On my first day in the bank, I met Raji and Venks, who remain my friends after 34 years during which the earth has become warmer, the world less quiet, and people more bitter.
Over the next few weeks, I met the rest of my batch. We were a some-what cosmopolitan group of thirteen. Seven of us were Malayalis, four spoke Tamil at home, one Kannada, and one, Bangla. There were three lovely girls, Raji, Mythily, and Sindhu, though not necessarily in that order. Only two of us, Gopes and Raji, were from Thiruvananthapuram. The rest were fresh imports.
All of them were well-informed, if not well-read. They could discuss anything under the sun and tried their best not to talk shop outside office. Mythily, brought up in New Delhi and LSR College, spoke at a fast clip. I followed her with difficulty, like I did Vivian Leigh or Joan Baez. But our colleagues at Puthenchanthai branch hardly understood her English. She was a small, slender, serious girl with a sunny smile and ate one apple for lunch.
Nija was the tallest among us, an adorable, happy-go-lucky fellow who loved food and films. He often sang – out of key – “Hawa mein udta jaye, mera lal dopatta malmalka, hoji, malmalka.” He and Mythily – who were seemingly opposite in every respect – fell in love during the first few months in the bank and married a few years later. They were the first to desert us for greener pastures, although our pasture was quite green at the time.
For some reason, there were a disproportionately large number of physics graduates among us. Gopes was an engineer from the IIT and Sindhu had done her MA in English. Gopes and Damu were products of two different Sainik Schools; their English didn’t have the usual Malayali twang. In fact, the only thing visibly Malayali about Gopes was his moustache; Damu didn’t even have that. There were two budding economists, Sriram and Mythily. The second named has almost fully budded now; she is a top-notch editor of a leading economic daily. Sriram was a warm young man with strong opinions and a hearty laugh that -- like a sparkler -- lit up the people around him. Most of us had done masters or equivalent and had been either toppers or very near the top of our respective classes.
The only black sheep in the group were Joe and me. We were not only mere graduates, neither of us had a “first class” under our belt. During our head office training, a venerable senior officer, KC Oomen took an avuncular interest in us and enquired each of us about their backgrounds. (Being a meticulous person, he would also jot down the details in a notebook.) I still remember the look of sadness on his face when I said I had a second class. For the first time in my life, I felt sorry for my academic record and thought I ought to have spent less time chasing girls at college.
Joe has a wacky sense of humour. After confirmation, he and Damu were posted at our main office in Bombay. Joe got a letterhead printed for them both. It read:
Menon and Manimury
Many years later, when we were living far apart in course of our peripatetic careers, once all of us had to gather at Thiruvananthapuram for something, possibly an interview for promotion. I reached a day earlier and took a room at Baba Tourist Lodge or maybe, Bhaskara Bhavan. Early next morning, when it was still pitch dark, there was loud thumping on my door accompanied by the announcement that tea was brought. Irritated and still asleep, I said, ‘Chaya venda!’
There was silence for a few minutes. Then further thumping and: ‘Caapi saaré!’
Stretching my Malayalam to its limit, I yelled, ‘Chaya, caapi, unnum venda!’
Silence for a few more minutes, followed by more banging of the door: ‘Saaré, naarenga velyam (lemon squash)!’
As I opened the door, ready to knock off the impudent hotel boy, I found Joe with a broad, mischievous smile on his bearded face.
A few weeks after we met, we were invited for tea to Raji’s home at East Fort. Her siblings were youngsters with sparkling eyes, for whom academic excellence came naturally. Their sparsely furnished house with its sparkling red cemented floor and white walls with few windows was in sharp contrast with the elaborately furnished Christian houses of Kerala. As I walked into their home, I felt I was entering an RK Narayan book, an impression confirmed by the later day TV serial Malgudi Days.
A few months later, I felt the same way when I visited Sriram’s house in Chennai, although from outside, his house looked quite different from hers. Sriram and Raji are in different corners of the world now, and each of them has done exceedingly well in their diverse fields.
Besides learning about different lifestyles, there was so much else to learn from friends. Gopes was, and still is, an epitome of balance and maturity. Raji would talk straight; she had a healthy irreverence for authority. Thomas is personification of sincerity, loved by all who come in contact with him. About twenty years later, I took over from him as the head of our main branch office at Kolkata. He was held in such high esteem by the staff there ... it was to be seen to be believed.
Just as sincere is Venks, who makes absolutely no attempt to mask his views to please people. Roy, Mr Dependable, is warmth. From Sriram, I could have learnt how to work hard, but I didn’t. But from Damu, I did try to learn something: not to complain about personal difficulties. He never does. If – God forbid – one found him floating on a plank on the sea after a shipwreck, he would still smile and say, ‘Oh! I am fine.’
Good friends are one’s best teachers.
[A note to those mentioned here and those who aren't: If you happen to read this, could you please pass it on and jot down your reflections to compare your notes with mine?]
Bangalore, 23 September 2009 / 900 words