December 28, 2019

A Celebration of Annamalai

As of Friday, December the 27th, Annamalai Alagappan is no more. Sandesh and I were crying on the phone to each other, lamenting that we wouldn't make it to the funeral in time. He mentioned something that really hit me hard: "If we hadn't made the trip to send him off when he left the US, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself, Macha. Thank God we made the trip!"

As someone who had moved newly to Chennai and joined a school abruptly in the middle of a semester in class eleven, I knew no one. Everyone sat in benches of three, and I picked the one bench where only two people sat–Varun and Annamalai. When that happened, I didn't know it started a bond that lasted for these many years, from 2009 through 2019.

Fast forward to July 2019: I had visited him at least four times in Pennsylvania, where he now worked. He had visited me twice in New York City when I was doing an internship there. We had gone on two crazy road trips: one to Myrtle Beach, and another to the Niagara Falls. He had been to my brother's wedding in Bangalore; I had been to his sister's wedding in Karaikudi. We spoke every week–discussed life, football, family, and everything else there was to talk. Sometimes, the talking happened over games of FIFA.

In July, he suddenly messaged me saying he had a medical condition, and he was in the hospital. I immediately asked him if I should come. He said his roommates were around and were taking care of him, and he would be fine. Later in September, he had another round of symptoms. This time, his parents, who were visiting his sister in Canada, decided to fly down to be with him. They soon realized things were hard without public transport, and they weren't used to driving in the US. They had decided to move to India to continue treatment so they can get some help from family.

I quickly decided to call Sandesh and Karthik, who both stay in the US and are in the same friend circle as Malai to plan a trip to send him off. Both Karthik and Sandesh didn't hesitate one bit: as soon as I suggested it, they said, "Sure, let's do it!". Karthik and I drove from Boston, Sandesh would arrive at the Philadelphia airport, and we would drive together to Malai's house 45 minutes away. There was no plan: we would reach there on Saturday afternoon, and leave again on Sunday evening.

Malai and his parents were glad that we were there. His mom made us hot spring rolls and coffee. We then decided to take a walk near the golf course right outside his house and fly the drone there. I tried something stupid and scraped a tree with my drone. But this walk was when we all really understood what Malai was going through. There were minimal chances of him coming back to the US after his treatment–he would have to find a job that sponsored a work visa in the US. And the treatment that included chemotherapy was going to be very stressful and painful.

Our conversations during the entire trip were mostly saying jokes, pulling Malai's leg, saying he would be the first person to get married among us. Before sleeping, we played FIFA. He always took Arsenal, and I quite often lost to him badly.

The next day we thought we'll have lunch outside. In all my trips with Malai, I made it a point to go to this restaurant called Arusuvai. They made some fantastic Tamil dishes, and it was always excellent. The name was particularly catchy for me because of this jingle:

Sandesh was going to drive my car, and I would drive Annamalai's car. The drive was quite uneventful until we saw Sandesh's driving skills.
Malai said, "Look at that: doesn't even use indicators."
I replied, "Yeah, he drives like that only–like an auto driver. Gives me anxiety."
Malai's dad got anxious, "If he drives like this, it is hazardous in larger cities."

After enjoying a sumptuous meal, we got back and chatted for a while and then started packing to leave. I was to bring back four of Malai's sleeping bags and a bean bag. We had to shove it in the trunk literally. We felt we had succeeded in our goal: distract Malai for at least 24 hours from thinking about his illness. Distract his parents from thinking about Malai continuously; make them laugh a bit. Make sure he leaves the US happy. As we left the house and took pictures with him and his parents, we could see that his parents were sad that we were going.

Little did we know, it wasn't just the last time we saw him in the US, it was the last time we ever saw him. If we hadn't made this trip, indeed, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself. He was one person who would never scream at you, whatever you did to annoy him. He was always there for me, and for anyone who needed him. Be it a good thing or a bad thing, Malai is still around to support you. He was a kind soul, and his parents brought up a gem of a person.

Today, I look at the bean bag: I remember him. I look at Arsenal playing well: I remember him. I want to wake him up and tell him to look at how good they are playing today. I see the title of a movie we saw in Pennsylvania together on Netflix: I remember him. Chennai, Pennsylvania, Raleigh, road trips, your car, nothing will remain the same for me without you around, Malai. This article, and everything around me today that reminds me of you, are a celebration of your life. We will miss you.

(I included pictures of some of my most special moments with Malai. Here is a beautiful video Roopika made for a trip that Malai, Karthik, and I took with her to see the Niagara falls –