Vishal walked purposefully as the street took a bend. The light from the lamppost fell on his balding grey hair. There was a glint in his eye and a purpose in his stride as he walked along. For a moment, the horn of a passing car caught his attention but seconds later, he immersed back into his chain of thoughts.
‘Will he come? Will he keep his promise?’ he thought.
It had begun to drizzle. Vishal pulled open his black umbrella and trudged along the wet pavement. He crossed one street after another and walked past several rows of buildings. It had been a long time since he had been to this area. It was apparent that the place had undergone a sea change. The old coffee house that he remembered was replaced by a shopping mall with dazzling neon lights. The old post office was gone too. An official-looking building was standing in its place.
Rain picked up speed. A fierce wind was attempting to blow off his umbrella. He tightened his grip on its handle and continued his brisk stride. Several images flashed past his mind like a flicker of film. The image of a tall, thin boy took shape. “Will you remember me, after you grow old, Ashok?” Vishal asked.
“Yes I will. How can I forget you? You are my best friend na” replied the tall, thin boy. Both the boys grinned at each other.
“But, what if we drift apart? Time and distance may separate us in the future. Will you still value my friendship, in case we lose our ways and drift,” asked Vishal, straightening his glasses which were slipping down his nose.
“Yes I will, dear. I promise,” replied Ashok. “By the way, Vishal, when will you give up this habit of yours? Is it only with you that the glasses keep slipping? I have never seen anyone else fidgeting with his glasses as much as you do,” Ashok teased.
“Well, I guess this habit is not going to go in my lifetime. May be, after I die,” Vishal smiled. “But don’t divert from the main subject,” Vishal pressed on. “As I was saying, what if we go our own ways once we grow up? Will you, then, care for my friendship as much as you do now?”
“I will always care for your friendship,” Ashok replied firmly. “Even after ten years, even after twenty years, even after fifty years.” Both the boys smiled.
“Tell you what,” said Vishal. “How about meeting on this same spot, exactly fifty years from now? We don’t know where life would take us from here. But if we are true friends, then no matter where we are, and no matter in what condition we find ourselves in, we would not fail to turn up. Let’s mark this date in our memories. Today is 10th October, 1960. We must meet right at this spot, fifty years from now. That would be 10th October, 2010. You would come na?”
“Of course, I would come,” smiled Ashok.
“Then promise me, Ashok. Promise me that you would come to meet me here, at this same spot, on 10th October, 2010. Promise me,” Vishal pleaded.
“I promise. Hey, but what if I don’t live to see the day,” Ashok said. “Fifty years is a long time. Who knows I may not be alive by that time----“
“Don’t speak of it,” interrupted Vishal. “But I hope that even death won’t be able to part us. I will come here and wait for you at 10 pm on 10.10.10. I know you have this old habit of keeping people waiting but I hope that you will keep your promise, for I am positive that I would keep mine.”
Rain was beating down mercilessly by now. Vishal stopped by the lamppost and glanced at his wrist watch. It was 9:55. ‘Would Ashok remember his promise,’ he thought as he straightened his glasses. He resumed his brisk walk. The old spot came into sight but no one was around. The banyan tree was still there though the dilapidated building was gone.
Vishal positioned himself below the tree and waited. The street was pretty silent. Occasionally, a car or a bike passed but save that, the stretch of road was pretty deserted. He looked back at his watch. It was 10 pm and there was no sign of Ashok. Perhaps, he would not come. May be, he has forgotten his promise or grown too old to walk. Yet, his instinct told him that Ashok would come. Even though, they had not seen each other for the last thirty years, Vishal knew that Ashok would not betray his childhood friend. He was convinced that Ashok would come. And so he waited.
Rain pelted down heavily as he stood rooted to the spot. Seconds turned into minutes and minutes turned into hour. It was 11 pm. A stray dog whined in the vicinity. Vishal lost all hopes. He turned his heels and started to go when he heard the sound of a splash. He wheeled around. A tall, thin man, dressed in an overcoat, was walking towards him. His face was shrouded behind the umbrella he was holding and his boots were making a lot of noise as they hit the puddle of water. Vishal held his breath in anticipation. The man came closer and shifted his umbrella slightly so that his face came out of the shadows. Yes, there was no mistaking those twinkling, grey eyes. Ashok had finally arrived.
“So, you still haven’t given up your habit of turning up late. I thought you would never come,” grinned Vishal, as he straightened his glasses.
“I see that you too haven’t quite deserted your old habit, my friend. Your glasses still slip,” Ashok chuckled. “So, how has life treated you? Thirty years, since we last met.”
“Yes, it has been a long time,” smiled Vishal as he stretched out his hand. Ashok took it. His hands were icy cold, Vishal thought.
“Why are your hands so cold, Ashok,” Vishal asked, a frown creasing his face.
A smirk spread across Ashok’s face. “That is so because I am dead. I died 6 years ago. But see, I kept my promise.” Ashok chuckled. Vishal felt a spasm of shock, and moments later, broke into a fit of maniacal laughter.
“What makes you laugh, Vishal,” said Ashok in an amused tone. “Don’t you believe me?”
“Yes, I do,” laughed Vishal.
“Then, why are you laughing?”
“Because I was right. See, death could not part us. Both of us kept our promises. I died last evening. Let’s walk.”