The following Saturday brought the excitement of a cricket match. India was playing Pakistan in Peshawar. But even that excitement paled next to that of watching it in the common room of Love Hall. It was a breathtaking kind of a picnic. All eighty of us packed on the floor of the room, on the thick, ribbed carpet like the prayer hall. The door was closed and weak sunlight showed through the glass pane of the windows and there was only the flickering light of the TV set perched on the table in front. It was like a dark festival given to us unasked and we gasped with excitement. We wanted to shout and scream but Naren Swami sat on a chair at the back. It was hard to say if Naren Swami liked cricket. Or at least he liked it the way he liked carrom. But it was hard to say anything about Naren Swami. He rarely spoke during match-screenings, only once in a while to make a forecast whether a batsman who stay or get out. And he was always right, so that scared us a bit. His stare felt raw on our backs and we kept our voices to a whisper.
TV screenings in the common room made me very nervous. In an exciting way, but still, my heart beat so loudly that it hurt. In darkness, the common room became a strange place. You couldn’t see much. It was a bit like a movie theatre. A movie theatre that was also something of a prayer hall, with a man in saffron at the back.
I knew nothing about this till I saw that terrible thing. I forgot what we were watching, perhaps the Sunday morning Mahabharata on TV, or perhaps another cricket match. It was dark and everybody was fixated on the screen. You always did, even if you didn’t care for what was on it, because TV in the hostel common room always felt like a miracle, a miracle that had now become ours, but still kind of unreal. I looked to my right only when I felt bodies shifting next to me.
Sunandan sat next to me, a good-looking, pale-complexioned boy with steel-framed glasses, from the class a year senior to us. Behind him was Krish Mullick, a math-whiz from our class, a boy with curly hair and a thin, bony body. Krish’s arms were wrapped around Sunandan’s waist, as if he was hugging the lower half of his body. The hands came full-circle in front and knotted around his lower abdomen. Sunandan was trapped in a chain. But he didn’t seem to notice. He cheered the players along and swore at the rivals – oh yes, it was a cricket match too – but his body could not leave the chain and it didn’t look like he cared.
Did he care or did he not? How could he not? Krish’s arms were snakes around his waist and knotted under his stomach. He was a senior too, though a boy of small-medium build and how did you caress a senior boy like that? Was Krish a kind of a snake? There was something not quite right about him too, even though he was so good in studies and all that. Everything about him was angular and plus he was a hairiest boy in the ashram. His skin was so rich with curly hair that sometimes you couldn’t see the skin at all. What did his bony fingers really want to do?
That was our slice of heaven in the ashram. The blue flannels on the screen and madness of cheering spectators on the stands, all in our common room surrounded by boys who cheered through whispers. The crowd maddened us, for the match was happening in Peshawar and the crowd wanted to drown the Indian batsmen in their fierce attack-chant. We wanted to smash the TV screen sometimes, claw at the brute Pakistanis who waved massive green-crescent flags like weapons at our brave batsmen who fought their killer bowlers.
“Cut off their dicks, the bastards,” Kashyap hissed at the TV.
“Dicks slit already,” Soumen Dhar roared. “Bloody mullahs!”
“Firecrackers going at Mollapara,” someone whispered. “They cheer whenever Pakistani bowlers get a wicket.”
Which made things more fun. A rival team close by. A poor Muslim village just outside the ashram. You could see the thatched huts from the rooms of the C Block, and if you were willing to stare all day, muddy-looking women bathing. The villagers hated the ashram and they wanted Pakistan to rub the noses of the Indian team in the dirt. We were on!
“Slit-dicks!” Soumen Dhar roared again.
“Soumen!” Naren Swami’s voice struck him like an arrow. Dhar crumpled up like a withered flower. He looked big and burly and already had hairy temples and upper lips but that was because he had failed a couple of classes before he’d ended up in ours. It was easy to strike him as under the loud bully body there was always shame, the shame of hairy whiskers and upper lips in class seven and the reminder that you were a big-ass boy among children.
But Naren Swami never had to say much.
Silence thickened in the common room, the TV buzzing alone. The flag-waving Pakistani crowd was gone, vanished into the television, far away in Peshawar. We were in a large dark room with a man in saffron at the back. I glanced to my left. Kajol sat, expression-less, staring at the TV. The voice never touched him. His handwriting was perfect and he had high scores in every subject and in room-cleaning as you never found a balled-up sock under his bed. Was he really watching the match? Or just looking at the TV because we were all supposed to do so?
To watch the Pakistani leg-spinner Abdul Quadir was to die laughing, but to face him on the pitch, we all knew, was to face death. Balls pitched at perfect length and spinning up to a foot to knock the bails off the stumps. A deadly googly where the ball struck the direction opposite to where it was supposed to go. He danced like a cripple trying a leg at break dance and it was painful to watch that you could do such things to your body. But we had stopped laughing as the ball that came out of that dance was an arrow of death for any batsman in the world.
