Be slow in choosing a friend but slower in changing him.
Friend, frend ,n . One loving or attached to another; an intimate acquaintance: a favourer, well-wisher: one of a society so named; a relative.
Friends, to me, are the most important people in life. One might think, but isn’t that position of utmost importance in life accorded to one’s family? Yes, certainly. But in an era of complex relationships where grays are often shadowing the whites, family often doesn’t gain that level of intimacy. Relations within a family may fluctuate between that of love and of animosity. The bottom line is that a friend, be it among one’s kin, or not, is the one you rely on, grow up with, gain strength from.
As I begin what is perhaps a maiden venture into the realm of fiction, I dither between striking an impression of great depth and complexity, or one that is simple and pleasant. It is a rainy morning there is a nice breeze wafting through my windows, the curtains billowing gently. I choose the latter. It suits the weather, it suits my mood.
A story of four friends. How simplistic! And, such an obvious theme for an amateur. But everyone needs to make a start with the juvenile and then move to grander things in life. So I chose this theme – one of the simplest, but yet significant relationships; that between friends.
It’s really quite short. An episode really, that built in my mind one idle afternoon, not so long ago. I decided to build it further, and see what I can make of it.
Poovar Island. That was the destination this year. Debashish sat back as the vehicle wound its way through the tiny lanes from Thiruvananthapuram Airport to Poovar Village. He absorbed the sounds of the market places, the hustle-bustle of the people, and smiled in content. It was a good choice. This frenzied chaos, just minutes before the divine retreat, would definitely increase their appreciation of the resort.
Minutes later, he was seated in a motorboat headed for Poovar Island, where the resort was situated. It was a quaint place, with floating cottages at the riverfront, connected to each other and the reception by a bridge. He had heard of the place through a colleague and decided that they must meet here this year. Since it was his turn to pick the place, it just made things all the more easier. The receptionist escorted him to his cottage and asked if he would like to check the other three cottages. He had been lucky to get adjacent cottages. A last minute cancellation. Manna from heaven? Well what ever it was, his gut feelings had been right. Again. This idyllic place would definitely calm their jangled nerves, and provide that peace and quiet they all thought was a priority for this rendezvous every year.
He had the day to himself. Anahita would be arriving by the evening flight and would join him for dinner. Zoya and Raoul would fly in the next morning, and wait for Riya who came in by the afternoon flight. They would be here by teatime.
He reached out for the telephone and ordered a glass of iced tea. Would Mr. Choudhary, like to try out our bar later this evening? It boasted the best of the world’s wines. Not today, thank you.
Once the drink arrived (Immediate service. He must remember to tip well when he left!), he relaxed in his private balcony. It was beautiful. The river stretched out, flanked on both sides by tall trees that gave the entire region a mysterious green glow. It was silent, except for the sound of the birds twittering at the edges of the river. He felt his nerves beginning to relax and slipped into a contented reverie.
They had all come a long way.
Anahita Oberoi, nerd, introvert, wall flower. Now working as a translator with the Indian Embassy in Paris. The quintessence of style, élan and composure.
Raoul Walter, junkie, drub addict, heading nowhere. Today he had a promising career with the Swiss Bank. Climbing the corporate ladder in leaps and bounds. Married to Zoya, a violinist, they lived on the outskirts of Zurich.
Riya Sharma, spilt brat, wanna-be socialite. A successful artist, she now lived in a sprawling apartment in Manhattan with her multi-millionaire husband and numerous domestic helpers. Dark secrets shadowed all her work, but her life had the smooth sophisticated veneer of the rich and famous.
Debashish Choudhary, pessimistic, bourgeoisie lad with big dreams. Fought his way up the social and corporate ladder to become the head of a successful Advertising Agency in Mumbai, still a dreamer…
Deb, you rat, how on earth did you manage to discover this place?
He looked up in surprise. Was it already evening? Time sure had flown past, and he hadn’t even had lunch!! He got up just as Anahita reached his chair, and enveloped her in a bear hug. It feels good to see you again babe!
