1. To 38 Meadow Avenue
The weather that afternoon was pleasant and beautiful. The drive was smooth; the traffic was next to none; the music playing inside the car was soothing to Pradeep’s heart and soul, But he couldn't feel any happiness about any of that because his head and heart was overwhelmed with the grief of losing his closest friend Vikram and that too to suicide. He wanted to avoid this drive altogether because he was not in the right frame of mind to talk about his friend. But like how it happens for many, he said yes when he wanted to say no.
His car entered 38 Meadow Avenue, and he didn’t fail to notice the three vehicles, parked there in the driveway. The Silver Nissan Altima, he knew it belonged to Nithya, the black Honda Accord with the New Jersey registered number plate and the letter ‘R’ in bright red stuck on the rear, he knew it belonged to Neha. He was not very sure about the Toyota Prius though. When Ash had telephoned him last week about a meetup to talk about Vikram and the memories he left behind, Pradeep did not ask him about the people he was inviting. He did not expect Nithya or Neha to accept the invitation. Their presence now made him slightly nervous. When the sister and girlfriend of a deceased friend are in the same room, and the cause of death was suicide, tempers could flare. I hope it doesn’t get ugly!
Pradeep walked to the back side of the house which was the rendezvous for the congregation. On the deck, against the backdrop of a setting sun, were seated the men and women who were everything to Vikram. The people who understood his capabilities, shortcomings and the potential; the people that he did not think about when he decided to take his own life. The same set of people should now forget his betrayal and perform the ritual of talking only the good things about him. The people who will be ready to do that. How could you do this to all of us, Vikram!
2. Uncomfortable Introduction
The deck had five chairs with four placed in a semicircle, and the lonely one was on the opposite side. Ash was the first one to spot him. He got up from his chair on the single side of the gathering and shook his hands. Ash hugged him and said in his ears, “Thanks a lot for coming!”. Pradeep nodded his head and turned back towards the other three. A tall and broad-shouldered man with a french beard got up from his chair and introduced himself as Sharath. He did not get the nerve to look Nithya in the eye, and since she did not raise her head, he felt a sense of relief and walked to the empty chair. Neha, to his left, had her gaze somewhere else.
“Now that everyone is here, I think we should start,” said Ash and began the proceedings. “I still can't believe that Vikram is not with us anymore.” He shook his head and continued, “The last two weeks feels like the worst possible nightmare I have ever experienced in life.” Pradeep was able to relate to every word in that sentence. “I did not want the last couple of weeks to be the memories we have about Vikram. The best way, I felt was to talk about the life he shared with all of us. He was the kind of friend that everyone will yearn for, and that is the image I want to have about him at the end of this day”. He looked at everyone, “I cannot thank you all enough for accepting my invitation.” Pradeep looked up at Ash, and he could see his mouth struggling to give a smile when he completed the sentence.
“I know you guys are familiar with each other but as the host, I ought to give a proper introduction. Let me go from left to right. That is Sharath, Vikram’s therapist”. The way Ash used his left hand to point in Sharath’s direction, made Pradeep feel that Ash was taking the role of anchor quite literally. His left hand alone moved from Sharath to Nithya, “Next is Nithya, Vikram’s sister.” Pradeep turned slightly right to look at Nithya, who looked up to nod her head. “Next is Pradeep, Vikram’s closest friend,” said Ash. Closest Friend? Pradeep adorned a sarcastic smile. “And then we have Neha, Vikram’s friend?” The questioning way in which Ash ended the sentence made Pradeep look up, and he could see Ash looking at Neha as if he was waiting for her to give a response. The answer never came, but Pradeep felt slightly uncomfortable because he understood who was going to be scapegoated that day for Vikram’s demise.
3. Sharath talks
“So, why don’t you go first, Sharath?”
Pradeep was happy that Ash did not ask him to go first. He had several good qualities about himself, but this particular one was not one among that. He thought Sharath was probably the right person to start the proceedings since he did not have the emotional connect with Vikram as the others present there. At least as far as Pradeep knew.
Sharath adjusted his spectacles and started talking. “I generally don’t talk about my patients, but this is the first time, one of them has died. So this is certainly a unique situation”. He shook his head and then continued. “I don’t think he killed himself. We killed Vikram.” Everyone including Pradeep turned towards Sharath. Although they knew that Sharath did not mean it in the literal sense, the sudden utterance of that had taken them back. Pradeep wondered if that was a tactic to attract attention towards him by saying something sensational.
