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Friendship is their religion. Each is a god to the other. They laughed heartily often. They cried together, too. In falling and rising together the divinity of their bonding deepened. They lived in the same locality. Went to the same school. Sat on the same bench. Played on the same team. Cheered for the same values.

Like all friends given to drinking, they, too, discovered a lot about each other over drinks.

"It is amazing how drinking unbottles the mind." Christie had remarked the third time they were drinking since starting at age 27.

"You said it." Rajeev had agreed with gusto.

They smoked a cigarette or two furtively a week when in high school. As adults now, the pleasure of furtive smoking was no longer to be had. They bemoaned it.

In their locality lived a girl, loved by all. Nancy. Fair, beautiful, and lissome. Quiet naive, too. Her heart couldn't get any tender. Her voice couldn't get any sweeter. Her dad passed away when she was just 2. Her mother, a strict middle-school teacher, lavished her with everything she wished for. Her strictness was confined to school. It didn't even peek into their house. Nancy, her only child, was a peer to Christie and Rajeev.

Christie works as a senior manager at a premier PSU bank. Rajeev was the area sales manager of a consumer electronics company; now running his family's mini departmental store following his dad's death.

Nancy married Christie, a gentle soul. They had known each other for very long. She is a devout Christian. He, a nominal one. Together, a divine pair. She knitted wonderful sweaters for babies and sold them at sweet prices. She was knitting the life of her dreams together with 'Christie dear' when a brain hemorrhage ended her life.

Knitting sweaters was her idea of raising money for a care home for street kids. The idea of the home was Christie's.

In his childhood, orphaned beggar kids in the neighborhood got Christie envious. He wished intensely to have their life. They didn't go to school. They played whenever and wherever. While he and his kind dealt with the drudgery of studies, the street kids learned enough and more about life. They got accustomed to numerous hardships. Christie and his friends were terrified to even of the word 'hardship'.

It was only much later in his teen years that he wondered where they sheltered themselves in the cold night, in the pouring rain, and the blazing sun. Some grew to be adults. Others died of eminently curable illnesses. They begged for basic needs. In our pursuit of a bigger and bigger materialistic life we have become stone deaf to life begging us to look a little beyond ourselves, Christie thought.

Rajeev always feared losing people he loved. He was in love with bachelorhood. With the death of Nancy, a sister he didn't have, he promptly married it.

Nancy's final departure shattered Christie. Rajeev became a bigger emotional cushion to him. Their friendship grew deeper. Christie added another friend to his life: the bottle. They were having the odd drink before. But turning tipplers happened fast.

A bar in the locality - perhaps as old as the locality - was on the main road. Started by Subbaraman Chettiar, it was often crowded with people drinking, seated, and standing. One had to fight off thick clouds of cigarette smoke to find a table or a waiting friend.

The bar, within some months of its inception, became popular as 'Winner's Bar' with a local football team celebrating a league win there. The name soon became formal as Chettiar was pleased with it as punch. It soon thereafter graced the gate-post of his home as an inscription on a striking gold-plated tablet.

A dark, short, and rotund man, Chettiar walked like a duck. His face was always grim. He was a flourishing food grain merchant - a supplier to a great number of groceries in the town. He, though indirectly, deprived many homes of the things he dealt in with the men from them spending excessively and regularly at his bars. He had eight. Three of 3-star status.

Chettiar never drank nor smoked. He was rumored to be a womanizer. His first two sons are also teetotallers. The third - and the last - drank to death. Chettiar had a mountain of money but not even a molehill of time to enjoy what they yielded.

Heath-conscious Chettiar died on his habitual morning walk in a park. No, not of a heart attack. He was stabbed multiple times in the chest, stomach, neck, and back. A blood-curdling sight. He had lain in a thick pool of blood. His mouth and eyes are wide open. The mouth that was tightly shut to even a drop of liquor. The gruesome murder was niftily executed by 3 masked henchmen of a fugitive local don. And when it happened the chatter, laughter, and huffing and puffing in the park abruptly stopped as if a radio had been turned off.

Chettiar's underworld links came to the fore. The town buzzed with it for several days. He was condemned to be remembered for how he died. The envy people had for him on his wealth also died. For some days following the sensational killing, the tipplers at his bar experienced the special kick of drinking at a don's bar.

His palatial home facing the park appeared to stand over his body like a triumphant boxer. It seemed to say, "You didn't win me fairly."

As 9th graders passing by Winner's Bar one day, Christie and Rajeev saw two men wobbling out of it, spewing abuses at god-knows-who.

