“Hi! Mind if I sit here?”
Aarav looked up from the books he was pulling out of his backpack. A pleasant-faced boy stood at the other side of the two-seater bench in the classroom. He was about Aarav’s size and build, and his eyes hinted at hidden humour.
Aarav smiled. “No, not at all. Go ahead.” He took his backpack off the bench, and the boy sat down.
“Thanks. My name’s Ishaan, by the way,” the boy said as he opened his own backpack. “From City College. You?”
“Aarav. Model Junior College. Heard a lot about this place, so here I am!”
They grinned at each other, sensing instant rapport.
It was first day of college at the National Technology Institute, or NTI. They were both enrolled in the mechanical engineering program. Aarav now remarked, as they looked around the room at their other classmates, “You know the problem with mech? No girls, yaar. Girls don’t go for mech; mostly computer science. What a pain!”
“Really?” Ishaan murmured. “Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Keeps our mind on studies and all that, you know.”
“You’re joking, right? Four years without girls—no joking matter, yaar…”
The teacher walked in just then, and the students greeted him and fell silent as they opened their new books.
The following months saw Aarav and Ishaan enjoying much time together. Their shared interests included debating, and they thrilled in battling it out on opposite teams, tossing a coin to decide who got to choose sides first, and continuing with their debate long after the event with outlandish arguments and much laughter.
Aarav also applied his free time in finding ways to meet new girls on and off campus. He would brag to Ishaan that he could walk up to any girl and get her phone number and a date within five minutes. His evenings were often spent over coffee with his latest conquest. It baffled him that Ishaan did not display the same enthusiasm in this.
“Yaar, what’s your problem exactly? I’m doing all the hard work with these girls, and you’re just tooling around with your textbooks! Come on, Ishaan. You have no idea how many hot girls are begging me for your introduction. They think you’re cute, yaar! Crazy, eh? So, take your pick from the long waiting list, and let’s do some double dating; you know, day trips on weekends, and so forth. What do you say?”
Ishaan would reply vaguely, with a smile, “You go ahead, yaar. I’d rather wait for the right one. And, I have too many other things to do right now, anyway.”
Aarav would walk away shaking his head in disgust. “Something wrong with you, man. Your life’s wasted. Totally wasted.”
“I know. Everybody tells me that. Catch you later, Aarav.”
Two years passed by pleasantly. Aarav and Ishaan passed their long vacations happily in their home towns, keeping in touch over the phone. Some time before start of the new term, Aarav offered an interesting piece of information: his younger brother, Arnav, would be joining their college for his first year in the computer science program. “I’m really excited, yaar. We’re actually very close, and I can keep an eye on him now; make sure he’s not distracted by girls and all that, by gently taking them off his hands…”
“Hahahaha! You’ll never change, yaar. I look forward to meeting Arnav.”
“Actually, I’m just kidding about the girls, yaar. Arnav is very seedha-saadha; very reserved around girls, though they all fall for him. In fact, he reminds me of you a lot! Good technique, though: being standoffish makes you more in demand with the girls, right? I must try it too.”
“Yea, yea, I can see you being standoffish—for all of five seconds. Good luck with that!”
“Hahahaha! You know me too well, yaar. Okay, see you in college soon. I can’t wait to get back.”
The campus was boisterous on the morning of the first day back in college, with everyone catching up with everyone else.
“Ishaan!” Ishaan looked around to see Aarav jostling his way towards him through the crowd of milling students, followed closely by another boy. Aarav and Ishaan embraced, overjoyed at meeting again after the long break. “Ishaan, meet my brother, Arnav. Yeah, I know—Aarav and Arnav. I tell you, people often get our names mixed up, so I prefer to call us A-1 and A-2. Naturally I’m the A-1, as you can guess. A-2 bete, say ‘hi’ to Ishaan, my best friend.”
