That one, I say and point at the red Jonex ISOMETRIC badminton racket inside the glass cabinet.
The parent cadre, also known as Abba, continues to knead the seam of his purple khadi kurta.
You already have a racket.
Usually, when the parent cadre states a fact, it is not permissible to answer back. But today, February 1, 1993, I, Geeta Das Rahman, have special answer back rights.
My racket is so old, Abba. It negatively impacts my hand when I play. And sometimes the whole shuttle gets stuck in the stringing and I lose a point pointlessly!
I glance at the parent cadre to see if he noticed my employment of wordplay. He didn’t. I turn towards Vijay, salesman at Ramji Sports N Games and also my personal friend, because whenever we come to Khan Market I create an opportunity to go look at the new rackets and equipment in his shop.
Having to call grownups Uncle and Aunty outside of my head is my Public Grievance # 4.
Vijay seems hassled when he finally turns. Behind him an Aunty in the latest sari-and-sneakers fashion is waving a broken antenna at him.
Since I’ll be asking him for a discount soon, I adopt my high sugar smile, tilt my head same like the I-love-you-Rasna girl and point again.
Uncle, show us the ISO, no?
Instead of the red Jonex, Vijay lifts the red and silver Yonex from the top shelf and hands it to me. I let him, because maybe if the PC hears the price of the Yonex first, he’ll be happy to settle for the Jonex, which is fine by me: same new shape.
Plus, as a bonus I’m getting to hold the Yonex now. The racket is light in my palm. The grip is smooth black tape, not dissolving terry cloth with chipping wood peeking out from under it. The stringing leaves a chequered mark on my thumb and doesn’t give in when I bounce the base of my hand against it. The sound this makes is simple but also not.
Same like a knot tied around a government file, I say out aloud for Abba’s ears, because as a Director at the India Trade Promotion Organisation the parent cadre is an expert of files. But Abba’s eyes are examining me instead of the racket.
And I don’t get to untie them today because I played games all day long as a boy.
I have not yet recruited the right words to tell the PC that when I’m on court I’m not playing games but just being myself, so step number one is to make Abba understand that I can also be an expert, maybe not of government files but definitely of feathers and strings. I breathe in sharply and widen my nostrils the way Mummy always used to when she was about to say something important.
Did you know, Abba, ISOMETRIC means of or having equal dimension? My old racket is same like an anda, oval, but this is ISOMET –
It’s a pompous way to say circle, Geeta. You should understand the meaning of words properly, then you won’t fall for such big companies’ cheap tricks. That’s exactly why I gave you the dictionary.
Actually, sir, kya hai na, ISOMETRIC ka matlab yeh ki it equalises the length of the main and cross strings in the string-bed, so sweet spot ko jo kehete hai enlarge ho jata hai for more accuracy, consistency and speed. It’s the latest model, sir. From 1992.
This makes Abba initiate his snorting laugh.
Typical! In India, the latest model is always one year old. Vijay grins. But that’s about to change, no? Goodbye, socialism. Welcome, Dr Manmohan Singh!
Inviting in MacDonald is not going to save this country.
The riots –
Which MacDonald? The farm one? I interject quickly to stay in circulation but Abba remains focused on Vijay. That’s just politics, Uncle. The riots will pass and then everyone will forget about Babri Masjid, and all will be as before.
Last night, one Hindu boy and two Muslim girls were attacked in separate incidents right here in Delhi. It’s the soul of our country that’s at stake, Vijay. Don’t get distracted by a slab of meat. Young people like you must take an urgent interest.
I have an urgent interest! I say loudly to conclude Abba’s lecture and remind him of our one-point agenda for coming to Vijay’s shop.
Vijay breathes relief. So shall I pack the racket, sir?
More moments pass before Abba finally turns to me, and I, too, breathe like Vijay.
For her purposes the old one is perfectly fine.
But it’s my birthday, Abba! I say, because a very unsettled feeling has begun to spread in my stomach: we have not even started talking about the price of the Jonex and the parent cadre has already said N-O.
And you promised last time ki next time for sure!
Because the PC and I agree that childish children are the pits, authorisation is not hereby granted to myself to cry or stomp my foot.
Come on, Geeta. You’re twelve now! At your age I was teaching myself English with the help of Eliot and Yeats. You can have a new box of shuttles from here but not the racket. And then we go to Bahri Sons and you can pick out as many books as you want, special birthday treat. Happy?
I swallow the karela that’s lodged in my throat and nod, even though I think that promises should not be exchangeable like wrong sizes or broken antennas. But even more than the racket, I want to like reading the books Abba buys for me, because then I will be better in my studies and get admission in a good college like St. Stephen’s and pass the Civil Services Examination and join the Government of India, just like the parent cadre.
See, that’s what I like about you growing older. You listen and understand what I’m telling you.
I swallow the second karela and nod again, though this time I find it easy to smile because of what the parent cadre has just said: In Abba’s eyes I’m getting better at being Geeta!
Vijay, how much are the shuttlecocks? One-ninety-five, sir.
Best quality, sir.
What other qualities do you have? You want feather or plastic? Feather!
Don’t shout, Geeta.
Feather, there’s a box for one-twenty-five, one-sixty-five or one-ninety-five, depending on their grading.
You mean, how good they are for fleecing people? Si-i-i-r, Vijay says, chuckling but also not.
We’ll take the one for one-twenty-five but only if you give
us a discount. It’s her birthday, after all.
Vijay gives Abba a helpless smile, which also contains a sigh. I examine the hole in my shoe through which I can see my brown sock. It’s official: Abba’s comprehensive and integrated opposition to my topmost favourite thing in the whole wide world is my Public Grievance # 1.
Sir, the margin is too small for discount.
Fine, but then you’ll lose a customer.
I can feel Antenna Aunty trying to encroach on our circle from behind with the help of her namesake and I step aside to let her in, because civil means of or relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns, so this is good practice for the CSE.
Feeling for the tube of shuttles inside the brown paper bag as we leave the shop a moment later, I think that maybe the parent cadre’s wish that I should join the civil service should also be my wish, because then I can always live in Kaka Nagar and play badminton forever, first as a girl and then as an Aunty: during the day I will serve in the office like Abba, and in the evening I will serve on the court like Geeta.
Excerpted with permission from Geeta Rahman at Championship Point: A Novel, Saskya Jain, Simon & Schuster India.