Friday, 21 November 2008

Short Story: My Best Friend Fakhroo

I must have let out a whoop of joy on seeing Fakhroo’s email since Neha dropped her book and hurried over to the computer. It was a cold winter’s evening in Manchester, the curtains were drawn, and the heater turned on at full blast. The smell of fresh paint hung in the air, like the promise of a better tomorrow.

‘Is this your friend Fakhroo?’

‘My best friend Fakhroo,’ I replied enthusiastically. Many years had passed since Fakhroo and I had declared to the world that we were best friends and swore undying loyalty to each other. Those were the days when we skipped classes after lunch to go to the cinema and rounded off the evening with a few kebabs from Fakhroo’s father’s restaurant in Old Delhi. Time had flown by, but I still thought of Fakhroo as my best friend. That is, when I did think of him, which had not been very often in the recent past.

‘What’s he up to?’

‘Let me read the email first,’ I told Neha impatiently as I clicked open the email and started reading. Neha stood behind me and tucked her face into the angle between my neck and shoulder so that she could read as well. I did not mind. Neha and I had been married for over two years now and I still did not mind when she did something like that.

Fakhroo’s email was not very long. He apologised for not having kept in touch for the past many years. He was not even sure my email address would be the same. He had received my wedding invitation and was planning to travel to Gwalior to attend the wedding, but a family emergency had come up at the last minute. And then he had been busy with his new business venture.

‘What’s this business venture he’s talking about?’ Neha asked.

‘I dunno,’ I said not wanting to be distracted from the email. Neha lifted her head from its comfortable perch for a few seconds and looked at me with mock anger before sticking her head back where it had been earlier.

“I am planning to visit the UK since I am trying to find a British travel agent in Manchester or London with whom I can have a tie-up. In order to get a visa to come there, can you send me a letter inviting me to stay with you? An invitation letter from a UK resident will make it easy for me to get a visa. Of course, once I am there, I will not stay with you for more than a day or two since I plan to travel around the UK once I finish my business.”

There were a couple of additional lines about a common friend he had met recently, and the address to which I was to send the letter. Finally, Fakhroo had signed of with his full name. Fakhruddin al-Razi.

‘Are you going to send him an invitation?’ Neha asked flippantly, with a roll of her eyes, having finished the email a few seconds before I did.

‘Of course I am,’ I replied, showing mock anger and surprise. Of course I would send him an invitation. Good old Fakhroo. The things we had done together when we were in school. The scrapes we had got into. Fakhroo always had a million plans and they kept evolving all the time. Fakhroo’s plans to have a tie-up with a British travel agent did not surprise me. He always thought big. And his plan to travel around the UK was only to be expected. Fakhroo was the most inquisitive and restless person I had ever known.

The last time I met Fakhroo was over four years ago at a school reunion. My father had retired from the civil service and my parents had settled down in Gwalior. I was working for a hospital in Bhopal. Fakhroo was in Delhi, trying various schemes – helping his father run their restaurant, starting a courier service of his own, a guide-supplying business that would have ensured every tourist visiting Delhi had the most suitable guide to show them around etc. Fakhroo and I had exchanged a few emails after that reunion and then we had lost all contact. In the meantime, I migrated to the UK, completed my MRCP, got married, and bought a house in Manchester.

‘I wonder why Fakhroo signed with his full name,’ I mused. ‘I have never known him to use his full name, other than for school records. He was always Fakhroo.’

‘Maybe he’s changed. He might be a terrorist now.’ This time Neha was semi-serious, but I burst out laughing.

‘Fakhroo? A terrorist? You haven’t met Fakhroo. He’s the coolest guy I’ve known. Let him come here. When he is in his element, he can out-drink an Irishman. There was a time when he would tell people – My name is Fakhruddin, but please call me Fak.’ Neha burst out laughing at that.

‘I was only joking,’ she said.

‘I better reply to Fakhroo and tell him that I’ll send him the letter in a day’s time.’

‘Didn’t Anil tell us that he gave a letter to his friend to help him get a visa?’

‘Yes, he did. Maybe I should speak to Anil and find out what the formalities are before replying to Fakhroo.’

‘Makes sense,’ Neha agreed as she walked back to the sofa and picked up her book.