Don’t you ‘babe’ me, I’m just the wallflower, remember? Laughter filled the air. Seriously, Deb this is a paradise. How did you find out about it?
Well a colleague of mine read about it in some magazine, and he honeymooned here a month back. He raved about it on his return, and I knew this had to be the place. It’s perfect isn’t it?
Oh yeah…. ideal. She smiled. Remember our first ‘rendezvous’? Back in Goa? Raoul’s ancestral bungalow?
How can I not? The shock of seeing Raoul party like he did, his dopey pals…and then that pact we signed!!
In blood no less…to ensure it lasted. What a cliché!
Well it sure proved to be effective. Didn’t it? We are still here, a decade later, meeting up every year in November, as we promised we would. Gosh I look forward to this one week, almost as soon as we part!
You too? I thought I was the only nostalgic idiot around! …So what did you all day? Uh-oh, seeing that sheepish look, Deb darling was lost in his world again! But, you know what, this time you’re justified! This place is so peaceful one would want to just sit back and relax, just do nothing but idly let thoughts slip through the mind. Like clouds flitting by or something? Hey why are you smiling?
Poetic as ever, eh Anna? He reached out and ruffled her hair affectionately. Why don’t you go change or do whatever you women do, and let’s meet up in an hour for dinner? We’ll talk then….
Getting rid of me? No, I’m just kidding. Yeah that sounds like a good plan. I’ve taken the adjacent cottage. Wait for me here at 7.30? We’ll hit the bar, or rather I will...you still don’t drink, do you?
I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain why Deb doesn’t drink. This is, I believe, a creative license, where the omniscient narrator steps in to explain some unexplained idiosyncrasies of the characters. So, as I was saying, Deb doesn’t drink. It all goes back to when his elder brother died in a hit and run accident. Pedestrians noted the license number and later it was revealed that the driver was stone drunk. Apparently he was an alcoholic and this wasn’t his first offence at the wheel. It was his first murder though. He died of cirrhosis of liver before the case could come to court. So in a melodramatic twist, Deb decided he would never touch alcohol in his life. Then he grew up, and went to Goa with Raoul and the gang; and did drink. But its not a habit and he sticks to wines. No hard liquors for him.
While I’m at it, let me also tell you ignorant readers about how these people became friends.
The four of them had bonded in the first year of college. Anahita and Riya knew each other from school days. Debashish and Anahita were lab partners for Physics, and even dated each other for a while before they realized that they weren’t exactly Romeo and Juliet. Raoul was the wild boy of the class, and a big attraction for Riya. A spoilt-brat to the core, she knew she had to have him, more so once Deb and Anna starting dating. It wouldn’t do to be the stag in their group. So she chased Raoul with all her feminine wiles. And Raoul? Well, he ran in the opposite direction. Riya was everything he didn’t want in a woman. And she got on his nerves faster than his mother. After several months of playing cat and mouse, Riya met a Mamma’s Boy more suited to her lifestyle and decided that Raoul and she could only be friends. Of course her relationship with Mamma’s Boy didn’t even survive the year. Neither did Anna and Deb’s. But the four of them had remained the best of friends ever since.
When their two years together, at college had ended they decided to take a trip to Goa. They stayed at Raoul’s ancestral bungalow and that’s when they decided that, they would stay in touch and continue to meet every year. Since that year it had been Raoul who had suggested Goa, they decided that they would choose the destinations by turn. So it was that they met up in different places for one week each year, even though they chose different paths and separated the very same year.
Debashish realized he wasn’t a scientist at heart, nor an engineer or doctor. So he switched fields and took up Literature. After graduating, he worked with an Advertising Agency for two years. He knew he had to work since his parents had taken the blow of his brother’s death hard. His father had taken voluntary retirement and now their only income was the pension they received from Air India. So he worked and saved up so that he could pursue his dreams of becoming a Graphic Designer. Once he had enough saved up, he gave the entrance exams and then, he did his Masters in Graphic Design from NID.
