A vague feeling of discomfort was all he remembered from his crash. He recalled being in the morning rush, rain lashing against his windshield. Waters as high as his tires coursed through the highway. Several scooters had broken down, their owners groaning as they furiously tried to kick them into ignition.
Thunder roared overhead and a deafening honk split his ear-drums. Pranay adjusted his rearview mirror and saw the blinding headlights of an orange lorry. Poking his head out of the car, he yelled, ‘Wait for a minute, will you? The line’s blocked from the front too!’ and stuck his face back inside, wiping the rain off his chin with a swipe of his palm.
The line ahead budged at creeping speed. Pranay turned his key. His car groaned but started. Hardly had he moved a little more than 50 meters when the engine began coughing and altogether stopped. The truck driver, meanwhile, had pressed his accelerator a little too excitedly and with a crash, the lorry collided with Pranay’s car where it slammed into a double-decker bus.
His head was jerked towards the steering wheel; his eyes could barely register that the T on his steering wheel was growing alarmingly closer.
Pranay blinked his eyes open, turning his neck with a groan. He raised his hand to touch his forehead and winced. A thick bandage had been wrapped around his skull.
‘Ouch,’ he moaned.
‘Oh! You’re awake!’ said a gentle voice. ‘How are you feeling?’
Pranay turned his head and saw a female doctor smiling at him. Her almond shaped brown eyes and the mole below her left eye reminded him of someone; but perhaps his brain wasn’t working properly.
‘Better,’ he replied. ‘What happened to me?’
‘We received an emergency call and dispatched an ambulance. It picked you up and you were brought here, bleeding and skull damaged.’
‘Is it—broken?’ he asked, not wanting to know the answer.
‘No,’ smiled the doctor, ‘It’s just swollen. You should be up and about in a couple of days.’
The door of the ward clicked open and a nurse walked in, carrying an envelope in her hand. ‘Dr Rane, your report.’
‘Ah, thank you, Shweta tai!’ She unfolded the paper and ran her eyes over it, widening almost as soon as she had begun scanning it.
‘Is something wrong?’ he asked anxiously.
‘Pranay Jadhav…if you don’t mind, may I ask if you belong from Virar?’
‘Umm…yes, but why?’
‘Studied in Vidyavardhini School?’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘Remember what happened during the sports day in March 2009?’
‘Have you been reading my mind along with my reports?’
‘Don’t you recognize me?’
He did not have to answer. The doctor answered him excitedly. ‘Sonali! Sonali Rane!’
Pranay sat up with a wince. ‘Sonali?!’ his heart gave a thump. ‘You’ve become a doctor!’
‘Wow, you haven’t changed in twelve years. It took you all that time to figure that out?’
It does not take long to revive a long forgotten friendship or memory so long as your cue is near you. But then again, memory sometimes uncovers those feelings which might perhaps have been best left buried.
Pranay felt his stay in the hospital much more enjoyable than his last family trip to Goa, where he had been misguided by a native and ended up in the middle of a dense forest with absolutely no signal. Sonali would come in the evenings and they would chat of how much life had changed since they had lost contact. At times, they just remained silent, reminiscing the sweet memories of childhood.
It was the last day of Pranay’s stay in the hospital. Rain was pouring since morning. Half an hour—perhaps an hour, and then, they would lose contact again. Who knew when they would meet the next time…or if they would meet at all? Somehow, resting and staring out at the sky all day, with Sonali coming every evening had become a routine Pranay enjoyed much more than his office refreshment hour.
The latch turned and Sonali walked inside. She was wearing a blue leggings with a green top. Her hair were tied in an unorganized bun atop her head, several tresses streaming round her cheeks and eyes. She brushed her hair behind her ears and sat down on the table besides, sighing.
‘Well, how are you feeling?’
‘Not good…I mean—not not good—just a bit queasy…’
‘It’s alright, hospitalization isn’t such a pleasant experience.’
‘Can’t say its true all time,’ Pranay said, smiling. His heart rate was rapidly increasing. If Sonali decided to take his pulse, she would probably be shocked.
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘are you sure you can manage to go home by yourself?’
‘Yeah, of course. Alright. I’m fine. I’ll go.’
‘Come on then, I’ll escort you downstairs.’
Pranay entered the lift behind her. She pressed the ‘G’ button and the lift started descending. The doors opened with a ting. They stepped out and Sonali led him to the parking.
