There is an almost unmanageable crowd out on the street. I try to peer over the swarming sea of heads and see what’s happening. The sun shines sharply above our heads. The atmosphere is hot and tense. I can see tortuous wisps of air distorting the view above the shops that line the street. There is a subdued murmuring rippling back and forth across the crowd. The leader is no more.
The people cannot believe it. They are still wishing that all of it is a dream. I wish that too. I never imagined it would end this soon. I knew it would end one day. But I also thought that there would be a goodbye, an exchange of last words, apologies made with moist eyes and accepted with the wave of a hand, gratefulness expressed with a tight hug. I had never imagined that our friendship would end so abruptly.
Suddenly the crowd moves and there are people all around me. I’m a small man. All I can see now is the person in front of me. They are bringing his body out in a van, someone tells me. I’m eager to see his face one last time. I try to push past the sea of people. I can’t. I see that some people have started climbing the roofs of the shops around us in hope of catching a last glimpse of their beloved leader. I follow suite. I climb on to the roof of a nearby shop with difficulty. There is no stairway to go up and we have to climb over the wall to get up. But at least I’m able to see things when I get up there. His body is in a glass box on a van where everyone can see it. It is decorated with flowers and garlands. I catch a glimpse of his face and the tears I have kept at bay flow down my cheeks. The van turns and the glint of sunlight reflected off the glass blinds me for an instant. When I can see again, the van is gone.
The crowd begins to disperse. Some of the more persistent ones follow the van on foot or in their own vehicles. I do not have the energy to do that. I climb down from the rooftop and sit down on a boulder beside the street. The boulder is hot and burns my bottom. I keep sitting and take off my shoes to relax my toes. I wince as I flex them.
“He was a great man,” says a man standing beside me, “The country has not seen a leader like him after independence. And I don’t think it will, either.”
I nod in agreement.
“I had the chance of meeting him once,” the man continues, “Such a humble man he was. So down to earth. He did so much for my community. He did so much for all of us.”
I wonder what to tell this man. Do I tell him that the leader whose death he’s mourning is one of my best friends? Or that, at least that is what I like to believe, for our relationship became skewed, twisted and gnarled a long, long time ago. Do I tell him that we spent a significant portion of our youth together, at the same college? Do I tell him that we were partners on numerous secrets that form the cherished memories of college life?
He would not believe me. He would think I’m another one of those who brag about personally knowing a successful person. So I tell him nothing.
I returned to my house. My wife left me a few years after marriage. My parents are long dead. I have a brother who has been more successful in life than I have. He doesn’t sit in his ancestral house and crib about old friends.
I switch on the TV. They are telecasting his last rites. The van moves slowly across the city. It is surrounded by a vast crowd. Men and women who mourn his passing away. I keep the TV running and go into the bedroom. I switch on my computer. I search for a photograph. His and mine. Taken a long time ago. I call it up on the screen. We are standing in a garden. Our spouses are right beside us. The colors are still rich and vibrant. I run a hand across the screen and then smile at my own stupidity. Of course I cannot feel the texture of the photograph on the screen or smell those flowers. They are all images only. Images of a time long past.
The photograph was taken just a couple of months before he decided to run in the elections. It was a tough decision for him. I remember him spending many weekends with me, deliberating whether he should run or not. In the end we concluded that he should. It was for the greater good of the community.
All of us friends got together to organize his campaign. It was a Herculean task. None of us had ever done this before. We learnt as we went along. For about three months we did not think about anything else. The only thing on everyone’s mind was to make him win. And win he did. That too spectacularly.
How happy we all had felt the day he entered office. A large crowd had gathered that day too. He was being showered with good wishes. In all this he never forgot us. We got equal share in the glory of his victory. He constantly kept hugging us and thanking us. People clicked pictures. They made videos. All of us apeeared on TV at that time. But all the same, I felt very lonely in his office at that moment. There were lots of people over there. Lots of very important people. And my friend was now one of them. He was important too. And I was just that, his insignificant friend. It was as if the entire crowd had shrunk into a garment that he was wearing, reveling in the glory of this wonderful adornment and I was standing in the corner of his office, lonely and waiting for a morsel of his attention, for a warm smile or a loving glance from him.
I went away and locked myself up in my house. I busied myself in my work. Despite all that, I could not keep my mind off him. I wanted to sit with him once more, like we had always done, and discuss life, his and mine. But I could never gather the courage to go and meet him. Neither did he come and meet me. I am not complaining. I understand that he was busy. I understood it at the time too. He needed his time for better things. That is why I never went and met him. I did not want to encroach upon his time.
I think that is only what I kept telling myself in an attempt to fool myself. The real reason, I guess, was that I was afraid of the crowd. I feared that I’d get lost among the countless individuals standing at his doorstep.
He did keep calling me up every now and then. But our conversations were hurried. He kept saying that he was busy. He kept telling me about the big things that he was planning to do. Our conversations became formal and even curt as if they were being carried out like a burden. The burden of a friendship long past.
After a couple of years or so came the first allegation of corruption. The media was full with news of him having taken crores of rupees as bribe. Of course he denied all these charges. Then one weekend he suddenly appeared at my doorstep. He was carrying bottles of wine. He sent his secretary and chauffer away. We were alone in my house that night. We dined together. He began to talk about the great mental trauma that he was undergoing. He was an honest man. The mere suggestion that he was corrupt was too much for him to bear. But he was determined to fight it out. He was a strong man.
He had come to seek guidance just like he had always done. Over the years we had developed this relationship of playing counselor to each other. For years it had worked wonderfully. We had been a great support for each other. But that day I realized my inadequacy for the first time. He had grown beyond me. I could not understand him anymore. In the past couple of years he had matured much beyond my understanding. I was of no help to him. My suggestions sounded childish now, they sounded naïve.
We got drunk together that night. We had got drunk together on numerous nights before that but it was always for the same reason. That day, the reasons were different. He got drunk because he thought he had lost his reputation. I got drunk because I had lost him.
He said a lot of things that night. It is very lonely at the top, he kept saying again and again. It is very lonely at the bottom too, I wanted to say but I didn’t. He began sobbing. I just hugged him.
He fell asleep on my bed that day. I slipped a pillow under his head and slept in the living room myself. His chauffer arrived early next morning to pick him up. We woke him up and he was alert immediately. He went away hurriedly without even saying a proper good bye. It is okay, I told myself, he has to catch a flight.
Hours later he was inaugurating something big in Hyderabad. I saw him on television.
We kept meeting on and off over the years. He always invited me on all occasions. Sometimes I went and sometimes I didn’t. I attended his daughter’s marriage and his wife’s funeral. I did not go when he became a minister.
But all the same, we never really talked in the true sense of the word after that night. We only exchanged words. Smiling and nodding all the time but never really feeling.
I lost him a long, long time ago but I never figured out how to deal with it. Today I’ve lost him forever. I go back to the living room. They have set fire to his pyre. The flames reach high, just like he had always wanted to.