We were close friends, all four of us. We were in college together; two of us even knew each other while in school. What a fabulous time we had, talking, playing, talking, sipping tea, talking, walking together. Talking we did most of all. We talked about our classes and our professors, we complained about our parents, we gossiped about our other classmates, we argued about politics. Most of all, we dreamed about the future. We talked about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to achieve.
The other thing we wanted was to be able to help a few others. We liked the idea of being of help to our friends, our poor relatives, the people we saw sleeping on the streets with their small children. We wanted to be comfortable, but we wanted a few others to be comfortable with us. We yearned to be of help to others around us.
Looking back, I know we weren’t unduly idealistic. We weren’t dreaming of a revolution. We just wanted some basic things for a decent life. We had no idea how hard it was, in our world, even to achieve the minimum.
Our paths diverged when we came out of college, but we tried to keep in touch. Neel had good results and his parents were well-off; he went to a medical college. Khan competed and joined an engineering college out of town. Deep was as smart as anybody else but could not afford the luxury of years in the university; his father, about to retire from a tea company, persuaded his boss to hire him as a clerk. I was lucky to win a generous scholarship and went to the university.
In those days, it wasn’t easy to be in touch. There were times when we had scant contact or could not even reach one or the other even on the phone. I wrote letters, but soon realized the others weren’t eager to put pen to paper. Their replies were short, cryptic – or none. It became worse when Khan and Neel both went to work in other cities. Still we persevered.
When I found a job, I called them long-distance and, when any of them came to town, made sure Deep joined us. If nothing better, we met in pairs and sometimes we got a trio together. But the dream was always for the four of us to meet together again. It never happened.
When I went overseas, I sent a hurried note to all three, saying bravely I would come again and invite all of them to my apartment in Alipur. That too never happened. My father had died within a year of my departure and my mother too passed away. My visits to Kolkata, never frequent, dwindled further. I sold my unused apartment.
Two decades passed.
Deep had a gall bladder problem and met Neel, now a recognized surgeon. On an impulse they called me from Neel’s chamber, catching me close to midnight, just back from an emergency trip to Cuba. When I said I had a plan to visit Kolkata that winter, they enthusiastically suggested a meeting in Kolkata, promising that Khan too would join us.
We met, for old times’ sake, in the same old coffee house in north Kolkata where we used to gather. We had exchanged several messages meanwhile and I arrived early with great anticipation.
I was surprised to find Neel already there, but I was even more surprised to see him, affluent specialist, look so frayed and drained. In a few minutes, Deep turned up escorting Khan. Deep looked his usual trim self, though his hair and moustache had both turned gray. Khan was heavier, seemed older than his age, and would have been unidentifiable if he hadn’t come toward us with a familiar smile.
Even after so many years we retained an eager, vibrant link. We spoke happily about our days together. Then I asked if we were living the life we had dreamed about. Neel was a successful surgeon, but he seemed to find little joy in his success. He said his work had become just a “business,” and his reputation served to attract the wealthiest to his door, not the neediest.
Khan was now a celebrity, an engineer turned an entrepreneur, lately turned an affable, well-regarded politician, notably a success. Paradoxically, he saw his accomplishment rather differently: at every step he felt he had had to compromise, sacrifice principles he valued to achieve results he thought important. He said he began by thinking that he was helping people, but now he knew better.
Deep had done well too in his tea company. He had risen to executive status, though he felt he had done so less by his punctilious work than by having to kowtow to petty, self-important bosses. He drew, he said, his satisfaction from his family, his two loving daughters, rather than an unprincipled business life.
I looked at the faces of my dear friends. None seemed truly happy or at peace despite their success. They were good people, but they lived with broken hopes and eroded dreams.
I was no model of success. I hoped I had gained over years the modest reputation of a helpful, friendly person. I liked that people came to me for assistance; I tried to do the little I could for them. Now, listening to my friends, I had a precious moment of troubling self-introspection. I wondered how many little principles I had quietly abandoned, how many causes, once cherished, I had gently let fall by the wayside. Just like them, just like many others.