When I heard that Prabhakar was dying, I did not feel any sorrow. So many years have grown between us, pushing us apart from being the close friends we once were. I, however, could not refuse his wish to see me one last time. As we talked over phone, I heard him struggling to speak between the breaths. He seemed happy that I called and implored me to visit him soon, adding, when I was about to disconnect the call, that he did not have many days left.

It was March and the company I worked for had received several assignments. So, when I asked for leave, the HR manager was not at his usual charming self. I had to give up my off-days for April to obtain a five-day leave of absence I wanted. I was a little annoyed that I had to make this arrangement for a high-school friend who had not bothered to call or write to me in 20 years despite the fact that we were quite close, very close as I recall it.

A few days later, I was in a train bound for my state. I made myself comfortable in the single seat by the window and I breathed in the petrichor. The lone song I had downloaded for the journey kept playing in a loop, drowning the growl of the locomotive as it gathered speed on rails wet with summer rain. Before I knew it, in a remote corner of my brain, images of my boyhood emerged as if new photos coming to life in a darkroom.


I believe most of my classmates from Class V (A) might still remember Prabhakar, not because of his massive size even as a ten-year-old, but because what happened to his best friend, Dinesh.

Thin, diminutive, and introverted, Dinesh seldom spoke to his classmates except Prabhakar, who was my best friend too, or so I believed. Dinesh had come from an aided lower-primary school two kilometres from our high school. I had heard he was the constant target of the school’s bullies. When he joined our high school, things did not change at all. An effeminate boy, he soon became the punching bag of bullies from higher classes, who, without fail, visited our classroom during intervals and lunch breaks.

One day, Mansoor, the big bully from Class VIII, dragged Dinesh from the classroom to the playground, beat him up, and pushed him into a pit filled with food waste and urine. Dinesh broke his hand that day, and Mansoor was caned ten times by the headmaster. His father, a pious and respectable man who ran a grocery shop in the town, was summoned. Mansoor was absent for a couple of days, but as soon as he returned, he went about bullying Dinesh with renewed ferocity.


It was on a Monday that Prabhakar joined our class. A big boy, only his face belied the fact that he was a child. It was I who first made friends with him. During the interval that day, Mansoor and his gang, as their wont, visited our classroom. He went straight for Dinesh, snatched his lunch box, and began eating the food. With his little fists clenched, Dinesh stood there, trembling with anger and helplessness, but we did not expect Mansoor to do what he did next. He left a handful of rice in the box, spit into it, and asked Dinesh to eat it. The class went silent; all the eyes were glued to that scene unraveling before us. None moved or uttered a sound; none wanted to cross Mansoor, except the feisty Priya, who ran out to fetch the teacher.

Prabhakar, who had gone out to wash his lunchbox, returned to the classroom to see Mansoor and his gang forcing Dinesh’s mouth open and pushing the rice, thick with saliva, down his throat. Prabhakar put his lunchbox back into the sleeve of his worn-out schoolbag and walked over to the bullies, who had not seen him yet. He caught Mansoor by the neck and threw him to a corner as if he didn’t weight a pound. His lackeys took one good look at Prabhakar and made themselves scarce.

He turned to Dinesh who was retching violently and patted him on his shoulder. Not a single word was spoken between the two, but something told me that a friendship — steel-strong — was forged then and there.

By that time, a teacher had arrived, with Priya in her tow. Mansoor was staggering to his feet, trembling with anger, his eyes bloodshot. The teacher asked us what happened and Priya told her what she saw. Monsoor was taken to the headmaster’s room. Rumour had it that he was made to stand on his knees until the school was over.

As for Prabhakar and Dinesh, both became friends from that day onward. We watched that friendship develop. They came to school together, sat together, had lunch together, played together, and walking home together. Apart from Priya and I, they seldom spoke to their classmates. The two would walk home after all of us had left. They would loiter on the playground, talking and, sometimes, playing. While most of us took the main road to walk home, they would take a ‘shortcut’. We avoided the shortcut because that route, snaking through paddy fields, sparsely populated areas, and the premises of an old ironworks, was anything but a shortcut. In fact, it added a good kilometre to our walk to the village. Prabhakar and Dinesh, however, would take that road religiously. They told us their folks did not want them to take the main road because of the heavy vehicles plying on it.


