We entered the auditorium to an existing chaos with a cacophony of simultaneous loud talk, music blaring and making no sense through the low fidelity speakers and the announcer unsuccessfully trying to quieten the gathering. Anand shook his head and left my hand gesturing me to join the crowd. As I merged into my classmates some of my gang members looking at me with raised eyebrows, Anand walked on to the dais as if he owned it. He took over the microphone and spoke. “…Heeelllloooo friends…” there was a sudden pin drop silence. He held his hands on his hips and swayed in a funny way causing all of us to crack up. “…On behalf of the veterans gathering dust in this esteemed college I welcome the new rays of sunshine…” Once again, we all laughed. This man could light up every place…literally. He soon had the entire audience eating out of his hands as he launched witty one-liners and contrasted them with serious facial expressions.
Annie came closer and held my arm. “…Hey… this guy is my Rishabh’s classmate… third year…SAPH they call him by his initials… pathetic with studies… big shot though… father bought his way to the college and now, the prodigal son struggles with studies… but who cares…?” I looked at Annie who gave Anand a scowl. Annie rarely disliked anyone. She shook her head and continued. “…I saw you walk-in with him… stay away darling… he is bad news…”
“…Annie what are you saying…?” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“…I mean it Sou… I know I encourage you to mix around but not this guy… do you know what he is called here…?” I only stared at her. “…He is called ‘the jester’…because he makes people laugh and gullible young gals fall for him and he mercilessly breaks their heart…just stay away…alright…?”
I only nodded. I didn’t have any experience in the department of judging people and of course my priorities were different. I had to do well in studies to secure a good job… with a basic MBBS degree I could get some position in a government hospital anywhere in Tamil Nadu… it would come with some security and once I saved up, I could try for post graduate studies… It was a far-fetched dream but I had managed well so far to convert my dreams to reality. As we all exited the auditorium post the light dinner, I turned around for one last look at the man who had stirred up emotions I never thought existed and found him staring at me with his hands in the pocket and a strange expression on his face. Even from a distance, under the glow of the dais lights, he stood out, maintaining his handsome panache. Suddenly he made a face and laughed waving a bye and in spite of myself I blushed waving back as I exited.
I didn’t see Anand in the next few days… probably because our timings didn’t clash and also because our tests were coming up. I was busy studying. Then one day, I stayed up late in the library while the gang had gone out for dinner. I had a regulated budget and had to give an account to my father at the end of the month. I couldn’t spend on anything frivolous… but I wasn’t used to such lifestyle so it was fine. As I walked from the campus in the dark with the glow of the streetlight the only luminating source, I quickened my pace. It suddenly seemed eerily quiet. Was the world already in bed… my crazy self wondered. I had to pass a small dark street before reaching my hostel and today it looked scary with just one functional streetlight.
I heard some noise and the next moment I saw a drunkard walk in a zigzag manner and he wavered further before looking up at me…. Right under the lone streetlight. I was frozen in my tracks and scared out of my wits… I was too stunned to even run. He then looked over my head, widened his bloodshot eyes and turned around walking away. What just happened…? It was then I got that citrus scent… and turned around only to look at Anand sanding with hands on his hips and trying to control his laughter. “…You should see your face right now…Soumzie… I am sure you scared the inebriated guy out there…that mop you have around your head… I am sure he is going to have a nightmare for days…” he chuckled. I smiled as I shook my head. He took my free hand in his and continued. “…Are you alright…? You seem to be missing him… unhappy that I came here…? Had a date with the man over drinks… I can always go away…you see and you may call him back…” I chuckled and pulled my hand away. Trust him to lighten up the mood. He then treated me to a light dinner in the hostel cafeteria and we chatted… mostly he did the talking about trivial college matters and I laughed. I realized it was easy for me to talk to him without hesitation. And from then on began a kinship I never knew existed.
I actually started seeing Anand in a new light. He indeed was the campus jester. He could make anyone laugh… there was a wave of energy as soon as he entered campus. Right form the security guards who adored him to the students whom he teased mercilessly to the teachers and even the support staff, everyone seemed to like the guy. He even stopped verbal duels causing them to crack up and forget what the argument was in the first place. I had a few opportunities in the hospital rounds to observe him and his batchmates. While his classmates in utmost seriousness treated patients with medical lines of treatments, he cracked up jokes and not only the patients but also their relatives would feel lighter. I was in awe of this man who was soon turning out to be my closest friend.
I often found him wait for me outside the library and he walked me to the hostel. He teased me over being a bit too studious and advised me to enjoy life. Gradually I realized I had revealed my life to him and he had heard me patiently without interruptions. As I had cried at the end of my tirade, he had just held my hand and patted it…the next moment he had described my crying face mimicking me and I couldn’t help but laugh. That was Anand…Whenever I was upset after my once in a blue phone calls at home, his mere presence would prep me up. I was having a tough time with my gang which had started to disintegrate because of varied interests and Annie was upset with me for being in touch with Anand. But I didn’t care anymore. He was the one who helped me retain my sanity amidst the growing pressure of studies. I realized I looked forward to meet him. At least for a glimpse of him… his endearing crater like dimples on either of his cheeks… Usually, he would be surrounded by people and I could only hear them laugh, him being at the vortex.
But the frequent evenings when he escorted me to the hostel gates, it was just the two of us and while we talked about everything under the sky, at times we would walk in total silence. It was as if we both knew each other’s need for solace. I cherished these moments and looked forwards for them. I was the only one who called him by his name and not initials… and he didn’t seem to mind a bit. Towards the end of my first year during one of these rendezvous’ he said he had two sisters and both of them were in Chennai. For the first time he had spoken about, his family members albeit in passing. He definitely missed his sisters but something told me there was no love lost between the siblings. Once in a while his phone would buzz and his facial expressions would change but the next moment, he would get back to his funny self. But before I could ask anything, he always changed the topic and the dark clouds passed.
