The President's Day weekend of 2001 was the culmination of an experience that began in the Thanksgiving weekend last year. An e-mail from one childhood friend long out of touch, Nisheeth Srivastava, led me to the remaining two childhood friends, Krishnan and Lakshminarayan, and sent me on a joyride down memory lane.
Lakshminarayan had been my friend from as long back as I remember until the last day of the public exams at the end of the 10th grade. Lakshmi left shortly thereafter for Madras, following his father's retirement. We never exchanged letters, and in the socialist India of the 1980s, long-distance telephony was out of the question. Lakshmi and I had a lot in common. We both preferred not to play any sports, something quite unusual for school-going kids, and something that bothered a lot of people around me. However, we both had vivid imaginations and we had our own little games. The clump of trees at one corner of our school was deemed the African jungle. Indeed, there was in certain seasons, enough uncut grass and weeds surrounding "the African jungle" to resemble a miniature savannah, of which we had learnt first in the geography class in 6th grade. There also ran a brickwork drainage system around the perimeter of the playing fields, which were indeed vast by any standards. The two brick walls of the channel, only about six inches wide served as the perfect make believe railroad, running from the other end of the filed where the athletic sandpits served as our own make-believe Sahara. I remember, there were a few other friends that we picked up on our adventures, who stayed with us for but a few terms before they moved elsewhere. One such kid was Arun Dhir, a chubby boy who was with us at least through the 4th and 5th grades, although I have no recollection of when he left. The make-believe African continent was not the only thing that I remember. We designed our personal spaceships that were capable of traversing unimaginable distances and I believe at one point we did design something that could have landed on the sun, itself. However, in a few years we had eased of the business of space and other explorations much to the relief of NASA and others for whom I am sure we would have posed to be formidable competitors if we had chosen to.
Two interesting pictures from an old school notebook. The first one is probably that of a spaceman (I am certain Lakshmi had something to with this at least by way of inspiration), the other one is obviously the train that inspired the Hogwart's Express.
By the 8th grade we were more interested in following world affairs, were dabbling in literature in some shape or form. I had taken to writing small bits of poetry for a while by now- rhymes actually - but I thought of them as poetry. At one point I did write a "play" which Lakshmi and I thought should be staged as part of our weekly cultural activities. This was no humorous skit that most people did but a serious tragedy that we believed would one day run full houses worldwide and would rival Macbeth. Nevertheless, our other classmates were not so sure and proposed instead something that we thought was kid stuff. Outvoted and not exactly the most sporting of losers, I remember Lakshmi and I dropped out of our maiden performances on the stage. The play that the rest of the class staged was a small success and one of the sternest of the teachers, Mrs. Sada, who was also regarded by us as the best literary critic ever, actually laughed at the performance. Lakshmi was won over, and he did tell me so. I let out a you-too-Brutus sigh then, and never again wrote another play. Looking back, this is one of my earliest recollection of a friend actually kicking me out of the wild goose chase of a myth.
Our school system was highly competitive, and we were always trying to do better than everybody else, although this competition was one of the healthiest that I have ever seen. My grades always followed a pattern. I was kind of in the middle of the form in the first term. Then I would feel really bad and work hard in the second and do well, ending really close to the top but never quite there. The third term would always be slightly worse than the second since I would slacken a bit. Lakshmi was consistently at the top. In my ups and downs in class I managed to beat everyone at least once but never Lakshmi. By the 8th grade I had admitted the fact that Lakshmi was a superior being and never bothered about it. Lakshmi finished a full 20 percentage points ahead of me at the end of the 10th grade. Two years later, I saw his name on the list of students who had topped the entrance exams for the most prestigious engineering schools in India.
