I Meet an Old Friend
I contemplated looking up old friends. Quite a few of them had, like me, moved out. One or two were in Delhi, but we had never connected after the first couple of phone calls. A few, I knew, were in Guwahati. But there were a few still in town. Some of them had got married. One or two had babies.
I went to visit Deepika. She had been a year senior in school, but we had become friends because she lived not far from my house and we had taken to sharing an auto to and from school. She was tall and slender, with a complexion that was the envy of the school: milky white, with cheeks and lips so pink you would have thought someone had just pinched them hard. She had shiny straight hair that fell below her waist. Yet she was no vain beauty: she was modest and shy, and an extremely loyal friend.
I had often invited her home. When I was in my last year of school and she had joined college, she often popped in to meet me after classes. I had also visited her house a few times. She lived in a house shaped like a box with one side missing: each side was just one room wide and opened towards the front yard. The roof was thatched, and the walls were made of mud. For furniture, there were string cots, and wooden chairs and tables. Yet the people who lived there were very kind and hospitable: I was never allowed to leave without tea brought in in a tall steel tumbler, even though Deepika sometimes apologized for the tea being black because there was no milk in the house.
“Oh, I prefer black tea,” I would lie, hoping that even on days when there was milk, they wouldn’t give me some that was meant for her younger siblings.
Deepika was the oldest of eight siblings. Most of them went to our school, except for the youngest two, who were babies then. I had seen her taking care of them: combing one’s hair, overseeing another’s homework, breaking up a fight. Her slender form concealed strength: she used to fetch water from a spring near the bottom of the hillock where her house was, two buckets at a time. Another of her chores was to gather firewood from the woods nearby.
The last time I had seen her was three years ago, when I had come home after my BA classes were over, to have my last long holiday before I started b-school. She had been very excited then: she was going to get married. She hadn’t passed her Higher Secondary exams on the first try, so she too had just finished with her BA exams.
I hadn't been around for her wedding, but I knew her husband slightly, having met him back when I was in school. I knew his house. So one day, after lunch, as my mom sat back with a book, I went to see Deepika.
I had to ask someone on the street which their house was: when he pointed it out I realised I had passed it but not recognised it due to the new coat of paint and a room or two added on to the old structure.
A pretty young woman answered the door. I asked for Deepika a little hesitantly, for I had realised too late that it was siesta time and the girl before me was probably the only person awake in the house. But she moved off briskly after gesturing me to a chair.
I sat on one of the wicker chairs decorated with brightly embroidered cushions. Besides the chairs, the room had a couple of small wicker tables, and a narrow bed with a bright bedspread on it. The afternoon sun filtered in through the sheer white curtains. The walls were blue, the colour of the sky on a summer afternoon.
Deepika came in. We squealed and hugged, and then drew apart to look at each other. She had filled out a little, so that she looked more womanly and even more beautiful than ever.
“You’ve put on weight,” she observed.
“So have you,” I promptly told her.
“Oh, I’m so glad you came! It’s been so long since I saw you… My neighbour works at the college and she told me you had come – she had seen you with your mother a couple of days ago… I was planning to go see you myself.”
“Well, I came first.”
She gladly told me about her life. She worked at a new private school in town. “You know how much I love kids,” she said. “I nurse them more than teach them, really, because I am in charge of Class 1, and you know what kids that age are like…”
“I am glad. I can totally imagine you as a primary school teacher.”
“Well, I took the teacher’s training right after I got married, you know, but then the baby came along…”
“You have a baby? Where is it?”
She walked to the door and called to someone inside. She spoke in Karbi: I had forgotten the little I had learnt of the language.
“My income helps, you know,” she continued. “Bipul has two sisters, his parents are old: we need all the help we can get.”
The young lady who had opened the door to me came in, carrying a baby.
“Here’s my Runjun,” said Deepika, taking the child from her. She was chubby and had cheeks redder than her mother’s, and she looked at me with serious dark eyes.
“She’s adorable,” I said, holding my arms out for her. She came willingly but with no sign of pleasure. “How old is she?”
“She turned one in October,” said Deepika. “And this is my sister-in-law, Emily. She’s the younger one. We got the elder one married last February.”
“And where’s Bipul?”
“He has taken his mother to a wedding. They won’t be back till late evening, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, well.” I didn’t really care. I had come to see Deepika.
Meeting Deepika shook away much of the ennui that had enveloped me. She looked so happy, so competent, like she had taken on life and got the best of it and was ready for anything else that might come. I was proud that my shy, timid friend had grown so strong. I was glad at how happy she looked. And I was a tiny bit envious as I wondered whether I would ever get that for myself, whether I would ever be sure, as she seemed to be, that the life I was leading was best for me.
Yet I knew I wouldn’t call her once I got back. We had been friends at a time when we had been giggly awkward teenage girls. We had talked about boys we had crushes on or who had crushes on us. She had helped me buy my first lipstick.
And now, she was a mother, a married woman with a house to look after and a husband to partner with. Her income fed mouths other than her own. I had considered that I had moved far on from my days in Diphu: after meeting Deepika I wondered at how little I had moved compared to her. I still worried about boys and clothes: she worried about her baby, about her in-laws, about budgeting and planning for the family. It was hard to believe that we were the same age.
“Am I too immature?” Mandakini wondered as I walked back home. “Or have I led so easy a life that my priorities have become misplaced?”
“I don’t think it’s that,” Miki countered. “I have had an easier life, true, but I wouldn’t want that life, would I? I wouldn’t want to be married and have kids and the responsibilities that go along with all that – at least, not for some time. For all that I complain about my loneliness, my life is my own. I can stay in bed late on weekends, I can go out and get drunk if I want to – okay, I don’t usually, but at least I can. My money is all my own. I like that freedom: I don’t want to give it up easily.”