Friendship is a fragile thing. Five years of it ended by one foolish mistake. The hard part was in accepting that I was to blame.
The pleasant tune of my ringtone awoke me on an early Sunday morning. My hands, still restrained by the shackles of sleep, fumbled for the phone and found it on my desk. I squinted into the lit screen to find out who was calling.
Trembling, I held the phone to my ear and spoke.
“Hello Aditya,” came the high-pitched reply of a voice I had not heard in years.
“Sorry for calling you so early in the morning,” she apologized.
I reassured her that it was no problem, and asked her to continue.
“It’s about A-anant. He’s in the ho-hospital,” she quavered.
My heart started racing. “Which hospital? I’m coming over now,” I said.
The day of the JEE results – that was the last time I saw Anant. We had been drifting apart for some time, especially after his dismal results in the last mock test. He was still using. I knew. I saw all the tell-tale signs – the dark shadows under his eyes, the sudden, jittery movements, the trembling of the hands. I had told him to mend his ways and use the brains God had given him. I think I wasn’t effective enough, and distracted by my own troubles. He performed miserably, to the shock of his parents, my parents, and me. He didn’t seem to care much.
I was wrong, of course. He cared a lot, and the tiny number handed back to him as a measure of his worth was enough to send him into an even bigger pit. I’m afraid we all lost him after that.
I never checked up on him much in the subsequent months. I give myself the excuse that it was because I got busy with college, but I know deep down that it was because I didn’t want to be responsible for him; I didn’t want to associate with him.
I hurried out of the rickshaw without bothering to collect my change, and rushed up the flight of stairs leading to the ICU. They were both sitting outside, looking like the world had ended.
“Hello uncle, hello aunty,” I greeted them cautiously.
“Hi Aditya,” came uncle’s curt reply.
They both looked worn and defeated. An early morning hospital call meant that they had thrown on whatever was on top of the clothing shelf and arrived bleary-eyed into the hospital. Uncle had grown older – more grey, more lines, but the same sharp, intelligent eyes I remembered. Those eyes looked at me coolly right now.
“Sit down with us,” he motioned to the empty seat beside him.
As I passed, I caught a glance at Anant’s mother. She was messily wrapped up in a sari, clutching her handbag close to her chest, as though it were her son.
I nervously sat down next to uncle. These people had once been like a second set of parents to me. Distance and time had taken their toll though, not to mention that they probably blamed me for what had happened to their son. I know I did.
“How’s Anant doing?” I ventured to ask.
“We don’t know for sure. We got the call early in the morning from the hospital, almost at 3 AM. We rushed here and were told that Anant is critical. I expect the doctor will be out shortly to discuss his condition,” uncle replied.
“But what happened? Where was he? What happened to him?” I asked, distressed.
Uncle pursed his lips and kept his silence. Aunty replied for him.
“The attendants told us some l-labourer found him in the c-construction site nearby,” she stammered, fighting back tears. “A-apparently, he had overdosed on d-d-drugs,” and she broke down in silence.
I sat there, stunned. I didn’t realize that Anant had gone this far. Or perhaps I did, and just hoped nothing would come of it. Nothing that would cause me to be blamed.
It was in a hospital just like this where I made the decision to never touch drugs ever again. It makes me shudder to think what might have happened had things gone differently, if I had still been using.
Our college had organized a trip to the hospital in association with some NGO, to spread awareness against drug usage. I would not have even gone, had it not been for my abysmally low attendance and the threat of expulsion. For two hours, I endured the cheesy lines spouted by hospital officials about the dangers of drugs.
The most exciting moment came when we were led past the ward where the addicts were admitted. We were not allowed to enter, of course. “Addicts can do anything to get some drugs,” the matronly attendant told us. They were too dangerous. Better to gawk from afar.
I excused myself to go to the bathroom. Having relieved myself, I rinsed my hands in the tap. I saw a dishevelled man in hospital robes enter behind me. His hair was matted and he seemed to be a bit drunk. He took a look at me and his eyes went wild. He rushed over and before I could react, he had one hand firmly over my mouth and the other grasped my throat.
“You have drugs, don’t you? You shoot up, I can see it in your eyes. Give me some, or I’ll kill you,” he whispered menacingly.
I desperately shook my head, trying to tell this madman that I did not have anything he wanted. He squealed in frustration and searched furiously in my pockets and backpack, throwing its contents to the floor.
“You were using! You’ve hidden it somewhere!” he pointed at me accusingly.
“No, I promise I don’t. I just came here to pee,” I pointed at the urinal in a desperate attempt to explain.
