The sun shone in the brilliant blue autumn sky, strewn with fleecy clouds. A cool breeze blew through my hair, bringing with it the refreshing scent of an early morning. The birds chirruped in the trees, a sound rarely heard in our city.
The joyful day mocked my dejected feelings.
Today was to be a reunion. A reunion with an old friend.
Yeah, right. I thought sarcastically. A very happy reunion indeed. I was going to meet a friend whom I had wished never to meet again.
It had been three years already. Why did she call me now? Why am I even going?
I had reached the meeting point. She wasn’t there yet.
The park near our school, where we had always planned of going together but never actually gone. I sat down on a bench, pulled out a book and began to read.
Will she really come?
The thought went round and round inside my head. I hurried down to the place I was supposed to meet her.
I saw her sitting on the park bench, engrossed in a book. The sight relieved me, but brought on a new anxiety.
It had been so long. Why did I suddenly decide to call her?
She looked up as I approached.
‘Hi, Nikita.’ I greeted her.
‘Hello, Nayanika.’ Her voice was cold. Stone cold.
She hadn’t forgiven me then. Not yet.
‘Why did you call me here?’
She had changed a lot since I had last seen her. More calm, more composed, more...free, somehow. That constant scowl on her face had gone. Yet...she didn’t look quite happy.
‘I wanted to tell you something.’ She sat down beside me.
‘Couldn’t you say it on the phone?’
‘No. I wanted to meet you face to face again.’
‘To say thank you. And sorry.’
She looked me straight in the eye. I didn’t answer.
‘Nayanika, why now? And why me? Shouldn’t you apologise to Natasha?’
I shook my head.
‘I had hurt Natasha once, yes. But the person whom I had truly wounded wasn’t her. It was you. You were the one who were always by me, helping me more than anyone else ever would, or even could.’
‘You understood that now?’
‘I knew that a long time ago.’
‘Oh, really? Didn’t look like it, you know.’ Her tone was highly sceptical. ‘Oh, well, if that was all you had to say, I’d better leave.’ She got up.
‘No! Wait! Please, I’m not finished yet. Hear me out, at least...’
‘Hear what, exactly?’ I turned around and looked at her, shaking my arm out of her grip.
‘My side of the story.’
‘Your side of the story?’ I laughed incredulously. ‘And why should I do that?’
She was silent for some time. Then she said quietly, ‘For exactly the same reason that you came here to meet me today.’
I stared at her, then sank down on the bench again. She sat down beside me, not saying anything.
‘Why?’ I asked her again. ‘Why are you doing this?’
‘I’m not sure myself,’ she replied.
‘I don’t need to know your side of the story, Nayanika, I know it already.’
‘No, you don’t. You don’t know how it felt back then, unable to do anything on my own, always having to rely on the two of you to help me out. Knowing that both of you were better than me in every single thing. Knowing that you pitied me, and no matter how much I tried, I could never be your equal. You can never know what that felt like. Because you never had to take help from others. You never needed it.’
She looked at me with an unreadable expression in her eyes. Then she sighed.
‘And yet, none of what we kept on saying entered your head. The only reason why you were like that was because you thought like that. That fixed idea in your head that you were a loser made you a loser, even when you weren’t one. No one forced you to depend on us. No one was there to stop you from working on your own. You were quite capable of surviving on your own. But the fact was that you didn’t try. The thought that you couldn’t, that you weren’t good was the only barricade.’
I had forgotten how well she knew me.
Even after all this time, she knew me as well as she had then.
She had said those same words to me once before, on that fateful day, when our strained friendship had finally broken.
I still remembered exactly what had happened. After, it had been the turning point of my life.
It was the middle of Class Nine. Our half-yearly exams had just got over.
Natasha had been rather down lately. I couldn’t think why. She had enough reason to be happy. She was participating in both the inter-school and inter-house music competition in the School Fest. I hadn’t managed to get chosen for the fest even after trying continuously for three years. It had always been her.
Nikita was trying to cheer her up. Seriously. She overacts too much. Getting worried if the slightest thing happens.
It was the lunch break, and we were standing under the shade of the pipal tree. Nikita was joking around, trying to make us laugh. How could she be so happy all the time? But then, her exams were much better than mine. Not that she cared about her marks as much as I do.
‘Come on, Nayanika.’ She waved her hand in front of my face. ‘Stop scowling all the time, for goodness sake. It’s not the end of the world.’