The incident that would make Prabhakar infamous took place on October 2, 2000 — Dinesh disappeared. Both the boys had left the school together that day. Mansoor’s father told police that the boys visited his shop to buy candy and that he saw them part ways. The shop was located near where the shortcut met the main road. The police searched for Dinesh everywhere. They even brought a sniffer dog, but the heavy rain that lashed the region that day made the dog’s task impossible. We saw his ‘missing’ notification on the newspaper.

After that incident, most parents, including mine, arranged for autorickshaws and jeeps to take us to and from the school. All believed that Dinesh was kidnapped. Many of us, however, blamed Prabhakar for his disappearance. There was even this rumour among us children that Prabhakar murdered Dinesh. Everyone, except me, feared Prabhakar, refused to talk to him. Four months after Dinesh’s disappearance, Prabhakar was sent to his uncle’s house in Calicut. I did not see him after that.


I reached my hometown a day later. I slept for a couple of hours, and, after asking my father for directions to Prabhakar’s house, I set out to meet him on my old motorcycle I used to ride as a youth. I had gone to Prabhakar’s house only once: The three of us – Prabhakar, Dinesh and I – had visited one another’s homes on the Independence Day of 2000.

As I approached that ramshackle house, I realised that it had not changed much. It sat on a small property surrounded by large trees. The surroundings looked very clean. As I opened the gate, a man, wearing a white shirt and a brown, printed lungi appeared on the doorway. I recognised him instantly. As I crossed the yard, he came to the veranda to welcome me, and we shook hands. 

As he was inviting me into the house, he asked whether I had lunch; I nodded yes. Several moments of awkward silence descended on us after he ran out of the formal queries regarding my work and wellbeing.

At long last, he asked me to accompany him to his room, the most spacious one in that small, old house. Except for the stench of disinfectants, the room was appealing. He had a large collection of old books neatly arranged on a wooden shelf in one corner of the room. A wooden desk lay by the window accompanied by a chair. A cupboard made of dark teak stood to the right of the bed.

Prabhakar offered me the chair and sat on the edge of the bed, letting out a groan as he did so; it seemed even that simple action was growing too much an effort for him.

“I know I have caused you much inconvenience by asking to visit me, but you are someone I cannot die without seeing,” he told me without meeting my eyes. I was taken aback a little by this revelation that he still considered me as one of his close friends. “Stay here, I will make us some black coffee,” he said as he rose and left the room.

Some inexplicable fear was growing inside me as I looked around that neatly arranged room. My father had told me that Prabhakar had bone cancer and that it had metastasized. “Why then was this man so finicky about arranging his room? Wasn’t he dejected? I would if I were in such a condition,” I mused.

When Prabhakar returned, he was holding a small glass jar filled with black coffee and two cups. “Do you remember Dinesh, Pradeep?” he asked me as he poured me a glass of coffee. I did not expect him to bring up that subject during the conversation. “Yes, I do,” I replied.

“I think of him every day,” he said, suddenly breaking into a chuckle, which did nothing but increase my uneasiness. “I would like to go to our school. Would you take me there?” he suddenly asked. I was silent for a moment, but said: “Of course, but when?” I asked him, half praying that he didn’t say “now”.

“Let’s go now, if it’s not too much trouble for you,” Prabhakar said.


We reached the school around 4 pm. It was a Sunday and nobody was there at the school. I parked my bike near the mechanic’s shop opposite the building. Watchman Sankaran was a friend of my father’s and knew that both of us had studied in that school. An old man nearing his retirement, Sankaran did not object when Prabhakar asked him permission to enter the campus. He too had learnt about Prabhakar’s illness. There was a look of pity in his eyes as he pushed the massive, caste-iron gates a crack open to let us both in.

Prabhakar led the way and I followed. To the right of the central building was the old, rectangular single-storey building with a tiled-roof that once housed Class V.

“Do you remember the fight, Pradeep?” Prabhakar asked me. “If I had not come in time, Dinesh would have eaten that scum’s spittle and would still get beaten up,” he said. The walking was exerting pressure on his frail frame; his breaths quickened and beads of sweat rolled down his whiskers.

The entrance to the playground was only 50 meters from the old Class V building. We looked around and quietly slipped through the opening between the gates that separated the campus from the ground. Not much had changed: the football and the basketball fields were still there. Fringes were lined with large trees, probably 20 years old as I did not recall seeing them when we studied there.