The briefest of pauses possible ended and the subsequent sentence from Sharath cleared the air. “I mean, our negligence to what he was going through, killed him.” said Sharath and he continued, “I remember the day he stepped into my office, and there was an instant air of likable arrogance about him. You know, his flamboyance is that of a celebrity, a movie star. I called him ‘The Artist’”. Everyone, including Pradeep, was nodding their head at that remark. “I have not seen a lot of people with that kind of a persona and a strong character.” Sharath paused again and then said with a sad face, “I can’t say how difficult and puzzling it is for me.” You’re not alone there, thought Pradeep.
“He did not have a fragile mind but,” he said and then hesitated to continue. Pradeep looked at him with interest and hoped that this wasn’t another moment of fabricated sensationalism. Sharath hesitated again and blurted the words, “He felt very lonely after coming here.” Pradeep was not entirely shocked or surprised at that, but he felt sad that Vikram never told him about that. Pradeep had tried his level best then to convince Vikram not to make this move, but all he could take was a consolation that he tried. I told you buddy, but you didn’t listen to me. Sharath continued, “He used to talk about his parents’ death and how he felt numb about it, the love he had for his sister, the role his friends played in his life, his past relationships, etc.”
Pradeep’s mind was digesting everything that Sharath mentioned in that one sentence. As his friend, Pradeep never ventured into specific ‘no-fly zones.’ It was to ensure that he never put his friend in an uncomfortable situation. When Vikram had mentioned that his parents had perished in an accident when he was a little kid, Pradeep did not want to dwell more into that tragedy. Vikram was always comfortable talking about the people in his life like his sister, friends, ex-girlfriends. He, to Pradeep’s surprise, maintained a good friendship with his ex’s. But Pradeep had a hunch that there were many no-fly zones.
“I was his talking companion for some time before he started canceling sessions suddenly. I never knew why but since his voice sounded cheerful on the phone, I thought he was happy and does not need our talking sessions. But when I heard about his demise and the cause of it, I felt terrible because I should not have relied on his words and should have insisted on him meeting me once in a while. The sad part is I didn’t, and I think this is going to haunt me for a long time.” said Sharath with guilt and sadness adorning his face. Pradeep could understand that part, and he had his fair share of the blame. ‘If only I had done differently’ is the phrase that caused the guilt for both of them. Pradeep could’ve kept in touch with Vikram even though a new person had come into Vikram’s life but like Sharath, he too didn’t.
“Now thinking back, I think behind all the confidence and strength he exhibited there must have been a fragility that never came to the surface. All things said, he was one of the unforgettable people in my life and Ash, like you said, I don’t want to remember him as the Vikram who died by killing himself. I want to remember him as ‘The Artist’ and artists never die”. With that Sharath ended his speech. Pradeep looked at Sharath and everyone there. He knew how the mood was going to be but knowing it is always different from experiencing it first hand.
4. A Story that no one knows
Ash looked at Nithya and asked if she wanted to go next. Pradeep knew the loss is a lot more personal and tragic to her than anyone else in the world. He remembered Vikram saying that Nithya has a steel heart and Pradeep knew that the moment he saw her car parked in the driveway. A part of him was curious to hear her speak but another part was becoming nervous that he has to go next.
Nithya did not waste time with pleasantries, “I am not a diplomatic person, and the last thing I can do is sugarcoat my words. If you feel offended, then please do take offense because it was meant to offend you.” She had just got that congregation by the scruff off their neck with that opening statement.
She then addressed the scapegoat situation which Pradeep was dreading from the beginning. “He is right.”, she said pointing at Sharath. “Vikram did not kill himself, we did. One of us is responsible for it.”. She looked to her left, past Pradeep, at Neha, “If not for the idiotic and immature relationship that he got himself into, he would have been alive today.” Her voice went decibels higher when she shouted with anger, ”She drove him to suicide.”
The accusation led to a silence among them that made sure that Pradeep was able to hear everything else around. He looked at the angry Nithya and then to his right at Neha, who was sitting there with a stoic face and lost in thought. The lack of a rebuttal surprised him. “Is Neha too blaming herself for whatever happened to Vikram?“, Pradeep thought to himself. The angry Nithya mellowed down a bit, “After two weeks of crying, even I started feeling numb about his death. You said he felt numb about our parents’ death, right?” She smiled to herself and said, “Of course! That should have been obvious to me”. She straightened herself and then started talking again, “I was anxious how Vikram was handling our parents’ death. Did any of you know how they died?“. Pradeep looked around, and everyone had a blank expression except for Neha, who still hadn’t shown any emotion on her face. Pradeep hesitated to talk but eventually bit his lips and said, “Accident!”.
“Correct but I assume he never told the details?” responded she, thereby looking directly at Pradeep for the first time that evening. Pradeep shook his head.
“It was indeed an accident, but you will never understand what it is to lose your parents in front of your eyes,” Nithya’s voice quivered, and the dumbstruck audience looked at her with a captivation that reminded of Vikram.
