This is a short story that was written in three small installments
It was a blazing summer afternoon. The dusty maidaan seemed rippling under the intense summer sun. Yet, at the northern end there was a wide white stall decorated with multi-coloured festoons and balloons. Hanging from the front of the roof was a cloth banner that read ‘Annual Sports Day, Vilvattam Senior Secondary School’.
Uniformed children were sitting in big groups outside the oval perimeter drawn with chalk powder. When they were not cheering for their favourites, they talked, sang songs and picked fights over sharing the precious glucose powder given by the teachers. They were having a hell of a good time. The static on the loudspeaker indicated that the microphone was turned on. Nobody paid attention to the announcer, who was in fact Malathi teacher seated behind a covered metal table inside the stall. Her naturally loud voice ensured that she was the announcer by choice, every year.
”… and ask Mary teacher to come soon”, a broken piece of an earlier conversation inadvertently screamed through the loudspeakers. “Sorry. Next, we have the boys’ 100 meters dash”. Suddenly, silence prevailed among the noisy crowd. This was one event that everyone had been waiting for. “The participants are…”. She called out the first name - Ajith, chest number 431 from the Blue team. He was short but a good runner. In fact, he was the youngest compared to others by atleast 8 months, thanks to his early admission.
Next, she called out for Prithvi, chest number 312 from the Red team. However, nobody heard his chest number because by the time his name was uttered, the crowd went crazy. The girls started cheering ‘Prithvi, Prithvi, Prithvi…’ from the southern end of the ground waving bright red flags. Prithvi spent the early part of his childhood in Mumbai. He looked more well-built and fairer than others in his class. It seemed that even other teams cheered for him. He was clearly the crowd’s favourite for this event.
Then, she hesitantly pronounced Pra-dhyu-man, chest number 621 from the Green team. A few random cheers could be heard from the Green camp. Pradhyuman looked a bit too on the heavier side for an athlete. He was a late discovery when Jijo Sir found him throwing stones at the school’s mango trees and chased him. He could run like the wind. He was surprised when they called out his name because he was busy stuffing a handful of glucose powder into his mouth. But he quickly swallowed and waved, at particularly no one, with a big smile.
Finally, she called out for Ashwin, chest number 691 from Yellow team. Instead of cheering, the announcement was received with a brief silence and then hushed conversations. That lean Ashwin? A strong wind blows and he will fly away’, Jijo sir joked in a hushed voice to his colleague. He was indeed a surprising choice. Yellow team had no good runners this time. Sharath was supposed to represent them but his parents had called in to say that he was down with viral fever.
Ashwin was a terribly lean kid. He used to barely finish his lunch and run outside to play cricket before anyone came to claim the crude bat made from the thick end of a coconut tree branch. In fact, no one ever saw him eat anything. In class, he fiddled with pencils and fidgeted at his seat till the bell rang. He was not quite good with studies and his marks barely crossed single digits. He wasn’t particularly good at anything and he didn’t have many friends either.
Jijo sir, wearing a white bowler hat and an even-whiter pair of sports shoes, raised the whistle to his lips. On that cue, Prithvi struck a perfect sprinter’s pose while others stood looking quite unsure. The whistle blew and everyone was off the mark.
* * *
It was five in the evening and Malathi teacher came back to her seat after the tea break. She announced the concluding program for the day - the award ceremony. The winners’ podium was setup in front of the stall. The school principal stood a little ahead and a teacher holding a tray of medals and small trophies, stood next to him. “The winner of the boys’ 100 meters dash is”, she paused for effect, “Ashwin!” In his characteristic restlessness, Ashwin climbed up the platform that had a bit ‘1’ painted in front and fidgeted nervously. The principal, with his benevolent smile, garlanded him with a gold medal.
Some time later Malathi continued, “The winner of boys’ long jump is… Ashwin!”. Ashwin quickly pocketed his earlier medal and ran towards the podium. Soon his pocket wouldn’t be enough. Triple jump, High jump, Relay race and even Javelin throw gold medals would find its way into his pockets. Ashwin turned out to be the winner of the Best Athelete of the year trophy. He single-handedly elevated the Yellow team to overall champions.
