I first knew her as Manish’s girlfriend. It was Manish who gave me her e-mail id. I looked up her profile on facebook to send her a friend request because Manish wanted me to do so. Because Manish was my best friend, I did exactly what he said.
“Hi, I am Manish’s friend. I have heard so much about you from him. Would love to be your friend, too. Plz accept my fb friend request. – Neethu.”
Once after she accepted my friend request, we started to meet each other regularly on facebook chat. In the beginning, we exchanged only formal greetings and talked about studies. Later I started knowing her well, and eventually, we became good friends overtime.
Her name was Shilpa. She told me that she had long hair, black eyes and lipstick free lips. That she always wore hair in braids. That her face was dark in complexion, and apart from a few blackhead outbursts, it was not special at all. That she always wore cotton salwar kameez with dupatta. That she arrived at the classroom organized and composed, with the assignments for each of the classes neatly stapled and placed in their individual folders. That she barely paid any attention to makeover and clothing. That it amazes her how she fell in love with Manish. That her parents think that she was shy and too devoted to her studies to bother with boys. That she was plain, boring and studious. That working on her laptop typing up her notes, marking off the books she read and sitting for hours alone in her room were more fulfilling for her than anything else.
We grew close, and so we started meeting on facebook chat every evening. I could tell everything about her- her future plans, her outlook about life, her philosophical views and everything else a girl could tell to another girl. I came to know that earning a Ph.D in Chemistry was the most important thing for her. I straightaway asked her if she could join me for pursuing research on biochemistry once she and I finish our studies, and she readily agreed. She taught me chemical kinetics and I told her about the patients I had attended to and the surgeries I had made a note of. She became the kind of friend I never wanted to lose.
One day, after I asked to, she showed me her photo blog. It was her secret possession, and less than 20 people including me and Manish had the privilege to gain access to the private space. There were countless photographs, each arranged as thumbnails which popped up into a bigger size once clicked, against a black background. It contained all photos she had ever clicked, but none of her own.
I was happy when you asked me to arrange for your accommodation at Calicut. You did not want Manish to know from me that you were going to Calicut, because you and Manish had decided to separate. I booked a room for you at Hotel Seashore, where you could enjoy watching the sea through the bedroom window. You said that I need not come to the Railway station to pick you up, and that I could come to meet you on the second day of your arrival, because you had to attend the interview on the first day. I was overjoyed that you would be residing at Calicut pursuing research for the next two years if you were to be successful in the interview.
You rang me up on reaching the hotel at Sunday night. You said that your classmate Komal has also come with you for attending the interview. I wished you good luck for the interview and assured that I would visit you on Tuesday morning. You said that you were excited to see the sea, and that you will be going to the sea in a motorboat arranged by the hotel for the tourists on Monday evening in order to take fine snaps. The last thing you said me was that you wanted me to talk with Manish again and that you would reconsider the relationship with him.
I fancied having breakfast with you on the rooftop of Hotel Seashore, sitting among small sparrows that hopped at our feet an table while eating hot dosa and fresh chutney under a glaring blue sky in the cool backdrop of the roaring Arabian sea.
I would be seeing you for the first time…
On Monday night, I was watching Six O’ clock news, as usual. The news reader was asking pointed questions to a minister who was alleged of a scandal. I was getting bored and was about to switch to another channel when I heard the latest news that an unexpected wave hit a boat owned by Hotel Seashore, and all four tourists who were aboard were missing. On TV, I saw the image of the Indian coastline and a red dot marked at the point which had to be Calicut. I saw an excited news reporter who enthusiastically reported that it was less probable that the missing tourists might survive because the motorboat did not have life jackets.
A chill passed through my spine.
I rang you on your phone only to receive the automatic message saying the user is out of coverage area. I looked up the hotel’s number in the directory and rang many times but the number was busy. I then looked up your blog and saw the last images you posted. A crow perched on a lighthouse. Three smiling people in the backdrop of the sea. A faint silver shoreline.
I closed my eyes in horror. Clearly, you have had a boat ride.
The next morning, when I should be on my way to your hotel, I rushed to the newspaper stand and bought the papers, reading each news, studying every picture, looking for the details of the missing people. I found none. I gathered from a news website that one unidentified body which was found from the sea was sent to the Medical College mortuary.
At about 11 O’ clock in the morning, quoting the travellers’ record (which had the names of the tourists who bought the tickets) a news channel produced a report giving the names of the four tourists who were aboard the boat.
YOUR name was there.
That afternoon, my forensic medicine class was held in the seminar hall just adjacent to the mortuary. I didn’t have the nerves to visit the mortuary, but I attended the class. For an hour, I listened to the class on ‘Death by Drowning’ without imbibing a word.
My mind was so full of you, my best friend….
After the class, while I was leaving the seminar hall, I saw a girl sitting in the Visitors’ room of the mortuary. She was too young to be present at a place like this where corpses outnumber live humans. She asked me politely if she would be permitted to see the body of her friend which was now in the mortuary.
While I was explaining to her that she needs prior permission, she read my name from the ID card which I had pinned to my white coat, and in a quick movement, before I could do something, she hugged me tightly.
“Neethu, I am Shilpa. My classmate Komal is no more…. And I am alive just because I canceled the boat journey and exchanged the boat ticket with her.… Komal had my camera with her, and uploaded three photographs before death took her away… Her body is now in this mortuary, Neethu… And I am here, waiting for her parents to arrive from Jaipur…”
Did I cry?