Turning the pages of the big blue photo album, my mom spoke about your mom.
“Remember Sumithra, my roommate at college?”
From the album, she showed me a photograph of your mom, whose edges had soiled in the course of time. In the photo, your mom and my mom were sitting on a stone bench in front of a fountain in a garden full of red roses. Your mom looked beautiful in the blue saree whose end was draped around her clavicles, just as one wound wrap a shawl around one’s shoulders. The photo was taken during the college trip to Ooty five years before I and you were born.
I remember your mom vividly. She had gifted me a stuffed white rabbit (which I named Loonie) for my second birthday that played a tune if a key at its throat was turned – a toy which remained my favorite till it lost its fur after I gave it a bath in the shower. I loved her because, as a pediatrician, she only gave me sweet round pills (that came in a small white bottle) for every illness and never bitter ones like the doctor at my neighborhood. Unlike my mother, she used to wear a red dot of saffron on her forehead between the parting of her hair and sandal paste above her bindi. I, as a child, loved her for everything she did, even for the perfume she used and sarees she wore. I was five years old then.
Afterwards, your family shifted from Calicut to Thrissur. My family arranged a party for yours the day before you planned to leave Calicut. You were left with me in my room while our families dined upstairs. I gave you my building block set and yellow tricycle to play, just because my mom had instructed me to do so. You created a tall castle with the blocks, and rode around the room on the tricycle, blowing the horn everytime you crossed my chair. You said you had video games at home, a thing I hadn’t heard of. You refused to play with my dolls, saying that it is girly stuff. You flied my toy aeroplane using its remote control, and told me that you will grow up to become an aeroplane-driver. Your name was Arun.
Afterwards, you were called upstairs for food. You refused to eat the fried rice my mom had painstakingly made and settled for a bowl of icecream. Afterwards, you fell asleep on the sofa and you were lifted to the backseat of your dad’s car and you were driven home. That was the last time we met, apart from meeting each other after 14 years, at Ooty, as classmates.
After moving from Calicut, we seldom spoke of you. Both the families shrinked more into themselves that by the time I joined college, you were entirely forgotten.
One morning, your mom called up my mom on phone to convey the news that you were joining Calicut Medical college. I was about to join the same college, too. The phone call from your mom after a long time lifted up my mom’s spirit greatly so that she kept talking about Sumithra all the day and showed me your mom’s photo in the album.
As I turned the pages of the album, I looked for your photo, anticipating that at least one would be there. There weren’t any. Your form had long vanished from my memory, and remembering you wouldn’t help me much because you would have changed a lot over years.
After my first day at college, mom asked me whether I had met you. I said no because in my batch there were six people whose name was Arun. She asked me to look out for Arun Prayag, so I carefully watched while your name was called out when attendance was called out so as to see you.
And I saw. You had bushy eyebrows like your dad and almond eyes like your mom. You weren’t very tall, but you looked attractive in the black rimmed spectacles, black shirt, blue jeans and white sports shoes you had worn. I hadn’t expected you to be this handsome.
In the coming days, I saw more of you. You used to reach the lecture hall first, ahead of everyone. Sometimes, I used to reach first, but I would wait in the corridor outside the hall for you to collect the key and open the door of the hall. We would enter together. Although our eyes would meet, you never seemed to acknowledge my existence. You didn’t care to notice me, or anyone, for that matter. You seemed to be busy pressing buttons on your cell phone all the time, which I assumed, was an iphone. You had a very few friends, and you absented yourself from every non-academic function held in the college. People thought of you as a tough guy. You were indeed one.
New Year came. Our batch decided to celebrate the New Year at Ooty. I thought you wouldn’t attend the trip, but you came. We traveled in the same bus, you sitting at the far end of the back row, alone, and me with my friends in the first. You didn’t seem to be interested in sightseeing, and were fully absorbed in your Dell laptop.
Even as the bus stopped at various tourists spots, you hardly came out of the bus. Unlike others, you did not bargain for the goods you bought from the wayside vendors. You were, in total, a different guy.
I and my friend Sona took a snap from the same stone bench where my mom and your mom had posed for a photo 26 years ago.
At the end of the tour, it was time to exchange the New Year gifts. Everyone would pick up a random bill from the lot and would give her/his new year gift to the person whose name is on the bill which she/he picked up. The name of the new year friend was to be kept secret till the gifts were exchanged. Everyone had bought a gift for their respective New Year friends during the tour, but you hadn’t.
The gifts were to be exchanged during the campfire. I gave the gift I had bought for my New Year friend and wished her a happy new year. In about half an hour time, everybody had identified their respective new year friend and had exchanged their gifts. But I didn’t get any.
“Netha…” a voice called me from behind. I turned back. It was you. You gave me the gift you had in hand – a small rectangular package covered with shiny blue wrapper with a red ribbon tied around it, the ribbon knotted on top.
“Open it”, you said, which sounded more like an order to me.
I sat down, on the grass, a little away from the campfire. You sat close to me, looking only at the blue package I had in hand. I pulled one end of the ribbon, and it unknotted. I carefully removed the cellotapes around the package and took the gift out.
I was surprised.
It was framed photo. The frame was golden in colour, which had the words ‘friendship’ etched on it. The photo was of two kids, you and me, taken during the party at my house, 14 years back. I was wearing a pink frock, and you blue shirt and black trousers. You were holding my aeroplane in hand and I was holding my doll. On the background was my yellow tricycle.
For about two minutes, neither of us spoke.
“Liked it?” you broke the silence.
“Yes,” I said.
“I am bad at choosing gifts”.
“You are not”.
We sat for some more time, speaking nothing, staring at the twinkling stars in the dark blue sky. A few metres away, our classmates were dancing and singing near the campfire.
“Netha…….,” you spoke.
“I am leaving our college”.
Medicine is not my passion. My interests lie elsewhere. I have been awarded a scholarship….by the College of Engineering, at Glasgow, in the United Kingdom. I will be dropping MBBS course and will be joining aeronautical engineering.
Do your friends know?
I hardly have friends. You are the first person with whom I shared this news. I got the confirmation letter via mail today. I haven’t even told my mom about it.
I didn’t know what to say.
“Good luck,” I finally managed to say.
“Thanks,” you said. You got up and walked away.
Throughout the return journey from Ooty, we didn’t speak anything. After about a week or so, you obtained your clearance certificates and left the college. You didn’t even pause to tell anyone goodbye.