It was on a bright, Saturday Oregon morning that they got to me. I was ambling in the park before breakfast, sucking in the glowing sunshine when the phone tingled in my pocket. It said that I had been added to the group ‘Holy Family School, Mumbai: 1983’. God knows how they found my number, but then these days it’s only a matter of time before they do. The first message hissed out at me from inside my tracksuit and then followed a series of buzzes. I didn’t bother to look till I’d got home. Sitting on the bench in the kitchen, I glanced cursorily at the deluge of blurbs, it was the usual stuff, people gushing about how happy they were to have found each other and how wonderful it was to be together again. And a whole lot of inane forwards and graphics followed which I didn’t even bother to download. Next I know they would ask for family photographs and some of those who were back home would enquire about our lives in the land of plenty, trying in vain to conceal the tinge of envy in their tone.
I found that Prajwal was one of the admins of the group. From his number I could figure out that he lived on the east coast. I looked at his DP, it was a pumped-up selfie with a vacuous wife, smiley children and a smug pug – a picture perfect backdrop to an unspectacular life. Then the phone rang, it was Prajwal. ‘Hey!’ he yelped, ‘where have you been hiding all this while, yaar (friend)?’ The stilted ‘ghaati’ (from the Western Ghats) dialect he once used had metamorphosed into a mid-Atlantic accent. ‘Oh, I am not heavily into Facebook and social media and all that,’ I mumbled, taken aback at being addressed so directly by a voice I hadn’t heard for over thirty years now. ‘Good, good,’ he chuckled, ’that means you must be doing well for yourself, too busy climbing the ladder to spare a moment for friends, eh?’ He was trying to find out gently where I was in life, plain snoopiness or genuine concern? ‘Well…’ what does one answer to questions like this, I wondered. But he didn’t wait for my reply. ‘Are you into software?’ ‘Well, sort of,’ I didn’t know really; I guess my job as a six sigma consultant qualifies to be called ‘software’. He told me that he was a neurologist with a prestigious hospital in Boston. Been there all along since he finished his masters from California. He liked the east coast, ‘more my type of place’. I knew his type, the studious, top-in-class, hard-working, diligent and sober kind, with an ever-so-right life. I broke some eggs into the pan for breakfast as I listened to him make some more enthusiastic noises before finally hanging up, oblivious to my lack of interest.
With the noise gone from my ear, I was suddenly conscious of the deafening silence that enveloped me these days like a question that knows it cannot be answered. What was I doing here, in this strange, beautiful city with its tree-lined avenues and open spaces, so far away from everywhere else? I switched on the radio almost as if I expected it to answer. The chirpy RJ’s voice occupied the room now and I felt better. And then, a plaintive voice started singing, ‘Nights in White Satin’. The hauntingly familiar words swirled around me in a haze. ‘Nights in white satin, never reaching the end, letters I’ve written, never meaning to send.’ It went on, drowning in the pathos of yearning love. ‘Beauty I’ve always missed, with these eyes before. Just what the truth is, I can’t say anymore, ’cause I love you, yes, I love you. Oh how I love you.’ 
I have to call Prajwal and ask him if he knew. I had checked the members of the group and I knew it even before I knew it. ‘HE’ wasn’t there. Somehow I can’t think of him having a smartphone and using WhatsApp or Twitter or anything like that. It didn’t make sense because he should be – like everybody else. But then he wasn’t everybody else. Sitting in the first row in class, it wasn’t always easy to look at him unless I turned around and craned my neck. And it was impossible to make eye contact because his face was always turned downwards writing notes with a careful hand. But I would still look, the grace of his bowed head with its short, slicked-down hair and the elegance of the slim, white-dialed watch adorning his wrist were too alluring to resist. Sukanya used to sit next to me and she seemed to sense my thoughts as I could see a knowing smile on her face every time I turned around on some pretext or the other. She was the only daughter of a government official. Probably married to someone respectable by now, someone who had been duly bought off by her father’s questionable wealth. Both silenced into the kind of subjugation that only children from our generation in our country could endure so stoically.
