I finally had a long overdue school friends reunion, but it was under the worst circumstances possible - a friend got into an accident with his young wife, in which she expired. Incidentally we found out only when one of us called him up on his cell to fix the venue of our sixteenth (planned) reunion. His brother picked up and gave him the tragic details. And so, I called my sofawalla in the morning so that we could all meet up and visit Rahul that evening.
I’ve been for very few condolence visits before. As for funerals, I avoid them whenever possible – stemming from my fear of death, I suppose. Condolence visits were just an extension of that – you had to talk about death, it was all around you, Someone would be around to give you the whole details – when it happened, how they tried to help, how it almost didn’t happen – but then it did. Talking about the person very rarely happens on such occasions, besides an occasional comment on how nice the person is. If s/he was so nice, then why did they die? Because God takes those who he loves the most. And some other clichés like so. And on top of this, this was for the death of someone I didn’t even know – the wife of a school classmate who I hadn’t spoken to since Class IX with the exception of a few random Orkut Scraps. As I left the scene of my upholstery work I scanned my cupboard for something to wear. I eyed my whites, but then thought it was too filmi – white salwar, followed by a white dupatta over my head and topped with dark glasses to complete the ensemble. Anyway it had been a week since the funeral. I toyed with the sleeve of a black kurta, but rejected it on the grounds of being labelled as someone who had been watching too much of Star TV since childhood and was under the mistaken impression that Black was the colour of mourning. I settled on a Olive Green FabIndia Kurta teamed with a new black churidar. The FabIndia Kurta betrayed my ever expanding beer belly, while the waistband of the churidar cut into my midriff. I put up with it because despite all this, I looked the part.
An hour later, new sofas snugly placed on the chair, I met up with my estranged classmates at Andheri, and after commenting on how much weight I had put on, they informed me that they didn’t remember where our friend lived.
“We could Just Dial his Dad, maybe?” suggested one.
I raised one badly-in-need-of-threading eyebrow at him.
“Or then maybe we could call GS?”
GS was the one friend of ours who had been to his place, but pleaded memory loss. Suzy looked at me. “Could you call him, please?”
Both eyebrows this time. “What?”
“Well there’s no other way to find out, is there?”
I walked to the side of the building that we were standing at and dialed the number. My heart sank when the phone connected, and almost stopped when it was picked up. Surprisingly, there was a lady on the line. I introduced myself as a classmate, and told her that we wanted to see him. She explained a very complicated set of directions to us, but five minutes later, we were right outside his doorstep.
As we entered, I saw the familiar faces of his father (“Hello Uncle”), and his sister, our Senior in school, now betraying her Punjabi genetics by becoming a plump member of the “aunty” species, and I specifically noted that she was wearing a very pink salwar kameez. She noted that I had “changed completely” (glasses, no braces and a swanky haircut) and we sat down to wait. The sister looked a little forlorn, and told us that they were trying to “cheer him up” but nothing seemed to be working. From well wishers we were now supposed to be entertainers.
Rahul walked out of the bathroom, limping, having just washed his bruises. He looked at us and nodded politely, and I thought to myself, this is it, he’s just going to walk on and not talk to us and sulk in his bedroom. But a split second later, he came back in with the embarrassed smile that was is trademark in school, and then we settled in to talk. I did not ask about “what happened” – I didn’t want to know, and nothing could change the fact that he was a widower now, knowing whether she died of a head injury or internal bleeding would make no difference to my life. So we talked about school - of the good times, of whose pant ripped during PT and who was given that embarrassing name by his teachers. And then we talked about the present, but just in terms of statistics: where X was working, where Y was studying. By the end of it, Rahul was laughing and we had even nudged him into accepting a school friends meet on the first weekend in June.
I remembered our big plan just a few days before the date. My first instinct was to pretend like it never happened - like how you say "I'll call" or something as vague and never mean it. But I needed to keep my moral high ground as the charming ever ready hostess, and so I messaged the lot, hoping for a round of "Can't we do this next weekend?"s. But all I got was confirmations, a few "I'll be late but I'll be there"s and even a drop in from a Delhi based school mate who was in town. Oh boy.
I chided myself for being lazy, especially with there being so little to do - my living room was clean (since my roommate left, the living space was now confined to the bedroom), the fridge could be stocked easily enough, and the boys insisted that I not cook, but we'll all just order in. Then it dawned upon me. I wasn't lazy, or anti social - I was just scared. I was throwing a party and inviting over people who, just a few weeks ago, were mourning the loss of the wife of our friend. And I was inviting the same friend as well. True to my habit of staging my worst apprehensions about an event in my head, I visualized a breakdown, his getting emotional whenever we mentioned marriage or settling down or future plans, perhaps he would lock himself in my bedroom to cry, perhaps he would leave early so as not to make a nuisance of himself. Well, it was too late (or too early, even) to angst about all that. I ordered 6 bottles of Carlsberg (this was a party, after all), picked up snacks, and settled in with the first arrivals.
Then Rahul came in, and I braced myself for the climate change. But there was none. The stories continued in full flow, as did the beer (reinforcements were called for), and we were a group of smiley happy people. The random anecdotes came tumbling out of our memories, as did gossip and speculations about the unfortunate classmates who weren't present with us. All of us were transported back to a time where even crushes were platonic, where competition was only about marks, where you would gasp dramatically if anyone would say "fuck", when you weren't fat, when years of smoking hadn't hampered your ability to run like crazy, when you could buy Pepsi sticks for 50 paise, and when the worst thing that could ever happen to you was a DeMerit Card. And of course, a time when you would never imagine sitting around with these blokes in some other city drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
While serving dinner, I remembered a follow up that I needed to give on something I had appraised a few friends of mine on.
"Guys, the parents meeting was completely successful!"
"See, all fingers and toes intact" said Q, who was a guest of honour for the evening.
This brought a round of cheers from the folks. It was then suddenly that a doubt creeped into my beer high that maybe this was not the time for such an announcement. But just then, I heard a voice.
"When's the wedding?" asked Rahul, excitedly.
I think all of us did a double take at that one.
We had, amongst us, one of the youngest guys in our batch, easily the most soft spoken of them all, who had gotten married when he just turned 21, and was now a widower. He had his wife's name painted on his bike and had her picture on his phone screen. He had removed his plaster but he was still hurting, it was obvious. But he was now getting visibly excited about attending someone else's wedding, while I had, all this while, been expecting a total break down in my living room. And from the looks of everyone else in the room, it was quite a common expectation.
We may have wound up shooting tequila shots like kids, but I think we all grew up a little bit that night.