Harish had reached LCP an hour before the scheduled time.
LCP – short for Large Cement Pipe – stood a few metres from the National Highway that led to Fuladi. Below the pipe, the summer remains of a stream flowed under an old bridge.
The cement pipe was long and thick. Thick enough for three people to lie down, head to toe, along its length. Long enough for ten, if they lay down across the pipe’s width. Every week, Harish met Venu met a few times at this spot. They didn’t do much – just sat and smoked and spoke.
As Harish blew off the dust and sat himself on the pipe, he wondered how he could classify Venu. They had met through a common friend and discovered that they shared a common passion – pot.
Which led to their meets on the cement pipe, a few times a week. They did not behave like teenagers – going on about how awesome it was to smoke pot. Nor were they hippies – cribbing about the evils of capitalism and talking about world peace.
Their evenings were spent in sitting on the pipe and smoking a few joints, after which they’d go home. Sometimes one of them would play a song on his phone, and they would listen to the song and watch the sun set. And once it got dark, one of them would ask the other what the time was, and they’d both leave.
So was Venu a friend?
It was difficult to tell. The world was constantly putting much pressure on you – the pressures of friendship. Friendship, if one were to go by books and stories, involved embarking on great journeys together. And ended with a friend giving his life for the other. It had to be an extreme, till-death-do-us-apart sort of a thing. Harish’s mind went back to a story he had been taught at school.
Once, there were two young boys – Tippul and Bapuni. Tippul was two years older than Bapuni, and the two of them went to school together. Every morning, after their mothers had scrubbed, wiped, clothed, and fed them, the two boys set off to school, carrying a tiffin box with more food. There were two roads to the school – one went through the farms, and the shorter one through a jungle.
Tippul, the elder of the two, would make Bapuni walk ahead of him. Since neither would admit how scared they were, they decided to sing songs, or talk to each other to pass time. Tippul and Bapuni would sing a few songs, or repeat what was taught to them the previous day, and walk as briskly as their little feet took them.
One day while crossing the jungle, Tippul (the elder one) asked Bapuni (the younger one) to narrate a story. ‘But I already narrated a story yesterday, it’s your turn today,’ Bapuni said, using his stick to push away shrubs and branches from his face. ‘I don’t know any more stories,’ Tippul said, ‘could you please narrate another story?’ Bapuni thought about it for a while, and decided to narrate a story he had heard from his grandmother.
“There was a woodcutter named Sudrushti. One day while chopping wood in a forest, he found a golden axe. He was so smitten by the golden axe that he stayed at home the entire day and guarded the axe. All day he sat around it, and all night he stayed awake, dreaming of the wonderful ways his life was going to change.”
“This went on for a week, till he grew tired and weak. He hadn’t gone to work, and his children kept crying because there no food at home. They wouldn’t listen when he told them of the golden axe, and all the riches it would bring them.”
“One day, when he saw his children put mud into their mouths out of hunger, Sudrushti decided that he had had enough. He walked to the king’s palace and gave him the golden axe as a gift. The king was pleased and gave him a few acres of land as reward. Sudrushti grew his own trees on that land, and went to cut wood in others’ lands. With a normal axe. His children were very happy, and he lived a long, happy life.” “The moral of the story is that we should always be happy with what we have, instead of wanting more and more,” said Bapuni.
But Bapuni got no response from Tippul behind him. The school stood in front of him, but his friend was nowhere to be found. Bapuni shouted for help and men who were farming nearby came running. They looked for Tippul frantically, and finally found him inside the jungle. He had been bitten by a snake, but knew his friend wouldn’t be able to make it on his own. So he asked for a story, and let his friend walk away to safety.
“What a dumb story!” Harish thought.
The two of them could have run, or attacked the snake with the stick. Or one could use the stick, while the other could call for help. But no, it had to be heroic, else it wouldn’t be friendship!
And spare a thought for the poor younger boy. He had to live out the rest of his life with the sorrow and guilt that his friend had died for him. That he was so clumsy that his friend preferred to die alone, rather than seek his help.
“What a dumb story,” Harish thought again, as Venu reached the spot on his bike.
Venu got off his orange coloured motorcycle, and joined him on the cement pipe. The sun burnt a bright orange, its final show before calling it a day. The clouds near the sun gave off an orange hue too – like someone had dropped a blob of paint on a drop of water; getting lighter and lighter by the minute.
On the highway in front of them, people were returning from work. ‘I rolled one,’ said Venu, as he pulled a joint out of his pocket. Harish put the joint to his mouth, took a matchbox and from it, a matchstick. He struck the matchstick and there was a slight flame, which quickly vanished with a sizzle.
‘There’s too much wind, let’s turn to the other side,’ Venu suggested, and the two of them slowly turned to face the other side.
Harish took another match out, struck it against the side of the box, but nothing came of that. He took out another match, struck it, there was nothing, he flicked it twice, and threw it behind him.
Struck it, sizzle, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.
Struck it, fizzle, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.
One of the sticks showed a flame for a brief second, but vanished again.
Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.
Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.
After what seemed like an eternity, one of the sticks spat out a small flame, he brought it to his mouth, sucked on it, the orange at its tip the only light around. Harish took a long puff and passed it to Venu, a contended smile on his face, as they sat in silence, the night slowly enveloping them.
‘What’s the time?’
‘I need to go.’
When Harish and Venu met the following Thursday, it was pleasant outside. There had been sporadic rains in the last few days, the stream below the pipe now had pools of water. A few cows wandered about aimlessly near the water, while dogs eyed them suspiciously from at a distance – ready to bark.
Miniature men washed clothes in the water that was flowing along slowly. Seated on the pipe, Harish and Venu watched the sun set, as crickets began their orchestra for the night. They started with a short sonnet that began slowly and ended in a crashing crescendo, and they were just warming up for the night.
Harish took the joint out of his pocket, put it to his mouth, and took out the box of matches. Venu watched, a smile on his face. Harish took out the matchbox, pulled out a match, struck it to the side of the box, flicked it twice, and threw it behind him.
Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him. Struck it, flicked it twice, threw it behind him.
Slowly, Venu slipped his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a shiny object. He stretched his hand out, as Harish stopped striking matches to look at it.
‘I got it for you,’ he said, a smile on his face. ‘It’s a Zippo.’ It was made of a brownish metal, so polished that he could see the light reflecting off it. He flicked the lid open, and found a thick wick, with a knob next to it. Harish put his thumb on the knob and pressed. There was a spark, the wick burnt a little, and ever so slowly, a flame came to life. The flame shook a little, but slowly steadied itself, burning thick and confident. A flame of orange that was the only light about in the darkness.
Harish looked at Venu, the light shining off his face, his heart warm – ‘What a nice thing to do for a friend,’ he thought.
‘So should we light it?’ asked Venu. ‘Absolutely’. Harish brought the flame towards the tip, and sucked hard.
He then shut the lid, flicked it twice, and threw it behind him.
There was a plonk! as the lighter hit the ground, then there was silence.
Harish and Venu stared at each other.