It was a Wednesday evening. We were standing next to the swing set. Raja perched onto the seat when his turn came, my cousin was on the merry-go-round.
“Why can’t I be your best friend?” I demanded.
“I don’t know, because we cannot” he said as he swung toward me, legs akimbo.
“Why!?” I squealed, as the alarmed kids around us looked at the scene I was making. “We’re in the same class!”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean we can be best friends” he answered with an assured tone one wouldn’t find in an 8-year-old.
“But you’re best friends with my cousin. We are in the primary section and he is in the higher secondary, you know how far away their block is?” I argued, animatedly pointing towards my elder cousin, while playing judge, prosecutor, and victim; the playground a courtroom where I was trying Raja for the crime of not naming me as his best friend.
“It’s different da, he’s my neighbor and I’ve known him for…”
“He’s older than you by three years!” I said, waving three fingers at his face.
“I’ve known him longer than you, I’ve known him for five years” he countered, opening and closing his five fingers in front of my face. He was well-prepared with valid reasons – I am sure my cousin had coached him, I thought. I was running out of points to argue with.
“Just tell him he’s your best friend and finish this off, there are people watching us.” My cousin told Raja.
“I cannot da, it does not happen that way,” Raja said with all the worldly wisdom of a sage.
“I don’t want a forced friendship like that, either!” I fumed and walked past bewildered kids and parents, wiping my tears with my shirt.
It was something he probably wouldn’t remember, for he wasn’t the one who walked home in tears. But I certainly did, for it reminded me of my naiveté.
As time went by, my cousin had moved on to a new town, leaving Raja behind. Time and circumstances had proved his statement wrong – Raja and I went on to be the closest of friends, till I changed schools. After that, we occasionally bumped into each other in the neighborhood and exchanged the stories of all that was happening in our respective schools amidst jokes and jovial back-slapping; that evening in the playground a long-forgotten memory. It was something he probably wouldn’t remember, for he wasn’t the one who walked home in tears. But I certainly did, for it reminded me of my naiveté.
A few years later, we would meet each other in the train on the way to our respective colleges, we’d exchange numbers and send jokes to each other that we probably deleted as soon as we read them. We were slowly drifting apart – the time and circumstances that brought us closer had delicately pulled us apart unbeknownst to us.
We graduated from college, got into jobs. Our chance encounters now happened in crowded buses or trains when we were on our way home. He, stuck in one end of the bus, and I in the other. We would enquire of each other’s well-being now with raised eyebrows and mouthed words , a shake of a head here, a thumbs-up signal there – we assumed that all was okay with our lives as we concluded our hurried conversation with a grin and a nod of the head.
We would then get down at our stop and head on to opposite directions – same neighborhood, different streets, too busy to enquire more about each other’s lives.
That day in the playground seems to have happened in a different life. Twenty years later, the need to be accepted by someone still remains, only this time it has metamorphosed from friendship to that dreaded four-letter word : love. Different playground, different game, same old rules. The vehement questioning, the accusation, the denial, the helplessness, the anger, they all come hand-in-hand. But this time, the No hurts much harder and takes longer to accept. Time and circumstances will change things like how they did that time, of that there is no doubt.