My school friends, with whom I loved to pass time, soon discovered that instead of meeting on the street, in a crowded park or in someone’s cramped living room, we could meet more comfortably in a corner of that spacious Common Room. Alternatively, since both my parents were out for work much of the day, we could simply meet in our commodious living room. My mother, if she were at home, not only liked to meet my friends but would make us some tea and serve it with cookies.
Naturally, my home, either the living room and the more sizable Common Room, became the default venue for my friends to meet. Several of us would gather most days in my home, to talk about whatever interested us. Sometimes we talked about the school and our recurrent gripes, sometimes about our dreams and ambitions. Mostly the ones who came were the classmates who lived nearby, though there were periodic visits from friends who lived farther away but came to join a lively discussion. Looking back, I think mother contributed to the attendance by her warm welcome of my buddies.
Among the regulars were Atul, whose father owned a pharmacy on the next street, and who liked to talk about the books he had read. He found an eager listener in me, as I too liked to read. There was Jiten, an avid sportsman, who occasionally played football with me and liked to talk about his ambition to be on the country’s Olympic team some day. Satya, who in reality had a long and complicated name bestowed by his family priest that none ever used, had wide interests, but seemed to focus mainly on travels and adventures in exotic places. He claimed that large parts of the world were still unexplored and he would one day find some of them and be a new Columbus.
I developed a special affection, almost an admiration, for Ashok over time and greatly valued his presence in the group. Others in the group had to recognize that he was clever and unusual, but I am not sure that they liked him as much as I did. He seemed never to talk about himself or his family, unlike the rest of us, and the only thing personal that I knew about him – only because I had specifically asked about it – was that he lived with his family on the street, really a narrow lane, that ran right next to our home.
We met so regularly that we got into the habit of referring to our group as a club. Most unexpectedly, the club went into a sudden and long suspension one autumn when I fell ill. I had had a nasty infection and, on the doctor’s advice, my mother advised my friends not to spend any time at my bedside. It was over two weeks before I was well enough to step out and declared free from contagion. It was a weekend and I wondered how I could best pick up the thread again when I attended school on Monday. It would be good to know what had transpired while I was absent and if there was homework I could do to prepare myself for new lessons.
It occurred to me then Ashok could be of immense help to me. He was a smart, diligent student who paid close attention to his studies and who, conveniently, lived next door to me. I remembered he had said that he lived on the street next to our home and his home was only a few hundred years from the corner. I took the short walk to the corner and entered the narrow lane. Though next to my home, I had never ventured into it earlier, for it had a shabby, unwelcome look.
It was dusk, and the narrow street had the dismal illumination of an old street lamp. I walked several hundred yards, but saw no entrance to a house. I walked back, searching again for an entrance I might have missed, but saw nothing. I was confused. Ashok had clearly mentioned the street and the proximity of his home to the corner. I retraced my steps, keeping an eye on the wall that ran a length of the lane, and walked back again without finding the entrance to a home. I was frustrated but determined.
I walked again, scrutinizing the wall with particular care. This time I noticed what looked like a small hole in the wall. It was so small and so low that I had labelled it in my mind as a rat hole. I stood and pondered. I had twice scanned the lane and not seen another entrance. I had to explore the present option, however improbable it seemed as the entrance to my classmate’s home.
In less than a minute Ashok materialized out of the smoke, took hold of my hand and started walking up the steps with me. He did not say a word until we had passed through the hole in the wall and were standing in the street.
He said, “I am so glad that you have recovered from your illness. I hope you are feeling better.”
He never let go of my hand and kept walking until we were at the entrance to my home. We entered the building and walked into our living room and sat down.
Ashok looked at my face, “I am so glad to see you again, my friend.”
We sat silent for a while and then talked about many things, as my mother brought each of us a cup of tea.
We never talked about the rat hole and the dungeon.
The memory has not left me yet.