Harish was on phone when Sunny spotted him coming out of the airport.
Quite a busy man.
He waved at Harish, who was still searching for a familiar face in the crowd. His eyes stopped at Sunny and a bright smile appeared on his face. He pointed a finger towards Sunny and made a poking gesture while biting his lower lip.
Still the same.
They hugged each other tightly for a long time without saying a word. Sunny was the one to speak first.
“You’re still the same. Lean.”
“But you have added a lot of extra weight around your waist, can hardly clutch you like I used to!”
“Yeah man, what you know about the perks of having a wife anyway.”
“Woah! I thought fifteen years would have changed you a bit, you too are still the same. Sarcastic!”
They got into Sunny’s car and he began making his way out of the parking lot.
“So how’s work these days?” Harish asked.
“As usual, free most of the time.”
“What happened with the shop you started?”
“You still remember that?”
“Of course! You said it was running well.”
“I have had my stint at many other things during these years. You would have known if you had tried to be around.” There was a clear scent of sarcasm in Sunny’s tone.
“I couldn’t. Being around was not my plan ever. Moreover, I have always wanted to get in touch. Your numbers change so often and you do not maintain one facebook account. It’s so hard to track you. It’s like being on trail of a smuggler. What’s with so many creepy names you use?”
“Learnt it from you! You forgot the time when you used to use so many names for yourself?”
“Ah! I was fifteen that time. We were kids back then.”
Oh yeah. Look at this grown up lean man who still doesn’t look much different than a kid.
“You still don’t look any different Harish.”
“May I say what do you know about the perks of not having a wife?” Harish chuckled and Sunny punched his shoulder.
They sat in silence for some moment. Once again, Sunny was the one to break the silence.
“Here to meet anyone? I saw you talking on phone with someone.”
“Not really, that was just a business deal I was taking care of.”
“Wow! I was wondering when you will ask about her.”
“Well, how is she?”
“She is good, as usual you know, ailing, aged and pissed off between the daily arguments of her sons.”
“You guys still fight?”
“When he is home, we never got along well and there is no chance of improvement.”
“I thought so. I don’t understand your brother at times. He has everything a man could ask for. Why wouldn’t he share it with you?”
“Did you share what was yours with anyone?”
The return of Mr. Sarcasm.
“It has been fifteen years Sunny. Grow up! I had to leave or I would have stuck here forever.”
“At least you should have explained it to me. Anyway, where should I drop you?”
It took twenty minutes for them to reach Hotel Ashoka from the airport and both of them remained silent during that time. Harish checked in to his room while Sunny waited in the reception.
He has changed. He looks same from the outside but inside he is a stranger. He is making me wait here. Whatever happened to the ‘friends forever’. He was right all those years ago. Everyone changes. He feels like a stranger. I shouldn’t have come to meet him. He is not the person he used to be. What a man he was back then, brave and clever. Time is the corrosive agent to the metal of life. Time eats through life and leaves us good for nothing. Harish is good for nothing. He has become a self centered and emotionless man.
If he were a bit of what he was in the past, he would have surprised me by just dropping by at my house, like he used to do. He used to treat my home as his home and how I used to love that. Did I not try to find him when he just disappeared? Everybody was concerned, his family, my mother, me. But, he did not care about anyone. He just went. I can never forget the words he said to me last time we met. “The air I breathe is filled with guilt of making mistakes over and over again. This time I will not come back. This time I will not fall prey to the sweetness of my father’s serpentine words.” He meant it. I knew he will never come back. I knew it the moment I handed him that cheque of fifty thousand rupees.
But he did, twice. Once after a couple of years after he went missing and now, after fifteen years. What has he been up to? I don’t know. I haven’t asked and I do not care. He looks good. That’s all that matters. But once he leaves, I will tell him not to contact me again. I don’t want a friend who appears more like a stranger.
Harish came down after half an hour. He was dressed in black. Everything about him suddenly felt rich. He smelled rich.
Sunny looked at him from top to bottom and said, “Where to, sir?”
“May I drive Mr. Sarcastic?”
While on their way to wherever Harish was driving to, he asked Sunny about what he remembered about their childhood together.
“Why do you want to know that? You don’t remember anything by yourself do you?” Sunny asked.
“It’s not that. I remember many things. I just want to know if you remember what I remember.”
“I could ask the same question from you as well.”
“Shoot up fat ass!”
Sunny chuckled and questioned, “How many pegs did we take that night?”
“Seventeen, you asshole, and I remember you paid. I won the bet.”
“Who did we beat last before we decided not to get into silly fights anymore?”
