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How much of him can I really be expected to remember? It was more than thirty years ago and we were only toddlers. I can’t recall his voice or how tall he was or what his face looked like. The only thing I do remember is the gaping hole left in the pit of my stomach when I realised he wasn’t coming.
But let me back up a bit. It was the year 1987 when the five-year-old me first stepped through the arched corridors of St. Joseph’s College wearing my crisply ironed sky blue shirt, navy blue shorts and polished shoes. A tie hung around my neck off two elastic bands. It is a legacy of the British Raj that many towns in India still have their best schools run by Anglo-Indians. My class teacher in Prep B was Mrs. McDowells*.
She was a wiry old lady who I grew to be quite fond of as time went by but in that first year, she was the terror of the classroom. Her shrill voice would call my name in a proper posh London accent and only the Holy Father could be your saviour if you spoke out of turn. My Mom tells me that only once in my life — from creche to nursery to kindergarten to high school — did I whisper that I didn’t want to go to school and it was in the first few days of Mrs. McDowells’ class.
An overcrowded class of sixty toddlers would hardly be easy to manage, so I can’t really say I blame her for being overly strict. I sat on the second last row and there was a group of us who were as naughty as kids can be. Next to me sat a boy called Mithun* and the two of us were the worst. Never sitting still, forever whispering between lessons. When you are that age, there is so much more to discover in the world than A,B,C and 1,2,3. Our appetites were insatiable and the confines of the classroom too restricted for our untamed ideas.
In the first half of school, we’d whisper about the games we had invented for the lunch break. Sometimes we would play with a ball on the steps leading to the first floor. At other times we’d wander around the principal’s office and peep into the window of his cabin, trying to evade his glare like he was a monster in one of those Scooby Doo cartoons. I remember he growled at us once, startling Mithun who lost his balance and tripped into a peon carrying a tray of glasses. Thankfully, the peon wasn’t as clumsy as Mithun or we would have gotten quite the spanking!
I don’t have many memories and the ones I have are fast fading. We competed on who could draw out the school’s emblem faster and we helped each other in remembering the routine our class performed on Sports Day. When all of us made our way down for the annual photograph, Mithun and I jostled with the other boys so that we could stand next to each other. I don’t know where that photo is now, probably somewhere at the bottom of a cupboard in my parents’ home, but the brown dot face grinning beside my brown dot face is the only proof I have that Mithun wasn’t just conjured up by my lonely imagination.
On the last day of school before we disappeared for the summer vacations, we got our progress report cards. All sixty of us were moving to Class 1 but we were told we would be divided into different sections. Mithun and I exchanged anxious glances until we both were handed our cards.
“Class 1-C,” I told him.
We parted that day with a promise to meet at the school gate two months later in July. Those were the days before telephones and emails and it was expected that we’d not have any contact until then. I probably spent at least part of the vacation at my grandparents’ place. Armed with a million stories, I returned and waited at the school gate.
He never came.
After the morning prayer, I spread myself on a bench for two in the hope that when Mithun arrived, he could sit next to me. His name was called in the daily attendance and I half stood to see if he accidentally had found a place on the other side of the room. No, he wasn’t there.
For about a week, his name was called out daily in the morning attendance. The teacher waited for five seconds, and then marked him absent in her register. Then she stopped calling his name too. At some point, she asked one of the other boys to occupy the empty place on the bench beside me. Other than a tiny brown hole in my memories, all traces of his existence were erased.
I never found out what happened. I can only hope it wasn’t something terrible. The most probable answer is that his parents moved cities. I didn’t know what they did for a living and I didn’t know where they lived. In fact, I barely knew anything about him, other than that he could draw the school emblem in less than a minute and wasn’t very good at catching a ball. And he was my friend. That seemed enough.
It’s been thirty years and in the time between then and now, I’ve lost touch with many friends. But in that long queue, Mithun stands at the front. Sometimes when I remember those days, I find myself going on LinkedIn and Facebook and Google and searching for him. His is a common name and I get millions of hits.
I don’t know what I’m looking for. Perhaps just a confirmation that the boy I once knew is leading a good life. And that if he ever feels like a beer, he knows I’m still up for saving a seat for him at the bar.
*The names have been changed. It didn’t seem right to use the real ones.