The thing that always astounded me most about those two was that they seemed the ideal pair. As enemies. Nothing in common at all, not a single class, not a single CCA session, not a performing group (though they both danced), not a character trait, not an ethical principle, nothing. When they first met, it was hilarious for us all, because we had been anticipating the encounter for a while now.

Well so, on this shuttle bus where we were all sitting enters Karan the karmic saint, and comes face-to-face with the ultimate symbol of distorted, or at least somehow stretched, morality. His gaze went straight to her eyes, and she stared back with a defiance that was unnecessary given the circumstances, but then, that was Sana Roberts for you.

“Hi, I’m Karan”, he said politely, extending his hand politely, like he always did.

Her lip curled upwards from the left, and she folded her hands as she broke into a mischievous smile, “Namaste, Karan, I have heard a lot about you!”

Now verbal sparring is not Karan’s forte usually, you see, and so you can imagine why the rest of us were all at the edge of our seats, straining to hear them over the bus’s din.

“Oh, yeah, sorry, namaste, I hope you heard good things,” he said, slightly flustered, but also very curious at this strange creature who said namaste but wore short skirts and deep tops. None of us could remember seeing Karan intimidated before.

“No, not all, but yes, I assure you generally good”, she said batting her eyelids. I started feeling guilty now; all those times I emphasized to her that he was nice seemed to be backfiring. This girl was taking the poor guy’s case.

“Oh, really? Why what bad things have you heard?”

“No nothing important Karan, c’mon, don’t you have faith on yourself?”

“Yes I do, but still I’d like to know…”


“Oh ok never mind. What’s up guys?”

“No nothing just on the way back from …”

They did not exchange any words after that for I think, at least a week. That’s when they ended up in the same general group of people going to watch a movie. So they were there, right, on the traffic light, and this old hag of a woman, all filthy, and awry yellow teeth, and plaintive pitiful tone, comes up to Karan and starts begging for alms. Karan looked immediately on the verge of tears and started dishing into his pocket. Sana Roberts could not handle this somehow, and she practically stomped across from the other end of the group to him, and physically pulled his hands out.

“Who do you think you are helping by handicapping this woman like this?”

“What? I’m not handicapping her! What the hell?”

“No Karan, what the hell is what I should be saying… Tell her to go away in that street-grade Hindi of yours, and be done with it. And if you don’t, I kid you not, you will regret it.”

“Why the hell are you getting so worked up?”

Now you must understand that Karan is supposed to be the one who has his ideas sorted out and stuff, so he was quite taken aback by this ethical interrogation by a very unexpected source. Nonetheless, his confidence did not leave him (it never did), and he proceeded to give the woman no less than 50 rupees before turning back to Sana and opening his mouth.

“Listen, what I do …”

That was all he managed to utter before she slapped him right across the face, and stomped away, back to the same corner she had initially come from. For a man of logical reasoning, and absolutely no violent physical contact with any other human being, Karan took the blow exceedingly well. I was staring at him intently waiting for his reaction, but he displayed remarkable self-control and simply carried on his inane conversation with me as if nothing had happened. Of course, I’d been close to him several years now, so I noticed the fact that he was grinding his teeth like a cow masticating.

Then followed a couple of months of little or no interaction at all. The whole excitement and apprehension at the idea of their confrontation had fizzled out, and all of us slowly settled into our grueling schedules. Therefore, none of us expected any news from the Sana-Karan front, and so you would sympathize with my utter surprise at hearing that they had been having lunch together at the engineering canteen for a few weeks now. I imagined a situation where company is thrust upon you not because you like someone, or you would like to like someone, or even through mutual ambivalence, but simply and hopelessly because of inevitable circumstances; a few polite but insincere invitations to lunch together, and they must have been stuck without any option but small talk. What I failed to understand was how they could do it every day, for over a week.

As I can surmise from various accounts, their conversations were rather like a child taking its first footsteps; uncertain, inconsistent, and more often than not landing face down. They had their courses to discuss, their future plans, their hobbies perhaps, backgrounds, and then, an awkward silence when neither could think of anything more to say.

Interestingly, I believe they lunched in silence mostly; just a few minutes of talking in an otherwise quiet acquaintance. Perhaps they liked the peace after the rapid and insistent buzzing of their respective lecturers’ voices each morning. Perhaps it helped them clear their heads, although how Karan managed that in the company of someone who had slapped him in the middle of the street is beyond my comprehension. Sana, well, I don’t put anything past that woman. She probably worked her vile magic on my poor friend, and enticed him into dining with the devil.

Now, many months after their lunching sessions were long in the past, and their paths had once again diverged into different classrooms, and areas of campus and interest, Karan forwarded me an email that the woman sent him, asking me for my assessment and astute interpretation(which he often relied upon) of it. The contents of this email were rather mysterious, especially coming after so many months of no contact whatsoever.

