always according to a plan. His father owned a large Coir factory in his native Kerala and sending John to the US for higher studies was no big deal for him. John was anyway going to return one day and take over the reigns of his father’s Coir Company and run it with new business techniques that he would learn in the west.

Soon John completed his Bachelors Degree in Commerce and was off to Chennai. After landing in Chennai he wrote to Vikku and gave him his contact address there. For a few days Vikku seemed a little lonely, but the kind of person Vikku was, friends and friendship was something he could forge easily. Soon Vikku
found a job and was lost in a glamorous world of advertising and films. His job took him to the most breathtaking locations in the country and then six months later to Chennai on a transfer.

And almost on the very same day Vikku contacted John and told him of his presence in Chennai. John was elated. They met that very evening and celebrated their ‘reunion’ with a few beers. After that Vikku would invariably sleep over at John’s place almost twice or thrice a week and then head home bleary eyed in
the mornings. John had a nice flat in Chennai’s business district. His father had made a few wise investments and this flat was one of them. That was how John rolled in bundles of green, while Vikku endlessly ran short. But John was always there, spending for him and not depriving Vikku of anything that would even remotely affect their friendship.

Vikku wasn’t a rich man. He came from a middle class family that had seen a lot of gloss and sheen in the past. But then as fate would have it, Vikku’s parents had plunged into hard times and it was Vikku who – along with his brothers – was trying to resuscitate a sinking ship. In these circumstances Vikku found himself devoid of even small ‘change’ by the middle of the month and it was always John who would perform the rescue act.

Once John went home to Kerala for a short break. Before departing he invited Vikku ‘home’ for a holiday. Vikku was a travel buff. Wake him up in the middle of the night and offer him a trip to some remote hill station or an island, Vikku would grab the offer and be off in a jiffy, only if he had the money. Now when Vikku hesitated, John said “Try and make it Vikku, Kerala is a swell place! And don’t worry about the money. Just come.”

A week later Vikku had packed his bags and together with John traveled the length and breath of Kerala. Though it was a long seven days, it was the first ‘big’ holiday in his life where he had embarked on a trip, away from his family and ‘on his own’.

For weeks and months after that, the twosome would still be talking and laughing about their tryst with beautiful white-sand beaches, gorgeous ‘white’ women sunbathing, mystic masseurs, drug peddlers, pimps and about restaurants that offered nothing but fish curry and stinking red rice, one that John enjoyed, but
Vikku slunk away from.

One day John called Vikku at his office and asked him if he could come that evening and help him out with some applications and letters that needed to be written to various universities in the US. “You are so good at that. We can also top up the evening with a few beers!” whispered John.

And Vikku would unfailingly go magnetically drawn to John by some quirk of fate. Soon the number of applications would mount and at the end of it John had applied to nearly 25 universities. By this time John’s TOEFL scores had also come and he had done reasonably well. And John was confident that even if he wasn’t getting a scholarship, his father would foot the bill.

A month later John decided that he was going to the University of Texas, Houston. And a few weeks later John came to Vikku’s apartment to tell him that everything was progressing well and that his application for the American Visa was the only thing that remained.

A few days later, John called Vikku at the office and told him that he had an interview with the Visa Officer at the US Consulate the next morning and asked him if he could come by and stay the night with him and drop him off at the Consulate premises at six in the morning. So that he could take advantage of the
time and get into the gates of the Consulate early.

Vikku went to John’s flat that evening, spent the night with him and learned that one of John’s younger brothers who was studying in a prominent college in Chennai had already left for the US Consulate to ‘book space’ and ‘stand-in’ for John in the serpentine queue, till he arrived at the Consulate the next morning. As planned Vikku woke up at five the next day, dropped John off at the US Consulate at six, and biked home. Before parting ways Vikku shook hands with John, wished him all the best and told him to call him and tell him whatever the result was.

John never called. Days flew into weeks and weeks galloped into months and still there was no news from John. Vikku was stumped. Did he get the Visa or did he not? If he did not, had he gone back to Kerala a heart broken man? But that wasn’t like John. Something must have happened, thought Vikku. That very evening Vikku’s father asked him whether John wrote or called him. And Vikku replied in the negative.

