Sylvester, an ode to friendship

Sylvester, an ode to friendship

On a dull morning in early 2006, I noticed a bunch of my seniors cracking-up in a corner of my college. The group, all boys, seemed to be ragging on one another while discussing girls. In the middle of all of them was a guy wearing a crocheted rasta cap, with a smug smile and a guitar on his lap. He started to strum and sing playfully as a group of girls walked past them. I looked away immediately. The energy and confidence was too positive for me to handle.

That is how I remember seeing Sylvester for the first time.

I’m certain Sylvester didn’t know of my existence. I was a timid and gawky eighteen year old, trying not to be too visible. I was fascinated by the guitar and Sylvester’s ability to play it. Even though Sylvester was only a year older to me, he looked like he was twenty five and I looked like I was twelve. He was in the fourth year of college and I had just joined.

Shortly after, students from my college went on a strike. It was politics masquerading as ‘disgruntled students protesting’. The senior students had instructed all juniors to not attend any classes and this saga went on for nearly a month. So everyone just hung out in the canteen.

The college band set up speakers and mics in the canteen and put up a show. I looked on amazed. It was no surprise that Sylvester was the frontman—doing all the strumming, singing and holding forth. His confidence was inspiring and intimidating.

A friend shoved me to the front when Sylvester announced—“Guys, the floor is now open to discover new talent in our college!” (or some rubbish like that). I nervously walked up to the mic and tried to ask Sylvester which key he would be playing the song in. He was oblivious and engrossed in talking to the crowd. Just as I thought ‘well, this guy…’, he turned to me and played the chord to signal the key.

He played the intro and as I started singing, he turned fully in my direction, seemingly surprised. I don’t think he expected me to sing in key even; that's how full of himself he was. He was impressed, though.

This was our first performance. And a moment that went on to define my college years and beyond.

Within a few days, Sylvester learnt that I play the keyboard. He said to me, “Bro, I am looking to have a keyboardist join my band. Let me come over and check out your playing.” He would later go on to admit that he was only interested in seeing my full size digital piano with weighted keys.

He came over with a friend and the band’s vocalist. I was nervous as hell. It was an audition. He watched me play. He approved; and I will never forget how—“Sumeru, I don’t care about talent or skills. All I care about… is trust. Welcome aboard.” and he put his hand out for a gentleman’s handshake. It was the most dramatic behaviour accompanied with a bullshit line, coming out of the mouth of a nineteen year old. I agreed wholeheartedly and shook his hand in all sincerity.

I got into the band. And thus began a friendship that has lasted for the past fifteen years.

Sylvester loved (still does) nothing more than jamming and getting up on stage, in front of an audience. None of us in the band matched his zest to perform. When I got into the band the only ‘English music’ I had ever heard was ‘The Red Album’ by Beatles, incidentally just a few months prior to joining the band. And now I was walking into the company of a guy who swore by the blues, Clapton, Hendrix and all of 70s classic rock. I had no clue who all these artists were. I had never heard any of this music before. I learnt about them all for the first time from him.

I was most fascinated by his guitar playing. I would watch his playing intently, go back home, practice the song and try to play just like him. And I did end up learning to play some of the songs, exactly like him—resting my pinky on the soundboard as I plucked. Like, the way I learnt to play Kathy’s song after watching Sylvester work at it for a while. When he heard me play, he was in the middle of a conversation with some 'fans', he stopped midway and turned to me to say "Dude that sounds amazing. Your playing is really improving man." Coming from him, that meant everything to me.

He didn’t hold back when he wanted to say something nice to someone. I don’t think he ever has.

Our bond was really starting to form around music, nothing mattered as much to us. Not the applause, not the winning/losing of competitions, not the attention from peers and family. We just cared about music so deeply; we fed off of each other’s love for it, as we explored our own musical selves. He is the only person I have ever shared this bond with.

Oddly enough, we have never been able to write songs together. Sylvester wrote music without a care in the world. He wrote what he liked. I, on the other hand, was an overcritical, over-thinker who would slash every single idea that came up in the jam room, if it didn't feel 'wow' to me. I suffered from perfectionism—so despite our innumerable attempts, we could never come up with any new material. So we only performed songs that had been written until then.

We performed in hundreds of shows and our bond started to grow beyond music.

Sylvester was the songwriter, the manager, the sound engineer and more for the band. He got all the gigs. And we split the money equally for every single show.

Once, he and I got the opportunity to play every evening at an upscale restaurant for a total fee of Rs 40,000/-. This was in 2007 and a whopping sum to earn for two twenty year olds. Sylvester called me excitedly—“they’re paying 40 thousand per month man!” We both couldn’t believe it. He then proceeded to say, “and hey, since I got this gig, I am going to keep some extra money and we won’t be splitting it in half.” We had never had such talk. I was shocked at his perfectly reasonable suggestion. I aggressively argued with him, asking him ‘should I make more money for our Hindi shows since you don’t sing Hindi? Who are you to pay me dude?!’

I think I feared that something would change between us, if money was brought in; and I don’t think Sylvester wanted that either. He had a chat with his then girlfriend and we decided to meet. When he saw me he said—“I’m sorry man, I got greedy there for a bit. Of course we are going to split this.” We hugged and made up. My sentiment was conveyed. It never took any more explaining.

It’s a completely different story that we turned up late every evening to the said gig and got fired after twelve days—idealistic twenty somethings, where neither money mattered nor punctuality, all that mattered was friendship and brotherhood.

I think he and I continue to be idealistic, even when everyone around us have become ‘practical’ or ‘responsible’ or simply moved on in life.

Throughout college and thereafter, Sylvester was the life of any party. He was the leader of our friend group for as long as the group existed. Everyone spoke to him when he was around and about him when he wasn’t. It had a lot to do with how easy going and big hearted he was. He laughed along every time someone made fun of him and ignored if someone got vicious in the process. It’s not that he didn’t notice the viciousness but he always kept his grace.

Of all the things we did, our debauched drinking and smoking through college years probably takes the cake. We weren’t alcoholics, but Sylvester and I drank and smoked the most amongst all the circles we frequented—not something to be proud of or not something to be ashamed of, either. It was just the way it was. We were never particular about the setting—no fancy restaurants or pubs. We just cared to have a conversation in any cheap watering hole, where we spoke endlessly about our passions and why the fuck we were not doing anything about it. We drank in dingy bars, and sat on footpaths, drinking till 2 am, hiding from the cops. And man did we smoke! We smoked cigarette after cigarette, as we bitched about the whole world and sought comfort in each other’s company. Our artistic angst was spot on—upset with the world for how it is treating creative people—even if we were lacking in our will to take action. Today, it is a miracle that he has finally quit smoking, as have I.

To say that I love Sylvester and care for him deeply, is an understatement. I am grateful for his friendship. My life would have been poorer without him and his endless ability to be warm and kind.

There are very few things that are meant to last a lifetime, a friend like Sylvester is one of them.

Even though this article reads like an epitaph, Sylvester is very much alive and kicking. He turned 35 on 13th April.

It’s only fitting that I end this article with the text I sent him, which wasn't as over-sentimental as this blog post—

‘Happy birthday fuckface.’