‘My car!’ Pranay exclaimed, seeing his car was clean of all visible signs of damage and appeared clean as new.
‘Yes, I took the liberty of having it cleaned and repaired. Here are your keys.’
‘You are very kind.’ He took the keys and clicked. The car beeped as it recognized the remote. Sonali turned away began walking out of the gate.
‘Are you going by taxi?’
‘Come on then, I can drop you. It’s the least I can do for all you’ve done for me.’
A soft breeze blew in through the open car window. The tall, dense trees on both sides gave off petrichor as raindrops pattered against the leaves. The windshield was waving left and right like a ballerina. The soothing music playing through the Bluetooth speakers added some much needed romance in the air.
Pranay blinked the raindrops out of his eyes but did not close the window. For some reason, he wanted those drops to drizzle on his face.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ said Sonali, gazing out of the window.
‘Yeah, you’ve always been fascinated by those sort of things.’
‘Remember our teen years, when we were still discovering who were, young and carefree? Sometimes, I get the feeling that I shouldn’t have become a doctor.’
‘It would be lovely to sit and gaze at the stars but beautiful as they are, they can’t fill your stomachs, unless you land up in ISRO or something.’
At this, both the friends burst out laughing. Sonali started shaking, her face was alight with joy and in that moment, Pranay had just opened his mouth to say something when he noticed a ring on her left finger—the ring finger.
‘What’s that ring on your finger?’ asked Pranay suddenly.
Sonali blushed. ‘A friend gave it to me.’
‘Oh,’ said Pranay, thoroughly unconvinced. He wanted to ask more, to know more, to find out the truth. But how could he do so without seeming intrusive?
Thinking better, he tried to change the topic. ‘Err…you-you remember that day when we got late returning from school during heavy rains?’
‘And I fell in the drain? Never, that’s not the kind of thing I can easily forget, thanks to the rashes I got afterwards.’
An uneasy silence fell between them. Pranay could not take his mind off that ring. In his four days at the hospital, he had never bothered to ask Sonali if someone had actually entered her life, considering the possibility ridiculous. Sonali was never the trusting type, she was horrible at making deep relationships. Their own friendship had taken years to actually feel like friendship. Then who could it have been? Who could have so entered—
‘Watch out!’ yelled Sonali, grabbing his wrist and pointing furiously at the car ahead. The sedan was zigzagging across the highway. Either something was seriously wrong with the driver or some sort of a fight was going on there. Pranay slowed his accelerator and decided to stay behind, unlike many others.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the car turned behind. It began shooting straight towards them. The other cars began dispersing this way and that, not caring about others. All they wanted was safety.
‘Watch where you’re going!’ Pranay roared. ‘Others are trying to save their lives too!’ as he turned his car to the left, narrowly missing a Swift Dzire’s collision.
‘We should leave the car!’ Sonali screamed.
‘Great idea!’ and he tried to make his way towards a corner of the road where it seemed unlikely that the mad car would chase them. Pranay’s car screeched to a halt and Pranay hastily fumbled around for the drawer.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘Never you mind!’ Pranay forcefully pulled the drawer open and took out his wallet. He slipped it in his pocket and got out. Sonali followed his lead and stood beside him. The car was coming straight towards them with blinding lights.
Without thinking, Pranay caught Sonali’s arm and dragged her behind him, stopping only when they had left the mad car more than a few meters behind. Both of them were drenched.
Pranay leaned against the tree, his chest rising and falling in great gasps. Sonali bent down and picked up his wet wallet. Before Pranay could seize it, she had opened it and the expression on her face was impossible to read.
‘So, this is what you wanted to take with you to your death?’ she asked.
‘Look—I know you’re already engaged. It’s just I’ve always appreciated you and your—’
Sonali slid a chain out her top and showed a faded silver ring with ‘Best friend’ embedded in the center.
‘You—I mean, really? You still have it with you?’
‘You’re not the only person who can feel.’
‘I hope you saw the photo beside too. She’s my…wife. She’s very affectionate.’
‘This ring is from Parth, my fiancé. I still had no idea I mattered so much to you!’
‘You always have. And you always will—as a friend, my best friend.’
‘So will you.’
A warmth spread around Pranay’s heart, despite the chilling wind and rain. He spread his arms out in joy and began dancing. Sonali grinned and joined him, just like they had done so many years ago while returning home from school.