Back in school, in the 6th grade I had a friend. Actually, calling him a friend today would be not fair on my part. I was never really a friend to him. We sat next to each other for a whole year. I knew him since my kindergarten years. He was known to be a problem child. He would slack off from studies, would not do his homework, often get chastised by teachers, got into fist fights with other boys.
Sitting next to me for a whole year, I never befriended him. He was muslim, he lived in a place in Goregaon known popularly as a glorified slum but labelled as a colony. His life was surely nowhere close to the privilege I had.
This was back in 1992 – 93. Mumbai as a city was swept in riots. He had disappeared for several days. His muslim dominated locality was severely affected. There were many stories of killings and shootouts that had been talked about in school. I was scared if something had happened to him, to his mother and father.
I remember his mother, stoic looking, always worried about her son. He inherited her rosy red cheeks and the resemblance was striking between mother and son. I remember his father, bent, tired and ageing yet his posture showed a proud past.
One day he returned to school. I was happy to see him back. It made me think of his as a friend, as a person, as a human being more than some problematic kid who got into fights.
A couple of weeks after he was back to school, I was hit by a cricket ball. I lost vision for a couple of weeks in my right eye. I missed school for a couple of weeks. When I was back, he warmed up to me and showed a more considerate and caring side of his. We started talking more about life and the world around us.
With an extreme lack of tact and innocence that only a twelve year old could posses I asked him about muslims and how we (read middle class, upper caste Hindus) viewed them. He answered many questions and asked an equal number of them back to me.
But we never really got the time to become long lasting friends. He had a tough time in school. He flunked subjects and had to repeat 6th grade. I moved along to the 7th grade.
Our paths went along different roads. I did say hello to his mother a couple of times, who still had that worried look on her face. But I never saw my friend after school years had passed. I had heard from other friends, that he was still getting into a lot of trouble.
Today, someone told me he was found dead. Somewhere near Goregaon station and he had possibly become an addict. Society will shrug, school friends on their whatsapp groups will say “RIP” and move on to the next meme or joke.
We were sitting on the same bench together for a whole year. Why did I not become friends with him?