Contemporary Desi Friendship

A Piece of Cake

“Are you coming tonight?” Pratap asked.

“No, I am not coming. You know I don’t’ like parties; certainly not your type of parties.”

“Ok, man. Suit yourself. But you are missing a lot of fun.”

I sighed, as I replaced the receiver. I wondered why he persisted in calling me every time he was either hosting or going to a party. He knew very well that I was not very fond of the sort of people he mixed with.

Pratap and I were class fellows and were good friends, despite the vast difference in our family background and temperaments. He was the only child of very rich parents, while I was one of the four siblings in a humble, middle-class family. His family owned a brewery and had made a fortune. They lived in a big mansion, called 'Sakaria House’. ‘They also owned several other properties in the town; in fact, we were also tenants in one of their properties. The family was also one of the very few families in town that owned cars, while we did not have anything except a bicycle which was mainly used by my father for going to the school where he was a teacher. And while I walked to the college he would come in a car, driving it himself. “We have a driver, but I like driving,” he used to say, lest the fellow students should think that his family could not afford a chauffeur.

Our temperaments also differed dramatically. I was serious about my studies and almost always topped the class, while Pratap was very casual. He did not even come to the college every day and whenever he came it was a big event. He would not go to the classroom but stand in the college quadrangle, surrounded by his admirers and hangers-on. These included a fair sprinkling of girls and he used to flirt outrageously with some of them. Most of those were part of this throng and were also in his parties. Being very rich he often held parties, where frequently there was drinking ---which in those days was taboo in most of the families. He would often admonish me, saying, “All your studies will not lead you anywhere; look at me, I am enjoying life, and later on I will be doing much better than you studious blokes. Life is a piece of cake, my friend; you have to enjoy it before it becomes stale.” I had no reply; I would just keep quiet and give him a feeble smile.

             When one is young, time passes very quickly. Before we realized it, the time to leave college was at hand. I passed with honours in science while Pratap barely scraped through, though this did not perturb him. “Our family”, he used to say “has enough money to take care of the next seven generations; I don’t have to worry about securing a First class or Honours or go job hunting.” I had in the meantime secured admission to an engineering college in Kolkata and soon left. Pratap came to the station to see me off and we promised to write to each other. Those were the days when mobiles had not yet come and even landline phones were not available to all.

I soon settled in my new environment. The curriculum of an engineering degree is very heavy and I found that with the classes, the workshop for practical work and exams, I had very little time to spare. I did receive a couple of letters from Pratap, and did reply to them, but the next two letters from him remained un-replied. Soon, I stopped receiving any letter from him. Life for me ---as for all students at the engineering college---was very busy and none of us had time for social interactions. I in particular needed to take my studies very seriously because of my family circumstances; my family expected me to become an engineer and get a job so that the meagre family income could be supplemented.

Fortunately, I passed my examination with flying colours and was picked up by a large multinational engineering company for its management cadre. I made rapid progress there, and before long the company sent me on a three-year assignment to Germany. Coming back to India on the completion of my assignment, I was made to go through different assignments at different locations. I am now nearly fifty years old and am the General Manager, Operations, in the company's plant at Delhi.

Our company has lately been looking for suitable land to set up an additional manufacturing unit near Delhi. An offer was received for a large tract at the outskirts of Ramgarh and I was asked by the company to visit the site and examine its suitability. As Ramgarh is the town where I had grown up and done my school and college, I was quite excited at the prospect of a visit there, more than thirty years after I had left it. Ramgarh is not on the air map of India, so I decided to travel by morning train, a mere three hours’ journey. The train reached Ramgarh at about eleven in the morning. The station itself gave me a pleasant surprise. What was once a small wayside railway station was now a busy junction, with six shining platforms, air-conditioned waiting rooms, and a cafeteria that looked quite busy. The bookstall that used to carry Hindi comics now had Dan Browns and Roald Dahls. The chauffeur sent by the landowner was waiting for me at the platform. He saluted me smartly, picked up my bag and took me to the hotel. He told me that he had instructions to take me to the site where I would be met by the landowner and his team. I, therefore, checked in and had a quick wash and then proceeded to the site. I had a thorough inspection as also discussions with the landowner's team, at the end of which I told them that I was satisfied but the final decision would be made by my Head Office.

The whole exercise took no more than an hour and by one o’clock I was free. My return train was at six in the evening, and as I had time at my hands, I thought I’d visit Sakaria House in the vicinity of which I had spent my boyhood, and if possible try to locate my old friend Pratap. I casually asked the landowner whether he knew the house or its owners. What he told me, however, came as a big shock. He told me that the new Government which had come into power about ten years back had introduced total prohibition and as the fortune of the Sakaria family was based entirely on their brewery, their business had come to an abrupt end. They had nothing to fall back on and soon the brewery had to be sold at a huge loss. The pressure of the creditors forced them to dispose of their properties one after the other, and after they were practically penniless they decided to move to their ancestral village where at least they had a house to live in, and some farmland to provide them sustenance. He could not say what happened to their only son and whether he also shifted with them or else moved somewhere else.

This paid put to my programme of visiting Sakaria House. I went back to the hotel and, after lunch, whiled away the time in watching some inane programmes on TV. The chauffeur called me, as he had been instructed at five-thirty, and we left for the railway station. On reaching there he handed me my bag and gave me a big salute. I thanked him, and then he said,

“Sir, if you come to Ramgarh again, please give me a chance to serve you. It will be a pleasure.”

“Yes, yes, I will surely call you.”

 He scribbled his name and mobile number on a slip of paper and gave it to me. As I was in a hurry to reach the platform, I put the slip in my jacket pocket, shook hands with him and entered the station.

Soon after the train started, the ticket checker came around to check the tickets. While taking out the ticket from my pocket the slip of paper which he had given me and which had got stuck in its folds also came out and fell on the floor. After my ticket had been checked I picked up the slip and had a look at it. What I saw gave me the biggest shock of my life. The slip carried only a name, “Pratap Sakaria”, followed by a phone no. Instinctively, I looked out of the train window, but the station, the town and my friend were already a long distance away.

July 28, 2021 16:48

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