We’re crouched in a hollow by a bush. The air is abuzz with mosquitoes. My grimy ankles touch Ankur’s grimy toes. Ankur is hitting Akash. He’s an idiot.
“What’s your problem, supandi?”
“Can you be quiet for one minute?” I whisper as loudly as I can.
Ankur is a second grader and he’s not serious enough to play with us. He ignores me completely and tightens his fist for another assault on Akash’s hand. The fist lands squarely on his arm. Even in the darkness, I can feel it redden. Ankur cannot control his laughter and I cannot stop myself from slapping him. Akash steps between us. The turbulence gives us away. We’ve lost the game.
Ankur pinches Akash again. “Why do you let me do this?”
Akash grabs him by the neck. Ankur’s wild joy knows no bounds. He keeps laughing. “Ha? Why do you let me hit you like that?”
Akash pinches his cheeks and says, “Because I know you don’t mean it, idiot!”
I am ticklish and no one knows this better than Akash and Varun. I can’t run as fast as they do but they keep chasing me slowly. They’re playing with me like a cruel cat plays with a hapless toy. Just because no one showed up to play cricket because it’s summer holidays and no-one’s home. I run the length of the dry field, I run past the huge mango tree, I cross the dry stream, I am climbing a trail up a hillock, towards a water tank where we never go because it’s haunted. They’re playing a game and (I suppose) so am I.
They speed up and catch hold of me. I fall to the ground overestimating the softness of the sparse dry grass. I shriek. They settle beside me.
“You’re quite a runner – you just don’t like to run, don’t you?”
I don’t want to talk to them. The town looks beautiful from up here. I can see all the hillocks and the taller range of hills behind them.
“Who’s coming to the water tank with me?” I ask.
“I can’t do it” My echoes agree with me.
“You can, I’ll be here for you. Just do it.”
I step my right foot in the water. The laterite floor is slimy. I’m positive there are at least a dozen snakes lurking in this murky water.
“It’s easy, idiot, it’s so much fun over here”
I know it isn’t fun. I know I would sink to the bottom of this lake. I am pretty sure I won’t die. Someone would save me. There are priests in the temple and other people in the temple office nearby. I just don’t want to drown.
Akash dives in the water again with his back to me, disappears for a moment too long before reappearing near a fallen frond.
“Come over here please” he yells, looking at the sky.
I jump before I can think or worry. I swim. I keep swimming. My arms are tired and weak but there’s no way but forward. I keep swimming until the coconut trees on the other side grow taller. I keep swimming until I see sunlight on the moldy stone steps underwater. I emerge on the other side, panting. He’s not in sight until I hear him yell, from the other side:
“Come over here please!”
We keep running from one side of the train to another fighting to find a place by the window. When the train lunges into a tunnel, we scream. Akash points to a needle-like mountain. He raises his elbow in the shape of the mountain and says, “So steep”
“We should go climb this hill sometime, what do you think?”
Not only am I the worst climber in the group, I’m equally terrified of climbing down a slope. I nod. The air is cool and the sky has a hint of purple in it. I nod again.
No one wants me in their team. I missed an easy yet crucial catch because I was looking at my toes and at the blades of grass and at a certain yellow butterfly that had landed on one of them in the distance. We reconvene on the abandoned road that is our makeshift cricket pitch.
Rahul says, “We’re not having you again on our team.” I get him. We could have won if I had been a little more into the game. I mean, they could have won.
They decide to play another game. Akash calls me in his team.
“Why don’t you be a wicket keeper?”
“I don’t know how to do any of that”
“You don’t need to”
“I can be the umpire” I offer.
“You don’t know the rules”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Just stay here right here, will you?” he marks a circle with the tip of his bat. “Right here”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
He hits a pebble off the road.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I repeat.
“I don’t know” he says as though he really doesn’t know.
“You could have told us” I say. “You could have”
We’re outside his apartment now. His mom is at the balcony on the third floor. She calls us all up. We wash our legs in their bathroom. He goes into the bedroom.
