Seventeen was a year of much learning, all of it outside the classroom. The college library was a gruesome place, with the boys being seated on the ground floor and the girls banished to the mezzanine floor overhead. Itwas like being on a rather volatile Venus that would suddenly be attacked by giggly gossips wanting a vantage view of the latest heartthrob seated downstairs or sour-faced bookworms exerting their authority with shhhhing in the one place that they ruled.
Quite by mistake, I discovered that the little door wedged in between the reading room and the games room (open only to boys for some reason) was the lending library. The narrow entranceway opened out into a seemingly endless room that was never visible to visitors since it was fenced off by chest-high counters. But I discovered that the staff manning those counters, quite unlike the battleaxe librarian, were friendly. All one had to do was to pick out a card (indexed by author and title) and present it with one’s identity card. A whole world of free books opened up to me. I read pop psychology, textbooks of subjects that were not mine, thrillers, classics, chess bibles and P.G.Wodehouse. I may have been the only student availing of these facilities since I rarely saw anyone else there and if they did, they were usually looking up a study assignment. It was like having my own personal library, the kind I’ve always (and continue to) dreamt of having.
Once I had my latest borrowing, it would be slipped into the ubiquitious backpack that accompanied my campus life and I’d go back to being a regular irreverent, aimless teenager.
The bunch of people I hung out with that year were a motley crew, all of us misfits in some way or the other and banding together only on that one common ground. None of us were really friends, we were just the social glue that stuck the moments of real living in each others lives together for what could pass as acceptable on campus. For some, this real living was in drugs, three of them found it in music, one of them in her boyfriend and a couple in the subjects they had chosen to study. Mine of course, were books. And all of us were together to get through the moments that couldn’t be spent in what we would like to do.
I met Sam at an unearthly hour of the morning on a weekday. It was too early for the whole gang to band together and the few stray members that we were just drifted about awkwardly. We didn’t have all that much to say to each other and it wasn’t till the entire group was around that we could function as one entity. I was shuffling about, kicking a stone between my scuffed boots when I heard someone calling my name. It was one of the other gang members and he was standing with a guy I had never seen before.
This is Sam. He likes books. You like books. You guys should talk.
and with that strange introduction he left. Sam and I stared at each other for a minute before he broke the gaze and said,
Let’s get some coffee. Come with me.
The first thing I would learn about Sam was that he started every morning with two cups of pure caffeine, no sugar, no milk, boiling hot and straight down one after the other. The second thing I would realize is that the coffee acted exactly the way electricity would when fed into an appliance. He suddenly came to life. The surly face relaxed, his wide eyes looked straight at me and we got to talking.
We discovered that we both loved books with a passion that neither of us had encountered in anyone else. And that these fires burnt for very different kinds of books. But that feeling of kinship, it was like meeting a fellow human being on a trip to outer space and so what if they spoke a different language? At the end of that conversation, we parted ways promising to introduce each other to our respective book loves.
I carried my prized and much-thumbed copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions in my backpack the next day, almost sure that it would not need to be taken out. To my surprise, he was standing just where I had parted ways with him the previous day.
He muttered and I nodded. And after he was done, he produced a set of five slim books. They were a series, all part of one book, he explained. Then he added that they were not easily available and that he had gotten them from a cousin in the US. I held my breath as I admired the highly illustrated covers and read the blurbs. When I handed them back to him, I couldn’t believe my ears as he said,
They’re for you. Read them and then you can return them.
I felt a little easier about parting with a little piece of my heart, my Illusions, after that.
The book that he gave me was The Green Mile by Stephen King. It made shivers go up and down my spine. Many years later I would watch the film, my mind working out the finer nuances of story-telling and marveling but at the same time, those shivers still racing across my back.
I returned the books the following week, the same time that he returned Illusions. I didn’t wax eloquent and neither did he. But we had a long, involved discussion about why we loved what we did and what had worked or not for the other book. We finished half a pack of Fox’s sweets through that chat. Another thing I’d noticed in the past week, that he stopped by the shop outside college every morning and bought a pack. He’d eat just one and pass it around to whoever was around. Fox’s, always Fox’s.
