Every year, the 12th of January was our mini-alumni day. That is the day the gang used to meet up and discuss the happenings of the year. It was on the last day of college that we decided for this mini-alumni event. All of left with a promise to make it to the event year on year.
Of course, we did use to stay in touch through sporadic phone calls, but the 12th was special!
Members of the gang:
- Me (Keku), the fattest of all
- Dalip, the dumbest of all
- KC, the smartest of all
- Bakshi, the craziest of all
- Raahu, the bravest of all
- Paandu, the stingiest of all
Oh! I forgot to tell you the place of meeting. It had to be, of course, our favorite post-college hangout spot… the clock tower, 3 km from the engineering college in the town of Nahan in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Pretty interesting choice, eh? We loved the place.
Dalip recounted to us the tales of buses losing their control and falling into ravines after encountering ancient ghosts that haunt the bends on mountain roads.
Raahu then told us of jinns who engage themselves sportingly in fierce battles on moonless nights, leaving huge trampled circles in the corn fields. If not to the jinns, Raahu said, "to what else could these circles be attributed, for there were generally no storms or even rains on the previous night?"
As the sky turned gray and the downpour heavier, we had become confined to the old clock tower. As the clock struck 7, we saw a young man approaching toward us. Hey!!! That is KC. We were so happy to see our gang about to get complete. But why was he alone? Where was Bakshi?
The clock tower was desolate at that hour of the day. All shops were closed, except for a dimly lit tea stall that faced the clock tower. We could see steam coming out of hot tea that a merry old man was pouring into glasses. A young boy rushed to the tables to attend customers with a sense of emergency. We looked towards the tea stall as we talked and derived pleasure from the sight of steaming tea—it was very cold now—before it descended upon us that we wanted to have some tea too. Paandu gestured to the boy in the tea stall to bring five glasses of tea.
The downpour still continued, and the last bus was making its appearance at the bus stop next to the clock tower.
Next to Dalip sat KC, who, after the question was hurled at him twice, opened his mouth for the first time. I forgot to mention earlier—KC looked very tired and sad. We had in our minds blamed it to a tiring journey.
KC said Bakshi was not…
"Not???" we asked.
"Around," he said.
"Not around," what does that mean KC?
KC cleared his throat. It looked like he was about to begin a story. I guessed it was some long story that would explain why Bakshi was missing and what KC meant when he said that Bakshi was not around.
KC was a fine storyteller! It must be mentioned here—he could describe faces with astounding precision, mimic voices and walks, and tell of mannerisms and habits of his subjects. Such were his talents that if he’d ever describe to you a man you haven’t met before, you’d recognize him the next time you bump into him. KC lit up a cigarette and immediately put up an air of thoughtfulness, while Paandu gestured to the tea stall to bring the tea jaldi. Meanwhile, we made ourselves comfortable on the low concrete fence that bordered the clock tower. KC continued…
"As you know, Bakshi liked boxing and would practice for hours at the club, sometimes with me and sometimes alone. Hours of practice had made Bakshi quite good; he moved his feet briskly and delivered powerful punches. In some friendly bouts, he had almost knocked his opponents down in a few blows. Though not very strongly built, he derived tremendous force from the speed with which he administered his blows."
KC then stopped to puff at his cigarette. It was still raining just as hard, and dark had begun to descend. All of us were now immersed in the story, keen to know what was wrong with Bakshi. After a couple of long puffs, KC continued.
"You know Bakshi had a very uncommon temperament. He would always get interested in bizarre things—anything that would give him a sense of novelty or adventure. He’d pretty easily get bored of routine. That, to me, seems the explanation why his passion for boxing gradually left him and why he turned to ganja (drugs). I remember him telling me how wonderful he felt after a round of ganja. He would advise me to try it, but I resisted. I knew this thing was not good and tried to get him interested in something else, but nothing worked.
He lost health, vivacity, and even confidence. Within a matter of months, he looked enervated—a lost soul plus an absolutely purposeless fellow. It saddened me. He began to miss his boxing sessions and would spend time at lonely places. On one of his lonely strolls down the Pir forest, he even discovered a little creek at the foot of the mountain—which was also the location of the royal cemetery. Bakshi had somehow developed a real liking for the cemetery. He once told me that ganja and the cemetery were all we wanted."
