My best friend Madhukar died on 25th October 2016.

He was in perfect condition two weeks before he died. Just like that, he left this world. Leaving an irreparable void in my life. And lots and lots of memories. And an example of how to live life, be a friend, help people, and be a human being.

I wanted to write an article about him a few weeks ago, when his yearly Remembrance Day came up. 

Did I mention Madhukar was 40 years older than me? 

My Best Friend was 40 Years Older Than Me

Madhukar was my father’s close friend. They both played bridge and knew each through the game. Growing up, I saw him a handful of times but never interacted much. 

You know how some people command respect just by being themselves? That is how I came to view Madhukar: with insta respect. I’ve visited his house only a handful of times as a child, I’ve spoken to him less on less than five occasions, I just knew he would call my Dad to talk bridge hands. 

After I started playing bridge, I saw him a few more times, I played with him, but I wouldn’t say we became friends. 

Until the 2001 Bridge National Tournament in Calcutta.

Madhukar Made the Ultimate Bridge Sacrifice

Bridge players are an egotistical bunch.

Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. A healthy amount of self-belief is necessary to win. The line between self-belief and ego is often blurred.

There are six players in a bridge team. Only four play at a time, and the remaining two sit out. The two players who sit out feel upset – they should be the ones playing, right? Similar to the feelings of the 4 players who don’t make the final 11 of a cricket match.

When the captain asks a player to sit out, they usually view it as an insult. 

As I was young, I was asked to sit out a lot. I hated it. 

In the 2001 Calcutta Nationals, my Dad, Madhukar and I teamed up with two unknown players – we were a team of 5 players. My Dad was the champion player and was expected to play all sessions. I was an up-and-coming player, very raw. Madhukar was experienced and solid.  Madhukar and I were expected to play 50% and sit out 50%.

Madhukar made the ultimate sacrifice a bridge player could make. 

He played 10% and let me play 90%. In other words, he sat out 90% of the time.

I have never seen anybody else do this voluntarily till date. This was a gesture of paramount sacrifice.

  • He had taken time off work to participate in the tournament.
  • He was the experienced player.
  • He was the older player

Yet, he chose to encourage me by letting me play more.

His gesture touched me profoundly. Madhukar instantly became one of my all-time favorite people.

We Rekindled our Friendship in 2011

Soon after the 2001 Calcutta Nationals, I went to the US to study. I lost touch with Madhukar. When I came to India in 2007 and 2008 for summer break, I played a lot of bridge with Madhukar. We enjoyed each other’s company. 

After I moved back to India for good in 2011, Madhukar and I rekindled our friendship. Madhukar was more than a friend. He was a mentor, a well-wisher, a godfather who looked out for me, it is hard to label our relationship.

  • We played bridge together.
  • We went for morning walks together. 
  • When I had personal difficulties, Madhukar gave me advice in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Madhukar helped me with career advice.
  • Madhukar was a history buff and gave me his version of historical events.
  • We had many a cup of coffee, many a meal, many a snack, usually at the Mylapore club and New Woodlands hotel.
  • Madhukar was an ace salesman. He took me to Tulsi Silks to demonstrate the art of selling (to say he was a pro would be an understatement). 
  • We spent hours on the phone discussing bridge deals. 

Madhukar was my BFF – Best Friend Forever – literally. 

Madhukar Died Suddenly

October 2016.

Oct 8th Saturday afternoon: Madhukar and I had lunch together at New Woodlands Hotel. He seemed to be in perfect health. We had an amazing time.

Oct 13th Thursday morning: We spoke on Thursday morning – he and I discussed bridge deals he played Wednesday night. He sounded normal. I had no inkling anything was wrong with him.

Oct 15th Saturday morning: Madhukar did not show up to a bridge tournament we were supposed to play together. It was unlike him to miss a bridge game. A phone call told us that they took him to the hospital. He didn’t feel well, but didn’t know what was wrong. 

Oct 17th Monday evening: I went to visit him at Isabel hospital Monday evening.

“Prahalad, the doctors don’t know what is wrong with me. My WBC counts are very low”, he told me sadly and miserably.

I tried to cheer him up. I failed. 

Along with my Dad and brother, I flew to Delhi that evening to participate in the prestigious HCL bridge tournament.

Oct 23rd Sunday afternoon: I spoke to Madhukar from Delhi. He was in the ICU. Always the bridge enthusiast, he asked me, “Did Zia come to the tournament?”. I said yes – I didn’t tell him I cared more about how he was doing than about the tournament results. I then gave the phone to my Dad.

I would learn later that my Dad and I were the last two people to speak to Madhukar. He went into a coma and would never come back.

Oct 24th Monday afternoon: We returned to Chennai Sunday evening. On Monday, we visited Madhukar’s home. His relatives were resigned to the fact that Madhukar was dying.

Madhukar? Dying? Surely this couldn’t be happening?

I wanted Madhukar to come back.

Oct 25th Tuesday early morning: I received a text from Madhukar’s phone that remains etched in my head:

“Your friend Madhukar is no more.” 

  • I had learned the Bhagavad Gita
  • I knew that Madhukar’s body died, he had no death
  • I knew that he shed his old body, like we discard old clothes, and he would assume a new body
  • I knew that weapons could not cleave the real him, fire could not burn the real him

None of this knowledge prevented me from experiencing intense sadness and grief.

My best friend had died.

My Grief Healed with Time. I Still Miss Him Fondly

With time, I came to terms that Madhukar had gone.

Whenever I needed life advice (which is often), I miss him dearly.

A lot of our friends felt it would have been nice if we knew why Madhukar died (his condition remained a mystery till his death), it would provide closure. Strangely, I didn’t share this opinion. Knowing the reason why Madhukar died wouldn’t bring him back. 

Complaining comes easily to people. It was my second nature. I complained about anything and everything in life. When I look back, the presence of people like Madhukar in my life was a rare blessing. If I focused on being grateful for such blessings, I could have reduced my complaining quotient. I can start now – let me appreciate the presence of some beautiful people in my life, and focus on the blessings in my life the next time I have the urge to complain. I’ll fail a few times, but it will be a worthwhile effort.

If I can develop one-hundredth of Madhukar’s work ethic, if I can aspire to be a good friend like how he was, if I can learn to be kind like him, I’d say I have achieved something in life. 

Thank you, Madhukar, for everything.

I miss you.

Photo by Saeid Anvar from Pexels