I had known Virendra since first grade . He was extremely fair skinned , had light green eyes and was a Brahmin from the Konkan region of Maharashtra. There is a peculiar affliction that seems to be found only among Indians and that seems to the servile fawning attitudes towards fair skin, I imagine it is some form of Anglophilia, a sycophancy that probably derives its roots from the colonization over the past few centuries .
While most of you would be puzzled and ask me if the fawning tendencies for fairer skin are not true the world around . Women are considered the fairer sex and we all fawn over them. Even the great Benjamin Franklin makes a case for fair skin (in his days they considered Germans to be dark skinned , go figure!!!!) and he makes a case for pursuing English or French women only. But modern day Indians take that sentiment to heart. The concept of tanning inside a tanning booth would probably get you admitted to a lunatic asylum in India . Indians do everything to ensure that fair skin is kept as pristine and fair as possible , some mothers will even prevent their children from playing too long in the sun where they might run into the virulent danger of losing their pristine natural advantage. But coming back to Virendra , being blessed with natural advantages had certainly made him cocky and arrogant. The longer we knew him, the more we all fawned on him , around 3rd grade he let us on to a secret . The coming summer, he was headed to America to visit Disneyland. We were flabbergasted , Disneyland!!! Actually going to see Mickey mouse , Donald Duck , Goofy !!! We were insanely jealous of his good fortune . How does one get to be so damned lucky?? Envy was probably writ large on every single face .
So fourth grade was all about Disney characters , we had to hear stories of Disneyland and the long plane ride and the stop over in England , the beautiful princesses in Disneyland, the hot dog and ice cream vendors . He had even introduced certain Americanisms into his speech such as “Gotcha” and “Gonna” By the end of the year , we had gotten tired of his silly Americanisms ,Disneyland , London , the beautiful princesses and the Disney characters and heartily wished that Mr Disney had found himself another career, envy notwithstanding.
If fourth grade was awesome, few things could compare to a fifth grader’s dream vacation as his vacation actually turned out to be . It was a month in Kenya and then an African Safari through the Congo. He regaled us with tales of seeing Lion cubs in the wild , uncut precious stones lying unclaimed , the heart wrenching but utterly graceful hunts of the gazelle by the cheetah. We found ourselves cheering in turn for the cheetah and the gazelle in turn.We then heard stories of his house in Mombasa where they housed a small zoo , we were regaled of stories of how he would feed pygmy pigs to his pet python, the garden that housed peacocks , the leopard cubs that had been rescued by Zulu, the son of his Kenyan nanny, Elinah . He even showed us a peacock feather that he assured us was the real deal from one of his pet peacocks. We were fed an inveterate diet of all things Kenyan , Kenyan customs , Kenyan culture , Kenyan diet . Needless to say . we were envious at his astonishing good fortune and by the end of the year , completely fed up with Kenya and all things Kenyan.
One day my curiosity and envy could stand it no longer and so I asked him how did he manage it , to which he proudly replied that his father was a pilot and they could take free trips anywhere around the world anytime they pleased and since the pilots get paid so handsomely , they had over a dozen houses in different exotic locales. Lucky Bastard!!! He won the ovarian lottery!!! I wished my dad would do something as cool so that I could do all those wonderful things . I wanted to see the Savannah , I wanted to see the animals in the wild, do a safari , go prospecting for gemstones in the rough and a million other things . I had no idea what a bucket list was but I already had a lengthy bucket list thanks to Virendra’s travels.
As the years passed , it became normal for us to expect him to regale us with stories as the school year started . It was always an exotic vacation; skiing in the Alps while in Europe , going diving in the great barrier reef with sharks, snorkeling with amazing wildlife in Hawaii , even going diving in the dreaded Bermuda triangle, glacier watching in Greenland , and a trip through world war II museums and locations in Germany ,Austria and Poland that impressed even our history teacher in 10th grade and turned us all greener with envy. We just hated the bastard but we were falling over each other to hear more of his exploits , stories of his travels were common place even amongst the girls and several apparently had already vied for the enviable epithet of being his girlfriend. Which just made things that much worse for all of us , even Renu a girl that I had a soft corner for , seemed to be smitten with him , seemed to go out of her way to talk to him where as I barely existed . Oh how the green eyed monster of jealousy inflamed me!!!
After passing out of high school, we went our separate ways . I was destined to be an engineer , if I was not destined to be, my father made sure that I developed proclivities that were suited for engineering . His parents were more lackadaisical and allowed him to go to culinary school which I thought was to be expected , his parents had money, they could afford to let him indulge whereas I had to provide for my family. Moreover I was also envious because I had always heard about the loose women that ended up in culinary schools , I am sure that with his god given good looks, he would be busy sowing wild oats galore . By the time we ended up in college , I had lost touch with him .But my bucket list still housed a ton of places to see and travel , that list owed more to him than to the travel channel and my envy at his good fortune was probably intact but dormant . I eventually gave up any hopes of meeting him , assumed that he would move abroad to one of his dozen houses that his family owned around the world and move on to better things .
