The tiny kitchen was like a cage. And, I hopped around like a canary, going about getting the bhindi fry done. The dal was done, sitting pretty in my melamine casserole. I searched for the lid to cover the dal.
‘Sh%##! When did this lid break?”, I was staring at a perfect hole where the knob should have been.
I slid a steel plate over the casserole and went back to the bhindi that was now, oozing gluey strings, a sign that it was still not done. I went to the sink, which was really a dark, chipped cauldron of shabby mosaic. I wanted to wash the last batch of plates before the guests came.
Jatin would be back in thirty minutes, with four friends from the bank, where he worked. I needed to get the meal ready, the baby bathed and dressed and table laid before that.
I had taken a quick shower and changed into a pair of jeans and a cotton top.
‘Hope she does not wake up before that’, I muttered desperately. I was dog tired.
‘Last Ball. 4 runs needed’, I heard a shout from the lane below.
We stayed in Shanti Nagar, a small suburban colony in Jabalpur, since Jatin and I got married two years back. A narrow, uneven path clawed its way away from a byzantine cluster of roads towards this clump of shabby houses in Mamata Colony. Each building had two-bedroom flats on the ground, first and second floors, with narrow, chipped staircases trudging upwards, alongside discoloured, peeling walls.
I rose on my toes to get a glimpse out of the window. A colony match seemed to be poised for a last-ball photo-finish.
My mind drifted back, to that exciting day spent in front of the TV in the doctors’ home.
‘Yorker, please God, a yorker.’
I remember how my clammy palms curled into fiery, cinder lumps. My heart was pummelling my ribs, maybe trying to escape to get a better view of the TV.
Chetan Sharma dug his heals in. Chandrakant Pandit punched one gloved fist into the other and crouched behind the stumps, a safe distance, anticipating the pace.
Miandad looks skywards with a soundless prayer, that laboured to reach God’s ears over the noisy raging fury sweeping the stands.
Roger Binny dusted his pants and took stance, his knee stinging from that fall off a superb stop down at short fine leg in the last ball.
Last ball. Pakistan needed four runs to win.
Javed yelled at Tauseef Ahmed: ‘Whatever happens, we have to run. Hit or miss … just run.’
I could not bear to look. I held the satin cushion close to my face, allowing my eyes just a peek from behinds its tasselled edges. The stadium was roaring, in contrast to my sombrely silent home. My parents were at the clinic : doctors did not get any days off. The maid had finished her chores, laying out my meal on the table, in the pristine, white crockery with gold edges. She had served me my favourite, Mulligatawny soup, in the TV room and left. The soup lay on the tea trolley, turning cold, as I remained fixated on the blur of blue and green figures on the television.
Chetan Sharma was sprinting down his run-up. Javed Miandad had taken stance, his eyes, narrowed in a resolute glance. The ball lurched out of the bowler’s arm, arching to reach the batsman, where he must have prayed for it to reach : full, coming onto the bat. He heaved his bat with all his strength, and the ball changed its course, and on a faster, longer flight, now, over the ropes.
‘It’s a six! Pakistan have won the match. It’s unbelievable.’
I dropped my cushion, and slid from the sofa on the carpet below. Maybe, I forgot to even breathe for the next few seconds. The shock, the pain, the anger, a pot-pourri knocked me out. I lost track of time for a while, but not before throwing the remote control at the TV.
Jatin was washing up, as he yelled,
‘Ira, the boys will take half-hour more to reach.’
I was dressing the baby, our podgy, four-month old doll we had named ‘Jeena’. She grasped my hair, gurgling messages to me, as I pulled her frilly red romper over her powdered body. The most difficult part in this job was combing her thick mop of unruly hair into some semblance of neatness and securing it with those teddy-bear clips that Jatin had got for her from Mumbai, during his last tour.
I hugged my baby. She made my fatigue go away!
‘Ok. Everything is ready. I will take Jaanu to the park now since there is time.’
‘Ok, do pick up some ice-cream on your way back. That one, in which you get a pack free with one.’
I placed Jeena in her pram, and secured the belt, pushing it out of the way of the furniture in the 10 feet X10 feet hall that was, already crammed with a brown-coloured sofa, a TV set with its crocheted cover, and a centre table.
As I lifted the rickety, second-hand pram, carrying it down the staircase from my first-floor apartment, I realised how awfully tired I was. I had been up since 6 am, cleaning the house and cooking. The few moments I had to grab some rest were ruined by Jeena waking up and wanting to play with me.
