In the summer of 1985 Arun KL confided in me. He was in love with a girl who was in my class. I was in seventh grade and he, in the eighth. He seemed quite disturbed by his lack of courage in approaching the girl and letting her know what he felt for her. So I told him he should join Bharathanatyam classes that she went for every week. I suggested it to him because I was the only male in the dance class and to say the least, it was awkward. He laughed continuously for two hours at my plight. He got over the girl and I quit dance classes. That was Arun for you. Fleeting, transient, spontaneous, and delightfully silly.
KL, as he was called by friends, was the whitest boy in Chittoor. He had auburn-brown hair and skin like a white man. He had freckles even. For some reason, right from when he was a kid, some of us called him the Red Indian. And some weren’t so subtle. They called him White Dog. Once during a Cricket match in Palamaner, KL wanted to take a leak but he could not, for school kids surrounded him wherever he went: they were curious if he was white all over.
KL and I shared a special bond. We were romantics in a time and place where success equaled a job in a nationalized bank as a lower division clerk, no less. Unaware that within a few years, we would be pounded to fall in line and embrace mediocrity, we walked the streets of Chittoor with the wind in our hair and hope in our eyes.
Cricket was our religion. We did all the dirty work like nailing in the mat on the pitch, draw the creases, and carry the massive kit bags to the pavilion just so that we could play a match—at the least, be the 12th man—for the mighty Town team.
The seniors–most of them–were rich young men from wealthy families. They rode on their fancy bikes to the ground and drank ice-cold water from their Allwyn refrigerators. Arun was always in awe of wealthy people. Just like me. We wondered often, ‘how does it feel to live your life without worrying about your next meal? Without the worry of debtors lining up outside and shouting at your parents? How does it feel to switch on that Telly and watch Cricket matches while sipping on lemonade? How does it feel to wear Old Spice? Does one actually hear the Gregorian chants when you applied that after-shave lotion? And, KL called everyone ‘Sir.’ The postman, the bank cashier, senior cricketers, and even my father. No, no that is not weird. The trouble was he punctuated using ‘Ngotha.’ Once he appealed for an LBW yelling, ‘Ngotha, howzzat, sir!’
Our lives were similar: we were from lower-middle class families where ‘lower-middle class’ was just an ironic euphemism for poverty. Arun wanted to become a Probationary Officer in a bank. But we had a few more years of freedom left before the vicissitudes of life caught up with us. So we played Cricket. Watched Chiranjeevi movies multiple times and fell in love with girls. Over and over again. A hardcore romantic, he fell in love with Jayaprada (‘classic beauty maama!), Meenakshi Seshadri, and Manisha Koirala. After watching 1942 A Love Story, we walked out in a daze. As we sipped chai, he proclaimed, ‘I have decided now. I’ll get married to Manisha.’
KL and I grew up reading The Hindu and one of his ambitions was to get published in the Letters to Editor section. He sent them hundreds of letters and when they finally published one of his letters, he came home running and as he struggled to catch his breath, he said, ‘Miracles do happen maama! Now I can approach Manisha Koirala.’
Years later, KL signed up for B.Sc, but I wasn’t going to take my chances. I took B.com. Within a year, I quit college to pursue this mindfuck engineering course called AMIE, in Chennai. All thanks to the elders in my family who served the ultimatum ‘engineering or auto driver?’ I said, ‘auto driver?’ But they didn’t find that funny. The plan failed big time. I failed to clear a single paper. So it was back to B.com. And, we moved to Chennai.
1994 was when KL and I reconnected in Chittoor. I was still moping over this girl I really liked and I made some excuse or the other to visit Chittoor. Once I told my mom that Kodhandaraman, a dear friend, had met with an accident and lost his leg. She gave me money and asked me to rush to Chittoor. Months later Kodhanda came home and my mom kept asking him where he got that prosthetic leg that looked more real than the real thing.
On my Chittoor visits, KL and I talked the night away: about love, careers, and life. And how the popular, accepted idea of success will never be ours. He could never crack the Probationary Officers exam. And I discovered the opportunities that a big city like Chennai offered. I pleaded with Arun to move to Chennai but he never budged. He refused to leave Chittoor. And we drifted apart again.
In 2005 he called me. I had moved to Bangalore a year back. He sounded happy. He landed a job in IT in Bangalore! He moved to my apartment complex. We were neighbors again! He even took my dad and me for dinner once. Throughout the night, he kept saying ‘ngotha’ and follow it up with an immediate ‘ngotha, sorry sir!’ Those were the happiest days of his life I’d presume. He even told me, ‘If I hadn’t landed a job in Bangalore, I’d have probably killed myself.’
In 2013, when Sachin Tendulkar retired I wrote a piece on ESPNCricinfo. A fanboy piece yes, and it featured KL. I met him shortly after that; after a gap of nearly two years. KL was so moved by the Sachin piece that he wanted to meet me right away. He was a weary, exhausted man. A mere shadow of the guy that he was. We spoke at length about Sachin, life, and how hope is everything and nothing.
We were at the Suri bar in Domlur. KL was a teetotaler and never really liked hanging out when we drank, but that day he was only happy. I noticed that every ten minutes he’d get lost and stare into oblivion and shake out of it with a poignant smile. When I asked why he was doing so much melodrama, he guffawed, and said, ‘I should have come to Chennai when you called me maama.’
KL passed away on 1st March 2017. I have yet to shed a tear for his passing. I didn’t attend his last rites. I still nurse a hope that one day he’ll appear at my doorstep, guffaw, and say, ‘Ngotha, you fell for it maama!’
We lost him because we choose prosperity over happiness. Money over dreams. Success over relationships. We forced him into believing that one needs to wear the uniform and start dancing at the circus to gain acceptance. And that, it was the only way to live. It is obviously not the only way. He found another way I guess. And I pray he finds that elusive peace. So long my friend. You will live in my stories and in the memories that I hold very dear.
So long until we meet again maama. Ngotha!
I will miss you ra KL.