I MIGHT as well begin here, because this story is about nothing else. And even after all this time, I havenât come up with anything that would explain or reconcile it in any way, nor can I think how it might be led up to gently.
Twenty years ago, last Wednesday, a friend of mine took his own life. He was supposed to be studying for his board exams, that were four weeks away. So his door being shut, and the long period of silence, werenât noticed as especially unusual. But when his mother got no response to her repeated calls for lunch, and then found the door to be padlocked, the building watchman had to be summoned to break it down. He was hanging from the fan, Iâve been told. This everyone knows.
What very few found out, however, was that he had been dressed unusually, in a salwar suit belonging to his sister. When the police arrived, they authorised (in fact, the understanding inspector himself advised) a quick change of clothes, back into his jeans and T-shirt, before the body was removed. The watchman was threatened with scary consequences: any leak would be attributed by the police directly to him.
ALL THIS has been buzzing in my head especially loud the last few weeks, ever since I decided to pay his mother a visit for the first time since the tragedy. I had been kept away at the time because everyone in the family came up with excellent reasons for doing so, to spare me some of the trauma, and to shield me as much as possible from any inadvertent influence of the âevil eyeâ. They reasoned that since weâd been so close in age, and such good friends, his parents couldnât but resent on some level my continuing existence. Perhaps theyâd also hold against me a failure to notice any danger signs. Besides, it had been an especially auspicious time for me, incongruously so, because I was to fly out to the US on a full scholarship soon after those same board exams. I would be eighteen and alone, so far from home, all-too-vulnerable to any curse or ill-will. So, taking everything into account, I was kept from visiting their flat in the days after the death, and forbidden to attend the funeral.
Which make my last significant memories of Avinash those from the end-of-term excursion, where the âcondemnedâ â as we felt then, about to be placed before one firing squad after another (board exams, followed by engineering-college entrance exams, medical entrance exams, law exams: âif law doesnât get you, dentistry mustâ) â are encouraged to ignore whatâs looming, and somehow frolic without a care one last time. Thatâs how weâd thought of it, but the metaphor seems in poor taste now. Still, another reason to live it up had been that we would never again gather under the banner of the class of â87, at least not as eighteen-year-olds.
What are the few images that remain from that trip? Walking around with loaded rucksacks stuffed with beer, and explaining to Mrs Sabarwal âYes, Miss, we felt too much anxiety, so we decided to bring all our textbooks along in case we could squeeze in some time to study. I know, Miss, weâll do our best to have some fun, but itâs the thought of our entire future at stakeâ. And then, on the way back, the bus coming down the hill, and somehow ten of us ended up piled high in the aisle in a rugby-style scrum, me somewhere near the top, Avinash even higher, touching the roof, spilling into the driverâs front cab, the view of the woods and winding road through the windshield taking on a spinning quality as if we were on a ride in an amusement park, until the driver had to stop and order us to disentangle, because he was presumably worried about the centre of gravity of the bus. Not that he would have phrased it quite so, but we assured him that everything would be perfectly safe, because we were looking after the physics of the situation, and that he might not be aware of it, but he was transporting a contingent of the countryâs finest future scientists.
Earlier that morning, I remember the last of the football games against the village boys, played unbelievably up and down that steep stony alley, ten feet wide, wall to one side, huts to another, shallow drain running through the middle. The key to winning was to score as often as possible during the half when you ran downhill; and the narrowness of the alley, the deft rebounds made possible by the walls and the huts, and the incredible fitness levels of our local rivals, made the matches addictive. We won two games out of five, played over three afternoons, and felt entirely satisfied with our overall away performance. We would put everything right on the plains if ever there was a rematch; there was no way their lungs could handle the enriched diet of carbon monoxide on our home turf.
After the scrum had reluctantly disbanded, but not before being treated to a wonderful solo performance of âGhatiâ swearing from the hapless driver (original, never-encountered gems we would ourselves gleefully reemploy for weeks to come), I remember spending hours pacifying an inconsolable Vandana, whose dreams of a romantic getaway with Tariq lay smashed in the dirt. It didnât help that Tariq was five rows ahead of us, obliviously chatting up the brain-deficient but chest-compensated Neha. But then I too lost my patience after five hours, just as we approached the outskirts of Bombay. To listen on an endless loop to someone complaining about being neglected as you lean in with large eyes doing your best to convey sympathy, and not once have them grasp the obvious solution to their troubles that youâre all but thrusting into their face: Screw Tariq, pick me, kiss me. So it rather took her by surprise when I got up and announced âVandana, youâre a moron, and you deserve everything that you got,â and never once spoke to her throughout the study-leave or the exams that followed.
