Too Young To Die
On Sunday December 13, I sat with him, drinking coffee, listening to music and laughing about something I cannot now recall. With Rajiv, it was always that…laughter and joy. His mother walked in, put her hand on his head with an infinite sadness in her eyes. She said something to which he responded, “Mother, I have peritoneal cancer. My life expectancy is between eight to eleven months, of which four are already gone. So let’s not pretend I’m going to get better.”
I wanted to ask him how he felt being on death’s door. Was he scared? Did he sleep well? Wonder about the after life? But I held myself in check. “So,” I said to him, “do you read, watch television?” His eyes were bad, he said, plus he had attention deficit disorder.
We changed the subject and talked of nothing. I was just happy to spend a few hours with him on my trip to Ahmedabad. The previous day when I saw him, he told me to come the next morning at eleven. I showed up and he was taking a massage. “Ah, the good life,” I said. “Well, it feels good, the firm touch on my body,” he replied. He finished his massage, went to the bathroom and showed up in his den and ordered coffee for both of us.
Aside of the fact that his body was ravaged by the brutal assault of cancer, it felt like old times again. He kept asking if instead of coffee, I wanted to have a Black Russian. “Yo, it’s noon on a Sunday. The Lord frowns on people who drink on His morning, when He rests,” I told him.
A half hour later, I grasped his hand in the solidarity handshake. I wanted to hug him. I didn’t for two reasons: we had a waspish relationship that discouraged touchy-feely stuff; plus he looked so frail, I felt he would be physically uncomfortable if I hugged him. So the handshake was all. “See ya next month,’ I said in farewell. “Come back soon, it’s good to see you always,” he said. I left reluctantly and made a mental note to come back to visit mid-January.
On Monday, his wife Manini told me, he was going to the hospital for his chemotherapy and returning home only on Tuesday evening. I made a mental note to call Wednesday morning to see how he handled the latest bout of a cure that is worse than the disease. Early Wednesday at about 1.30 am, my phone rang. He was gone.
Our relationship was nearing 50 years. We were just twelve when we met in the ninth grade. A handsome lad, he made his presence felt, much to the consternation of our class teacher. Asked about his antecedents, he told the teacher he stood second in the eighth grade. “How many students in your class?” the teacher asked him firmly. “Well Sir, there were two,” he announced. The class broke into a spasm of laughter.
Later during the lunch break I sought him out and complimented him on his sense of humor. I also warned him the teacher could make his life miserable for making a fool of him. “True,” he said, “but he will also find out that my father is the education director for the government of Gujarat. That should give him pause.”
Since that day of June 1962, we became good friends. We discovered the Beatles together and Helen Shapiro and the Jarmels and the Cascades of “Rhythm of the Rain” fame. We navigated P G Wodehouse and James Hadley Chase and let our pre-teen hormones run riot, panting after any woman or schoolgirl who merely looked in our direction. Mostly, we built a world of our own, far removed from the moffusil sophistication of Ahmedabad.
Despite his friendship, I hated it in Ahmedabad. I wanted to leave home and after we finished the tenth grade, I left to go back to Bombay. We met subsequently during the holidays and we met again on the campus of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We lived in the same dorm but plowed different furrows; him in Commerce, me in Engineering. I was put off by Baroda in the first few days and decided I would quit and return to Bombay. As I lugged my bag to the railway station, I bumped into him.
“Hello, where are you off to?”
“I’ve had it with this place. I’m going back to Bombay.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he admonished me and grabbed my bag and steered me back to the dorm. He came and sat with me in my room and then told me to get dressed. “I’m gonna show you the magic of Baroda.” I went with him meekly that evening. We walked to the women’s campus where he introduced me to his cousin Sharda and her friends. From that moment, I never looked back and made Baroda my home.
Over the years we drifted apart. He finished college and went to the Bajaj Institute of Management for an MBA. I stuck around in Baroda to finish my course and then escaped to America. We stayed in touch and I made it a point to see him each time I visited India. He visited me too in Chicago. Our friendship survived the test of time and distance. After I relocated to India in the late 1980s, I visited Ahmedabad frequently to visit with my parents and my in-laws. An evening with him was always on top of my agenda.
Now he’s gone. And the Clapton song comes to mind:
Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven
That’s the tragedy. “Beyond the door,” the place that Clapton sang about, is a whole new game. I wonder: is there a ninth grade there, where we can start all over again?
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009