“Anna, do chai dena.” It was a regular day at Ferguson College with all the hustle and bustle around. I looked about at the people whom I had been seeing since two years; all of them lost in their own little fantasies including me. I waited for her to arrive as the tea cooled down; it had been two weeks since I last saw her, and to be honest I had been missing her.
“Arre, sorry yaar, really sorry, I was stuck in traffic,” she defended herself sweetly as she sat opposite me at the table.
“It’s not okay Panda. You have to treat me for being late now,” I joked. I used to call her Panda since Grade 4 and thoroughly enjoyed doing so.
“Stop calling me Panda, Ashu! My name is Praneeta. How many times should I tell you!?”
“Okay, so Miss Praneeta Panda, tell me all about your trip.”
“Okay listen, it was awesome, dude! I visited this church and I was really flabbergasted by its ancient beauty. You know what happened when…” She went on and on describing all the details of her trip. Just like that we both spent a wonderful morning.
The next day we both returned to our normal schedule — lectures, assignments, submissions but hanging out together during tea was a regular routine. She was always late for tea with an excuse ready in hand. One day I decided to pick her up. It was 9 a.m. and our time of meeting was 9.30 a.m., so accordingly I was waiting for her outside her house. She came rushing out like I assumed she did every day. But to my surprise, she headed in the opposite direction of our college. I waved out to grab her attention but she was in such a hurry that she did not notice me waiting.
I decided to investigate. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw where she went… horror and sadness struck me like I had seen a ghost! Praneeta, my best friend, was smoking a cigarette! That means all the times she was late, she was doing this! I caught her red-handed this time. All around her were her chain-smoker friends who were as high as she was. Numb enough to react to what I saw, I returned to the college. I didn’t wait in the canteen for her, instead just sulked among the vacant backbenches of my classroom connecting the dots as to how she could have become addicted to something that killed her father. Praneeta’s father had died due to mouth cancer when she was in 11th grade. It had been a hard blow to her and the entire family.
At 11 a.m. the bell for lectures rang. She arrived at 11:30 a.m.; she was much later today. I felt like going up to her and slapping her hard literally asking what she was doing with herself, but I knew I could never do that to Praneeta. I resolved to keep my feelings and turmoil concealed for a while. After the lecture, as I dashed out to avoid her, she cried out: “Arre, Ashu, wait! Why are you in such a hurry?” Without looking at her I shouted: “I have assignments to complete, catch up with you later!” and rushed home as fast as I could without waiting for her reply.
The entire evening I thought about what I could do to make things better. After hours of thinking and pondering, I came up with a plan which I thought would help her out. Whatever the reason she got swayed off her senses, I’ll help her out of every deep pit she falls into, I decided. After all that’s what friends are for.
The next day, when Praneeta entered the classroom, her desk had a note left on it which read: ‘It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.’ She looked at it peculiarly but didn’t pay much heed to it. The following day she saw another note that read: ‘Only a fool would put her lips at the other end of a burning fire.’ She was terrified as she looked at it. Without anyone noticing, she stuffed it inside her purse and sat down silently. The next note was: ‘Tobacco companies kill their best customers’, followed by ‘Stop, you’ll burn your soul someday!’
She was getting frustrated and scared about who was watching her so closely or had she attracted a stalker? Nearly a fortnight after receiving the first note, Praneeta was early to college. Her eyes were smudged as if she had been crying. I smiled sadly as my morning note inside her purse had been her father’s Polaroid picture with the caption: ‘Munni, remember me?’ (Her father lovingly called her Munni).
She was extremely quiet, barely lisping words. I innocently inquired what had happened. She didn’t answer; I didn’t persuade her either. I left her bits of paper notes, pictures on her desk or hanging them with her keychains, slipped them inside the pages of her notebooks, etc. To my contentment and glee, Praneeta was breaking free from her cage of addiction gradually. The notes which she stared at with dismay were the very notes she now looked at with an angelic smile. She reached the canteen before me and had a cheerful aura around her.
The day of her final test arrived. I met her at the canteen table as always. “Hey, Panda! Want a smoke?” I asked firmly, holding out my hand with a cigarette pack in it. She looked at me in amusement for a minute and then smiled; she reached into her purse and gave me a note: ‘Your positive action and the strong-willed determination and endless efforts you put in, have resulted in success. Congratulations on quitting smoking, Praneeta!’ Along with the note was her favourite chocolate bar.
“Who gave you this? And you were smoking? What’s going on? Tell me!” I acted innocent. She told me everything. “I wish I knew who that person was who cared so much about me. If it had not been for those notes I don’t know what I would have been.”
Taking a deep breath, I narrated my side of the story. With tears in her eyes, she hugged me with all her might. “Thank you for everything, thank you for saving me, thank you for teaching me the real meaning of friendship,” was all she could say.
As I reached the canteen the next day at 9:35 a.m., Praneeta greeted me with a beaming face: “You’re late, Ashu!”