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A Smile from the past and other stories

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A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY

 

Ravi Kapur and Prem Surat had always been friends. Their friendship had dated from the day when Ravi, a somewhat tearful six-year-old, had upon his first day at school been befriended by the kind-hearted Prem, his senior by some five or six months.

No one ever quite understood what kept the two boys together, so unlike in looks, temperament and background. For Ravi, tall, fair and good-looking, was the only son of a rich father, while Prem, short, dark-skinned and plain was an orphan, who had been brought up somewhat grudgingly by an impecunious uncle. Of the two boys it was Prem who had the brains, however, and while Ravi went through life relying mainly upon his looks and personal charm, it was Prem who by intelligence and hard work made a better place for himself both at school and in college.

Now, at the age of twenty-five, the two young men were still as unalike as possible, but while Ravi with his smooth good looks and polished charm carried all before him, it was Prem with his plain face, large good-humoured mouth and stocky figure, who could always be depended upon, and who was ready at all times to help his friend, and upon many occasions to get him out of trouble.

It was inevitable, of course, that they should both have fallen in love with the same girl. Tara, the object of their affections, was the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, who desired to see his daughter not only well-educated but well married. With this end in view, he had sent her away to college, and it was upon her return that both young men fell ready victims to her charm. It was equally inevitable that the prize should be destined for Ravi, whose father had already made arrangements with the girl’s parents to betroth her to his handsome son.

What Prem felt about it nobody knew. He did not show his feelings easily, and if he felt anything at all, he kept it hidden in the secret places of his heart, and nobody, least of all Ravi, had any idea that there were times when Prem suffered almost intolerable yearnings which he knew all too well could never be fulfilled.

Strange to say, it was Tara who was in no hurry for marriage. Her life in college had given her a strong will and independent nature which made her father as dough in her hands. In answer to his oft-repeated suggestions that he should announce her engagement, she had always the same answer – “Not yet, father – next year will do.” And with this, he had to be content.

By this time Ravi was by way of looking after his father’s lands. In point of fact, he did not look after them very hard but left most of the work to the agent who had been working for his father for over forty-five years. So, letting the old man carry on, Ravi spent most of his time visiting friends and relations in the various nearby towns, and driving around the countryside in his high-powered sports car.

For Prem, however, there was little time for idleness. It was absolutely necessary that he should earn his living, but a fortunate scholarship had made it possible for him to take up the work upon which he had set his heart – that of becoming a doctor. He still spent his vacations in his old home town, and at such times, when not studying, most of his time was spent in the company of his old school friend, Ravi.

It was upon one of such occasions that Ravi proposed a visit to Salempur, a small town situated in the mountains some forty miles away. Salempur was fast becoming a tourist centre, and its rather showy new hotel, only opened recently, was one of the main attractions to Ravi. Prem, his mind quickly turning to the red sports car, looked dubious.

“Isn’t it a bit far? We should have started earlier if we are coming back the same day.”

“Far?” Ravi laughed scornfully. “Why, how else will we get there? Bullock cart or something?” Then as Prem did not reply but continued to look dubious he added. “You don’t seem to realise that my little bus has a cruising speed of about seventy-five miles an hour. I can get you there in forty minutes if you really want me to.”

Prem repressed a shudder and laughed.

“Please don’t! There’s no hurry as far as I’m concerned. You’ve probably forgotten that as it’s been raining for the last two days the roads are likely to be skiddy. I should prefer to get back all in one piece.”

“Don’t worry!” Ravi’s voice held a scornful note. “I’ll see that you don’t come to any harm!” and turning to a servant he gave orders for his car to be brought round to the front of the house.

Ten minutes later, the two friends were speeding out of town in the direction of the hills. If Prem was a trifle more silent than usual throughout the journey his companion did not notice, since he was one who was always more ready to talk than to listen. Listening to Ravi’s interminable stories in which he himself always featured as the hero, was becoming a little boring now to Prem, who knew most of them already almost by heart. His mind began to wander and he wondered if it had ever occurred to Ravi how, in accepting a lift, a passenger was putting his life so completely into the driver’s hands – those fair-skinned, shapely hands, now resting so lightly on the steering wheel. He glanced at his own, dark-skinned and square. They were certainly not things of beauty, but they were capable hands – the hands of a surgeon who would one day, he hoped, be using them in the service of humanity.

