Nikhil was slumped on the college bathroom floor, next to the urinal, with a cut lip and his heart in his throat when he decided that fear smelled like copper, urine and Viraj Singh. His legs were trembling such that he didn’t dare stand up, like he was still choking in Viraj’s hands, dangling two feet off the ground. He looked at the obscenity-filled walls in front of him but in his mind’s eye, they were interrupted by the vision of Viraj and his friends, catching him off guard.
His brain was playing reruns of their parting words. “Stay away from Patil.”
Stay away from Patil.
It’s best to keep away from Shivam.
Stay away from me. I’m not good for you.
He’s bad news.
Different words bled into each other in Nikhil’s mind as he stayed frozen on the ground, their meaning sinking in.
Nikhil had been talking to Sheena, his classmate, about an economics project the previous week when Shivam passed them in the corridor.
“Hey man, how come you missed economics?” Nikhil called out.
“I got caught up,” Shivam replied, his eyes darting around. “I have to go,” he added and then bolted. As Nikhil mused over his odd behaviour aloud, it was Sheena who gave him clarity.
“You shouldn’t hang out with him,” she said.
“What do you mean? He seems like a great guy.”
“He’s bad news man. I don’t know what he did but you know Viraj -“
“Yeah, they say Shivam beat up Viraj’s cousin brother, Pawan. The poor boy was hospitalised and yet all Shivam got was a suspension. Pawan, on the other hand, was expelled.”
“But -” Nikhil paused before continuing, “I am sure there must be a reason for it.”
“Well, if there is, we don’t know about it. The worst part is that Pawan was Shivam’s only friend. What kind of person does that to their best friend? He’s got issues, I am telling you.”
“Oh. But he has been nothing if not nice to me,” Nikhil replied, unsure of what to make of this new development.
“Look, trust me okay,” Sheena said. “I know you’re new here but I know him. It’s best to stay away from Shivam.”
Nikhil wasn’t surprised by Sheena’s words, just the explanation. In fact, those were the first words he had heard from Shivam.
Tall, fair and brown haired, Shivam Patil was the first friend Nikhil had made in his new college. He hadn’t wanted to leave his old one but when forced to choose between a hostel and moving cities with his parents, he had followed his parents. And so, with a smile on his face and trepidation in his heart, he walked into his first class.
Shivam was sitting by himself and for the lack of other options, Nikhil shared his bench.
“You shouldn’t sit next to me,” Shivam said as Nikhil sat down.
“Just stay away from me. I’m not good for you.”
And he had almost moved but the teacher entered the class at that very second. And with three common lectures and being assigned a project together, their friendship was inevitable.
After his talk with Sheena, Nikhil had confronted Shivam about it the first chance he had.
“I now know why you asked me to stay away the first time we met,” Nikhil said, sliding into a seat opposite Shivam. They were in the canteen which was emptier than usual as most students were attending lectures.
“Oh. Then why are you still here?”
“I didn’t skive off lectures to tell you we can’t be friends anymore.”
“I want to hear your side of it all.”
“Pawan had been drunk during college hours. He used to drink occasionally but never like that. When I told him to go back home before a teacher caught him, he insisted I join him. When I refused he attacked me. I didn’t fight back. I wanted to walk away. I was walking away when he tripped and fell. He was too tipsy to stand still. I know you won’t believe me; no one else does.”
“I believe you.”
And it had been as simple as that. But things changed with Viraj’s threats, undoubtedly to avenge his cousin.
Nikhil stared at the pieces of the water bottle he had thrown to the ground minutes ago. His chest was heaving as he felt the tears prick his eyes.
“I can’t do this to Shivam,” he thought to himself.
Shivam hadn’t done a thing wrong to receive such treatment from him. In fact, he was the one who had explained the college building’s confusing layout to him, who had offered to pay for his sandwich after college. He had shared his notes with Nikhil and patiently answered his questions, helping him catch up on his studies. If it weren’t for Shivam, his transition wouldn’t have been nearly as easy.
And Nikhil liked easy. It had been easy to move cities to be under his parents care; to befriend the first person he met and simple to ignore his best friend the next day. Shivam didn’t deserve it.
“And yet, I don’t have a choice,” said a small voice inside him.
When he walked into his first lecture for the day, silence and stares awaited him. Stories spread fast in this college. He waited till the class went back to their conversations. He looked pointedly away from Shivam but he could feel his eyes boring into him.
“Sit somewhere else. Anywhere else,” he told himself. He had stopped a row before his usual seat when he looked up and caught Shivam’s gaze and his zen-like state went out the window. Making his way to Shivam, he sat down next to him.
Sometimes, easy wasn’t an option.