I knew Raju since my school days. In fact, Raju was one of my closest friend during my high school days. We used to reside in the same locality, and went to the same school. Well-built and fair complexioned, he was quite popular. He came from a poor Nepali family, and their family ran a small grocery shop. Additionally, they also sold vegetables in the market to earn a living in such a pricey town as Shillong.
Memories abound about Raju. I remember fondly how on umpteenth occasions, he cajoled me into accompanying him into a movie. I, now, often wonder as to where he got money to pay for the tickets for both of us on all those occasions. Of course, we always went for the least costly seats viz front-stall. Often when we couldn't pay third class fare for tickets, we even sat through a film sitting on the ground, or sharing a seat. I am sure he used to pocket money surreptitiously from the money box at their grocery shop. We were fond of action films and in those days, the heroics of stars like Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee, Sly Stallone and Amitabh Bachchan provided us with all the thrills one can derive from such films. At times we played truant to go to the movies.
Raju was a mediocre student, and his academic performance in school was average. Often, he adopted unfair means in the exam, but he never got caught red-handed by the Invigilators. Though I was quite close to him, yet I could never muster up courage to indulge in such unfair means. Of course, there was no necessity, as because I was quite good in studies, and generally scored high marks in most of the subjects.
He was good at picking up languages. He could effortlessly speak several languages without blemish - Nepali, Hindi, English and a few others.
Once I went with Raju to State Library in our town. In great style, he stole a book from there, right in front of the librarian's eyes. He was indeed, courageous.
When we were still at school, communal violence rocked Shillong. The first day when trouble erupted still remains vividly etched in my memory. Raju and I had gone to a film show. After about an hour of screening, abruptly the show stopped. There was panic all around. People began running helter-skelter. Soon, we heard that curfew has been clamped in the town. It was for the first time in my life that I ever heard such a word -- curfew. Anyway, we soon made our exit from the theatre. We knew all the various short-cut routes and by lanes to reach our house. While we were returning we saw a good number of policemen at strategic points wielding deadly lethal weapons. I have never seen such sight ever before in my life. My family members were anxiously awaiting my arrival. Soon, my father, too, returned from office.
Several incidents involving Raju I can recall vividly now. Once we had gone for fishing. I was assisting him in the 'catching' operation. Out of nowhere, a snake appeared from the bushes around the stream, where we were fishing. I freezed. The snake was peering curiously at us. In a flash, Raju picked up the long stick , which he always carried with him, went stealthily towards the tail of the snake, gently brought down the stick and ran it over its body, as if caressing it. When he reached the neck, he pressed the stick hard over the neck, so that the lethal venom , in no way, can pass because the fangs couldn't strike in that throttled position. With great dexterity, he caught hold of the snake ( it wasn't a very big one) and hurled it with one great thrust forward. And then we began running, and would have surely given a Jesse Owens or a Carl Lewis, a run for their money, if we could match the speed of that sprint ever again.
We indulged in a bit of gambling in those days. I was coerced by Raju to occasionally take a dip. In those days, and even now, betting in Archery (a gambling sports of Shillong, now legalized) is a craze. Numerous Archery counters can still be seen all around the city of Shillong. Though we played a few times, we generally lost in the deal. Only on a few occasions, did we manage to hit the jackpot.
Eventually, we both appeared in the School Board Exam simultaneously. I managed a first Div, whereas he scraped through with a third. I went for Science stream, whereas Raju took admission in Arts. We went to different colleges.
Our meetings became less frequent. I immersed myself sincerely in my studies, and began to prepare myself with the sole objective of securing an entry into Engineering. Around this time, I began hearing that Raju developed a penchant for the bottle. As days passed, news of Raju taking drugs too, reached my ears. I did meet him in a few occasions in those days, and admonished him about his addiction and warned him to rein himself. Being his good friend, I did try my outmost to make him give up his bad habits. Yet on most occasions, when I used to caution him, he would retort "Look, this is my life man, I will do whatever I like." It was difficult to make him see reason on such occasions, yet whenever he was normal again, he was an entirely different person -- jovial, lovable and unselfish. Like me, music was his passion -- he loved Freddie Mercury, Bob Marley, Hendrix and Dire Straits.
I still remember one particular day. I ran into Raju near my house. "Friend," he said, "you know I have been drinking continuously for the last 78 days." I didn't knew how to reply. I slipped away from his company, and went home sad.
A couple of years passed. I was then studying Engineering outside of my home town. On vacation, when I used to return, I observed that Raju's body has swelled. After all, limitless drinking does bring about a change in one's constitution. Things went from bad to worse, and eventually, a time came when Raju had to be admitted to a rehabilitation center.
I went to pay him a visit there. He was forced to live a disciplined life there. He introduced me to a few inmates there, who have become his friends by now. It was a horrifying experience, as never before have I seen so many youths, in the prime of their lives, battling for it, and for many of them, I am sure, it was too late for any medication. Only miracles could have saved them.
Raju was released when he showed signs of improvement. However, he couldn't curb his bacchanalian habits.
His parents decided to get him married. This might change him, they thought. It was a last ditch effort from his parent's side, who loved him dearly. However, Raju was so much addicted that he couldn't keep his wife happy. Many a times, he used to beat his wife badly while in a drunken fit. This became quite a regular feature as time passed. The inevitable happened -- the relationship ended in a divorce.
Time ticked away. By now, I have completed my Engineering and managed a job back in Shillong. A few days later, one night I heard that Raju's condition was serious. He was in severe pain. Doctors had been called, and they are trying desperately to provide succor to my ailing friend.
We had a small garden in our house. "Sir, can we pick up some flowers from your garden?." I saw two small boys of my locality awaiting my response. I asked them as to why they needed flowers on that day. It was not a religiously auspicious day. One of the boys said, "Sir, one of our locality boy, by the name of Raju, passed away yesterday."
He was only twenty-seven. Giving my consent to the boys to pick up as many flowers as they would like, I made my way to Raju's house where a large crowd has converged by then. Cries and wails rented the air. I entered the house and saw Raju's lifeless still body sleeping blissfully, oblivious of the surroundings.
Five years have passed since. I still miss Raju very much. The void left by his untimely death will be very difficult to fill in my life. May God bestow peace on my beloved departed friend's soul!