I was born in the winter of ’83; Akhil in the summer of ’83, and Nikhil in the autumn of ’82. This marked disparity in the seasons of our arrival, however, did not prove to be an impediment to our camaraderie, which we struck almost as soon as the last of us had poked his head out, owing to the already blossomed friendship of our parents.
Even before we had any idea of what went on around us, we found ourselves thrown together in all kinds of weird situations. Being brothers, Akhil and Nikhil had to bear the brunt of these. They were frequently laid next to each other, in various stages of undress, to which they further contributed by splashing their limbs wildly and with total disregard for social etiquette, on strange mattresses, waterproof, that squeaked embarrassingly and regularly. To make matters worse, it was in such vulnerable situations, that the two were deemed to be at their cutest, and throngs of grown-ups hovered over them, smiling, tickling, and clapping and making observations on their resemblances to their parents. On such occasions when my parents visited theirs and vice versa, I joined Akhil and Nikhil in being objects of public display and affection. Thoroughly frustrated with all the unsolicited attention, we made attempts to mouth some severe foul language, but what emerged instead were indecipherable cackles, which only added to the general amusement. It was then that we cried.
Even twenty five years later, though they are a very different kind of friends than they were all those years ago, they continue to hold on to their spaces in my subconscious. Several times a day, in the most trivial and unrelated incidents, they are fetched into my thoughts. Just the other day I spotted this cripple limping towards me, while I was having a delicious double chicken egg roll at one of those shabby roadside joints with grimy, discolored pans and staff that are found in multiples in every conceivable corner of Kolkata. The moment I saw the man, I was reminded of Nikhil. The two of them had so much in common, other than the fact that Nikhil is not lame. It is just that he is really lame. He’s the kind of chap who keeps staring at you queerly long after you’ve finished a joke and everybody else has finished laughing and starts laughing uncontrollably halfway through when he is telling a joke himself.
Then there was this time when I walked into the rest room at an up market restaurant and, having sat myself comfortably, found myself staring at a full length mirror in front of me. When I reflect back on that moment now, it seems inexplicable that I should think of my two friends at the time instead of the absurdity of the mirror’s presence inside that place. It is not a pretty sight. But anyway, what I did think of was my two friends. I suppose it was because my earliest memories of being in that position, while staring at somebody doing the same thing and staring back, were with Akhil and Nikhil.
The point is the two of them lurked on the outer peripheries of my immediate thoughts all the time.
After being objects of affection for the first few months, we found ourselves turned into objects of competition. Like most other competitions in life, these too revolved around what each of us did faster or with greater dignity. Who walked first. Who talked first. Who went to school first. Who cried less…silly motherly comparisons which had no bearing whatsoever to what kind of men we’d turn out to be in the future.
I am pleased to state that I came out tops on most of these counts.
As the years progressed, the comparisons grew more diverse and fiercer. Who went to the best school. Who was the best student. Who won in school drawing and painting and craft and sports meets. It hardly mattered that all three of us went to different schools. This time, of course, the competition was also played out at a greater level, where the rest of the universe was also included. The key contest, however, continued to be amongst the three of us. For whoever won that one, the rest did not matter. Much like we adore Sania Mirza for being the best female tennis player in India.
I still came out tops.
I suppose it was when our ages meandered into double figures that we shifted from being victims to being participants in all of this ourselves. I realized I was decidedly the better of the lot and therefore deserved to be treated thus. And so, I started mixing more and more with those I deemed worthy of my companionship; Akhil and Nikhil climbed steadily down in my list of important persons. Our parents had dragged us through the first phase of our friendship. We had dragged them through the next phase. It appeared that we were slipping back into the first phase again.
It did not help, or perhaps helped, that our interests veered in diametrically opposite directions. Being an only child, I turned to literature and movies to fill up my spare time, as much out of necessity as out of interest. They, on the other hand, had each other for company for the most part and could chat and squabble with each other on a variety of irrelevant issues. Which they did. So while they grew into sociable young fellows, I grew up to be an intellectual and a loner. There are good things and bad things to be said about both kinds, but one can only become one of them, and that too not always out of choice. On whatever occasions we did get together, we involved ourselves in activities that were neutral and non conversational, such as playing cricket and computer games.
Of course, I still came out tops.
When I moved to a different city for my graduation, our communication all but stopped. Conversations over the telephone were never very high on my methods of interaction anyway. Even when I was home during breaks, we rarely met. Again, it was our parents who continued to be the catalysts of us getting together, when either family visited the other. We continued to be cordial, indeed jovial, on these visits though we had absolutely nothing to talk about.
At that point, I sincerely believed that we had reached a stage where we could neither grow apart any further nor reach anywhere meaningful. Our friendship was doomed to be a stalemate for the rest of our lives.
In the end, there were two things that changed this. Alcohol and Bridge. When I discovered that they had developed a taste for spirits, I immediately decided to confer upon them all the experience and expertise I had gained, since I had started earlier. I am never quite sure if they ever respected me for my achievements in academic or professional life; I gained that with my knowledge of liquids. They spent hours discussing where to find the best drinks and what mixed well with what. They called me at the most unearthly hours from some pub where they’d taken their friends to consult me on what they should order. And I reveled in their admiration.
In the meanwhile, our fathers decided that we had grown old enough to sit and play cards with them at the same table. This solved the most pressing problem for the three of us – what we were to do when we met each other outside of a bar or a pub and inside one of our homes. We latched onto Bridge with a desperation that our fathers mistook for a love of the game. Gradually, we did manage to love the game too, but that can never take away from the reason why we started taking an interest in it.
And so, we are now friends who want to see each other again. That we are again stuck in a stalemate hardly matters. The whole thing is not a burden anymore.
Interestingly, Bridge is the one thing, where I cannot claim to have come out tops.