And what is my last vivid memory of Avinash? At the ârehearsalâ exams a fortnight later (because apparently the sentenced must ârehearseâ their punishments), during the physics paper, five minutes after it had been distributed, Avinash raised his hand and asked for permission to go to the toilet. âYou didnât think about that before you came inâ, asked Mr Shahpurwala. âYes, I did, Sir,â he replied, âin fact I went just ten minutes ago. But now these questions are making me need to go again.â
Two days later we dispersed to prepare for our finals. We were nominally on five weeksâ leave, but it was a period when most of us lived like monks under the totalitarian supervision of our parents, so I didnât see Avinash for the first few days. Then I was told he had died. The extra, troubling detail about his unusual attire I learnt from his younger brother, at school, on the afternoon of the first paper, behind the middleschool building, after everyone else had left. Shail sobbed throughout as he spoke: I explained why I hadnât been able to visit, but insisted that he tell me everything, since I had a right to know, he was aware of how close weâd been, and he made me swear never ever to pass on what he had just confided.
He was only twelve, so I suppose in a way I bullied him, but I have kept my word until now â not even my mother knows any more than the official story.
IDECIDED TO visit on the Friday, because I reasoned theyâd be inundated with visitors both the actual anniversary on Wednesday as well as during the weekend. After much thought I also elected a) not to call ahead, and b) not to wear all-white kurta and pyjamas.
Instead I wore a regular brown shirt and jeans.
There was a large wide cushioned swing attached to the ceiling at the centre of the living room, and this was where Mrs Mehta sat (theyâd given up the house Iâd visited as a boy long before). The maid whoâd opened the door had no idea who I was, but I asked her to say I was an old friend of Avinashâs and Shailâs. She seemed disconcerted when I presented myself thus, and I regretted mentioning his name at all. I should have just gone with Shail.
Iâd waited for the maid to return rather than follow her in directly. I wanted to give Mrs Mehta the option of refusing to see me. But this sixth-floor flat was as well-maintained as the other place, the drapes were drawn to keep the glare off the TV screen, and Mrs Mehta on the swing â who I now realised would have been much younger than my mother when sheâd had her children â was dressed in a blue sari, and switched off the soap she and the maid on the floor had evidently been watching.
She had jade eyes, a detail I instantly recalled had captivated me whenever we met, but somehow had not recurred in decades. The maid, whoâd returned to her place in hope of not being interrupted for too long, now rose and shuffled off to fetch me water. She was young, probably not yet twenty.
All of what follows occurred in Hindi.
I explained that I was in town for two weeks, and remembering the occasion, I thought Iâd come in to see them.
She said Iâd done well.
I asked after Kavita and Shail.
âKavitaâs soon going to have her third child, and Shail is a lawyer in Bangalore.â
âThatâs wonderful news. Where does Kavita live?â
âAnd her other children?â
âBoth girls. One is fifteen, and the other thirteen.â
âIs Shail also married?â
âYeah, one son of five.â
âWow, you must be busy grandparents when they come for Diwali.â
She asked if the maid should warm some food. I refused vigorously, insisting Iâd already eaten. I added I wouldnât stay long.
âAt least have tea.â
âItâs too early for that. Donât worry about me. This waterâs enough.â
She said Iâd become very âformalâ. This was a common observation about me among relatives of a certain age. It merely implied I was abnormally obdurate about turning down offers (or extra helpings) of food. Then she asked me my news. The maid appeared and stood by the door waiting for instructions. Mrs Mehta sent her away saying this young manâs stomach is full.
âIâm a professor in California, teaching physics.â
âYou were mad about science even then,â she recalled.
âWell, at that time to be honest my parents were more keen on it. But now I enjoy it too.â
âAndâ she began.
âHave you established a family?â
I trotted out â with the appearance of nonchalance â my standard response to this query over the last fifteen years, to everyone who asked at home, and any Indian anywhere else.
âI spent so much time in the lab that I somehow forgot about all of that. But Iâm still looking. Maybe Iâll get lucky soon.â
To her credit, she was much less startled than Iâd expected, and nowhere near as vehement as some others in her disapproval.
âSo you havenât even got married. Do you live with someone? You can tell me.â
No, I half-smiled, attempting to remain serene. This is where all such conversations began to run into troughs and potholes.
âShail had girlfriends in college. He knew his wife for three years before they decided to get married. Luckily, she is Gujarati, but we had to give our blessing. And these days, everything is on TV anyway, so nothing can shock the parents.â Her rocking grew slightly more discernible, as she entered into the spirit of teasing me.
âBut there must have been girlfriends while youâve been there. While you were a student, after you started earning? What happened to them?â
She wasnât really smiling, so I couldnât be sure to what extent the baiting was innocent. The fan whirred and the swing creaked. I was glad the maid wasnât watching. But I got this line of grilling all the time, from grandparents, uncles, even strangers on planes and trains, and beyond a point, I lacked the patience. I decided to fold the visit.
