In memoriam

I wanted to write this column about the great pleasure of meeting old friends after a long time....

Written by Sandipan Deb | Published:March 8, 2009 4:27 am

I wanted to write this column about the great pleasure of meeting old friends after a long time. How we revert to what we were at some time in the past,unburdened by subsequent experience,untouched by the wages of time. You pick up from right where you left the dialogue,when you were much younger and more innocent,and no one judges anyone.

I wanted to write this column on that,except that last night my friend Punya called up. Arjun was a strange and unique person. One of the most intelligent and erudite men I have ever known,he made a hand-to-mouth living as a freelance advertising copywriter. He had held various advertising jobs,but could never hold them for long,because his incorruptible intelligence rebelled against the inevitable compromises that his profession needs to make to inferior intellects. He was brilliant,but unknown,unrecognised.

He lived in slovenly conditions as paying guest in a room not much larger than him. He drank,and when he drank a lot,there were incidents. I remember him throwing an encyclopedia at my face full-force. If he had been on target,he would have broken my nose. I remember reversing my car at furious speed while he ran after me hurling stones.

But he loved me and I loved him. When,in a drunken state,he climbed a tree and fell and hurt himself,he asked his landlady to call me. Punya and I took him to hospital,and it was discovered that he had broken the femur in both his legs. Lying there in great pain,he got into a scholarly discussion with the doctor on bones and painkillers. It was two in the morning.

He drove his friends up the wall. We got him projects,and he never landed up. He would rather utilise his time discussing Fellini or Sartre or the theory of relativity. In fact,that’s how I met him. A bunch of us had gone to watch a Russian movie at a film festival. During the intermission,we were having coffee and discussing what did that scene mean and what did that piece of dialogue signify,when a large bearded man walked up and said: “See,there’s so much of Catholic semiotics in Tarkovsky’s films that unless you know the sources,it’s difficult to get his films fully.” The bell rang. As we hurried into the hall,he said: “We’ll talk about this after the film.” We didn’t meet after the film (in fact,we did not want to),but we met later by accident and became friends.

We forsook him often,because of his infuriating focus on self-destruction. But early morning of the day my daughter was to be born,he,a total atheist,went to the nearby temple,and prayed for my coming child. It was the height of winter,and he ended up with a completely stiff back and neck. I have never had more enjoyable and intelligent conversations with anyone else. In the good times,we would meet almost every night.

Some years ago,while leaving my home,he wanted to borrow an Umberto Eco novel I had just bought. I agreed,on the condition that he had to return it within a week. I knew that he had a habit of disappearing for weeks,sometimes months. He wholeheartedly agreed to my condition and left. I never saw him again. I changed house,very far from where I used to live,he did not have a phone,we walked away into our different worlds.

Punya called last night. His blood sugar levels had risen so high that the doctors amputated a big toe. In his slum-like living conditions,rats smelt blood and ate away at two other toes. Gangrene spread up his legs,and doctors said they had no option but to amputate both legs. But before that could happen,he died. That is what I have been told. There is no way to confirm. Do I feel guilt? No. I feel an unutterable sadness. What a waste!

But I also remember walking to Punya’s house so often at night and seeing Arjun’s football-sized head silhouetted against the lights through the window and immediately,happily,looking forward to an adda where nothing mattered other than the quality of ideas. And the comfort of knowing that I had a true friend. I am lucky to have known him. Arjun Dasgupta,1955-2009.

Sandipan Deb is the editor of RPG Enterprises’ soon-to-be launched weekly features and current affairs magazine,Open. sandipandeb@yahoo.co.uk

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