The summer of '89 had come and gone. The monsoon had begun and that year the rain Gods were unleashing their full fury. It was my first day at the new school - a full two months after the beginning of the term. An unfortunate accident had me hospitalized for 2 months and my foot was still in bandage as I went to school. The only vacant seat was in the last row next to a tall boy in a blue sweater, tousled hair and teeth sticking out. That was when I met Vikas for the first time.
I was not sure what to say to him. But you had to talk to the boy who sat next to you in class though the teacher did not want you to of course. Went through the customery drill. All the usual stuff - where we lived, what our parents did, our siblings. Things that are so important and at the same time so incosequential. Now that I knew that both his parents were docors, he lived in Basaweshwaranagar, had no siblings, was I wiser in any regard? The fact that he too was a new boy to the school made me feel some kind of kinship with him. Other than that he still felt as much a stranger after 2 months as he did the first day. But then to strike gold, one has to keep digging through drivel. Patience is the key. We perserved on uninterestedly till finally we found common ground - stamp collection!
I think I have never mentioned about my hobby of collecting stamps. It was actually not a naturally developed but an acquired hobby. My uncle had been an ardent collector who had managed to build a huge collection and had passed it on to me. It was such a vast collection with so many stamps that only thing I needed to do was to calalog and maintain the stamps. There was no need for me to acquire any more new ones as such. But I felt a feeling of restlessness and desire to contribute my bit. I guess that was the closest I ever came to feeling what these scions of the rich business familes feel when they have everything handed to them on a platter.
Coming back to Vikas - he had no generous uncle. He was a self made man who had built his collection from scratch. He had saved up his pocket money to buy some stamps from the store and then been developing his collection through exchange with other collectors and further purchases whenever he saved up enough. I liked this whole idea of exchanging stamps and immedeately wanted to get into this business of exchanging stamps. I did not know how that would help in enhancing the stamp collection but it just sounded like a cool idea and I too wanted to do it.
The first exchange was an old Polish stamp from my uncle's collection for a brand new Cambodian stamp. It was a nice looking stamp and I was very happy with the deal. There was also this added excitement of sneaking the stamp out of my home without my parent's knowledge. My parents never approved of me taking anything to school other than my school books and they would never dream of me exchanging any of the valuable stamps given by my uncle.
We continued to talk about stamps. While Vikas was a dunce as far as academics went, he was a master on the topic of stamps. He knew so much about stamps, how to determine their value, how to distinguish real ones from fakes. I just drunk in whatever he said. Among the rare countries he had listed one caught my attention - Zanzibar. I was suddenly overcome by desire to possess a stamp of this nation. I began to badger Vikas to get me one of them. He said he knew someone who had it but a suitable exchange would be needed. He rejected most of my offerings till I came up with something that caught his interest - a triangular Hungarian stamp. Yes. That would do the trick, he had said. He would now carry my proposal to his friend.
The next day he told me I would have to first give him my stamp so that he could take it and exchange with his friend near his home. Having had nasty experiences with a boy few years earlier in the matter of coins, I was a bit suspicious. But Vikas was nothing like the vile Nagaraj. So I decided to give him my stamp.
One day passed. Another passed and then a third. Still I had not got my Zanzibar stamp. Vikas had some excuse everyday. On the fourth day my stamp arrived. I was so disappointed. It was a dull faded stamp with picture of some berries. Evern the writing of the country name and denomination was not very clear. But Vikas assured me that this was because it was an old rare stamp. I convinced myself and took the stamp.
I kept looking at the stamp for the next three to four days. But something did not feel good about it. So one day I went back to Vikas and asked him to take back this stamp and give me my original stamp back. The expression on his face changed immedeately as if I had said something blasphemous.
"An exchange is an exchange. Once done it can't be reversed. That is the rule of exchanges," he declared emphatically. There was a sense of finality in his tone. I was stuck with the Zanzibar stamp. I tried to like it. But somehow could not.
A few weeks passed and the event was forgotten. I wanted to again go in for an exchange and broached the topic with Vikas. He somehow did not seem interested and kept evading. When I continued to be persistent, he said he did not want to exchange with me. When I pestered him for the reason, he said, "Because you are my friend."
I did not get it. I looked at him surprised. He also looked a bit confused. He had blurted out something he had not wanted to say. But now it was done. So he had to explain.
"You have often asked me how does exchange help in growing a stamp collection. Let me give you the answer. Because exchanges are never fair. Exchanges are always meant to give you an advantage. At least that is what exchanges are to me."
It took me a few minutes to absorb what he was saying. Vikas was a cheat - Nagaraj all over again!
"But you did exchange with me few months back."
"Yes. Then you were not my friend. In fact I hated you then and wanted revenge."
Revenge? What was all this melodrama? Where did revenge come into the picture? What did I do to him that he wanted revenge on me?
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