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The Winning Team

2006-07-14 00:24

  Aditya opened hid eyes to a strange silence. It was dark outside. There was no light in the kitchen either. Usually by the time he woke up, Aayee and Baba would already be in the kitchen, talking softly. And he would hear all the usual comforting kitchen noises from the warmth of his bed - the whistling pressure cooker, the occasional gush of water from the tap, the closing of the refrigerator door, the spluttering of the mustard seeds followed by the loud hiss as the “phodni” was mixed with dal. Soon the lingering aroma of fried onion would mingle with the scent of agarbatthi as Aayee did her pooja.

  But today he heard nothing. Things were too quiet. Maybe I've woken up too early, thought Aditya. He pulled the bedsheet over his face and tried to go back to sleep.

  Then he did hear something. Someone was sobbing. “Aayee,” he called softly. There was no reply. It was still dark, and he couldn't see anything, not even the glowing red bulb in front of God's photo. “Aayee, I want to go to the toilet,” he said, a little louder this time.

  “Ssh,” said Baba in a soft but firm voice. The sobs stopped. Aditya too kept quiet.

  Suddenly he heard a lot of noise outside. “Maro - Maro,” some voices were screaming, and others were cheering loudly.

  Rough footsteps came closer and passed by the window. Clubs banged on the door and the voices rose. A terrified Aditya shut his eyes, pulled the bedsheet over his face and covered his ears with his hands. “Arjuna, Phalguna . . .” he mumbled to himself. Then the voices melted away. It was only a bad dream, Aditya told himself and went back to sleep.

  It was broad daylight when Aditya opened his eyes again. I am late for school, he thought, and jumped out of bed. Khaleel and he had planned to get to school early to collect amla from the backyard. A pocketful of amla fruit could be so useful. They could be exchanged for bits of tamarind, colored chalk or even a marble. Last week he and Khaleel had even “bought” a large piece of red cellophane paper from Tushar in exchange for the amla. But if they weren't really early, all the amla would be gone.

  “Aayee, I told you to wake me up earlier,” said Aditya as he rushed to brush his teeth. “Khaleel must have left already.”

  “You're not going to school today,” said Baba, who was sitting in the kitchen with Aayee. “Baba!” began Aditya, but didn't dare go on because Baba gave him a firm look. At times Baba was so much fun and at times he was so impatient! How to tell him about the amla? Aditya looked at Aayee. She was sitting with her head bent over the garlic she was peeling. The oil lamp in front of God's photo was lit. The fragrance of agarbatthi filled the kitchen. “I'm going to school,” Aditya announced firmly, feeling very brave all of a sudden.

  Baba looked angry and was about to say something, but Aayee spoke first. “There was trouble in the night, Aditya, everything will be closed today.”

  Oh, so it wasn't a nightmare after all, thought Aditya as he went to brush his teeth and bathe. Whom were they after? Why was the school closed? There was no use asking Baba anything when he was in such a foul mood!

  “My pao, Aayee,” said Aditya as he sat down to eat breakfast. He ate pao with butter day after day but never got tired of it. The soft, fluffy pao and the butter which Aayee generously spread on it simply melted in the mouth!

  “The paowalla hasn't come today,” said Aayee. “Now don't ask for milk, the milkman has not come either,” she added as if reading his thoughts. She wasn't smiling.

  Aditya gobbled up his biscuits and batata poha, drank a glass of water and got up. He was wondering how to make the best of this unexpected holiday. He pulled out the bat from under his bed and put on his cap. He had so lovingly painted three stumps (all tumbling down) and a ball on its hood with his new set of sketchpens. He had got to the front door when Aayee said sharply, “Stay indoors today.”

  “Aayee, I won't go far, I'll just play cricket with Khaleel.”

  Aayee and Baba exchanged glances. “Can't you stay at home just for one day?” asked Baba.

  “Okay,” said Aditya, “I'll call Khaleel and we'll stay at home playing snakes and ladders.”

  It was Aayee who spoke again. “There was trouble in the night, don't step out of the house.”

  Aditya put on one of his best scowls, pulled out his spinning top and settled down on the floor.

  As the day went on, Aditya knew that things were not all right at all. Every now and then there were frightening noises outside - of screaming, shouting mobs. Sometimes he heard police vans with blaring sirens. Doors and windows were bolted. Nobody stirred out of the house.

  Then around lunchtime, there was an urgent knock at the door. It was Ganesh Mama and Vaishali Mami with their baby. “The whole place is burning!” Mama said, putting down the shoulder bags he was carrying. “We just packed whatever we could and came here,” said Mami, tears rolling down her cheeks.

  Three day later, when at last Aayee let him go out to play, Aditya was thrilled. “Play in the courtyard,” she warned him. “Don't step outside the gate.” “Okay Aayee,” he said. But the first thing Aditya did was rush out of the gate to call Khaleel. It was so long since they had met.

  Khaleel lived in the row of chawls just beside the Ganpati temple. Every evening when Aditya went for the aarti with Aayee and Kamala Mausi, he met Khaleel. Khaleel usually waited near the temple steps in front of the shop selling agarbatthis and dhoop. Aditya would go in, ring the temple bell, do pranam, make a teeka with the sindhoor kept in the bowl, and then collect prasad from the toothless old punditji before rushing out.

