Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Friend Harish -The 11th Man

In the late seventies we still had places to play cricket in our city, in our colony where many houses were still not built. Big enough spaces to actually play cricket matches against the SR Nagar Colony guys who were our favorite team because they also were as bad as ours and consisted of players roughly the same size. We had little choice in our colony in terms of players since there was only that much raw material available and our teams normally made up of anyone who was willing to come and suffer us. So there was me and Ram, KV and Vijay, Mohan, Kamlesh, Choudary (the core of the team), Sreenu, Shiva (hangers on), Ramana and after that, we were struggling to fill in the places. On good days I think we just about made the 11 when the more academically oriented boys had the time to join us. One of them was Harish, thin, sensitive and as close to a nerd as you can get even then.  Harish was so fragile that you wondered if he would break a leg if he got hit on his pencil thin legs.
Harish - the 11th man

Harish would join us whenever he had the time and the inclination and we were more than willing to have him of course. He batted low down when he got a chance, fielded at far off positions and I am sure that playing cricket with us might not have been a pleasant experience for him in such circumstances. Most times he was the 11th man and he wandered off after a while. But for all our limitations we played several games with the SR Nagar guys, lost many, won a few and kept our colony flag flying high. Of course no one noticed our heroics.

We grew up. I played cricket at a higher level and moved on to the world of league cricket and state cricket. The others moved on with their studies. All of the above mentioned with some notable exceptions were very academic. I was not. By some quirk of fate I landed at Osmania University to do my Civil Engineering thanks to my sports quota! And in my third year, who do I see in the college campus but a familiar face - Harish. Our 11th man of many matches, just as thin as he always had been , taller, looking more academic and certainly more self assured. Harish always had an air of sophistication, a dignified aloofness. I was surprised to see how much he had grown and how different he was from the rest of the noisy crowd which was so thrilled with their new found freedom that they forgot all sense of decency. Harish was like a genial professor, all dignity and propriety, among the lot. We met briefly but in the rush of the college and our so-different pursuits, he of academic excellence and me of wasting time, we met little. I passed out and moved on. Harish I knew would pass out in flying colours, get good scores in GRE, get good admissions and go to the USA where he would live happily ever after. And so it was.

After almost two decades since I got a call at home. Maybe 2007 or earlier? Harish was on the line. 'I just met Mohan and took your number,' he said. 'If you're home I'd like to meet you.' He came home and we had a delightful time recounting the past years and our matches. He looked just the same, thin, stood as erect as he always did, his eye had a twinkle and his voice was always smiling.

'I always remember the time I was the 11th man in one of our matches and and we needed some four runs to win. You were the skipper and were batting on the other end. If I had stuck on for those few balls, we would have won but I got out first ball. I feel bad about it even now,' he said. I could see that he felt bad, that the loss rankled. You never forget those moments when you assume greater responsibility than is required from you and fail to deliver. It is big for you but the others hardly notice. I had forgotten all about it of course, having lost so many matches like that in my life and we laughed about it. He was deeply appreciative of my choice to move into writing and of Ram to make movies.

And then he told me what went on after his engineering. His life went as per the script. America, post graduation, good jobs, software boom, made tons of money, thinking of early retirement, lost money in the equity market, went back to work, found love (a very cute and highly likeable Malayali doctor Bindu, who, Harish knows, I totally approve of), married and went back to work. Sometime out of nowhere he, this kid who always did everything right in his life, was diagnosed with a tumour in the brain that was inoperable and pretty much given up on. Bindu, being a doctor and a good one at that, and his own team of doctors tried all sorts of experimental medicine on him and he got through that stage. The medicines were harsh and he went through much, with many painful side effects. He came to India to meet his parents after years, went all over India, to Leh and Dharamshala, seeking answers to why. And in his next visit to India, after he found some peace, he also found space to see me. I was aghast at his story. He looked normal, was in good spirits, ate and drank everything. We all went out to lunch, he came home. In fact we both spent much time discussing various therapies, philosophies and he even took two days off to do the 'Heal You Life' workshop. But he insisted that I do it with him as well and I did the workshop that I had been putting off for long in my life thanks to him. He returned to America.

We kept in touch on the mail. I published 'The Men Within' shortly after and he ordered some copies. He said he liked the book and he started reading the blog when I had just started writing it. He came again the next visit and dropped by. This time he was off to Nagarjuna Sagar to deliver a lecture on mathematics to young students and to share his experiences. He gave me a book 'Three Cups of Tea' which he said impacted him a lot and knew would impact me. I read the book (with his very babyish handwriting "To Hari, the captain, From Harish, the 11th man and for some reason he put in brackets beside his name - 'baby'). The book did make a huge difference to my life. Ever since I read about Dr. Greg Mortenson, I have found some purpose in my life and I share my experience, knowledge as much as I can. In his last visit, last year perhaps, he came home with Bindu and they both met and played with Anjali for a while. It was clear that Harish liked playing with Anjali and she with him. He asked me for a picture of her which I mailed him. He said he made a collage of pictures near his computer and she figured in that.

I kept updating him of all the big events in my life, the books, the movie etc and knew that he knew what was happening with him, though he never replied. He sent me a long mail two years ago asking if I could in some way help his parents by getting them a reliable auto rickshaw guy - they did not want a car and he did not want them crossing the crazy traffic here. You could see he was concerned and I went over and met them and even fixed up some arrangement and they were all quite happy - more with my gesture of going over to meet them than my arrangement I think. He called me sometime after that and we had a long, long chat. We exchanged long mails - often discussing some philosophical point or another though we were happier talking.

Yesterday when Sanjay, a junior from Osmania Engineering college and one with normally high and infectious energy (Harish's batch and also his relative) called and said in a slightly subdued tone that there was bad news, I somehow knew that it was about Harish. A couple of months ago Harish had gone to Florida and got pneumonia and never recovered. He passed away ten days ago. I did not expect it really so I was a bit taken aback. To me it was just a matter of time before Harish sauntered over to my place, some book in hand, a new idea he wanted to share, a wry smile and a glint in his eye, and the childish laughter he carried with him. There was no doubt that Harish came back into my life to add some purpose into it and he did enrich it many times over in those short visits that I always looked forward to.

This time, I wish our last batsman had hung around for longer. But then it was a life well lived, one he can be proud of. Here's then to our 11th man - one I will sorely miss!

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