Prose: M. S. Karikath
A small yellowing black and white photograph, curling at the edges.
Lying in a bag containing various old odds and ends it had remained unnoticed for years, until one Sunday morning my wife embarked upon cleaning my study. She had a perpetual grouse about the way I kept my den.
‘Worse than a scrap-seller’s shack!’ my long-suffering spouse often grumbled. ‘Why do you clutter the place up with all sorts of old books, files and other rubbish?’
This was invariably followed by, ‘How can we expect the children keep their things neat and tidy when they see their father’s wonderful example?’
I usually maintain a stolid silence right through the verbal barrage, pretending to read something till the thunderstorm petered out. On this occasion however, I hung around nervously while mother and two gleeful kids set out on their mission with unshakeable determination.
Ignoring my bleats of, ‘Careful, careful! Don’t throw away those papers, they may be important,’ they ransacked drawers, pulling out old papers, bundles, the odd book looking like a mangy dog, photo albums and other such long treasured objects. All these were heaped on the floor for a final round of sifting; stuff decreed not required (by the mother) would be trashed. It was my daughter who found the old bag with a strong mouldy smell in a corner of a drawer. My wife opened the bag and with a grimace, unceremoniously dumped the contents on the floor.
‘Look at this Amma,’ exclaimed my son picking up the old photograph. ‘Isn’t this Achen (father) with a group of friends?’
The family immediately crowded around to take a look at the young faces, grinning away with all the glee of youth, standing on a ledge in front of a waterfall, a long time ago.
‘I have never come across this one before,’ remarked my wife after careful scrutiny.
‘God! Look at Achen and his long hair,’ sniggered my daughter.
‘And those bell-bottoms!’ hooted my son.
They looked at the photo and then back at me, taking in my balding middle-aged profile, with more salt than pepper straggly hair, clad in a crumpled mundu (dhothi) and shabby vest, and burst out laughing.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked stiffly. ‘I don’t look that old.’
‘Only about sixty Acha,’ said my daughter cheekily. ‘My friends have often mistaken you for my Muthachen (granddad).’
I glanced at my smirking wife, listening to the exchange with obvious enjoyment and retorted, ‘I only polish my shoes and not my hair like some people. I prefer to age gracefully.’
My family jeered derisively hearing my oft-repeated defence of my aging looks.
‘When was this photo taken Acha?’ enquired my son.
‘During my pre-degree days, when I was about your sister’s age,’ I replied. ‘Our class had gone to Ooty for the annual excursion.’
‘Who are the others? Where are they now and what are they doing? Are you in touch with them? Have we met any of them?’ the questions came in a torrent from my curious children.
I picked up the photo, and pointing out a tall figure at the extreme left said, ‘This chap joined the NDA (National Defence Academy) I think, and should be a senior officer in the army now. Used to be a good basketball player. The boy next to him went for his higher studies to Russia; his parents were in Moscow. And this short fellow, quite a comic he was, with his mimicry and things like that, wanted to be a journalist. Lost touch with him though, so I don’t know if he made it. This guy here was a budding political leader. The chap would always wear a white khadi shirt and would forever be scrounging off the others. Don’t see his face around in the papers so I suppose he must have fallen by the wayside.’
A good half hour was spent in trying to remember each one in the photograph. I could not recollect the names of one or two of them. Finally I got up to go for my late Sunday morning bath.
‘You missed out the boy standing next to you. What about him?’ came the dreaded question I had been hoping to avoid from my wife, pointing to a slim boy wearing specs.
‘Oh! Shankaran, or Shanku as he was affectionately called. He was my closest friend in college,’ was my brief explanation.
My obvious reticence served to arouse the family’s probing instincts and subjected to a relentless barrage, I reluctantly elaborated.
It was the first day at college and I was a trifle apprehensive. Having lived outside the home-state right through my schooldays, I was quite unsure of what I could expect in the new environment. Colleges in Kerala open during the monsoon and being unfamiliar with the conditions, I did not carry an umbrella, which is a vital part of any student’s gear in the state. It started raining quite heavily while I was still some way short of college. I quickly took shelter under the awning of a disused ration-shop waiting for a break. Just as I was despairing about reaching on time, a smiling face showed up beckoning me to get under his umbrella.
That was the beginning of a bond, which strengthened as the weeks went by. I don’t think I have ever shared such a rapport with any other companion of mine. Strangely, except for a common taste in music and games, we were quite unlike each other in temperament. He was that rarest of creatures – ‘a truly good human being’. I could never stop contrasting my shy, serious and slightly selfish disposition (probably as a result of being an only child) with his warm, open, generous nature. I guess my interaction with him helped me smoothen out some of my rough edges. He was good at studies without being brilliant and would always find time to help fellow students when they asked him, unlike some of the more gifted boys in our class. It was Shanku who steered me clear of the choppy waters in the early days, when we were wooed by the different student wings of political parties.
Shanku had an unusual ambition in life, to become a child psychiatrist. He was very fond of small children and was particularly moved when he came across any mentally challenged youngster.
I spent a lot of time at his place during holidays and got to know his family very well. His dad was an officer with an insurance company and his mother taught in a local primary school, a dignified, gentle couple. He had a younger sister, who was in junior school at the time. She became a renowned classical vocalist.
‘You must have heard of her,’ I finished, mentioning the name of a well-known singer who had also sung for a few Malayalam films.
‘Of course!’ exclaimed my wife and children.
‘Ok now, enough of old stories. I have to go for my bath,’ I said.
‘But wait Acha, you haven’t finished. What about Shanku, did he fulfil his ambition? Where is he now?’ asked my daughter.
I could feel my face stiffen as I murmured, ‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know? Did you fall out with him after all?’ asked my wife.
They were quite mystified by now.
I looked up, surprised at the keen edge of pain even though thirty years had gone by, my eyes filling up involuntarily.
‘He slipped and fell over the ledge forty feet below, moments after this photograph was taken. Afterwards, I never could bring myself to destroy it.’