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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Friend

I still remember that afternoon during the 1994 summer break following the end of the 1st year exams, when I had received her call and in a very timid manner she had requested if she could be my friend. Her objective was very clear. She wanted to pass her exams. I do not know why she chose me.

When Smita (our Microbiology lecturer) saw her moving closely with me and my group of pals at BDC, I remember she called me aside and warned me that Raji was a dud and that she had failed her 1st year and was repeating it and I should be careful :) People's backgrounds or their IQ levels were never my barometer for making friends and so I did not pay heed to Smita's warning.

End of year 1 and the lady surely did not fare too well, but she was not the only one. While I certainly did not mind moving or associating with people who were not too intellectually or academically inclined, I did not like being made an example for my pals to show them where they stood in comparison and there began the counseling sessions. I realized Raji was not dumb. She was just challenged by the complexity of the medium of instruction(English) as her previous education was based in Telugu.

Raji wanted to graduate at any cost. Reason- she was promised a good job by one of her relatives.she did not want to get married and start family ASAP right after graduation or even without it.She knew if she did not graduate, she would be married off to some Tom,Dick and Harry immediately and so she fought.

She used to come over to my place and burn the midnight oil during the exams and I ended up coaching her as much as I could. she would get tired and doze off while I would elbow her, nudge her and bring her back to the books.

There were times I realized during the lectures that she would echo (10 times louder) what ever I answered when a question was raised by any lecturer without giving it a thought and to correct her, I remember I was mean enough to utter the wrong answers on purpose and watch the fun. Of course there was no malice. This was just the inherent naughtiness that I always indulged in.

Gosh, there are just too many memories. I will end up writing a book.

Then of course there was Sci Quest when we were in the final year. Raji convinced me to accompany her to her village "Tippareddypalli". When we were almost there she told me there were no loos in the village and people just relieved themselves in the farms to my utter shock.she was pulling my legs :)

I spent the most amazing 2 days of my life in that village in a mud house.Had tea made from milk that was just off the cow, food cooked with the vegetables that we picked ourselves. We went in search of abandoned nests that we brought back with us for use in the science exhibition.

Then came a day when I received a call, while I was at the University doing my Masters.It was Raji's mother asking me to come home. I realized this was something critical. When I reached her home that evening, I found her in tears and her mother told me they had found a good match for her. The guy was well settled, and was living in Hyderabad.But Raji was not interested in getting married.While my heart echoed Raji's feelings, I couldn't argue the practicality that her mother put forth in terms of a family that did not have the support of a male (her father had left them) and there were 3 younger siblings including a younger sister and two younger brothers who were still studying.There was no support and the mother was managing the show on her own.  This proposal was God sent for her. At that point in life, Raji was not inclined towards academics and just happy with what ever she was doing (a job with a computer institute). If there was anyone's whose opinion mattered to Raji, it was me and her mother knew this. I agreed with her mother and together we convinced her to get married. (I don't know if I did the right thing then,but having met her husband Prabhakar, I knew he was the best thing that could have happened to her) Today, in retrospection, I wonder if I had not convinced her, maybe she would have got married to someone else and wouldn't have gone through the agony of her husband's death with the responsibilities of 2 kids on her lone shoulders) There are so many "if onlys" that I am going through today.

I had gone for her wedding that took place in the village and also accompanied her to her "in law's" house in a neighboring village.I still remember that night when she was trembling in fear of the anticipated event and was burning in fever. She refused to leave my side (I was given a mattress on the terrace along with the other members of her family) No amount of convincing helped and ultimately a few women came and forcibly took her down to her husband.

I couldn't help feeling sad for her but to my surprise the next morning she was by my side to wake me up in time for the bus to Hyderabad, all smiles and no fever.
I returned back to Hyderabad, more relieved than ever.

In the months that followed, we remained in touch and she was blessed with Teja. Thereafter I got married and settled in Delhi and communication was not as often but we remained in touch as Raji never forgot to call up my parents to get the latest updates.

In the years that followed, I moved to Singapore and we hardly communicated directly. I got her updates and like wise she knew my whereabouts through my parents. One constant nagging worry she always had was the fact that I had not yet had children. Very subtly she kept driving the point home about how the medical field has advanced and how I should not delay but do something about it. She kept visiting various temples and kept praying for me to be blessed with a child.