He had a lot of difficulty in studies mainly because he wasn’t very interested and very often, I helped him plan out a schedule… he did make fun of my overzealous perfection but I knew he followed them. For the first time in his life as a medical student he had cleared all his papers at a go. The entire college had been jubilant on the result day wishing him as he pranced around happily, as if he had conquered the mount Everest. I had topped the first year and was receiving wishes form all directions as well. But more than myself I was happy for him…at least people like Annie would stop disliking the guy. He treated me that evening to a fine dine dinner away from the prying eyes of our classmates and friends. We met outside and he drove me on his funny looking bike away from the campus. It was a fun filled night and I realized I was falling for him… NO… that was not supposed to happen.
I couldn’t help the lingering feeling in my heart. He often held my hand… casually, and there were a few accidental touches now and then but he never made any moves on me. I was aghast to even think of something in that direction… I even saw him talking to other young gals in college and laugh with them and that surged my jealousy. And once when I didn’t see him for a few days I was so upset I couldn’t focus on my studies. The same evening my mom called and I got back to reality. I guess I needed that. I made a vow… Anand was a close friend and he would remain just that. I had a target to achieve and couldn’t mix up my feelings in them. Decision made, I slept quite well that night.
The next year came up with its own set of roller coasters… but what stood steady against all odds was my friendship with Anand. He was always his usual funny self with everyone around us including during our walks post my library sessions but at times when we were alone, I found him lost to the world staring in space. I knew I wouldn’t get an answer and he valued his privacy only too much. But I was in a very happy zone being friends with him. I kept up my date with Goddess Meenakshi every fortnight and once in a while Anand would accompany me as well. But he would never come close to the temple sanctum and as always, he stayed outside. I often found him chatting with the local shopkeepers. He was totally a people’s person. The final year for him and his batchmates was way too taxing with hospital duties and studies but he always took time for our meets as often as possible. He was like this daily dose of vitamin I needed to sustain the pressure of the college and I wondered how it would be once he left the college for his internship. But to my surprise he got placed in the other government hospital in Madurai along with some of his batchmates and they made it a point to visit us more often than not. I was on the seventh heaven. His final internship months were in our own hospital and our rendezvous became more frequent… My third year was facing its end and very soon I would get busy with the fourth year. To my utmost surprise Anand gave me a lot of input about what was expected during the tedious hospital placement and it helped me tide over. It was pleasantly surprising to see him talk seriously about academic concerns but of course, true to his nature he always ended the conversation with some unheard joke. I knew he would be gone soon and I would miss this camaraderie I never had with anyone before.
On the last day of that batch in the college i.e. the day they were given interim degree certificates, Anand took over the dais as usual and after about half an hour of cracking us up like a stand-up comedian, he exited the stage to a huge round of applause. Everyone screamed that they would miss him and the teachers announced the same as well. It was difficult for me to hide my tears. Just then I saw Annie and some of my classmates walk up to Anand and give him something gift wrapped. The smirk on Annie’s lips made me uncomfortable. What were they up to? They insisted he open it then and there and I was distraught as I saw the gift.
It was a clown cap with multiple projections with a colored ball hanging from each of them. Annie and others giggled so did the gathered group of people around. Annie announced. “…Here is our parting gift to the official jester of this college…” I was shocked and angry too… how could she do that…? But Anand took it in his stride and wore it like a pro making his usual faces and walked out waving to all. Everyone roared but I knew in my heart… he was hurt. I rushed after him but it was late and he had disappeared. For someone who entertained everyone, made them smile at their darkest hours, no one knew where he lived. That evening I was walking out from the campus towards the hostel lost in thought when I saw him leaning against his bike outside the back gate. He tried to smile but his somber looks gave him away. I walked up to him.
“…You… you should have thrown that so-called gift on her face…” I was still angry with what had transpired earlier that day.
“…Chill Soumzie…” He smiled his endearing dimple making me fume all the more. He held my hand after ages. “…Come on… they were right, weren’t they? I am a jester around here… aren’t I…?” He chuckled and it boiled my blood.
“…No…Anand… you are not… I hate it when someone calls you that… and now they have given you this atrocious cap… I know Anand, you laugh to hide what is troubling you… whether you chose to tell me or not… I know it… and I can feel that you were hurt today…. Just like the other times whenever someone spoke rudely to you…why Anand…? Why do you want to do this…?”
“…Do what Soumya…?” he said my complete name which was extremely rare that meant he was upset.
“…Make everyone laugh Anand. It’s not your responsibility… at least not to those who don’t deserve it…”
He held my hand again and smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes and it broke my heart further. “…Soumzie… that’s the least I can do for anyone… make them laugh…it’s the greatest gift I can give them…”
“…what about you Anand…? Who can make you feel good…?”
“…I have my dear little friend right here to come back to… don’t I…? What else do I need…?”
We stared at each other and as he looked at me with some sort of an intensity shining in the depths of his orbs, I wondered if he would realize my feelings for him were beyond friendship… at that moment the time had stopped and we were just the two of us lost together in oblivion. But that passed as quickly as it arrived and he cleared his throat letting my hand go.
“…I will be back Soumzie… very soon… so behave yourself girl!” and he winked at me before driving away into the dark.
I released the breath I didn’t even know I had held. I was sad all these days thinking about not seeing him anymore but now I was ecstatic. Anand would be back. I only hoped my euphoric bubble didn’t burst.
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