  He would share the prasad with Khaleel. Khaleel always seemed to have something in his pocket to share with Aditya - a bit of halwa or a lump of jaggery. “Aditya baba, why don't you come in?” Khaleel's Ammi would invite him as she cleaned the prawns sitting outside her door.

  Now, as he saw Khaleel's lane before him, Aditya could feel something growing bigger and bigger in his chest till it felt right and uncomfortable. The lane looked so different!

  All the houses were broken down. The window panes were shattered, the asbestos roofs had caved in, and the brick walls were reduced to rubble. Beside the chawl Aditya saw a heap of ashes and half-burnt things. His heart sank when he noticed Zohra's big plastic doll lying nearby, its painted face charred black. Khaleel's new yellow bat was there too, its handle broken and the batting edge cracked. And half hidden among the broken cane chairs and ashes lay Khaleel's ball, with his name in capital letters. Aditya picked it up and saw that it still looked new. He put it into his pocket. He would return it to Khaleel when they went back to school.

  When the school finally opened next week, Aditya remembered to take the ball with him. But Khaleel was not there. And it wasn't just Khaleel, but also Sunaina, Imran, Ritesh - they had all vanished.

  “Teacher, where is Khaleel? And the others?”

  “They will come,” Teacher said, looking drawn and harassed. But something in her voice made Aditya feel they wouldn't. He felt like crying. Khaleel was his best friend! He was so much fun to be with. Sometimes he would mimic the school watchman, pretending his mouth was full of betel juice, and shouting at the children for climbing the walls. Or he would imitate the old punditji. Khaleel lived next door to the temple, so he knew the aarti and could put on the punditji's nasal accent perfectly! And Khaleel was so loyal. At the swings, he always made sure Aditya got his turn. When there was a fight, Aditya and Khaleel were on the same side - they could always count on each other for help.

  Now he heard his classmate Sujata say, “All the mussalman are dead - I heard Papa tell Mummy. And so many people have run away from the city and gone to other places.” Aditya felt that tightness is his chest again.

  After lunch break, the headmistress came to the classes and said, “You know that many people's homes have been burnt. They have lost everything. Please ask your parents to give old clothes, rice, sugar - whatever they can - to these poor people.” Aditya tried to imagine Khaleel as “poor people”。 His eyes filled with tears as he pictured Khaleel wearing somebody's old clothes and standing in line for khichri.

  “Go out and play,” Aayee said to Aditya that evening. “Chintu is calling you.” She was cleaning the wheat and pouring it into a big vessel. When Baba came, she would ask him to take it to the flour mill near Khaleel's house. Watching Aayee, Aditya remembered all the times he and Khaleel had passed the mill to go the sweet shop. They always stopped to look at the man covered with flour from head to foot. Even his eyelashes were a dusty white.

  “What is the matter, Aditya?” Aayee asked.

  “Come on, Aditya,” called Chintu and Babloo. He could see their eager faces at the window. “Let's play cricket, you bat first.”

  Bur Aditya didn't go. He squatted on the floor, spinning his top round and round. He looked at his busy mother.

  “Aayee, when you want something, you always pray to God. Remember to prayed for Vaishali Mami when her baby was going to be born? If I want Khaleel to come back, which god should I pray to - our Ganapati or Khaleel's Allah?”

  Aditya was afraid she would laugh; sometimes she did when he asked her a serious question. But Aayee pulled him close to her and hugged him. “Oh my poor child,” she mumbled. “You can pray to whoever you like - Khaleel will come back because God belongs to all children.”

  That night Aditya dreamt of God. Strangely, his voice sounded like Baba's: “Today I met Razaka Mian in the company. They are living at Dongar Chawl with his cousins. As soon as he gets that loan, he wants to rebuild his house and come back.”

  “When about that money we got when we sold the farmland in the village? We don't need it right now,” Aditya heard Aayee's voice say. Could God sound like mothers too?

  On his way back from school the next day, Aditya stopped at the Ganapati temple to remind Him of Khaleel. The punditji sat on the cement bench fanning himself with a newspaper, his mouth full of betel juice as usual. “What is the matter, Aditya baba?” he asked, drops of betel juice flowing down his chin. Aditya shook his head and walked away.

  He stopped to look at the pigeons feeding in the small square sprinkled with grain. The square was always full of pigeons - hundreds of them. Did they eat all the time, he wondered, or did they have a bell at tiffin time like the one in school? Or was it like Baba's company canteen where they rushed out in batches when they heard the siren?

  Suddenly Aditya forgot the pigeons. He could see Baba with Khaleel's Abba. Aditya hurried down the lane and saw two men repairing Khaleel's house. The broken windowpanes were replaced, there was a newly painted door and a new asbestos roof. And then Khaleel came out of the house, looking as cheerful as ever.

  “Yeee . . . Khaleel!” screamed Aditya. “Come on, I've saved your ball.” He grabbed Khaleel's hand in delight.

  Baba and Khaleel's Abba were smiling but their eyes seemed wet. Oh these grownups! Thought Aditya. No one knows when they'll cry or laugh.

  They very next moment, he had forgotten about it all and he was running home hand-in-hand with Khaleel.

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