after eleven years

As the bus gathered speed and sped into the long, dark highway, I sat quiet, lost in melancholy thoughts. I was leaving for 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. Sadness kept me from falling asleep, despite a rather tiring day of tear-filled farewells. Lines from popular farewell songs kept popping up in my head. Time sped by as I sat in the bus alone, lost to the world around me. Reliving sweet memories of places and faces held dear, I felt my eyes moisten up.

After a while, the bus came to a halt and my mind snapped back to the present. The bus had stopped for dinner, and the driver was yelling at us to be back in half an hour. I got out of the bus and looked around. It was the same “drive-in” restaurant that they always stoped at. I walked in, occupied an empty table and placed my usual order. While waiting for the food, I scanned the room for familiar faces. A quiet face sitting alone at a table at the other end of the room caught my attention. I racked my brains trying to figure out why he looked so familiar. Was it someone I’d met in college? Or a distant relative whose name I had forgotten? With a start, I recognized him. The memories flooded in – painful memories. It was Alagappa. A name that I had not been able to forget even after all these years.

It was eleven years ago. I was quite young, and had just gotten back to school from summer vacation. That year, I had switched from commuting in the school bus, to a private mini-bus service. On the first day back, a strange-looking guy comes up to me and starts talking to me like he knows me. Bewildered and a little scared, 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. The rest of the day, I walked around disturbed by the memories of this incident. Who was this guy and why did he behave like that? After a while, it came to me in a jolt. I had met him a month before the summer vacation. He was in the school bus with me, and within 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 in those two months, I had forgotten a dear friend.

The very thought of it made me sick, and suddenly it was quite obvious why he looked so hurt. 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 up to him and apologise. 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 giggled, till the principal’s stern voice quitened them. Trembling and clearly nervous, Alagappa came to the mike and in a shaking voice recited the poem. After the poem was done, Alagappa quickly stepped away from the mike. No one shows any signs of appreciation, and soon Alagappa and his poem were forgotten. After a while, I stopped seeing him around the campus. On enquiry, I found out that he had transferred to another school. None of us 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 snubbing someone who held me dear, haunts me to this day. My young age was hardly an excuse. Ultimately, the emotional damage must have been considerable. Now, providence has given me another chance to make it right. Here he was, sitting in the same room as I was. He noticed me looking at him, but obviously he didn’t recognize me. He still looked quite the same. 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 where to start. Before I could figure out where to start, I had reached his table. He looked 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 else?’. I shake my head, mumble a ‘Sorry’, and walk back to my seat quickly. Was I wrong? The face was exactly how I remembered. Was it someone who looked like him? 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?

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 looked around but saw no sign of him. I got up and ran outside but he was long gone. I asked the man at the counter. Annoyed, he replied that someone matching the description left a short while ago. I walked back to my table, only to be reminded by the impatient blowing of the bus horn, that my thirty minutes were up. Quickly washing my hands, I boarded the bus. As the bus pulled away from the restaurant, I looked once more at place where I had seen him, hoping that somehow, magically, he would have return to accept my apology. But the seat remained empty.