By the time the train reached Thane, the time was 7.15. Every bone in my body ached in anguish as I was thrown out of the footboard...From one foot to the other... My eyes were now fixed on the foot-over bridge that would faithfully take me to the West. East and West - those prized keywords in a city where a huge sea of humanity finds its way through two-way tracks, pouring to and fro on either sides with amazing regularity.
It was on my dejected march towards the chaotic bus stand that I bumped into Muri. It took me some time but his protruding teeth and frog eyes gave him away. Yes, Muri he was all right, my friend of sorts from college. The rest flashed by like a heavy downpour, one with huge drops that hurt the scalp.
Muri was part of our core group, if only by default. His parents had named him Murali but for us he was just Muri. Throughout my college years, Muri clung to us like a shadow at gatherings, competitions, picnics, traditional days; neither a participant, nor invitee but always around. As if he had signed a charter of unconditional presence. He was invariably the butt of every joke we cracked and we didn’t need a reason to laugh at him. Though he gave us many.
Within the larger group, we were a core team of six. Archana, Bipin, Gautam, Ria, Sonia and me. And yes Muri was our selfless Man Friday. I still remember our Manori trip that was our first-ever overnight adventure. We had planned it months in advance and the initial verdict was in favor of Muri’s inclusion. After all, we needed him to run errands, serve food, or simply keep guard. We were all set when Gautam changed the plan. At the very last moment… just when Muri was ready with a turd-shaped clumsy yellow bag packed with junk pile waiting to burst out. Gautam, the wealthiest among us, had a say in everything…. and more often that not, it was final. He felt Muri would be a nuisance. Our plans were not exactly noble, so why take a chance? He reasoned. On second thoughts, we saw his point and Muri was left out. As always, he turned the other way without a frown… I had even borrowed his goggles for the day.
Time flew like it always does – priorities changed color, what seemed paramount before felt trivial later and melodrama made way for some real-life drama. Willfully or otherwise, we moved in life. Some way ahead, few close on the heels, others pretty much behind. Gautam got busy with his family business of textiles, Archana did her masters in psychology, we simply lost touch with Sonia, and Bipin & Ria left for the US after their marriage. Their wedding reception proved to be our last assembly. And there was no Muri around, as if to prove this was not the real thing.
Lost in our own worlds, we never bothered to keep track of Muri. And today, I found him like a forlorn shadow emerging after a long cloudy spell. He was now a clerk with the Indian Statistical Institute, he told me on his own. And he wished to know about each one of us.
Why do you want to know, for God’s sake? That core group has long disintegrated into pieces. Of all people, why do you bother? Wish I could ask him all that.
For a second, his earnest look took me back in time. I felt as if the chaos around would freeze for a moment and the rest of the group would appear from nowhere to hatch our next plan, continuing from where we left last. A plan that would now definitely have a well defined role for dear Muri. I would gladly ensure that.
With a mechanical promise to keep in touch, we parted ways, losing ourselves in the now-familiar black hole with that insatiable urge to accommodate strangers of all kinds.
Dedicated to the Muris of the world. I believe there are many!