They arrived at Salempur safe and sound, but more due perhaps to good luck than to Ravi’s good driving. The hotel was crowded with visitors and Ravi had soon found friends amongst them. The afternoon wore on, and Prem, who was never much of a success at social gatherings, was soon bored to distraction, but it was not until long after dark and Ravi had completed his ninth drink that he allowed his friend to lead him away. To his surprise, however, he found that Prem was piloting him into the passenger’s seat.

“Here! Where are you pushing me?” he demanded irritably.

“I thought it might be a good thing if I drove for a change,” said Prem soothingly.

“You’ve had quite a number of drinks you know, and this little bus of yours is far too beautiful to smash up unnecessarily.”

But Ravi was not prepared to be amenable.

“Don’t talk nonsense,” he grunted thickly. “I’m not drunk, if that’s what you’re thinking, and what’s more I’ll prove it to you!” and so saying, he pushed Prem out of the way and got into the driver’s seat.

Prem, realizing that it was hopeless to argue with Ravi in his present state, got into the car beside him, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

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For some little time Ravi kept his promise. He had been stung at the suggestion that he was incapable of driving a car, and proceeded at what for him was quite an unusually slow rate of travel. But his gaiety of the evening was wearing off and reaction was setting in. He now had a headache and did not feel too well, and the whole had the effect of making him gloomy and morose.

“What’s the use,” he said glumly, “of wasting the whole of one’s life in one miserable district. Look at the Sharmas! They’ve just come back from England and America. They’ve seen the world! They know what life is really like!”

But Prem had not much sympathy for his friend’s present mood.

“Oh stop moaning!” he said rather tersely. “Haven’t you got all the things which most people would give their heads for? You’ve got money, good looks and a lovely girl waiting to be your bride! What more do you want? I tell you, I’d change my lot with yours this very moment if I could.”

So intent was he upon what he was saying, that like his companion, he had completely failed to see the enormous boulder which, dislodged by the recent rain, was now half filling the road only a few yards ahead. By the time they had both seen it, it was too late. Ravi applied the brakes, but the car skidded straight on, and the next moment there was a violent impact, and both young men were hurled straight through the wind-screen. Prem was only conscious of a violent blow on his chest and head, of falling – falling, falling – and then darknesss…….

When he first began to come round he had no recollection at all as to what had actually happened. There was a violent pain in his chest and head, and his body ached all over. For a while, he was content to lie with eyes shut, unable to make the effort of even thinking. Finally, he dozed off again, waking an hour or two later, however, this time with the vague recollection that he had been involved in an accident. Gradually, as further consciousness returned, the events leading up to the accident came back to him. He groaned as he tried to move and became conscious of a hand that was laid on his shoulder, and a voice that said, “Don’t try to move yet, my son.”

He opened his eyes. He was lying in Ravi’s room, in Ravi’s bed, and sitting beside him was none other than Ravi’s father. A terrible fear clutched his heart! Where was Ravi? If he was not there, then there could only be one answer. Ravi must be dead! His mind reeled under the shock, and he lapsed once again into unconsciousness.

When he opened his eyes next, he found himself alone. His glance wandered round the room, taking in each familiar object in turn …… Ravi’s coat, Ravi’s writing desk, Ravi’s cricket bat. And from the cricket bat his eyes fell upon his own hands lying on the coverlet. But no – they were not his hands at all. They were Ravi’s hands!

Prem’s mind was in a turmoil. Was he perhaps going mad? He did not dare look at his hands again, but kept his eyes averted, going over the whole situation again and again in his mind. After some little time, a nurse entered the room. He made a signal that he wanted something and she came to him.

“Can I get you something?” she asked.

“Yes, please.” Prem’s voice came with an effort in a husky whisper. “Could you please give me a mirror,” he asked.

The nurse smiled.

“You haven’t damaged your looks, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said, and went away, returning with a mirror.

