It was very unusual for Jai to get so angry. Fists clenched, breath coming in sharp and jaws drawn tight; in ten years of marriage, Suhashini had never seen him so angry. He wasn’t the type who screamed or even raised his voice. But today he was fuming. All because of a Facebook profile, which she created without his knowledge. He found out and hell broke loose.
“You know how much I dislike social networking sites. I’m uncomfortable leaving behind digital footprints.”
“I don’t like being the quintessential fish in the glass bowl” Jai always said when asked why he wasn't on Facebook.
Suhashini, his friends and colleagues teased him about being conservative. Many coaxed him but nothing or no one could convince Jai otherwise.
She didn't anticipate such an angry response. In ten years of marriage, he had never spoken to her the way he did that day.
“What’s the big deal?” she asked. “Why are you so mad at such a trivial thing?” He didn't speak to her for 3 days, till she deleted his profile.
Jai felt miserable shouting at her. He wasn’t like that at all. But how could he tell her why he stayed away from such sites? Everyone visited these sites to reconnect with old friends. People from their past and relive the bygone days.
"The past is what I don’t want to remember. I've worked so hard to erase that past and make a life for myself.
From a penniless orphan who depended on aid to study; he became a successful investment banker. Lived in a plush condo in an elite NY neighbourhood. Married an artist and had adorable twin boys. Everyone loved Jai; friendly, helpful and generally great to be around with.
‘You’re the perfect man,’ his friends often said. He smiled. Suhashini swelled with pride every time she heard the comment. But sometimes she noticed a shadow of a faraway look on his face. Only momentarily. She asked him about it but he laughed it away changing the topic.
Couple of days after the debacle of Facebook profile and its subsequent removal, Jai was packing his bags for London. For a crucial meeting with a prospective client.
“This is a make or break deal for me and for the company,” he said neatly folding his shirts.
“I need to swing it my way.”
Suhashini sat aside watching him. Fiercely independent, Jai liked doing his own things and didn’t care for any interference. She knew better than to get in his way.
He got to the airport on time. Not a man who liked being late or rushed in after the last call.
Finding a corner sofa in the lounge, he began working on his lap top, engrossed. He didn’t see the man in the crumpled suit enter. In fact he didn’t even respond at first when asked, ‘Is the chair taken?’ When the question was repeated, with irritation writ large on his face, Jai looked up. And froze.
So did the man in the crumpled suit.
‘I’ll be damned,’ the man sat down with a thud.
Jai couldn’t breathe. Walls began to close around him.
‘So...how are you buddy...ghost from the past or have you forgotten your room mate, Ashok?’
Jai looked at his friend, ‘ASS’. Ashok Sen Sharma. The boy, whose mother insisted that her maiden surname be part of his name thus leaving the hapless Ashok with the initials and the nickname.
Ass looked nothing like he did in school. But then two decades is a long time. The lean, scrawny lad now had a generous pot belly. His face puffy and red. Time changes all but traces of the older persona remain. Ass smiled and Jai winced remembering his old friend’s smile. Very few people have smiling eyes. Ass was one of them. Warm, from the heart; his smile always lit up his face. That hadn’t changed. And his sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. His clothes were carelessly thrown over his body. Ass never cared for appearance.
Jai wanted to disappear, vanish. Just get up and leave. But sat frozen on the seat. Ass began chatting merrily, as if nothing had happened. Visibly excited on meeting his long lost school friend.
“So what do you do, man? I have tried so hard to find you. We all have but you just disappeared. No one knew where you were.”
Jai couldn’t hear him. He was far away. At school. The expensive, elite Oakdale boarding school. He secured a grand scholarship after gruelling tests and interviews. How else could a destitute orphan pay such fees? Father D’Souza, on whose doorstep he was left wrapped in an expensive Turkish towel, loved him like a son. Father named him Jai, meaning victory and tutored him for the hard scholarship exam at Oakdale. He always said: “Jai, you are made for great things. Your intelligence is God’s gift to you. Use it well. Make a life for yourself.”
Ten beautiful years of his life were spent in that school. A friendly and intelligent boy, Jai was popular with students and teachers alike. Witty and always smiling; it was difficult not to like him. While he had many friends, his best friends were Vinod, Ashok and of course Sunny. With whom he chatted, studied, played and lived for ten years. They were his life, especially Sunny. He was closest to Sunny; loved him more than anything in life.
And he betrayed his best friend.
It was the last year of school. Before the State board exams, the school held a mock-board exam to test the students’ preparation and also weed out those who weren't well prepared.
Jai knew he needed to top in the whole State to get the prestigious scholarship, which would fund his studies in the premier college. He had studied very hard and was sure of good marks.
Sunny and Vinod flunked in Math throughout the year. Suresh Sir, who taught Maths, was livid.
“You are the worst students of this batch,” he had thundered.
“If you don’t pass the mock tests, neither of you will be allowed to sit for the board exam.”
The Headmaster agreed. He summoned the boys and said, “I know your fathers. They are big donors to the school trust. But if you don’t secure pass marks in Math and Science, I’ll disallow both of you from taking the class XII board exams. I will not have a student of my school fail a public exam and bring shame to my school. Your fathers’ money will not change my decision.”
Jai tried to help but Sunny kept saying, “You worry too much. Headmaster wouldn’t do a thing. My dad always gets his way. And don’t worry I will pass the tests.”
Jai wondered what Sunny had in mind. But he was too busy with his own preparation to notice.
He would never forget that fateful day. It was dark and cloudy since morning; threatening to rain. Next day the mock tests would commence. An air of gloom hung over the seniors' hostel. It was late evening.
Ashok came dashing into the room, panting. “Jai! You have to stop Sunny and Vinod. They’ve gone to Suresh Sir’s room to steal the Math and science question paper.”