But I had not chosen to be cowed down like this. After I was done with school, the apparent freedom of college had been a whiff of fresh air. I had chosen to be an engineer of my own choice and then gone on to do an MBA in operations. Working on a factory shop floor among real men was my dream and I realized it when I got my first job as a shift engineer at a steel plant. I had then moved up the predictable path, an IT system implementation at the plant put me in touch with an American software firm and before I knew it, I was hopping all over the world not knowing where I was going next. Amma (mother) and Appa (father) hadn’t even tried to get me married off, knowing that I would eventually choose someone of my own liking. I had always known who it should be but then… I didn’t know where he’d vanished and I didn’t know where to find him. I had gone to collect the school final results a few days late as grandma had passed away and was dismayed to see no one around. I did meet Sukanya, Prajwal and some others a few times later but my timid enquiries were either ignored or met with silence. There is a time for everything and my time seemed to have passed without my knowing it. And now this, years later. This WhatsApp group.
I spent the morning cleaning out my wardrobe. There was a whole lot of stuff that I needed to discard. When you have so few memories to hold onto, you tend to hold onto things. But then things unlike memories decay. And photographs decay the fastest – it’s almost as if your memories feed on them and every time you take a look and imagine a past that may not have been what you think it was, the photograph ages a little more. I need to call Prajwal and ask if he’d managed to trace him. Talking of photographs now I remember, I also had to ask Amma to find my old trunk in the attic in which, hopefully, relics from the past like my autograph book and class photos can still be found. I had to satisfy the urge to feed on my memories before the containers in which they were stored withered away.
After cleaning out the wardrobe I showered and decided to go down to the nearby strip mall for a quick bite. I planned to call Prajwal while I walked to the restaurant. He was quick to pick up the phone, must be thirsting for some gossip, I thought. I could feel his voice warm and tingling in my earphones, ‘Now let me think, I can’t place the guy. Which bench did he sit on usually? Somewhere in the rear, eh? Funny how I can’t remember him at all.’ Now this was strange, in a class of forty or so, it’s not easy to forget anyone even after thirty five years. Or is it? I guess it must be…., especially if you have a docile wife, smiley kids and a fancy pug who all live with you in a quiet, leafy suburb. Then I remembered Sukanya. But she didn’t seem to be in the group. ‘Prajwal, where is Sukanya these days do you know?’ I enquired anxiously. There was a moment’s silence before he replied. ‘We managed to trace her down with a lot of difficulty. Apparently not only her surname but also her first name has changed. You know this practice in the Konkan,’ He almost sounded apologetic. ‘But then it wasn’t worth the effort because it looks like she isn’t too keen on joining the group’. Another split second pause, ‘I heard she’s got depression as she couldn’t have kids. Apparently the problem’s with her husband’.
I reached the doner kabab joint round the corner. The burly Turk who ran it smiled at me beatifically. He reminded me of the foremen at the steel plant where I used to work. Raw, manly men who are used to working with raw, manly things like steel and meat. I needed to call Amma now. But before that I had to check with the group itself. I looked at the phone. Not too many messages in the group. The ones in India must have better things to do on a Saturday evening and the ones in the West would be busy doing the household stuff of which weekends are made of. I typed slowly, wondering how to word it. ‘Do any of you know where he is? He used to sit in the last row in the corner, the tall guy with the short hair and slim long fingers?’ I almost choked at my description but then that’s how I remembered him. ‘He wouldn’t speak much in class but he used to write lovely essays and I remember he even wrote a poem which was recited at the school day function’. I typed his name conscious of an unfamiliar shyness as I did it. ‘Does anyone have any contact with him?’ I found no response even by the time I’d finished nibbling nervously at an oversized kabab sandwich oozing with exotic sauces. I gulped down my Mountain Dew and got up to leave. It was as if no one had even noticed my question. As if it and he never existed at all.
When I got home I decided to call Amma, taking care to check the time in India. She sounded vaguely distraught as usual. Her voice asking the unasked question which never seemed to go away. How long will you go on like this? What is it that you are living for? If it wasn’t for the smug selfie then what is it for, I wondered? If I knew, I would go on and be done with it, but then, thank God I don’t. We spoke about Appa and his little antics. I made sure he had work to do so he didn’t mope around the house feeling useless. He takes care of my apartment and made sure the rent was collected on time. He liked being important – inspecting the flat once in a while and ticking off the polite, young tenant in a grandfatherly sort of way. Then at last I asked, ‘Do you remember my old trunk in which I’ve stored some of my junk from school and college, Amma?’ She murmured, ‘yes, what do you want with it now? I can’t reach it myself. Will need to ask the watchman to climb up and get it’. Thank God we had the watchman, he was all too willing to run errands for a nominal baksheesh (tip) and Amma knew how to keep him busy. I said I would call later when it was morning there.
