Meet My Best Friend, Raghav
I was so excited about Raghav being in town that I was up at seven on Saturday morning. Raghav was to have taken a midnight flight from Bangalore to Delhi, so I expected him to be in bed and asleep. I waited impatiently for time to pass and finally called him at nine. He answered after a couple of rings.
“Good morning!” I said enthusiastically.
“’Morning,” he groaned.
“You still in bed?”
“My flight was four hours late,” he croaked.
“Oh! You must have been up all night.”
“I think I got to bed a couple of hours ago.”
“Why didn’t you call me when you got in?”
“Sorry. Was too tired to talk. Ma was making me breakfast but I fell right on the bed and slept without even changing.”
“Never mind. Now that you’re here, come and meet me.”
“Mandakini, I’m not driving forty kilometres without any sleep.”
Raghav delighted in calling me by my given name. I always insisted on being called Miki – a name I got in high school and stuck to ever since. Even my mom called me that because I refused to answer to anything else. Raghav called me Mandakini in that slow drawl of his when he wanted to annoy me.
“Okay, I’ll come over and nurse you.”
That woke him up. “No, not to my house! Ma will come home for lunch… I’ll see you in the evening, all right? Let me sleep now.”
He rang off without waiting for me to answer.
As I said, Raghav didn’t really tell his parents everything. I don’t know whether he hid things because his parents didn’t trust him or whether his parents suspected he was hiding things and therefore didn’t trust him… Anyway, his mom had always seemed to suspect that our friendship wasn’t quite what it appeared. I had never let it affect me, but Raghav was careful not to display much affection towards me when his mother was around.
I wished I had slept in too. I was wide awake now, and I had nothing to do (except to wait for Raghav to get up, which, let’s face it, might easily be a few hours). I settled down on the mattress in front of the TV.
Raghav finally called up around half past six in the evening. “Hi, babes!”
“You idiot! You’ve finally found time for me, huh?”
“Get dressed. I’m taking you out.”
“We’ll see. I’m on my way. Give me directions to your house.”
I changed out of my pyjamas and sat in the balcony to look out for him. Finally I saw his white Alto turn into the lane. I was out and locking the front door when he raced up the stairs. “What, you’re not going to invite me in?”
“Sorry, I thought you’d prefer to set out right away…” I moved to unlock the door, but he stopped me.
“Never mind, come on. I’ll look in when I drop you back later.”
As I seated myself in his car, I realized we hadn’t bothered to hug, or even shake hands. I turned to look at him closely.
“What?” he said after I’d stared at him for a few seconds.
“You’ve gained weight.”
“So have you,” he said generously.
“You look… different in short hair.” Raghav had worn his hair in long curls that fell almost to his shoulder. His hair was the butt of many jokes in college, but I had always secretly thought it made him look hot. He had cut his hair short before campus placements began, and now it was so close-cropped that you wouldn’t know it was curly.
“There’s a gift for you on the back seat.”
I excitedly reached out and got a silver paper bag. It contained a pink cuddly teddy bear.
“Oh… thanks! I’m afraid I didn’t get you anything.”
“If you hate it, you can say so.”
“I don’t hate it, it’s just that… it’s a bit too pink.”
“Okay, give it back if you don’t like it.”
“I do like it!” I protested, hugging it close. “I’ll hug it to sleep every night, and think of you.”
We both laughed loudly.
He lit a cigarette.
“I thought you were giving up that filthy habit!”
“Yeah, for the last two years.”
“I’ve reduced. And I’ve switched to Milds.”
“Let me see.” I snatched it off him. He promptly lit another.
I pulled down the window and puffed. The cold evening air enveloped my face.
“I think I like this,” I waved the cigarette so that Raghav hastily moved his arm aside. “It doesn’t make me dizzy.”
“You shouldn’t smoke at all if it makes you dizzy.”
“I don’t. That is, I do it so rarely that it doesn’t count… Where are we going?”
“At your service, ma’am. Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know… I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten since lunch.”
“And what did you have for lunch?”
“I cooked fried rice.”
“You cooked…? I can imagine you’re hungry.”
I banged my handbag on his head.