Ashok could barely speak. Jai stood up with a jerk. The chair fell behind him. “What! What are you saying Ass?
Ass nodded his head and collapsed on the bed. ‘Only you can stop Sunny. Please stop him before he...” Jai ran out. Dashing and jumping down the stairs. He had to reach Suresh Sir’s room before Sunny got in.
But he wasn’t fast enough. As he neared the room, he saw his friends coming out. “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” hissed Jai.
Sunny’s face froze on seeing his best friend. “What the hell are you doing here? Why are you here? Get out of my way!” growled Sunny.
Vinod added, “Jai, this doesn’t concern you. Go back.”
“No! I’m not going anywhere till you put that paper back,” Jai said.
Sunny and he were now pulling and pushing each other. Vinod also joined in.
‘Guys! If you don’t stop we’ll all get caught and expelled. Please stop,” Vinod whined.
But Sunny and Jai were jostling. Jai got hold of the exam paper and a big chunk tore away in his hands. Sunny grabbed Jai’s T-shirt and pushed him hard.
“Get out of my way. I’m not letting that Suresh flunk me,” he said. Jai fell down on the floor. Sunny and Vinod darted out of the room.
But they had made enough noise to alert the warden, who came rushing into the room. Jai was caught with a piece of the exam paper in his hands in Suresh Sir’s room. The headmaster and Suresh sir were summoned.
“I can’t believe you would do something like this, son. You are a brilliant student,” headmaster said.
Suresh sir sat on a chair nearby holding his head.
“You are the best student I ever had, Jai.”
The warden said, “Sir, I am certain I saw two boys running out of the room when I came in.”
The headmaster put his hand on Jai’s shoulder and said, “I know you didn’t do this. I also know that you know who they are. Tell me their names and you can go.”
Jai felt dizzy. How could he name his best friends? How could he betray them?
“It isn’t fair”, he thought to himself. “I haven’t even done anything. I wanted to stop them from committing a crime and now I have to make a huge decision. All alone. Nobody to help.”
“Sit down, son,” the headmaster said. “Let me show you something,” he continued. He read out the glowing recommendation he had written for Jai. The recommendation, along with the excellent marks, that Jai was sure to get in the exam, would earn him a scholarship to go to the college of his choice.
“I know life hasn’t been easy for you. Neither has it been fair. You’ve had to work hard. What I have in my hand can make your future. You can make a brilliant life for yourself. A life you richly deserve.” The headmaster paused, looking at Jai, who had tears in his eyes.
He could see the future, he had so often dreamt of. Only this time it seemed to be fading away.
“Son, the boys who stole the exam paper aren’t worthy of being protected. They don’t deserve to be in this great institute. They have committed a grave crime and should be punished. If you stand by silently, you become party to their crime and hence deserve to be punished too.”
“I know who stole the paper. And believe me, this incident wouldn’t even be a minor bump in their lives. Their rich fathers would bail them out. But for you...I don’t need to say how important the scholarship is.”
‘This is the last and final call for the passengers on flight...’ Jai jerked out of his thoughts.
“You going to London too?”, Ass asked. They boarded the flight together. Ass hadn’t mentioned Sunny or Vinod even once. Jai couldn’t ask. Ass said, “We are meeting for dinner tomorrow evening. Why don’t you come?”
“Three of us – Vinod, Sunny and myself. We are all in London. The inseparable four would be together. I’d love to see their faces when you walk in.”
Jai mumbled some excuse about being tied up, important meetings lined up that he couldn’t reschedule. Ass pushed a slip of paper with the name of the restaurant scribbled on it and said, “Try to come, buddy. It would be great.” As he got into his cab at Heathrow, Jai realized that he hadn’t even taken Ass’s mobile number.
“What kind of a friend am I? I meet my school buddy after two decades and don’t even take his number.”
He had asked himself the question a million times in the last twenty years. ‘What kind of a friend was he?’ And every time he got the same answer.
‘A terrible kind. The kind who betrays his best friend for a scholarship. A scholarship that made my life.’
He had to fight hard to focus on work. The meetings went smoothly. The deal was clinched. His boss was ecstatic.
All through, a quiet voice in his mind was murmuring. “How long will you keep running? Isn’t two decades long enough?”
“But what will I say to them? How can I explain what the scholarship meant to me? Will Sunny understand? What if they ridicule me?”
He was in turmoil. Questions and more questions to which he had no answer. Part of him desperately wanted to go and meet his old buddies. But then ... Once he decided he wouldn’t go. Then after a while, that feeble voice in mind said, “Go Jai. Go. Face your friends. Tell them what you feel and be rid of the guilt that’s plagued you for two decades. Go.” The feeble voice was getting stronger and louder.
He was a nervous wreck as he told the cab driver the address of the restaurant. He was shifting in the seat. Anxiously looking out of the window. He got off near the restaurant. He wanted to walk in the cool evening air to clear his head and calm his heart.
“How will the evening turn out? Am I making a mistake? May be I should return.”
“Don’t. Don’t run away Jai. Today if you run away, you’ll never be able to face your past,” the voice in him screamed.
Taking a deep breath, he entered the restaurant. Friday night in downtown London is party time. Every table was full. Excited happy voices drowning everything else. Everyone was happy. Everyone was there with their friends.
Jai was looking around nervously. He couldn’t see his friends.
“Jai?” a voice called.
He turned towards it. A tall bespectacled man in a fine suit was looking at him.
“Umm...I..,” Jai couldn’t find the words. His voice was lost.
The man hurriedly walked towards Jai. Held his shoulders. Looked at him long and hard. And then threw his arms around him and hugged him tight.
Jai hugged Sunny back.