My unit tests went by without alarm. The question papers were straightforward and left me with enough time to double-check my answers. At the end of the Physics test, I joined Snoop and Ammonia at the bicycle stand to review the question paper, only to discover what all I had botched. From then on, I made sure to avoid those two, afraid to come face to face with my mistakes.

The Kannada test, the last of the set, was on Friday morning. Answer sheet submitted, I clenched and unclenched my fist as if over a squeeze ball. My fingers were sore from the lengthy essays I had composed across twelve pages, in a script that nobody at home understood in the slightest.

Snoop had filled in fourteen foolscap sheets. “Such a loooong paper,” he said, shaking his head, staring at his inky fingers.

“Screw it man, it’s over, that’s all that matters,” said Ammonia.

Downstairs, the corridors were shaking with rowdy enthusiasm; boys screaming, cursing and making for the football field. None of our teachers cared to restrain this chaos; they would cut us some slack for a few hours.

Stephen was already on the field, his crumpled shirt untucked, his bag slung over his shoulders. He toe-punched a tomato-sized pebble into an empty goal and turned to examine the tip of his shoe. Soon he picked out another pebble and, dribbling past imaginary defenders, fooled an invisible goalie and scored again, this time jumping to slap the crossbar.

This was the only kind of football I had seen Stephen play. Ditto cricket, where I had only watched him bowl pebbles at trees and swish the air with bat-length branches. I hadn’t seen him play a match – either serious or friendly – though Ammonia claimed Stephen was “born for the sole purpose of playing cricket” and Pocket Rocket raved about his performances in last year’s Georgian Shield. Our teachers reminded Stephen that it was not too late to try out for the school cricket and football teams. The director of Physical Education, Mr Suryaprakash, had been on Stephen’s case since June, accusing him of wasting his talent and “letting the whole school down”. He even offered to gift Stephen a cricket kit and a pair of shoes.

Stephen, however, had no choice in the matter. His father had banned him from all sports after he failed the seventh standard finals.

“Belt whips, man. Ten, fifteen bloody belt whips,” Leo had said about the day Stephen went home with a blood-red “Fail, repeat year” at the bottom of his report card. “Buckle marks on Stephen’s hands and legs, man. Deep cuts in his neck. His pop is a psycho, dude. Seriously. I thought he was going to kill him.”

“Whoa. That’s insane. How did Stephen take it?”

“What could he do, Karthik? He just shut his trap and took it like a man. His pop is a monster, man. Seriously. Imagine someone six-foot-two, with a medicine ball for a paunch and bulging muscles. Like one of those Olympic wrestlers. Scary shit. You know...two days after that first belting Stephen was mad enough to come and play cricket with us. His pop came running with a bat. ‘Go home, loafer,’ he said, ‘or I’ll crack your skull.’”

It hadn’t occurred to me until then that there was someone strong enough, and daring enough, to beat Stephen to a pulp. Still, I could safely assume that the savage belt-whips had not hurt Stephen as much as the ban, that’s how obsessed he was with sports. Anyone who hung around with him could see what a natural athlete he was, whether he was sprinting from the canteen to the classroom with those long, fluid strides; or gliding down staircases without needing to look down; or dodging paper pellets with an elegance and agility that could pass for an acrobat’s. He could balance a football on his head for a full minute and crack a joke while spinning a basketball on a finger. For Stephen to stand around and watch others playing, to see catches dropped and goals fluffed, was a form of torture.

“Daydreaming as usual, Karthik?” Stephen waved a hand like he was scrubbing a windowpane.

“Hey Stephen. How was the Kannada test?”

“Screw that shit, man. Let’s go get your treat in the canteen.”

I had forgotten Stephen had promised me a “royal treat” for lending him a list of important equations on the morning of the Chemistry test. He later made it known that the last-minute mugging had saved him big time and that it was thanks to me that he could hope to pass.

I blushed, saying it was no big deal.

“Of course it is a big deal, Karthik,” he had hit back. “Who lent me the list of equations before the test? Was it Leo? Was it Paunchy? When I was in deep shit, it was you who was there to give me a hand. That’s bloody important, bugger.”

I was happy I had played a part but, with Stephen permanently broke, didn’t think he could afford any treat, let alone a royal one. Now here I was, following him to the canteen, debating whether to ask for a burger and a lolly, or a samosa and a packet of Yummies chips. Eyeing the wallet bulging out of his bum, I wondered how much money he had to spare – and whom he had cajoled.

Hands in his pockets, Stephen whistled a tune from a latest superhit movie. I looked around to make sure no teacher was nearby. The song he was whistling started with the lines “What’s behind a blouse? What’s under a shawl?” – which had riled up my grandfather enough for him to switch off the television whenever the video came on.

Stephen knew the suggestive lyrics by heart – and surely had the answers to the questions the song posed – but now he was intent on mastering the tune. And what a master he was turning out to be! Had someone scheduled an exam to rank our whistling skills, Stephen would have topped our class, no question. He had three different whistles to call upon: a chirp to grab attention, with lips stretched into a boomerang; a hoot for wild applause, sucking on his thumb and index finger; and a soft whistle to pipe melodies. Stephen was the only one in 7C who could whistle the entire national anthem in tune. Now that was serious talent. Leo and Metric could pull off ninety percent but they invariably butchered the last part, when the ‘janaganamangala’ soared. Stephen aced it each and every time.

Not everyone was impressed though. Early in August, Father Xavier had stopped Stephen in the quadrangle and slapped him for whistling the anthem. There was no warning or scolding, just a swift, decisive slap. Ammonia thought Fax’s actions ‘hideous’. I disagreed. After all, I would never whistle the national anthem in front of my parents and especially not in front of my grandfather, a former army man who stiffened up whenever he heard the opening notes. And I would never whistle in school. It was just too much of a risk.

Ammonia rolled his eyes.

“What is so hard to understand, man?”

“Let’s take these two crimes, Karthik,” he said as if in the middle of an important inter-school debate. “One: Fax hammering the shit out of poor old Pigeon Lady with a hockey stick. And two: Stephen whistling the national anthem during the lunch break. I think you know who really needs a tight slap.”

What’s Wrong With You, Karthik

Excerpted with permission from What’s Wrong With You, Karthik, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, Picador India.