‘You didn’t get back horrible papers,’ I retorted. ‘I don’t feel like laughing all the time, like you do.’
That shut her up. I turned to Natasha next.
‘Why are you so down? You’re singing in so many competitions. I didn’t get a chance to get selected because you were there.’
‘No, it’s nothing like that,’ she replied. ‘I don’t sing any better than you. You voice is just soft, so you weren’t chosen. And there was partiality too.’
‘Oh, please,’ I’d had quite enough. ‘You know very well that you sing way better than I do. You knew I had no chance of being selected if you were there too. You already got chosen for the inter-school music, why did you have to audition for the inter-house as well? Seriously, how greedy can a person be?’
‘Nayanika, shut up. Enough is enough.’
It was Nikita. I couldn’t believe it. She had never before said something to me in such a tone before.
Nevertheless, I refused to be daunted.
‘Why should I?’ I asked her. ‘The truth hurts, doesn’t it? And I don’t see why you should care. It’s nothing to you.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘I thought we were friends, Nayanika. But I can see that the word ‘Friendship’ doesn’t mean the same to all of us.’
‘Nikita, it’s fine.’ Natasha began. ‘Please, don’t...’
‘Natasha, please.’ Nikita interrupted her. ‘There’s a limit to everything. We can’t stay like this forever.’
‘Like what, exactly?’ I asked.
‘In this state of mock friendship,’ was the reply. ‘God only knows how much we’ve helped you, and this is what we get back in return. I’ve excused your faults long enough, but this is ridiculous. Have you any idea what Natasha has done for you? She’s dropped out of so many programs and didn’t take part in competitions just to make you feel better. She’s fallen into trouble so many times just to help you out.’
‘Well, who told her to do that? That was so unnecessary.’
‘She did that because she cares for you.’ Nikita was near to screaming now. ‘She wants to see you happy. Everything we ever did was to make you happy. And yet...God, I should have known. This has happened to me before. But I seriously didn’t expect this from you, no, not you. We’d grown so close last year, what the hell happened? What did we do to make you like you are now? And we never even wanted anything in return.’
That was what bugged me. That I needed help, and they didn’t. That they were better than I was. I knew it then, but I had pushed back that thought to stop myself from realising it. Nonetheless, it rankled inside me, making me the sour, snappy person that I had become.
I knew it. I had known it all along. I knew exactly how Nayanika had felt then, and exactly how she felt now.
‘Do you remember that day?’ she asked me. ‘Or have you decided to forget it?’
I shook my head. How could I forget it? No matter how much I tried, that memory was still there, alive in all its pain. After all, that was the day I lost my best friend.
I’d never quarrelled with my friends even half as fiercely as I did with Nayanika that day. All the things that I had wanted to tell her came pouring out that day.
What had stung me most that her comment had been directed at Natasha. I probably would have kept quiet and let her say whatever she wanted if it had been against me. But I simply couldn’t take it that Nayanika could say something like that about Natasha, just because she wanted to use her talent in all the competitions she came across.
I’m still not sure whether I was right to do what I did that day. But I simply couldn’t take it anymore. Nayanika didn’t even seem to care about the people who had done so much for her.
The end result of the fight was that Nayanika walked off, after saying that she never wanted to see us again, while I wished I had never befriended her in the first place.
And that was the first and last time I had ever seen Natasha cry.
She was never the same after that. Neither was I, for that matter. She had lost a lot of her bubbly cheeriness, while I completely stopped trying to make new friends. I didn’t stop helping people though. I simply couldn’t do that. I would have helped Nayanika again too, had she come to me, but not as a friend. As it was, we hardly exchanged any words, except for the times when it was absolutely necessary.
So went three years. Nayanika’s marks went even more downhill at first, but over time, I noticed they were improving, slowly but surely. It was often that I thought she wanted to tell me something, but she always left it off in the last minute.
We’ve passed out of school by now, but we haven’t yet joined college. And last night, I got a call from an unknown number.
‘Is that you, Nikita?’
‘Yes, who is this?’
‘It’s me, Nayanika.’
‘Nayanika? What in the world?! What do you want?’
‘I was…uh…wondering if you are free tomorrow…’
‘I had to tell you something, and wanted to meet you.’
‘Can’t that be done over the phone?’
