He was naughty,genial and often daring. Perhaps it was the youth in him that egged him to rebel. The age of revolt as people defines youth! There was certain impetuosity in him, but most of all he was a lovable and loving fella.
We have had quite a few adventures and nocturnal exploits together. Though it was very true that his father displayed and enforced domineering pervasiveness and discipline that is seen often meted out to conscripts, my friend in spite of the many thrashings have stood up, dusted himself and serenaded with fun and frolic. Fun, banter was very much a vital limb of his youthfulness. Rejoicing in our youth we had a jolly good time. I still recall the fear that I always had for his father’s temperament. It was often a tough task to call him out of the house while day time and sneak him out of the house late evenings and at night.
Looking back, I feel that the atmosphere in his home was stifling for a wanderlust soul like he. School and later college was an obtrusive obligation thrust upon us, though we both could cross over with average scores.
It was 1951 and in the final year after the intermediate examinations, one day evening some of us got together under the canopy of the giant peepul tree that stood at the far corner of the local temple. He was found listless and muted. That was a strange bearing he ever displayed. We had a few beedis with us and some of us liberally exulted in its whirling smoke puffed out from our lungs. We set off for our homes when the temple bells rang for the evening deeparadhana and the crows had ceased their cawing. The bats took off from the lofty branches of the peepul and circled above.
We walked quietly in the mildly warm dusk; the incandescent street light bulbs on the tall lampposts that stood at a hundred yard distance from each, lend a shadowy image. They looked like distant stars and swarmed by moths. We could listen to our breaths in the total silence which was occasionally disturbed by the rustling of dry leaves under our feet on the road. My house was farther beyond his. It was then that he opened out a bit. “Look I cannot stand the life in my house any more. And it would be better if I could contribute something to the kitty at home as you know we are six children and father has his temperamental out bursts probably out of anxiety. You know it is a pretty tough to feed seven”. "So what do you intend to do about that?” I asked. He was not forthcoming. We bid goodnight and he jumped over the picket fence gate at his house. I moved on and without knowing I would not see him as I knew him, ever again!
I did not see or hear about him till about noon the following day. It was in the afternoon while she was serving me lunch with boiled brown steaming rice, sambar, ayala fish curry and elephant yam fries that mother casually asked if he had come by that morning. I nodded my head in "No" as my mouth was full with the wonderful gruel of rice and fish gravy. “His little brother was here asking for him and he went back when I told him that you were still wriggled up in bed”. She finished.
He was not seen the whole day and he did not reach home that night. By next day afternoon it was confirmed that he was missing along with his bag of few clothes. Later, that evening some news came about that he was seen the previous morning on the train leaving for Madras, a travel of almost 39 hours those days. I realized he literally ran away from home in search of freedom and living. He could have told me .couldn’t he? His parents, amidst their worry sighed a little relief .The mystery behind his vanishing act made a conspirator of me. Would somebody believe that his thick pal was not aware of his mysterious disappearance? I avoided his father even on the street. I hid behind the bushes and trees when I saw him afar.
When the brown inland letter squared off with the postal seal and my address came to me from an army post depot address in Madras, I was elated as I thought I knew before I saw its content that it must be from him. My chum wrote to me that he joined the army as a trainee soldier and would be undergoing ten months training. In Chennai he joined the Madras Regiment of the Indian Army that was on a recruiting spree post-Independence. Nineteen years old, young, tall muscular and charming, he was a destined recruit, I guess.
Once a month the old post man visited me on his old Raleigh bicycle and thrust a brown inland letter into my hands. He never smiled or acknowledged my presence; he displayed a face annoyed at my sight. And he was simply doing his postal duty by delivering the letter to my address. Well the whole village believed that I was in cahoots with my friend and I offended his family and elders of the village by not forewarning his booting.
It was a year and a half and I was counting the last couple of days before he was back on his first vacation as a soldier. He had elaborated in his previous letter the gifts he had bought for his family.7 ‘o clock shaving blades for his father, chocolates and Nestle condensed milk for his sisters and mother, a pack of “Lucky Strike” cigarettes for me .. …the list went on.
The day before morning he was to reach back, his father received a trunk telephone call at the local post office. It was from the Railway Police Station in Coimbatore. They had subdued a young man, an army recruit on the train from Madras. He had turned unusually violent at night after waking from sleep and had to be restrained. He was showing all signs of extreme insanity. They followed to here from the address and telephone number found on him.
His father was devastated. He along with a couple of local elders left for Coimbatore immediately.
1996, September 10th.He died early morning today. Forty five years of extremely deprived life. He did not recover from the inexplicable change that came about on that fateful journey with loads of gifts and happiness bursting at the seams. Fellow travelers had no clue to what went wrong. They saw him sleep like any and then saw him wake up a mad violent man. He was confined to the mental asylum for the major part of his bedeviled phase of life. Those days the viable treatment for insanity or extreme mental illness was administration of electric shock which subdued the patient and put him to sleep. He endured many. I have seen him at times, in his cell in the hospital, sometimes unconscious after the electric therapy and sometimes awake. He recognized me at times, but suddenly he was violently profane and abrasive. Sometimes he even spoke about the naughtiest things we did. He often used to remind me to bring back the beedis we used to smoke and I took him beedis in acceptable ration .
I cannot to this day see what went astray. A life that promised lot of love and fun to be bludgeoned by misery and to go up in smoke.He lived a life of living dead,seized by delusions and hallucinations with violently frightening temperament which towards his last days lessened to the extent that he seemed to be existing without knowing.It seemed to me that he was in his silence inviting for a journey into his world which we cannot know. Or did he say, “Welcome to my life of night mares”?