At night in bed, my thoughts went back to Fakhroo. He was unlikely to be a successful businessman. He was too restless for that. He had his fingers in too many pies. He liked to try out everything. After school when most of us managed to join engineering and medical colleges or prestigious arts colleges, Fakhroo took a year off to travel around India. If I had the money, I would travel around the world, he had said. And once he got over his wanderlust, he had joined a part-time college so that he could attend accountancy classes in the mornings and help his father with the restaurant in the evenings. There are too many things I could do and too little time to do them. In such a case, how on earth can anyone justify spending a whole day in college? He had asked me rhetorically one day.

Next day morning, I called up Anil before going to the hospital.

‘It’s pretty simple,’ Anil said. ‘In order to get a visitor’s visa, your friend must prove that he has sufficient funds to travel to the UK and meet his expenses while he is here. And he must also show a hotel booking for the time he is here. But if you were to send him a letter inviting him to stay with you, he doesn’t have to have a hotel booking. Also, if your invitation letter were to say that you will meet his expenses while he is here, his life becomes easier.

‘You mean, he won’t have to show he has enough money to meet his expenses.’

‘He must show some money, but the burden is a lot less.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing. It’s just a letter. Make sure you attach a copy of your house deed so that the visa office knows you have a spare room for your friend to stay.’

‘Well, I’m so glad that I bought this house. If we were still in that studio flat…’

‘Sometimes they don’t really check. But you’re right, a studio flat would have made things difficult. This friend of yours, is he looking to join the NHS?’

‘The NHS? No, of course not. Fakhroo is anything but a doctor. He has tried his hand at everything except medicine.’

‘Fakhroo, did you say? Is that his name?’

‘His name is Fakhruddhin. But we called him Fakhroo in school.’

‘You know him very well, I guess. Then it shouldn’t be a problem… I guess.’ A slight hesitation sprang into Anil’s voice. He was guessing too much.

I didn’t say any more, but merely thanked Anil and put the phone down. My thoughts were not very pleasant as I drove to work. What the heck was wrong with Anil? Was it such a risk to invite Fakhroo just because he was a Muslim? I knew Fakhroo better than anyone else in the world, except maybe his parents. There was a better chance of Anil turning into a terrorist than Fakhroo, the most liberal human being I have ever known. Fakhroo was not even a practising Muslim. Not that it mattered. Even if Fakhroo were a practising Muslim, I would still cheerfully send him an invitation letter.

That afternoon, I decided to call up Fakhroo at his old number. A stranger picked up the phone. As I had suspected, Fakhroo and his family had moved out of that house a year ago. I called up a couple of friends in Delhi to get Fakhroo’s number. None of them had it. Apparently, Fakhroo’s father had died and they had sold the restaurant and moved elsewhere. No one seemed to be in touch with Fakhroo. I decided that when I got home, I could email him and ask him for his phone number. And I would also tell him that I would be sending him the invitation without any delay.

That evening it snowed heavily and it took me a while to get home through the blocked roads. And when I finally parked the car and got inside our house, Neha had micro-waved chapattis and warm potato bhaji waiting for me. We watched TV as we ate our dinner. I picked up the remote and started to flip through the channels. Normally I hate watching documentaries, but for some reason BBC’s program about a British national who was now in Guantanamo Bay caught my attention. Apparently this gentleman had been very liberal and all that till he suddenly became religious. I watched the program for a few minutes and then moved on. ‘See,’ I told Neha. ‘This sort of thing will never happen to Fakhroo.’

‘How do you know that for sure?’

‘Because Fakhroo would never do anything unless it made sense, and I can’t ever think of him intentionally harming anyone else.’

Neha got angry. ‘I never said Fakhroo was a bad guy. You’ve started imagining things.’

‘Well, it was Anil who did this to me.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He didn’t say anything, but he…’

‘I think you’re worried that Fakhroo is up to no good. You’re scared of sending him that letter.’

‘Me worried? That’s a laugh.’

When our plates were empty, Neha told me, ‘you go ahead and write that letter. I’ll wash up.’

‘No, I’ll help you. You must be tired as well. Did you have a good day at work?’ Neha worked for a few hours everyday at the local library. It was not very financially rewarding, but Neha enjoyed it.

‘No, I didn’t. I had an argument with Elaine and…’

It took me a while to get to the computer and reply to Fakhroo. I was delighted to get his email, I told him. I would send him the letter in a day’s time. Was there a phone number where I could reach him? And since when did Fakhroo start signing his name in full? I preferred Fakhroo to Fakhruddin al-Razi. It was almost ten when I clicked on Send.

