You’ve Got Mail.
This seemingly innocuous pop-up can contain so much of life’s decisions. In today’s computerized age, so many people’s lives are dependent on this computerized miracle. Love letters, suicide notes, and job offers all get transmitted by the dozens. Human emotions, frail and otherwise, get packed into a few kilobytes of memory.
Nothing of that sort happened to me. Nothing so dramatic. The mail was from Joy, an old school mate of mine. He had unearthed my id from an obscure alumni site, and presto! There was mail. He is now a marketing executive in a leading chemical company, and wondered whether I still remembered him. We were together, studying in the same school for 10 long formative years. As before, Joy remained consciously social, and took upon the mantle of our unofficial alumni secretary with familiar gusto. His latest aim was to organize the class reunion of our beloved St. Patrick’s’ school in central Calcutta, and implored me to register my name at the school’s Web Site, now that I was transferred back to the city.
“That’s good,” I murmured as I navigated to my school’s site. The site was amateurish, with outdated java linkages. I smiled. Nothing changes; our school is still stuck in our times, I thought to myself as I clicked on my batch name—Class of 1989.
The hyperlink took me to a group photograph. The photo was old, the scanning of low quality. It was our Class VI photograph, and the fresh unadulterated faces of preteens greeted me. I gave the print command, picked up the paper, and peered closer.
The faces were familiar. I am still in touch with a couple. There was Sunny, as was Debanjan, and in the second line, a timid face squinting against the sun was me. All of 10 years old. But my attention was diverted to a tall boy standing in last row corner. James D’Souza.
From somewhere deep in my subconscious, memories came flooding back. My emails were left unread, my calendar unopened. I pushed back my chair and massaged my forehead. The headache was returning. The slow familiar choking of the arteries, something I had thought I had left behind. Long back.
I studied in an all-boys con-vent school. In our times, it was quite a reputed school, known for academic excellence and discipline. Christian missionaries set it up 100 years ago to provide education to local Anglo-Indians. Over time, the mission has diluted, and middle class Calcuttans now form the bulk of the admissions. But a sprinkling of Anglo-Indians remained, perhaps as last vestiges of a bygone colonial era.
One such vestige was James, Jimmy to all of us. I do not remember clearly when he joined our class, probably in Class IV. He had failed, and on a bright winter school-reopening day, we found him sitting on the last bench, head down in seemingly deep thought, oblivious to our excited chatter and din.
It was the preteen years, when girls still had not formed our epicenter, when masochism had not seeped in, or crass careerism found its way into our minds. We were innocent and looking for direction. We craved for attention, and searched for heroes.
Jimmy stepped into this void effortlessly. He had everything that we lacked, or so we thought. Not afraid of even the school’s principal, his swagger, indifference to studies, and cool attitude made an irresistible cocktail that left even the seniors impressed. He became our cricket captain, our football leader and before long, our class-monitor. Not that the school authorities were impressed with that development, but they figured that it was a good way to enforce discipline in the class. All of us, except Rahul our topper, revered Jimmy to the hilt. Till then, aided by the machinations of parents and commendations of teachers, we were conditioned to idolize Rahul. More than coming first, it was this adulation that got Rahul pumped up. With the advent of Jimmy, the forced admiration for Rahul fell precipitously.
We worshipped Jimmy. We cheered him on in the soccer field, laughed at his confidence, and craved for his attention. Stories abounded about his family, how his dad was an Air Force pilot in the line of duty, and so on. Much later, I found that his father was a drunkard who frittered away most of the hard earned money his mother so painstakingly earned, and he studied as a concession student.
In the first year, Jimmy did not know me. Much as I would have liked otherwise, I was bad in sports, mediocre in studies, and timid in pranks. I didn’t give any cause for the class monitor to notice me. But I eulogized him, spending hours fantasizing teaming up with, opening the batting, sharing a desk, and being in his cool group. The day of our annual result was spent in anxiety of whether Jimmy would pass. I prayed fervently for his success.
