A Tale of Two Strangers

Mukesh Kumar
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Read Time:14 Minute, 39 Second

Sometimes strangers are not really strangers!
Sounds insane, right? Well here goes the explanation …
It was mid-November last year. A very cold evening in Kolkata. An unmarried twentysomething woman, a schoolteacher by profession, struggling to board an overcrowded bus
during rush hour—that’s me! Diyali Pradhan. Although it was cold I was still panting and
sweating as I ran almost half a mile from my school gate, not to miss the bus which I took to
my house daily.
But that day, for some reason the bus was unusually crowded. Also, I could not come out
of school on time due to some extra work, for which I had to run the half-mile. A distance
which, on other days, I used to walk slowly, enjoying the sight of the children’s chaotic
scramble and their eagerness to go home while their mothers gossiped about their daily
lives and their favourite serials and, of course, not to forget, indulged in a bit of bitching
about women they didn’t like—which we like to call ‘PNPC’! Women, I tell you! So
predictable …
As I’d anticipated, I missed the bus. Quite irritated—as I hate to wait for buses or trains
or anything—I stood in the shade waiting for the next bus, when a male voice quite
surprised me.
‘Can you please tell me which bus I should board to reach Barrackpore?’
He was standing behind me—a handsome man, almost my age. I must say that in that state
of distress, together with the irritation of having lost the bus, the presence of an attractive
guy gave me some relief! He was dressed neatly in a white shirt and blue jeans—the attire I
feel guys look best in—and with his hair done perfectly. He looked stunning.
‘I am going the same way. You can board the bus I am waiting for.’ I don’t know why I
gave such a weird reply rather than telling him the bus number. Maybe I didn’t want to lose
his company so soon. Loneliness can make you do unusual things sometimes, I tell you.
‘Oh! Thank you so much!’ he replied gratefully. ‘Actually, I am just one month old in this
city,’ he added.
I hadn’t asked for an explanation! But whatever it may be, I liked that he told me. I don’t
know why.
‘Oh! So you are not from Kolkata? Well in that case, welcome to the city of joy,’ I added
with a sweet smile.
‘Actually, I was born here but I left Kolkata when I was eight years old as my dad shifted
to Hyderabad on account of his job,’ he corrected hastily.
‘Then let me correct myself. Welcome back!’
‘Ya, thanks! By the way, I am Avi,’ he extended his hand towards me.
I was stunned for a few seconds. This was my usual reaction whenever I came across the
name ‘Avi’ as it was very close to my heart.
‘And you?’ he asked quite surprised by my reaction.
‘Oh! Hi, I am Diya,’ I replied quickly and shook his hands. I don’t know why I hid my full
name. Maybe because he was a stranger. ‘Nice name,’ I added.
‘I think that should have been my line,’ he winked and we smiled.
‘Avi’—my best buddy at school. Avigyan Ray. It’s a very common story. It all started with a
big fight on the first day itself owing to a seat. He had occupied my usual seat on the first
bench and I had, quite predictably, started fighting with him. But he had to give in due to my
popularity in the class and also my position as the monitor. But it didn’t end there. After that
day we became regular fighters. We used to fight with each other on every small or big
thing. Our fights didn’t seem to end until our teachers vowed to end it and put us together in
the same science project. No one could convince us to work together until the project was
made compulsory for everyone. Our destiny had made us work together but still there was
no end to our fights. Our views and ideas contradictory, quite obviously. It was only when
the last date of submission approached that we realized it was time to work more and fight
less. To everyone’s surprise—and mostly to both of ours—we achieved the highest score in
the project!
Everyone congratulated us. It was then that we realized that we could be friends too if we
stopped fighting. Quite surprisingly and unexpectedly, we became friends. Our fights
stopped. The teachers heaved sighs of relief. Within a few months we became very good
friends. We used to sit together, share our tiffins and notes, go home together, play together,
work together, have fun together. As if there was no one else in the class. My old friends
were very jealous of him. Slowly we became the best of friends—the inseparable ones. So
much so that the whole class started teasing us for our ‘chemistry’—some jokingly and some
out of jealousy. But we didn’t care. We had no time actually to care about such silly things;
our only concern was us (me and Avi) and our friendship.
It was all going well till the news of our unbreakable bond reached his parents. It is
worth mentioning here that he came from a very conservative family. So his parents took our
relationship—rather, our friendship—too seriously. Very shockingly he left the school—in
fact, he was forced to leave—in the very next session. Four years of fighting, working,
sharing, having fun—all came to end at once, and that too without any prior warning. I lost
my best buddy. It was like I’d lost myself. It changed me and my life totally. Thereafter I had
friends, but no best friend. I was quite scared to be so close again to anyone else as the
feeling of separation always scared me.