Anahita, too, decided that she wasn’t cut out for Science. She took up management studies, along with Raoul. After working for a year with a corporate firm, she realized that the corporate world was simply not her cup of tea. So, she decided to go with her gut instinct and began honing her language skills. She had always been excellent at picking up languages and could speak flawless English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. She had also learnt French and German, and could speak fluently in the former. She was obviously very good, for she got into the Zurich School for Translation and Interpretation, on a full scholarship. That’s where she met Zoya.
Zoya was her roommate and a student of music. When Raoul came to Zurich, for his job with Swiss Bank, the two of them fell head over heels in love. If there ever was a case of opposites attracting, it was this. Though Raoul had given up his wild ways and had sobered down a lot while studying management, he still had that uncontrollable streak. Zoya with her soothing music, fine tastes in the Arts, attracted him like a bee to honey (If I may use the cliché!), and before the year was out the two of them were engaged to be married. That was a big shock to all of them, for they had not expected Raoul to be the first one to be married. They hadn’t expected him to get married at all. But he did. He also stuck with the Swiss Bank job, working his way up. And was still in Zurich.
Riya. She was never sure of what she wanted to do. Her parents hadn’t expected her to do anything but be a socialite. But her friendship with the other three made her realize, that she wanted to do something else besides painting her nails and organizing parties. She continued with Science, taking up Biology. But when she failed in her second year, she decided to take a break from studies for a year. She could afford it. All along she had nurtured her talents in painting. When her mother’s friend, a renowned artist herself, praised some of her works, Riya decided that she would pursue art as a career. So she took up a yearlong course at the Ecole de Beaux Arts at Lyon, and went on to becoming an artist. She had recently married a businessman from Manhattan. Obviously, her parents had arranged the alliance.
The sun had just set and the whole river was shimmering in brilliant hues of orange, shadows of the trees dancing across the edges of the riverbanks. The birds were racing across the skies, back to their nests and the atmosphere was alive with their cries and calls. Anahita and Debashish sat back in relaxing lounge chairs, sipping their drinks, content now in just soaking in the atmosphere. Conversation wasn’t necessary when nature set out in front of you such a beautiful and awe-inspiring play of colours and sounds.
Dinner for the two of them was a mouth-watering affair. Succulent prawns and Egg Appams. Later as they lounged outside Debashish’s cottage, their conversation drifted back to the past.
Remember last year, in the tea gardens of Tezpur? Riya’s choice and boy was it delightful. That wonderful British bungalow, the lush green hills all around…
Riya! Little Miss Perfect. She would choose a British bungalow wouldn’t she? scoffed Deb.
Oh come on, Deb. Stop it! It was heavenly and you also enjoyed it. If the two of you hadn’t had that stupid spat in the end, it would have been just as idyllic as all our rendezvous over the years.
It had been quite a big showdown. Debashish, who had lost his brother when he was in school, had seen his father crumble and his mother struggle to keep a front of normalcy. Seeing Riya’s plush and comfortable life, the way doors just magically opened for her, opportunities just landed in her lap, made him feel that she was nothing but a spoilt brat. Though he now had a good job and could by no standards be classified as one who was still struggling to make a mark, the years of living in a stagnant atmosphere at home, trying not to let what seemed as a bad hand of fate pull him down had made him somewhat of a cynic. He disapproved of the rich, who had it easy, who never had to really work for what they had. Like most people he thought their acts of ‘charity’ was just a way of avoiding income tax! Or in a more sympathetic mood, a way of salving their guilty consciences!
Riya had been talking about a new charity school she was helping set-up in Mumbai. It was for the slum children and she had asked if Debashish’s advertising agency could come up with a campaign to boost their organization. They didn’t have the funds though to pay the agency. It all started with that. A small argument on charity led to Debashish calling Riya a spoilt brat and saying she didn’t fit into the group. That he tolerated her only because they had all known each other for a decade now. He had left the very next day for Mumbai, even though they were booked for two more days at the bungalow. The rendezvous had lost its flavour that year and they hadn’t even been sure if they should continue. It seemed as though things were going to unravel.
