I was awakened by a pat on the shoulder. It took me a moment to regain myself and adjust to the surroundings. The bus had pulled up. I looked up to see the conductor smiling at me.
“Sir,we are halting for a small tea-break.You can refresh yourselves as it would take another three hours before we reach the destination!” He spoke to me as he kept his bag over the driver’s seat.
I nodded in reply and slowly stood up,combing my hair while doing so.My watch read 8.55AM.So it was nearly 3 hours since I started from Srivilliputhur.
I gently alighted from the bus.
It felt good to be back on my feet after being in a slump for long in the bus.I couldn’t remember when I had slept.
I stretched as I glanced at the signboard adjacent which told me I was at Punalur in Kerala-the usual halting point for all the buses coming all the way from Madurai.So things have seldom changed over the years.Kottayam was still about three hours away.
I walked to the nearby tea shop which was already crowded with my co-passengers.I managed to ask for a tea and an omelette.It was exciting to taste Kerala food again after what was like about ages though it had been only over an year!.
Memories kept tugging at my heartstrings...
I was doing my doctoral programme at CMS College,Kottayam in English Literature.It was not my first time in the state but was definitely my first time of prolonged stay in this wonderful place.I had been staying with another colleague at the college,in a rented house while pursuing my studies.
And it was here that I met Maria....
“Sir,tea!”the voice of the chechi  broke me from my trance.I smiled at her as I took from her outstretched hands,my tea and omelette.I hastily devoured the dish partly because I was hungry and partly because most of the people were beginning to ascend the bus.The Sun was shining brightly as I washed my hands quietly by the tap.I returned back to my seat and we were back on track.
I took out the earphones from my bag and plugged them into my phone,checking the battery level as I did so and satisfying myself.The road from Punalur to Kottayam was quite sinuous and I closed my eyes to avoid motion sickness.
My thoughts drifted back to Maria and our days at the campus...
We met for the first time in the first week of my joining at the college.She was also there for the doctoral programme in Commerce.Hailing from Kottayam itself,she used to be a dayscholar.So it was fate that brought as together as one day she had to depend on the college canteen for her lunch.I was already halfway into my meals when a melodious voice asked me if she could settle into the chair across me.I lifted my head and peered into the face of one of the most beautiful girls I had seen in my life.
And naturally,I said yes.
“Thank you!” she smiled at me as she kept her plate down on which was a masala dosai .
We sat in silence.I felt awkward and self-conscious and I felt that she noticed that too.
“Hi,I’m Maria..are you Tamil?”she initiated the conversation after some time.
“Hello,I’m Aakash;I come from Srivilliputhur and I am doing my PhD in literature here.”I answered at a stretch.
“Oh you answered all my probable questions at once!Saving me the trouble huh?” Maria was laughing and I somehow felt more comfortable at that.
“I’m sorry;its just that I am a bit nervous in front of strangers”I answered.
“Its ok..i was just amused!”she said.
“Is the masala dosa enough to quench your hunger?” I asked her once I felt the tension broke between us.
“Oh yes,I’m generally a light eater and I don’t like meals that often as we have it everyday-perhaps the same way you have your dosas as well!”- Maria retorted.
“Well,I don’t get tired of dosas ; its just that I like Kerala meals as much as I like our dosas!”I smiled as I said this.
And thus began our friendship.Maria was my best friend from the campus and we would often go around the city after the college time in her car to places and eateries.Believe me,she was perhaps one of the finest drivers I knew.I used to ride a bike but was bit of a novice when it came to driving a car.Maria even offered to give me driving classes-such was her expertise in the field.
The best thing about Kottayam was the weather which was in stark contrast to what we had back at Tamil Nadu.It is heard however that the climate is quite haphazard these days.But back in those days,even going for a short trip through the town was so refreshing especially towards the evenings.
Time passed quickly.It was almost nearing the end of our courses.Maria and I became very close friends.There was not even a single day when we didn’t speak to each other.She was my best friend.But apparently,it was more than mere friendship for her....
It was my last day in Kerala.
Our course ended the previous day and I was supposed to catch the evening bus back home.We planned to meet for lunch at one of the finest restaurants in the city.I noticed that Maria was less jovial than usual but assumed it to be due to our parting.We were halfway through the meals when Maria pressed my hand firmly and said:
“I love you Aakash.Why don’t you meet with my parents today so that we can proceed further?”
