This essay won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2021. The theme was Breaking Away. The judge, noted writer and filmmaker, Paromita Vohra had this to say: “A narrative essay structured with confident skill, hilarity and tenderness, that reveals a piercing truth: friends sometimes break away from each other, because they feel too much, not too little”
Rakshith had always been good at negotiating, so it wasn’t surprising when he told me that the auto driver before whom we stood, had agreed to drop us to the end of the street for free. The three-wheeler was the colour of a healthy bee with little birthmarks of rust on the sides. As I stood wondering if I should get in, the wariness suddenly bubbled up in my head in little packets of scary stories about strangers. I warned Rakshith that only kidnappers gave “free rides” but he brushed it off, as he often did my warnings, and hopped in.
I peered through the auto towards home hoping that Amma would feel some tingling in her belly and come out to rescue me, but she didn’t. My fate was sealed with a “Righyaaaa” that Rakshith announced like an enthusiastic bus conductor. I was furious with Amma for lying to me about her Mummy-Otte that she said informed her whenever I was in trouble; I climbed in to spite her for this betrayal. My fears were confirmed when the auto passed the house at the end of our street so I flung myself out. And my head landed on a rock. You may think my actions unwarranted but, before the start of our journey, I had pointed to the house in question stating that that would be our destination and the man had nodded. So when we crossed the marker I had to jump to escape my captor (who later, to my utter surprise, turned out to be just a good-natured auto driver).
When I got up, my bones held me like paperweight; I couldn’t move until my limbs came alive and carried me home. We found out the next day that I had a concussion. After that incident, the pressure to break off my friendship with Rakshith mounted. He was a bad influence on me and had no standard. I interjected every time they mentioned this to highlight that he actually had several standards, one cannot just go and sit in 6th standard without first having completed the five, but my argument was never taken into consideration.
Moreover, I never saw any of that bad influence they talked about. On the contrary, it had been the most lucrative of all my friendships. He taught me necessary skills such as breaking a cycle lock with only a small stone, climbing a coconut tree, and jumping compound walls. He was such an expert climber that he would wait until the Doberman in Komati uncle’s house ran all the way from the front gate and then skiddle up the other wall at the very end. Tyson would just
stand there and bark and bark and bark baring his teeth in a scary smile. I couldn’t understand why he hated this so much but I felt sad for him. There was something unsettling about seeing a dog capable of hate.
During summer that year, I was introduced to Chintu and Bunty; Rakshith made us shake hands so I tolerated them. I had only ever been acquainted with their grandfather, Doctor uncle, who I passionately despised. He was a tall old man who always wore striped pyjamas and tended his garden. His voice was a vicious shrill which was uncanny coming from his body and gave the impression that maybe some mean little alien creature had possessed him. But his garden was lush and full of flowers, most of whose names I did not know. The only one I recognized was roses and the ones in his garden were so thick they could’ve been made out of clay. The place even smelled like what I imagined forests did, soily and wet, and had a cooling effect on the nostrils when you inhaled its air. One day on my way to buy milk from Nandini Milk Parlour, I noticed him engrossed in watering his plants, he stood at the edge of the lawn and held the green pipe in a fencer grip. His index finger covered most of the pipe horizontally so the water spread out to look like a giant glass leaf. It was a welcoming sight so I walked over to the gate and raised my heel until he could see my head.
I pointed to the family of red flowers and smiled. I thought he would smile back but he only slightly bent his head towards me to avoid looking through the bifocals that sat at the end of his nose. It gave the disquieting feeling that he saw more clearly this way, maybe he knew that I didn’t know any more names. As I began retreating to save face, he pointed the pipe towards me and pressed its mouth. “Ay KATHI! KATHI! Nin Mukli mele yerad kodthin Nodu! He yelled while spraying me with Bore water. I ran so fast that my hawai chappal made pat pat pat sounds very loudly. For someone who avoided running as much as possible, this was fascinating, but my mind was soon pulled back to what he had said. Why had he called me a knife? And what was wrong with my mukli? Amma says I have a beautiful round face.
On my return, I eyed for the Doctor from far away and saw that he was still in his garden. So I stood behind the Gulmohar tree across his white coloured house, shifting the frozen milk packet from one hand to another until he went back inside. When I narrated the incident to Amma, she laughed, then explained that he was from Hubli, where they spoke a different kind of Kannada, and said that he called me a Donkey and threatened to hit me on my bum. I was disappointed that he said this to his own kind, after all, I was born in Hubli as well.
So as you can imagine, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to entering that territory just because Chintu and Bunty arrived. Rakshith on the other hand loved them, which somehow made me hate them more. Chintu had sharp features and looked exactly like Hrithik Roshan right down to the green eyes. When I asked him if he was from foreign, “Yes, from Shajah” he replied with a weird crispness very unlike his Hubli Kannada (My sister later informed me that that crispness was called an accent and Sharjah was in Dubai). Bunty, however, looked like a baby with a head full of hair, he had chubby cheeks and weak limbs. He even spoke in a totha-potha way. His eyes were quite brown unfortunately, I think this upset him although he never accepted it under questioning.
I couldn’t understand why everyone was so enamoured with them but ever since they appeared, Rakshith’s bad influence was overlooked because Chintu and Bunty had standard, I didn’t try to correct them this time. Moreover, Amma had long been waiting to infiltrate the doctor’s house so this helped. She had her moment when she got his daughter to come home with her new baby, Schmi, (her husband was reportedly a Schumacher fanatic, whatever that is). She took two steps past the threshold with Schmi on her hip and began talking about how different everything was in America. “America Dalli…” (in America…) she would begin in a musical tone. She was christened with that phrase forever: “America Dalli Aunty”. Amma wasn’t as driven to be their neighbours after that day.