Jimmy cleared fourth grade. But his grades deteriorated to the point that teachers almost gave up on him. My burning urge to help him sometimes landed me in trouble. I thought about the final exams of that year—a strict teacher monitoring the class, and how I had whispered a few answers to Jimmy. The next day my courage had quadrupled, and I passed one of my answer sheets to Jimmy. The teacher sensed something amiss, and walked towards us menacingly. With pounding heart I saw the teacher first go through my papers and then all my neighbors’ including Jimmy’s. I visualized my strict father’s face and the crestfallen eyes of my mother in my mind’s eye, as I heard the principal berating about evils of cheating. Sir searched through Jimmy’s papers for what seemed an eternity, and somehow mistook my answer sheet to be his, and we were spared. “This is your last warning,” he shouted, and I recoiled in terror. I could not look up and somehow finished the exam.
Outside class, however, things changed dramatically. Popular boys who never even bothered to say hi to me earlier suddenly started exchanging pleasantries. Seniors looked at me and whispered amongst themselves, I could almost hear them stating that a new hero had arrived. I was included in the cricket team even after snuffing two catches during the practice session. But the biggest catch of all was Jimmy. He thanked me! I still remember the day our exams were over, and we were walking home, and Jimmy came along and thanked me in private. Behind me, I could feel the prying eyes of my low-profile friends’ circle cringe with jealousy, and I could not wipe my smirk off for the next few days.
Those were the days, I thought, as I went to the office kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee. But the old memories clung to me even during this brief interlude. Like a fountain, memories came flooding back, and as I filled my cup with stale black coffee, I remembered the fateful day.
It was the day the school reopened after Durga Puja. Everyone was excited, and from amidst the din, Rahul, our topper and richest boy in our class, was showing off his spoils from the holidays. The biggest prize was a Rs. 50 note, courtesy of a rich uncle, and he was flaunting the note in front of our envious eyes. In our times and age, 50 rupees were considered a fortune, and we gasped at his luck. Rahul proudly said that he was going to the new restaurant that had opened that year, all alone! He was exceptionally condescending to me, waving the ink-stained currency note in front of me. We were never on good terms anyway, and my sudden ascent in popularity had riled him no end. Anyway, there was recess, after which my memory is somewhat blurred. I recall Rahul complaining to the teacher about his money being stolen, how the teacher lectured us on the virtues of honesty and owning up. Finally, the principal was summoned, and he ordered a search. With a sinking heart, I remember a Rs. 50 note being extricated from Jimmy’s bag, and my last memories of the incident were the defiant denial of Jimmy (he said he earned it from somewhere) and the shrill voice of Rahul.
We never saw Jimmy again—my last memory was of him standing outside the principal’s office the day of the incident. I missed school for the next two weeks, afflicted by an unexplained illness. By the time I returned to school, hardly anyone spoke about him, and by the end of the semester Jimmy had disappeared from our collective memories. I did make some half-hearted attempts to locate him, but Jimmy seemed to elude me.
Suddenly I was filled with an urge to meet Jimmy and I decided to go for the reunion. It had been nearly 12 years since we graduated. Who among our beloved Class of 89 would still be in Calcutta, and who amongst them would take the trouble to travel on a hot Saturday afternoon to be with people who they scarcely remembered? But Joy was adamant, and I went along with him. In the end, we brought out advertisements in two dailies, started a phone and email chain, and lo and behold, we had a healthy 30 confirmations before the big day.
