He worked in the emergency department of a large hospital, invariably kept very long hours, and was admired by colleagues for his unstinted devotion to the work. His patients loved him, both for his skill and his genial bedside manner. Now he discovered that he had been able to live in the way he did only because his wife had run his home punctiliously like clockwork.
He turned to his friend and erstwhile patient, my father. The moment my father heard about the school the son had joined, he called me.
“This boy has just lost his mother,” he told me, “and his father, Dr. Chatterjee, is a very busy emergency room doctor. If he has to attend to his son, his patients would go without care. The boy has joined your school, he goes to the same class. So I am putting you in charge.”
He continued, “From next week, you will escort him to school and bring him back with you. He will stay with us during the week. Your mother and I will look after him at home. Outside, he will be your responsibility. The weekends you will take him to his father’s apartment in the hospital. All other times, you must look after him and be his best friend.”
He added, as a final word, “Remember, you have a mother. He hasn’t.”
He had a somewhat imposing first name, and I wondered if I should float the idea of a simpler first name. The idea became moot by the end of second day of school. His classmates had already dubbed him the Prince.
Prince was very intelligent, but not particularly interested in studies. He did all right in his classes and tests, and I could report so dutifully to his father and mine. I also reported, to their satisfaction that he was well accepted in the school. This was a gross understatement, for in a few short weeks, he was one of the most popular boys in the school. This had to do doubtless both with his gracious manners and his sterling looks. As his popularity and circle of friends grew, our closeness waned, but we remained good friends and saw a good deal of each other.
Our paths parted after school. I went to a premier college, where the accent was relentlessly on academic performance. He chose a middling college where a clever sort like him could sail through without demanding diligence. He could do better, but did not have to.
Five years ago, on a rare visit to India, I went to a social event my brother, a movie producer, hosted. Amidst all the banter and laughter, I thought I heard a voice I recognized and turned immediately. It was Prince all right.
As he held my hand with his hallmark grace, the mellifluous voice prompted, “Tell me where have you been all these fifty years.”