Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Big, Fat, Ugly Sidekick

Posting this story I wrote during my final year of college. Most of the incidents are true and the main character is based upon a friend.

“Oh God! Maybe you zombies don’t require any sleep, but normal humans like me do. Good night”, I mumbled from under the sheet at the knock on my door. As it was I had missed my class that started at six in the morning, why not take a well deserved break and sleep till nine, I rationalized.

“Umm…hmmm...well its fifteen minutes past ten and I thought maybe you could help me with the room. Very sorry for having disturbed you. I hope I did not offend you”, the strange voice replied.

I was ready to be thrown out of the hostel. Surely the superintendent had come to know of my truancy and he was standing outside my door, mocking me. I jumped up from bed and opened the door, prepared to face the music. I wasn’t ready for what I saw.

A large gentleman was standing in front of room no. 131 right opposite my 138 and he could only partially be seen over the pile of luggage he had brought. The almost six foot man had a close to a hundred kilos on him with untidy curly locks hanging well below his neck. His appearance and his manner of speech made him fit the bill perfectly- that of the gentle giant!

“Hello! I am Saumyadeep Hembrom. I am in third year in this college. I am from New Delhi, as in my parents have shifted there recently and so I came to the hostel in the middle of the year. I hope I haven’t caused you too much inconvenience by disturbing your sleep. Maybe this could help you lift your spirits”, he produced a huge bar of chocolate with a similarly huge and sweet smile. What was happening with me? A hostelite offering me that huge bar? A tenth of it from anybody else and we would have thought he had become too benevolent. I shook his outstretched right hand while taking the chocolate bar from the other.

“Thank You. By the way I am Vishal Lakhotia. Third year B.Com Honours. Strange we never met before. This room has been locked for God knows how long and chances are those keys that the manager gave to you won’t work”, I said while starting off on the chocolate.

“Try out one of these keys, your lock is bound to open by them”, Aslam Bhai joined the conversation and handed over his huge bunch of keys to Saumyadeep. He was here, there everywhere and one could never be sure from where Aslam Bhai would emerge. He was the sweeper cum man-in-charge of the hostel. He also had the notorious image of being a spy of the superintendent, though the hostelites were clearly divided over this issue.

“Thank you so much. Hey this one worked, now I can enter the room. If you two are not very busy then I would request you two to join me in my room. It would be a privilege to have you”, Saumyadeep said these words as if it was the normal way of speaking. Aslam Bhai cited some reasons and left and I was left with no choice but to enter the gentle giant’s room.

“I am so sorry for the mess the room is in, all I can offer at the moment is the chair and if you care for this”, this time a large packet of potato chips was handed over. I just couldn’t say no to this majestic treatment I was being given. Saumyadeep started unpacking the huge suitcases full of the best-known brands of clothes and shoes and piled them neatly in the cupboard without a door. Within twenty minutes the room was in a livable condition and I understood that my snacks expenses would be reduced to less then half while this guy lives right opposite me. The only problem was that he was a chimney and I just couldn’t stand slaves to the stick.

“What the hell is going on buddy? A fresher and smoking in front of a super senior, what manners you ruffian? Aha Navy Cut? I love that brand. May I?” Rahul Deka was standing at the door and that was his introduction with Saumyadeep. With the remaining five Navy Cuts in his pockets Rahul listened to Saumyadeep’s tale of shifting to the hostel at the middle of the term, that too in third year. He seemed to like him instantly, though his facial expressions made it clear that he didn’t much care for Mr. Hembrom’s manners. It was too much for someone who thought that my ‘please’s and thank yous’ were too much of formality!

“Thank you so much for giving me company. I don’t think I will be able to thank you enough. By the way I feeling starved and I am sure so are you. Can I take you out for lunch? It will help me know the whereabouts of the place better. That is if it will not hamper any of your plans?” Saumyadeep asked in his usual circuitous and excessively polite way.

“This item seems like a godsend! Lets honour him a little more by giving him company for lunch. What Say?” Rahul whispered into my ears. I couldn’t agree with him more.

Till that day Seven Heavens had been a restaurant we had passed innumerable times but never even thought of entering because of the figures on the right hand side of the menu card. That lunch confirmed Rahul’s hunch, there was definitely something wrong with the guy, otherwise a hostelite doesn’t spend eight hundred bucks on a lunch for no reason. In case he was the son of a millionaire then it baffled us as to why he was staying in the hostel. He could just as well buy one of the huge Kolkata apartments. Anyway this was an interesting specimen and more of him was surely to come.