My life got more busier with a job as a scientist in a contract research firm. I still remember the day, I received her call from India to congratulate me. Knowing her I couldn't expect anything ordinary. She started off by saying "Sonu you are very unlucky but I am lucky". When I asked her why and what made her believe that, she told me bluntly, "I can tell the world I have a friend who is a Scientist, but unfortunately you can't do that. You only have dud friends like me". Recollecting that conversation still brings a smile on my face till date.

That was her humbleness, her simplicity which kept me bound to her friendship. She was happy in my happiness and cried when I did. She had absolutely no expectations from me.

A few years later in 2003, she had a second child, a girl and named her Manasvi. Knowing Manasvi was fast approaching her first birthday, I was considering sending her a birthday gift and so Raji was on my mind as I had not received any updates or communication from her for over two months. During a casual conversation with my parents, I learn t the reason she had not called me for so long was because her husband Prabhakar was sadly snatched away from her in a tragic road accident. My parents hid this fact from me as they felt I would be mentally traumatized knowing how close a friend she was. This did not reduce my guilt. At a time when she was fighting the most challenging circumstances and struggling to come to terms with her loss, I was no where near her.

Soon after, I visited India with Raji on my agenda. Her son Teja, then about 5 years old had a lost look in his eyes. He understood that his father was not coming back from where ever he had gone. Manasvi was an active toddler, blissfully unaware of the sadness around her. This was a totally lost Raji I was seeing for the first time. No words needed to be spoken. There was an awkward  silence for a few seconds and a momentary flicker of a questioning glare from Raji, perhaps asking me silently why I wasn't there and why she was going through this. The moment only lasted for as long as I could remember. She threw herself towards me and I held her until the tearful outburst subsided. I knew she was going through the worst phase ever and this loss was irreplaceable. Later when she managed to calm down, we managed to exchange notes. She was offered a job in Prabhakar's intistute and seemed to make ends meet.

With the new job, she had regular access to emails and so we kept in touch more often now. In the years that followed, I found her fighting spirit rising again and although I never got to see the same old Raji again, I know she was trying hard to get back to normalcy. In order to secure a better job and career, she decided to do the impossible. She actually enrolled for a Master's degree in Chemistry and actually passed with flying colours.
I am so proud of her. She intended to enroll for a PhD making me realize how a strong will could move mountains. One only needs to have the Will to do something!

I made a number of visits to India in the years that followed and Raji never failed to meet up at each visit. It was August 2008 when I last met her during one of my visits to Hyderabad. Thereafter, my circumstances, a critical & high risk pregnancy (yes, finally it seemed like Raji's God answered her prayers) kept me from traveling to India. My son was born in September 2009 and Raji kept calling, asking me about my plans to visit India.

I finally made up my mind to visit India for Diwali in 2010 and told Raji about the same. We exchanged a few mails now and then and she kept asking for my arrival date. The demands of a baby, the job and home caught on. Life was getting hectic with no time for anything else.

On the 27th of May 2010, I got a one liner mail from Raji.

"sonu, how are you, how's babu"

I was so used to her one liner mails and forever irritated that she never wrote much about herself or the kids.

I replied back,

"Both of us are doing well. Life is too hectic though. Will be in Hyd during Dasara Diwali.

Love to the kids.


Will call u tonight.


Sonu "


Well, the so called "busy life" I led did not let me keep my word. I did not call Raji as I had mentioned.

On the 2nd of June, I received another two liner mail. This time from Venu, Raji's younger brother.

"Hai

 Akka this is venu Rajithas  brother

 Akka  31st  night died to stroke"
A few calls to Hyderabad and a talk with my parents confirmed the fact that Raji was unwell in the days before she passed away. She was apparently diagnosed with a heart ailment that left her in a lot of pain. On the 31st of May, while she was feeding her children, she collapsed and probably lost her life on the spot.
The ground was snatched from beneath my feet. The void and the loss I experienced that day and then on, is something that can't be expressed in words.
I went through mixed feelings, initially feeling really angry that she never bothered to let me know about her ailment but realized how this simple, down to earth village belle was so self less in her friendship.  The only thing she had ever asked of me was my friendship. Today, I feel rich knowing I had a friend who taught me the value of unconditional love and yet really poor for the fact that I could not reciprocate it just as well.
Raji can only be "unconditional friendship personified" and continues to live in my heart and memories forever!