It must have been a little over two months later when X (who had introduced us) gave me the news. Sam had been on partying on his birthday and was racing his car back home in the wee hours of the morning. Another car zoomed around a corner and crashed into him. There was a horrific collision and the car he was in was a wreck. He was saved only by the fact that the cops recognized him as the son of the DCP and rushed him to the hospital on time. I didn’t know his father was a cop. I didn’t know he was one of those rich kids who was allowed to drive in the wee hours. I didn’t even know anyone who had had a close brush with death.
A week later, he was back from the hospital and I went to see him. I had been warned that he was suffering slight amnesia but somehow that sounded like something that happened in Hindi movies. I sat on the sofa with my friend and made polite conversation with his mother.
Then he walked in and picked up a magazine. He seemed not to have noticed us. His mother called out to him telling him that his friends were here and then she left the room. He looked around with his characteristic restlessness and I found myself getting up and going to him. It seemed instinctive that I should lead him to the canteen for his caffeine hit.
But he looked up and focussed and it was the stare of a stranger. I stopped, unsure and then introduced myself hesitantly.
Your face…it’s familiar. But I have no idea who you are.
We looked at each other for a long minute and I realized he had no recollection of our conversations or indeed, our bond. After awhile he moved back indoors.
His mother came out and sat down and to my alarm, she began to cry.
Sometimes he remembers and calls me ‘Ma’. Then some days he says I don’t know who you are. That accident…I was so scared when he went out on his birthday. They say that bad luck…death hovers around people close to their birth days.
I comforted her the best I could, pointing out that he had had a very lucky escape and it was a good sign. What else could I say? He didn’t even know me. And I wondered, if one person stops recognizing the other, does the relationship end? What is a bond that exists only in my memory, but an illusion?
It was two months before I saw him in college again and he was rushing past in the distance. I watched him go to the gate and out. A few days later, he passed me again and didn’t even look up. I had blended into the large throng of humanity in the corridors. I didn’t exist for him anymore and neither did our conversations. We went our ways, moved into different circles and in time graduation caught up with us.
I would have liked to have watched the movie based on his favorite book, with him. But it came and went without him and I walked The Green Mile alone. I thought of him through every scene of the movie, remembering something he had said or something else I had read in the book and thought to tell him about. I hadn’t fully understood the story when I first read it but all those years later, in a movie and with the advantage of my years, I could begin to glimpse into his world and why he loved it so much. That is when I missed him the most, not being able to tell him that it suddenly clicked, that I sude
Five years later, I was leaving a restaurant, looking down at my mobile phone when I ran – quite literally – into a human wall. I mean that, when I looked up, all I could see was a broad, human chest. Then hands appeared, that grabbed my arms and an excited voice called my name. It was him. And how.
My campus fellow booklover had been scrawny to the point of starvation. I had always imagined that he was sort of my height but that may have been because he was always stooped over. And he had always given me an impression of blurriness, of thoughts and gestures happening faster than he could handle.
The young man in front of me was well-muscled and toned. There was an almost too-healthy glow to his face that went quite counter to the gaunt, caffeine-addicted expression I had known. This was a fine specimen of manhood and he was a complete stranger to me. We chatted a bit about what we were doing and exchanged phone numbers. He never called me, though.
Another three years later, I was sitting in a coffeeshop when a voice shouted my name across. In the time it took him to bound up, my friends had exchanged enough smirks and knowing glances at each other to put me on my most defensive ‘okay, everyone’s watching’ pose. After he left, they giggled and demanded to know who the hottie was, who was so excited to see me. I grinned and said,
He’s…ah, an old college friend.
What else could I say?
He’s that person but he’s not the guy I knew. It’s possible that he has never remembered our conversations and that he notices me now only as a woman, a member of the opposite sex, someone to be flirted with. I’ve never had a chance to tell him that it used to be different, it used to be so much more than that. And even if I did, what difference would it make if he never remembered it? I miss the boy I knew and sometimes I wonder if it was all just an Illusion.
But then I spot The Green Mile on the television listings or I hear someone mention it in conversation and an image of the caffeine-addicted boy-man snaps into my head. There is a definite memory of him and of me, of us and the green mile. We created that together. Right now I’m holding it alone. Someday though, if he can and does walk the length of that stretch, he’ll find me waiting at the end of The Green Mile.
Considering that it’s a story about darkness and life and death….and miracles, that’s quite appropriate, isn’t it?