‘No, I’m afraid not. Look, I know you don’t want to meet me, but just in case you change your mind, I’ll tell you where you’ll find me. Do you remember that park near our school, for which we had made so many fruitless plans?’
‘I’ll be waiting there from seven in the morning. If you’re not there by nine, I’ll know you won’t come. Okay? Nikita?’
I don’t know what had come over me at that minute, but I suddenly said, ‘I’ll be there.’ and hung up.
‘You know, I still remember every detail of that lunch break.’
‘So do I.’ Nikita’s voice sounded a little constricted.
I turned to her and asked her the question I’d been wanting to ask for years. ‘Why didn’t you ever need help?’
‘I did, Nayanika,’ she replied. ‘And you were one out of two who had helped me a lot.’
I was confused. ‘How? It was always you, wasn’t it, who always helped me out, not only in studies, but in every other thing as well? How did I help you?’
She shook her head. ‘Your help wasn’t as materialistic as mine. You helped me by being there for me whenever I was in trouble or was feeling sad. You helped me by being patient and listening whenever I poured my heart out to you. I still remember, once in Class Eight, when I was especially down, you had told me that no matter what happened, you’ll always be there for me.’
‘That isn’t helping. That’s just…I don’t know what, but that isn’t helping.’
‘So what is helping then? Only the materialistic part, where you helped someone in her studies, helped her get good marks? Only that is helping others?’
Nayanika was such an idiot. She’d always been very materialistic. The reason she thought herself a loser was because she didn’t have a “materialistic” talent like me and Natasha.
‘You know, I was actually trying to repay you by helping you so much. That was my way of saying thank you. Because I didn’t want to lose you, I tried to keep you happy. Unlike you, I couldn’t make friends so easily. So the people who were my friends were very dear to me.’
Nayanika stared at me like she couldn’t believe it. ‘You felt like that? You, who were always so confident about everything and never nervous, you felt like that?’
‘That’s a misconception people have about me.’ I replied. ‘That I’m over-confident and never nervous. But that isn’t really true. I’m actually very nervous and scared most of the time; it’s just that I don’t show it. I always had this fear of standing out, of being different. I was always scared of not being liked by people, always scared that I wasn’t worthy to be anyone’s friend.’
‘I never knew that.’
‘I didn’t know about it myself. I realised it a lot later.’
Was it true? Did Nikita really feel like that?
I hadn’t known. I truly hadn’t known anything about it.
‘By the way,’ she said. ‘Why are only two of us here now? This concerns Natasha too, doesn’t it?’
I nodded. ‘She had some work in the morning, so she’ll be joining us now, in about half an hour. That is, if you want to stay.’
She nodded, then suddenly laughed. ‘It’s no use leaving now, is it? Might as well clear up everything between us.’
Her tone told me that I was not the only one who had wanted a reunion, and wanted to mend our broken friendship. Even if we couldn’t go back to being what we had been before, at least there shouldn’t be any misunderstandings between us.
I checked my watch. Half past nine. I’d told her I’ll be there at ten.
If only I didn’t have to practice singing so early in the morning. But then, I can’t complain. It was my own choice to pursue music as a career.
I was early anyway. I had already reached the park. I smiled to think of all the picnics and outings we had planned for this park, which we had never really accomplished.
I hoped Nikita would have controlled her anger towards Nayanika and come down.
Yes, there they were. They were waving their hands and calling. I ran over to them.
Natasha arrived earlier than expected.
We saw her standing at the park gate, searching for us. She ran over when we called.
‘Glad to see you here,’ she told me. ‘I wasn’t sure whether you’d come or not. Nayanika was rather worried.’
‘Natasha!’ Nayanika exclaimed indignantly.
‘It seems like both of you have already talked before.’ I remarked.
‘I called her up last night too,’ Nayanika replied. ‘She was more willing to talk than you, if she was a bit stiff at first. I apologised, but she is yet to forgive me. She readily agreed to come here, though. So, Natasha, what is your verdict?’
I looked at her expectantly, hoping against hope that it would be a yes.
Natasha settled herself down, then replied, ‘You know, I had forgiven you a long time ago. I just didn’t realise it. But when you called me up last night, and I talked to you after God only knows how long, I was sure of it.’
‘Then why did you wait till today?’ I asked.
Natasha looked at Nikita. ‘I wanted Nikita to know.’
‘And what about you?’ I asked Nikita hopefully. ‘Have you forgiven me yet?’