Hey dude,

How are you doing? Haven’t been seeing you at all around campus, and it’s been several months now. Thought I’d say hello, just to ensure Sant Shri Shri Karan is still alive. I bet you miss me right? Meet me at the canteen, same place as ever before. Let’s eat together!


Sana Roberts

Now it was fairly straightforward at first sight, but then when you look closely, you realize how contorted a brain had to be to produce something like this. Take for instance the complete disregard for Karan’s feelings. He could not have been missing her, for instance, and could not want to meet her. Which of course, as he assured me later, was the case. Also, I pointed out to Karan that while she signed-off with “love”, a fairly personal and endearing term, she wrote her full name after it, suggesting still a rather aloof personality.

Karan turned up for the rendezvous anyway, against the general direction of my advice. Here are the excerpts of conversation I managed to extract from him after many a minute of determined questioning.

This is after the usual hello-how-do-you-do formalities of course.

“You caught me completely off-guard with that email. Was there anything specific you wanted to discuss, or is this another of your stunts?”

“No, no nothing specific, I just felt like resting my eyes upon your pitiful self.”

Karan took it as a joke, he told me, much to my disgust. I serenaded him with some of the foul things I would have, if I could have, said to her in response. He laughed them off, and carried on.

“Ah, I see! Food, then?”

They helped themselves to meals I believe, and that is when somehow the subject of the American lifestyle came up. I admit I was quite shocked at this gigantic intellectual and conversational leap from calling Karan pitiful to discussing geo-political behaviour systems. Karan quelled my fears of their senility by explaining that it happened in steps. The price of the food somehow led to an economic debate which then led seamlessly into recession and then to America’s faults over the fiscal years.

“But they live so lavishly! Their lives derive meaning from the present; they don’t depend on your ceteris paribus to apply twenty years later! They are RIGHT, Karan! Now’s all we’ve got!”

“No don’t be silly, many years down the line when you have parents to support and loans to pay and children to feed, you’ll remember what I am telling you now: saving a little never hurt anyone, and always helped everyone.”

“Bull shit. Is that why you end up spending all your allowance on drinking and clubbing?”

“Wait how do you know I drink and go clubbing?”

“Doesn’t matter. I keep tabs on you. That is not the point here, the point here is that you have to learn to enjoy what you have while you have it. Once it’s gone, it is never going to come back and you will regret not using it.”

“I’m going to come back to the tabs later again. And why are you getting so pissed off already? I’m going to tell you this again. You are wrong. Completely and utterly. I club and drink because I saved all my life to experience university life like I am. I planned this. I want this. But that doesn’t mean I am stupid and I blow up all my cash! I still keep some aside for the future.”

“Yeah and I’m sure there’s fungus on that set of banknotes. Dude use your fucking head. The world could DIE in two years!”

“Oh come on, don’t give me that India TV crap.”
“Listen if all I say is crap then you can go enjoy your bloody meal alone.”

You can imagine how happy I was that her disturbing spirit had finally left my fickle friend’s peaceful existence. The happiness died however when he started discussing America with me, forgetting the whole issue of Sana Roberts completely. I replied of course, with gusto and logic, but nothing I said seemed to convince him to believe in his own ideas anymore.

So he met her again, a couple of weeks later. This time I got almost nothing out of him at all. However, I believe the most interesting bit of casual banter he did tell me. Sana Roberts had finally gotten herself a boyfriend.

Her voluptuous body, we had thought, could not help but attract the opposite sex. We huddled around her in faceless anonymity while she made all the good first impressions for us; and then after a couple of minutes maybe we’d be noticed too.

So, Karan told me the ’lucky’ guy was a senior year hunk with a ballooning body and the brains to die for. Alpha-male had taken alpha-female, as it were, and the status quo had finally been installed, for all to revere in awe. I was pleased of course, because I was starting to have thoughts about Sana trying to seduce Karan into doing something he did not really want to. That was all settled, then, and in my head Sana resumed her position as group eye-candy and friend.

Once more, an uneventful semester passed by, and alpha female and Kannu – Karan, I mean – were not seen anywhere near each other. I had guessed that they would be in touch with each other over the internet, but otherwise, to the best of my knowledge they had not made eye-contact in at least four months. Alpha male had done his part, and I was grateful for it. This led me into an awkward position once when I smiled stupidly at him while passing by one day, but that is not the point of this story.

One day after all these months had passed and we were safely in the middle of our fourth semester I found Sana crying on the steps to one of the lecture halls. I consoled her immediately; after all, she had become a good friend by now. As it turns out, alpha male had just dumped her. I was aghast at this, all my beliefs in the existence of the perfect couple and the concepts of made-for-each-other and match-made-in-heaven falling mercilessly and grossly apart. No matter how I probed, I could not get the reason behind this separation out of her. She needed to leave, she said. Where to, she had no idea, but she just had to leave.

