How to save a life

Where did I go wrong?
I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life
– The Fray

Karthik was in the middle of a conversation with the HR when his phone started buzzing. It was a call from Ali, his old college buddy. He disconnected the call. She informed him that due to the pandemic, there were budget cuts so the company reduced the expenditure of the project which meant his fee as an illustrator had to be reduced too. They couldn’t offer him the project at his usual pricing. He reluctantly agreed and ended the conversation.

He was upset when he called Ali back. “Hey Karthik! I know it’s been a long time but something came up….” Ali began saying. “Actually Ali, this is not a good time for me, it’s been a terrible few months due to the pandemic,” Karthik said cutting him off. “Karthik, it’s about Isaac, he passed away early today morning, he had a cardiac arrest. It was very sudden and he died instantly. His sister just called me and a few others to inform us”.

Karthik was in shock, he didn’t respond for a few seconds. “Ali, I don’t know what to say, I thought Isaac was doing fine health wise, how did this happen?!” Karthik asked, hundreds of thoughts clouding his mind. “Actually, he had a heart attack a few years ago and the doctor did inform his family that he may not survive another” Ali replied. “When did this happen?!” Karthik asked “Well, you haven’t been in touch with us for many years man so nobody informed you. A few others and I from college catch up once in a while so we knew”.

“When is the funeral?” Karthik asked him after a few seconds of silence. “It’s tomorrow, his sister is flying down from Australia so she will be here tomorrow afternoon and then they will proceed to bury him”. “I’ll be there Ali” he said ending the conversation.

Karthik, Ali and Isaac were close friends in college in Bangalore where they pursued BCA which was a Bachelor’s degree for budding IT professionals. They were part of a larger group of friends but the 3 of them were particularly close after they learnt of their mutual love to explore the country’s best street food. They would often take trains and buses to nearby cities to try street food. They planned an entire Kashmir trip during their summer break instead of interning, to try Kashmiri food.

Karthik decided he wanted to get into design by the final year of university, he started a social media page of his illustrations. He moved to London to pursue a degree in design. It was there in between going into debt, handling a part time job and an intense course schedule that he lost touch with his friends back home. They were too many issues to deal with in London that there was no time to keep up with constant updates and long conversations.

He built a life for himself in London and had just started getting the kind of work he wanted when he received the news of his father’s death. He couldn’t stay in London any longer being an only child. He tried to make it work for as long as he could but he knew his mother was processing her grief alone. He packed his bags and left for good and started from scratch in India again.

His work had just started picking up when Covid hit and his clients were starting to cut budgets and projects were going on hold. The number of brands working with him for multiple design projects were now heavily bargaining for pandemic deals.

He was unable to hold it together with work, ensuring his mother didn’t catch Covid and trying to stay positive. He felt his life was in shambles and these were the days he missed his father the most. He would have helped Karthik sort things out. He would have said “Let’s talk over biryani” and by the end of the meal he always gave people solutions to their problems.

Everyone had reached Isaac’s house by noon. They offered their condolences to his elder sister and aunt. His sister remained calm and tried not to get emotional as despite the event being a funeral there were still things to be done. Karthik was meeting Ali after 5 years, the last time they met was at Ali’s wedding where the gang drank and danced all night and Karthik took the flight back to London the next day still hungover.

“Long time man, I hope you’re okay” Ali told him as they hugged. “I’m okay, just been busy. You have really piled on the weight though” Karthik told him. “I am a father to 2 young children, it’s normal” Ali responded giving Karthik a dirty look. Their other friends from university met them and they all helped Isaac’s sister with the arrangements.

After the burial, as Karthik and Ali were leaving, Isaac’s sister, Sheela approached them. “Do you want to go to Raghu’s cafe?” she asked them. They had history with Raghu’s cafe. It was as old as them, a small cafe on a very busy street near their university. Old and young people went there to grab a cup of filter coffee and eat the fritters. Isaac, Ali, Karthik and Sheela used to go there often and hang out together. They always saw her as a cool, non judgemental and fun older sibling.

They were sipping their coffee when Ali broke the ice. “I know this is a bad time to talk about this but Isaac deserves better. He would love it if we were having a laugh about the fun stuff we did together instead of what we’re doing now” he said. “You’re right, I bet he’s watching us right now thinking why I even bothered to have a funeral with family members we don’t even like” Sheela said smiling.

They spent the next hour talking about their Kashmir trip, the exams, ex girlfriends and weddings. Isaac always managed to create a situation that needed help everywhere they went and it was his friends or his sister who bailed him out of it. Karthik felt like he had missed out on so much over the years as he listened to the stories that he was not a part of.

“How come we didn’t get to see much of you though you’ve been in India for 1.5 years?” Sheela asked him. “1 year of starting over and half a year of Covid but I have no excuses, I could have made time if I tried” Karthik responded guiltily.

