I met with Joe last night. It was during the yuletide under a starry sky, with Santa hovering unseen somewhere in the background. Curiously, Joe gave me a leather-bound copy of the Bible as a Christmas gift. Equally strange, I felt it was a perfectly normal gift to have from Joe.
And of course, it was normal to dream about a friend who died a few months ago.
What is curious about the gift of a Bible at Christmas? Well, although religion was a subject we never discussed, I don’t think Joe was seriously religious. While we lived close to each other in the same city, I never saw him going to church on a Sunday morning. In short, in the real world Joe giving me a Bible would be as absurd as me gifting him a copy of the Geeta.
Joe and Catherine got their elder daughter admitted to one of the finest Jesuit schools in Trivandrum, a school where securing admission was tough, and parents would consider themselves lucky if their children did manage the feat. Aarti was a lively child with curly hair and sparkling eyes, and I wouldn’t imagine any school refusing admission to such a bright five-year old. But Joe said, ‘You know, at times like these, I turn into a devout Catholic. It helps!’
As I write, lots of insignificant memories flash through my mind. I know not if they would be of any interest to anyone else, but let me write, simply because I love to recollect them.
Once, I went to Joe’s family house in Changanecherry while he was there. While returning from Trivandrum to Calcutta, I reached Changanecherry in the morning with a plan to board a long-distance train from there early afternoon. In those days of glorious uncertainty without mobile phones or Google maps, I had just taken a chance. After getting off the train, I started enquiring about Joe and his dad, a retired professor of English. Soon, I was walking through a drizzle in a laterite country with quaint tiled houses peeping out of green foliage on either side of the road, accompanied by a man in a lungi and followed by a pack of suspicious stray dogs. Joe had to be woken up.
The morning went past like a flash of electricity, and we started waiting for the lunch with a tinge of sadness. It was still drizzling, and getting rather late for my train. After enquiring in the kitchen, Joe came back and said, ‘Looks like you will have to make do with vegetables, the chicken is still alive.’
Instead of a salt cellar, on the dining table there was a small bottle of saline water with a curved nozzle. I don’t remember if the chicken had been dead by then, but I do remember Joe’s mother laid out a fabulous lunch for us. A kind of lunch for which one should gladly miss trains. Later, a couple of times, she sent us home-made fish and prawn pickles through Joe. They were heavenly.
She must be quite elderly now. Why did she have to suffer this cruel blow?
There was a time when many of our friends were posted in Trivandrum at the same time. All the offspring of our friends were great fans of Joe, who reciprocated their affection in abundance. I do not how Joe struck up such easy friendship with kids. Maybe, he had kept the child in him alive and would let the young fellow out when he was in company of children.
One day, Joe came to our home with Aarti on a Sunday morning. My children, Doel and Tatai were in primary school then, and Aarti was yet to begin schooling. Joe had planned to take the children to the zoo, but wanted to give Aarti a surprise. So he told Doel, ‘Get ready. We are going to the Ized-o-o’, imitating the Mallu pronunciation of z to make sure Aarti didn’t get the drift.
On another Sunday, Joes (his second daughter hadn't arrived then) and us went to the backwater lake at Veli in the outskirts of Trivandrum. After the usual boat ride and fun and frolic, Aarti got over-friendly with a puppy and picked up a scratch in her hand. It was just an affectionate nibble and nothing serious, but we couldn’t take chances. Joe consulted a doctor, who advised him not to worry. Still, Aarti’s parents continued to feel uneasy, naturally. The next Sunday, Joe and me drove down to Veli once again in Joe’s elderly green Ambassador, armed with two large packets of thin-arrowroot biscuits. We gathered all the mongrels of Veli that afternoon and after making sure that Aarti’s friend was hale and hearty, returned home, relaxed.
A few days ago, I was in Bangalore. We had just moved into a flat on the fourteenth floor, facing the east. On the first morning, I woke up early and went to the balcony. As an icy wind ran a shiver through me, I saw the blue darkness giving way to a dull light as the sun rose gingerly through a mist over a huge city dotted with countless buildings. Numerous windows were still throwing out light. It was a panorama where the day met the night, life met death. I thought it would have been great if Joe had been behind one of those windows. He could have been.