He took it from her but did not look into immediately, not daring to do so until he was alone. The nurse had other things to think about, however, and after a few minutes left the room. Taking a deep breath, Prem grasped the mirror and raised it slowly with closed eyes. Then he opened them, and gazing into the mirror found Ravi’s face and Ravi’s eyes staring back at him.

Putting down the mirror, he lay for some time with eyes closed. What had happened? Was he really Ravi, and his recollections of himself as Prem, just a dream? No – he was certain that was not so. His memories carried him back too far for that. He knew that he was Prem whatever the mirror might tell him. Perhaps it was Ravi’s face which he had seen in it that had been the illusion. He picked up the mirror again, but no, this was no illusion – Ravi’s handsome face looked back at him as before. Then what had happened to Ravi – the real Ravi? He felt he could not rest until he knew.

A few minutes later, the nurse entered the room. Prem beckoned to her, and she came closer.

“Ravi,” he said in a strangled voice. “Ravi – where is he?”

The nurse looked puzzled.

“Now just you lie down and try to sleep,” she said soothingly. “You’ve had an accident, but you’re lying in your own bed at home and you’re going to be right again in no time, as long as you try to rest all you can and do as you’re told.”

At that moment, the door opened softly and Ravi’s father entered. The nurse turned to him.

“He’s regained consciousness,” she said. “But I don’t think he knows where he is yet. I’ve told him to lie still and sleep.”

But Prem had never felt less like sleeping in his life. He groaned, and Mr. Kapur went quickly over towards the bed.

“My poor boy! Are you in pain?” he murmured.

“No,” Prem answered, but it was Ravi’s voice speaking. Then with a sudden rush he went on, “But what has happened to – to Prem?”

“Ah, poor Prem! You mustn’t worry about him, my son. He’s got serious concussion and is still unconscious. The hospital authorities wouldn’t allow him to be moved, but he’s got a splendid doctor, and everything that is possible is being done for him.”

“Have you seen him?”

“Yes – but not today. Tara has gone over to the hospital – she insisted. She will be able to give you all the latest news.”

At the sound of Tara’s name, Prem’s heart beat faster. What complications now lay ahead! How could he ever tell Tara that he was not Ravi, and would she ever believe him if he did? He lay still with eyes closed, and thinking him to be asleep both Mr. Kapur and the nurse left the room.

A week later, Prem was up and dressed and allowed to walk about the house and garden, though go no further. Tara had only visited him once up to date, and had then not stayed long. Ravi had apparently not yet regained consciousness, and Tara was a daily visitor at the hospital. This fact was beginning to annoy her future father-in-law.

“I don’t approve of her going there so often,” he said irritably. “After all it is you she is going to marry – not Prem. You should speak to her about it, Ravi.”

Prem suppressed a smile.

“All right, father – but I really don’t see why you should mind. Prem has always been my best friend, and as I can’t go myself, she brings me news of him. After all she has always been very tender-hearted.

Ravi’s father looked at him doubtfully.

“But she doesn’t bring you news of him! That’s just what I am complaining about. She has only been here once since the accident. Do you think that is the sign of a tender heart?”

Prem laughed.

“But I’m almost well again now, father,” he said. “It’s poor old Prem who got the worse of the deal and needs someone to visit him.”

Mr. Kapur clicked his tongue irritably.

“Nonsense! There is no reason why she should neglect you. I will sent a peon round with a note and tell her that we expect a visit from her this afternoon.”

“All right, father,” Prem felt his heart leap, and tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. “She knows, of course that she is always very welcome.”

A few hours later, he and Tara were sitting side by side in long chairs on the terrace. Ravi’s father had been with them at the start, but now another visitor had claimed him and at last they were alone. Tara went straight to the point.

“Ravi,” she said, “your father seems to think that I haven’t been so see you often enough since the accident. Well, I think perhaps you are strong enough now to be told the truth, and I should like you to know it first. There was something about which I had been doubtful for a long time, but after the accident I hadn’t any doubts any more.”

She hesitated.

“Go on,” Prem encouraged her.