‘What time is it in India?’ I asked aloud as I did the mental math. ‘Three thirty in the morning,’ Neha shouted back before I got there. If I were good at Mathematics I would have been an engineer, not a doctor, I consoled myself. Most probably, I would find a reply waiting for me when I woke up in the morning. I then typed out an invitation to Fakhroo to visit me in Manchester. I promised to meet all his expenses while he was with me. I printed off the letter, signed it, and kept it on the table so that I could take it with me to work the next day.

The next day morning, I woke up fifteen minutes earlier than usual and checked my email. Neha was still asleep. Sure enough, Fakhroo had replied giving me his phone number. I called him up immediately.

‘Fakhruddin here.’

‘Fakhroo, is that you?’

‘Yes, it’s me Fakhruddin. Is that you Govind?’

‘Fakhroo. What’s happening? How are things?’

‘Everything is all right. My father died and…’

‘When was this? When did he die?’

‘Almost two years ago.’ No wonder Fakhroo had not attended my wedding. His father must have died around that time.

‘Was this the family emergency you mentioned in your email?’

‘Yes.’

‘You sold the restaurant, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did.’ Fakhroo’s voice sounded wooden, almost as if it were someone else.

‘What’s up man? I’m sure you’re still the same old Fak.’ I hoped to infuse some life into Fakhroo.

‘I’m still the same, but …’

‘Don’t tell me you’ve become religious and starting praying and fasting.’

‘Actually I have.’

It was a bit of a shock, but that explained the signature in full and the wooden lifeless voice. Religion usually took away a lot from a human being.

‘Well, tell me what you’ve been up to.’

Fakhroo launched into a description of his guide-supplying business, which apparently was thriving. His voice became animated. He needed a tie-up with a good western travel agency to send him tourists, if his business were to expand any further. It was so difficult to get a visa to visit the UK these days. Especially if you had a Muslim name and… a beard.’

‘Do you have a beard?’ I asked Fakhroo in shock.

‘Yes, I do.’ The response was calm and unhurried. Fakhroo didn’t care whether I was shocked or not.

‘I’ll send you that letter in a few days time,’ I said as I hung up.

I looked at my watch. I was running late. As I ran out of the house, I realised that I had left the invitation letter behind. I decided not to go back for it. It could wait for another day. That evening as I drove home, I realised that I was being silly. Just because Fakhroo had turned religious did not mean that he was a terrorist. It would be a laugh, to see Fakhroo once more with his beard. I would call him Fak for old time’s sake, his religious sentiments be damned.

‘Have you sent that letter yet?’ Neha asked me in the evening.

‘No, not yet,’ I said. ‘I was just thinking, do you know what will happen to us if Fakhroo turns out to be terrorist? We would have sheltered a terrorist. And they may not believe me if I tell them that I had no clue what Fakhroo was up to.’

‘You are getting paranoid. If you are so worried, don’t invite him.’

‘I wish we still lived in that studio flat. I wouldn’t be able to invite him if we did.’

‘He doesn’t know that we’ve bought a house, does he?’

‘No, he doesn’t but, …’

I don’t care either way. You decide. He’s your friend.’ Neha went back to her book.

‘I do wish you’d stop reading when you get home. Don’t you read enough books in the library?’

‘As a matter of fact I don’t. I never have time to read a thing when I’m working.’

I had a dream that night. My memories of that dream are slightly hazy, but I do remember that it involved being arrested on charges of having abetted a serious terrorist attempt to blow up Big Ben. The attempt had ended in failure, but I ended up behind bars nevertheless. Oh no! No! Fakhroo had nothing to do with the whole thing. Not my Fakhroo! No! A bearded man who bore a distant similarity to my best friend was the brain behind the plot which landed me behind bars. I woke up sweating and panting and went back to sleep only after Neha cuffed me behind my ear for having woken her up.

It took me a week to make up my mind. Finally, I managed to send Fakhruddin an email. I just found out that I cannot invite you. That’s because my studio flat does not have a spare room. I need to attach a copy of the tenancy agreement to my invitation letter. I’m so sorry that I cannot help you. I was upset not because I said No to Fakhruddin. Fakhruddin was an unknown quantity. He had a beard and he most probably prayed five times a day. I was upset because my good old friend Fakhroo was no more.

2 comments:

B said...

Amazing story and so relevant to our times..
It was a great read!

Winnowed said...

Thanks a lot B. I'm glad you liked it!