Three friends and a book of matches

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Three friends and a book of matches

Published: Thu 18 Jan 2018, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 19 Jan 2018, 1:00 AM

His name was Rabin Chatterjee. Well, not really, since I have changed it to protect his identity (though, if he knew that, he would wonder why since there was no real reason to do so). This is not a criminal report. Anyway, he was a minor cog in the big wheel in a major corporation with a large branch in Kolkata.
A delegation had been chosen to visit London and he was not even considered to be in it. Nor had he held any hopes. But two of the senior executives fell ill and Rabin was the only one with a fair amount of knowledge on the issue to be discussed, so the Chairman reluctantly okayed his inclusion and ensured he flew economy.
Rabin took out his unused passport (he had once planned to go to the Maldives, but that had fallen through and, like thousands of others, no other opportunity had come up for him to acquire a stamp on it). In pristine condition, it was dispatched to the British deputy high commission.
The big day arrived and with much fanfare at home and lots of chanting and good wishes and a large family turnout, he went to the airport to catch the flight via Mumbai.
Moving on to arrival and now ensconced in one of those egg crate chain hotels that look ticky tacky but are cheap and hugely convenient, he decided to explore the city. A decent man he was, except for a bad habit of smoking cigarettes. While checking into the hotel, he had whispered quietly to the receptionist to change his room to one where smoking is allowed, without letting the Chairman know.
He believed in exercise and would go for a walk five days a week, come hail or storm. So, he needed some fresh air to handle the odd sensation of jet lag.
As he walked, he lit up and discovered the matchbook was empty. So, he flung it into a garbage bin and continued his tour, loving the smells and sounds of central London. Sometime later, with his mind crammed with new experiences, he decided to get back and prepare for the meeting that was to take place next morning.
However, he could not remember the name of the hotel. He decided to call his colleague back in India, but no one picked up. Since it was Sunday, the support staff were not in office.
Then he had a brainwave. The matchbook he had thrown away had the name of the hotel. He would find it in the garbage bin and so, he quickly retraced his steps and began to mess about in the disposal unit. The owner of a pub watched this Indian dude peering into the bin and walked out to ask him what he thought he was doing. Rabin explained his dilemma in good English and the pub owner said, "Oh, well, yes, it has to be found." And then there were two hunters.
Well into a fruitless hunt, they were discovered by a British Bobby who found this tableau of an Indian and a Brit peering over the rim of a bin quite unusual and worthy of investigation. So, he walked up and asked what might these gentlemen be doing over a garbage bin. The predicament was explained to him and he said, "Let me join you." Then, there were three of them, their efforts attracting a decent crowd purely because of the oddity.
The policeman found it in a eureka moment and a thankful Rabin took the grubby, soggy item and was escorted back to his hotel with much ceremony.
Next day, he went back to the pub suitably armed with a map and shared a beverage with the owner and as luck would have it, the policeman.
I am told for many years after that Rabin, as he rose in the ranks, would organise a gathering with these fellows whenever he was in London; even members of their families knew each other. Birthdays, anniversaries, New Years were times to stay in touch.
This odd relationship, forged over a garbage bin on a London street, is one heck of a story. I have no idea how much truth there is in it, but I don't care because it is such a super tale.
It does not end here. I am told that Rabin died not so long ago and a wake was held at the pub. Two old men, one an ex-policeman and a retired pub owner, reminisced about a grand memory and everyone in the pub joined them in raising a toast to a great friendship.
On a wall of the pub is a little frame and in it is the matchbook without matches and the legend Westbury imprinted on it. I have never seen it but whenever I go to the UK, I feel tempted to track down the pub. always wistfully remembering on a flight back that I should have, could have, would have gone searching if I had the time. The Westbury on Bond Street could be a starting point.
So, if you are ever in that neck of the woods and can trace a frame on the wall, you will know there is something called friendship and it counts for a lot.
And let me know. that'd be an even better story.

By Bikram Vohra

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