The cricket match is to be played in Cuttack’s Barabati Stadium – the Indian team will lock horns with the visiting team from England. Spectators will throng the stadium; thousands of them from far-off places have already paid hefty sums to buy tickets for the match. Many have decided to spend the eve of the match waiting outside the stadium gates, to ensure that they beat the thronging multitude in the morning and get a place to sit. Not that they didn’t know that they would have to sit through the day as well – it’ll be a long day, indeed; the match will get over only around four-thirty in the afternoon, but that won’t deter them from carrying out their strategy. It was a small price to pay anyway.
Kamaladevi lives in this city. For the last few days, she too has been hearing the hubbub that has been created around this match. Everyone at home, the sons and daughters-in-law, daughters and sons-in-law, grandsons and granddaughters have been repeatedly telling her about it.
Even her husband – who usually sat quietly in his room, listening to Prabhupada’s kirtans of “Hari Krishna Hari Ram” playing from the numerous tapes he has collected and immersing himself in loving devotion to the deity or reading religious texts, and only at times discussing sundry business concerns with his sons – has been talking of this cricket match. But she has dismissed what she has been hearing with a shrug, “Yes, this is a passing fad – just one of those things!”
Her sons – all five of them – had played cricket during their schooldays. Of them, Jaya and Gobinda were considered talented cricketers. But beyond this, Kamaladevi knows little about the game of cricket. She is neither curious enough to understand the intricacies and nuances of the game nor does she care to know what it means to be a good or bad cricketer. All she knows about this game is that one person holding a polished, wooden plank hits out at a round, wooden object hurled at him from the opposite end of the pitch, whereupon he starts running between one end to the other end of the pitch. She is aware, however, that the game can, at times, be hazardous.
That round thing had once hit Gobinda was on the face and had chipped one of his upper teeth. Tears streamed from his eyes – oh, he had been in such excruciating pain! Yet she has accepted this as the way of the new world. And everyone was riveted to this prevailing craze! What could she do about it?
Today cricket has become the opium of the masses – in the children’s eyes the cricketers are demigods, so much so that their pictures are pasted on the walls alongside those of film stars. Such has become the craze that the children may not know their own relatives, but they know everything about the cricket players.
Kamaladevi is 70 now. She has a pale, wheatish complexion, a round, plump face and a mop of grey, thinning hair on her head. Neither short nor tall, she has a rotund, heavy build. In her youth she had a shapely figure, but she has put on weight over the years. Later in life, she developed diabetes and arthritis. The body did not exactly shed the extra weight, but the fat shrivelled and the skin sagged; her face is deeply wrinkled in places, while her erstwhile bright pair of eyes have shrunk into their sockets and lost their lustre. But she wasn’t troubled by all this. However, what did trouble her was that, despite years of doctors and medication, she continued to feel weak. Arthritis had rendered her knees almost immobile; both hands had become weak and the fingers so badly twisted that she now found it difficult to even carry on with her daily chores without assistance. This was galling to her but, over time, she had overcome her chagrin and had accepted her debility.
Helping her in this helpless state of life was the care and nursing that came her way. The two daughters-in-law were always around; also, her married elder daughter visited her often. The three granddaughters, too, were there to help. And the sons and grandsons did their bit. She would lean on someone’s shoulder and hobble to the veranda and sit on a chair. Once there, she would gossip with people, oversee the chores of the house and give advice and instructions. Whenever she wished to, she would even read something that took her fancy, or she would simply listen to the radio. Sometimes she would just sit there in silence; at times she would doze off.
She came from a lower-middle-class, joint family that believed in frugal living and diligence at work. They were content with whatever they had. She had never felt harassed by the pinch of poverty, nor was she envious of those whose lifestyle was better than theirs. A time came when all her siblings and their children did very well in life and prospered. In her lifetime, she too has seen much prosperity. But she didn’t quite know how such prosperity had become a reality for them; all she knew was that everything that happens is God’s will.
Not that her family hadn’t encountered lean days and besetting times, but she never wavered from her firm conviction that, “If we do not wish ill of others, God will always bless us, and everything will eventually work out fine.”
She has been married for 50 years. Her father-in-law owned very little land, yet they made it through the vicissitudes of life. Her husband, Bhajani Babu, had little education to speak of; he worked in a shop in Calcutta selling various knickknacks and managed to live off his own earnings; he needed no support from his father. After living there for a few years, they had moved to Cuttack where they had taken a small house on rent. Bhajani Babu then had started out on his own and immersed himself in his business.
Five years into his newly established enterprise in Cuttack, Bhajani Babu came to be known as a reputed industrialist and businessman of the city. Day by day, his family’s prosperity grew: his own large mansion, cars lined up in front of their house, lots of visitors at home and everyone wanting to hobnob with him – all were evidence of their newfound fortune.
There had been feasting, he had made large donations and helped others as much as he could – and thus there was a good word for them on everybody’s lips. However, Kamaladevi showed no signs of change, neither in her behaviour nor her attitude. She didn’t put on airs and was always friendly, sociable and welcoming. A few years later, however, Bhajani Babu’s business was upended and the enterprise shut down – the pomp and grandeur evaporated, the cars were sold away; the uniformed chowkidar was laid off, the crowd outside melted away like birds flying out of an aviary.
The children had grown up by then and were on their own, running their own businesses. The expenses had decreased so there was no dearth of money to run the household. Bhajani Babu had reset his life: he sat around reading religious books and listening to devotional songs from his tape cassettes and rarely emerged from his room.
In spite of the ups and downs of life, the inimitable happy look on Kamaladevi’s face – a look that exuded satisfaction and self-assurance – has remained undimmed and undiminished.
Today, the children have gone to watch the match. The cook had woken up early, almost in the middle of the night, to pack lunches for them so that they could enjoy the match without any interruption. After finishing her daily chores, Kamaladevi came out to sit on a chair in the veranda. It is nine in the morning. The younger daughter-in-law had come over earlier with a transistor, tuned it to the Cuttack All India Radio (AIR) station and placed it on the table before her. The live commentary of the match is on air. The noise made by the spectators and their enthusiastic cheering comes through loud and clear. The English team is batting first. She listens to the radio commentary for some time, but not being able to follow the stream of words, she exclaims out loud, “Huh! The same news is being repeated over and over again – this man threw the ball, that man hit it, tthen they’re running over to the other end and now this is the score – why make such a song and dance about it? And imagine the big crowd and all their raucous yelling and shouting! Stop it now! Let those who have gone to see the match, enjoy it.” Pausing, she adds with a sly smile, “They will pay the price as well; it’s such a warm day today, they too will suffer sunburn!”
Excerpted with permission from “Cricket” from Oblivion and Other Stories, Gopinath Mohanty, translated from the Odia by Sudeshna Mohanty and Sudhanshu Mohanty, Penguin.