“Well, it’s just this,” she spoke hurriedly now. “I was never very sure if I wanted to marry you, Ravi, and now I know definitely. I’m afraid I can’t.”

Prem stared at her in genuine amazement.

“But – but why not?” he said at last.

“Because I’m modern enough to want to marry someone I’m fond of,” she replied.

“And you see I happen to love Prem,” she added softly.

“Prem!”

At the astonishment in his voice she turned on him swiftly.

“Yes – Prem!” she cried, almost fiercely. “And you needn’t start sneering at him and running him down as you always do! Do you think it hasn’t made me mad in the past to hear you being so friendly to his face, and then holding him up to ridicule behind his back? Do you think I don’t know why you like going about with him – just to show off your own good looks and good clothes beside his plain ones! You like to be known as that good-looking, wealthy young man, who is always so kind to his poor, dull little friend. Haven’t I heard you imply it again and again? What amazes me is that Prem, your faithful and loyal friend, Prem, is apparently the only one who doesn’t know!”

She paused for breath, while Prem stared at her incredulously with a pain in his heart which was almost unbearable. Was what she was saying really true? Was it possible that Ravi – his friend – on whose side he had fought so many a battle, was really like that? Had he really allowed himself to be deceived all these years by Ravi’s good looks and easy charm? The thought was painful beyond words, and he tried to shut it out of his mind. Through the turmoil in his mind he heard Tara continue.

“Did it ever occur to you, Ravi, that behind Prem’s rather plain face there is a mind and personality worth ten of yours? That he is unselfish and kind and loyal – all the things that you are not! Oh I know my parents think that you will make a marvellous match for me and that you are rich and good-looking – but those don’t happen to be the things I want. I want kindness, and understanding, and someone I can trust. And if I’ve got to marry – then I want Prem!”

She rose to her feet.

“I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you Ravi, but it was something I had to tell you. I’m glad you’ve made such a good recovery. I’ll get my father to write to yours, and I shall not be coming again.”

The next moment she had gone, and Prem was left in a state of dazed bewilderment, her last words repeating themselves again and again in his head – “I want Prem!” The words were music to his ears, but under present conditions what could he do about it?

Distractedly, he paced the terrace. How could he ever tell her the true state of affairs, and what likelihood was there of her believing him? He decided to try and put down his thoughts on paper. He might even try to compose a letter to her. Going up to Ravi’s room, he rummaged in one of the drawers for a pencil and pad. In doing so, he came across an unopened letter addressed to himself care of Ravi. The postmark was of the day before the accident, and evidently Ravi had taken in the letter when it came and had forgotten to give it to him.

Slitting open the envelope, he quickly surveyed the contents. The writer proved to be Vinod Menon, a one-time fellow medical student, but senior to Prem. He had passed out the year before and was now a fully qualified psychologist. He and Prem had struck up a friendship during their time together, and they had found that they had much in common. “I shall be passing your way towards the end of the month,” the letter said. “Herewith my telephone number, and do give me a ring if you have any time to spare.”

Prem glanced at the calendar which told him that the date was the 29th, and without more ado went straight to the telephone. It was a matter of minutes before he was talking to his friend.

“What’s the matter with your voice?” Vinod asked him. “You don’t sound at all like yourself”.

“Listen!” Prem said urgently. “I can explain everything if you will only promise to believe me. You’ve come at just the right moment, and I believe you are the one person who can help me. Can you come over right away?”

“Yes. But where to?”

Prem gave him the necessary directions.

“But when you arrive, don’t ask for me. Ask for Ravi Kapur”. he said.

Half an hour later, a servant ushered Vinod Menon into the room.

“I’ve just come to see Prem Surat – ” he began.

Prem waved him into a chair.

“There’s something I’ve got to tell you about him,” he said. “When I’ve finished you’ll know where to find him – that is, always assuming you believe me.”

The other stared at him, puzzled, but sat back in his chair and prepared to listen. Prem recited the entire story, then anxiously surveyed his friend’s face for signs of disbelief.

“Do you believe me?” he said. “I’ve always remembered that you believe in lots of things that other people don’t. That’s why I asked you to come.”