But Anahita hadn’t given up. She had a ‘never-say-die’ attitude and wouldn’t let the years of friendship go down the drain. So as soon as they all got busy with their work, she started her ‘propaganda’ – talking to each one of them, most of all to Debashish. In a few months time she had convinced everyone that friends fight and this was just one of those. There was no reason to stop their annual rendezvous! And so the bomb was temporarily defused. But obviously there was still a spark, for Debashish still carried a grudge.
You know, I’ve never understood why you always support her. You act like she’s had it as tough as the rest of us, who had to literally prove ourselves and fight our way up. Whether it was the social ladder, economic positions or our choice of careers.
With a sigh, Anna retorted, Deb, just because she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth doesn’t mean that she’s had it easy.
Oh my, the poor little rich girl? Let’s not indulge in clichés shall we?
You know what? I think it’s about time you know. Riya was dyslexic. Is dyslexic, actually. All through school and college she has struggled with the disorder. It was very bad in school and she had to undergo therapy for it. Infact it’s why she never did well academically and eventually failed in college.
You’re kidding me!
Do I look like I am? Honey this isn’t it. If you and I think we have had family problems, then I do not know what Riya’s family has. Sure you had to go through the gruesome death of your brother and your family falling apart like it did. And I had my sister-in-law who created havoc at home. But on the whole we come from pretty regular families, that function as a unit.
What are you saying? Riya’s family couldn’t get more perfect! Successful father, a mother who is pretty as a painting, two kids, those month long annual vacations in Italy! What more could one want?
Well how about parents that loved each other, as well as their kids? How about being the legitimate child of those parents?
You know why there isn’t a single of Riya’s paintings in her parent’s house? Because Riya is actually the result of an affair her father had with his secretary. The woman had a nervous breakdown when Mr. Sharma refused to marry her, and died a few years later in an asylum somewhere. Mr. Sharma was married to Riya’s ‘mother’ and they had a non-existent conjugal relation. They adopted Riya. As for her brother, he was ‘created’ in a tube. How’s that for perfection, Deb?
Oh my god. I had no idea.
Well no one does. I’m the only one who knows outside her family. And now you do. I hope you will never mention this to her, but Deb, that attitude of yours towards her has to change. I think each of us has struggled with our own demons in our own way, and reached where we are. Let’s just enjoy it? And let’s just preserve this friendship?
Reaching across to take her hand and squeeze it apologetically, Deb replied, You are right. I’m sorry. Hey, my lips are sealed on this. And I promise, I’ll make it up to her once she arrives. I’ve hardly spoken to her this past year, but it’s going to go back to the way it was once again. You have my word.
Well on that note, I’m going to go crash. It’s been a long day, what with flying in from Paris last night, then to Thiruvananthapuram and the drive up to Poovar. See you at breakfast?
Yeah. 8 am, fine with you?
Sure. Goodnight Deb. Sweet dreams!
The two of them spent the next day lazing around and unwinding. They took a leisurely trip down the river in a boat, and had yet another sumptuous meal, before a siesta! When Raoul, Zoya and Riya arrived at the resort, Anahita and Debashish were waiting for them at the reception. A round of hugs and greetings followed.
There was an awkward moment as they all hugged each other, except for Debashish and Riya. Riya looked at him with questioning eyes. Did he still think of her as the spoilt brat who didn’t fit into their group?
Then Debashish smiled and extended his arms, Hey Riya what’s the cold shoulder for? Don’t I deserve a hug too? With a smile Riya reached over and hugged him, It’s so good to see you again Deb!
There was a flurry of activity after that. Quite chaotic, really! Picking up bags, they set off towards to cottages, exclaiming with delight over the location, catching up since their last e-mails to each other… Once the new arrivals were settled into their cottages, they decided they would meet at the Bar before dinner at 8 pm.
Later, over a bottle of Chardonnay, courtesy Raoul and Zoya, there was a teasing banter about their silly frolics back in college days.
