I rose stiffly as he entered the dining room – noisily, laboriously – and plodded towards the table where I was seated. I had been dreading this lunch, but once invited, could have hardly refused. I’d driven down, having taken the rest of the day off, for I knew that work would be the last thing on my mind after this meeting. Though it had taken me all of 20 minutes to reach, it had seemed like an eternity.
He smiled once he’d reached the table and said, “Ah, Thomas, it has been far too long.”
“Yes,” I said uncomfortably, not knowing how to reply. He sat down, grimacing slightly, taking his time to shift into a comfortable position. I followed suit, and was soon perched in my chair, waiting for the meal to begin.
“How are you, how is the missus?” he asked courteously. Circumstances had never dictated his reactions to them; his manners had always remained beyond reproach, almost to a fault.
“Just fine…thank you,” I said, my disquietude evident in sharp contrast to his comfort.
“Government service treating you well?”
I winced slightly.
“I wish you hadn’t left,” I said with some feeling.
“But you understand why I had to,” he replied in a measured tone.
“Yes, I suppose I must…”
He remained silent for a few moments and gazed out of the window. I stared at him unabashedly, noticing how much he had changed. I could still remember him as a rotund child, waving around his cricket bat, shouting, “Run, Thomas!” and laughing shamelessly when I was run out because of his misjudgement. No more than a ghostly hint of that merry child remained in the thin, sunken-eyed man seated across me today.
“Perhaps we should have picked another place, the ambience here is a bit sombre, don’t you think?” he asked, a smile playing at the corner of his lips.
I smiled despite myself. He had always been a bit of a charmer.
“Yes, perhaps,” I replied with a little more warmth. “I suppose we could put that one in the suggestion box.”
He grinned broadly, and his gaunt features filled out for a moment, revealing a careless, rugged handsomeness, now fast fading. I grinned back, forgetting myself for a moment, and then sobered up again as a turbaned bearer appeared, carrying a tray laden with two steaming bowls of soup. My companion studied it carefully.
“Lentil and coriander with just a hint of chicken,” he said appreciatively after a moment. “Just the way I like it.”
He began to eat, slurping noisily. I, too, picked up my spoon, although the delicacy of the broth was lost on me. I’ve never understood these thin, peppery soups – I prefer mine rich and creamy. But then, in any case, I can’t say I’d worked up much of an appetite for this particular meal.
“So, how is your work going? Anything exciting?” he asked conversationally as he tucked in.
I could talk about anything but this, I thought to myself quietly.
“No. Business as usual,” I replied at last, attempting to keep my answers as short and uninteresting as possible in the hope that he move away from this line of questioning. He nodded, but said nothing, and continued to eat with relish. I toyed with my soup, swirling it around in the bowl, trying to avoid his eye. A few minutes passed, pregnant with conversation that I could not bring myself to initiate. I settled for scrutinizing him out of the corner of my eye instead; if he knew that he was being watched, he did not acknowledge it, and concentrated on the dish before him. Watching him eat with such gay abandon made me feel slightly queasy.
A few moments later, the bearer coughed delicately, and, catching his eye, I nodded. Presently, the soup bowls were cleared: mine hardly disturbed; his almost empty.
“Do you remember,” he asked suddenly, “how we used to play cricket for hours and hours at your parents’ house?”
If I were a crying man, I suppose I would have teared up at this juncture. Nevertheless, the composure that I had resolved to maintain throughout the lunch began to falter, and I struggled to maintain a stiff upper lip. He watched me, mildly amused, wearing a pleasant expression as if he’d asked about something as mundane as the weather.
“I do, Ram,” I replied softly, unable to manage any more than that.
“What happened to that house in the end?” he asked with a hint of concern.
This I could handle.
“Oh, it reverted to the government upon my father’s retirement a couple of years back. My parents left soon after that anyway; they didn’t bother to look for another place here.”
“I hope they’re well?” he asked politely.
“Yes,” I replied tonelessly.
The bearer reappeared, carrying plates and cutlery for two.
“Excuse me,” I said, and the bearer looked up, surprised at being addressed. “But one set will do.”