‘Not until you explain why you suddenly decided to call us here and revive some bitter memories I was trying my best to push away.’
‘Because I’ve finally realized what you had been trying to tell me that time.’
Three years wasn’t a very long time. But it was long enough to change people.
The Nayanika I had known would never have admitted something like this. She would have tried to find excuses to prove that she was right.
On the other hand, Nikita was a most forgiving girl. She never held grudges against anyone. Even if she tried to do so, she couldn’t. I wonder why she refused to forgive Nayanika now. I mean, it’s been three years already and Nayanika had definitely realised her mistake. Everything about her said so. Then why...?
‘So what have you understood?’
‘That I am who I am because of myself. I have realised that sole cause of my troubles at that time were my ideas about myself. And I have realised now that my bitter behaviour, my sour nature, was because I was jealous, yes, I admit it, I was jealous of the two of you.’
Nikita stared at her for some time, then suddenly burst out laughing. I was most bewildered, and Nayanika mirrored my expression.
‘Why, then, the two of us can call it quits.’ Nikita said.
‘How come?’ Nayanika was even more surprised.
‘Because I was jealous of you too.’
I’d finally admitted it. Not only to Nayanika, but also to myself.
‘You...were jealous...of me? Impossible!’ Nayanika was most disbelieving.
‘It’s true.’ I replied. ‘Remember the time when Natasha first became friends with you? I couldn’t bear you at that time. Do you know the reason? It was because I was jealous of your close friendship with Natasha. I felt like I was being left out. Of course, I realised that it was just my imagination, though much later. That jealousy vanished after a time, but it was replaced by a jealousy of a different kind. I was jealous of your ability to make new friends and mix with everyone, no matter what kind of people they were. I was jealous of your popularity. I was jealous of the way people remembered you, even if you hadn’t spoken to them for a long, long time. I was jealous of your wittiness, of your flair for making jokes, for making people laugh.’
Both Natasha and Nayanika were staring at me, incredulity etched into their faces.
‘What? Is there some written law that Nikita cannot be jealous of anyone?’ I asked.
‘No, of course not,’ Natasha recovered herself first. ‘It’s just that I never even had any inkling about this, and you were pretty open with me. How come you never mentioned this to me before?’
‘More than that,’ Nayanika had finally found her tongue. ‘If you were jealous, how is it that your behaviour towards me remained so agreeable all the time?’
‘There are two reasons for that,’ Nikita replied. ‘One, I’m a master at hiding my feelings, and two, I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t jealous of you after all. So I went acting like I usually did, and you noticed nothing.’
To think that Nikita had been jealous of me! Good Gracious! If someone else had said something like that I wouldn’t have believed it at all. I still didn’t believe it.
‘You aren’t saying this to make me feel better, are you?’ I asked suspiciously.
‘Of course not, idiot,’ she replied indignantly. ‘Do I look like a person who makes things up to placate others?’
‘No, not really,’ I said. ‘If that was the case, then this meeting would have been completely unnecessary.’
‘So, for once in your life, believe me,’ Nikita said. ‘And until you believe me, I refuse to forgive you.’
‘Alright, I believe you! Please, forgive me now!’
Nikita looked at her out of the corner of her eyes. Then she suddenly hugged her.
Nayanika gasped in shock. ‘So…is that…a yes?’ she asked tentatively.
‘Of course,’ Nikita pulled me into a hug as well. ‘So can the three of us be proper friends now? It’s not yet too late…I hope.’
‘Of course not,’ I replied happily. Nayanika started laughing. Nikita and I joined in.
‘Hey, are the two of you free today?’ Nikita suddenly asked.
‘So am I.’
‘Then why don’t have lunch together somewhere? We can also fool about a little in shops, you know, like the time the three of went out to a mall. It was such fun.’ I wanted to go out with them again, wanted to really feel that we were friends.
‘Yeah, let’s do that.’
‘It’s getting very hot too, why don’t we go to the mall that’s newly opened nearby? I haven’t been there yet, have you?’
‘So, let’s go, shall we? We’d better call our parents and tell them where we are, or else they’d worry.’
‘Yeah, we should do that. Parents worry way too much.’
So here we are, walking arm in arm with each other towards the mall, laughing and talking, just like we used to do before. I had forgotten this feeling, this particular happiness of being with your best friends, and seeing them happy to be with you too.
I wonder if Natasha and Nayanika feel the same. I’m sure they do.