As I followed Prabhakar, I realised that he still had that charisma that had once made him popular in school. Everyone used to admire him – the strong, quiet, and intelligent boy. He was a teachers’ pet, always helping and talking to them. “Where are we going, Prabhakar?” I asked him when he turned towards a pocket road at the far end of the ground. Now a Macadam’s, the road was once the path that led to the paddy fields. “Just come along. We will talk,” Prabhakar said, somewhat peeved.  


I didn’t regret the decision to go with Prabhakar after we started walking over the mud bunds of the paddy fields. We were walking against a cool breeze and the slightly overcast skies bathed the landscape with a cold light. When we reached the centre of the paddy field, Prabhakar suddenly turned and looked at me. “You know, Pradeep, Dinesh was not the person you thought he was.” Though I didn’t want to discuss that long-dead childhood friend, the sudden change in his facial expression piqued my interest.

“Do you know what happened to him, Prabhakar?” I prodded a little, but instead of reply, there was grunt. I saw him look me in the eyes hard. At the end of the paddy fields, there was a narrow canal. Not children any more, we were a little apprehensive about walking over the makeshift wooden bridge over it. The road broadened after bridge. We began ascending a slope that took a right and then leveled out. The vegetation on either side grew thicker.


“Dinesh once caught me peeping into girl’s toilet through the bathroom window,” Prabhakar said, breaking into a guffaw. “You know, I was older than you by two years. I was 12 when I joined high school,” he said, still laughing. I looked at him surprised and broke into laughter myself.

We were on a steep climb; both of us took deep breaths. From the undergrowth on either side rose a ruckus of myriad insects. The path reached the premises of the old ironworks, built during the times of the British and closed in 1970s. Nature had reclaimed much of the building. A massive tree was growing on its dilapidated walls, its thick roots crushing old concrete like a python.

“Come on, I will show you something,” Prabhakar, walking a few feet ahead of me, said. He turned left and walked towards the thickets. I hesitated a bit; the uneasiness returned. The sunlight was waning fast and I wanted to end this walk soon. I was panting heavily; years in front of a computer had put some weight around my midriff.

Reluctantly, I followed Prabhakar into the thickets, which soon opened up into a clearing. I saw him sitting on a rock near what looked like a wide PVC pipe protruding from the playground. He motioned me to come and sit beside him.

As I walked towards him, my eyes kept darting towards that pipe, a defunct 12’’ borewell. It was sunk by the ironworks before its closure. When drought came, it was this well that provided water to almost half the town. However, it was abandoned later and people soon forgot its existence.


“We used to play here,” Prabhakar said. “It is getting late. I have some other business to take care of,” I protested, not wanting to be there any longer. In that split second, I saw his expression change. The smile on his face was quickly replaced with anger and I felt blood draining from my face. I took a step back, tripped on a rock and fell.

I had embarrassed myself. Prabhakar rose and came towards me, towering over me like an obelisk, his frame silhouetted against the light blue sky. He hauled me to my feet with surprising force. I was still ashamed of meeting his eyes. He then turned and walked over to the borewell, and removed its PVC cap. I stood there, sweating profusely, breathing through clenched teeth.

“Pradeep, don’t you remember this well? I have seen you visit this place often – especially after Dinesh disappeared,” he told me. “What happened to Dinesh, Pradeep? What did you do to him?” he asked.


As I stood there stunned, Prabhakar went on: “On the day Dinesh disappeared. I returned to Mansoor’s shop to buy cattlefeed an hour after I and Dinesh parted ways. As I stood in front of the shop, I saw you entering the mainroad from the shortcut. I waved at you and you waved at me. In your hand was a candy; the same type of candy I bought Dinesh that day. There was no shop along the shortcut. Where did you get the candy? What happened that day,” Prabhakar asked, his eyes desperately trying to pry out something from my expression. He was panting heavily as if it took an extraordinary effort to utter each of the words he spoke.

“Have you ever wondered, Prabhakar, that there could be some subterranean tunnel beneath this well? Do you think something must be lurking down there? This very moment, is something yet undiscovered looking back at us from those murky depths. An animal? A monster? The Devil himself?” I asked Prabhakar even as I beheld a delicious change on his expression. I was elated that Prabhakar had his suspicions, but poor Prabhakar knew too little.

