In the sixth grade, I sat behind Rajiv Nandy in math and in front of him in english. Science elevated us to the status of lab partners, I on the left, he on the right, an unfortunate microscope betwixt us. At lunch and during recess, owing to a recently acquired and acute awareness of the female sex, our positioning varied. A confederate seated at the opposite side of the lunch table–those sheets of wood spanning the width of the entire room–could convey, through careful use of predetermined signals, the whereabouts, manner of dress, and general demeanor of one’s object of interest. In Geography we were inseparable; likewise in art. It was in history alone that the teacher, a really handsome chap whom everyone under the age of 15 tried to imitate, had the presence of mind and the force of will to assign to rajiv,his favourite student, a chair in the easily-observed front row and to myself that legendary Himalayan Academy island of exile, the desk banished to the far corner of the room.
This history teacher had a fondness for stories. He told his first–not so much a story as a myth, for although he exhibited no appreciation for the difference, I do.
Damon and Pythias, who by no means formed any part of our history syllabus, were two Greeks. When they lived is strictly an aside; how they made that living, hardly relevant. Of course, there’s nothing mythical about two Greeks. The myth, the part that’s difficult to swallow even for a collection of schoolchildren, among which only a depressing minority,who’ve just gleefully seized upon the meaning of the word ‘gullibility,’ is their friendship.
Loyalty has always made for a good story. There are the friendships that persist in the face of war and upheaval–in the face, even, of conflicting romantic interests. There are the pets that journey miles on end for nothing more than the opportunity to be held once again in their owner’s loving arms. All for…
Returning to our myth, the friends’ wanderings lead them to (with a little help from wikipedia) Syracuse, where Pythias has the misfortune of being sentenced to death for plotting the overthrow of the region’s tyrant, Dionysius. Pythias pleads, implores that he be allowed one last opportunity to return home so that he might set his affairs in order and, one supposes, kiss his wife goodbye. Dionysius, like any good tyrant, refuses. Damon, like any exceptional friend, proposes that until Pythias’ return he be held in his friend’s stead.
Most people (a group on whose behalf I realize I’m not entirely qualified to speak) have confided in loyalty. Usually when they’re young, while the idea of taking the fall for a friend still holds the promise of reciprocal grand gestures, enduring bonds, and perhaps immortalization in song. Then the moment’s passed–they’ve taken the fall for that friend and received for their elevated aspirations at best a little nod here and a muttered ‘thanks’ there.
The problem with loyalty is that it allows for so few witnesses. Nobody’s ever there to be moved by…whatever it is you’ve given up, at enormous cost to yourself, for the sake of a friendship. Instead, someone who by-chance happens to catch sight of your brave and noble sacrifice is much more likely to think–should they reflect on it at all–‘Gosh, I’m glad it isn’t me engaging in that idiocy.’
The fateful day arrives with no sign of Pythias. With typical tyrannical zeal, Dionysius is ready and eager to execute Damon when, at the last possible instant, dirty, worn and so exhausted he can barely breathe, the good friend reaches the shores of Syracuse. You can imagine the scene for added effect.
Damon, on the other hand, is not surprised. He’d known, you see, that Pythias would return. He’d known because his friend had promised.
As the tale goes, Dionysus was sufficiently stirred by the two friends’ devotion to make them his two chief advisors, and perhaps that’s where things qualify into the realm of the mythical. Who is Dionysius, a tyrant, to recognize loyalty, much less reward it? He would undoubtedly have been better served to appoint two shrewd politicians–as opposed to two committed and frankly rather dim young men–to such an important post. Certainly such a gross error in judgment could never never in this day and age, when the accumulated wisdom of centuries has allowed us to see loyalty (other than brand loyalty, of course) for what it truly is: willful blindness to the realities of the world.
There’s a reason that, in those detective stories, at the end of it all our hero is left at his kitchen table pouring two cups of coffee and lighting two cigarettes, one for himself and one for the friend who isn’t there.
Sometimes, though, I like to think there’s a reason that out of everything my teacher knew of human history, out of a near-endless selection of heroism, intrigue, tragedy and valour, he chose to begin with the Greeks.
I felt betrayed.