We drove into the basement of a mall. We walked up the stairs and wandered around, looking for something to eat. I stopped before a movie poster.
“Have you seen it?” he asked. “I heard it’s good.”
“No, it’s only been on since yesterday. I would love to, though.”
“Come on, then.”
“I don’t think we’ll get tickets.”
“Come on.” He grabbed my hand and strode forward.
There weren’t any tickets to be had, of course. I resisted the urge to say, “I told you so!” – maybe I was growing more mature? – and instead suggested, “How about tomorrow?”
“No, my parents will be home tomorrow, and they’ll expect me to spend the day with them. Next week? Can you do a weekday evening?”
“Sure, after seven.”
After we got the tickets, we got some popcorn and sat on a bench. We had a couple of awkward moments as we wondered what to talk about. We hadn’t, I reflected, been talking as much as we used to. We did usually talk at least once on weekends, but that did not seem nearly enough. Back in b-school, we used to talk for hours on the phone even after spending most of the day together.
I asked him if he had found a new girlfriend yet. “Naah. Haven’t met anyone interesting in ages. What about you? Any cute guys in office?”
“Quite a few, actually. But I don’t know if I’m interested in any of them.”
“Well, there’s one – Vikram. We’ve been working together on a project. But I don’t know him well enough yet...” He didn’t push further. As usual with old friends, the talk turned to old times, of the fun we used to have…
He got a call. He chatted away for some time while I polished off the popcorn and gazed at people walking past.
When he finally got off the phone, he asked, “You still hungry?”
“No, I’ll last till dinner,” I grinned. “I’m not going to let you off with fast food. Who was it?”
“On the phone? Sonali, Amit’s sister.”
“You’re that friendly with your friends’ sisters?”
“Come on. I’ve known her since she was a kid. We were neighbours.”
“You’ve never mentioned her before,” I said suspiciously.
“Well, she’s been rather lonely since Amit went off to the US. They were pretty close.”
“Oh, so you’re being a surrogate brother?”
“Sort of. Do you want to shop?”
“No. I’m almost broke. It’s the end of the month.”
“Go on. I’ll pay.”
“You can pay for dinner, anyway, and you paid for the movie already.”
“I know, I’m lucky. When do you let a mere guy pay for you?”
I upturned the popcorn bag over his head and shook it till powdery spices fell on him. That joke had been directed at Abhijeet, whom I had dated after breaking up with Mrigank. Abhijeet had been notoriously stingy, and I used to pay at most of our dates. Raghav had always made fun of him to me, and I had defended Abhijeet for not being insecure enough to mind a woman paying for him. I finally dumped Abhijeet because he was a bore: all he had ever wanted to do was talk or make out, and he wasn’t particularly brilliant at either. (Though I had thought otherwise at the beginning: he had been very eloquent on my personal charms.)
“Let’s go to the disc,” said Raghav.
“What? Here?” I lived a few kilometres away from the mall and visited it nearly every week, but I hadn’t ever been to the disc. In fact, I’d never been to any disc, barring once – a brief visit with Abhijeet, an (unsuccessful) attempt to prove that he wasn’t as boring as I had insinuated.
Raghav was laughing at me, so I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m this naïve small-town girl who doesn’t know what discs are.”
“Well, let’s show you,” he said. “Come on.”
“Am I dressed right?” I asked nervously. I was wearing old jeans and a simple black tee.
“Doesn’t matter. You always look hot.”
“Are you sure Sonali would like to hear you speak to me like that?” I grabbed his arm before he could hit me with it.
As we wove our way through the crowd, I almost bumped into someone I knew.
“Hi, Vikram,” I said, disentangling my arm from Raghav’s. I introduced them and we made small talk.
Vikram was waiting for friends – they were going to see a movie. He asked if we were doing the same.
“No, we’re on our way to the disc,” said Raghav. We said our byes.
“Now he’ll think you’re my boyfriend!” I wailed. “You said we’re going to the disc! And we were holding hands!”
“Shall I go back and inform him of the truth?” Raghav asked helpfully.
“No, you’ve done enough damage. I’ll deal with it.”