I could not help but break into a laugh. It felt like a weight had just been lifted off my chest. All these years, I believed none knew what I did or how extraordinary I was. With growing amusement, I watched Prabhakar flare into anger, his calm demeanor disintegrating. He was panting. Was he a little afraid of me? I thought he was.


“You never bothered about me, did you Prabhakar. Have you ever thought what happened to me after you became friends with that maggot; that pig who walked and talked like a girl? Before you came in I was mostly left alone; Dinesh was there for all the bullies and nobody saw me, but then you came along, Prabhakar. You helped that son-of-a-bitch every time. You were inseparable, weren’t you? You were like a couple, weren’t you? What did he do for you? Oh, I know what he did for you, Prabhakar.”


“I was the one who first talked to you when you first came to the school. You should have been my friend and protected me. Instead, you ignored me. You did not see me getting punched and humiliated. You were not there when the older bullies took me to the old bathroom and made me do things I still can’t forget. It all happened because of you and that bastard,” I screamed with mounting rage.

Something warm started flooding my brain when I saw shock spreading on Prabhakar’s pale. I pressed on.  

“I followed you two that day. I hid behind the classroom until all the other children had left. You two were sitting on the root of the mango tree near the stadium and I began following you when you started walking home. I knew the shortcut as well as you did. I saw you catch crabs from the fields and stuff them into your school bags.

When you reached here, on the company compound, you put your bags and lunchboxes by the crumbling building and started playing hide and seek. I saw Dinesh squeezing himself into this very borewell and hiding. I saw you giving up trying to find him. I saw him finally hollering your name and you hauling him out; I saw you giggle like little girls. When you started walking again, I saw that Dinesh had forgotten to take his lunchbox.

So, I waited. I knew Dinesh would come back for his lunchbox. I knew his crazy father would beat him up to a pulp if he lost it. So, I waited. You know Prabhakar, you were not the only ones who played on the company compound. I played here too every Sunday – alone. I liked that borewell. I liked to look into its depths and sometimes I heard voices coming from it –unrecognisable and inhuman voices. ‘Hungry,’ they said. So, I started putting small animals into the well. I liked the way they fell, getting swallowed by darkness. I liked the way pups cried when I threw them into it. How do you think Priya’s puppy disappeared?” I asked and paused for Prabhakar to understand what I meant.

“That day too I had so much fun and by the time Dinesh returned just as I expected, I had a plan.”


“Dinesh jumped in terror when I emerged from behind the tree, shouting his name. I saw his face relaxing when he saw it was I,” I said and looked at Prabhakar, who was staring at me in disbelief. Inside his open mouth I found rotting, yellow teeth. I retched when I saw them. I wanted to wash my mouth, which was my habit as a child whenever I saw something particularly disgusting; I thought I had overcome it.

“I asked Dinesh whether he wanted to play hide and seek with me. I promised him that I would give him 50 matchbox cards* if I could not find him. That poor wretch, always obsessed with that game, agreed. We played. He hid and I knew where he would hide, but I did not check the borewell. I sat near it, waiting for him to tire himself out. When I heard him holler my name, I rose and walked over to the borewell and I looked at his face. I saw him smile at me — a triumphant smile. He asked me to help him get out, but I didn’t. I waited until that smile disappeared and fear took its place. I saw his fingers, hooked onto the edges of the thick PVC pipe, sweat and become slippery. I saw him sliding a little down and horror exploding on that mongrel face. I saw that face contort into a grotesque plea. He tried to grab the edge of the pipe, only to slide down a little further in that attempt. I heard him shriek and beg me for help as he began a slow and steady descend down the depths of the borewell. I imagined him whimpering like a puppy even as I shoved that rag of a school bag and his lunchbox down into the well and closed it with the PVC cap,” as I uttered the last word, I turned and saw Prabhakar sitting on his haunches, his fingers clawing his face.

The realisation that his suspicions were true and the gnawing guilt that he did not do anything about it in time flickered on his terror-stricken face. I heard him weep and saw his frame tremble as grief coursed through his body.

I left him to his musings and turned to the borewell, feeling much better now. I pressed my ear against the mouth of the borewell just like I had done numerous times, and I thought I heard someone whimpering from down below.


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