âIs Mr Mehta home?â
No, he still goes to the Kalbadevi office every day. Heâll be back after six.â
âI should get going. I have a lot of people to see. I only have four more days.â
âYou didnât eat anything.â
âNext time, I promise to come at a better time, and stay longer. Will you do me a favour? Can I take down Shailâs cell number? Iâd like to give him a call.â
Her phone was right beside her, behind one of the cushions. She expertly located and read off Shailâs number, then asked if Iâd like to speak to Kavita too. I said sure, if Mrs Mehta thought she would remember me. Then I asked for her number as well. I said Iâd call before I flew off.
I wondered if I should touch her feet before leaving. In my indecision I made a hesitant move towards her and then drew back. Instead I folded my palms and left. Even I could agree that this was excessively formal.
The rest of the stay flew by doing the obligatory rounds of visits â seeing the ill, the dying, the old and the easilyoffended. There was no use my protesting, since Amma invariably reminded me this was all she asked once every three years. Besides, she griped, she didnât force me to go to the temple any more. At this point, I hastily agreed, knowing well the next ace she would throw down: how, after my âcruelâ outburst during the last trip, she had even given up arranging matrimonial viewings without my approval, in her tireless quest to introduce me to potential brides.
In this way, for my final four days nearly every mealtime was booked in advance, and often impromptu slots had to be created on the spot for a second (even third) teatime or lunch. I was repeatedly vindicated in keeping only so much energy in reserve to deal with the marriage question whenever it arose. At such junctures, Amma would fix me with a look of silent reproach, and then turn away the moment I acknowledged her. It was her way of underlining that I could be merry and carefree in California, but she had to suffer the consequences of my callousness. It wasÂ herÂ Achilles heel at every clan gathering.
I suppose none of the relatives could make up their minds about me: on the one hand, such unanimous approval of the career and its milestones, and yet, such a wilful waste of the same golden years. Perhaps they concluded â looking at my non-flammable idiot grin, my effort to grit my teeth and ride over the awkwardness with sheer mute amiability â I was slightly autistic.
For some reason, even after such sustained battering, I decided to keep my word and call Mrs Mehta before I left. To avoid interruption, I told everyone I needed to make a call to London, and then made sure by bolting my door.
Iâd picked the same hour as when I visited her, since Iâd be likely to find her alone. She asked if Iâd contacted Shail or Kavita yet. I said no, but they were on my list for that evening.
âIâm sorry if you were watching your show.â
âI watch it to keep Mala company. Anyway, the story never moves.â
âI wanted to say something that I couldnât the other day.â
She waited to hear me out.
âMrs Mehta, itâs always bothered me that I never visited you after Avinash passed away. I wanted to tell you that I still remember him as a close friend, on the day of his anniversary and at many other times.â
She must have put the programme on mute, disappointing Mala yet again. I couldnât hear a sound of affirmation.
âMy parents decided it was best I shouldnât go, because the exams were so near,â I continued.
Silence followed. I didnât say any more. My piece was complete.
âWhy didnât you say this the other day?â
âSomehow I couldnât. I still feel ashamed of it. I should have just gone to see you, no matter what my parents thought. They didnât need to know.â
âAnyway, thatâs what I wanted to tell you. Iâll go now,â I said after allowing for another longish pause.
âWe found a letter for you.â
âI did. It was in the same exercise book he was supposed to be studying.â
âIt was written to me?â This was genuinely unbelievable.
She remained silent, until I called out her name.
âHe was begging you not to go to America.â
Her voice stayed even, although the silences were getting longer. âBut he gave up after a few lines, and tore the page in half and threw it into his drawer.â
âNo one ever told me. The last time I spoke to him was after the rehearsal exams. But we didnât fight, and I promise, I never saw him whole week.â
âBut then you talked to Shail?â
At that moment, I cut the line. This woman held all the cards. It was I who was finding it difficult to breathe or keep my voice down. And yet, I had set it all up. I visited her, asked for her number, called back to say goodbye.
Amma would choose this moment to hammer on the door and insist I hear out an uncle in Malaysia who wanted to say Happy Journey and reprimand me at the same time for not flying through KL, but for once, I gratefully surrendered.
Later of course I wondered if Mr Mehta knew, and what Shail or Kavita knew. But when Iâd had a few minutes to absorb everything, set it all down in front of me and consider the likelihood one way or the other, I felt pretty sure she wouldnât have told many people, or there would have been repercussions. And I doubted she was going to begin now. She didnât think of what she knew as a âcardâ.
And the more I turn things over in my mind, last night, later again on the plane to Hong Kong, and now while I wait at the airport to board my flight back home, the more certain I feel about this.
Rajorshi Chakraborti (born 1977) is an Edinburgh-based novelist and academic. He grew up in Kolkata and Mumbai, and attended the University of Edinburgh, where he completed his doctoral studies in African and Indian Literature. Chakraborti is the great grandson of the Bengali writer Hemendrakumar Roy. Chakraborti’s first novel, Or the Day Seizes You, was shortlisted for the Hutch-Crossword prize in 2006. His second novel, Derangements, was published in July 2008. He teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.