This Sunday I spent the entire afternoon at Saju's place, finishing a bottle of Bacardi between the two of us before settling down, at five in the evening, for an impressive lunch cooked by his wife. I dozed off as soon as I got into the car and my wife was left to guess her way from Velachery to T. Nagar. Not that my being awake would have helped: neither do I drive nor do I know the roads of Chennai very well. Back home, I slept for a while and then woke up intending to write but after answering a few emails and messages went off to sleep again. A day wasted. But since the drinking session took place with Saju, I would call it a day well spent.
Saju and I go back a long way, right from the day I landed in Chennai precisely nine years ago. He was the only person in the office who was well-dressed: shirt smartly tucked in and wearing black leather shoes. Standing on the terrace of the old Express office, we had a small introductory chat. I was 30 then, he 28. One thing common that emerged between us was our liking for Old Monk Rum. Women were still not discussed for the next few days because an air of formality was still hanging in the pleasant January breeze that blew on the terrace. Saju would still call me Mr Ghosh.
For the first few days I had a good time. Everybody at office was keen that I settle down in Chennai first before rolling up my sleeves and getting down to work, so I took advantage of their generosity and roamed Mount Road during the daytime, spending a lot of time at Higginbothams and a bookshop called The Bookshop in Spencer Plaza. (Landmark was yet to come to Spencer Plaza, and when it did a year or so later, killed The Bookshop).
For the good time in the evenings, Saju would be my sole partner. We would go to a wine shop on Ethiraj Salai, which had a bar on the first floor. Since the wine shop was adjacent to a popular restaurant called Shamiyana, the bar too was referred to by the same name. Going to Shamiyana meant going for a drink.
In the dimly-lit, noisy bar, infested with all kinds of people, from masons to marketing executives, the journey of our friendship began. Saju and I. Our alcohol-lit eyes could not hide anything from each other: first we shared our dreams and desires, and then, as weeks passed, we began sharing our disappointments and desperation as well.
The best part about drinking with a trusted pal after a day's work is that the drinking session becomes an exercise in introspection. You are determined to make the next day even better. It is like writing a conscience-awakening diary at the end of the day. One can, of course, write a diary instead of having a drink with a friend. But I am no Gandhi. I cannot experiment with truth in a sober state because truth, in my opinion, precipitates in the mind only after you are a few drinks down. The truth that you see shining while in a sober state is only the truth that you would like to see, not the real truth.
But if you are the kind who is drinking as well as writing a diary upon getting back home, then you are writing literature. All you you need is a good editor and a publisher, if at all you are interested. Sorry for digressing. So I was saying how evenings spent at this particular bar cemented the friendship between Saju and I. After a point it did not matter where we drank, what mattered was the time spent together drinking.
When the going was good, we drank together in celebration. When life turned out to be a bitch, we drowned our sorrows in the bottle. We were happy on the whole, our dreams acting as a cushion against our disappointments and our desires taming the desperation. Saju got married in 2002, and I went for his wedding to Aluva in Kerala; while I got married in 2006, and Saju came for my wedding to Kolkata.
But some things did not change: Saju and I raiding bookshops and then having a drink together. Neither of us was rich enough to raid the bookshop every day, but we were collectively rich enough to share a half-bottle of whisky every single day. (Somewhere down the line, we had switched over from rum to whisky). Then came a time when we both had to change jobs, and we no longer saw each other everyday. From being together for nearly 10 hours every day, we began to see each other only once in five or six months. Suddenly, there was no one to share your secrets with, leave dreams and desires and despair. Telephonic conversations are so superficial: you can only ask stuff like "How are you?" and "What are you up to?", and the answers are rarely honest.
Of late, I have begun to meet Saju more often. It feels so good, but it also reminds me of the water that has flown under the bridge since those good times. My mother, till the time she died five months ago, would enquire about Saju on a regular basis. She had a soft corner for him because she knew he was her son's only good friend. She had even bought a saree from Nalli in Delhi to wear it for the launch of her son's book, but she missed the event narrowly, just by a few weeks. At times I feel like presenting God with a garland of shoes for what he has put me through. But God must have been too busy with the attention of other devotees to pay attention to my plea for keeping my mother alive till the book came out. She was not even 59 when she died.
It was only after I conveyed the news to Saju that evening that I felt relieved and prepared enough to see my mother lying on a bed of ice. The rest of the world was condoling, but Saju was the only one who would have understood. Today, after my mother's death, I see Saju more often. From meeting him once every few months, I now meet him once every few weeks. It is a happy situation, as well as tragic in many ways.
Saju and I are like bottles of wine left side by side to mature by the vineyard owner. We don't know when we are going to be taken up for consumption so that people can enjoy vintage wine, but we have seen each other mature during the past nine years. We both have sufficient grey on our heads now and some grey sprouting from our chests too. We no longer look the same as we do in the albums that contain pictures taken only the other day -- maybe a few years ago. We both have grown old, and our friendship now tastes like matured wine.