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Friendship Day: An IAS Officer Recollects His Childhood Friend

Can there be eternal friendships in our otherwise transient lives? How could I then forget all about my childhood friend, Dinesh?

Friendship Day: An IAS Officer Recollects His Childhood Friend
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Dinesh, my friend, died in my fat­h­er’s lap. In a moving train. A strange place to die. Away from home, and yet to arrive at the destination. I wonder if Dinesh thought he’d die on the way. My father believed he would make it. My father always chose hope. Din­esh died of brain haemorrhage en route to Delhi from Patna. My father got off at Lucknow with the dead body and travelled back in an ambulance with the body to Simaria Ghat in Begusarai, Bihar, for the last rites. Seven hundred kilometres.

Sometimes, I wonder how that would have been. All that silence in the ambulance. My mother remembers what my father wrote that day in his diary, where he used to maintain his accounts. The only entry about a different kind of loss. A loss they never bring up.

But I know my parents remember everything. More than they could bear to remember. It was 2004. Dinesh was only 19. Dinesh, my friend, did not get to travel to Delhi, either in life or in death. He always wanted to.

While my old friend was breathing his last, I was busy settling in and making new friends at Natio­nal Law School in Bangalore. I did not have a mob­ile phone back then, but spoke to my parents reg­u­larly from one of the STD booths on campus. It was only when I visited home during vacation that my mother broke the news. Lying next to her, I asked her, like I did every time I would come home, about Dinesh. I knew he was going to come home the next morning, like he always did.

Back then, home was parents and Dinesh for me. My mother started sobbing. I knew then that I had lost my friend. In the darkness of the night, staring at the mosquito net above me, tears trickled down my cheeks. Tears that dried even before my mother could finish giving details.

I wanted to know everything about Dinesh’s dea­th. What were his last words? Too many questions. My mom answered a few and fell asleep. I kept sta­ring at the mosquito net until the wee hours of the morning. There were too many memories of growing up together and it was for me to keep them now.

Lately, I have been thinking about friendships. Can there be eternal friendships in our otherwise transient lives? I always thought my friendship with Dinesh was one. It, unfortunately, was not. I had not only forgotten Dinesh but our shared mem­ories had never been invoked in many years.

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An oil painting titled Common Man (2018) by Rao Ranveer Siingh

While writing this piece, I called my mother to check my father’s diary and see if there was anyt­h­ing that he had written about Dinesh on the day of his death. After the call, I was engulfed with guilt. The guilt of having forgotten Din­esh.

My earliest and most enduring memory of Din­esh is that of his smiling face. It was not the most perfect smile. He did not have the most shining set of teeth. There were gaps in it that had turned yellow because of the iron in the groundwater whe­re we lived. But he had the warmest smile. We grew up together in the same neighbourhood, whe­re he lived with his widowed mother and his extended family. We both lived in rented accommodation before moving to our own houses in the same neighbourhood. He lived less than 50m away.

I don’t remember how we first met, but I recall the initial bonding over the language Dinesh and his family spoke at home. Like my mother’s, his family was from Bhagalpur and they spoke Ang­ika at home. I remember telling my mother about this new family who spoke like all her relatives. My mother did not speak Angika anymore. I guess the sound of her childhood made her happy. The lang­uage she lost touch with after she married and mov­ed to different places with my father had come back to her through Dinesh. Angika was how Din­esh came to our household and became a part of it.

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Hurt strings The writer’s mother eating litchis with his friend, Dinesh

Dinesh was the youngest of six siblings and lost his father immediately after his birth. His eldest brother got the job of a clerk in the NCC in place of their father. He was the primary provider for the family, including his own wife and kids. With the passage of time, everyone except Dinesh moved out. Dinesh was too young to be on his own. I always sensed he did not wish to be depen­dent on his elder brother. After his board examin­ations, whenever I visited home, we would often go to local bookstores that sold hundreds of forms for government jobs. These were mostly for clerical jobs in various government departments. Dinesh wasn’t ambitious. He would have been happy to be on his own with one.

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I was very stoic that night when my mother told me about his death. I am still afraid of death. My own death. Everyone else’s, I seem to have rationalised and accepted as the ultimate reality. Even when I lost my grandparents, I was stoic. I atten­ded both their funerals, stood by their pyres till their skulls and bones cracked and were reduced to ashes. My mother was inconsolable at her father’s death. My dad was calm until the 13th day, when, during one of the solemn ceremonies, the silence was broken by my father’s sobbing. That’s the only time I’ve seen my father cry.

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Closures are immensely personal and are never complete. For me knowing everything about Dinesh’s death was probably a means to get that partial closure.

Closures are immensely personal and are never complete. For me, knowing everything about Dinesh’s death was probably a means to get that partial closure. I was not angry but disappointed with my parents. Disappointed because they did not think I could cope and grieve on my own. But that’s precisely what I wished I could do.

As kids, Dinesh and I were inseparable. We went to the same school. He was a year junior to me. Every evening, we would ride our bicycles to that part of town, all senior district offic­ials lived and worked, where the big trees flanked the wide and clean roads. The bungalows were big, enclosed by even bigger walls from all sides. We could only read the nameplates from a dista­nce. We memorised those names then and I still remember many such names from those big hou­ses. Every time we would walk past the district collector’s house, we would try to peep in, hoping we might catch a glimpse of what was inside or the people living there.

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I wish I could tell Dinesh what happens within those big houses with tall boundary walls. In such houses, once in a while a man sits all by himself and remembers his lost friend. I would have asked him to come and stay in all such large houses wh­e­re I had stayed to give me a sense of home there. If my friend was alive, I would have reque­sted the current occupant of collector’s bungalow at Saha­rsa to give us a tour of her residence. I am sure we would have laughed at the absurdity of such a req­uest but we would have still gone ahead for the sake of our childhood curiosity.

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When my brother and I left our hometown, Dinesh would check on my parents every day. They would have their evening tea together. His presence helped my mother cope with the absence of both her children. At home, my mother addressed me and my brother by our pet names. But Dinesh was always Dinesh beta for her.

We don’t discuss deaths at home. But I am sure my mother misses him when she sips her evening tea in my hometown. I am still looking for that elusive thing called closure.

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My mother remembers what my father had scribbled in his diary that until then had only phone numbers and business details in it.

On the day, Dinesh, my friend, died in my father’s lap in the moving train, this is what my father had written: “Lost my third child today. Imagine the pain of losing a child and bearing the weight of his arthi (hearse) on your shoulders.”

I don’t have the heart to ask him questions. My mother sent me a photo of her and Dinesh eating litchis at our home. It is a happy photo. That’s what friendships do. They make you smile despite the loss. Dinesh never allowed me to forget him. Per­h­aps, that’s my closure. All these memories of him.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "‘Do Not Allow Me To Forget You’")

Ashutosh Salil is an IAS officer. He is co-author of "Being the Change: In the Footsteps of the Mahatma".

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