“You’re not eating?” Ram asked.
“No, I’ve lost my appetite,” I mumbled in response.
“Well, don’t mind if I do,” he said brightly, as the bearer placed a plate, spoon and fork in front of him. “I have a long journey ahead.”
I winced again, but made no comment. We both watched the bearer return with a tureen of mutton curry and a bread basket.
“Mutton curry!” Ram exclaimed happily. “I’d resolved not to eat too much, but I don’t suppose I’ll be able to restrain myself now.”
Have you ever been in a situation from which you desperately want to escape, but at the same time, you also find that you can’t tear yourself away?
“Are you sure you won’t have some?” Ram asked as he served himself.
I nodded quietly. I had begun to perspire heavily by now; my shirt had turned damp and clung wetly to my back, and my feet had grown clammy within my socks. Ram, on the other hand, was a picture of serenity in his spotless white clothes, not a hair out of place as he ate slowly and methodically, closing his eyes as he savoured each bite. A memory stirred in my brain; of Ram and I – two ravenous 15 year olds – eating our way through an entire karahi of mutton that was actually meant for his whole family, and incurring his mother’s wrath in the process. I had been contrite, looking down in shame as she had raged, but Ram had failed in his apology: a hearty belch had intervened, after which he’d begun to laugh helplessly. Shocked, I had anticipated further punishment, but fortunately for us, his mother had seen the humour and had forgiven us in the end, even handing us some sweetmeats to top off the illicit meal.
“So, what do you think of the new government?” Ram asked seriously, interrupting my reverie.
“There’s hope,” I replied noncommittally.
“Is there, now?” he asked keenly. “Are these your words alone, or your colleagues’ as well?”
I eyed him warily, sensing the first hint of hostility.
“There is,” I said firmly. “The man knows what he’s doing, and he knows what constitutes the common good.”
“Yes. But whose common good?” he asked sharply.
I sighed. “Look, Ram, you must understand…”
He waved me into silence, and the only sound for the next couple of minutes was the faint chink and scrape of cutlery. I checked my watch as he finished the meal and set his plate aside: there were still a few minutes to go. Precious few, I thought, as the bearer returned to clear the table.
“Well, that was excellent,” Ram said contentedly. “You really should have had some,” he remarked, and belched richly in a manner reminiscent of that notorious emission before his mother. He remained quiet after that, humming tunelessly and looking around with a mild curiosity. His ceaseless calm; joviality almost, made me want to cry out in anger and despair. What was he made of?
“Why did you call me here?” I burst out finally, unable to bear it any longer. “Why me? You quit so many years ago and right near disappeared. All the news I’ve had about you since then has come from the bloody newspapers. And now, today, of all days, you think of me? Why, Ram, why?” I spat out the last word, concentrating the anguish, despair and sense of betrayal accumulated over the past six years into that one syllable.
He surveyed me for a moment as my chest heaved with every breath, the agony of the moment writ large on my face.
“Because you are still my best friend, and I still love you,” he replied simply. “And I had to see you once before I left.” His voice quavered almost imperceptibly. “Even though…we find ourselves at odds now,” he finished quietly with a wry smile.
My wavering composure finally deserted me, and I buried my face in my hands. A few moments later, someone touched my shoulder, and I looked around.
“It is time, sahib,” said the bearer expressionlessly, as if he had done this several times before.
Ram stood up heavily, refused the bearer’s offer of assistance, and began to walk towards the door – slowly, laboriously, the shackles impeding his movement. I, too, rose, shocked at the abruptness of his departure, but stood rooted to my spot. Unwittingly, I began to count the steps between him and the dreaded portal, for I knew that once he crossed, there was no turning back. I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” I stopped counting as the door opened with a creak, the sound echoing through the room with a chilling finality.
He paused at the open door and turned around. The afternoon sunlight streamed in, casting incongruous shadows that danced on the bare stone walls.
“Long live the King, Collector sahib,” he called out mockingly, as the tears began to stream down my face. “And inquilab zindabad!”
Outside, His Majesty’s gallows awaited their latest victim.
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