* * *
The next day at school, Jijo sir lined up the students of class 6B for the Physical Education period after the assembly. ‘Where is Ashwin?’, he asked. ‘Oh, he must be in the hospital now’, someone joked from behind. The Sir replied with a knowing smile, ‘Oh no, he is not’.
The school’s football ground was flanked from the north by a narrow strip of banana plantations. Jijo sir picked up the football and tossed it to Prithvi. Soon the class formed two teams and started an ad-hoc match. Jijo sir walked over the short rickety wooden bridge over the canal separating the ground and the plantation.
He strolled noiselessly into the thicket of banana trees. Further ahead was a bright sunlit open patch where he found Ashwin holding the cricket bat practicing imaginary shots.
“Noticed that the bat was missing. Guessed it would be you”
Sir’s voice startled Ashwin. He was almost prepared to run. But one look at the Sir and he realised that he was not in trouble. However, he shook his head as if he would be reprimanded soon.
“Why didn’t you come to class? You are almost a hero now”
“I didn’t feel like coming. I don’t think I am that type”
Ashwin looked into Sir’s eyes as if searching for the right words.
“You know… I am not strong like Prithvi or bright like Vikas. Yesterday I got lucky. But I don’t think I will ever be a ‘Hero’”
“Heroes are not extraordinary people, Ashwin. They are people like you and me who get into situations where something extraordinary is expected. They are the ones who put their best foot forward at the right time. Just like you did. Yesterday.”
“Yes, then I had nothing to lose. But now it’s different. It is like a weird feeling.”
“You better get used to that feeling now. It is called getting popular”, Sir added with a sly smile.
Ashwin gave a rare and beautiful smile in return, “Maybe you are right. Besides, it was not my best yesterday”, he joked.
The conversation became more friendly now. Ashwin seemed comfortable in opening up in the company of Jijo sir. He felt like he could trust him.
“So what does you father do?”, Sir asked.
“Oh, he works in a rubber plantation at Plakunnu. I generally help him in the morning. By 8’o clock we would finish tapping. Then, Amma would call us for congee. She would dress me up for school and sometimes walk with me till the market. I walk from there.”
Jijo sir visualised the scene in his mind as he listened intently. A ten year old running swiftly through the undulating terrain of Plakunnu. Speeding down the steep slopes and hopping over the tiny streams. Every morning, every single day of his life. Relentless practise. The making of a true athlete.
The entire 45 minute period they spent talking in that plantation. Then, they walked back to class together.
* * *
It looked like seven in the evening when it was only four. Skies were ominously overcast when Ashwin left school. Shortly it began drizzling and by the time he reached the market on the way home, it was pouring heavily.
He didn’t have an umbrella, so he waited inside Chandrettan tea shop. Whenever the downpour mellowed down slightly he was tempted to dash homeward. Chandrettan advised him against that idea since it was too far and the road was dark anyways.
About an hour later, the rain reduced to a drizzle and Chandrettan gave Ashwin a heavy steel torch. He showed him how to use it (strobing it on and off sparingly). He told him stay on the roads and avoid shortcuts. Armed with the torch, Ashwin started out in the quiet drizzle.
After about a kilometre from the market, he felt like he was being followed. He gets this feeling sometimes and it generally turns out to a squirrel or a cat. But this time, it sounded like footsteps.
He began to walk faster. He could hear footsteps sloshing faster through the mud. He started to run. Then he noticed, further ahead of the road, two figures looking at him. He slowed down and looked at them more carefully. It was Prithvi and Pradhyuman in school uniform.
Ashwin instinctively sensed danger. He turned and ran back.
“Da!…Stop!”. That was Prithvi’s voice.
It was like sports day all over again. Ashwin’s feet were a blur. He was speeding like a rocket through the drizzle. Prithvi and Pradhyman tried to catch up in vain.
However, Ashwin noticed someone else standing at the other end of the road. He almost slipped as he came to a sudden stop. It was little Ajith.
“Da… please don’t run. We want to say something”, he pleaded.
Behind them, Prithvi and Pradhyuman slowed down to a halt. They both looked flabbergasted.
“What’s… what’s wrong with… you man?”, Pradhyuman panted as he gasped for air.
“I thought…”, Ashwin hesitated, “you guys were trying to get back to me for the sports day”
Prithvi stepped forward and put his hand on Ashwin’s shoulder, “Forget about that. You were better than us. You won. What’s wrong with that?”