“Hi, Ishaan! I’m Arnav, but you can call me Arnie if you like. Bhaiya says A-2 just to annoy me. Actually, he’s jealous; he wishes his name had been Arnie—so cool, isn’t it? But, he can be A-1; that name well suits his great modesty!”
Ishaan laughed. “Hi, Arnie! Nice to meet you after all the good things I’ve heard about you from Aarav…I mean, A-1. Hope you like it here. We certainly do.”
“Thanks, Ishaan,” Arnie grinned. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other too.” He flexed his biceps and looked at Ishaan with what passed for a steely glint in his eyes, as he mimicked in a deep voice, “I’ll be back!”
“Hey, hey, hey, hey! Arnie, what’s going on?!” Aarav exclaimed. “I’ve never seen you gabbing so freely with anyone before at first meeting. But you’ve hit it off solidly with Ishaan, yaar. Wah re wah!”
It looked almost as if Arnie blushed.
The third year was going well. Aarav occupied himself in foraging among the new batch of girls, many of them being Arnie’s classmates in computer science. Ishaan, on the other hand, found himself getting along very well with Arnie; they somehow happened to keep running into each other in their free times, almost as if it were planned.
These frequent meetups did not escape Aarav’s notice, and he expressed his surprise: “Ishaan, you don’t seem to have much time for me these days, yaar. How come I always see you with Arnie? What do you guys talk about, anyway? Some of the girls have been asking me why my brother is never to be found. What’s going on, yaar?”
“Nothing special, Aarav. We just happen to bump into each other now and then; after all, it’s not such a big campus. But you’re always around girls, anyway, so I have to keep myself busy too, right?” Even to Ishaan that sounded rather lame. Aarav looked bemused, but left it at that.
It was a Sunday afternoon, more than halfway through the year. Aarav found himself without any plans for that particular day; and Arnie was also nowhere to be found. On an impulse he rang up Ishaan to see if they could meet up; but Ishaan’s phone was turned off. He then tried Arnie’s phone, but that seemed unreachable too. Strange!
Wanting to just get out of the house, Aarav decided to head for the multiplex mall by himself; he had some shopping to do, anyway. Reaching there, he sauntered around for a while, browsing through the window displays to try to find something interesting. Suddenly, he spotted familiar faces moving through the crowds thronging the mall. Stopping to look closer, he realised it was Arnie—with Ishaan! What were they doing here, together? They were laughing and talking animatedly—about what? He followed them slowly, staying out of sight. They stopped at the cinemas. He saw Ishaan going to the ticket counter and picking up tickets, presumably for the movie showing that day—why would they want to watch that reputedly boring movie?
As Ishaan and Arnie entered the movie theatre, Aarav impulsively walked over to the ticketing counter and got himself a ticket, and entered the hall a little later. It was dark inside, and he waited for his eyes to adjust. The movie was about to start, but the theatre was practically empty. He peered around, looking for Ishaan and Arnie, and found them—sitting right at the back, to one side. He at first thought of joining them, then decided against it. But he moved to a seat from where he could keep an eye on them without being noticed. He was puzzled. Why hadn’t they invited him too? He could have suggested a much better movie, couldn’t he?
The movie started. As expected, it was unbearable: a mindless blood-and-gore fest with no pretence at any storyline whatsoever. Aarav fidgeted in his seat and wondered how Ishaan and Arnie were taking it. He turned to look in their direction. It took him a few moments to comprehend what he was seeing. The flickering lights from the fast action on the screen made for poor visibility. But that could not quite conceal the fact that they had their arms around each other, their faces touching. Ishaan and Arnie were kissing and cuddling in the dark!
Aarav sat as if transfixed, unable to turn away. It felt surreal—was he watching a movie, or was he acting out a bit role in one, with the main characters sitting back there? He could feel himself breaking out in cold sweat. Mental images from the past several months flashed through his mind like photos being displayed in random shuffle mode: Ishaan and Arnie’s lack of romantic interest in girls; the two of them being together all the time; their recurring and unexplained disappearances…
“They’re gay!” It all clicked suddenly. “They’re both gay. My brother, too. Or, did Ishaan seduce him? Just look at them kissing and cuddling shamelessly in public! What should I do now?” Everything he had ever heard about gay people flooded his mind. “Animal sex lover”? He had never seen Arnie show interest in animals. What about babies? Somehow he could not imagine that either. Not Arnie, surely?
