Friendship East Asian

It was cold, clear morning in Boripada. The square clock that hung on the wall struck four. Everything was silent outside in the dark, starry sky.

The alarm had barely started when a firm hand pressed it shut. Footsteps echoed down the stairs in the large house. The lighter sparked and the gas shone with its blue luminescence. A sauce pan was laid on the gas as water was poured in.

Pranay Jadhav yawned and tried to edge closer to the stove as he added tea powder and began peeling ginger. As the water began heating, Pranay added the freshly squashed ginger and turned to the fridge and finding the previous day’s milk, sniffed it and poured it.

Leaving the gas on, Pranay drew his t-shirt sleeves up to his wrists and trudged towards the bathroom, his bare feet screaming at the icy floor. He squeezed the toothpaste tube with his tingling fingertips and turned to the cracked mirror on the wall.

A long, oval face with deep, determined brown eyes met his gaze. He ran his fingers through his jet-black hair and splashed cold water on his face. Gasping at the chilly water, Pranay patted his face dry with a thin, white napkin. Running his hand over his face, his eyes rested on the thin scar below his lower lip. He brushed his thumb on the scar and blinked. Remembering the tea, he turned away from the mirror and returned to the kitchen.

He turned off the gas and poured tea in a steel cup. Sipping it, he recalled that he had forgotten to add sugar. Standing on his toes and reaching for the upper racks, he found the sugar nearly empty. He shook his head and drank the tea, blowing it continually as he turned to the window behind him and clutched the latch to open it.

The sky was slowly changing hues, from the crimson glow on the horizon to the pink tint that now covered the entire sky, Pranay saw that it was still half-past four.

Fifteen minutes later, Pranay was dipping his finger in the icy water under the tap, having cut it thrice while chopping onions for his father’s breakfast: kande pohe. Coughing at the bouncing mustard seeds, he slowed the gas and rushed to the hall.

An old, nearly torn bag was lying on the sofa, where still some of his books were propped open when he had been studying them the previous night. Pranay stuffed his books in the bag, kept a small share of kande pohe in his round, steel tiffin and proceeded to the bathroom for finishing his bath.

Stepping out of the bathroom, Pranay clutched his thin towel tightly around his shoulders. Shivering slightly, he changed into his navy-blue trousers, off-white shirt and belted it with a dangling leather belt. He went to the small temple that hung on the kitchen wall, bowed his head in a silent prayer, applied a Kumkum tilak on his forehead and opened the door, his teeth chattering in the icy cold.

The old leather-strap watch he had inherited from his father now showed quarter past five. Clutching his bag tight around his shoulders, he quickened his pace and began walking, drawing his hands to his mouth or watching his breath vaporize in the air.

Pranay smiled slightly as his eyes occasionally fell on the cypress trees on either side of the road, or on the mango trees that loomed overhead with its extended branches. He paused abruptly when he approached the turn at the end of his road.

A huge banyan tree was standing in the middle of the crossroads. There was a marble pavement around it, where young and old alike liked to sit and chat, or just have tea. Its dangling aerial roots swayed in the chill December breeze as a faint red glow appeared from the behind the mountains at the edge of Pranay’s vision.

Pranay clasped the thin black thread that hung about his neck, a single sea-shell tied in it. Two words were scribbled on it in very neat handwriting:

P & S, best friends

He blinked his eyes whose vision had suddenly clouded. A cock yelled somewhere in the distance and wiping his face with his shirt sleeve, Pranay hastily turned away from the tree and continued his journey.

‘Get a grip on yourself,’ he told himself firmly, ‘she’s not going to come back after what happened at…her own house…’

He had to pass this spot countless times and every time his eyes fell on the marble pavement, he recalled all those times with his best friend: Sonali Rane when they had been kids. Her bright, almond-shaped eyes, her round face sparking with life and her head usually resting on her chin towards the sky filled his mind so brightly that almost for a second, he could hear her voice again.

‘Pranay, what do you think? Why is the sky blue during the day and why does it go all black at night? Why can I feel my heart beating in my neck?’

He clearly recalled how often they had walked to primary school together, with him always looking on the road to her always staring at the clouds. How they used to sit at the pavement and sip tea, after a hard day at school! Their friendship had grown so close that he felt her more like his sister than his real sister, Anjali.