”I can never forget that first of July when our parents were hit by a truck, right in front of our eyes. We both stood there like a statue unable to comprehend what had happened. In that instant, our life changed from a happy family to go through hell for a very long time. I was getting better after a month, but Vikram was not. Every night he used to have the nightmares of that moment. He used to wake up crying every single night, and I had to rock him to sleep.”
Pradeep and the others could not say anything, and he could only shudder at the revelations. Every individual’s personality is just a facade to the world and deep down in the dungeons of their complex mind lies the real self. Pradeep wondered if he can apply that theory in Vikram’s case. Nithya then continued, “We were living with our uncle’s family, and I could have never pulled Vikram out of those nightmares without my uncle’s help.” Pradeep wondered why Vikram never spoke about his uncle or any of his other family members. “It took around a year for the frequency of the nightmares to come down and another two years for it for completely stop,” said Nithya.
“He was a fragile person but not someone who takes his life. We mourn now but trust me, we will move on but what will never is the fact that we lost a great human being, a lovely brother”, she paused, and then corrected, “Well, more an elder son for me. I know I did say some harsh things in the beginning. I apologize for all that.”
Pradeep could feel his eyes welling up with tears, and he wanted to hold Nithya and comfort her, but his body could not move an inch. Everyone around him including Neha was looking at Nithya, who had her face down and tears dropping down.
5. It’s Time for Pradeep
Pradeep wondered if he should ask for a timeout to regroup himself but his inner voice was urging him to go on with the flow. Nithya’s speech made him see Vikram in an entirely different light, and it made him guilty that he did not do enough to understand Vikram’s struggles. Every person’s life has a detail unknown to many of his close friends but knowing that unknown changes the way one perceives that friendship. If only he had known how much the death of his parents had affected Vikram, he might have tried to keep a bit more close watch. But he knew the pointlessness of retrospection and that pointlessness made him a bit stronger. Pradeep opened up without anyone asking him to go next.
Pradeep raised his right hand to the gathering and eyes started turning towards him one after the other. He then began his speech, “I don’t want to blame anyone for what Vikram did to himself. The most fruitless exercise, I feel would be to analyze what pushed him towards that decision. I will stick to what Vikram means to me”. Even in that saddest moment, he felt cathartic inside.
“I never had the guts to express my thoughts without inhibition until Vikram came into my life and pushed me to talk. I always had an inferiority complex for people like all of you, and unfortunately, this country is full of ‘you’ people”. Pradeep did not think twice about saying that. Pradeep wouldn’t have dared to say a statement like that before his friendship with Vikram.
Pradeep, now, was not looking at anyone. His mind had gone back to the days of endless conversations with Vikram. “I used to say, ‘Every problem our society faces is due to the caste hierarchy,’ and he never disagreed with or countered my statements. Instead, his style was to probe me further with questions. I suddenly had someone in my life, with whom, I don’t have to think and talk. I didn’t have to fear that someone will misunderstand my words.” Pradeep could see Neha nodding her head with acknowledgment, out of his peripheral vision. “I would not say that he was a perfect guy. He did have a flawed judgemental attitude like many of his clan but where he differed was in his ability to unlearn and change himself. That taught me a lot.”
“When he got the opportunity to move here, I tried to persuade him not to take this, but he said he wanted some time alone. I never pushed him for answers. Perhaps I should have.” Pradeep paused to organize his thoughts and then continued with a smile on his face, “He came here for his me-time and ended up feeling more lonely than before. I still don’t know what to make of that.” The smile on his face faded, and with a serious face, he said, “That was the beginning of the end of our conversations. It was very gradual in the beginning, and I was too busy to take notice, but eventually, we were not talking at all other than the one time we met where he introduced me to Neha, the new person in his life.”
Pradeep was looking down, not wanting to meet anyone’s eyes. “When I knew that he was in a serious relationship, I started avoiding him.” He smiled to himself and went on, “It is silly, but I thought she should have him for herself. I felt that she has to be the most important person for him. I know all this sounds stupid now, but that was how I thought then.” After every sentence, Pradeep couldn’t help smiling at the childishness of his thought process.
He then looked up to address everyone, “I don’t care how Vikram and Neha’s relationship went. That is none of my business, in fact, its none of anyone’s business. It is their private affair. But it makes me sad that, a relationship that I thought was so beautiful was cut short by his unfortunate demise.” The last few lines invoked within him, a variegated series of emotions that ranged from irritation that people are blaming Neha for his suicide to extreme sadness. Pradeep thought he delivered a speech that was true to himself and his beautiful friendship with Vikram.
He concluded his speech by saying that, “Vikram was not just an artist for me, he was much more than that. He lives in my words, he will live in all my future conversations, and he will always live in my memory as the one who changed my life forever.”
