I had joined the new school from another town and knew nobody in my class. Most of them had been together for two to four years and formed a tight-knit group. The fear of being in an unfamiliar school was coupled with the panic of being in a sea of unfamiliar faces. The moment the first recess started the first day, Dhruva was by my side. He said his name and asked mine. Then he said what I most wanted to hear: that he would be my friend. He added that he had four other close friends in the class and at the end of the day he wanted me to meet them.
Those four, I soon realized, were his closest buddies, but he was friendly with all the other classmates. Dhruva was a lively, gregarious person and had an easy way of building bridges with other people. He wasn’t a great sportsman, but he played soccer and cricket, and he enticed me to join the school’s cricket team. He proved to be an excellent team member, who could be depended on to raise our spirits, especially when we had to duel with a formidable team. Even the teachers recognized his special talent. When the students had to be persuaded to take a painful vaccine, the Assistant Headmaster came to the class and recruited Dhruva.
Jay was, in many ways, the opposite of Dhruva. He had a quiet warmth that took a little effort to uncover. He was in another school and I met him after a soccer match, in which I played with my usual ineptitude and Jay scored repeatedly against us and looked like Pelé. Others congratulated him, but he said little. Surprisingly, he spoke at some length when I asked how he had learned to play so well. He spoke of a cousin, a professional and a true martinet, who had taken the trouble to train him.
Once I got to know him better, his soccer skill was no surprise. Jay had a quality of doggedness that would make him succeed in anything he undertook. Of all my friends, I knew that if I had a problem and I shared it with Jay, there would be a solution in no time. He brought the same pertinacity to all his endeavors. He wasn’t ever regarded as brilliant, or even remarkably bright, but he did well in his studies. I saw it at close range when, two years later, he joined our school and started sitting next to me.
After school, our paths diverged, for Jay went to another college and Dhruva to an engineering institute. We saw little of one another for a couple of years, until they both returned to town with brand-new jobs. Dhruva impressed the interviewers and became a well-paid intern in a machine tools company. Jay taught briefly in a college and then found a reporter’s slot in a newspaper office. Dhruva was the same energetic, bubbly person as ever. He would turn up, without notice, in my office in the evening and insist that I join him for a glass of beer. Jay would periodically call me and tell me of his resolute, methodical search for stories and his scrupulous attention to verified details. At my insistence, he would sometimes turn up in my home for a cup of coffee but would rarely stay beyond an hour. Though very different, they remained precious friends whose company I enjoyed and friendship I treasured.
I went abroad and my two friends progressed well in their organization. Jay had acquired a sterling reputation as a journalist and Dhruva had started an engineering consulting firm. They had done well and, on a short visit to India, I invited a bunch of friends and made sure that they were included. Dhruva noticed my thinning hair and joked that it was the price I was paying for an overworked cerebrum and Jay shyly took me aside and handed my his newly published book of essays. I was proud of them and cherished our valued friendship which had lasted despite our remote orbits.
Three years ago, Dhruva wrote to say that he was visiting the US east coast as a member of a chamber of commerce delegation to explore business opportunities and would like to pass a weekend with me. I was thrilled and said he would be very welcome and started planning museum and resort trips. Three weeks later, the delegation leader called me from London to say Dhruva had developed cardiac problems on the flight and was hospitalized. His son, who had flown from India, informed me two days later, that Dhruva had breathed his last. His remains would be flown back to India. His family was kind and sent me his latest photograph, but I never saw Dhruva again.
I was upset and called friends, among them Jay. He is a very considerate person, and I was a little surprised at his reaction. Uncharacteristically, he sounded distant, his words seemed vague, almost jumbled. Five months later, I visited India and my first thought was to see him. His family sounded hesitant when I called, but I insisted on seeing my old friend soon. When I arrived, he came forward and held my hand, and that was the closest I came to him. I looked at him and his faraway look. He seemed to barely recognize me. His dementia had pushed him far away, to a place where I could not reach him. My friend, so dear and so close, was lost forever to me.