By evening time when everyone had come back from classes the news of this new creature had circulated across the three floors and Rahul and I had to give detailed accounts of our encounter with The Saumyadeep Hembrom. Sumanta Paul and Arindam Kundu were actually a bit disgusted with the stories and they went ahead to meet the man himself. They took me along to introduce them to him. His door opened and he stood there with that same disarming smile and a cigarette stick in hand.

“Please do come in. It’s such a pleasure to have you come to my little room. As Vishal might have told you I am very new to the hostel, though not to the college. In fact this is my first experience of hostel life and going by the first few hours it’s very nice. You all seem to be such nice people and I’m feeling privileged to share the hostel and the next few months with you.” We had seated ourselves on his bed by the time he finished his opening statement. He made himself look very comfortable in the hard and cracked steel chair.

Sumanta had lost all the enthusiasm with which he had come to give the fresher a lesson or two. On the other hand they Arindam and Sumanta gave their introductions in a most polite manner. Saumyadeep’s manner was infectious. Everyone was becoming nice and courteous after meeting him. So much so that Arindam even apologized profusely to me for having put my pen in his pocket purely by mistake. After that there were many hostelites who were brought to meet this new fellow dweller and all of them came in and left the room as different individuals. Rahul and I couldn’t help but laugh at our friends who underwent such drastic changes on entering that room.

At around twelve thirty that night the list of people in Joe Thomas’ room read as follows: Rahul, Sumanta, Arindam, Ananta Ghosh, Dibyadeep Gharui, Sujit Das Bayen, Samir Ghosh, Dipanjan Saha, Tamaghna Saha, Suvagata Das, Sourav Goswami, Jayanta Ghosh and yours truly. All of us with only one question to be discussed, what has struck the hostel?

I volunteered with “It’s not the Tsunami” and was immediately drowned by waves of “Shut up Vishal. It’s serious.” The tension on the faces was palpable. I couldn’t help laughing out loud. The comic situation suddenly struck and I tried to explain how we were breaking our heads over a trivial issue. No sooner had I finished than there was a soft knock on the door with the words following, “May I please come in?”

Joe had had enough. He opened the door and said plainly “In case you are finished with this holier than thou act of yours, can we all come back to normalcy. I am not taking this thing one moment more. You stop behaving like a demi-god. Do you get me?”

The look on Saumyadeep’s face was dumbstruck. He somehow managed to say, “I am so terribly sorry if I have hurt anybody’s sentiments over here. It was not the least of my intentions to do so. I thought that a bit of knowing each other on my first day would perhaps help in strengthening the ties. I think unknowingly I have committed some grave crime and I am really very sorry for that. Do let me know how I can apologize enough for whatever I have done.” He was about to leave when the entire room burst out laughing. He looked around and looked even more surprised than he did a while before. Joe got up and gave a hug. “Sorry mate didn’t mean to hurt. Anyway if you are like this then so be it. Just chill it. Come join us.” That was his formal entry into our group and he didn’t take more than five minutes to become an integral member of it. The smokers had a whale of a time with him around, because he never allowed anyone to smoke their own sticks. He always was so full of Navy Cuts and the others used to the half priced and wood fillings endowed Wills Flake just didn’t know how to say no. No such luck for us non-smokers that is. This guilt consciousness drove Saumyadeep to stacking enough packets of Lays Lites. Now we forgot what ‘no’ was.

As time passed we two became really close. The fact that he was my immediate neighbour might have had something to do with it. But he became a habit. The long hours we spend together helped us know and understand each other a lot more. Unlike what I had originally thought to be, even his life had ups and downs and wasn’t a bed of roses as was the general impression.
He had dropped a year in school because of illness. In fact he also had to forego a trip to Ireland representing his school. Being selected among the five from a reputed school to go to another country and then to lose it all and a year due to illness is really tragic. He wasn’t exceptionally good at academics, though the reason for that eluded me. Saumyadeep was intelligent without doubt and the quality I adored most about him was that he could think. He went deep into anything he put his mind to. So why were his grades not up to the mark is one mystery that I haven’t solved so far. Humble that he was he just said, “I am not as intelligent as you all, simple. I think I have got what I deserved. Besides these marks aren’t exactly the be-all and end-alls of our lives, are they?”

He became something more than a friend to us. Something like a father figure, someone whom we could go to in case of an emergency because he was the one to keep a cool head. Saumyadeep became so much a part of us that his occasional absence was well felt. The overall feel with him around was that of a sort of sense of security. The avuncular character suited him just fine. It helped that he looked much older than what he really was.