“Then why were you following me?”
“Sit down. Let’s talk”
Prithvi sat atop one of the milestones next to the road. The others gathered around him. The rain had stopped.
“Ashwin, what we are going to tell you next is a secret. You must promise not to tell anyone else.”
“Ok”, shrugged Ashwin.
“It’s a flashback”, quipped Pradhyman.
“Yes, it is a flashback”, Prithvi continued gravely, “ I don’t know if you know this. But the land where our school is and everything surrounding it was once owned by a Menon”
“Parameshwaran Menon, who lives behind our school?”, asked Ashwin
“No. That is his son. It belonged to Madhavan Menon. He is no more. Unlike his son, he was really nice man. He used to love children. Long time ago, he offered the land for our school and playground.”
“However, during his last days he was very ill and was treated by his son quite badly. Though, he had prepared his Will gifting the school property to the school trust, his son did not want to let go of that land. So he prepared another Will and forced his father to sign that”
“People say that he killed him soon after”, Pradhyman added in a hushed voice. Ajith shuddered when he heard that.
“Ashwin”, Prithvi lowered his voice, “we need you to get that new Will”.
“Because you are the fastest among us. We have tried before and failed. Do you think Pradhyuman was caught near Menon’s property because he was trying to steal mangoes?”
“Well, not just the mangoes”, Pradhyuman quickly corrected.
Ashwin fell silent. He remembered what Jijo sir said in the morning. Extraordinary situations. Stepping up. Being a hero.
“How do I know that you guys are not taking me for a ride?”
“We will be with you at every step”
“And what do I get?”
“You will join our club - the Daredevils”
Ashwin gave an amused look.
“We call this operation - Blue Star”, added Pradhyman enthusiastically. He pulled his sleeve and held up his arm for Ashwin to see. It had a star drawn with a blue ballpoint pen. “Blue-Star, get it?”, he chortled.
Ashwin gave a genial smile. They knew it was almost a silent consent. He loved the idea. He always wanted to be part of a gang. A band of brothers, of some sorts.
Prithvi stretched out his hand towards Ashwin, palm facing upwards. Ashwin carefully placed his hand on it. Soon others joined.
And in that cold and damp night, they hatched a plan
Inside the classroom, someone passed a bundle wrapped in a handkerchief to Ashwin. After he made sure that no one is watching he eagerly opened it. It contained an old Nokia cellphone, a small ball of twine, Odomos mosquito cream and a black ring-shaped toroidal magnet.
While the Science teacher’s voice droned on, Ashwin’s eyes glazed over and yesterday’s conversations played back in front of his eyes.
“Ok, this is the final plan”, said Prithvi. “Every Tuesday, Menon goes to Coimbatore to collect the weekly dues from his shops. He leaves early in the morning and comes back by around 2 pm. He has a Nepali watchman who guards near the gate. He takes a lunch break around 11:30 for about thirty minutes. That is the only time window we have.”
“How do you know all this?”, Ashwin remembers asking.
“We have our sources”, Prithvi answered enigmatically, “Menon also has a huge British Bulldog unchained at that time. It’s bigger than any of us. We once tried drugging it by mixing sleeping powder with rice. But it gobbled it all and walked away nonchalantly. So the only option is to distract it. That will be my job. I will try to make noises from the west-end across the canal. Since the dog doesn’t swim, I can hold it’s attention for sometime.”
“Ajith was able to enter Menon’s property through a small fox hole in the evening. He found a wooden ladder near a mango tree and kept it against the tall brick wall towards south. Tomorrow, during the P.E. period, Ashwin and Pradhyuman will have to climb the mango tree on the school side. With the ladder, you will be able to cross the wall without touching the glass shards on it.”
“Pradhyuman will stand near the outhouse behind the bungalow and Ashwin will have to climb to the balcony from the outside. If Pradhyuman hears the guard approaching he will give Ashwin a missed call. As soon as Ashwin finds the Will, he will give a missed call to Pradhyuman. It will give him a headstart to run back.”
“Ashwin!”, shouted the Science teacher. “Yes, sir”, he answered. “Which world are you in? Pay attention!“.
