It was a ritualistic call back home, just when I was boarding the flight to Dubai last month - to inform my mother that I will be out of country for 4-5 days.
"Do you know? Lootu expired!," she told me, just as I was being ushered inside the aircraft cabin. "I came to know this only yesterday. He had a massive heart-attack, and died on the spot... that was in February."
There was nothing much to do with the sudden numbness. Before the flight took off, I made a quick call to the third of us teenage trio who grew-up together - long walks in Lucknow cantt, sitting on Pipra Ghat, writing/ sharing poems, discussing books, musing/discussing/fighting on our in-process-of-getting-formed perspectives on life and self - and in the process, sharpening it...
Next fortnight, when I visited his place, auntie had grown old and forgetful. His brother, in a way summarised his life, "You know that. He lived a reckless life..."
And so, during last month and a half, I have of and on thought about him, about our first meeting when we were 12-13 year old, our hitch-hiking trip together to Kathmandu, those long late-night tea sessions in hostel canteen, our growing up together, and our drifting apart and intermittent meetings once in a while...
...and then today, Recurrance happened. While doing some housekeeping of old documents, came across this piece I had written in May '81. It was like finding an obituary which was written 27 years too early!!
When I returned from the office, the postcard with a torn corner was lying on the floor. "It is with deep sorrow that we inform you of the sad and untimely demise of Mr Asutosh Kumar…" it read in an impersonal bureaucratic tone. As if the message deliberately aimed as dissociating any personal meaning from the words.
I sat down, numb and uncertain. When you are middle-aged and an old friend dies, the feelings are mixed and confused. Emotions rushed forth within me and tripped over each other. A sense of triumph for having outlived him, a feeling of guilt for feeling so, for being alive while he was dead, a sense of despair, of time and life slipping away from between the fingers, of one's own mortality - all these combined and prepared a curious blend of crooked emotions.
Asutosh was an old friend since the hide-and-seek and marble days. We had grown up together and learned the strategies of living through common experience. Though time and adulthood had drifted us away into different compartments of life, the bond of a common past had somehow lingered through occasional new year and birthday cards. And now he was dead and it felt unreal.
Death makes so many things unreal. There were so many irrelevant, yet magically significant experiences Asutosh and I had shared with each other. Somehow, this commonality of our memories made me feel my past as more real, more concrete, more secure. As if I found a comforting validation of my life in his memories. But now, those memories were gone, irrevocably lost, with Asutosh, and along with them, the objectivity they rendered to my past. My memories could well have been my autistic fantasies.
Mechanically, I got up, mixed myself a drink and lit a cigarette. I was awed by the change in the meaning of death over time. When my father had died, and that was nearly twenty years back, I had accepted his death as natural, as the logical conclusion of a life lived. I had acted like a realist, had accepted the inevitable, and had efficiently managed the rituals of his last rites, the bank account, policies and the certificate. I had felt myself grown up and his death had been my passing test into the adult world and maturity.
But now Asutosh was dead and what I felt was an empty hole in my life-space. Death, after all, I reflected, is not the conclusion of life. It dogs through the every step of life and takes one by surprise. It had struck me now, but I will go on living. A little less, perhaps, for a portion of my life was dead with Asutosh. Perhaps, that is why we mourn death, because a part of us dies with others - just as it had lived with others. I wondered if life - my life - was only a summation of its pieces that lived and died with others…
My eyes looked through the windows. The sun had gone down and sky looked gray and dusky. In a few moments it would be dark. I looked toward the approaching night and tried to accept its inevitability…