They say everything that happens to you is for a certain purpose and that whatever happens to you in the long run, is for the better. In the academic year 1975, two things happened that would test my belief in this aphorism to its limits and change the guy I knew as Sashikanta, forever. The first happened right in the beginning of the first semester and the second as the academic year drew to a close.
I’ll start with the second. It came in the form of a telegram for Sashi. As usual, the postman delivered it but this time he stood around, shifting uneasily, from one foot to the other, averting our gaze. “Your father passed away Sunday. Heart failure. Ma distraught. Come home earliest. Chotokaka,” the telegram read.
Actually Jugs and I had taken the telegram from the postman’s hands, slit it open and read it, since Sashi was at that moment, very very high. He was stretched out in a corner of his room, eyes half closed, his breathing uneven. Also similarly supine were Shyam Tikkoo and three others, while Uriah Heep’s ‘July morning’ blared on the stereo player. Sashi was zonked out on the Nainital hash that Shyam had brought back from the trekking trip he’d been on, with the institute’s Outdoor Club. The room was in a haze, a sweet smell of the thick smoke permeating everything. Here and there, someone broke into a bout of wracking coughs and doubled over, while a joint passed around through shaky, fluttery fingers.
The postman hung around a while and left. Jugs and I stared at the telegram and then each other. The same thing was on our minds. What the f—k do we do? Breaking the news to him now, in this state, would likely kill him. We stood in the doorway and watched as Sashi took a deep drag, held it and let it out with a whoosh, slumping back against the wall with a long sigh. Jugs and I didn’t touch the stuff and the term ‘second-hand smoke’ hadn’t been coined then. So, while these guys were floating, Jugs and I had been lounging around in the corridor right outside the haze-filled room, waiting for Shivaram to return, so we could borrow his chess set, when the telegram came. We were quite unaware we were imbibing the stuff even if we weren’t actually smoking it.
About Sashi, you’re no doubt surprised. Quite an understandable reaction. Sashi, and getting high on hash? You see, that’s the first thing that happened that year, that I was going to tell you about. So, here’s the flash-back:-
It all began with cigarettes, unfiltered Charminars that I had myself introduced him to. Soon Sashi was chain-smoking Charminars. That had then progressed to a stray stoke or two of hash or grass. “Dekhi, ekta dey to,” (Here, gimme a drag, let’s see what it’s all about).
The descent thereafter was fairly rapid. As his grades tumbled, Sashi advanced to more exotic stuff like mandies (mandrax), sometimes washing them down with arak (hooch). A year prior, he would be the first to reach the lecture theater, seating himself in the front row. And now? Now, he could barely make it to class.
There was this one Saturday that I cannot get out of my mind, even today. The rest of us had just had our supper and were getting ready to go see the movie in the OAT. I realized I hadn’t seen my roomie in a while and that he might not have had anything to eat yet. While the rest proceeded to the OAT, I went upstairs looking for Sashi. He was on his bed, his breathing shallow, trying and failing to get up in a sitting position. I sat down next and pulled his frail torso up, till he sagged against my shoulder. He’d lost a lot of weight. It felt as if I was cradling a child.
“Hey, buddy, time to eat and go see the movie. They’re showin’ ‘In like Flint’ tanight. James Coburn. Come on, move your ass. Sashi. Hey, wake up, man.”
I didn’t get a reaction for a few moments. Then, “Did you see my father come in? He told me he’s coming. To take me home,” Sashi’s faltering voice was a whisper as he tumbled back on his pillow and turned on his side, his eyes staring blankly at the opposite wall, devoid of any emotion. I bent over, pulled him toward me and cradled his head on my lap and I ran my fingers lightly through the scraggly unkempt hair as I rocked him back and forth. I missed James Coburn’s crooked grin that evening.
And so, it became inevitable that we would part company, as I could no longer stand the all-pervasive smell of that thick smoke inside our room. Sashi moved in with Shyam Tikkoo, over at Ganga hostel.
The day he moved out, I helped Sashi pack. He climbed on his bare cot and pulled down the pictures of the gods and goddesses that he’d hung up so lovingly on the wall by his bed. His hands shook as one deity after another came down, the flowers in the malas (garlands) having long shriveled and dried. The only human being outside of my own family, that I’d lived with for two great years, was now leaving. I was turning him away. The emptiness I felt was unfathomable. Jugs, Shyam and I picked up the steel trunk and hold-all and carried them down the stairs to the lobby. Sashi looked frail as he got on the cycle rickshaw that we’d called, to transport his stuff. I couldn’t help feeling that I should have done more, maybe tried to steer him back on track. I had chosen not to care.
After the summer of 1975, I lost touch with Sashi, Ganga Hostel being quite a distance from Tapti, where I was. Besides, Sashi had dropped the year, failing to make the passing CPA and so we were no longer in the same class. I’d still catch an occasional glimpse of him stumbling along to the OAT on Saturday nights with two or three other guys, passing joints among each other as they weaved their way through the bushes.
Until that night when Jugs and I found ourselves in front of Sashi’s door, waiting for his neighbor Shivaram to return, so we could borrow his chess set and that’s when the postman had arrived with the telegram. End of flash-back.
“What the f—k are we going to do, Bong?” Jugs was staring at Sashi’s supine form at the corner of the darkened room. And then we knew. We went in, switched off the stereo, kicked the others out and while Jugs hastily started packing a bag, I dragged Sashi to the shower. Mukund had just received his monthly dough. He didn’t hesitate, parting with it. For the train ticket. Jugs, Sashi and I caught the bus from Adyar direct to the Central Station. The non-stop Coromandel Express was leaving in five hours. A confirmed reservation at this late hour was impossible, so we bought him an ordinary ticket and hoped he’d get lucky with a seat or a berth on the way and be able to sleep off his high.
“Jesus, imagine being stuck inside a f—in’ train for the next 24 hours,” I called out to no one in particular, as Jugs and I turned and started walking back toward the exit. It was close to daybreak now.
“You never know, Bong. A long train journey can change a guy. Maybe the Sashi who returns will be a different one.”
As we approached the turnstiles, a scrawny kid skipped toward us, with a boot polish kit tucked under his left arm. He did not have a right arm. “Paaalis venu ma, Saar? pleece Saar? I have to shtudy my brathar and marry my shishter, Saar.” He pointed toward our scruffy shoes. Jugs and I looked at each other. Jugs stepped forward as the boy tapped the side of his polish kit impatiently with the wooden shank of his brush. He started applying a white gooey polish on Jugs’ right shoe with a grubby index finger and at the same time, broke into an energetic, gurgling hum of that popular Sivaji Ganesan number, the ‘Kolaveri Di’ of the day, “adi ennadi rakkamma pallaakku nelippu, en nengchi kulungguthadi….”. That made me turn to look back at the last car, the guard’s car, of the Coromandel Express, as it took a bend in the jumble of tracks and sped on, gradually diminishing in size till it dissappeared from view. It had inside, another boy who had loved to hum too. Before he lost control of his life.
Jugs was a prophetic son of a bitch, he was. For that’s exactly what happened. The Sashi, who knocked on my door that summer evening a month later, didn’t bear any resemblance to the gaunt, hagard, forlorn face that I had seen etched between the window bars of the 2nd class unreserved train car. This one was transformed. Fresh as a new chowanni (the Indian equivalent of a quarter).
I couldn’t help the rush of tears as I hugged him, “What the f–k are you standin’ there gapin’ for?” I said to him,” Go get the rest your sorry stuff from Ganga hostel. You’re movin’ in here once again. I was beginning ta miss your f—in’ table tabla, you idiot.”