Jatin helped as much as he could, with the housework, but his job was pretty demanding, keeping him away on tours, mostly. His handsome face, though still young like it should be, for a twenty-five year old, showed creases of exhaustion. I felt guilty that I could not support, financially. I had dropped a couple of years at college and was now, completing my final year of graduation. Maybe, once a graduate, I could start earning, as well.
I pram got wedged between two slabs of uneven stones in the narrow lane below the house. I tried to jiggle the wheels free. I did not work. I then, hoisted it back on its rear wheels which helped in prying the front wheel free.
I circled around the block and reached the park. It was really a bare, dusty patch of open ground where groups of boys played games in the evenings. The periphery had some benches and trees that sheltered the benches. I would sit there and watch them play.
I dusted my favourite bench, with a large leaf and sat down. Jeena had lulled into a slumber. I covered her with a blanket, and stationed the pram next to me.
‘Aah’, escaped my lips as I sat on the bench. My sore back felt an instant relief.
The game of cricket unfolding in front of me seemed to have reached some kind of exciting stage, as was evident by the body-language, yelling and screaming. It made me smile, taking me back to those carefree days spent in front of the television. I never missed not having any sibling, or the parents who were, perpetually, at the hospital. Cricket was my lifeline.
In fact, Jatin and I had bonded over the game. I remember, I was in Class 11, and we had arranged for a screening of the India-Pakistan match that was being played at Sharjah The girls and boys settled on the durries, with chips and cold drinks. As the match progressed, the frenzy had grown around pillow-fights, and flirting, not so much the game itself. Except Jatin and me. We analysed every move, every ball, every stroke, wincing at every bad ball, and cursing every swing of the bat through air.
And, we fell in love.
The doctors were livid. They wanted me to study medicine, or something equally important, though they were not sure anything like that existed. They had already stacked brochures of high-browed colleges from the U.S. But, they were all an irrelevant blur on a love-laden mind. I was pining for Jatin and he, for me. He was a year older, and wanted to study medicine. And, I, well, I had never really thought about it. Or discussed with anyone. I did not have many friends. And, at home, my closest companions were the frills on my pretty bedcovers that curled around me, protectively, at night. But, there was one thing I was sure of: I did not want to be a doctor. I did not want to be a cold, steely, sanitized object; I wanted to be a person, a wife, and most importantly, what the doctors could never be: a parent.
‘I can wait, till you complete your studies.’
‘We can get married, and continue studying.’
‘Your parents will make your life miserable, darling.’
‘What do we do?’
We were young, scared. The lonely childhoods we had had made us cling to each other with a wanton rebelliousness. And, one day, when the doctors were travelling to New York, on a medical conference, we got married. I had never looked back, like the batsman who walked away from the crease, without waiting for the umpire’s finger to go up.
There was a collective groan. The young, twelve-something batsman had swung his bat and missed. He was now looking at the tip of his bat, trying to shift the blame to it, as his team mates gathered around him, with sundry advice.
‘Last Ball. 4 runs needed’, I heard the fielder fielding at deep midwicket, close to where I was sitting, yell.
The familiar tingle, creepy feeling of anticipation slithered up my back. Would the batting team pull it off?
The heated deliberation at the pitch had now dissipated and the fielders scampered back to their positions. The bowler started measuring his run-up.
My heart marked each step the bowler was taking with a loud thump.
The audience of the twenty-odd people yelled their inputs, the balloon vendor, the most vociferous, but like his balloons, full of gas.
The bowler turned and gave the batsman the customary angry, threatening look, his eyes narrow, his mouth curling around his barely-sprouted moustache.
The batsman, accustomed to the tricks of the trade, focused on taking stance.
The bowler sprinted towards the pitch, running with his hands tucked to his sides, and, completed his action with jump, his hand swinging in a whip-like fashion.
The ball whizzed out of his hand. The batsman was alert, swinging his bat, in firm, confident swoosh. The bat and ball connected.
My heart raced.
A cracking, wholesome sound, and the ball ejected into a pull shot, towards the midwicket boundary. I looked at the fielder nervously.
‘Will he catch it?’
The fielder took position, but the ball was way too fast and elevated.
It missed him completely, and landed in the old, rickety pram right behind, and all I heard was a sickening crunch.