It was about four decades later when I was attending a marriage of my colleague’s son in Chennai that I came across my old friend in totally unexpected circumstances. I was seated in the dining hall along with my colleague and several other friends who were all well placed in life. It was a marriage done in style and ostentation. As the servers were serving the food and different delicacies, I saw the reddish birth mark on the extended arm of a tall puny man in his fifties who was placing a sweet on the plantain leaf before me. Recollecting that my friend Venkat had a similar one, I looked up and could instantly recognize him. The same tall figure and the unmistakable aquiline nose confirmed that I had not gone wrong. When I asked him whether he was not Mr. Venkat, he nodded in agreement. I asked him “Don’t you recognize me as Partha? We were sitting adjacent to each other in classes nine and ten. He hesitated for a moment and said that he had not met me before and tried to retreat hastily. I persisted asking him to make an effort to remember me and the ink mark I had made on his shirt? For a split of a second his cloudy eyes cleared but he left denying any knowledge of me or the incident. I was doubly sure that he was Venkat and that he wished to remain unidentified. I could not thereafter enjoy my lunch or the conversations around me. How could this misfortune happen to such a bright person whom I had hoped would rise to high positions?
Immediately after washing my hands, I rushed to the kitchen area looking for Venkat.Not finding him there, I approached the head cook and asked him where I could find Venkat.He replied that he came to him and pleaded severe head ache and wanted rest. He must be back in a couple of hours, I was assured. Thereupon I told him about my friendship with him in my younger days and asked him how he came to work as a server. The head cook, an elderly man, narrated how Venkat’s father died suddenly leaving behind a very large family with no resources to fall upon. He said the entire responsibility of looking after his mother, sisters and brothers fell upon his young shoulders. He had not completed class eleven. As his father was working for him for several years, he took pity on this young boy and took him under his fold. He has married off all his sisters and educated his brothers. But he has remained a bachelor.
I could understand now why he wished to hide from me. He must have seen my shock and pain on seeing him in such a role and being a man of high self respect, he probably wanted to save me further embarrassment. I wanted to help him in some way. I left my card with the head cook and requested him to ask Venkat to call me in the next two days when I would be in Chennai. But he never did make the call.