I guess school was very different in the 1980s in India than they have ever been in the US, or the way they are now in India. We had a school uniform that was strictly enforced by admonishments, punitive labor and the rod, in certain extreme cases. Ours was a boys-only school, and we were very proud of that. The neighboring girls' school, Sophia, had a unique love-hate relationship with us. We deliberately ignored them, yet none of our school events were complete without the girls showing up in their blue and white tunics and red ties with their stern looking nuns. Many in America would attribute this, and wrongly so, to nascent male chauvinism, inherent in our society, but it was certainly very different, because the Sophians snubbed us back. There were many things that we took pride in, especially our extensive sports facilities and auditorium, while the Sophians talked no end about their swanky glass-and steel building facade and their fancy science labs. Our school songs bore the same tune although they had different lyrics, and we were quick to point out the purity of speech in St. Mary's - we spoke purer English and Hindi unlike the Sophians who tended to mix them until they sounded completely incomprehensible to outsiders. My sister, who is Sophian and I, still like to argue about the two schools. Fraternization with the Sophians was strictly taboo and enforced by us, and I remember one of our classmates - Sachin Sharma, had a hard time defending the question from the rest of the class as to why he would not cease talking about a Sophian, Reshma Singhal, who apparently had visited Sachin's parents with her family. This was all in the fourth grade. By the time we had moved to the 11th grade things had changed of course. The little boys were changing into young men and more and more of us were breaking out of the all-male fraternity and beginning to know some of the Sophians who were also stepping out. Nevertheless, we had no proms or frat parties or any such stuff that seems more common today in school. Some of us did end up with high-school sweethearts but few of the affections were reciprocated. I guess only one of them did get serious and to the best of my knowledge are now happily married and settled in Canada. Many of us were not even aware of our affections for someone else not realizing until several years after they had got over it. But let us not talk about the 11th and 12th years in school, since that is too wide a deviation from the subjects of this writing.
Krishnan and I never shared a classroom in our lives. We were introduced to each other by Lakshmi. Krishnan had started in St. Mary's in the 8th grade, after his father's job brought him to our little town. I guess Lakshmi's and Krishnan's family both hailed from the same district in Southern India, and that is how the families got together. I remember meeting Krishnan the first time under the tamarind tree in front of the bike stand, as I sat on the seat of my bike, one foot on the ground and the other on the pedal, chatting with Lakshmi, who waited for his bus. Krishnan was a dark little boy with very sharp features and shiny white teeth that flashed easily into a wide smile. He wore a mark on his forehead, that I later found out was rosewood ash, daily. Even though Lakshmi was from the same part of the the country, for some reason, he did not wear the same mark, except on feast days. I guess, in our boyhood days we did not wonder about such things too much except out of curiosity, which lasted for a minute and was satisfied quickly after a question and answer session that lasted fifteen seconds. We had neither the impediment of political correctness to stop us from asking questions if we felt like it, at the time nor the blemish of deep-rooted prejudices to assume things without mentioning. There I go again, deviating from our discussion.... Anyway, Krishnan, was named after Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, the Sustainer, in the Hindu trinity. Krishna was supposed to have been a dark little boy who besides being naughty and lively and adventurous, grew up to be a great warrior who would save the world from destruction. Krishna was also a Casanova a hundred times over. Krishnan did resemble the little boy Krishna very much, although we do not yet know if we would end up saving the world, as Krishna did. Also I have no idea how much of a Casanova Krishnan has been since he left St. Mary's at the end of the 10th grade. Krishnan and I shared at least some part of the way home and we rode side by side chatting. Sometimes we also met each other on the way to school. Somewhere during these rides back and forth a friendship formed that became as strong as any other during my school days.
Nisheeth came to St. Mary's in the 1st grade. There was another new boy with him that day, and coincidentally enough his name was Nitish, Nitish Jain. We sat in two's in class at the time, the desks and chairs painted a bright maroon. Whoever sat next to me, was asked to move elsewhere, for whatever reason, to make room for one of the two new boys. Nitish sat next to me and Nisheeth sat on the desk in front. As soon as he got a chance Nisheeth turned back and - I remember this as vividly as if it happened yesterday - he said, "Hello. My name is Nisheeth, what is yours?" This has been the hallmark of Nisheeth's behavior ever since, I guess. I have always admired his uncanny knack at breaking the ice, at always being able to reach out to people and make friends. Nisheeth and I were in the same section only in the 1st and 2nd grades and again in the 11th and 12th grades. Yet we remained friends all along. I guess everyone who met Nisheeth did the same. Krishnan and I were already riding back and forth for a while when Krishnan's family moved to another part of town which eliminated the common path. A few days later, again I stood chatting with Lakshmi under the tamarind tree when Krishnan and Nisheeth rode up to us. We talked for a few minutes, then Nisheeth and Krishnan were ready to leave. Nisheeth asked me where I lived. When I told him, he said that I should join them. It so happened that I could have gone the same way as these two boys but I have would have had to pass the busiest intersection in town. That was the whole reason why I always had taken a detour in the past. Nisheeth found a way that would help us approach the intersection from where it was easiest to negotiate and persuaded me into joining them. The rest of the years in St. Mary's entailed riding the bike and later my moped down this way. Krishnan dropped off after two years but Nisheeth and I continued until we graduated from St. Mary's.
