As the jet touched down at Boston’s Logan airport my heart thumped in my chest. I had spent over 3 months trying to follow the system that would get me to visit my friend in prison. I didn’t have any communication to tell me that I would get to see him that day. Doug and Barbara my friends from New Hampshire picked me up from the airport and drove me to the minimum-security prison in Ayer Massachusetts. Both wanted to know more about who I was visiting and why. It was a good question and at that moment I wondered too. But I had made a promise to a friend that I hardly knew as a friend. It was important that I remain a man of my word.
On the way I went through my mental checklist of things I needed to do. I had the documentation needed to visit and I had the US dollar bills needed to buy yogurt for my friend. I watched time pass me by as we drove through scenic Massachusetts. In a little over an hour, we pulled up into the parking lot of a medical camp and minimum-security prison officially known as FMC Devens Massachusetts. I left my mobile phones in the SUV and armed with my passport and other documents, I entered the reception hall of the camp. It didn’t look like a prison at first. I was reminded of a visiting hall in a dorm as soon as I entered the building.
A bland voice asked me whom I was to see. I had to fill up a form too. I wasn’t allowed to bring even a pen and relied on a cheap one lying next to the stack of forms. The very first line had me write up his name and inmate registration number. I wrote his name “Rajat Gupta”. I then paused at the column titled ‘Relationship with above mentioned inmate’, I wrote “Friend”. I wrote the word and I re read the word and I wondered if I honestly qualified as one. He was allowed no more than 10 people who could visit him and of all the hundreds and thousands he knew, he had authorized me. I have to respect that and I have to know him to be my friend.
My passport was taken as a security measure and I was sent to a waiting hall that had about 15 people in there. It resembled a large waiting room of a college dormitory. It had basic chairs, a host of vending machines, doors leading out to various facilities including one that went to an outdoor seating area. I also noticed there was a television screen and of course many security cameras. I noted the location of the yogurt vending machine and I knew what I had to do. I had been told I should spend as much time as I could to make the visit count. I thought a couple of hours would be sufficient. Doug and Barbara had affectionately said “take your time in there” when I left the SUV. But I was mindful of the fact that they were in the parking lot with the entire family and that included two very young children.
It seemed like ages but it couldn’t have been more than five minutes when I noticed a series of doors to my left opening and through them walked a familiar face. At first I could only see the face. The hair was still trimmed and neat, the eyes slightly sunken but it was the olive-green jumpsuit that hit me hard.
I had seen Rajat in a fine suit with a Hermes tie. I had seen him in track pants and a cool sweatshirt when he left me at the airport. But I had not seen him in an olive-green jumpsuit with his name printed across his chest. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. We hugged like lost friends and we sat opposite each other. I remember every word we spoke but that is conversation between two friends and things that I will cherish forever. But when we spoke, I couldn’t help look in his eyes and continue to see a mixture of sadness and determination. He spoke about the new friends he had made and his daily routine and somehow I wish it were more than doing household chores. He kept himself busy and fit; we had talked about a plan of things to do when he is out. I couldn’t however, get over the fact that I was seeing a friend in prison and his prison attire rattled me.
Somewhere in the conversation he asked me if I wanted to eat something. And before I could respond he pointed at the vending machines and categorically stated that he didn’t have any money to buy anything for me. That statement was like a knock out punch and I still don’t know why. I couldn’t handle the words that came from Rajat, a friend who didn’t hesitate to take me out to dinner in DC’s finest restaurant less than a year ago. A lump formed in my throat, my eyes threatened to spill some tears, my brain fought to keep my emotions in check. I could only blurt out that I wasn’t hungry. I was fine and I thought I should leave since it was a long way to my friend’s house. I pointed to the SUV in the parking lot that Rajat and I could see through the hall’s window. His eyes said something but I couldn’t see them. I didn’t leave immediately and we talked some more.
But I forgot to buy him yogurt.
I became jumpy and somewhere inside me I didn’t know how to handle Rajat in an olive-green jumpsuit, his name tag flashing at me and him declaring he had no money to buy me food. Somewhere the words brought back memories of a different era when I was in college in the US. The year was 1984. I didn’t have money to buy food then. I slept hungry for many nights and I made one loaf of bread and generic peanut butter last a week. I wanted to give him money but was aware that I am forbidden to do so. I didn’t want to create a problem for him. I wanted to see him sipping fine wine and I wanted my friend to be out of prison.