His face lit up at that. He dashed over to the urinal and broke open the pipe, muttering “Drugs goes in piss, drugs goes in piss.” He must not have found what he was looking for, because he then began to lick the urinal itself. I left my backpack right there on the toilet floor and ran.
I ran all the way outside the hospital and took a rickshaw to my home. I broke down crying in the rickshaw, which must have elicited some glances from the driver. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw to my horror that I was starting to resemble that junkie – the same dark shadows under the eyes, the same jerky movements, the trembling hands. I was becoming him.
I refused to. I stopped hanging out with my old friends and got rid of my secret stash. I broke off contact with my dealers and started to study seriously. It worked out well for me, but not for Anant. He had not been on that class trip with me.
The ICU doors swung open. All three of us stood up almost simultaneously. The doctor walked out looking grim. He noticed the three of us looking at him expectantly and deduced that we must be relatives. He strode towards us.
“How’s he doing? What’s his current state? What’s happened to him?” uncle fired off questions rapidly.
The doctor held up his hand, asking us to settle down.
“Anant Jeevakarnan is your son?” he enquired.
“Yes. I am Giri Jeevakarnan and this is my wife, Ananya Jeevakarnan. This is Anant’s friend, Aditya Ramdas,” uncle quickly explained.
The doctor made a note of all this.
“I advise all of you to stay calm and pray for the health of your son, and friend,” he said tilting his head at me. “He has overdosed on heroin, and is currently suffering from acute respiratory failure and an unstable pulse. We have put him on a ventilator and are currently administering nolaxone, which inhibits the effects of the drug. He is not responding to the antidote as well as we’d like, but we’re monitoring his progress,” explained the doctor.
The three of us took some time to find our words.
“He-he overdosed on heroin?” aunty asked disbelievingly.
“Yes, I’m afraid. I suggest that after he is discharged, you have a good long talk with him and take him to a rehab clinic,” the doctor offered.
“You said he’s not responding to the antidote as you’d hoped. What do you mean?” uncle cut in.
“We usually see a much more marked improvement after giving the nolaxone. It might be that his physiology is such that the drug is not having as strong an effect. His has definitely improved, just not as much as we’d hope,” replied the doctor.
“So is he out of danger yet?” I asked, drawing the glances of both parents.
“Well, I’d advise you all to be calm. There are definitely complications that can still arise, however I have confidence that your boy will pull through,” he said cheerfully.
A pall of gloom settled over the three of us, and as the doctor left, we sank back into our chairs.
It had been a few weeks since our coaching classes had started, after the first mock test. Anant had performed outstandingly as usual, while I had barely scraped through. But that didn’t matter, sitting as we were on the terrace of a friend’s guest house in Lonavala. A bonfire was lit before us, and we were passing around the roasted peanuts and chivda so common at these types of gatherings. Each of us had a tall glass of Chivas Regal beside us. I had poured Anant’s glass myself, giving him a little less than the rest of us since it was only his third time.
As the night went on, we drained our glasses. One of my friends went back inside his house to bring out the harder stuff. As he started rolling the joints, I recognized a look of apprehension on my dear friend’s face. I shuffled over to him and whispered, “You okay?”
“A little nervous, that’s all. You sure I won’t get addicted?” he asked me anxiously.
“Weed doesn’t get you addicted. Just chill out and enjoy the high,” I replied sagely.
“Okay,” he whispered excitedly as he accepted the small white cylinder I handed to him. “What do I do?” he asked innocently.
I lit it for him. “Now put it in your mouth, suck it deeply, take another deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, then let it out,” I instructed.
He followed perfectly. As he let out the smoke between his teeth, he laughed in exhilaration.
“Give me more.”
We fidgeted nervously as the time passed. Uncle said he was going to get some water, and I volunteered to go with him. We walked in taut silence until we reached the water filter. As he bent over and held a glass underneath the running stream, he reluctantly asked me,
“How’s college going?”
“Not bad, a lot of new experiences,” I tersely replied.
He drank the water and we started walking back in strained silence again.
“What was Anant doing after the JEE?” I hazarded to ask.
Uncle flashed me a dangerous look, but spoke. “He… changed a lot after that. None of us expected his results. We thought he was doing fine.”
“His mother tried a lot to get him to talk, but he said nothing. He kept saying he’ll study more, he’ll prepare more, so I decided to send him over to his uncle’s place. Fewer distractions there, I thought. I had already suspected he might be involved with the wrong kind of friends” - I glanced towards him at this - “, in the wrong kind of activities, but he seemed to just be tired. I hoped, prayed that he would come around. I guess I was wrong,” he winced. We headed back and sank into the well-warmed chairs, waiting.