I deduced that Rakshith liked to go there because of all the free stuff they gave us. We had never had such a steady supply of colour-colour foreign chocolates, movies and fascinating new gadgets like Bombay scooters. But he didn’t seem like himself when he was in their presence, that’s what I didn’t like. Let me illustrate with an example, when we watched movies in their house, the brothers sat on the brown sofa while we were made to sit on the carpet even though the sofa had plenty of space left, the Rakshith I knew would’ve charmed us onto that sofa effortlessly, instead of just doing what he was told. One day, when we were watching Spider-Man, an upside-down kissing scene commenced and I proceeded to turn my head away from the screen, as I’d been trained, but everybody began laughing at me so I turned back and let the scene corrupt my soul.
After the movie, we came out to the front yard to play spider-man amongst ourselves. Chintu and Bunty, feeling pumped from the movie, decided to open the front gate and ventured ahead to the dune of jelly stones a few feet beside their house. This was the first time they’d ever stepped out of that gate on their own. I was still angry at them for laughing at me so I picked up a few stones and flung them at Chintu. He dodged and then picked up stones to throw at me. The plan had backfired, the brothers were standing on an endless supply of ammunition driving me slowly away with a steady rate of fire. So I asked Rakshith for help; they demanded it.
He stood there confused and I knew that he’d already made his decision, he just had to go through with it. When he climbed up on the dune I suddenly didn’t want to play anymore. His betrayal felt like a splinter, safely wedged inside my skin so I couldn’t rid myself of it. “Illa stop. TP! TP! TP!” I shouted with my hand over my head until my throat hurt. They continued laughing and throwing stones at me. One of the stones hit me about an inch over my right eye and the little nick started bleeding. They ran in at once. The tears rolled out diligently and I stood there not wiping the blood. My eyebrow collected the thick liquid so it drooped a little.
The gate opened again but this time their father rode out on his red scooty. He took me to a clinic nearby which smelled of Dettol. Thankfully it wasn’t a very serious injury, no stitches were needed, I was told. The doctor admonished me for not being careful, I waited for their father to correct him. He didn’t. On our way back he bought me a small Cadburys chocolate and promised that I’d be alright, I nodded. Amma panicked when she saw my bandaged head, she was already worried that the auto incident had made me a little mental. It happened when they were playing, I think he fell, he said and assured her that she didn’t have to pay the medical expenses, it was totally fine. Amma picked me up and hugged me so tight that the rest of the tears that hid away in far corners squeezed out of me like toothpaste from an old tube.
My sister was heating milk for me the next day when I heard Rakshith’s voice in faraway whispers. He was talking to Amma. I was furious, I wanted to scream at him, ask him why he had come. But when I saw him, he looked sad. “Yeng idiya kano?” He asked and I felt all the creases of rage on my face disappear. He took me out and said that he was sorry. He didn’t know what he was doing and they would’ve broken off their friendship if he had helped me. I don’t know why he was explaining himself, I had already forgiven him but I let him go on a little while longer. We were walking towards his backyard where they had many coconut trees and some twig or other was always falling making periodic tak-tak sounds as it hit the ground.
I was a little afraid of that place because you never knew when a coconut would fall. I remembered the first time I’d been there. His mother called mine to tell her that a crow was attacking a family of squirrels. They had settled inside an empty coconut shell and the crow decided to act when the mother squirrel was out gathering, they always said crows were smart. We were told not to climb so we tried to shoo the crow away from below but stopped our efforts when we saw it peck and peck and peck like it had a jackhammer for a neck, stabbing a little squirrel to death. The crow then carried the dead squirrel in its talons. The cries of the mother squirrel were like a high pitched fire alarm that went on for many hours after she returned. I haven’t liked crows very much since.
My memory stopped playing when I heard Rakshith say something; his words fell like quiet knocks on my eardrums. “Huh? What?” I asked and he kissed me. I looked down at our lips, mushed together, and even though I knew it was wrong I didn’t feel like my soul was being corrupted, it felt like the opposite. when he stopped I saw the strings of saliva from our mouth stretch and break. We then lay down on the ground and stared at the sky without saying anything. I wasn’t scared of the coconuts falling that day.
He stopped talking to me after that. I used to see him come back from school on his cycle on most days but he wouldn’t even look towards my house. Two years ago on that same cycle, I had gotten my heel stuck in the spokes, so we rode the rest of the way back with my legs akimbo; giggling with tears. I was standing at the wooden threshold on the day they were moving away. His mother beckoned me to come inside. I came to say bye aunty, I told her. She smiled and asked me to wait, she would call Rakshith. But he didn’t come no matter how many times she repeated his name. I felt as though I’d suddenly grown many years older. His mother, confused by his behaviour, went inside to call him but he just wouldn’t show. I had really just gone to say goodbye, if only he had come out he would’ve known. It seemed that the raft we had built to sail through life together broke apart at the first wave.
I was tired so I ran home. Many years later I saw him on our street while playing Holi. I was much taller than him but he was the one to pat my shoulder. How are you? He asked. I was well, I told him and wished him happy Holi. Does he want to come play with us? No, his friends were waiting for him. We both smiled and I never saw him again. I realized then that rafts were being made and unmade all the time, some stuck, some didn’t, but no matter which way you choose to go with yours, we all fall over the same edge.
Featured Image by Mileena