It is not as if he was flawless. Spending an awful lot of time with him brought out those aspects too. The greatest flaw was he was a spendthrift. No denying this. Indeed he was very generous and loved to share but spendthrift he was and that too of the highest order. It so became that soon we started refusing his treats and even his cigarettes were not accepted any more. It was like his money became ‘bad money’ to use that economic term. Another big drawback was that Saumyadeep was one of the laziest persons I had ever come across. And that is saying something since it comes from someone who doesn’t mind sleeping till ten in the morning. The biggest problem with him was that he lived in a Utopian world of his own, where there were solutions to all problems but put them to the real world and it will come tumbling down like a house of cards. He had this habit of ‘trying’ to be different. That was irritating at times because it made him so predictable. Any question put forward to our group would have the usual different answer from Saumyadeep. Another of his habits was framing questions out of nowhere and putting them to our group. After everyone gave their answers (though not everyone could bear it after some time!) he changed the question slightly to suit his answer and then would go ahead with the most unlikely answer. But it’s these very eccentricities and quirks that I remember and miss so much.

“You are fat man, I mean really really fat.” I teased Saumyadeep and Samir and Dipanjan nodded their consent. Saumyadeep stood in front of his mirror with his tummy firmly pulled back. He looked slightly depressed. “ On second thoughts you are not just fat but ugly too.” I went on, trying my best to keep a straight face and sound serious. “Well sir if you think so, then so be it. I won’t disagree with someone of your stature”. That was Saumyadeep at his irritating best. “ Well well now that you seem to agree to everything I say, I have a name for you,’ My Big Fat Ugly Sidekick’. What say?” At this Samir and Dipanjan couldn’t contain their laughter anymore. The name was so catchy that it just stuck. Though I didn’t intend to call him by that name but that sounded so close that I still remember him by that name at times.

Sanjeev Toppo looked totally amused at something that had happened. On further inquiries we learnt that Saumyadeep had bought some snacks for the two of them, which was actually good enough for six people. But Saumyadeep being Saumyadeep did not throw the rest away or bring it back to the hostel. His logic being we get enough to eat. So he walked the whole length of Park Street to find some hungry should. Finally he managed to hand over the food to some workers who in fact took the gift with a certain degree of suspicion, as this is not what they are generally used to.

“Enough is enough.” Rahul firmly declared. “Time to get to our books. C’mon the exams are knocking on the door. We have less than two weeks time for our sent ups. In case we mess it up, then good luck to us another year in this hostel, but this time without our batch mates.” The clear desperation in his voice reflected in the faces of the others assembled. Arindam for no reason started talking about the unfortunate few who had not been sent up for the university exams in the previous years. Sumanta tried to life the spirits by reminding us that after all we were in one of the best colleges in the country and we should stop worrying about such silly things as being sent up for the university exams. The next thing he did was to go and lock himself in his room with the books! This was that time of the year when the untouched books were handled with great care and all the little hints dropped by the professors were taken as clues to a detective case and those particular chapters were accorded much more respect.

“Tell me something, what do we gain by all this studies? Aren’t we supposed to be studying to gain an overall knowledge and be better human beings? If that were so then why do we need to mug up these texts and puke it out in the exam hall? Is this how we will become better humans?” Saumyadeep threw the question open to the entire gathering. Winking at each other we slowly made our ways to our own rooms. But I am very sure that question did make us think for sometime.

“ Why is the profit and loss account called the P ‘and’ L account and not the P ‘or’ L account? You can never have a profit as well as a loss in the same year can you?” Saumyadeep’s voice came wafting into my room. Frankly at two in the morning and loads of backlog to be cleared I had no intention of answering him. I feigned to be asleep. Actually that question kept pricking me. Having studied accounts for five years I did not know the answer to such a simple question. Cursing myself went to sleep.

Early next morning I put the question to Sujit but even wasn’t able to answer me. I took it to the head of the accounts department. All I was told was “ Don’t put your mind to useless matters. There are certain things, which you must know and that’s that. Don’t ask useless questions.” Coming from one of the authorities of accounting in India that left me thoroughly disappointed. All I could tell Saumyadeep at the dining hall during lunch was that perhaps some questions are more important than the others.

Now with the exams just a mere week away our friend Navin Cherobin made some ‘setting’ with the mess staff and we could go in and have our lunch and dinner at our convenient timings, so that it didn’t hamper our study routine. None of us could realise how he got such a lot of things by ‘setting’ but somehow he managed it beautifully. The only one who didn’t avail of this new liberty was obviously the one and only Mr. Hembrom. Firstly he couldn’t even think about breaking the rules and secondly he didn’t have much of a study routine.
“Do you realise how important these exams are?” Joe asked Saumyadeep with a somewhat concerned and frustrated air.