The bike rides home were little adventures in themselves. Looking back, I think Nisheeth's leadership was accepted even without our realizing it. We would occasionally stop on the way for an ice-cream during the summer months or cold milk at the Crystal Dairy which has long since disappeared. There used to be a hand-pump where we stopped for a drink of cold untreated water, a treat that is no longer safe. Nisheeth would also play little pranks, which sometimes ended up in horseplay between two of us while the third one mediated. Usually, it was Krishnan who played the mediator. Sometimes, if one of us discovered a flat tire, we chose some alternative way to school but always managed to get a ride back from one of the other two of us. I never had ridden doubles until then, until one day Krishnan showed up without his cycle and Nisheeth did not show up at all. Krishnan convinced me that I could indeed give him a ride, and when I tried reluctantly, I realized I could do it. The ride went really went until we came to the intersection from where Krishnan could conveniently walk home. Krishnan said, "Drop me right here" and I obeyed him verbatim, tumbling to the ground, Krishnan and bike and satchels and myself. We had a good laugh all the same.
Up until then, I had not visited too many of my friends' homes. That changed very rapidly with Nisheeth and Krishnan. We started visiting each other's homes and spending hours just talking or playing games and eating whatever snacks the host mother would have for us. Unlike me, who was the baby in the family, both Nisheeth and Krishnan were the oldest kids in their respective families. There was Nisheeth's little sister, who was called Gudia and his baby brother Guddu. And there were Krishnan's two sisters, Sumathi and Sugandhi. Sugandhi was no more than 6 years old at the time and as was apt for her age, a chatterbox. She told little kid jokes and did other funny things that I remember to this day. I recently heard that Gudia is now married and settled and that Sumathi is already the mother of a toddler and living in Atlanta and that Sugandhi is now a fairly accomplished, at least for her age, bharatnatyam danseuse. The snacks were as varied as our respective cultural backgrounds. I have memories of dosas, idlis, my introduction to the coconut chutney that I did not like at the time, but have since developed a liking for, coconut and molasses filled nayi-appams, murukku and papad. The snacks in Nisheeth's place were typically northern Indian, samosas and laddoos and burfis and I guess the ones at our place had to have had my late aunt's delicious sweets, the hallmark of any Bengali meal. Krishnan's father had been the first to show me coffee beans. Having lived in northern India, which is largely tea-drinking, we had always known coffee to be of the instant variety. I always remember Krishnan's father relating the story of how his mother had taught him to swim, by tying an end of a sari to his waist to prevent him from drowning.
The 10th grade ended with us gearing up for the 11th and 12th grades and the beginning of the rat race that would lead us, if we survived, to the hallowed portals of an engineering (or in the case of some like Sachin, medical school) school, and what then seemed like salvation. I do not remember what occasion it was, but Nisheeth and I were on the road by ourselves, on our respective bikes, when we saw Krishnan walking with Auntie, as we called his mother, and Sugandhi and Sumathi. Krishnan and the two kids seemed very excited. Krishnan said, "There is some news. Sudden news." I guess Nisheeth and I did not share their excitement at the time. Krishnan's father had just accepted a new position in Delhi and they were moving in a few weeks. I would like to think Krishnan was not too thrilled about it. He was still smiling because that was his inherent nature, to smile like sunshine through everything. There were no tearful farewells like the ones we had when we graduated from college, I guess I did not even go to see off Krishnan or his family at the station. The next two years were marked by intense academics followed by four years of colorful college life. I bumped into Lakshmi at IIT Madras while I was there for an inter-college youth program. I remember the palak panir and paratha that we had at Jamuna restaurant on Mount Road that evening. I remember Lakshmi was the only person to cheer when we won the trophy. I took pictures, but never got around to sending a copy to Lakshmi and thereby continuing communications. I met Nisheeth, several times at his home while we were on vacation from college and twice at his college, while I was there too participating in another youth event. I met Nisheeth again for a brief moment in Bangalore, while he was busy with his job and I was transitioning from one job to another and taking a vacation of sorts in between.
