As the bus gathered speed and sped into the long, dark highway, I sat quiet, lost in disturbing thoughts. I was leaving home from college for the last time. Four years of fun filled days spent in the company of loving friends has come to an end and travelling back alone almost felt symbolic. My uneasiness kept me from falling asleep despite a tiring day of tear-filled farewells. Lines from a popular farewell song kept coming up in my thoughts and I kept pushing them back. Time sped by as I sat lost to the world around me. Memories of places and faces flashed by in front of my eyes and I felt my eyes moisten up.
The bus came to a halt and my mind snapped back to the present. The driver was yelling at us to be back in half an hour. I get out of the bus and look around. It’s the same “drive-in” restaurant they always stop at. With a deep sigh, I walk in, occupy an empty table and place my order. While waiting for the food, I scan the room for familiar faces. A quiet face sitting alone at a table at the other end of the room catches my attention. I rack my brains trying to figure out why he looks so familiar. Was it someone I’ve met in college? Or some distant relative whose name has slipped my mind? Suddenly, with a start, I recognize him. The memories start flooding in – painful memories. Alagappa. A name that I have not been able to forget for so many years.
It was eleven years ago. I had just come back from summer vacation and all geared up for the academic year. That year I had shifted from the school bus to a private tempo service. One day, this strange looking guy comes up to me and starts talking to me like he knows me. Bewildered, I ask him who he is and when he reaches out to touch my arm, I panic and push him away. With a hurt look on his face, he walks away. For several days after that, I was disturbed by the memories of this incident. Who was this guy and why did he behave like that? After a while, I figure out how he knows me and the realization startles me. I had met him a month before the summer vacation. He was in the school bus with me and with a couple of days, we had become good friends. He was a year senior to me and he loved me like his brother. I too liked him and we used to go home together. Then came the two month long summer vacation and over these two months, I had forgotten a dear friend.
The very thought of it made me sick and suddenly the reason for the hurt in his face became apparent. I had forgotten him but he hadn’t forgotten me. His face kept haunting me ever since, but I, somehow, lacked the courage to go out and make up with him. A few weeks later, during the morning assembly, the principal announced that Alagappa would be reciting a poem that day. Hearing the unusual name, many of the students giggle, till the principal’s stern voice quitens them. Trembling and clearly nervous, Alagappa comes to the mike and in a shaking voice recites the poem. After the poem was done, Alagappa quickly steps away from the mike. No one shows any signs of appreciation and soon Alagappa and his poem are forgotten. Soon I stop seeing him around the campus. On enquiring I find out that he had transferred to another school. And no one knew why. Was he unable to adjust to the school and the people here? Or did his parents have to move somewhere and he had to leave too? I guess I will never know.
The guilt of treating a friend the way I did, of jilting someone who had loved me, haunts me to this day. And now, Providence has given me another chance. Another chance to quiet the ghosts that haunt me. Here he was, sitting in the same room as I was. He had noticed me looking at him but obviously hadn’t recognized me. With trembling hands, I stand up and slowly approach him. I knew I wanted to apologize to him for how I treated him but I had no idea how to start. Even before I could figure out where to start, I ran out of time as I had reached his table. He looks at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I ask, ‘Alagappa?’. For a moment he is silent. Then he says, ‘No. Maybe you have mistaken me for someone you know?’. I shake my head and walk back to my seat quickly. Was I wrong? The face was exactly how I remembered. Was it a look-alike? Or was that really the Alagappa I knew? If so, why did he deny it? Had he recognized me and pretended to be someone else? Or had he changed his name for ‘Alagappa’ had evoked much ridicule, and had decided to let go of the past?
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the food. I slowly chew on my food, hardly enjoying it. I look up to see his face again, and it’s gone. He was gone. I look around but see no sign of him. I get and run outside but there was no one there. I ask the man at the counter and he remembers someone matching the description leaving a short while ago. I walk back in, only to be reminded by the impatient blowing of the bus horn, that my thirty minutes were up. Quickly washing my hands, I board the bus. As the bus pulls away from the restaurant, I look once more at place where I had seen him, hoping that somehow, magically, he would return. But the seat remained empty.