Sometimes, it seems like nothing is constant anymore. The plot of land that has been lying unused for five years is suddenly transformed into a multi-speciality hospital in a mere five months. The chaiwallah, who’s been a fixture at the corner of the street since the beginning of time (or so it seems to me, having seen his white-haired head there all my life), is abruptly absent, dwarfed and replaced by a gleaming, brand new, multiple-starred, multi-cuisine restaurant. ‘Change is the only real constant in life’, is what I’ve always heard, but no amount of preparation seems sufficient to harden one’s mind against the shock one feels on encountering the proof of some kinds of change, that were once thought impossible. I felt that incredulous shock as I stood in one of the best hotels of London, staring at Siddharth after fifteen years.
Sometimes, it seems like all I ever do is pretend. Pretend to feel bored and cynical – as those are what make me ‘cool’, or so the herd of people around me informs me. Pretend to be superior to every new person I meet – as if my achievements and fame are enough reason to belittle the worth of everyone else, and raise me to the state of perfection. Pretend like there is nothing new in the world, that I know everything there is to know, and that there’s nothing which I can marvel at, admire or applaud. But the mask of pretence is a flimsy one, for all I think of it as being so securely in place through practice, as I discovered one day in July, when I saw Kriti – fifteen years, eight months, twelve days and five hours after I’d last seen her, and said goodbye.
Siddharth. Math genius. IQ 127. Secret life : singer and composer extraordinaire. He was the perfect archetype of a geek – skinny, with big glasses and a pale-complexion. But there’s something about geeks that the common observer doesn’t realize – something more. They’re cleverer, wittier, funnier, more talented, more endearing – than people of the non-geeky variety. At least, that’s what I’ve always thought, having set Siddharth as my definition of the term. As I looked at him, and saw him stare back at me with the same look of shocked wonder that I was sure was on my face, I felt a ball of hurt betrayal lodge in that portion of my heart that still secretly believes in innocence, true friendships and happily-ever-afters. It looked like the world had taken my once-best-friend, and made him over into someone I couldn’t even recognize.
Kriti, my best friend. Junior by two years, but all the more bossy to make up for it. From the first moment I met her – a memorable occasion that occurred when I shifted into the house next door to hers at the precocious age of ten, and accidentally broke her toy kitchen set, earning a scold worthy of a university dean – she’s never failed to keep me on my toes: doling out advice (which was nearly always useful, to my chagrin), defending me behind my back against the taunts of other kids, guessing all my secrets despite all my efforts at concealment. I knew what she would see as she looked at me – the gelled-hair, the two girls with the figures of supermodels – all nearly draped over me, the black Goth clothes, the tattoos. I saw her look of bafflement, and turned away before it could turn to something else. What could I possibly say? In a way, it was because of her that my life had come to this.
Can a person change so much so as to not retain a shred of their old personality? I’ve heard that fame and success can go to a person’s head, but that knowledge didn’t keep me from feeling hurt – I’d never even dreamt that Siddharth could change so much that he would allow fame to alienate him from all those whom he’d cared for in the past. Or was his character as I’d known it all a facade, a thin veneer that was torn away once circumstances made him an object of admiration and popularity? I didn’t know what to think. He turned away, and I was left staring at the burial of yet another hope last, another old beloved emotion dead, another step into that mire of cynicism that seems to be a side-effect of adulthood.
I didn’t answer the note that came two hours later – a request to meet him near the London Eye.
I dreaded, and yet longed to talk to her. For a while, it seemed like she wouldn’t agree to meet me; but then, she came. She came in her typical old-sneakers-and-jeans ensemble, looking nearly the same as she had back then, when we were neighbours in a small town in Maharashtra – but with her face leaner, the chubby fat now non-existent, more mature, confident and beautiful. Sometimes, one doesn’t realise the value of what one has, till its loss creates a void: an absence that cannot be filled by anything else. How many times had I thought of Kriti in the past fifteen years, in desperation and longing? Fifteen is a time for crushes and infatuation; one daydreams about actresses and models, not one’s too-perceptive, sometimes-irritating, tomboyish best friend. By the time I realised that what we had shared could have developed into something deeper, it had been too late.
He wore sunglasses, and a hooded pullover. What ever happened to the faded jeans and red sweater? Had I thought that it would come to this, back then, when I’d urged him to take up music seriously, convinced his parents, and cheered him on at his first concert at fifteen? I had been proud of my friend, exultant that the world appreciated his talent as he deserved and before the consequences of his success could touch our friendship and taint it with envy, moved away. My father had got transferred to another state, and soon after, had passed away suddenly due to a heart attack. I had been too busy supporting my mother and younger brother to keep in touch with Siddharth, and even when my mind drifted to him, in times of unbearable despair, I had had no means of contact – the Internet not being in vogue then. And yet, I’d heard reports of his journey over the years, as he rose to international success, and had found quiet joy and strength to persevere in thinking of those old days of happiness. When had my memories of him started becoming tinged with an emotion greater than mere fondness? The hope of that something more had sustained me all those years, and the destruction of those dreams now, was unbearable. I just looked at him.
‘Kriti’, he said, ‘I’m sorry.’
I told her about it – how that glittering world took you in and forced you to either follow its rules, or get out. How I’d tried so hard – to find true friendships, genuine feelings in that fickle, glamorous life – and had nearly sunk in disappointment, to the point of depression. How no one could be trusted, how every action, every situation seemed calculated and mercenary, and how like a charade every moment was – the constant spotlight on every move, the rumours that sprung up out of nowhere, the brutal rivalries, the envy, the constant expectation. How I’d begun to act like they did, in order to protect myself, and in acting aloof and arrogant, actually gained acceptance into those circles. How I feared even now, that this act that I put on every day would take away all that I truly was, inside; that I would forget the thin line between reality and pretence, and become who I was pretending to be. How I had thought of her so constantly over the years, as a reminder of what I truly was, as an assurance, that all was not just shallow glitter and lies in the world. How I’d wanted to meet her, again and again, and put it off, shamed by what I would seem like, in her eyes. How I loved her.
Do you know that overwhelming feeling of relief you feel when you wake up after a nightmare and know that it was not for real? That was what I felt, as I listened to Siddharth speak of what life had done to him, and what he had made of it. In this world of changing perspectives and fleeting emotions, is it possible to judge anyone? Does success really change people, or are they all just going around pretending – to conform to the standards of some superficial rulebook? I looked out at the lights of the city, and thought that perhaps, the answer depends, not on what level or kind of fame you achieve, but on the type of person you are inside.
Disclaimer : All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is unintentional and purely coincidental.
Note : The above was a write-up for a creative writing prompt which was – the title of this piece.