Last Friday (August 7), my phone kept on ringing from 6am.
I had already missed two calls by the time I reached my phone.
It was from my brother. I felt nervous because he never called me at this time of the day. I returned the call immediately.
"Many people, including our friends Annadurai, Murugan and Kuttiraj, were missing in last night's Pettimudi landslide. I am rushing there," he said with a shiver.
Soon, I switched on my television. And I remained glued to the Malayalam channels collecting details about the tragedy, sitting thousands of miles away in Kolkata.
Television channels showed the place so familiar to me. I had visited those 'line houses' (tiny houses of tea plantation workers) several times.
I spent the whole day praying for the lives of missing persons, especially my close friends.
I befriended them when I studied at the lower primary school in Pettimudi from 1978 to 1983.
My father was a teacher at the school. A majority of the students were children of poor tea plantation workers from Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe communities. The rest were children of teachers and staff at the plantation's office.
There was an unwritten rule that children of the 'elite class' (teachers & plantation's office staff) should not mingle with the wards of labourers.
But I never cared about it. I played with them, visited their line homes and ate with them. I was one among them. And Annadurai, Murugan and Kuttiraj were my closest friends.
Their parents were poor, but they always gave me something to eat when I visited their homes.
I haven't seen such caring people like them many years after I left Pettimudi for higher studies and jobs.
After Class 4, I studied at the Little Flower English Medium School in Munnar till Class 7, Viruthanagar in Tamil Nadu till Class 12, University College in Thiruvananthapuram for graduation in Chemistry, Teacher Education College in Thycaud for BEd and Calicut University campus for Library and Information Science, but I never lost touch with my friends in Pettimudi.
As I was immersed in my thoughts about Pettimudi, I got another call from my brother. "Annadurai, Murugan and Kuttiraj have all gone."
A moment later, I wept inconsolably. The landslide had crushed me too.
The last time I met three of them together was in 2018.
I had visited them with my wife and three children, during my vacation. During the meeting, Annadurai told me about his lost opportunity for higher studies.
"I could have studied at least Class 10 if we had a high school here at that time," he told me.
In hindsight, I felt it was a possibility. For, he was one of the brightest students in our class.
Later, the discussion meandered to childhood days. And they all felt happy that I still maintained the connection with them.
As we were about to take leave, they presented me a bottle of pure honey they collected from the forest.
Six days have passed since Pettimudi was rocked by the landslide, but I am unable to come to terms with the loss of lives of my close friends.
The reason for the landslide is yet to be ascertained. It may be because of the quarrying or heavy rain. Whatever be the reason, I am pretty sure that no one would remember the 55 lives lost so far (till Wednesday).
But I will not allow their memories to fade away.
I wish to provide the younger generation of the underprivileged class (including those who escaped landslide) free education and soft skill training with the help of like-minded people. I will work on that.
That is the best tribute to education-hungry Annadurai and other departed souls.
(Subburaj, who lived in landslide-hit Pettimudi in Idukki district, is the Deputy Director of the Food Safety Standards Authority of India. He is the central licensing authority-designated officer and authorised officer of imports. He lives in Kolkata.)