Some stories are supposed to be funny, even if they don’t start out that way.
An early childhood image that often plays in my mind is my mother taking a whole bunch of kids on a picnic by the stream. This was in Himachal. I can’t be certain whether I’ve recreated this image after looking through pictures or it always existed within the dusty folds of my memory box. A permanent fixture in all play-time pictures (and memories) from that time is – let’s call him – Nikhil. He was short, (-er than me), fair, chubby, the sort of kid whose cheeks would tempt you. And he was my best friend.
When we weren’t playing by the river, he could be found pulling my fake long hair as we played a couple at a fancy dress in traditional Indian dress, or pretend to be a photographer at my theme party when I wore roses in my hair.
And like all best friends we had our secret. Sometimes when we were alone, I would lie down near the bed (his place or mine), lift my shirt (only a little) and he would make patterns on it using the colorful pieces that actually belonged on top of a black board. Even as curious five year olds, we seemed to be aware of this being something we weren’t supposed to do. It thrilled us to bits.
Then the inevitable happened. Our parents decided to uproot us ‘in search of a better life’. I don’t remember whether his family left before ours. Neither do I recall any tearful goodbyes. We moved to a new place and new friendships were established.
I would soon be packed up for boarding school but some time in the interim, we went to visit Nikhil’s family in Delhi. He now had a baby brother. The only image from that visit is Nikhil and I sneaking under the bed, on which his little brother lay wailing, trying to recreate the thrills from our earlier game. Amidst countless giggles we found a way to enjoy lost time.
Fast-forward to thirteen. I was every bit the teenager with one discarded crush and a new one on the horizon. Life was looking up on the excitement quotient when I was informed that we would soon be visiting Nikhil’s family, who now lived in a nearby region of the national capital. This upcoming visit held countless possibilities. My childhood friend and I were now teenagers. Guilty secrets and games of the past could now be taken to a whole new level. And what a story it would be, albeit clichéd to death on screen.
My heart was pounding as we stepped out of the car and made our way up in the elevator. I tried to calm myself. For all I knew, he may not even be at home. My parents hadn’t exactly specified anything so it was possible.
My father pressed the bell and I stood beside him staring at the dark brown door. I had been smiling in my head all this time.
Finally the door opened, after what seemed like forever. And there he was. The male lead in what would be the amazing story we would tell everyone before they went all ‘awww’ on us. I hadn’t gone on to imagine telling it to our children, but they were probably out playing in the garden in my head.
He was (still) short, chubby and possibly fair. I wasn’t sure about the latter because his face was lost among a jungle of dark hair.
I was heartbroken, in the foolish way that good girls with bad dreams often are. I should have known better. How different could he have been from his childhood frame? And yet I wanted him to be something else, something that could bring on the butterflies, something I could have kissed behind a curtain, but mostly something that would make a good story.
We sat across from each other in the living room without saying a word. We had nothing we wanted to say to each other, not even trite statements about school or the weather. Perhaps this was the worst of all. Not growing up to be lovers was one thing, but being so distant was just sad.
We drove back and after relating the incident to my then best friend from school, I forgot all about Nikhil.
Until last November.
My once-best-friend-turned-stranger was getting married.
Ordinarily, I would pass up such non-events. But there were some reasons this could be done:
· It was a reception the day after the wedding, so things would move faster
· The venue was at a fairly decent place that was close to home
· It was on a Sunday
· And maybe I wanted to see how bad the years had been to Nikhil
So I went, with my parents and my fifteen month daughter in arm. As we made our way to the stage to congratulate the couple and the family, I caught a glimpse of Nikhil, beaming beside his bride. It was flashback ’89. He looked exactly like he did in our pictures from so long ago. Without knowing why, I began to laugh. I just looked at him and laughed, for the innocence of our childhood, the stupidity of my teenage self and the (possible) wisdom of youth.
As my father stepped in front of Nikhil, he looked confused, as all grooms do after greeting a countless array of faces with no end in sight. His father jumped in and in his inimitable style (he was the host of many a tambola night years before) said,
“Arrey, yeh S—– ke papa” (Hey, that’s S—- father).
The bride looked confused (and possibly murderous under her makeup) as to who this girl was. Like many a dutiful parent who embarrass their children to the best of their ability, her father-in-law explained, “There are countless pictures of S—- and Nikhil playing together as kids.”
Perhaps Nikhil’s wife was relieved to see my daughter. She made a polite “adorable” comment before we stepped off the stage.
I was still smiling as I ate junk without guilt and followed my daughter’s footsteps around the wedding venue. I was smiling for Nikhil and Upasana, for my carefree childhood, for my teen prejudices, for being old enough to have a daughter and for the stories that stay locked in, till their time comes.