“Did you get the third question?
“Of course, it was easy,” he admonished.
I rolled my eyes as I sidled up to him, waiting for his instruction. They always helped me understand the subject matter much better than any teacher, a pattern I had observed since we were in 4th grade together. He gave me some tips, and I finally saw the answer.
“Damn, this was easy,” I remarked.
“That’s what I said. Now help me with the 8th one,” he replied.
“You’re on the 8th already!? Slow down for me,” I bemoaned.
We had always studied together. I would keep distracting the two of us from our studies, while Anant would keep reeling me back in. That was fortunate, else my academic career would have ended much earlier.
I began to pace the corridor to quell my nervousness. A rumbling in my tummy reminded me that I had not eaten breakfast, and it was nearing lunchtime. I asked uncle and aunty if they wanted anything to eat from the hospital canteen. They both said no, but I decided to get them something anyway.
I walked down to the cafeteria and ordered a couple of vada pavs for myself, and got a couple of dosas packed for uncle and aunty. I sat there munching on the piping hot preparation, glad for its warmth and taste. I was also somewhat glad to be away from them for a while. The feeling of guilt was getting too strong to bear.
“How many do you want, Anant?” I shouted across the street.
“Get me three! Without chutney!” he shouted back.
“Yes, yes, I remember,” I said to myself as I paid the shopkeeper for six vada pavs. I took the newspaper covered parcel from him and cautiously crossed the street, handing Anant his share.
I smiled inwardly at the sight of him tearing into them.
“See? Aren’t you glad we bunked today’s class? Seema miss is not going to miss us anyway,” emphasising the double-miss to impress him.
He rolled his eyes as he continued to eat. “You she will definitely not miss,” he replied.
I mimed hitting him in mock outrage as he laughed. I laughed along with him.
“Alright, where do we go now?” he asked me.
“Let’s go to Marine Drive. It’ll be really beautiful with the high tide. We can then go to the beach from there,” I suggested.
“Alright then, let’s go,” he said gleefully.
This was one of the many adventures Anant and I had together. We used to be inseparable back in school, the scholar and the stud. I enjoyed his company more than any of the other friends I had, even the ones who shared more in common with me. I used to freely meet him at his house, and he was just as comfortable coming to mine. Our parents treated us as their own children, to the extent of scolding us if we had done something wrong. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Drugs poisoned the thread of our relationship, which the JEE results finally snapped. Now, there might be no thread left to repair at all.
When I got back to the corridor, I saw uncle and aunty standing up, fidgeting nervously. The ICU light had gone off, indicating the procedure was complete. I rushed to stand beside them, the food in my hand forgotten. The doors opened, and the doctor stepped out, looking grim, his countenance inscrutable. He stepped up to us and spoke softly,
“I’m sorry Mr. And Mrs. Jeevakarnan, but we couldn’t save your son.”
A few seconds of shocked silence ensued.
Aunty broke down crying.
The next few hours were a blur for me. I vaguely recall uncle and aunty calling other relatives, close friends. They called my parents. I was brought back home, and my father told me the funeral was to be held the next day. I couldn’t register all their mutterings of “What a shame”, and “It’s not your fault”.
I remained similarly numb at the funeral. As I watched the flames lick my dear friend’s body, an intense feeling of despair and regret came over me. Guilt, for having caused this, guilt, for having led him down the path to his own destruction, guilt, for stealing a son away from his loving parents. I was the villain in this story.
I slipped away from the many people offering their condolences to uncle and aunty and entered their house. Almost automatically, I walked into Anant’s old room. I had last been here almost two years ago, yet it seemed as familiar as my own room. Of course, when we had been in school, I had practically lived here.
The room had been left untouched since Anant had been sent to his uncle’s place. The huge bookshelf overflowing with books of all sizes, the bare noticeboard with only a single note pinned to it – a note I had written for him on some Friendship Day long ago. I opened his wardrobe and saw his old clothes, his bright red Star Wars t-shirt which made it so easy to pick him out from a crowd. It was useful, since he tended to get lost easily.
Seized with a sudden desire to see his face, I pulled open a drawer, and picked up an old photo album I knew would be within. Flicking through the pages, I came upon a photograph of the two of us, Anant and I, playing on the beach. Anant has just finished making an exquisite sandcastle and I am crouched behind him, waiting to reduce it to smithereens, while looking suggestively at the camera with a finger on my lips.
The dam burst. I broke down crying. “I’m sorry,” I pleaded.