“I am perfectly aware of the consequences of not performing well in this examination. Somehow I am not feeling like putting in all the effort at mugging these books. I think there is something terribly wrong with the system.”

The answer infuriated Sumanta and Joe so much that they just slammed his door and went off muttering under their breath. I was left alone in the room and the only thing he said was, “ It feels very nice to have friends who are so concerned about your well being”.

“ This place is smelling like a loo and the papers and cigarette packets littered around is reminding me of the municipal vats.” Coming from Dibyadeep that was strange because he was a soft-spoken boy and the pressure of the exams and the very dirty look of the corridor was the cause of the outburst. It didn’t make matters any better that his room was next to the toilets!"

“ You are right Dibyada, Aslam bhai has become very slack in his duties. High time we complained to the superintendent. Besides I haven’t seen him for quite some time, maybe he is up to some part time job or something”, Ananta quipped.

The first paper went fine. It was a repeat of last years and as that was all that we had done, some of us were expecting to max it! That boost made it easier to go through the next two, and finally it was just the fourth and last paper to go. After that we would be going back home for the long three-month study leave. It was just the question of one night. What was more, even Saumyadeep was making a sincere effort to do well because he had done decently well in the other three. At midnight we assembled at Jayanta’s room. This would be the last of such meetings for quite some time to come. People were getting emotional.

“ Okay guys, its one in the morning and we have to sit for our exams at that blasted hour six because of the college rules. I guess its better we make a move, the rest of the senti stuff for tomorrow.” Rahul was at his practical best and good because otherwise many of us would have missed the test the next morning.

“YIPEEE! Its over ! What a simple paper, man! Shouldn’t have burnt my midnight oil for that sitter”, I exclaimed coming down the stairs. At the breakfast table there was an overall sense of joy and relief mixed with slight sorrow because of the impending seperation.

“ By the way have you seen my big fat ugly sidekick?” I asked in jest. “ Fatty must be happy now that he will be sent for his university exams.”

“Good that you reminded me. You know what his seat was right next to mine and he didn’t come for the exam today.” Sujit Das Bayen remarked.

“WHAT????” a gasp went across the room.

“ Yes he was not there and I don’t think he took his test in any other room, because our college is very strict about these silly things” Sujit completed.

The mood was changed in an instant from that of relief to one of anger, plain anger.

“What does he think he is? That irresponsible hulk should give some thoughts to his parents who send him here to complete his graduation. Now if he really didn’t take the test its impossible that he’ll be sent up for the final exams. That rascal should be taught a lesson”. Sumanta was furious.
Saumyadeep’s room was locked from the outside. Someone came running and announced that Hembrom was going away. He had his backs and was at the main gate, waiting for a taxi. We went running and found him just in time. The taxi, which he had hailed, was asked to go away after paying ten rupees to the driver, who was grumbling about the wait.

Nobody knew what to say, but yes all of us were very very annoyed with him. He just smiled and waited.

“ I had been thinking about saying this for a long time but no I must”. Arindam burst out. “ This superior air with which you roam about is not going to take you anywhere in life. Frankly speaking I think its nothing but some form of a mental disease that you didn’t appear for the final paper.”

“ There’s a limit to everything but your idiosyncrasies have crossed all that. What do you think you proved by missing your tests?” Samir questioned.

Saumyadeep was absolutely quiet. Just then a taxi halted near the gate and Aslam Bhai’s wife got down from it. Saumyadeep went forward and helped Aslam Bhai to his feet. He looked terribly pale and sick. He paid their taxi fare and Aslam Bhai’s wife started weeping. She held Saumyadeep’s hands and spoke at length though not very clear due to the sobbing.

“ I don’t know how to thank you Sahib. Had it not been for you I don’t know what I would have done. At five thirty in the morning there was nobody I could go to and besides I don’t know anything of the city as I am very new to it. God send you to me then. I hope you didn’t miss much because of the trouble you took. I promise you I’ll return the entire amount you spend at the hospital, within a few months. I don’t know what to say but I will pray to Allah that he should look after you. You are his chosen son.”

Aslam Bhai just held Saumyadeep’s hand and tears rolled down his cheeks.

Saumyadeep called out to the passing cab. We helped him with the luggage. None of us said one word more. We just came back to the hostel, packed our bags and left for our homes. Some of us broke down while hugging each other, though we all knew that was not because of going back home.

I haven’t heard from my big fat ugly sidekick ever since.

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