By Devraj Singh Kalsi
It was a stage of life when we were friends without knowing the meaning of friendship. Just like that. As we grew up and grasped what friendship meant, we lost the capacity to nurture unconditional friendship. Although we rarely admit our incompetence to strike genuine bonds, we always make tall claims of being real friends for life. Utter one word that pricks a friend’s ego, and you are thrown out of the chat room with collective opposition to make you a pariah forever. It is the equivalent of being punished by the schoolteacher who made you stand outside the classroom for disturbing the entire class.
Attending a grand gala reunion organised by school friends offers an opportunity to revive and relive childhood memories — although the attendees are more engrossed in observing your receding hairline or the protruding belly. Your grey hair reassures those with jet-black hair and gives the scope to suggest effective herbal therapy. Your glowing skin stirs jealousy, and curious friends, eager to dig up the secret of your taut skin, surround you. Tell them you apply nothing to nourish it, and they conclude you are simply masking the truth.
If you have been stylish during childhood but now prefer simple clothes, get ready to be accosted by a friend who flaunts branded apparel and tries to draw your attention to his fancy imported jacket by raising its hood again and again.
Life is strange, and meeting childhood friends makes you realise this bitter truth. Those who were the most dignified and sober types have turned out to be drunkards. Those who never used a cuss word now hurl abuses as an energy booster. Those who wore tidy shoes have turned out to be careless about polish. Those who were always late have now become punctual in life. Those with a strict routine for everything have no routine to follow. Those who never laughed or cracked a joke in school have become humorists. Those who were toppers have become showstoppers of a different kind. Those fond of reading books now dread owning a bookshelf. The compulsive liars have become worshippers of truth. Those friends who never said prayers have now become staunch devotees. Life has its unpredictable ways of shaping people and their destinies.
In a reunion, you meet old buddies and see how they have changed, grown, or decayed in the intervening decades. Although I do not attend these reunions, it fascinates me to wonder how they get the wavelength right to connect. Dance, swing, or hop to revive bonhomie? Do they stand in a queue and pass through the school corridors? Do they enter the classroom and sit on the last bench? Do they fiddle with the chalk and duster to sign their flamboyant designations and titles? Do they revisit the loo where they discovered their youth? Do they stand or jostle near the tap to drink water and then splash it on friends for aqua fun? Do they huff and puff and yet run and climb the guava tree or dangle from its lowest branch in a brave and desperate show of fitness and agility that they have lost? Do they shake an arthritic leg with a fake smile? Do they try to appear healthy and hide their blood sugar levels by gorging on sweets? Do they sprinkle table salt on chops and cutlets to show hypertension has left them untouched? Well, it is a heroic attempt to present the best side with a smiling visage.
Such impulses get the better of you in your middle age when you realise the risk of dying of a sudden heart attack looms large. Before you depart, you wish to meet these childhood buddies and relive the lost innocence. You are back to your primary school — as those were the days you lived without stress and shared without ulterior motives. Life was good, but then you wanted a life of your choice — to carve a niche, rise, and race ahead. The world beckons you then, and now your town of birth makes you feel this had been heaven on earth. Yet, it was the place you were eager to leave to explore the world. Now you have done everything, so you want to return to where it all started. Just another wish like the one that made you navigate the world for golden opportunities.
Now you want to sit under a shady tree and philosophise whether you have lived a good life. Deep inside, you realise it has been a mixed bag, and the cycle is almost complete. You want to slow down and enjoy what you lost or left behind in childhood in a somewhat apologetic way, and you want the company of friends who share a similar worldview now. The future holds no promise of anything worthwhile. But there is a lot in the haystack of the past to cherish and relish. Remember the jam and jelly and butter toast in the tiffin you shared. Perhaps the joys of a simple life pull the heartstrings, and those childhood friends allow you to be yourself and help you recognise the person were and have left behind to a long forgotten past.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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