The silence sharpened. Watching Quadir was a bizarre kind of a delight. He began his dance to the wicket and the whole room leaned forward. My weight rested on palms splayed on the carpet on either side, ready to pounce. The ball fell on the perfect length before the leg stump and the batsman tried to drive it towards long-on. The ball caught the edge of the bat and shot at the off-stump like the flickering tongue of a snake. The harami at the slip caught the ball and the Pakistani team howled like a pack of wolves. A gasp went up in the dark room and I clenched my fingers to feel Kajol’s palm in mine. It was a soft and small palm, almost like a baby’s, as quiet as his face. The anxiety was an infection and you had to share it.
A curly-haired sixteen-year old boy had appeared to face the guile of Abdul Quadir. His name was Sachin Tendulkar and he had raked up massive runs in domestic tournaments. But he was just a boy and the slimy Quadir would slaughter him easy. Our hearts cried out for him.
I had not let go of Kajol’s hand. It was beginning to feel strange as the moment couldn’t last forever, the moment when you slapped your neighbour’s thigh or clenched their palm in excitement, but I held his hand and sensed the moisture in them, the moisture coating his bony knuckles or was it the moisture from my skin?
He was a boy really, Sachin Tendulkar, a boy with a wild mane of curly hair who could perhaps play in our senior school team. It was absurd and delightful to see him in the massive real cricket gear, the pad and the helmet and the heavy bat, among these real and famous cricketers. We were just happy that Waquar Younis the deadly paceman was not there to strike blood with his deadly bouncers. He would come back soon but happily the trickster Quadir would send the boy back to the safety of the pavilions long before that.
I heard mutterings next to me. Kashyap had closed his eyes and was saying something under his breath. It was some kind of a prayer. It was odd to see Kashyap pray, as if he were ill and had no real idea what he was doing.
I unfurled each of Kajol’s fingers slowly inside my palm, like I was playing a secret game of numbers with his digits. He had smooth, well-trimmed nails. I ran my fingers over them and imagined his tiny nail-cutter tucked away carefully inside his desk where everything was arranged with the precision of a library catalogue. I know he never trimmed his nails on a day he was not supposed to, like a Thursday, or the day of the week he was born, just as his mother had told him, but had set aside two days in the week when he clipped then after his bath, when they were softest.
My heart beat wildly. Sachin Tendulkar took guard to face Abdul Quadir. I caressed Kajol’s fingers, feeling the spot behind his knuckles where the skin wrinkled, the spot below it where tiny hairs had sprouted, so tiny and so little, he was almost hairless.
Quadir did his fatal dance. The ball pitched and spun madly. We wanted to close our eyes and not see the hollow sight of the bails flying off the stumps.
Swiftly, the curly-haired boy changed into a battle-stallion and lifted it over mid-wicket. A sixer.
We gasped and almost forgot to cheer. And then we cheered, a wisp of sorrow in our voices. A spirited boy. He will kick before they kill him. Soon.
I squeezed Kajol’s hand. It was mine to play with. It did not question my claim on it, doing whatever I wanted to do with it. I could not look at Kajol but knew he stared at the TV. Did he resent having to watch cricket? He would be at peace working on his algebra. The rowdiness of the Pakistani spectators and the rowdiness of Soumen Dhar was not to his taste.
The camera focused on Abdul Quadir, returning to his dancing run-up. A smile danced on his lips. A cheerful snake. He would now kill the boy, split his stumps wide open.
The ball pitched right at the middle stump and treacherously spun in the wrong direction. A googly that would sting the leg stump. Smoothly, the boy pulled the ball over long leg. Out of the field and out of the world.
Who was this Sachin Tendulkar? Who was this boy, really?
Kajol squeezed my hand quickly. My heart leaped. I glanced at him through the corner of my eye; he looked straight at the TV. Where did he have his heart? In Peshawar or with the algebra back in his room? Elsewhere?
And then Sachin Tendulkar sent Quadir flying outside the stadium for a third time. The spectators were quiet, in sudden mourning. Our chests hurt with pride and were about to explode. The firecrackers had died out there in Mollapara.
Quadir was smiling. The bastard was game!
Everything felt right. I wanted to bring Kajol’s delicate hand to my mouth, suck his soft baby fingers one by one. There was an ache in my groin. Everything was taut.
“Take that you split-dicks!” Soumen Dhar howled.
“Turn off the TV!” Naren Swami’s voice struck like a slap across the room.
I pulled my hand away from Kajol’s.
Before we knew it, Rajarshi Ghosh stood out on the front row and turned off the television. He loved to follow the most obnoxious orders of the Swami. He hated to see us happy.
The boy with the magic hand was gone.
Saikat Majumdar’s most recent book is the novel, The Firebird, and is due to the released in the US in April 2017 as Play House.