September 8, 2016


Uddalak Gupta

I have a friend, who is a mathematician. We were at high school together. We were scrawny boys, painfully shedding the skin of adolescence with some help from rock music, dubious books and the occasional clandestine reefer at a park near school - the usual stuff.

We circled habitually in a group of four or five, bound by the sine curve of changing fortunes at a Jesuit school in Calcutta. We spent afternoons at our houses talking it up - man, how we talked - in our noisy little rebellions. We walked the Lake at Dhakuria, making fun of the world and our professors. We smoked cigarettes, and coughed. We wrote bad poetry. We listened to cult rock albums on wheezy tape recorders. We were free as the strays that would sometimes follow us along the banks edging the waters, wagging their tails without sophistication.

Once, we thought we'd take a swim just like that. While three of us waded into the cool, green slime till it reached up to the knees of our jeans, my friend carefully took off his clothes - all of them, till nothing clung to him. He adjusted his reedy, six-foot frame and flopped in. Some athletic rowers, swishing by in a slick Calcutta Rowing Club canoe, looked on aghast. As a seventeen-year-old, I’d thought, that was cool. It was us against the world. That evening, we won.

My friend had the academic temperament. He had inherited it without choice. His parents were professors at a science institute, and his sister was readying for a PhD. So while the rest of us sweated it out for our Twelfth Boards, alternating among anxiety, foolhardiness and resignation, he quietly trumped the exams. He went on to land a seat at the holy grail of learning for the middle-class - the IITs - without really having to try.

I stayed on at home, a day scholar at an Architecture college. He chose Math; Engineering wasn't his scene. We would meet less often, when he'd come home for his semester breaks or the Puja vacations. He brought with him the smells and sights and sounds of a world I didn't know - a more grown-up affair, out of the bounds of our shared experiences. It was harder-edged, randomly fascinating and infinitely promising.

When we were 20, one of our mates in the school gang died of cancer. We didn't know what to say. So we didn't, just dragged on ahead, shielding our confusion and cauterising the hurt. We were too young to deal with tragedy, though rock music was full of it.

In those five years, before our colleges finally got rid of us, we used to write to each other often - in blue inland letters, with casual dot pens. I’d be bursting with myself, and my sentences would flow till the first side was filled, and then the second. And then, the rear side too. Almost always, I would cram in a last flourish, aligning the text vertically along the borders, those blue borders with the gummy strips that held the promise of more that was to be said.

I inland-ed my way through 18 to 23, as I slowly came to grips with what it was like to be a man, told in cheap rectangles of blue. It was an uncertain time. It was the best of times. It was the way it was.

The world has changed, and so have we. We haven't met for 20 years or so, but I know that my friend is well. He teaches Math to graduate students who must be as out of their depths as we'd once been. Out of the blue, I still get a chance e-mail from him with a link worth investigating...some music here, a read there, a sprig of a moment well spent. I haven’t kept up quite as much, and there remains a twinge of guilt.

And so, I thought, I'd drop a line tonight, bursting with things to say. Even if I no longer have to fit in last words between the spaces that have crept in; even if it is now addressed to you, and even if, it's no more in blue.

About The Author: Uddalak Gupta likes to think he’s a rambler. Born in a small town, he grew up in Kolkata, trained as an architect but became an advertising writer. Based in a suburb of Delhi, he is currently taking a break. He hopes to write someday, and leave the big city.