I began with a reference to the familiar reproach of democracy as a talking shop and argued that I liked it because it was a talking shop. I said when people talk they seldom fight and, also, the more they talk the better they understand each other. In divided Germany, I ended by saying, a dog had crossed over from the communist east to the western sector and was asked by local dogs his reason for making the risky transition, since he looked well-fed and well-cared, and the fleeing dog’s terse reply was, “Just to bark.”
Clearly my talk had gone down well; the judges looked pleased. But the moment they retired from the room for mutual consultation, another candidate from the other end of the room walked over and kissed me. He was tall, good-looking and articulate, and my bet would have been on him to be chosen. If I did well, I was in effect dimming his prospects and I expected him to be resentful.
On the contrary, he had liked my presentation, was happy at my success and expressed his admiration in an instinctive if unusual act of approbation. His appreciation was unstinting and unreserved. In time I was to find that was characteristic of Subroto: he felt things keenly and expressed his feelings candidly, no matter how offbeat he appeared to others. There was a wondrous prodigal quality to his friendship.
Our paths diverged in a couple of years. I returned to the big city in a headquarters slot. Subroto continued in the plant as a production executive. But we continued as friends and, in weekend sessions, updated each other on our exploits and misadventures. When I acquired a new girlfriend, he acted as a chauffeur and, defying our secret accord, took us to places I knew nothing about but turned out to be excellent choices. When he fell in love with a senior executive’s favorite daughter and ran into stormy weather, I rightly encouraged him but wrongly underestimated the odds.
Our friendship survived our rarer encounters. He rose in the ranks and moved into a lovely home that I could visit with a second girlfriend. I changed course and went to work for a public enterprise. With Subroto’s backing, I began a new trajectory as a management writer and speaker alongside my executive work. His romance had matured into a stable marriage and, when I visited his new home with a third girlfriend, an American, he volubly encouraged me to follow suit, no matter how little or how much we had in common.
It surprises me what things matter and how long it takes us to discover what really matters. I sometimes ask people I care for to give me something small, insignficant and of low value that I would like to retain as a memento. Rupen, a beloved colleague, left with me an old fountain pen that did not work; it does work, however, to remind me of the hours we spent together, working or drinking or just talking, and knowing that I was valued and wanted. Mother left me an old wristwatch and I don’t even know whether it works, for I have never replaced the defunct battery. It is there in my drawer, not to tell me the time, but to tell me the unflinching, undimmable affection that enveloped me whenever I was with her and whenever I was a thousand miles from her.
Sitting at my desk in Washington, I decided I must see Subroto, a friend whose memory is entwined in my guts and whose friendship flows ineradicably in my arteries. So there it was, weeks later, as a car wound through Ballyganj Place in Kolkata, that I peered at the house where we used to meet years earlier. As the door opened, the same sonorous voice, “You have made me so happy!”
When I left, in the impulsive act of generosity so typical of him, Subroto gave me a bound volume of Somerset Maugham’s stories. I could have told him – I did not – that he didn’t need to give me a memento. I already had a million of them.