The question took me by surprise.It was out of the blue.Sure,she was a great friend but I never knew she loved me more than I loved her-well,not in the same sense.Maria was smiling but her face fell when she saw the expression on my face.
“Look,Maria..You are my best friend ever!But I have never considered you as a lover!I...I’m sorry” I answered without looking at her.
She didn’t say a word further but I could see tears welling up in her eyes which descended down her cheeks as she looked away.She excused herself and went to the restroom.My appetite had left me.Never had I expected a turning point like this in our relationship.
We didn’t talk much after this.She came to the bus depot to drop me off.I hugged her and she asked me if I would care to reconsider my decision.I explained to her that our backgrounds and religions were only some of the many factors that would come into play.I had to tell her directly that my decision might not change at all in the current circumstances and that maybe she was a bit unrealistic.I could see the effect of my words and how badly it shook her, but there was nothing much I could do.As I looked back,I saw her speeding back.
All through the journey,I could only think of our relationship.I asked myself quite a number of times if what I did was wrong but my conscience told me I was not.I tried to call Maria a few times but she didn’t pick up.I left her a message on Whatsapp.It got delivered but was not seen.I tried contacting her again after reaching Srivilliputhur but the phone was neither picked up nor the ‘last seen’ on her profile changed.
An array of horns brought me back to reality.I strained my eyes over the roadside noticeboards to read the location and to my surprise realized that I had almost reached my destination.The conductor kept saying in Malayalam that the next stop would be the city bus depot.I prepared to get up.I kept back the phone in my jeans pocket and tidied myself.
On alighting at the bus stand,I summoned an auto rickshaw and instructed the driver to take me to Lourdes Forane Church.
I was going to meet Maria after all this time....
It took a little more than a quarter of an hour to reach my destination.I paid the fare and started walking towards the church.I clutched the object in my right hand firmly...
I was surprised when Maria didn’t return my calls even after a day.I tried calling her again in the morning.But the response was the same.
I started to worry.I was contemplating on what needed to be done.I spoke with my parents and as expected,they protested.I didn’t tell them the details to tell the truth.But somehow I felt obliged to go to meet her.It was quite unlike her to be acting like this.I called my friend with whom I was staying at Kottayam and asked him for help.He assured me that he would do the needful.
My heart was racing.Somehow I felt not at ease.I kept calling her again but to no avail.
Then,in the evening,my friend called....
The Sun was shining in all its might by this time now.We-me and Maria-have visited this church many a times.Little change has happened to this place over the year.
I kept walking.People were moving in groups of three or four and I carefully navigated between them.My eyes kept looking in the direction to see if I could get a glimpse of her.The scorching heat ensured that I had to strain my eyes even more.
And then we met....our rendezvous after an year.
Tears started rolling down as I looked at her.I knelt before her.I was not aware whether my thoughts vocalised as I spoke to her.
“I’m sorry Maria.Its just that I myself do not know if I’m worthy of your forgiveness.You are the most amazing person I have come across so far in my life.I treasured our friendship more than anything else.But I never intended our relationship to evolve into something more.So I didn’t know what to say when you proclaimed your love for me.Maybe I was too blunt that day.Maybe I should have been softer in my reply.Maybe I should have considered before finally answering.For months,I kept asking myself if I should have said ‘Yes’.However, the truth is that I could never have such feelings for you.But you deserved much more than such an outright refusal,that too from me.
‘I should not have left you that day-not in that shape.I should have been there by your side- to listen to you-to talk to you-to enable you to see things clearly.But I didn’t do that.Instead I went on my way.I might have been in a hurry to leave and that hurt you more than anything.You expected me to return back when my calls were not replied to.But I failed you again.Today,I stand in front of you with my head bowed in shame.
‘I know I’m not worthy of it but forgive me,Maria,for not being a real friend in the face of a crisis...
‘Forgive me for not being there by your side when it mattered the most....
‘Forgive me since I haven’t been able to forgive myself....even after all this time...
‘I beg you,please.....”
I kept down the bouquet over the grave ledger.Maria’s name stared at me from the headstone.It felt as if she was gazing at me silently.
It had started to drizzle all of a sudden.A light breeze that accompanied the shower blew the flowers of an adjacent champak tree  onto the grave as though in silent acknowledgement....