I lost all contact with him since, twenty years ago, we didn’t have mobile phones nor any
social networks like Orkut and Facebook to be in touch with our friends. I even didn’t know
where he went and for how many days, or even whether he would come back some day or
not. I had so many questions to ask, so many answers to get, but there was no one to answer
me …
My bus—or our bus, actually—arrived. An almost half-filled bus, just ten to fifteen minutes
after an over-crowded bus! It’s possible only in Kolkata.
I took a corner seat and he, as expected, followed me and sat next to me.
‘So you are a teacher in that school?’ he inquired.
‘Ya, biology teacher,’ was my reply.
‘Oh, biology! How much I hated this subject during my school days.’
‘Hmm. That’s quite usual for most boys,’ I said reluctantly. ‘So, what do you do?’ This
was my first question to him.
‘Well, I am a software engineer at a private firm in Hyderabad,’ he replied.
‘So you came here for holidays?’ I asked, getting curious.
‘We don’t have holidays like you, ma’am. I just got transferred.’
‘Okay, then you must be feeling happy, coming back to your birthplace after almost fifteen
years?’ I asked.
‘Tell me something, do you know astrology or something like that?’ he asked quite
curiously.
‘No. And why are you asking that?’ I inquired.
‘Then I must say I am quite impressed by your guessing power,’ he winked again.
‘I didn’t get you.’
‘I am back to Kolkata after exactly fifteen years,’ he explained.
‘Oh! I see.’
‘A smart way to know someone’s age! Thank you so much for teaching me this. I am
definitely going to use it someday on someone else,’ he joked and we laughed again.
‘But it was really unintentional,’ I clarified.
‘Come on, it’s cool,’ he said.
‘Where do you live?’ he started again after some minutes’ pause.
I told him my stop, and also informed that it was just three stops before his stop.
‘Oh, that’s great. Then I will have good company throughout my way,’ he smiled, then
continued, ‘I hope I am not being a bore. Actually, I enjoy chatting. It’s one of my habits,’ he
winked again.
‘And winking after every few minutes is another,’ I thought to myself. I was quite glad to
discover one of the habits of a stranger whom I met hardly half an hour ago.
‘Oh, no, not at all,’ I said. ‘Rather, I am also enjoying this conversation. Every day I go
home alone. Only my phone’s music list accompanies me. At least this is a different journey
from the usual one.’ It was true that I was enjoying his company.
‘So you listen to songs daily on your way home?’
‘Not only on my way home. I listen to music whenever I am free, whenever I feel lonely. I
love music. It’s my best friend!’ I replied, wondering what question he would throw next on
the topic of best friends.
‘Which songs do you listen to?’ his question was not on the track I expected.
‘Any soft, melodious song—Hindi or English, doesn’t matter. But it should be soft and
foot-tapping. Not something like rock or pop,’ I said.
‘And your favourite singer?’
‘Not one. But Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal and Enrique are my most favourite. And
yours?’ Now was my turn to ask.
‘A.R. Rahman, the one and only,’ he responded quickly.
‘So you live here in Barrackpore?’ I asked.
‘Ya, actually I am going to stay with my mom. My dad is still in Hyderabad. I’d gone to
an uncle’s place in Jadavpur. I was returning when I met you,’ he explained. ‘And you live
here with your family, right?’ he then asked, becoming more inquisitive.
‘Ya, me and my parents. But I have an elder sister too. She is married and stays in Salt
Lake,’ I told him.
‘So when are you planning to get married?’ was his next bolt from the blue.
‘Well, I think it will happen exactly at the time when it’s destined,’ I became
philosophical.
He smiled and I bade him goodbye as it was time for me to get off.
‘See you soon!’ he added which left me wondering for the next few minutes as to how we
were going to meet again.
And so time passed. Then, exactly one month and three days later, I found myself standing
at the Barrackpore bus stop. It was a cold Sunday evening and I was returning from a
friend’s place. I was almost shivering with cold. The newspapers said it was the coldest
day of the season, 7
oC in Kolkata, the cool westerlies making the situation worse.
‘Wanna have coffee?’ I was quite amazed by a familiar voice.
‘Hey Avi. How are you?’ I said.
‘Fine. Come on, let’s go there and talk.’
I followed him to a nearby Café Coffee Day.
We ordered coffee and our conversation started. I was fascinated by his looks again—he
was wearing a chocolate blazer, a cream shirt and jet black denims.
‘Kolkata is unexpectedly cold today. You quite vanished after that evening,’ he broke the
silence.
‘No, not really,’ I replied quickly.
‘A week after we met, I went to Jadavpur for some work and was waiting at the bus stop
at the same time, but didn’t see you,’ he said.
‘Oh, you were waiting for me?’ I joked with him for the first time.
‘Ya, I thought I would again have an interesting conversation but I had to travel alone,’ he
said quite seriously.
‘Hey, come on. I was just kidding. Maybe I didn’t go to school that day,’ I said.
‘Ya. It’s okay. So what are you doing here?’ his ‘interrogation’started.
