A best friend recipe…
May 13, 2018. It was a big thing for both of us. Our hearts were swelling with pride. The difference though lay in our reactions. I was smiling ear to ear. She was crying eye to eye. Naturally. I was welcoming her back to her maternal home. She was bidding goodbye to her collegian home. It was uncanny. It felt like the end of a new era, and the beginning of an old one! The defining moment finally hit me. I felt my cheering voice choke with emotion as I watched my daughter’s misty eyes through the convocation ceremony.
Aww, college life! I mused. It shapes our personality. And of all the amazing takeaways, perhaps the most notable one is the gift of friendship. We learn the power of standing alongside our buddies. It’s a wonderful gift—for loyalty is the foundation of a civilized society—be it towards friends, family, organization, country, or humanity. ‘Is there anything more pious than the loyalty towards those who are special to us?’ I pondered as my thoughts raced back, trying to pierce the mists of memories buried over three decades ago…
Back in my college days, the concept of convocations was raw. Of course that did not make graduating from college a minor affair. The culmination of four years of college brotherhood is heart-wrenching. These are the real good-byes. Many of those we will never meet again. Some we will forget. Only a few will remain etched on our hearts. These are our friends for life. Most of us have at least one trusted friend from our college days—a friend with whom we can pick up things from where we left off. I was fortunate to have one such friend. His name was and is Sunil Bhatia.
College Years. Every freshman year, there used to be one cool dude. Bhatia was that dude. He was unlike me, with his athletic body, dashing good looks, flamboyant attire, and above all—a complete riot, always surrounded by nonstop laughter. But it was not the zest that got us together. It was the agony. The infamous ragging! It would be indecent to pen down the 1980s ragging nightmares of north India in a public blog. Small support groups within our freshmen batch cropped up. Bhatia and I happened to land up in the same distressed group. Crying on each other’s shoulders cemented our inner circle for the next four years.
Our group had a name—Bhatia’s group. There was no ego here. It was a privilege to be a member of this very elitist group. Bhatia was our team’s pride and the neighbors’ envy. A couple of showdowns with rivals, and no one dared to play games with us. It gave me the confidence to enter college politics. I fought the student body election and won. It was a big deal, considering I didn’t belong to either faction—the Jats or the Thakurs. Then, in accordance with our national traditions, the post-election drama unfolded. Garnering the support of the elected members for the university council body was a toxic game. I needed protection. A katta (country-made pistol) in my pocket, and Bhatia by my side met the safety requirements.
Over the next three years, I watched in awe as my bestie basked, on and off the field. He excelled in almost every sport—from cricket, squash, tennis, to competitive track events. He was the most talented singer to take the college stage, and possibly the funniest impromptu actor in social settings. I, in contrast, was a geek (I still am). My claim to fame was the editorial board of the college magazine that I doubt anyone bothered to read.
There was one trait, however, that we shared. Our dreams—discussed often over a pack of Gold Flake and a bottle of Old Monk. Every time a cigarette was lit, Bhatia would fantasize about launching a company that manufactured “matchsticks” .He was confident it would never go out of business. We were going to be business partners. It was exciting.
And yes, like any starry-eyed youth, we too romanticized about falling in love. It was an accomplishable goal on his horizon. After all, he enjoyed a superstar status in the adjoining college of Home Sciences. But in conservative societies, “luck” plays a big role in matters of the heart. So it was not him, rather I who ended up falling. And he did what best friends do—from providing alibi to steadying me when I stumbled. Both of us were destined for “arranged” marriages.
Then right before we graduated, Bhatia made an unusual declaration: “I will marry the first girl that my parents arrange for me to see”. I didn’t understand. He had everything going for him. He could afford to be as choosy as he desired. Then why would he not avail of his options? Was it because he trusted his parents’ judgment? Or he didn’t have any expectations? Or maybe marriage itself was not a big deal? His reasons were none of the above. Instead, his answer left me baffled. Then we graduated. And I had to wait for a long time to unravel the mystery shrouding his statement.
Post College. It sounds unusual, but I didn’t meet Bhatia for 18 years. There was no correspondence either. I was busy chasing my calling in the US, till I realized it was a false call. By the time I retreated, I had lost the coordinates of my college friends. Then came the advent of social media. And I reconnected with everyone.
There was no matchstick factory on Bhatia’s resume. Instead, he was a man in uniform. And God bless the Indian Army for transferring my friend to Pune. We reconnected instantly. I finally met his wife and kids. Their family chemistry was infectious. I saw in Bhatia’s eyes the same loyalty for his family as the one he had for me. And yes, his wife was his first ‘arranged’ match. By the time the first meeting of our second innings came to a close, I had deciphered Bhatia’s decades-old declaration. You see, in his declaration were sown the seeds of his heavenly family unit.
“I will never say NO to any girl proposed for me. She is a human being, not a horse”. Bhatia’s conviction can’t be trivialized. I don’t know if such strong ideologies are healthy or not. I am not a judge or a jury. But I do know it takes tremendous courage to follow through on your beliefs.
Yes, there is something more pious than loyalty towards our fellow beings, and that is—loyalty towards our own character, towards our principles! And perhaps that is the stuff a best friend should be made of.