Friday, January 13, 2017

My First Friend

“And these are my pictures from long ago. I was a lot younger...and my mustache was just beginning to come up,” he said as if he knew me for years. 

He didn’t. In fact, he had just met me an hour ago in a roadside dhaba that I had discovered on my first day in the new city. We were sitting on the opposite sides of the same rickety table nipping raw onions from the same plate. Truck drivers smelled of booze after a long hard day of highways. Occasionally, a speeding truck passing-by too close would tow a stuffy gush of wind. But that didn’t deter me from relishing my fish and him from eating his chicken. That maddening smell of fish and the juicy meat that oozed out along with the spices was almost a transcendental experience for me. 

Perhaps that was the connection between us. I never knew. We started talking, and now, barely an hour later, he was sitting in my one-room apartment showing his teenage picture on his wallet.

Not that I wanted him to come there, but he kinda invited himself. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags. His face was dense and even when he smiled it felt as if a wild black cat was trying to untangle herself from the overgrown wilderness of the jungle. He had a peculiar laugh too. I tried to distract myself from his face and forced my attention to his photograph. It was less intimidating. He did have a soft mustache in the picture and little less evil smile.

“So what are you doing in this town?” he asked.

“Trying to begin a new life,” I said. He waited for more. My sparse room echoed my voice for long. The following silence hovered for longer. I hesitated to break it. “I am sorry I am not much of a social person and I don’t like to talk much.”

He laughed. “Don’t worry, I am the exact opposite.”

“And I’ll help you.” He leaned closer and whispered in my ear, “after all I am your first friend in this new town.”

The words poured in my ears like a molten lava. I looked at his picture again. It was the same teenage boy with a thin mustache. But something was off.

“Not want to be rude or anything...but weren’t you a lot taller in your old picture?”

“Do you think so...hmmmm...I never thought about it that way. I guess puberty does things to us.” Wink. Wink.

I had only heard of people going taller as they aged. This was exactly the kind of detail that my doctor had warned me to watch for.

“Can you give me that photograph for a moment...I...I just need to check for something.”

“Sure, friend.”

I rushed to my laptop and scanned his picture. I needed to know if I was still under it. There were not too many things that could be done.

I opened a new mail and typed with shaking hands.

Hi Anish,
I think it’s happening again. I don’t know who to trust right now except you. Check the photo attached with this mail. Do you also see a tall teenage boy with a thin mustache in the pic? I am scared. Say hi to Aarti from me. Please reply soon.

His reply came almost immediately.

Thakur Sahib,
I was wondering where have you gone. Don’t worry. I see him too. He is real. Just keep taking your medications and everything will be fine.

Calmed washed over my anxiety as if a huge wildfire suddenly doused by a tsunami. I went back to my new friend.

“I am really sorry about that. I have some medical problems and I just can’t trust everyone.”

“It’s alright. People are different. Is everything okay now?”

“Yes, everything is fine,” I said handing back the photograph to him. He pocketed it with uncharacteristic calmness.

“Who was he?” he asked with an alarming suddenness.

I gulped. But there was no harm in talking to him. He was real.

“He is my old friend. Recently married. I went to his was a grand affair. I first met him on my first day at the job.”

“Would you say he was your first friend in the city?” he asked. The wildfire roared again. Mightier than ever. Unearthing the secrets that were hidden for long. A memory danced through the fire just for me.


“This is the tastiest fish I’ve ever eaten,” I said to the pleasure of the waiter. A piping hot juicy fish, on a mildly cold night, in a lush green garden as light music played in the background - it was a pleasure to relish slowly.

“Please have more sir. It’s your friend’s wedding afterall.”

I grinned. My teeth must’ve shown the greasy spices stuck to them. I didn’t care. That was most euphoric I had felt in a long time. There was a gentle music, colorful lights inundating the garden with a cheerful brightness, crowd chatted around drinks, children attempted to tear marigold decorations. My friends Anish and Aarti sat on a faraway stage.

But it was over as it had begun – abruptly. Bright lights gave way to blinding darkness, music became a dreadful sound of the wind playing with dry leaves. My nostrils filled with repulsive smells. In distance, I saw a small torch-light that seemed to search for something. Or someone. Me?

“What are you doing here?” asked the policeman.

“I came to this wedd...”

He snapped before I could gather myself.


“F...Fish...I am eating fish.”

I looked down at my hands. They were bloodied. Fish was a rotten rat. Its half-eaten innards were spilling out of its hairy skin.

“Were you eating from the garbage?” policeman questioned. There were no answers.


“Would you say that Anish was your first friend in the city?” he repeated his question. But it was asked without an expectation of an answer. He was grinning. I squirmed in horror.

It was happening again. It had followed me here.

I ran away from the apartment. I didn’t see where I was going. But I wanted to run away from him. There was only one place I could go. Only one place that could give me some of my sanity back. My old home and my ex-wife.

Even on the cold night, my feet burned from hours of running. Or was it that wildfire that I was unable to control.

“What are you doing here? And what has happened to you?” she asked from the other side of the outer door. She looked same as ever. But tired. It was probably midnight and I had definitely woken her up. But there was absolute no one I could trust in this state. She will have to take me back. Just for the night. This nightmare would get over by the morning.

 “I don’t know where to go. Please let me in. Just for the night. It will go away in the morning. And I will too,” I pleaded. Then looked about. No one else was in sight.

She looked tense. I knew that expression. She was trying to make a decision.

“Do you have your medicines with you?”

That was her qualifying question. My answer was not on the right side of the fence.

“I...I couldn’t. He was there,” I cried. “B...But please. Just a few hours. This is the last time. I promise.”

Her posture relaxed a little bit. Decision jumped the fence.

“Okay. Alright.”

She opened the second door. I jumped inside like a rabbit who goes into his hole at the sound of a gun.

“Lock them. Lock them.”

She locked both the doors.

“Don’t worry,” she looked at my misery with pity reserved only for the dying. 

She patted my back and gave me warm water. She was my oasis. The wildfire calmed. I held her tightly and began to sob. The fire melted away and moistened her shawl.

“I don’t know how to thank you enough,” I uttered. “I would’ve been dead today were it not for you.”

I held her tightly crying like an infant; my head on her lap.

“Shhhh...don’t say anything okay. Nothing will happen to you,” she said stroking my head gently. “Afterall, I was not just your wife, remember?” She said. “I was your first girlfriend too.”

Wildfire erupted.

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