We sensed something bad had happened to Bakshi. Dalip’s face clearly suggested he was upset that things went that bad and he was never informed. KC resumed.
"A few days before Diwali, I had accompanied him to the cemetery on his insistence. I read the epitaph on one of the tombstones—it suggested that the grave belonged to the commonwealth war, when English soldiers were stationed at Gwalior cantonment. I have to confess that I immediately took a liking for the place; there was something inviting there—in the indolent October sun, bright marigolds that grew in plenty and the sensuously warm tombstones. Peace everywhere. No doubt Bakshi liked the place and would spend hours reclining at the tombstones or taking strolls in the narrow trails that winded down the creek. Often he’d bring a marigold or two along on his way back. As of me, I didn’t visit the place again. And as Bakshi began to spend more time at the cemetery and in the forest around, I didn’t meet him for days... until Diwali, when I saw him walking up the market street in the middle of the night. He passed by like a stranger. I noticed that he was carrying a pale marigold in his hand. I called out his name, but he kept walking. I then walked up to him, turned him about by his shoulder, and asked if he was alright.
For the next two minutes or so, Bakshi kept uttering something in English. He was talking about his "troops" being given some wrong information about the location of the "enemy". Moreover, Bakshi claimed that the enemy had shot everyone in his unit… and he should die too. He then stopped as abruptly as he had started and walked away into the dark.
What Bakshi had said was undoubtedly weird. But what struck me more was the fact that he had hardly uttered one correct sentence in English all his life. You remember how he used to stutter when it came to English?"
"And there he stood telling me the story of some troops killed by the enemy… with a diction that was so unmistakably English… as if…"
"Then?" said Dalip.
"On the same night, his lonely strolls came to an end when he reportedly fell off the cliff near the cemetery… and died."
I can’t even describe our reaction to what KC had just mentioned. I admit I was not very shocked because the way the story was unfolding, I had started to expect it. Dalip and Paandu cried. KC wiped something off his face and continued.
"The doctors at the civil hospital said it was the effect of excessive ganja. The drug, they said, made Bakshi act in rather peculiar ways and it might have been the delirium that took Bakshi on that night to the edge of the cliff. People believed this explanation; it was, after all, the most educated one. But… I know! It was not ganja."
And that was all that KC could tell us. He then puffed at whatever was left of his cigarette and started walking toward the back of the tower. Our public open-air urinal stayed there.
We were really sad. Something terrible had transpired. I began to ponder over what he had told us.
The noise of the rain suddenly returned and seemed to grow louder by the moment. It had grown quite dark by then, and the rain was coming down just as hard, which made a jet of water on the road moving swiftly down the slope.
The stillness broke with a honk, and the headlights of an auto rickshaw pierced the dark. Someone stepped out of the rickshaw and started walking toward us. The visibility was poor initially.
But as the person came closer, it turned out to be… Bakshi.
We all froze at once. He looked at us, a little unsure as to why his friends weren’t so welcoming. He did not look that happy.
We had no clue what was happening. But then I figured KC had made a fool of us. It was a really difficult point of time.
Bakshi looked at us, and said "KC is no more. I got late because I was at the cremation ground… had to take the next available train."
I looked in the direction that KC was supposed to come back from. No sign. Paandu, Raahu, and Dalip just sat. I have no idea what was going on in their minds.
Bakshi continued. "KC had been depressed since last few months. He claimed one of his friends from the the Gwalior cantonment had died at his hands in the war."
We listened helplessly.
"And then one day, KC fell off the cliff next to the forest."
The next moment we saw KC joining us. This had to be the most helpless I ever felt. I did not know what was going to happen next. Were they both lying?
The moment Bakshi saw KC, he jumped in his direction. KC screamed, "Officer, I’ll kill ya… ya enemy" and charged toward Bakshi.
The two crashed into each other right next to us… and whoosh…