Not knowing what to do, he sat confusedly through the rest of the movie, looking back every now and then, his mind in raging turmoil. How had he missed all the signs? Because he had been too busy chasing girls; he had been too self-absorbed to realise that his best friend and his brother were not only gay but also lovers. What was he supposed to do now? Confront them, or walk away and pretend he had seen nothing? No clear answers came up in his mind. The worst thing was that, underlying all the other emotions, there was the depressing sensation of being excluded from their world. There they sat, his best friend and his brother—and he didn’t belong. Somehow, that seemed to hurt more than anything else.
The movie ended at long last. Aarav sat with his head bowed until everyone had trickled out, then went for a long walk, trying to clear his seething mind. The two people closest to him were gay and he hadn’t even suspected it! Clearly, he had got to see just one side of their selves so far. If so, what were they really like?
It was quite late when he finally got home, which helped him avoid running into Arnie. Something told him he didn’t want a confrontation at home. The night crawled along as if unwilling to leave.
Aarav headed off to college early the next morning, again avoiding Arnie. He still had no idea what he had to say or do. He forced himself to remain calm through all the classes. Finally, at the end of the long day, he turned to Ishaan and remarked casually, “By the way, Ishaan, where were you yesterday afternoon? I tried to reach you, but your phone was turned off.”
Ishaan looked startled at this unexpected query. He responded vaguely, “Well, I’d gone out on some personal errand and had forgotten to take my phone with me. What did you call me about?”
That response somehow pushed Aarav over a tipping point. He felt as if Ishaan was mocking him, thinking that he didn’t know. The words came out scathingly: “Really? Well, it so happens that I went to the mall yesterday, to buy something. And guess whom I saw there? You. With Arnie—your ‘personal errand’. Sitting in that cinema hall. Kissing and cuddling. In public. Shamelessly. What do you have to say about that, eh?”
Ishaan staggered as if he had been punched in the face. He tried to recover his wits to respond. But Aarav was not done. “You’re gay! Is that why you wanted to be my friend? Were you expecting something from me too? Did you manage to convert Arnie? Tell me, is that why the two of you disappear all the time?”
Even as Aarav was working himself up to a rage, Arnie came up to join them, smiling, unaware of what awaited him. Aarav glared at Arnie; again, that smile seemed to be mocking him, and his fury spewed forth. “What are you laughing at, eh? Do you think I don’t know what you’re up to? I saw you two in that cinema hall yesterday, kissing and cuddling in public. Disgusting! Don’t you have any shame? Just wait till I tell mummy and papa all about it tonight. Let’s see what they have to say…”
Arnie crumbled under this unexpected and vicious onslaught from his brother. He glanced fleetingly at Ishaan, tears welling up in his eyes, then turned and ran blindly, not looking where he was going.
Aarav glowered at Ishaan who stood there forlorn, then walked away without another word. Their friendship was over.
It was well after midnight, and his family had gone to bed hours ago—but sleep eluded Ishaan. He had lost his best friend, and probably his lover too. Why was Aarav so angry? Ishaan worried for Arnie. Had Aarav informed his parents as he had threatened to? How had they taken it? What would they do with Arnie? He had been half expecting all evening to be summoned to their home for an inquisition. Maybe they would accuse him of perverting their child. How should he respond? There was an enormous sense of guilt, that he had ruined Arnie’s life. Shouldn’t he have been more discreet?
The phone rang just after one, as Ishaan was drifting off to a troubled sleep. Ishaan picked it up slowly, dreading to take the call after seeing Aarav’s name displayed on the screen. But Aarav sounded worried, not angry; he revealed that Arnie had not returned home yet, and couldn’t be reached on his phone either. Was Arnie there with Ishaan?
