Summer was at its peak in the village. The women mostly covered their heads with the loose ends of their sarees when they went out, and the men and children carried umbrellas. Earthen pots were filled with water, so cool fresh water was always at hand to quench their thirst. Water felt more valuable than anything else that summer.
The six were fast friends, and had been since they were children. They had decided to build their homes adjacent to each other, so they would never be separated. Every afternoon, they would meet under the banyan tree just outside the village. There was always fresh air under the banyan tree, and its shade was the perfect place. The afternoon was theirs to do what they wanted, while the children, unmindful of the heat, played in the playground nearby and their women were busy sleeping, or washing vessels.
Under the banyan tree, the six sat in a circle and played cards. They’d make small bets, talk of their harvests and profits, and taunt each other in a friendly way. Once they were done for the day, they’d leave for their houses, talking to each other loudly, or greeting the villagers, who respected them and their friendship very much.
It was a blessing when the rain gods decided to show mercy. The fragrance of the earth kissed the breeze and wafted through the village that afternoon. In the threshold of one house, the six sat playing their usual afternoon game. But the rain had called for a celebration, and the six had raised their bets to mark the occasion.
“Nice. This rain come right time. Getting too hot these days,” said Anand, taking a card from the pile at the centre, and throwing down a spade.
“Yes. Just what I needed, Anand. Thanks,” said Nikhilesh, smiling as he took the spade and put down his complete set, winning the game.
The others put their cards down in disbelief, and handed over one thousand rupees each to Nikhilesh.
“Kusum, bring some water for them. They need it, before the next round,” he called to his wife, taunting the others.
Kusum brought an earthen pot outside, and six glasses. She smiled at Nikhilesh as he counted his winnings and gave it to her, to take inside.
“My brothers, we should raise the stakes every time. I haven’t won so much in my whole life. I’m feeling lucky,” he laughed, pouring water into a glass and taking a sip.
“Yes. You right, Nikhilesh. If you’re feeling lucky, why not bet pretty Kusum? I’d love to win her for my own.”
Rajesh’s snide laughter was cut halfway by the hands of Nikhilesh around his neck, choking him.
“What you said? How dare you? My wife you talk of like that?” he said, as his first punch caught Rajesh on the bridge of his nose.
The other four were immediately on their feet, pulling the two of them apart. But their anger, it seemed, had made them stronger. Moments later, their fight spilled into the village road, accompanied by the shocked cries of their wives and children, who had come out of their houses hearing the ruckus they were making.
The neighbors came out too, and soon, had Nikhilesh and Rajesh separated. The two of them continued to make threatening moves toward each other, but nothing more.
“We are over,” the somber voice of Nikhilesh ended all lingering doubt, as he took Kusum’s hand and led her back inside.
Outside, the children still looked at each other in disbelief. It wasn’t possible, was it? The six, fighting like bad men… no, no one could believe it.
“It was meant to happen,” the old Majumdaar said, and others turned to him immediately.
“Was years ago. Their fathers, best friends, also played under the banyan tree. The six, returning from playground, had seen their fathers play. Fine children, but they always, always wanted to be like their fathers. They too started to play. Their fathers saw them, were proud that the six were like them. Didn’t see the harm in ten year old children playing cards. Or learning to bet. Such a bet led to their fathers’ friendship turning sour. Money… yes, money… conquers all in the end, if allowed to take importance. Even the thickest of friendships.”
The children listened, as Majumdaar walked away, shaking his head. The rain had gone, and the sun was beating down on them again with a vengeance.
“Yes,” they heard Majumdaar shout, “all began, with a game. All ended with another.”
(8th April 2014)