Later that evening, I took the car out for its usual weekly spin. Work was so close that I just walked it down. The weekend was when I got a chance to get a few quick miles under the belt. The X3 grunted as my foot went down on the gas. I got onto Interstate 5 and very soon the lights of Eugene, Oregon were just little twinkles behind me. The town now seemed as far away as a distant constellation in the Saturday evening sky.
It must be morning back home, I thought. Let me wait till Amma has got Appa his tea and settled down with her own cup. She liked to talk to me as she sipped. I dialed and waited. She sounded brighter. ‘I know you would call on time. You’re trying to find something in that trunk?’ Her voice reverberated in the car. ‘Amma, can you open it and look for my class 10 school leaving photo?’ I could hear the sound of her rifling through things that seemed to crack with age. ‘Okay here it is. What do you want me to do? I can’t send you any scans and all, you know that’. ‘No its okay, Amma,’ I tried not to sound breathless, ‘can you look in the picture and tell me if in the last row there is a tall, slim boy with short hair and maybe if its visible, you can also see a black strapped watch with a white dial?’ She huffed and puffed while searching for her glasses. ‘There are all tall children in the back row. But no I can’t find one that matches this description. Those days all youngsters had long hair.’ I couldn’t believe it. The picture had been taken on a day when everyone was present, so it’s impossible that he wasn’t there. ‘Are you sure, Amma?’ I shrieked. ‘Look again carefully.’ ‘Wait,’ she said, ‘there is a boy in the corner but his face and parts of his body are not visible. The picture has faded on the sides. Who is he? What’s his name? Why are you looking for him now?’
I didn’t answer her. I didn’t quite remember who he was, I barely remembered his name, but I’m sure it is what I think it is. And I don’t know why I’m looking for him now. The car raced on. There was no sound as Amma put the photo back. Suddenly I remembered. ‘Amma can you see if you can find my school autograph book in there? It’s got a gold colored cover which I think says – Golden Memories.’ She took a minute to find it. ‘Yes, now what,’ she must be thinking that all these years of living alone had driven me round the bend. ‘Can you look in the last pages, is there something written by him,’ I whispered his name softly, as if raising my voice would hurt him. The rustle of ancient paper under an ancient thumb echoed around me. ‘No I can’t find anything like that. But wait, there seems to be a page torn out at the end. I can see on the edges there was something written on it.’ ‘Can you manage to read what it says?’ I must have sounded as if I was a million light years away. ‘I can read…. no… but then it’s torn,’ she mumbled. ‘Okay that’s enough Amma. I think I remember what it says. I have to sleep now it’s very late. Thanks for that.’
I disconnected and switched on the radio. It was the same program from the morning being repeated for late night listeners. The first part of the song by the Moody Blues was over and they were now reciting The Late Lament,
‘Breathe deep the gathering gloom, watch lights fade from every room, bedsitter people look back and lament, another day’s useless energy spent. Impassioned lovers wrestle as one, lonely man cries for love and has none. New mother picks up and suckles her son, senior citizens wish they were young. Cold hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight. Red is grey and yellow white. But we decide which is right. And which is an illusion?’
And I knew in my heart of hearts that must be what he had written. I got off the freeway and stopped the car. I realized I could find out for myself after all– the class 10 photo was the group display picture, someone had uploaded it there. As I clicked on the photograph and scrolled to the back row, I knew for sure there was no one in the corner.
From the 1967 Single by the Moody Blues, written and composed by Justin Hayward. Copyright: Essex Music Inc., Tyler Music Ltd. c/o Essex Music Int. Ltd ?
From the spoken-word poem ‘Late Lament’ by the Moody Blues written by Graeme Edge and read by Mike Pinder. Copyright: Essex Music Inc. ?
Indian Review | Literature and Fiction | Author | Jayaram Vengayil believes that every story celebrates the moment when the writer unexpectedly stumbles upon something precious and original. He is then helplessly driven to gift-wrap this inexplicable perception in words for his reader. To see the flicker of his own insight, perhaps differently tinted, in the reader’s mind,, is the only reward he seeks from his writing. He lives the life pastoral with his wife, daughter and an extended family in small town Kerala.
Genre: Short Story