“No, he isn’t here, Aarav. I have no idea where he could be.”
“Ishaan, I didn’t say anything to my parents last night. They’re asleep now, and don’t know that Arnie hasn’t returned home yet. Do you think we should go looking for him? Can you come over now? I’m really worried, yaar. I don’t know what to do.”
“Hold on, I’ll be there ASAP.” “Yaar,” he whispered. Changing quickly to his street clothes, he sneaked out, locking the door quietly behind him, and raced off to Aarav’s place.
Aarav was pacing restlessly in front of his gate, anxiety written all over his face. “Thanks for coming, yaar. What should we do now? Where do you think he could be?”
Ishaan placed his hands gently on Aarav’s shoulders. “Look, Aarav, it doesn’t help to be agitated now. Let’s calm down and think a bit. This may not be a good time to call up people to see if Arnie is staying over with them. Too many explanations will be required. Why don’t we first go and check out a few likely places? Let’s hit our college first; maybe he’s still there, who knows.” He started his motorbike. “Let’s go. Get on.”
The college gates were locked, and the watchman assured them that no one could be inside at that time. What next? Could Arnie have been injured somehow? They did a tour of the emergency wards of various hospitals. Nothing. Maybe he had decided to run away. They checked out the bus station and the railway station. Nothing. Had he already left town?
They had been driving around for almost two hours, crisscrossing the city, slowing down to inspect anyone they sighted on the near-empty streets. Aarav was getting frantic; he had completely forgotten his altercations of yesterday, his mind weighed down by other worries now. “Ishaan, just an idea: did you guys have any special place that you used to visit? I wonder if he could have gone to some such place; maybe waiting there for you, you know…”
Nukkad! Of course! Why hadn’t that occurred to him? Ishaan reproached himself silently.
Sometime after their first meeting on campus, Ishaan and Arnie had visited the rather neglected East Park in the outlying eastern suburbs of the city. While wandering around the park in search of a sheltered spot, they had literally stumbled on this wonderful hidden place. It was a cozy little hollow under a thick clump of overarching wild bushes, mostly hidden from view, on a rise on the far side of the lake that was like a tiny island. To reach this spot required wading through shallow water for a distance and clambering over some loose and slippery stones, something that would not appeal to most people. So, they had the place all to themselves. They had named it “Nukkad” and had considered it their secret second home. They had often lived an hour or two together at Nukkad, blissfully immersed in the susurration of the breeze and the gentle lapping of the lake’s placid waters.
That’s where Arnie would be right now, Ishaan was certain. Arnie must have waited there for him all night; waited in the lonely darkness for the one guy he trusted. And he—he had lain comfortably in his warm bed at home, totally oblivious. Ishaan chastised himself again.
“Aarav, I think I know where he could be. Let’s go. I’ll tell you about it on the way.”
As they sped off towards the park, Ishaan told Aarav about their Nukkad and about their life together over the last several months. It felt a little odd for him to be revealing these things to Aarav, but also liberating. Aarav listened in silence, his mind struggling to absorb it all. So, this was their other side. He could never have imagined such an amorous streak in either Ishaan or Arnie. The love story of Ishaan and Arnie—that’s what it was, and how romantic it sounded! And what had he himself been doing all that time? Chasing after every girl on and off campus and constantly bragging about his little victories to his best friend! And, all along, his best friend had had eyes only for his little brother, but could never talk about it. Aarav suddenly felt ashamed, and cringed inside. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it?
Arriving at the park, they headed for the lake. Ishaan took Aarav by the hand and led him familiarly through the gloom, slowing down as they waded through the water and stumbled slightly over the slippery stones.
As they reached the mouth of the hideout, Ishaan held his breath. What would they find in there? In the darkness they could make out a figure lying curled up on the ground, motionless. Arnie! Was he dead? Aarav quickly dropped to his knees and shook the body frantically. Arnie stirred, woke up, and sat up slowly.
