I was sitting in my clinic, when my phone rang. It was a voice from the past. A very distant past that I’d almost forgotten. “Hellloooo!!!” I shouted so loudly that the elderly lady patient dropped her glasses onto the floor. Ignoring her completely, I started talking excitedly to this old friend, inseparable in college, but now separated by vast amounts of space-time. I think I must’ve talked a rather long time, because my receptionist called on the intercom and asked me testily if I would see the remaining patients, or should she call the riot police. You have to give a lot of latitude to pretty young receptionists, or you’ll soon have to make do with some elderly, sullen matron. So I cut short my conversation with my reunited bosom friend, and since he was in the city for only a couple of days, I fixed up an appointment for the very same evening at a perfectly disreputable bar.
The whole day I remained in a sort of magical bubble, thinking of all the wonderful times we’d shared in college together. College life, as you’ll agree, is one of the few oases of paradise in a landscape of life which is otherwise mostly filled with the meaningless sand of daily, mundane drudgery. So needless to say, I was filled with excitement at the prospect of revisiting that Arabian Nights’ paradise with my friend.
We met in the bar, and for a while it was all bear hugs and back-slapping, and mock punching, and affectionate abusing which drew rather reproachful glances from the other patrons of the establishment. Finally we settled down and ordered the booze and snacks. We began to catch up with each other, where we were working, our spouses, our kids, and all such stuff. And then he popped a French fry into his mouth, and asked:
“So how much money do you make?”
His tone was casual, his eyes were downcast, apparently looking at a corner of the table, but I could sense that all his senses were alert. Like a lurking beast of prey. I pretended not to listen to what he had asked, desperate to preserve the magic of reunited friendship and nostalgia for shared happiness. But then, he looked at me directly, all pretence of carelessness gone, and asked me again:
“How much money do you earn man? In a month?”
“Come on man! Do we have to talk of such things?” I responded. “I make enough money to get the bread on the table and to pay my EMIs”
“But still, tell me, how much?”
Damn! Damn! Damn! I thought furiously. Why did he have to ask that? I mean, aren’t old friends supposed to talk about the heady, golden past? That girl with big boobs we both admired, but who ultimately became the girlfriend of a guy we both hated? That time when a group of us went to the local cinema and smashed up the refreshment stall because an idiot behind the counter had called our Manipuri friend a Nepali? That night, when we returned drunk and dishevelled from a drinking session in the college garden and on our way paused to serenade the girls’ hostel with catcalls and wolf-whistles until the police came and chased us away and I got hit on my butt with a police baton? That table tennis game in the college championships quarter-finals, where I beat him and then broke into tears at having beaten my best friend? Weren’t we supposed to talk of all those unimaginably foolish and incredibly wonderful things we did? Of the times, when happiness was a shrill howl of heartfelt laughter, rather than a mere dignified smile as it is now?
But no, he had to bring money into it. Should friends even talk about this damned, soulless, hard, fucking necessity called money? Should friends evaluate and judge each other on the basis of how much money they make? Should friends even judge each other?
The magic spell was broken. Aladdin’s Lamp had been stolen, and he was poor again. I drained off my glass and told him that I needed to take a leak. I went straight to the parking lot, got into my car and drove away. On the way, I paused and put his number on the blocked numbers list. I’m very angry at having lost a friend. I’m thinking of writing an anonymous letter to his wife saying:
I’m sorry madam, but you married a soulless asshole