He lived in New Delhi but was visiting his daughter in Boston and planned to come to Washington for a tour.
He arrived in the Dulles Airport and I picked him up from the airport lounge, since I lived close by. We spent a leisurely morning over coffee and croissant.
Raj was in college with me in Kolkata. He was a short, quiet person, usually by himself. I saw him in the students’ lounge, mulling something on a chess board, and asked if I could join him for a match. We played two or three times. He sat with a fiercely resolute look and beat me easily each time. When I complimented him on his skill, he brushed it aside, saying he had got it from his brother, who was the true master.
We lived in a large apartment close to the college and my parents encouraged me to bring friends to home. Possibly they wanted to know what kind of friends I was spending time with. I invited both Raj and his brother. When they came, Raj was his usual reticent self, but his brother spoke a lot, mostly about chess, both to mother, serving tea, and me. But we both liked Raj more, his diffident personality and quiet way of acknowledging hospitality.
Raj and I found a wide area of discussion. We talked about books we had read, endlessly and with enthusiasm. In fact, when he mentioned a book he was reading, I started reading the same book so that we could discuss it in depth. It turned out to be a very good idea, for I discovered that Raj had a very different perspective from mine. For instance, when we both undertook to read The Brothers Karamazov, my interest focused on the fiery Dmitri and the gentle Alexei, the eldest and youngest brothers, where Raj obsessed about Ivan and his struggle to reconcile unjust suffering with a benign God. Later, we both read Nabokov’s classic Lolita, and while I was quite swept by Humbert’s lust for a nymphet, Raj wondered a lot about Dolores’s reaction and Quilty’s quick, crazy intervention.
I felt I learned quite a bit from Raj, because I realized that literature, like life, can be seen from different angles. All the angles may not all be equally valid, but they tell us how rich the tapestry of life is.
I so loved and cherished our walks that I often came back home and told mother of our chat and what new things I had discovered. When Raj came next to our home, mother would narrate my pleasure of discovery while serving him tea and biscuits, and Raj endeared himself by invariably saying modestly that he had only read an interesting book and briefly commented on it. I was the person that had gleaned the real message of the book. That was Raj’s style, an easy modesty coupled with a pleasant way of passing the credit to me.
After college our paths diverged, for he went to another town. Occasionally we talked on the phone, before I went abroad and became enmeshed in overseas travel.
When I went to pick him up at the airport, we had not met for decades.
We had some difficulty identifying each other but we gladly embraced, and I took him home. I felt genuinely thrilled to have been discovered by an old friend, who had traveled long to see me.
Then, at last, after we had gone over our recent history, talked about our families and exchanged news of old friends, I came to what had initially bound us together. I had been looking forward to hearing what he has been reading and what new ideas he could surprise me with.
I asked, “Raj, you were such avid reader. Always exploring new authors and ideas. Tell me, what have you been reading recently?”
Came the stunning reply, “I just read the day’s newspaper. I don’t have the time for books.”
Clearly, people do change.