The Matchbox

He stood in the middle of the small tribal settlement, a fire-torch in his hand and a matchbox in another.
 
Fires raged all around him as he directed his men to set the little grass and wood houses alight.
 
There were people running everywhere trying to save themselves, but his face was calm, as if that of a Man on a mission.
 

“Its a tribal settlement, there are hardly any people living there. That land belongs to us. Our forefathers have owned it right from before independence. We have to clear it out. YOU have to clear it out. Go and do what is required”, his Father had ordered him.

 
He knew that his Father wanted that land only because it would make an excellent piece of real estate for developing a township, once the new Power plant came near their village. It would add a few more millions to their already overflowing coffers.
 
But they were Tribals, they didn’t have a right to encroach upon the land which rightfully belonged to his family, so for him it was not all about money. It was about getting back what he was entitled to.
 
These people always took what was his. His seats in the college, his jobs, his taxes. They had fallen into a habit of taking everything for free and this enraged him. He had got a chance to regain what was rightfully his, what these people kept snatching from him and he wasn’t going to let it go.
 
He stood besides what looked like a makeshift medical clinic which was engulfed in the angry red and orange of the flames, as his eyes fell on the man sitting besides it.
 

The man just sat there, his back resting against a tree, his eyes staring at the clinic going up in flames. His body was charred. The man must have been in that fire. Even his face was unrecognizable, but his eyes….. his eyes seemed familiar. There was still hope in those eyes which kept staring at the flames, unmoving, unblinking. Yes, he had seen those eyes somewhere before.

 
………………………………………………..
 
It was around 20 years back that he had first met Rakesh. He was sitting in the canteen of his medical college eating his lunch as Rakesh had walked in with his food.
 
Rakesh had plopped down in the front of him as that was the only seat left in the canteen, and proceeded to eat his food as if it was the last meal on the earth, much to his amusement.
 
“Slow down, you will choke yourself to death”, he had said
 
“In a medical college, I hope someone will save me”, Rakesh had replied as he finished his food.
 
This was the first encounter between him and Rakesh which had sparked off a long friendship.
 
They stayed in the same hostel, went to the same classes and had the same hobbies.
 
As the years passed, they got closer and became best friends. They would spend most of their time together watching movies, hanging out at the tea stall, double dating girls.
 
The only time when they were not together was during the exams.
 
Rakesh came from a very poor family and he was very serious about not wasting a single year of his college. Rakesh had got admission in the reservations quota and even with the reduced fees he still had to scrape through the rest of the year with his finances.
 
He, on the other hand, came from a very rich family. His Father had paid an immense amount of money to get him into a medical college just so that he could add a Dr. to his name. His monthly spend was more than most of the students in his college.
 
He only wanted to be a doctor because almost everyone in his family was a doctor. They had diversified into various businesses but they were all doctors.
 
Rakesh wanted to be a doctor because noone in his entire village was a doctor.
 

But as far as he was concerned this was a petty difference between the two. It did not bother him much. What did bother him was that Rakesh used to smoke, infact he used to smoke so much that their entire room stank of cigarettes.

 
What irritated him even more was that Rakesh always asked him for a matchbox.
 
“Bro, you have a matchbox on you?”, Rakesh used to ask at any random time while sticking a cheap cigarette in his mouth.
 
It didnt matter where they were, in a movie theater, in a restaurant, anywhere, anytime, and this even when Rakesh knew very well that he did not smoke and had no need to carry a matchbox on him.
 
“If I had a matchbox, I would burn down the world”, he would reply.
 
This had almost become a standard dialogue between the two. Every now and then Rakesh used to ask the same question and he used to give the same answer.
 
They both managed to finish their college without flunking any years. While Rakesh came at the top of the class and outshone others, he had just managed to scrape through to the bottom of the list.
 
He didnt care. He could now put the Dr. tag against his name, its not as if he planned to practice as a doctor, he didnt need to.
 
But he did owe Rakesh for his passing marks. Rakesh had gone out of his way to help him through his studies, hand-holding him through each subject just enough for him to pass.
 
When their college got over, he had gone to drop Rakesh off at the train station, they had hugged and bid their goodbyes, they had promised to stay in touch and meet each other whenever time permitted.
 
Rakesh had hopped onto the train as the whistle blew and turned around to him urgently and said, “Listen there is something I do need to ask you before I go”
 
“What?”, he had queried concerned at the urgency in Rakesh’s tone.
 

“Do you have a matchbox on you?”, Rakesh had grinned sticking a cigarette between his lips

 

“If I had a matchbox I would burn down the world”, he had replied grinning back.

 
Rakesh had looked into his eyes and smiled. He had a look of genuine warmth in his eyes. They kept looking at each other, smiling and waving at each other till the train moved out of sight.
 
Over the years, they had written to each other, had phone conversations now and then, even video chatted on skype whenever they got a chance, but a few years later they had lost touch.
 
The last skype conversation he had with Rakesh was the day before Rakesh had decided to go back to his village.
 
“The time has come bro, I will be going back to my village and set up my practise there. Our village needs me. We dont have internet there and our telephone lines are not always working, but I will keep in touch. I will find a way”, Rakesh had said, a grim determination on his face.
 
“You will do fine Rakesh, dont worry, you are going for a good cause. Listen, if there is anything you need from me, just ask me”, he had said very supportively.
 
“There is actually something that I might need help with”, Rakesh had said.
 
“Anything, bro, anything. Just ask”, he had said, eager to help the person who had helped him all his college life.
 
“Do you have a matchbox”, Rakesh had said a sudden mischievous look appearing in his eyes as he stuck a cigarette between his lips
 
“If I had a matchbox, I would burn down the world”, he had said, grinning back as they ended the skype call.
 
He had never seen Rakesh after that, never heard from him, not a single contact, but he never forgot him. Never forgot his eyes.
 
And after 20 years he saw those eyes again.
 
In the front of him. The man shrivelled into a ball, his body charred, his face a mess of burns.
 
He went and stood in the front of the man, still staring into the familiar eyes.
 
The eyes lit up as they made contact with him. They recognised him.
 
The fire raging around them was reflected in those eyes as they looked deep into his own.
 
The eyes looked him up and down taking in the person standing in the front of him.
 

The eyes moved past the expensive shoes he was wearing, up his branded jeans till they rested on the firetorch in his hand for a brief moment before they swiftly moved to his face.

 
“I…..I…..”, he stuttered as he looked down, at the eyes looking at him through the half open scalded eyelids, not knowing what to say.
 
The eyes moved from the hand which held the firetorch to his hand which held the matchbox.
 
“Bro, do you have a matchbox”, asked the burnt man, as with great effort and pain he brought a cheap blackened cigarette out of his shirt pocket and stuck it between his singed lips.
 
He kept mum, at a complete loss of words as he outstretched his hand giving the matchbox to the scorched man sitting in the front of him.
 
The burnt man calmly raised his hand to hold the matchbox, holding his hand instead……
 
“You know, you were right”, said the burnt man tightening his grip on his hand for one last time, “You did burn down my whole world”
 
Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction. This story does not intend to offend the sentiments of any particular community. Feedback is always appreciated.

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