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When An Old Friend Passes Away...

Last updated on: February 12, 2024 17:08 IST
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There will be work today, there will be work tomorrow, there will be work the day after, but nothing will make up for the eternal regret of not seeing a friend when he was dying.

IMAGE: Mukkund Desikan, a beautiful mind for all seasons at the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. All Photographs: Kind courtesy Priya Raghavan Mukund

Last evening I attended a memorial for my school buddy Mukkund Desikan who died of cancer in early January. Neighbours, old friends, early colleagues spoke about Mukkund with genuine warmth -- his kindness, his generosity, his always eagerness to help, his pious temple going nature, his brilliance and his devotion to his wife Priya who had tearfully organised this celebration of her husband's life.

What did I -- who knew him longer than anyone present barring his eldest sister Geeta -- say? Nothing. I was tongue tied, overcome by memories, torn apart by anguish. And I'll tell you why.

Mukkund and I first met in June 1972, when he moved to my school from Sri Lanka where his father had been posted with Indian Airlines. I was not an easy kid to like, but Mukkund took to me. We were carnivores about information -- the only beast Mukkund, a devout Iyengar boy, ever consumed.

Remember, there was no India Today (arrived in December 1975), no Sunday magazine (appeared in 1976), no news television channels (thank God for that! Our wonder years would have been obliterated by cant and canard), no Internet of course.

Our sole sources of information were The Times of India, its progeny the Evening News and its rather uninteresting sibling The Illustrated Weekly of India (even though the magazine ascended to unimaginable circulation peaks under Khushwant Singh's editorship, the Weekly only became an intellectual and news powerhouse in Pritish Nandy's time).

Whenever we encountered a copy of Time and Newsweek, Mukkund and I shared it instantly. We also loved cricket and for many years we played underhand cricket every afternoon and evening, creating such a ruckus that the doctors around complained to my mother saying I should have been sent to boarding school.

Mukkund and I were also avid quizzers, winning inter-school contests and inter-collegiate competitions as well -- we sat on the same bench in college from the day we sought admission to the day Mukkund quit studying and began working.

Long after, we cherished the memory of our final encounter with competitive quizzing, when we coasted past the IIT-Bombay team (which had on board a future billionaire and Infosys co-founder) in the 1979 Mood Indigo Quiz.

We hung out every evening after college, debating the news events of the day with our eclectic group of friends; some older, many younger. We were a constant fixture in the area and some of our parents -- certainly mine did -- were queasy about our futures.

Abruptly one day, Mukkund decided he was going to quit studying and begin working. He joined Indian Airlines where his father had worked for many years. I was stunned by Mukkund's decision -- his was an incredibly beautiful mind, which could have done anything it wanted -- do complex Nobel Prize-winning research, run a major company, anything. Always a flexible sort, he was uncharacteristically adamant about giving up studies and working.

A year later, I drifted towards journalism -- the last refuge, I used to say, for academic failures like me. A working life didn't alter our routine. We still met every evening, still discussed events and personalities, alternating our daily snack between Central Cafe and Hanuman Cafe (both in Sion, north central Bombay); to the end, Hanuman Cafe, Mukkund declared, made the best Mysore Masala Dosa.

Every week, we traipsed to King's Circle (revered today as the hub of delicious Udupi cuisine) not on a culinary expedition, but because its roadside vendors had an amazing collection of second hand books and old magazines which we fell upon like predators on prey.

Mukkund then moved to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for work. We never met again. Contact was resumed when he was posted back to India. Cell phones by then had appeared and first via SMS, then on WhatsApp we tracked each other's lives every week.

Most people opt out of school groups over disagreements on current politics, I checked out because I got weary of the never ending Antakashri in the group:) Mukkund -- who loved old Hindi film music -- stayed on and kept me abreast of important events. Most of it sadly about mates I'd met in KG and grown up with, traveling to the Great Beyond.

On October 27 last year, at 1703, Mukkund sent me a message:

Admitted to hospital this morning.

What! I exclaimed.

Seems to be an obstruction in the bile duct that needs to be resolved. Want to resolve naturally or else will operate soonest.

How long will you be there, I asked.

No idea. Rushed in the wee morning hours.

We then exchanged our customary hugs, kisses and heart emojis.

I asked how he was feeling the next day. No reply.

On October 29, he said:

Getting better. Surgery moved to Monday.

All will go well, I said, to which he responded with a heart emoji.

I learnt from Priya after the surgery that the growth was malignant and a large part of the intenstine had been removed.

On November 4, he WA me saying he was out of ICU.

When I asked how he was feeling:

On November 12, he said: Better. Fingers crossed emoji. Heart emoji.

On November 15, he said: Fifty Fifty. Troubled at times n okay at times.

No two days are the same.

After a long silence, on November 30, he wrote:

Very slowly moving ahead. Two kisses emojis.

He continued to send me Saibaba pictures as he did every Thursday.

On December 19, Priya's birthday, he wrote:

All is well. Heart emoji. Heart emoji. Heart emoji.

Then silence. Just the Saibaba pictures.

No response to my New Year greeting.

On January 5, as I was going to the airport, another old friend, Prakash called:

Mukkund died an hour ago.

From the day he fell ill, I'd been planning to see him -- in hospital, at his home.

Always, the plan was scuttled by work. When you are shackled to the news cycle, every intention is inevitably put on pause.

I never met Mukkund when he was ill -- a regret that I will live with always.

To everyone reading this, I urge you not to delay meeting a friend, a relative, anyone you hold dear. There will be work today, there will be work tomorrow, there will be work the day after, but nothing will make up for the eternal regret of not seeing a friend when he was dying.

So please log out of work, go and see that friend or family you haven't seen for a long time, but always meant to.

See you on the other side, brother Mukkund. There is so much to catch up on.

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