"Disgusting! This is why I hate drinkers." Rajeev grimaced when he said it.

"Perhaps they are wallowing in some misery." Christie's view was true to his very sympathetic self.

30 years later they are at the same bar, adding to the countless visits to it.

A two-seater table in a corner of the first floor of the bar is their fixed choice. It is quite an outlier and afforded some privacy. On the table stood a quarter-emptied full bottle of whiskey. It stood imperiously. It had every reason to as it dictated talk and walk.

The night was getting deeper.
"OK, tell me why did you decide to stop drinking?" Rajeev is eager to know.

Christie is more eager to answer.
"You know, Rajeev...yesterday, well past midnight, Nancy came in my dream. ‘ Christie dear, when are you stopping drinking?' That was it, and she simply vanished. She sounded much sweeter than I had known, and I decided to quit drinking after having my last session with you."

"Great! I'm sure you will keep to your resolution and live a very long life."

"No, Rajeev, not a very long life. She will be too old in heaven by then and her eyesight will betray her in recognizing me."

Christie didn't need to ask if Rajeev, too, will quit drinking. He knew he will.

"But Rajeev, we got to spend just one year as a couple and she was gone forever suddenly. Just one year, Rajeev...think of it. How cruel!" Christie's sorrow and anger met. "And then she comes just for a fleeting moment in my dream after 14 years!" Christie is now tearful.

"Worry not, Christie. She will come every night hereon. And spend enough time with you."

"Every night?" Christie is elated. "She will come every night and overwhelm me with kisses?"

"Yes, Christie, she will."

Repeat 'every night' Rajeev, I'm getting high."

"Every night."

"Once more, Rajeev."

"Every night. Every night. Every night."

Rajeev suddenly wonders how he said it with such certainty. Maybe it was the drink, he thought. Anyway, he always loved to see his Christie thrilled.

Excited Christie opens the cigarette packet on the table. It is empty. The eighth pack smoked.

"Shiva..." he calls out to the waiter.

Shivan swiftly goes to the table.

"2 more cigarette packs."

"Sir, the errand boy just began his dinner. Would you mind waiting 10 minutes, or...?"

"Oh, don't disturb the boy. I will get it myself. And before I forget to tell you, today is my last day of drinking. You won't see me here anymore."

"Oh...OK. We will all miss you."

"Please remind me to see the boy when giving us the bill. I want to give him a few thousand. The world owes him that and a lot more. The cruel world!"

"OK, sir...surely."

Christe gets up from his seat, strokes drowsing Rajeevan's hair, and staggers away from the table.

He descends the steps to the ground floor carefully. Outside the bar, and immediately by its side, is a kiosk selling cigarettes and pan beedi. It is Rahim who had worked for 2 years at Rajeev's departmental store.

"Your brand just ran out of stock, Christie bro. Want to try any other?"

"No, Rahim...no. Today is my last day....(hiccup)…(hiccup)…"

"Your last day?" Rahim is startled.

"I was trying to say today is my last day of drinking. And so I want to mark the occasion with the cigarette brand...(hiccup)… I have always been loyal. I will get across the road and...(hiccup)… get them."

Rajeev is still drowsing in the bar. The bottle only has a peg or two left. The time is 23 hrs.

Shivan, tensed, gently shakes him by the shoulder. Rajeev turns unsteadily to him.

"Sir, Christie..."

“Oh, he fell? Don't worry. I will lift him and bring him up here. Even if he were 1000 kilos I will lift him with the strength of my love."

"No, sir...Christie went up."

Nervous Shivan simply can't bring himself to say 'died'.

"Went up? When did you open the 2nd floor? We didn't know it."

“Sir, I mean he got k-k-k-killed when a car knocked him down while crossing the road."

Rajeev's red eyes roll up slowly. He falls forward in a faint, his forehead knocking on the table.

Shivan slowly moves away tearfully.

There is no one else in the Winner's Bar. All have left. One, forever, on being won by heaven.

In a small dingy room beside the toilet of the bar, the 12-year-old errand boy is sleeping on a grimy gunny bag amid stacks and stacks of cartons of bottles. The cushion of a few thousand rupees that was to come to him from Christie won't come at all. Another hard day is coming to his tender body. His curled-up self revealed a fear of it.

The night held a mystery in the sky. There were two things close together in it, shining on and off. They seemed playful.

Rajeev tearfully watches the celestial wonder from atop his house.

"Christie and Nancy."

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