“That fellow is a time server!” Vikku’s father blurted out in disdain. “I knew it all along. But I did not want to hurt you and spoil your relationship with him. He made use of you, your time, your helpful attitude and your bike and now see what he has done. He hasn’t even bothered to keep in touch with you. How many months has it been since he’s been gone? One… two…”

Vikku sat sullen on the cane chair cupping his palm on his cheeks. He was pulverized at what his father told him. At the same time his father did make a lot of sense. But was John a time server, he asked himself? Did John make use of him to meet his ends and then dump him? There was a stoic silence, bordering on
the impassive. He then went about writing a letter to John’s parents in Kerala asking them for John’s US address. A week later John’s father sent him the address saying that John had come home to Kerala, packed his belongings and had flown to the US three days after he got the Visa.

Covered in angst, Vikku sat down and wrote to John.

“Dear John” he began,

“Oh how I hate to write these few lines. But I had to. You don’t know what your silence is doing to me. It worries me day in and day out. I wonder what has gone wrong between the two of us. Why didn’t you call me before you left? Why didn’t you write to me after you reached the US? Why…Why…Why…”

Four weeks sped by and there was no reply. So he wrote another letter.

“Dear John” he began,

“I thought you were my friend and I was yours. I thought our friendship was as thick as the shrubs that grow in the backyard of my apartment. Have you forgotten me or have you misplaced my address………”

Four more weeks went by and a reply from John continued to elude Vikku. Two weeks later Vikku’s younger brother arrived from California on 15 day vacation. At dinner time he recounted all his American experiences. And then suddenly out of the blue, he told Vikku.

“Hey! I met John in California.”

Vikku looked up paralysed.

“I thought he was in Texas” Vikku replied doubtfully.

“No, he had come to meet an acquaintance of mine who’s doing his Masters at the University of Berkeley.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“Yes! Only for a few seconds.”

“Then what happened?”

“Somehow it looked as if John wasn’t eager to talk to me.”

“Did he acknowledge the fact that he had received my letters?”

“I asked him that and he nodded his head. But then he immediately jumped the subject and got talking to Leslie, this acquaintance of mine.”

Vikku stopped eating. There was a lump in his throat. He slowly got up, washed his hands, stealthily walked out of the apartment, started his bike and rode out into the city. He stopped at a wayside self-service Cafeteria, ordered for a strong cup of coffee and as he waited for the coffee to arrive, strong bouts of thunder and lightning threatened the sky. He quickly gulped the coffee as soon as it came and rode out once again. For a few minutes he rode blindly, as if he was in caught in a maze. The monsoon winds blew gustily and brought with it the smell of rain. In a few seconds, pellets of water slammed Vikku’s hands and face and before he could realise the enormity of the weather, he was drenched by the north east monsoon. He glanced around as he rode. He had almost reached the outskirts of the city. The rain was coming down in torrents. So he turned and rode back, finally realising where he was. By now it was getting quite difficult for him to even ride in these painfully soggy conditions. A bus shelter loomed
into view and he bent his back low over the fuel tank of the Yezdi 250cc and accelerated.

He parked outside the bus shelter and dashed in, shivering bitterly. The bus shelter held a number of night revelers, some waiting for the last bus and some like Vikku waiting for the rain to hold off. Just then a black car sped past the bus shelter. Then a screeching noise rang through the darkness and pouring rain.
The car braked and reversed at breakneck speed and hurriedly stopped outside the bus shelter. It was a black car with the windows rolled up. Some of the people trotted a few steps back and froze. Were they gangsters who had come to rob them in this pall of gloom and ruin? As Vikku watched patiently, the rear window closest to the bus shelter rolled down.

“Vikram!” a voice pierced through the speedy wind and cascading rain.

Vikku hesitated. He could not see the ‘voice’ inside the car. Pangs of fear mounted on him. The city had seen a spate of kidnappings the past week and he wanted to make sure that he was not going to be another innocent victim. So he stood rooted to the concrete flooring of the bus shelter.

“Vikram!” the voice pierced through the cascading rain again.

This time Vikku stepped out and shouted, “Who is it?”

“It’s me… Paul! Going home right? Hop in. I’ll drop you.”

Vikku stepped out into the rain and peered closer at the rolled down window of the black car. He recognised the face and at once seemed relieved and smiled unabashedly. But then his thoughts darted back five years to that almost similar night in Bangalore.

“Vikram! Are you coming?” cried out Paul, yet again.

“Oh! Thanks Paul. Carry on.” Vikku stammered. “My home is just a few minutes away. And I have my bike too. I’ll manage.”

As the black Opel Astra ploughed into the river – that the road had seemingly become – and disappeared into the night, Vikku clenched his fist and shook his head. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent – All rights reserved.

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