Sometimes I think there is nothing sadder than watching a brightly burning flame snuff out by a sudden breeze. The feeling of sorrow arises not only because of the suddenness of the end but also because of the lost opportunity to burn brightly in the darkness. I knew one such flame and his name was Ashok*. Many people come and go throughout our lives, leaving a little bit of themselves in our memories. Some hardly affect us at all, their memory fading with time and ultimately dying out into a vague remembrance; others transform our very existence, so much so that we owe them our very habits and beliefs. Ashok was that rare breed who fell in the latter category and this is the story of one such flame that shone brightly amidst the falling darkness.
I first met Ashok when I moved into the new neighbourhood in early 2009. He was standing behind the gates of his house, watching the movers and packers, in his shorts and black tee that would go on to become his uniform for all our encounters. At that time I had hardly glanced at him, before my Mum’s voice called me to move another box. But for that brief moment we had regarded each other with a mix of curiosity and apprehension, almost like two tom cats in a back alley.
When we had settled into our new lives, Ashok’s Mum came over to visit us as any friendly neighbour would do. It came as a surprise to me that Ashok’s sister was in fact a classmate of mine in my 12th grade coaching centre. But to be honest, I had never exchanged more than a few words with her throughout our time at the centre, so my surprise was at the most pleasant. I also came to know that Ashok was pursuing an engineering degree at a prestigious college in Bangalore and was a few years older to me. He was currently on a summer break and raising hell at home for lack of doing anything better. I had by now decided that he was an eccentric fellow of sorts and I did not want anything to do with him.
And so I avoided meeting him for the rest of the summer. When my College started, I became busy with my studies and making new friends that I didn’t give much thought to this ‘weirdo’ next door. One Saturday morning, a few months after I had moved in, I was chilling at home reading a book, when my Mum called me out for a few minutes. I reluctantly left the interesting Le Carr novel and plodded outside, knowing that she would want me to dig another hole in her garden or hack a few weeds. What confronted me was Ashok’s bearded face beyond the wall and my Mum talking animatedly with him. Damn! Now I had no way of escaping. He was wearing the same black tee and shorts and had a pile of books on the wall in front of him. I muttered a ‘Hi’ and asked my Mum what the deal was. She told me that Ashok was home for the weekend and wanted some new books to read. Seeing that I was a college goer myself he had assumed that I would have a passable interest in reading novels and had brought a few of his books to barter with me. I looked at him suspiciously but I was met with a toothy grin. I decided to take a chance and invited him to my room to have a look at my collection of novels. Little did I know that that would be the start of a memorable yet brief friendship.
As it turned out, Ashok was not a bad fellow at all. In fact, I felt that we were actually quite similar in a lot of ways. He and I shared a love for the Game of Thrones series by George R.R.Martin and spent many happy evenings discussing the several characters in the novels and their varied associates and relationships. Our bonding over books extended to our love for movies, especial the indie films and they were the subject of yet more evenings and weekends. In this way a year went by and my initial apprehension of Ashok turned to mutual respect and admiration.
However, in the middle of my second year in College, I realized that Ashok was starting to remain at home for longer periods and spent very few weeks in Bangalore attending classes. I did not want to ask him outright the reason for this as I felt we were not yet close enough. Then in the beginning of my final year at College, I was told the devastating news that Ashok had been diagnosed with leukaemia. It came as a shock to our family to learn that the benign lump on Ashok’s neck turned out to be a fatal instrument. His parent took him to the best specialist in the city and their diagnosis was that the cancer was in a late stage and the only way to combat it at all was intensive chemotherapy.
Before my eyes, Ashok had shrivelled down to nearly half his former size; his unruly hair and beard completely shaved off and his stature dropped down a couple of inches. But amidst all the pain of undergoing the radiation and the emotional turmoil in his family, Ashok still maintained his toothy grin. Only, now it wasn’t as frequent as before. He had to give up his last semester at Bangalore and stay at home for the chemo. He steadily grew weaker and his immune system started degrading. Yet we still maintained our weekly evenings of book and movie discussion, more for his sake than mine and to maintain the semblance of normalcy. During these times, I watched as he started to talk less and listen more, giving up arguments midway as he was too tired to continue. It was painful to watch him sit outside his door the whole day, deep in thought and wait for our evening sessions. These sessions which initially started as half hour ones grew to become one and half hour ones. His Mum used to ask me to talk to him as much as possible, because staying at home for so long and for so many days, he craved for people of his own age instead of worrying parents.
However the chemo started to have some effect. He would come home after an intense radiation session, weak and tired but turn up the next day in high spirits. Although he was weak, he was fiercely independent and did not like people pitying him. So much so, that he even took out his Yamaha for a spin without telling anyone. That little incident not only brought his parents to the edge of hysteria but also some much needed breath of fresh air and laughter in his life. This was a sign to all of us that the chemo was working its magic and that the battle within him was being won. Then, all of a sudden I receive word that Ashok had been admitted to the hospital because the cancerous growth has not subsided. I visited him there one evening after my classes were over. The room was a small airy one, but deadly silent. His parents and sister were sitting in a corner in a dejected group and the green and white colours of the room added to the gloomy atmosphere. I looked at his supine form covered with the sickly green blanket, not knowing what to speak. So I just removed the Tom Clancy novel from my bag and started describing the story, knowing that Ashok had an avid interest in war novels. During the half hour that I spent there, Ashok did not move so much as a finger. Only his bright eyes followed my gestures and an occasional grunt escaped his lips. As I took leave, his Mum asked me to wait and pulled down the sheet covering his torso. I will never forget the sight that met my eyes. Livid spots of black covered his body like leeches and his ribs showed defiantly against the stretched skin. I pulled away, mumbled a few apologies and ran from there. I had no idea the beating his body had taken and now when I look back, it still sends shivers down my spine.
After a few days, I forgot all about that as my end semester exams were around the corner and I was preparing hard for it. On the eve of my last exam, Physics, I received a call telling me that Ashok had died an hour ago. The initial euphoria I had felt after completing my revision, now gave way to despair. I sat numb not knowing what to feel and what to do. In the end I and my parents took a cab to the hospital to pay our last respects. The room was crowded with his family members and close friends. His mother and sister were sitting before his body, hands in head and tears having dried up. His father was standing at the door, just standing and looking at the floor. I looked at Ashok’s face and saw that all the pain and suffering he had undergone in the last few months of his short life had now given way to a gentle smile. He looked to be in peace. His mother saw me and hugged me tightly whispering “I have lost my son today, but his spirit will live on. He always spoke about you and how much you meant to him in his last few days on this earth. You are my son now and I will remember him through you”. I did not know what to say, so I just mumbled something and held her tightly. I returned home, had a shower and sat in front of my books. I remember staring at them for a long time. Of all the feelings that I could have felt at the moment, I felt cheated. I felt that I had been robbed of a good friend. I felt that I deserved to spend more time with him and that God had played a cruel joke on me. I know now that it was selfish on my part to expect something like that and not caring about Ashok’s parent or his sister.
But as I sat there in the dwindling light of day in my balcony, I felt that the bright flame that used to glow earnestly beside me in so many days past, had now finally extinguished. I would remember him always for what he truly was, a candle in the dark.
*name changed for personal reasons