“Arnie, it’s me and Ishaan. Why didn’t you come home? We’ve been searching for you like crazy everywhere…” Aarav and Ishaan hugged Arnie with unspeakable relief. It was hard to hold back the tears.
Even in the darkness, Arnie appeared so vulnerable and lost that Aarav felt a lump in his throat. How could he have been so callous and insensitive? He hastened to add, “Arnie, I didn’t say anything to mummy and papa, okay? They’re asleep, and they don’t know that you went missing. Look, I’m really sorry about yesterday, little bro. You too, Ishaan. Please try to forgive and forget, okay?”
Arnie sniffled, looked at his brother, and asked hesitantly, “Bhaiya, do you think I should tell them tomorrow?”
“No need, bete. They will worry about you unnecessarily. Let’s wait until…er…after I’m married…after I’ve given them the obligatory couple of grandkids… Here’s an idea for what we could say: ‘By the way, mummy, papa, you’ll have to think of these kids as Arnie’s kids too, because he’s gay and doesn’t plan to give you any more grandkids to play with. However, he will be giving you a gay son-in-law to play with…’” They giggled at the silliness of it. Ruffling Arnie’s hair playfully and grinning at Ishaan, Aarav continued, “I think our kids won’t mind, either: all that love and attention, and all those presents… But try not to spoil them too much, okay, you guys?”
Ishaan’s eyes glistened moistly. He took Aarav’s hand and squeezed hard. This was going to be some family.
Aarav suddenly sounded very serious. “Actually, yaar, Arnie, I know exactly why you’re gay. It’s all my fault, yaar…”
“Yeah. It was during our childhood holidays in grandpa’s home in the village. Remember our sword fights with those long sticks? Quite a few of my blows landed on your head, right? That’s how it happened. Sorry, bete…”
“Really! Wow, that explains it. But I think we should test it, bhaiya. There’s a nice stick lying around here somewhere. Let’s see if it works on you…hold on…” Arnie groped around in the bushes behind him.
“No, yaar, stop! Have pity on all those poor girls waiting for me out there. It would break their hearts to see me walking around with a boyfriend on my arm, yaar…”
They laughed at the absurd images evoked. It was as if all their inhibitions had evaporated. They huddled together comfortably, and the words flowed with abandon, no longer cloaked in shame. Aarav had never felt closer to Arnie than he did at this moment; and, he was only now beginning to truly understand Ishaan, his best friend. Seeing Ishaan stroking his little brother protectively, he was pervaded by curious sensations. Of pride. And, of belonging. Yes—they belonged together, and deep inside it felt warm and good.
The stars shimmered as they danced tirelessly on the gentle waves gracing the serene lake. Aarav stretched dreamily and looked around him with interest. “Nice place, yaar. Nukkad, eh? My girlfriends are going to love it here…”
“Aarav, you can’t do that! This is our place…”
Aarav grinned and held up his hands. “Just kidding, guys. Relax! You can keep it all to yourselves. By the way, after seeing you guys together like this, I’m thinking maybe I too should just pick the right girl and go steady. Yaar, random flirting is fun, but maybe it’s time to move on.”
“So, Ishaan…tell me something,” Aarav continued after a while. “I want the truth now, okay? What about…me? Did you ever…you know…er…feel about me…um…the way you feel about Arnie?”
Ishaan looked at Aarav for a long moment, glanced at Arnie, sighed deeply, then ran his fingers through his hair. “Thank god you’re not gay, Aarav! I would have gone mad trying to choose between Arnie and you.”
They dissolved in laughter, marvelling at the miraculous bonds weaving them so intimately together.
Nobody wanted to be the first to let go as they snuggled under the leafy canopy, laughing, touching, and talking lightly of a thousand matters, until the first golden rays of dawn came frolicking over the eastern horizons to engild the clear blue sky in joyful greeting.
It was going to be a beautiful day.