“He could have told us.” I say to Varun who’s now busy playing RoadRash. “Don’t you think so?” He doesn’t respond.
Next day, they’d be gone. Their apartment would be empty. He wouldn’t come to play with us. He won’t come to school. He won’t be there during interval. He won’t be around for days. Weeks. Months. Years.
Later that night, my dad talks to me about it.
“You’ll be fine before you know it, you’ll get busy at school and then at college, you’ll be fine”
“I am fine” I roll my eyes. You don’t get it, please.
I can’t believe he smokes. In fact, I do but I can’t stand it. I’ve met him often enough to know he isn’t the same person anymore.
“No one is the same person anymore” Varun is always wise. I don’t know what to say.
I look around at his room. Everything is everywhere and there’s little of it. Few books. Few clothes. Few gadgets. Few paper rolls.
Akash comes back with a box of biryani in a white polythene bag.
Later that night, we walk farther and farther away from their hostel on a desolate moor with his friends.
“They’re all a bunch of junkies” I mutter. Varun agrees. They sit in a circle that begins and ends with him. They’re his disciples. He sits on a black rock and speaks metaphysics with native fluency.
“Bullshit” I say to Varun next day who’s going gaga over his ‘genius insights’.
“But he looks all sorted out, like he’s one with nature,” he says, “You know what I mean?”
Hyderabad is a city straight out of Arabian Nights. I can’t believe I’m with Akash and that he’s so emaciated. He laughs every other minute. We don’t have much of a conversation. I am so tired that I find myself laughing. One minute he’s talking about a girl who sent him intricate pencil illustrations of her bush and next minute, he’s talking about how everyone at the university is out of their minds. “They’re animals”
The university is indeed a wild place. The long straight road that leads to a solitary cluster of buildings far away is lined with tall trees. It’s a forest that I’m pretty sure is more full of people than I can imagine.
He orders a tea at the canteen where one of his friends shows up.
“Do you still write?” he asks, “I know you used to write, a lot, a LOT” His friend looks confused.
I don’t reply because I know he’s not looking for one. His friend is bearded and I’ve already forgotten his name.
“Come with us”
We follow a winding trail out of the campus. Akash informs me that we’re still inside the campus. “It’s a huge place”
Soon, we’re on a boulder under an electricity tower with the shimmering lights of the city behind us.
I have a feeling of being here before. The bearded guy offers me a joint and I decline. “I don’t” I say.
Akash laughs but then he gets somber suddenly.
“Why not?” he asks. I look away. He will forget about it next minute. I can make out the outline of hills in the distance. I know they’re not really hills but just boulders shaped like hills. He’s still looking at me intently.
“Why not?” he asks again blowing smoke all over my face.
I push him away. The bearded friend grabs him and then pins him down on the ground.
“Look” he says, pointing to the sky, “you’re all over yourself!”
Then his bearded friend talks about going on a road-trip – the one that they had supposedly always planned. Always. Akash spreads his arms like a bird in flight. His friend outlines their itinerary.
“We’ll go to Kinnaur and then to Ladakh, on our bikes! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Akash closes his eyes and smiles as though he really means it.
It’s almost midnight when we’re near the gate. The security guards have their owlish glares upon us. He’s talking something about pasteurization and suddenly, he asks me if I’d like to come with them on the road-trip.
“You can’t say no!” he says.
“You’re wasted. You’re a piece of shit. Just keep quiet and keep walking!”
I book a cab while he plonks down on the tar road. I realize that I don’t have any cash.
“Do you have any cash?” I ask him before lifting him up and checking his wallet knowing all too well that I’d be disappointed. There’s an ATM right round the corner.
I look at him. He can barely stand. I keep his wallet with me and say, “Just stay right here”
“Right here” I mark a circle with my feet around him. It feels like an old ritual. He is smiling and I know it’s chillum but I wonder for a moment where we are and what we’re doing and how I would remember this moment years later. I want to. I always have.