Suddenly Raoul remembered, Hey Anna, remember that silly crush you had on the Math professor?
Oh god! Will you EVER forget that?
Nopes, he said tongue-in-cheek. Let’s see now, what all did you do to impress him? I remember those huge spectacles you insisted on wearing just because he wore them too!
They all laughed, when Anahita threw water at him. Then Raoul asked curiously, Seriously, yaar, that was a crush – a temporary diversion. But after that there hasn’t been ANYONE in your life. NO romantic interest at all, and it’s not like we are getting younger! Don’t you get lonely Anna? Who was it that made you like this? Was it that guy you were so crazy about…what was his name?
We don’t need his name Raoul; it’s history. He hurt me, and I really don’t feel like rehashing a love story that went sour. And what do you mean by “this”? How am I?
Well you know – shy of love…
Oh really? Then the same applies to Deb too, doesn’t it? She smiled mischievously, as attention shifted to Debashish, who shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
Hey, wicked! Then when they all looked at him expectantly, he revealed, there is a woman actually, that I love.
Hey, Anna yelled, you’ve never mentioned this to any of us! Who is she?
Well you never know I might be nursing an itch for my first love! He winked wickedly at Anna who threw him a nasty look and stuck her tongue out…
Moving away from this nonsense, Deb continued, Riya, you know I just realised that I don’t have any of your paintings gracing my home. All of these guys do; hell I think Raoul’s office has two and their home has several. Same applies to Anna. I think it’s about time you gave me one, don’t you? So, you think you could come up with a masterpiece for my foyer?
Riya shot him a smile of undiluted happiness and got up to give him a hug. Of course. Infact I have had one in mind for ages, but was so afraid you didn’t like my work and thought it was very elitist or snobbish. That’s why I never suggested it! Infact I had got one for you last year, but after that fight we had….
Yes, that’s another thing. I think I behaved very rashly that day Riya. Truly it was very immature. I called you a snob but behaved like one myself! Forgive me?
Hey...no apologies. Water off a duck’s back! I’ve spent years with you guys. You think I’ll bear a grudge for something as silly as that? We all know that you had had more than two glasses of wine that day…it was too much for you to handle!
Raoul let out a whoop of delight at that. GO Riya!!!
Debashish shrugged in good humour and then to Riya, So now that we’ve buried that corpse. When should I expect my painting?
Oh! Well I have two waiting back in my apartment. I made them when I thought of you. I’ll call up and have my assistant send them across tomorrow itself. I’ll give him your address. They should reach by the time you are back home. Deb, I’m so glad you like my paintings after all.
As she hugged him again, Deb’s eyes met Anna’s, who too was smiling.
She had a feeling that Debashish wasn’t done for the night. There was something in his eyes.
He turned to her then, Speaking of my itch…
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a box. It was very obviously a diamond ring. So Anna, what say? I have an offer with an Ad-agency in Paris. Think you could live with me? It would have to be legal, of course. You know what bourgeoisie middle-class values I have. It makes perfect sense too – we are still single and not really seeing anyone. We don’t really want to retire with just a cat for company, do we?
Anahita shook her head. Deb, could you have sounded any more un-romantic?
Would you marry me, if I bring the stars down and add a dash of romance?
She smiled and stretched her hand out for the ring, No. I’d marry you anyway. Not because you are offering the stars, but because I do love you. Not the passionate way I loved Neel or the silly way I loved my professor. She looked at Raoul for a second before turning her attention to Debashish once again, but the steady, warm, permanent way that ever-lasting relationships are made of…
They had more to talk about, but that could wait until they were alone. For now they had to celebrate. Debashish slipped the ring onto her finger and kissed her hand tenderly, as a waiter brought in a tray of glasses filled with and discretely placed it on the table.
Zoya clinked her glass with a spoon, This calls for a toast, don’t you think so?
Raoul echoing her sentiments, added, To Deb and Anna!
Anna added, To All of Us!
To Our Circle Of Friendship!
By Geetanjali Shrivastava