Yet, as he walked round the familiar road, even eight years later, he had not stopped missing her; nor had he forgotten the reason she had to leave. Shaking himself out of his miserable memories, he now entered the bus stop and ascended the bus to the station.

Pranay jumped down the train, pushing his way through several other college students who had gotten down at Palghar station. He walked out of the station and began walking towards his college as the sun finally appeared in the sky.

The lectures, as usual, passed in a haze. Pranay followed his professor to the auditorium where felicitation program was arranged. At half-past eleven, Pranay wiped his forehead with a sigh as students from various colleges began pouring in.

The Chief Guest walked in to a forced applause and the audience listened to him with longing eyes. Pranay’s professor then came forward and handed the list of toppers from different colleges for Pranay to announce.

Clearing his throat nervously, Pranay approached the mike and began announcing the names. He moistened his lips and continued reading names from the colleges of Dahanu, Boisar, and moved on the Vasai and Virar. His eyes widened as they fell on a name noted in one of the colleges of Virar.

Gathering his lost voice, he called out, ‘S-sonali Rane.’

He instantly lifted his eyes to the crowd and saw the same, yet somehow different girl ascend the stage. She was wearing black leggings and a bright green kurti. She tripped on the last stair, squeezed her eyes and trudged towards the dignitaries. She accepted the award with a nervous smile and turned to go when their eyes met.

Instant recognition dawned on her face. Her eyes widened in joy and she stood rooted to the spot before another girl called her down. Pranay followed her walk to the rear section of the audience and sit down, eyes fixed on him.

The rest of program passed in swish of time. Pranay quickly descended the stage and did not even notice his professor praising him for his help. He searched his way among the audience when—

‘Pranay!’ someone clasped his arm and pulled him outside in the emptying corridor.

For a moment, neither could speak. Both of them just stood in silence, watching the changes that adulthood had brought upon the other.

Finally, Sonali breathed. ‘P-pranay, after all these years! I never expected—’

‘How are you?’ he asked in a choked voice.

Sonali blinked the tears out of her eyes. ‘Just taken admission into MBBS year 1.’

‘Congratulations, future Dr Sonali Rane!’

‘Tai—’ came a girl of about sixteen, rushing to Sonali with her phone in her hand, then, seeing Pranay, she gasped, ‘Pranay dada?! You? Here? How?!’

‘I’m guessing this is Anu,’ smirked Pranay, recalling the chatty-little girl who could never keep her mouth shut, even in life-death situations (he had tried).

‘So,’ asked Pranay, leading the way downstairs to the college campus, ‘how is life now?’

‘Beautiful,’ murmured Sonali, looking around excitedly at the trees, ‘and all thanks to you,’ she said loudly, tearing her gaze away from the sky and looking sideways at him.

‘Really, Pranay dada,’ added Anu, ‘had you not helped us leave the village that night, we wouldn’t have been studying now…we’d have been blowing smoke into stoves!’

‘Yes, Pranay, I owe you this for my entire life, without you, I wouldn’t have been here.’

‘Sonali, I—’

‘I know what happened later! Anjali told me you had to till all the lands alone for doing that after taking 300 dips in the river!’ cut in Sonali.

‘Did she—? I mean…it wasn’t—’

‘Wow!’ exclaimed Anu, forgetting their serious conversation and pointing delightedly at the college cafeteria. ‘I’ll just go and see what we can find over there!’ and she dashed off, leaving Sonali and Pranay alone.

Just as they were walking, they approached a banyan tree in the college campus with a circular pavement around it. An idea suddenly struck Pranay. He motioned for Sonali to sit down around the campus and raced to the stall outside the college gates.

When Pranay returned with two steaming tea cups in his hands, he found that Sonali had crossed her right knee over her left one and her chin was perched on her wrist, her eyes gazing at the passing clouds.

‘Take it,’ he said, just as he used to eight years ago.

Sonali jumped slightly and grinned broadly, accepting the cup as Pranay sat down beside her. They sipped it together and toasted, ‘To friendship!’

As they were preparing to leave, Sonali turned to Pranay and pressed a piece of paper in his palm. ‘I couldn’t contact these 8 years; but I’m not going to lose my best friend just because of some petty distances! Call me,’ she said, extending her hand.

Pranay shook her hand and smiled. ‘I will.’

The train horn blared and Sonali and Anu climbed in as Pranay stood and waved until the train was out of sight.

January 15, 2022 03:47

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