Vinod smiled reassuringly.

“As a humble student of psychology, para-psychology, and many other ‘ologies’,” he said, “I’m becoming open-minded enough to believe that all things are possible. Yes, Prem. Oddly enough I believe that you are telling the truth.”

Prem heaved a sign of relief.

“Then what can I do about it?” he said. “How can I get out of this body of Ravi’s, and get back to my own?”

“I think it may be possible,” the other said slowly, “but of course it involves a risk. I suppose you realise that if you go back to your own body you may only do so in order to die, or that alternatively you may remain a cripple for life?”

“Yes, yes – I realise all that!” Prem assured him eagerly. “But I’m willing to take the risk. In any case if my body is going to die then I ought to be the one inside it,” he added.

“Logically I suppose that is correct, but I wonder if the shoe were on the other foot, whether your friend would agree with you!”

“Of course he would,” Prem assured him impatiently. “You said you thought that something could be done. Can’t we get on with it straight away?”

“Certainly, if you wish. It involves nothing more complicated than my putting you into a hypnotic trance. I’ve hypnotised you before so that won’t be difficult. I will then put the post suggestion into your mind that when you wake up in so many hours from now, you will find yourself in your own body. I shall have to do the same with your friend Ravi in the hospital, of course.”

“But will he hear you if he is unconscious?”

“The subconscious mind is never unconscious, you should know that. It is the subconscious mind to which the hypnotist gives his orders.”

“Oh yes, of course!” Then will you go straight away to the hospital from here?”

“No. It might be a bit late tonight, but I’ll go there the first thing in the morning. I know one of the doctors there, and I know he will allow me to see the patient.”

“Then when will you hypnotise me?”

“Right away if you like.”

“You’ll have to synchronise us pretty carefully, won’t you? I mean it wouldn’t do if we both started waking up in the same body, or something!”

Vinod laughed. “Don’t worry about that. You say what time you want to wake up in your old body, and I’ll arrange everything accordingly.”

Prem considered for a few minutes in silence.

“If I’m really going to wake up as myself, then I’d like to wake up at four-fifteen, please.”

“You’re very precise! Well there’ll be no need for you to sleep all the time until then. I’ll just put you under now and then suggest that you go to bed tomorrow afternoon at about three p.m., when you will quickly fall asleep, and wake at four-fifteen to find yourself where you want to be.”

“That will do fine! Oh God!” his voice shook with intensity. “Do you think it will really work, Vinod?”

“If I didn’t think it might I wouldn’t take it on,” the other assured him seriously. “Now hop onto that bed, and let me get on with the business.”

The big hospital clock chimed four o’clock, and simultaneously the gates opened and a stream of visitors poured in. Amongst them, Tara, looking very slim and anxious in her white sari, made straight for the lift, and getting out on the third floor, walked quickly to the male surgical ward. She was familiar with most of the nurses by this time, and one of them in answer to her unspoken query answered, “He’s still just the same, I’m afraid.”

Silently, Tara made her way over to the bed and stood looking down at the motionless figure, the plain face with it’s kind, good-natured mouth, and the eyes, now shut, but at other times so full of sympathy and understanding. Slipping onto the chair beside the bed, she sat watching him. How was it that anyone could possibly have thought him ugly, she wondered, and her heart flamed with anger as she thought of the way Ravi had so often scornfully held him up to ridicule. Dear, kind Prem – would he ever speak again, she wondered, and if so what would he say to her?

Two large tears formed in her eyes and trickled unheeded down her cheeks as she thought of life ahead without him. Her mind travelled on through the vista of years, seeing herself always alone, for if she could not have Prem, then she would never marry anyone. But Prem was unconscious and did not know – perhaps would never know – her great love for him.

She gave a little sob, and as she did so the figure on the bed stirred. Looking back on it afterwards she always remembered that at that moment the hospital clock struck the first quarter. The next minute, with a flickering of the lids, Prem opened his eyes to look straight into hers. Tara held her breath, and for a moment time stood still.

Then – “Hello, darling!” Prem said softly, “I’ve just come back because I knew you’d be here!”

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