But I forgot buy him yogurt.
I didn’t even remember to offer him something; perhaps even a drink. I wanted to say something, do something, and all I did was fidget. Rajat sensed something for sure. I know the years, many as Managing Director of McKinsey and Company had honed his observation skills. He asked me if I wanted to see some areas of the facilities. I was grateful to get up from the chair and walk. And then I asked him for something I have never asked him; I asked him if there was a way in which I could get a picture with him. He said there was a designated cameraman. He could put in a request but it would take a few minutes. I said I would wait.
Rajat then led me to the far end of the hall. There was a door that led to a cafeteria. He pointed out the benches laid out and told me where he sat to eat his meals. I couldn’t go in there but I could clearly see the sparse tables and the various kitchen appliances in the background. Rajat paused to describe his daily routine and my turbulent mind struggled to maintain focus. He talked about doing dishes at wee hours of the morning and he said something about food.
But I forgot to buy him yogurt.
He then took me through another door and we were in a small fenced area. This had wooden tables and benches. He told me that this is where inmates eat when the weather is nice. I soaked in the fresh Massachusetts air and looked around. Rajat pointed to the rear of the fenced area and indicated that the prison’s main area was beyond the wall there. Just then the photographer arrived. He too was in the same olive-green jumpsuit. He asked to stand together and I remember quelling the urge to hug Rajat. I just wanted to comfort him but I held back. Rajat told me that it would be a while before he could get the photograph and wasn’t sure if he could send it to me. He said he would try to get it to Anil (our common friend) to send it on to me.
But I forgot to buy him yogurt.
A few minutes later I once again asked to leave. Rajat hugged me and thanked me. I felt another lump in my throat and turned away because I didn’t want to let my tears flow. I don’t know what raced through my mind but I just wanted Rajat back to his family and out of this horrible olive-green jumpsuit.
And there was nothing I could about it.
And I forgot to buy him yogurt. In fact I forgot all about food until the kids in the car reminded me. Even then I didn’t remember the yogurt; I wanted to lose myself in the smiles of Doug and Barbara’s two lovely children. It was later that evening when another friend reminded me of the yogurt.
Anil and Sandhya Sood have been my friends for many years. Anil in particular started as a business acquaintance and welcomed me to his home. Sandhya the lovely lady that she is, took over from there. She is more a friend than Anil is, even though she talks less than Anil does. Anil is the one who got Rajat and me together. That evening I spoke to both of them.
I described the day’s events and visiting Rajat. That’s when Sandhya asked me if I had bought him yogurt. And that is when I remembered that I hadn’t. It was the second time on the same day that I felt the wind being knocked out of me.
How in heaven’s name had I forgotten, I chided myself. Sandhya was even better, she reprimanded for my folly. Like a true friend she asked me if I was off my rockers. I then narrated the day’s events and all the emotions I went through. I could hear her voice quiver. Anil and Rajat have known each other from Modern School Barakhamba Road, New Delhi. They went to IIT together and Anil was at Rajat’s trial too. And yet they hadn’t visited Rajat until then. There were many reasons but one of them was clearly not knowing how to handle seeing a friend in prison. I brought perspective they told me and helped them plan their visit to see Rajat.
I returned to India and for all these months I have asked myself the same stupid question, why did I forget to buy him yogurt? Friendship is like that. Rajat and I have hardly known each other for long but somewhere there was a connection from my side. It has less to do with the trial and his innocence or guilt. It has more to do with the frailty of human existence. From a knight in shining armour, savior of the world, one could easily be reduced to a felon. I am reminded of Amitabh Bachchan who went through a similar phase in his life. He didn’t go to prison but was close to losing his house in the 1990s. Then his life turned around and he is back to being the Baadshah.
I am sure Rajat will come out stronger. I could see the determination in his eyes. I don’t know how I would ever apologise to Rajat when I next see him. I don’t know what I would say to make it up to him. As the seers of yore have said,
“…time just keeps flowing like a river. It doesn’t stop at a point for you to pause and ponder…”