Naman Das was 20 years old, tall, gangly, stiff and shy. In fact, in college, I never noticed him for more than two years, although he was my classmate and I must have seen him for over a hundred times. Actually, I never noticed him till that day at the bus-stand, just a few weeks before our final exams.
I was waiting for the eight-thirty bus, which dropped me right in front of my college. The day was unusually hot, and the buses were running late. As the line grew longer, everyone became more impatient and irritable. Out of the blue, a man elbowed his way to the front, saying that he had an important meeting at his office, and needed to catch the first bus to arrive. The person at the head of the line refused to let him take his place. They started shouting at each other and some of the others joined in. Fascinated, I watched my first public brawl, hoping that it would last till the bus arrived.
Suddenly, I noticed a bespectacled boy, about my age, his arms crossed in front of his narrow chest, leaning casually against the pillar. Like me, he too was watching the scuffle, but his long oval face was completely impassive. It reminded me of a newly white-washed wall. I was stunned and I was curious. Why no expression? What kept him so aloof, so indifferent? I imagined that even if one was not a typical teenager, hungry for violence and excitement, one would at least betray some interest. But this absolute lack of emotion was intriguing. (Later of course, I learnt that this was just a façade, and actually he had been as enthralled as me, or maybe even more.)
I was about to approach him, when my bus arrived. Thankfully, he got on the same bus. Pushing my way through, I managed to secure a seat next to him.
“Hello!” I greeted him cheerfully.
“Hello,” he said, with a slight nod, looking out of the window.
“My name’s Prashant.” He nodded, but did not say a word.
I had to try again. “What’s yours?”
“Naman.” He turned back to the window, clearly discouraging any further conversation. But I was stubborn too.
“Where are you going? I mean which college?”
“St. Xavier’s.” He responded, his hands combing the short silky black hair.
“Oh, I am going there too. Which year?”
“Bsc, final year,” came the grudging reply. “I study in the same class as you.”
I was surprised and more than a little ashamed. How did he recognise me? And I did not!
“Sorry, but I do not know you. Have we met before? Exchanged notes?”
“No. But who doesn’t know the best student of the class?”
I caught a hint of sarcasm there, but decided to ignore it. Something within urged me to get to know him better. It was a strong intuition. Even now, twenty years later, I can’t explain it. But I clearly remember that day, as if it was just yesterday. That day was the beginning of a rare friendship; a friendship which I have never forgotten, although it lasted only three months.
Of my numerous memories of him, some stand out like beacons, highlighting the moments that were most precious. Naman was different from other teenagers, because he had the ability to seem and sometimes to be completely detached. He rarely spent time chatting with others, never asked any prying questions, nor expressed any curiosity. He seemed to love being alone. Actually he did not trust anyone because he was constantly afraid that one day his secrets will be exposed and he will become a laughingstock. So he did not have any friends.
But right from the beginning, we clicked. I do not how or why, but he seemed to accept me and enjoy my company. Sometimes, he even made an effort to converse, but only in the bus, never at the college. There he always behaved as if we were strangers. I never attempted to break the barrier, for I believed that given time he would come out of his shell.
I learnt that he had lost his parents, and lived with his uncle’s family. From his occasional references and tone, I gathered that it wasn’t a happy household. Perhaps that was why he kept himself under such a tight leash. He always wore plain, slightly faded shirts and long pants, the latter were sometimes short by a few inches. He loved reading, and had devoured many classics. Although extremely intelligent, he had trouble with his studies. I remember asking him once about it, but he merely said, “I don’t know. Perhaps, I can’t study.” To me, those words revealed a wealth of hurt, but I didn’t dare contradict. For our relationship was still too fragile to survive such arguments. Throughout his growing years he had always been negatively compared to the best students of his class, resulting in a total lack of self-esteem.
One day, I heard two boys invite him to participate in the annual class quiz. Politely he refused. Jeering, they asked him if he was afraid to reveal his stupidity. They teased him endlessly about his average marks and lack of commitment. Naman simply ignored them. I strode up to them, intending to have it out with the others. But Naman simply shook his head and walked off. Afterwards he told me, “It is foolish to argue with such people. It is also a waste of time. I have no control on their thoughts or feelings. It is their problem. Let them think what they like. I am not bothered at all.”
“But why didn’t you let me speak to them. At least they may not disturb you again.” I asked perturbed.
“Will you be there with me all my life?” I was silent. He smiled in self-derision, “No.” He paused, then continued, “There are some things which cannot be helped, some others that have to be ignored, and for some issues, we have to stand up and fight. It’s a personal choice. We have to decide when to fight and when to keep quiet. Otherwise we will become too dependent on other people to ever rise to independence.”
That was Naman. In his struggle to become self-reliant, he seemed to have lost all spontaneity. He never laughed out loud, nor dashed along the corridors, nor got upto crazy pranks. He was always in control. Sometimes I wondered if he was avoiding trouble in college, just to buy happiness at home. It was possible, even probable, but I never got the chance to ask him, and he never said anything.