Joy had booked Saturday Club for the occasion and around 3.30 p.m. Sunny and I walked there. “You do not need to walk much more,” Sunny joked, “once you have your Hero Honda.” Yes, that was my dream—of driving into the sunset on my bike. I remember the painstaking effort of saving from my salary. As I entered the confines of the club, I realized that most of the confirmed participants had already arrived. There was a small announcement about our reunion and as I walked towards the lounge, I found a number of familiar faces. Friends whom I was seeing for the first time in a dozen years, even after living in the same city! I exchanged pleasantries with ex-classmates, quite a few of who had climbed the corporate ladder with much gusto. Through the speeches and the camaraderie, I searched for my idol, but in vain. I asked everyone if they had met Jimmy? Was he also ensconced in some charismatic position in society as many of my alumni seemed to have achieved?
One classmate of mine did keep in touch it turned out. Since his expulsion, Jimmy’s life steadily spiraled downward. He tried to work as a helper in a clothing store but could not retain his job for long. A variety of jobs later, he got mixed up with bad company and became a drug addict. He went into rehab once, but relapsed soon after and finally contracted a serious disease. It was not clear whether he was still alive.
Would I ever see Jimmy again? I could not concentrate on my work over the next few days, and I realized that I must meet him. After obtaining the whereabouts of Jimmy’s family, I visited their house. It was in a small, dilapidated building, and Jimmy’s mother seemed shocked to see me. Fortune had not been kind to her. Her husband had died a few years back, and the plight of a lonely widow with two juvenile boys was too obvious to narrate. Jimmy had deteriorated and had now been moved to PG hospital, suffering from tuberculosis. She could not do enough for Jimmy; she lamented, otherwise in today’s age, what is TB? It is easily curable, but it needed money. Half a lakh could cure him. Her monologue was cut short by the advent of her second son. His long unkempt hair and bare-chested look did not inspire confidence. I took leave with mixed feelings.
The next day I decided to meet Jimmy. It was the beginning of the rainy season and the day appeared prematurely old with sad black clouds lining the horizon. It was a long walk to the hospital from the bus stop, and the gray buildings seemed to underline the inevitable forbearance.
I found Jimmy in a small corner room in the fifth floor of the hospital. Much as I had prepared myself, I was shocked to see him. His frame, that seemed so tall and muscular in our formative years, had not grown, but rather had atrophied. His face had a blank look and he was having trouble breathing. His mother shouted my name in his ear, but there was no familiar flicker in his eyes. “Nowadays he cannot even recognize me sometimes,” lamented his mom. “Everything is fate, otherwise why will God be so unkind?” I peered into Jimmy’s eyes but the blankness betrayed nothing.
Visiting hours were coming to a close, and Jimmy’s longhaired brother rushed in, with a girlfriend in tow. He seemed surprised to see me again, and silently mouthed the question of why I had come. I delayed no longer. Justice delayed is justice denied, someone had said, but it is surely better than no justice. I pulled the check of Rs. 50,000 and handed it over to his mother. There was an awkward silence, as she rubbed her eyes and started praying, while his brother peered at the check with greed. I could sense his girlfriend already starting to whisper strategies to elicit the money. I paused, there was just one more job left. With trembling hands, I pulled an ink-stained Rs. 50 note and forced it into the clenched fist of Jimmy. I looked into his eyes for the last time. It seemed to flicker momentarily in recognition (or was it my imagination?) and he had a half smile on his face. I could not hold his gaze as my own eyes moistened and I made an abrupt turn and went out.
The long flight of stairs soothed my nerves somewhat. It was raining hard and people were crowded at the entrance for shelter. I did not care about it and started my solitary sojourn back home. The first shower of July seemed to have painted the trees in the Maidan an extra coat of green, and the sky cleared into a bright blue by the time I reached my bus stop. I took in a long draught of fresh air, and as I waited, I remembered a story from an old school book, about two old ladies talking amongst themselves. “There is nothing that time does not cure,” one had said. “Yes,” the other concurred, “time and patience.” I smiled. Time and patience alone were not enough. “We need confessions too,” I murmured as I jostled to get on my bus.
Dipankar Basu, a graduate of IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta, served as editor of Export Advantage, a quarterly publication of Exim Bank of India from 1993-95.