Harish laughed hard and said, “Wasn’t it that motherfucker Ashish? I broke his glasses and his mother threatened to report me to the police! Can you believe that? He was double my size! Such a coward.”
“Oh yes. I remember. You know why weren’t you reported?”
“I do. All thanks to mom man! She really saved my ass that day.”
“And many other times as well. Mom knows you more than your mom.”
“Where are you taking me?” Sunny inquired.
“Time to check your memory my friend.”
Harish stopped the car in front a house. It was a very badly maintained structure. There was a hint of yellow paint on the exterior walls, the rest of which was partly washed away in the rains and partly heated up by the sun. It appeared as if no one lived there anymore.
“Why here?” Sunny looked at the house, his eyes expressionless.
“So, you do remember.”
“How can I ever forget?”
“Not that I want you to, not that I want to.”
“Let’s go from here”, Sunny looked at his hands and saw his fingers were entangled. I’m not feeling good.
Harish looked at a nervous Sunny. He had a familiar look. The look he recognized from his childhood. He needs to know the reason why I came back.
“You need to know the reason why I came back.”
“I have to wait for someone, first.”
Of all the other places, why has Harish brought me here? How can I ever forget this house? I grew up here, for some years, those horrible years of my life that shaped my life and my character. The times when I didn’t understand what was happening to my family, what happened to my father, why did he disappear suddenly? Mom kept waiting for him for so many months before she gave in to the painful theories of our relatives and started wearing white. She didn’t want to believe that my father was dead; we never saw the dead body. There had been riots and he just didn’t come back, like many other men and women. May be he was dead; but we never saw the dead body. Mom was left alone at the age of twenty nine, with three children to grow up, me being the youngest.
This house has haunted me for so many years and Harish knows it. Why has he brought me back here? He knows my mother used to work as a servant in this house after my father’s disappearance. He knows I have always avoided this path because this reminds of how helpless my mother was at one stage in her life. When none of our relatives extended a helping hand to her, she took charge of the situation herself. She had to make some bold decisions in life. She had to see her eldest son getting into the drugs trade and being labeled as wanted by the CBI. She had to marry her daughter at the age of fifteen because she didn’t know how long the money my father had left would last. Wasn’t it too much for her to suffer?
I was with Harish when we once passed in front of this house and I told him about all this, I had told him that my mother once had to work in this house as a servant so she could feed her children. Times have turned. We have everything because of my brother. He has made a lot of money, enough to last us for this lifetime. I don’t need to be reminded of my past, not this at least.
The sound of Harish’s phone startled Sunny and dragged him out of his chain of thoughts. Harish exchanged some quick words with someone and gave the caller directions to his location.
“You look troubled”, Harish asked.
“How much more time?”
“My friend is just around the corner, it won’t take more than ten minutes, I promise.”
With that, Harish stepped out of the car. After a few moments, a man arrived on a scooter and handed over some papers to Harish. Harish seemed to read the papers and simultaneously he spoke to the man. The man looked towards Sunny and nodded. Sunny nodded in return. After a while, the man patted Harish on his shoulder and left. Harish looked towards Sunny and gestured him to come to him. Sunny walked towards him.
“What was that about?” Sunny asked.
“Some business I had to take care of. Here, this is for you.” He handed over the papers to Sunny.
“Ownership papers of this house, on your name.”
What the fuck!
“What the fuck!” Sunny didn’t understand what was happening.
“You remember the day you told me that mom used to work here as a servant?”
“Yes, I do.”
“You remember you said that you wanted to own this house someday?”
Is he mad?
“Are you mad?”
“Well, it’s yours. I bought this house last week, for you. Do whatever you want to do with it.”
“What do you mean why?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m just returning a favour Sunny. I am what I am today because you helped me fifteen years ago. During all these years, I wanted to come back, but there was always something new to do, something more to achieve, something that would take me closer to where I wanted to be. If you wouldn’t have given me those fifty thousand rupees fifteen years ago, I would not have had enough courage to follow my dreams. And, I thought if I can follow all my dreams, I can follow one of yours too.”
Sunny’s eyes were shining with a hint of tears.
“I can’t accept it Harish.”
“You will. You’ve always wanted to have it. It has been your dream to own this house.”
Sunny didn’t know how to respond. He walked ahead and hugged Harish. Harish could hear his friend crying. He did not stop him. He had cried once and Sunny hadn’t stopped him too. Instead, he had given him a chance to correct his mistakes, to follow his dreams. He had approached Sunny two years after he left the city, to return his fifty thousand rupees. Sunny didn’t take it. He told Harish to think of it as a gift.
“This house is a burden for a lifetime Harish. It will always remind me of my past.”
“Not if you accept it as a gift, just like I did.”