The Oath Under the Lemon Tree
The news hit him like a blow to the stomach. Gaurav could not remember the last time he had spoken to Neel. After all, they were best friends in childhood! Now he would never be able to. Cancer had taken its toll on Neel and after a great struggle he had finally succumbed.
Gaurav was now flooded with memories of Neel and himself in childhood. The two of them were always together, be it early morning baths in the Kasinath temple pond, going to school, stealing mangoes from Ganesh kaka’s backyard, spending hours in the playground until the sun sets and many more.
All memories of Nellore seemed distant to him now. Gaurav felt nostalgic and alone. He had lost one of the closest persons he had never known. The thought made him realize how much of a loner he had become in Chennai. All he had was colleagues and flat- mates. No friends.
His father had got a promotion in Chennai and Gaurav had to shift with his parents. He remembered with a smile, the tantrums he had thrown the day he received the news. From ‘How could you do this to me, Pa?’ till ‘Can Neel come too?’ he had spent every day of the next month coaxing his father to reconsider. To him Nellore and Neel were everything. Who would laugh at his silly jokes and his mimicry of all the teachers and bullies in school… Hell, how could he even go to a school without Neel?! He didn’t even know how to tell Neel but he knew he had to.
Gaurav and Neel were playing in Ganesh kaka’s backyard. Neel loved the smell of fresh mangoes and lemons. Gaurav noticed the sun had already set and it was time to go home. He caught Neel by the shoulder, ‘Did u know Pa’s got a transfer to Chennai? We are all shifting by next week. Ma even started packing my stuff.’ Neel’s face had sunk when he heard the news. Gaurav was his best friend. He asked Gaurav, ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Do you have to go? You can stay with us. Don’t go, Gaurav.’ Neel had kept on rattling until Gaurav held his hand with tear-filled eyes and said, ‘I will come back Neel, as soon as I can and we will meet right under this Lemon tree. I will tell you all about Chennai and you can fill me in with whatever happens here. Its a promise.’ All Neel could do was hug his friend and wish him luck. The next week and flown by and before Gaurav knew it, he was in Chennai Railway station, nervously holding Pa’s hand.
He was amazed at how much he had changed as time flew by. After he came he had not even considered visiting Nellore. Twenty years later, he had made sure he had a healthy paycheck but that was all life had to offer him. Thanks to Facebook, he had been informed of the news by distant classmates and now he had decided to visit Nellore. Atleast now he had to keep up his promise. For Neel, he thought even as he realized it was more for himself. He had to be there for Neel for the last time ever.
The next day he reached Nellore. The railway station still as heartening as it was twenty years ago, but Gaurav could only feel regret. He cursed himself for not making this journey sooner. He hired an auto and went straight to Neel’s house. On the way, he stopped at the temple and school. Not much of Nellore had changed in the twenty years. After what felt like hours, he finally reached Neel’s home. As soon as he got down he noticed people standing in groups fondly remembering Neel. From what he’d heard Neel owned two shops in Nellore. Neel’s father had passed away a couple of years back due to excessive smoking. He had been sick for almost a year now until finally his body could take no more.
Gaurav dreaded going inside and seeing Neel or his family. Just as he was standing there not sure of what to do, he saw Priya. Priya had recognized him and walked over to him. She looked very pale and her voice was hoarse after a lot of crying. ‘You finally came!!’, she said. Priya had studied with the both of them. She had also grown from a chubby classmate with ponytails to an elegant lady. Gaurav didn’t know what to say. As soon as he was about to ‘Hello’, Priya said, ‘We were about to be engaged next week. Neel didn’t want to go ahead because of his health but I had finally forced him to.’ With this she broke down and Gaurav found himelf consoling her, realizing how badly he had missed Neel all these years.
The two of them went inside to see Neel one last time. His body looked frail but Gaurav could make out the personality that Neel had become over the years. Gaurav could not stand there any longer. At once he rushed out for some air. As soon as he got out he saw Ganesh kaka’s backyard and it all came back to him, the sunset, the lemon tree and the Promise.
He walked over to the backyard and sat under the lemon tree. After a few minutes, he found himself talking to Neel. He sobbed and told him how much he missed him, cursing him for leaving him, all the time wondering if Neel would hear. He did not want to go back. All he wanted to do was sit there until he felt he could handle the news. When he came back to his senses, it was almost evening. Gaurav decided he should leave now. As soon as he was about to get up, he noticed a crevice on one side of the bark of the tree.
On an impulse, Gaurav extended his hand and felt inside the crevice. It was covered with dust and dry leaves. Slowly, he started removing the dirt and debris. That was when he saw it, a shining piece of gold. He removed it and placed it on his hand to see better. A ring, with Priya’s name on it. At once, Gaurav realized that Neel hadn’t forgotten him, or the promise. He knew he would come back, and this was his gift to him. Along with a subtle message. Gaurav couldn’t take it anymore. It was all too much for him to comprehend. He turned and returned to Neel’s house, now searching for Priya.