So I walked her down the steps like one would walk a blind man missing his walking stick and one leg. She was all over me, wetting my shirt with tears and, heavens forbid, even perhaps mucus. No one noticed it though, when we got onto the bus. No one but Karan.

“Sana? What’s wrong?”

“He said I wasn’t good enough for him, Karan!” she squealed, rushing from my arms (and seat) to his. I was stunned. She hadn’t told me that much in fifteen minutes of persistent interrogation.

“What? Who? Malik?”
It was hard to understand what she was saying from where I was, but I guess sound travels faster and clearer through solids, and since she was talking into Karan’s shoulder, he understood every word.

“He dumped me! Right after Economics. Outside the hall! And he left saying he had another class to attend!”

“That fucking asshole. I always told you that Malik is not right for you.”

“Oh yeah? And who is Karan? You certainly are not. I don’t think you can handle a relationship even for a week, okay. At least I and Ahmed lasted a few months.”

“Hey, hello, I am the one consoling you here, and you are throwing nags at me? What the hell?”

“No just forget it, okay? Just, never you mind”, she said getting off his shoulder and looking the other way with crossed arms. The bus was almost back at the hostel, and her tears still hadn’t stopped. I had a feeling what Karan was going to say wouldn’t help either.

“You think what? That I can’t handle a relationship? How the hell could you dare to say to say such a thing? I can handle a serious relationship better than any of your Malik-Prakash trash. Those guys use you and throw you, and I told you to keep your distance. ‘No Karan, he is the most adorable thing!’ And now that he’s proved me right, the best you can do is take my case?”

I was absolutely right: she started really crying now, like, bawling, no holds barred.

“Oh yeah?” she said in between sobs, “You think you’re a commitment man, is it?”

“I sure as hell am, Sana Roberts.”

“Ok, be my boyfriend then, and show me.”

“Fine, I’ll fucking’ show you.”

“Fine. And thanks very much for your sympathy”, she cried as the bus came to a halt and she jumped out before anyone else had a chance to move.

Something within me had been asking me to stay quiet all this while. But that something mysteriously died when she got off the bus.

“So, er, you guys are dating now, or what?”

Karan just rolled his eyes and left without another word.

Next morning, Sana and Karan are the newest item. The couple that’s dating as a challenge. The “Dare-daters”. “All you have to do to get Karan into bed was to tell him he couldn’t do it if he tried.” I wanted to punch the bitch who said that in the face, but I laughed along, louder than any of the others.

I began to see less and less of Karan after that, and my patience waned considerably. But schoolwork and projects and internships kept my mind off him until right after our graduation ceremony, more than 7 months after the bus incident. This was when I finally decided it was time to confront him. He needed to know the truth, or I would die of the need to say it to him.

So I called him up casually and said we should meet sometime. He immediately said yes, of course- his best friend had called! So we met at this fancy restaurant with lots of people in lovely dresses and tuxedos and a violinist and a singer performing in the background. It was a perfect setting. He had to know.

We sat and ate calmly as I waited for the moment to broach the subject. He seemed very happy tonight, and I wondered if it was worth it to tell him at all, especially since I had heard nothing of him breaking up with Sana at all.
“Karan, I really have to tell you something. I…”

“Oh really? Shit, this is amazing, so do I!”

“Oh ok, you go first.”

“No no, you said it first, you tell me.”

“Ah come on, don’t behave like a kid. Tell me, Karan!”

“Ok, I’ll tell you what, let’s say it together…”

“Um, together? Ok I guess.”

“Right, one, two, three!”

“You are the love of my life”

“Sana agreed to marry me”

I put my hands on my mouth, I think to hide the tears starting to well-up in my eyes. Since that obviously did not work well, I got up and ran out of the building, deserting my best friend amidst a lot of accusatory eyes.

He called me many times over the next few days, as I tried to digest the idea of Sana marrying my Karan. It did not make sense to me at all, and it still does not, in fact. That is the reason why I began to write this in the first place. I needed to tell someone. Anyone at all. I’ve never missed mom and dad in my life, but these few weeks, I really wish they were with me. Their memories hurt though, so I try and stay focused on my own life.

Which, of course has led me to believe that without Karan’s love, there is not much joy left in it. I will leave you now, because I have to go marry my best friend off to the unlikeliest of women (whose bridesmaid I am, by the way). I hope that after you read this, which is now, since you have gotten this far, you will remember my odd story in times when black and white seem too far apart to be threatening. There are always grays, as I found out much too late. And the grays are much powerful than any match made in heaven. Or perhaps they themselves are it.


One thought on “Conflagration

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