6. The Scapegoat tells her account
Time flew by, and the first sign of dusk was settling in when Pradeep concluded his speech. Ash got up to switch on the lights. When he sat back again, he looked at Neha and asked her to go next. Pradeep looked curiously at how she would start her speech. Two of the four had already blamed her for Vikram’s suicide. It felt like the final concluding speech in the courtroom dramas. He was curious to know what went through Vikram’s head in the last few weeks leading up to the suicide.
Neha was silent for quite some time and suddenly asked for a glass of water. When Ash fetched the water, she looked at the glass for some time and took a couple of sips. She held the glass with both her hands and looked up. Her face registered a smile for the first time that evening. “Every time a boy dies, it’s always because of the girl he was in love, right?”, She smiled at that question and looked around for a reaction. Everyone had their heads turned towards her, but perhaps they did not see the funny side of it.
“I am not angry with any of you because that’s what the society taught all of us, right? If a husband commits suicide, the first thought is that his wife had tortured him and driven him to suicide. How is that the physically strong male is mentally so weak? Or if they are mentally weak, how can they even be called as the strongest of the two sexes?” Pradeep did not expect Neha to start her speech on this note. He thought it would be emotional, but it was unemotional. Perhaps that was her current mental state. He recalled Vikram’s feeling of numbness about his Parents’ death, Nithya’s feeling of numbness and Pradeep wouldn’t rule out a numbness on Neha’s part as well.
“But that debate is for another day,” she said. Neha took in a deep breath and then continued, ”You all have known Vikram for a long time? Do you think that he is like other men?” Pradeep and others were staring at her without answering that question. Neha’s face registered a disappointment at the lack of an answer to that question. She shook her head and said it with a confidence that made Pradeep hang his head in shame, “Of course, he isn’t like other men. I can bet on my life that he would have never resorted to suicide.”
The positivity suddenly turned to gloom, and her face became devoid of any color. She responded to her statement, “But it happened, right? Police did find poison in his bloodstream. Looks like he had mixed it in his drink. It’s one of the cruelest ways to commit suicide. I can’t imagine him sitting all alone in his house, mixing poison in his drink and taking it in one gulp. Do you think he’s capable of that, Pradeep?” Pradeep looked at her and shook his head. She nodded her head and said, “Of course he isn’t capable of that, but it happened, right?” Pradeep just nodded his head. Pradeep wasn’t very sure what Neha was trying to do. It could be that she’s finally coming to terms with Vikram’s suicide.
Her voice and face were going through vicissitudes of emotions. “Of course it did happen. But Pradeep, have you ever seen Vikram drinking alone?”, she said with a tone that suggested that she is getting somewhere.
Pradeep thought for a second and said, “Nope. He never drinks alone”.
“Ah! Now we are getting somewhere!”, She said with mild amusement. In that most fleeting of seconds, Pradeep felt like just looking at her. But that made him guilty, and he just threw that sacrilegious thought of ogling at his dead friend’s girlfriend out of his head. She continued with an energy that was absent until then, “Then either he did something for the first time, or someone else gave him company. So if someone did drink with him, isn’t it”, she paused to look at everyone and then said, ”Isn’t possible that he didn’t kill himself and someone poisoned him?”
Pradeep heard murmurs of “What, No way, That’s impossible, Who’d have done it“ all around him but he did not look anywhere else other than at Neha. Even Neha was not looking at anyone other than Pradeep. “It’s technically possible isn’t it, Pradeep?” The tone was more of a implore than a question.
“Yes. But Vikram did not even have that many friends, let alone an enemy who wants to kill him!”, answered Pradeep.
“What if,” she responded to Pradeep, “What if it was a friend? What if that friend had a past with me? What if that friend was so disappointed in me that I rejected him and chose Vikram instead? What if that friend, whom I thought was so innocuous is capable of something sinister? What if that friend had covered everything so brilliantly that even Sherlock Holmes would have thought of it as suicide? ”
The world around Pradeep was going dizzy and black. His mind, though, was raising the most important question of all, “Is that friend present here?”
As if reading his mind, Neha did an affirmative nod and threw the glass she held in her hand at the figure sitting opposite to all of them.
The next 30 minutes felt like an eternity to all four of them. The events of the day were not something any of them were going to forget for the near future. Vikram their brilliant brother, friend, and sweetheart was plucked away from right under their noses to the most trivial thing called jealousy of another man. It was a closure of sorts for Sharath’s heart who will be able to move on with his life. For Nithya, she will have to live out the rest of her days mourning the premature loss of another of her family members. Neha will have to start believing in life and love again. Pradeep will have to wonder if there will be another “Artist” in his life.