I finished my graduation with flying colors and it was imposed upon me that I had to get my masters . When I was trying to get admission for my Masters , I had to run pillar to post and I was in Modern college and whom do I see but my old pal , Virendra in the finance dept . I started in surprise . He had not seen me yet , I snuck towards him unseen and hurried in delight to meet him and I heard the words from his mouth “I will see you later dad”. I stopped and stared in startled disbelief . The man that was being addressed looked just like Virendra , older , fair skin , green eyes so I had little doubt that he was indeed Virendra’s dad . A pilot who has houses in the US , Switzerland , Kenya and a dozen other exotic locales does not need to work in the accounting department of Modern college . I looked at the man slowly , scrutinizing him carefully , head to toe.The thread bare sweater and the faded pants and the worn out chappals painted a picture that was slowly coming into focus for me . The face wore the withdrawn look of a man who had cherished dreams and hopes and watched life batter away at them like a gale against a flimsy raft , it was certainly not the face of a man who was used to getting his way . As I stared , comprehension slowly dawned on me . Comprehension is a funny beast ,this sudden insight had the unexpected effect of tying seemingly disparate pieces of information together into a consummate whole. A realization hitherto safely hidden from view, floated up into my consciousness . I had been a ‘close friend’ for over 15 years and in those 15 years, I have never been to his house .Anger crept in when I realized that I had been fooled , for the better part of 15 years. All that envy and misery over the years, jealousy at his good fortune suddenly seemed like an utter waste of my life and the feeling of sour and bitter humiliation slowly made its way and I wanted to throw up, I could imagine him chuckling at all of us being fooled by his imaginative stories . He must think we are all idiots. The anger and fury gave way to an overwhelming desire to humiliate him , sweet humiliating retribution in front of his father for making me and all our friends look like idiots. But fortunately before my vicious ploy could be put to work , providence bailed me out. The department was crowded with students trying to pay fees so he never saw me as he turned and left. And my father came by and took me away to the meeting that was scheduled; we had to focus on more important issues.
But as time passed , the need for providing a dramatic expose , weighed on me , sucking up useful energy and time . I should have instead spent time figuring out how to tell my dad how grateful I was for his upbringing, I did not have great vacations but I was sufficiently comfortable in my skin that I did not have to create elaborate fantasies to hide who I was and for that I had only my father to thank for but these valuable lessons are learnt by the truly wise ones amongst us, most of us focus on petty issues and I was no exception , I focused on silly plans to satiate petty desires , one of which included formulating a plan for a dramatic expose . In retrospect I should have been more respectful of Old Man Time because he has taken great pains to teach me some very hard and painful lessons ; tell your parents how much you love and appreciate them because death does not always warn before it comes knocking , tell the woman you love how much she means to you because once you lose her, you may never get an opportunity to get her back, indulge your children because once they grow up, they move on with their own lives and don’t have time for your regrets.
My dad passed away quite suddenly due a heart attack . Doctors assured me that smoking was responsible , that did not do anything to inspire me to quit my smoking habit however my dad’s death did change my perspectives in relation to a number of issues , including my seemingly insatiable need for exposing Virendra . Overnight I failed to see the point of the exercise .I was looking at this from a different vantage point , a vantage point where I would give anything to tell my dad how proud I was of him and everything that he did for us . This vantage point made me thank providence that Virendra had not seen me that crowded day in the Modern College Accounting dept and let my silly ploy come to fruition. I would have been guilty of poisoning the relationship of a father to his son, perhaps even inspire the worst question that a parent can ask of themselves “Is my child ashamed of me?”
I did not see Virendra for another 20 years . I finally tracked him down on Facebook and was happy to see that he was doing well for himself . We got in contact and started setting up meetings in places where our travels intersected ; Toronto , Shanghai , San Francisco, London ,Tokyo , Paris , Sydney , Johannesburg, Buenos Aires etc . At our meeting in Tokyo we decided to meet at the world famous Tsukiji fish market and have sushi and sake. After several hours of pounding cold sake and eating delicious blue fin tuna sushi , I finally mustered up the courage to ask him about his childhood adventures and he unabashedly answered “National Geographic” . I burst out laughing and he smiled and we raised another toast , to his inventive mind but I also raised a silent toast to the friendship where he felt comfortable telling the truth and to providence that had saved me from destroying it . The confession was an admission of the strength of our friendship but everything that was left unsaid was a far greater testament to the durability of this relationship, the silent confidence that everything was understood, nothing need to be said or explained or apologized for
Perhaps it is only befitting that these two restless souls , one so highly imaginative that he imagined entire travels of exotic locales from the cozy comfort of his humble home and the other who was so entranced by his friend’s journeys that he was inspired to see places that he otherwise might never have, should meet in faraway lands , in any place but what they both had once considered home.