The three men in their sixties were permanent, if moving, fixtures on my morning walks. They would break their animated discussion, often about the state of affairs in this country, and greet me with cheery waves. I would wave back and continue along my circuitous, ever-changing path, while the gents would stick steadfastly to their up-and-down-the-same-shaded-avenue routine. Seeing them was comforting somehow, something I’d taken for granted. Till it changed about a year ago.
I still see all three of them. But one, the quietest of the three, walks in one direction, while the other two, joined by a brand new mate, walk in the opposite direction. When they pass each other, the wordlessness is just short of hostile.
Every day, I contemplate asking the former friends, broken now into two unequal halves, why they are not together, even though in my heart I know why. Because in my own life, both virtual and real, I, too, am that lone man walking in the opposite direction, unable to be part of the group if I am to remain myself. But I can’t gather the courage to ask.
A few days ago, walking along the same road but at a slightly different time, for a minute I thought I was back in the ’70s.
The road was empty. There wasn’t a single car with an altered silencer spewing smoke. No young men on bikes attempting wheelies and selfies. It’s not like I had never got the road, leafy, tranquil, and all to myself, on other occasions. I had, but it had never made me travel back in time.
I figured it was because of the three boys, aged 10 to 12, dressed in bright red, blue and orange T-shirts, cycling alongside each other on a road that belonged entirely to them. They spoke in high, happy voices that sounded eerily like Pandu’s, Philip’s and mine must have sounded when we were that age. They were voices that sounded like they didn’t know of cable television, the internet, smartphones, fake news and lynch mobs. Voices from another age. And they were talking about... grape juice.
It was the sound of innocence.
Looking at them pedalling away with not a care in the world, I imagined their names were Javed, Gurdeep and Srinivas. And after the bike ride, they’d play tennis-ball cricket in Gurdeep’s house. After a hectic game, his mother would call them in for lunch. And that it would be naan and butter chicken. She would ask Srini if it was okay for him to eat non-vegetarian food. Srini would lie, say his parents were fine with it, and try and nick the last piece. After lunch, the three boys would loll about on the living-room floor and read the Asterix and Chandamama they had got from the neighbourhood library. Later, Javed and Srinivas would cycle back home after deciding to meet at Srini’s place the next day, where it would be Monopoly, and bisibela bath and chips for lunch.
Maybe the following day, the old men would see these boys, cycling away in their bright T-shirts. Maybe they would realise their fight wasn’t real. That it was never their fight. That there was no us and no them. And maybe they would decide to walk together once more on that tree-lined avenue, to make sure that that renegade truck called hate would never run over our children.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is a satirist. He has written four books and edited an anthology.