I moved to the United States in 1996, married Meenakshi in 1997 and Arpita was born in 1998. Krishnan, Lakshmi and Nisheeth together with the bikes and the rides, the waiting for the bus under the tamarind tree, make-believe Africa and the spaceships to the sun, Crystal dairy and the hand pump and the dosas, laddus and my aunt, not to mention her sweets, turned into memories, some sweet, some bittersweet, but none bitter. They all waited dormant, for Nisheeth's e-mail.
I found a website for St. Mary's alumni and found Nisheeth was one of the two boys registered. I sent an e-mail each to both of them but never heard back from either of them for several weeks. Then came Nisheeth's e-mail. He was touring the US, now an entrepreneur, and happened to be going to Washington, DC that afternoon. What he did not know was that I lived in Washington myself. We met for a few hours, over dinner at TGIF. Nisheeth ordered a martini, which surprised me, more in a contemplative way. The last time we had shared a meal we had not even attained drinking age. Nisheeth led me to Krishnan, who was living in New Jersey and Krishnan provided me Lakshmi's number. Suddenly my age was halved, because I was back with my boyhood friends, under the tamarind tree. Nevertheless, time does not stop, and nor should it. There were only a few surprises. Lakshmi was not a professor at MIT. Rather he was working for Oracle Corporation R&D. Well, he was not a marketing executive, either, which would have been a real surprise. And Nisheeth was definitely not peering into electron microscopes identifying new subatomic particles while taking medication to fight social anxiety. Of course, I am sure all of us including myself are surprised that I have not yet won the Nobel Prize. Krishnan was living happily with his wife Raji and his little son Aditya, whose age seemed to vary from 2 months to a year and a half based on Nisheeth's estimation, which I do know, is not his second job. Nisheeth has since been in touch over e-mail while I have spoken to Lakshmi a couple of times. Lakshmi remains a rare specimen of the breed of bachelors from amongst us, although he is a rather endangered specimen, that way, since all of us are looking forward to his tying the knot soon.
Krishnan and I who live only about four hours apart had been planning to meet since the day after Thanksgiving but had not managed to do so. This weekend, an opportunity arose when we decided to spend the weekend with several friends in NJ, from various chapters of my life. Meenakshi, Arpita and I made the 11 mile trip from where we had stayed for the night to Krishnan's place in about an hour, missing turns four times, out of a possible six, then negotiating NJ's notorious (at least we outsiders think they are) jug-handle intersections until my poor little Honda Accord belched and grunted its way up the hill that led to Krishnan's home. We parked and I wondered I should press the doorbell. My indecision did not last long, for the door opened and there was Krishnan and his hallmark smile. We met Krishnan's wife Raji and son Aditya and found out his real age - 11 months. The 3 hours passed fast between the flow of words and mouthfuls of Raji's dosas, sambar and coconut chutney, that I first ate at Krishnan's home a decade and half ago. Arpita and Aditya played. Meenakshi and Raji talked. The living room of Krishnan, the school boy was different from Krishnan the grown-up chemical engineer and father, yet it was so similar in other ways. We saw pictures of Krishnan's family, including one from shortly after they had moved from Meerut. Krishnan's parents and Sugandhi had just returned to India after visiting Krishnan. Uncle, as we called Krishnan's father, seemed to have aged a little, just like the rest of our parents, although Auntie seemed to be just the same. Sumathi, once the little girl in pigtails, was there holding her daughter, now a software engineer. And there was that little chatterbox, Sugandhi, now a bharatnatyam dancer and someone who has performed all over the world.
This was the culmination that I talked about when I started writing today. Just like the memories from the boyhood days, this writing is hard to suppress, and it can go on for hours, unchecked, as it already has. The time warp has snapped and I am back in today's world. Yet, the recent communications with Krishnan, Lakshmi and Nisheeth, and the rejuvenation of our boyhood friendship has in a way rejuvenated me. There are no surprises left any more about what we might have become in the last few years, and I am sure when Krishnan, Raji and Aditya visit us on March the 10th as we have planned, we would talk as much about the present and future as we would of the past, but at the bottom of my heart I would continue to feel like the little boy who rode a little red bike with two other little boys and hiked through a make believe savannah to a make believe rainforest with another little boy.