“Welcome to the people’s ground, dear prince of Ranakpour. You left early last night!” said Ranjit Singh as he walked in late, seemingly only half awake, but in good spirits.
“Good morning, Ranjit.”
“What do you think?” Ranjit Singh inquired as they stood together, looking out at the field. There seemed to be a dozen games being played at the same time, and no one appeared to know who was playing in which team, including the players themselves.
“It’s a beautiful chaos,” Abhimanyu replied.
“Ah, the chaos. What’s Bombay without chaos?” quipped Ranjit, looking for approval from a group of locals who had gathered around them. He gestured to one of them to come closer.
“I want you to meet Kamal Apte. Kamal, this is Abhimanyu Singh of Ranakpour.”
The two exchanged pleasantries, and Kamal told Abhimanyu of how he knew the prince of Songadh. Apparently, Ranjit Singh was quite the convert, and had chosen to play in the street circuit instead of the princely grounds much before Independence.
That’s how he had befriended a bunch of locals, including Kamal – a certified bum who was unable to hold a decent job for more than a week before getting fired, even as his family struggled financially – but, as Ranjit told Abhimanyu later, one who could hold a bat and make it talk like no other Bombay player.
“Shall we?” Ranjit asked the group, and they began walking towards the middle of Shivaji Park.
“Excuse me?” Abhimanyu said, looking slightly surprised.
“Get a game on?”
“You mean right now, here?”
“Not fit for Your Highness?”
Forcing a smile, Abhimanyu agreed to a game, and glanced at the insignia on his gear, ready to showcase his dominance on the people’s ground. As he traversed the field of sinewy bodies, much like his namesake, Abhimanyu, the reincarnate of Chandra, who traversed the chakravyuh, he saw the local players in the middle of their matches – some diving for catches, others in their run-ups, as well as a batsman marking his spot at the crease.
At one point, Abhimanyu had to duck from a flying ball, the cherry red flying past his face. He didn’t mind at all. In fact, he was finally where he felt most at home.
Before he knew it, teams had been formed and a match was underway. Soon, it was his turn to bowl to Ranjit. He made a couple of defensive shots before Abhimanyu had him clean bowled. The ball just kept swinging in and beat the batsman square. Ranjit couldn’t do much other than stand at the crease and look at his shattered stumps in appreciation of the prince’s amazing skill to swing a barely round piece of tattered leather that had been roughed up by the coarse Shivaji Park ground.
The sight of the tall, broad-shouldered prince zipping through his run up and his feet gliding slightly above the ground was enough to make half the players at the park pause for a few minutes and watch him. It was a nondescript game – one among thousands being played on the streets of Bombay that day – but to Abhimanyu, it meant the world.
In his mind, he was fighting for his rightful place in society; one of dominance. He was born to rule, he thought, and with his kingdom snatched away from him, the cricket field would be where he would show them that he was always in charge. Perhaps that’s the reason he felt abjectly deflated when the next batsman, Kamal, negotiated his ferocious bowling with almost lackadaisical ease.
Abhimanyu’s run-up got longer, his jumps higher and the ball would pierce through the dead air of the park just to be smacked right back at him. A street player was putting the blue-blooded prince in his place and the crowd was cheering the spectacle.
“Bhau!” Abhimanyu was walking away from the pitch and measuring the run-up when he heard her voice for the first time.
“Bhau!” It came again. She was calling from afar, but the sweet inflection in her voice made it sound like he was hearing it right inside his head, in a dream.
“It’s way past your promised time, bhau, you’ve got to stop and come at once!”
“Hey, hey! Get off the pitch,” Ranjit Singh sounded irritated, and Abhimanyu turned around to look at who was causing this scene in the middle of their match.
A young woman, slender and about twenty years old, was standing in the middle of the pitch, dressed in a blue form-fitting salwar-kameez and a flowing cream dupatta. It was a simple yet tasteful outfit, Abhimanyu noted. Had he seen her at the party?
Abhimanyu was trying to place her in his mind when his eyes were drawn to her feet. The milky skin looked whiter in contrast to the reddish-brown field of the maidan, but it was her worn-out sandals that gave her away. She was a commoner, Abhimanyu realised. But there was nothing common about her beauty. He wondered who she was calling out to.
His question was answered as Kamal left his position at the crease and rushed to her.
“Meera! Get off the pitch, there’s a match going on. I am almost done,” he said as quietly as he could, but by then, everybody was listening in.
“It’s way past twelve! You had to go to the hospital!” the girl protested.
Kamal looked around, embarrassed. There were two princes waiting on him. “I need half an hour,” he said in a hushed tone to the girl who was clearly his sister. Clearly, she couldn’t care less.
“The dispensary closes for lunch in thirty minutes. If you miss that, Ma won’t get the medicine till evening. It’ll be very late!” she countered.
“Fine, I’ll go get it myself.”
By then, Shivaji Park had come to a halt, glued to this family drama. Abhimanyu noticed that only Kamal looked flustered. Meera, on the other hand, stood stoically, barely noticing the crowd.
“Fine. Let’s go,” said Kamal, giving in. He turned to Ranjit sheepishly. “Ranjitji, I am extremely sorry. Urgent family matter. Please have someone take over.”
“Till I get you next time,” Abhimanyu called out to Kamal with a wry smile that betrayed his dejection.
“Can’t wait,” Kamal doffed his cap to the prince and followed his sister.
Ranjit Singh threw up his hands in exasperation. His star player leaving meant that the match was no longer his to win.
As she got off the pitch, Meera turned to see if Kamal was behind her. That’s when, just for a fraction of a second, Meera and Abhimanyu’s eyes met. His still filled with defeat, hers exuding a quiet confidence – a look Abhimanyu knew right then he would never forget.
Fourteen balls later, the match was over as Abhimanyu made short work of the opposition’s tail. He left the park in a hurry, eager to gather his thoughts. A mere twenty-four hours in Bombay and his Ranakpour days seemed like another life to him. He was swaying in the new world like an unmoored ship, and now drifting towards a girl he hadn’t even met.
Excerpted with permission from The Prince and the Nightingale, Abhishek Bhatt, HarperCollins India.
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