‘I went to a friend’s place. I was waiting for a bus to return home.’
‘School friend?’
‘No, college friend’.
‘Only friend or …?’
‘Oh please, I don’t have a boyfriend,’ I checked him.
Our coffees arrived.
‘Even I am single,’ he spoke, munching on the cookies.
‘What? Impossible. I mean, why so?’ I was surprised.
‘Hey, what makes it impossible? Even you are single,’ he sounded irritated.
‘No, I mean you have many reasons to have a girlfriend.’
‘Really? Like?’
‘You are a software engineer, handsome, smart, well behaved and, above all, such good
company. What else is needed?’ I gave my thoughts away.
He responded, ‘Well, thanks for all the compliments. But while you know a little bit
about me, you don’t know what my family is like. My parents are very conservative. They
will kill me if they come to know I am so friendly with girls, or that I stay alone and have a
girlfriend. They are dead against love marriage. I will have to marry a girl of their choice
…’
‘Unbelievable. I mean, if the girl is fine then what’s the problem? It’s the twenty-first
century, after all,’ I interrupted.
‘They will never understand. You can say it’s not in our tradition to go for love marriages
or affairs before marriage. In fact, none of my relatives have had one such marriage. I know
it’s really strange but I can’t break the rules.’
‘It’s not any rule, just a forceful imposition of one’s own thoughts,’ I concluded.
Our conversation ended soon as I was getting late.
‘See you soon!’ was his usual farewell.
Our third encounter was quite soon. Two weeks later, in fact. At a shopping mall.
‘Spring shopping?’ This time I saw him first.
‘Hey, what a pleasant surprise! No, no, just a casual outing. Tell me, how are you?’
‘Oh, just the usual.’
‘You came for shopping alone?’ he asked.
‘Yup, just to buy some basic things.’
That was perhaps our shortest conversation as he was in a hurry that day. He had to attend
a function at some relative’s place.
‘Okay, bye! Have fun!’ I waited for him to say, ‘See you soon!’ But to my surprise, he
asked hesitantly, ‘Hey, if you don’t mind, can I have your number?’ He then added quickly,
‘Don’t get me wrong. Just for casual chitchat.’
‘Oh, sure. I don’t mind!’ We exchanged our numbers and bade goodbye—of course, after
his enthusiastic ‘See you soon!’
After that day we used to chat over the phone daily—sometimes for a few minutes,
sometimes for hours—about our regular updates, our whereabouts and everything. I don’t
know why I enjoyed chatting with this stranger so much, although he was no longer a
stranger to me. In fact, my fear to be close to someone also vanished after meeting him.
We became very close friends, sharing each and everything with each other. We waited
every day for the time when we would be free and could talk. We became restless if for
some reason we could not talk. Such a small, handy thing like a mobile phone can get two
people so close to each other. Both of us could not make out what was happening to us, but
we never discussed it. We were scared to do so, owing to his ‘family rules’.
After four months of chatting and casual meetings here and there, came the day of our last
meeting, 30 April 2012. It was his birthday and we planned to spend the evening together at
a restaurant which was somewhere close to the school where I used to study.
‘You know, I used to study there,’ I said, pointing towards the school.
‘Really, even I …’ he paused.
‘Hey, what’s your full name?’ he asked immediately.
‘Diyali Pradhan, but why?’ I could not figure out why he asked.
He was silent for a few minutes.
‘What happened?’ I persisted.
‘You know, my full name is Avigyan Ray.’
Now both of us were silent. We didn’t know what to say. Our voices choked, words
vanished. Our food appeared but neither of us even looked at it.
‘I think I should leave,’ I started saying, almost with tears in my eyes.
Usually when best friends meet after years they hug each other happily and ask so many
things and say so many things. But ours was a different story. We had tears in our eyes. We
also had so many questions in our minds, so many things to say, but none of us could utter a
single word.
‘Ya, you are right. And I think we should never meet again. I cannot afford to lose you
once again,’ his reply shocked me but he explained soon after. ‘Let me be clear with you.
You are also aware of the fact that if our chatting and meetings continue like this, we will
fall in love with each other. And after knowing that you are the one I was missing for so
many years, I am quite sure we will not be able to control our feelings. And, to be very
frank, it’s so easy to fall for you. So …’ he paused again.
‘You stole my words …’ I could only say this much.
We bade each other farewell for the last time and left. This time there was no ‘See you
soon!’
After that day we never met or talked. My city Kolkata! It gave me my best friend,
snatched him from me and again returned him after many years, only to snatch him away
again and never give him back …
Now whenever I miss my bus and wait for the next one at the Jadavpur bus stop, it makes
me nostalgic. Tears don’t listen to me and come out without warning. I sob silently, but there
is no one to care. My phone’s music list has become my companion again.
Whenever I recall those moments, I just wonder, ‘Why did I meet Avi that day? A
stranger, or was he?’

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