It was April of 1971, a pleasant day in Delhi. I was standing in a line at a counter in Hindu college, waiting to hand in my form for admission to the MA ( English) course. Everyone in the queue was relaxed, for this was long before the insanity of cut-offs robbed kids of the pleasure of college admissions. Suddenly, a voice behind me said: ” Excuse me, do you have a light?” I turned around, to see a sturdily built chap with clean but rugged visage, a Roman nose and soft eyes that belied the otherwise strong features. “Sure,” I replied, “but I’m out of cigarettes.” He smiled and took out a packet of Wills Flakes : “Be my guest; I’m Anil Pradhan, from Shillong,” he said.
That was the start of a friendship which lasted almost 52 years, till Prads decided he’d had enough of me and walked off into the sunset behind his beloved mountains on the 6th of this month, after a struggle that lasted a month. He fought well, but I have a feeling he knew that the battle was not going to be easy.
Real friendship requires that you must share experiences together, the good and the bad. And we did it for five years running, and thereafter. Both of us outsiders to Delhi, we did the same course and serenaded the same girls ( and a couple of our teachers too, I don’t mind admitting at this safe age!) We were roommates in Hindu college hostel and thereafter, as Lecturers, room mates in the barsatis and servant quarters of Timarpur and B.D. Estate. We ate at the same dhaba and paid each other’s bills when the NPAs mounted up. Each of us took turns sitting outside on the stairs of our barsati, smoking innumerable cigarettes, when the other had a tryst with the accredited girl friend of the moment ( though I must admit that Prads’ north-face-of-Kanchenjunga looks were more marketable than mine, and it was usually I who did most of the smoking!) We took the civil services exams together, I made it to the IAS in 1975, Prads to the IPS two years later . I was fortunate enough not to get my home state, he was fortunate to get his home state of Meghalaya, from where he ultimately retired as Director General of Police. Prads did make one major mistake though- he named his only son after me. No kid should start off life with a handicap like that!
Prads was the nearest I’ve come to a complete gentleman- frustratingly correct in everything he did, immaculately groomed and dressed, impeccable in his language and manners, chivalry itself with ladies. These traits played a vital role in my marriage to Neerja. Sometime in 1976 it was arranged between the parents that I would meet Neerja at her friend’s place in Golf Links and explore the tinkling of the wedding bells. I was terrified, and lacked the strength to even kick start my Jawa mobike. Prads volunteered to take me on his scooter (he disapproved of mobikes as being too loud) and to chaperone me. Neerja was accompanied by five of her LSR friends, but I need not have worried. They were all so taken up with Prads’ deportment that they decided that anyone who had a friend like him couldn’t be all that bad. We’ve been married now for 45 years but I suspect that Neerja is convinced to this day that it was a perfectly executed con job.
Prads loved his home town of Shillong, and the lovely cottage his father had built in Laitumkrah. He insisted that I should come there with him, and in 1973 or thereabouts we went up. On the way there, in a sultry 3-Tier coach, he got into an argument with some Bihari boys and beat them up. Thereafter, till we crossed Bihar, gangs of local youngsters scoured the train for him. I shoved him into a toilet and locked the door from inside- it was the longest toilet break either of us have ever taken. (He repaid me back in Timarpur by letting me have the first use of our tiny toilet in the mornings ever after.)
We reached Prads’ Laitumkrah cottage at midnight; it was dark and empty as his parents( Prads’ dad was a Colonel in the army) were in some other state. To our horror we discovered that for once Prads had faltered- he had forgotten the front door keys in Delhi. After a hurried confabulation it was decided that Prads would get in through a partly open skylight and open the door from inside. He clambered up, by which time the alarmed neighbours had called in the police. We spent the next hour trying to establish our identities. Fortunately, the neighbours recognized Prads as the son of his father, though they did mutter that there was a glitch in the transmission of the Pradhan DNA to this particular offspring.
One of my abiding regrets is that Prads and Shanky ( his wife) could not come up to our place in Mashobra: he would have loved it, with its forests, large skies, the fireplace meant for relaxed evenings of conversation and single malts. While in service our jobs took us to various places and kept us fully occupied. For a few years in the 90s we were together in Delhi (he was in the IB, I think) and met regularly for a drink and dinner. But then our paths diverged, till they came together again after our respective retirements. And now, of course, Prads has decided to plough his own furrow, without waiting for us.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/