A few days later, in the bus, he asked me if I could help him prepare for the final exams. I was thrilled. Naman was fiercely proud and stubborn, and he never asked for favours. But our friendship must have been special, to allow him to make this request.
One day, he took me to his house. His room was the first one to the left, just inside the main gate and away from all the others. The small room was a complete mess. His bed was unmade and covered with myriad belongings. The tiny study table was laden with books.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “I had no time to arrange everything.”
From that I gathered that no one came to his room to clean it. He was left much to his own devices. He closed the door and we started working. But Naman was distracted. He kept glancing at the door, as if waiting for someone to arrive. Sure enough, one of his cousins burst in, and stopped abruptly when he saw me.
“Who is he?” he asked roughly. The intruder must been about 14 years old.
“Why do you want to know?” Naman coolly replied.
“Because this is my house. Who is he?”
“Why didn’t you ask my mother if you could bring a friend home?” He continued, still standing next to the door.
“Why should I? I am not disturbing anyone.”
“But you have to. Just like us. I will complain to Ma. Then you will be punished.” With that, he smiled mockingly, and ran away. I could hear him yell for his mother, but there was no instant reply.
Without a word, Naman turned back to his book. But I was worried.
“Should I leave?” I asked tentatively.
“Of course not.” He said, forcing a smile.
“Don’t worry,” he interrupted, “This is the usual story. Every day there is a new complaint against me. Although I am their elder brother, they show little respect or love. Don’t let it bother you.” He shrugged nonchalantly.
I knew he was anything but that… “Your aunt…”
“I’ll handle it. Let’s get back to work, or we will not finish our quota today.”
After a while, I closed my book, unable to concentrate any longer. “Why don’t you come and stay with me?” I suggested.
“What?” Naman was aghast.
“Yes. Why don’t you?”
“Live at your place? You just know me for a month, and you are offering me a place to stay? At your own home?”
“Yes, why not? You are a friend. You aren’t happy here, so I am offering an alternative. Why are you so astonished?”
“Because up till now, no one has shown me such kindness or faith!!! You must be crazy. You hardly know me.”
“Of course I know you. And I am not mad. I am absolutely serious. Think about it. This is an option. My parents will welcome you. They always wanted another son. You will have a room of your own, because our house is pretty large. You don’t have to feel obligated. In future, once you have established yourself, you can always pay me back. If you wish to do so, that is… I don’t need the money, but I do not want you to think that I am offering charity.”
Naman jumped out of bed, and walked around agitatedly. Before I could say anything more, he blurted, “Thank you. Thank you very much. It means a great deal to me. Thank you for the offer. I’ll think about it.”
He smiled. It was the first time I saw him smile so openly, with considerable charm. We continued to chat on various topics, and gradually he revealed many of his secrets. I realized that until now, he felt safe only in solitude. He never had a true friend, and was unused to the attention or the affection. It was beyond his imagination that people would gladly share their homes with him or believe him to be worthy of their trust.
His revelations helped me to understand his natural reticence and suppressed fears. His aversion to speaking to me in college sprang from the fear of being labeled a toad eater, seeking the company of someone only if he needed them. He was most at ease in places where no one knew him or me. Moreover he was used to being away from the public eye, since he did not want to invite rejections. He had enough of that at home, where he was as neglected as one would a street dog. The only one who had shown him some kindness was his uncle, but the latter hadn’t much say in a household ruled by his wife. So he had learnt to be self-sufficient and skilled at hiding his emotions.
At first glance, Naman was just like any of us, much quieter and certainly more capable of indifference. But if one got close to him, one would realize his infinite capacity to love and cherish. He was possessive too. In truth, for those who had gained his trust, he would be the most loyal and devoted friend. For others he had a perfect shield in place, which kept them far, far away from his heart.
He had taught me many valuable lessons, such as the ability to face the world upfront, to accept some bitter truths and then get on with life without complaining, and to always look beneath the surface before making a judgement. In my inner eye, I can still see our last conversation. At that time, I did not know that I would never see him again. I could not accept the fact that he could leave me without saying a proper good-bye. I could not admit to myself that he could so easily break away from our friendship. But twenty years later, I have finally understood the true meaning of his parting words…
We met at our favourite snack bar two days after graduation, and Naman said, “Prashant, I want to tell you something honestly, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your love and friendship. You have made me feel worthy of respect and appreciation. Now I know that I deserve a better life than the one I am leading presently. And that I can make it happen. Thank you for everything.”
He got up, shook hands, gave a quick hug and left without a second glance. I never saw him again. He never got in touch. But I am sure that, through the years, he hasn’t forgotten, just like I haven’t. For it had not been a betrayal of friendship, but a turning point in life. Our friendship had given birth to a new Naman Das, who needed the freedom to grow and spread his wings. I needed to move ahead and make my own choices, keeping in mind all that he had taught me.
It had been and still is a unique friendship.