“You know Karthik, I have to thank you. If it was not for you, I would have lost Isaac a long time ago” Sheela said in a sad voice. Ali and Karthik were both caught off guard by her statement. Their confused faces made Sheela clarify. “A few years ago, Isaac’s business was shutting down and he was drowning in debt. It was a terrible time, his clients were showing up at our house, his employees were demanding salaries, we were considering selling our parents house. I was in Australia and my kids were too young so I couldn’t be here for him. He was stuck dealing with it all alone. I managed to visit a year later and things had become better. We were drinking one night and he confessed that he was contemplating suicide on one of those nights and would have gone through with it but you called him on that night and he didn’t go through with it. I was so relieved and scared for him that I put him in therapy soon after that. He started doing much better, I visited more often and things got better overall”.

Karthik was speechless. He had long forgotten about that night so many years ago. It was on a group chat that he had seen Isaac’s message that he was closing his business and that he was giving all his friends big discounts on the last few pieces of luxury furniture that he had left. Everyone was choosing from what he had posted. Karthik was eating a bowl of noodles after a long day at work when he felt the need to call Isaac. The message on the group seemed off and he didn’t see why the business would shut down now after all the successful years it had produced.

“Hey Isaac, I hope it’s not too late there” Karthik asked. “No man, I was just going to sleep, can we talk tomorrow, I am not in the mood to talk right now” Isaac responded sounding exhausted. “It was actually about your message on the group. When did this happen?” Karthik asked him. “It’s all good, don’t worry about it. I have been thinking of switching to more affordable furniture for a while, there’s a lot of investment in this business so I want to shut it down and then switch” Isaac told him. “Alright….no trouble with the accounts? You were able to sell everything?” Karthik asked him not believing his friend was telling the truth. “Yes…I saved the last few pieces for you guys, pick what you want. I will ship it to London” Isaac said trying to sound reassuring. “Alright man….thanks, take care” Karthik responded.

After he ended the call, he realised something was off with the way Isaac responded to him. They were not as close as before but Isaac’s vibe seemed different. His gut feeling was to call Isaac back, he just felt he had to. It rang a few times and just as he was about to cut it since he thought Isaac must have gone to sleep, it got picked up. “Hey man, sorry if you were sleeping” Karthik said sounding apologetic. “Yeah……let’s talk tomorrow” Isaac replied. “I just wanted to tell you that I can help you out now, I cleared out my student loan and my clients have been paying well. It’s not much but it might help. You know how it was in college right when my father had to shut down our business, we borrowed from my uncle and then dad started the new place. If that didn’t happen we would have had to pay huge EMIs, my uncle gave the loan to us interest free. So I know what it’s like, don’t worry about it” Karthik said. “Yeah I remember that time, I spent my pocket money every week in your dad’s new restaurant with you hounding us to eat there all the time” Isaac said his voice sounding calmer. They laughed thinking of the memory of a bunch of college boys going to Karthik’s father’s restaurant every weekend.

“Everything is fine man….maybe I could use some help, it could change the situation….not that the situation is bad” Isaac told him “Alright, think about it and let me know” Karthik said. They said their goodbyes and that was it. The money was transferred and it was promptly returned a year later. There was not much spoken about it and Karthik felt all was well in Isaac’s life or at least that’s what he deduced from the group chat.

This was the first time Ali was hearing of all of this. “This is a lot to take in Sheela. Isaac never seemed suicidal to me!” he said looking at the both of them. “He was not suicidal, it was just a bad time and you make bad decisions when you are cornered from all directions. He made a bad decision and he would have gone through with it if not for that phone call. He told me that he regretted considering it and his therapist also assured me it was just a one time thing” Sheela said.

There was silence for a few minutes at the table. “I wish he was here, I saw a dosa place in Mysore that’s trending on social media. He would have been the first to inform us” Ali declared. “Yeah….I think he had made peace with everything though. He was happy towards the end even with the pandemic going on” Sheela informed them.

It was time to leave and they were saying their goodbyes to Raghu, the cafe owner who still remembered them. “I am thinking of switching careers, it’s not been going well for me for a while. There are enough online certifications to help me” Karthik informed Sheela. “You know, Isaac shared your ‘Geetha – the neighbourhood aunty’ illustration on the family groups, he always said nobody captured visual details better than you”.

“What certification are you planning on taking up?” Ali asked him while dropping him home. “Remember what we used to call Isaac at college?” Karthik asked him. “Yeah… Intellectual Isaac because he gave people great advice but never followed any of it. What has that got to do with anything?” Ali asked. “I have decided to give myself another shot at illustration, Intellectual Isaac would have wanted it” Karthik said as he patted his old friend’s shoulder.


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