It was 10:45 and time for Jijo sir’s class. The football match was going on with nearly the entire class in the field. Prithvi had warned that if everyone disappeared at the same time it would raise suspicion. So they left, in turns.
Finally it was Ashwin’s turn and when nobody was watching, he slipped into the banana plantations. He took out the Odomos cream and quickly applied it all over himself. It was Ajith’s idea to avoid leaving any smell trails for search dogs later on. He pocketed the contents of the handkerchief and used to it to mask his nose and mouth.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the football fell just a couple of feet ahead of him. It seemed to roll towards where he was hiding. His blood froze. In a flash, Jijo sir appeared and kicked the ball back into the playground. He didn’t seem to have noticed him.
He lifted the whistle and signalled everyone to move further on. That was when Ashwin noticed something strange when Sir’s sleeve drew downwards. It was the unmistakable mark of a blue star. Sir was in it all along! Without even sharing a glance, Sir moved on in a practised jog.
Ashwin felt more relieved now. He met Pradhyuman near the wall. As they quietly climbed down the ladder, they could hear the woofs of the Bulldog from afar. They exchanged a knowing smile. They waited till the guard stepped into the outhouse.
Ashwin found the climb to second floor easier than he had expected, thanks to the numerous parapets. He entered through the balcony door and found a spacious bedroom. After a bit of searching around, he found the office. It had a Godrej safe almost the size of a small fridge.
As he was told, he found a bundle of keys hung on a nail. He took out the twine with the magnet tied to one end. He swung up the magnet a couple of times till he was able to pull out the keys. He picked the key marked ‘Godrej’ and inserted into the safe’s keyhole. It opened with a satisfying click. This is too easy, Ashwin thought.
Suddenly he heard a noise outside. He rushed to the window. Menon was back! He briskly opened the front gate and entered. Ashwin was almost paralysed by fear. He still did not have the document. He and Pradhyuman would almost certainly get caught and even arrested.
Ashwin made up his mind. He pulled out his mobile and gave a missed call. It seemed like the right thing to do. Time to step up.
* * *
Menon was agitated. It was a hartaal in Coimbatore and nothing went as planned. In fact, the trip was almost wasted. Then, he heard someone running in his backyard. He rushed to find out what was happening. By the time he reached, he noticed a stout boy with a covered face running away in a distance.
The Nepali guard wearing a lungi and a rifle in one hand, came running out of the outhouse. He looked confused and at the same time he was surprised to find Menon in the backyard.
Just then he heard another person running away. This time it seemed slightly closer but the pace was definitely faster. With a look of disgust, Menon snatched the rifle from the guard and started chasing the person.
He realised that the thief was planning to escape into the banana plantations. It would be impossible to trace him once he entered those dense plants. He took aim and fired. The person stopped running. Menon quickly positioned himself at the wide clearing before the plantations. Now, there was no way anyone can escape without getting shot at.
* * *
Ashwin’s back was pressed against an old mango tree. The Will was tightly clutched in his hands. He could hear Menon from a distance. “Da… you are dead, you know that?”. He remembered Menon’s bloodshot eyes he saw a few minutes back. It was the eyes of a murderer. He instinctively knew that he meant every word he said.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He remembered his father recounting a swine hunting trip to him. He was accompanying a foreigner who knew how to use the rifle. They almost cornered a massive swine. But it simply ran towards them. The foreigner fired and missed. The closer the swine, he had explained sagely, the harder it is to shoot.
“So you are not going to come out?”, he could hear Menon’s voice. He was about twenty feet away now. Looking over the rifle perched on his shoulders, Menon began to take measured steps towards the tree where Ashwin was hiding.
Ashwin’s eyes were still tightly shut. As the sound of footsteps drew closer, he kept repeating in his mind - “The closer the swine… the closer the swine… the closer the swine”
Menon was now just six feet away from his target. He gripped the handle of the trigger tighter. Like a cat, he noiselessly took another step. Suddenly to his left, something rolled down from behind the tree. As he rapidly aimed the rifle, he realised that it was just a boulder. A decoy. The boy had already made a blinding dash to his right.
Ashwin ran like the wind. He felt the cool breeze on his face as he was moving farther and farther from his intended exit. Would the ladder be still there, he wondered. He surprised himself by smiling at that thought. His run seemed so surreal.
He could hear the indistinct barks of the bulldog, the yelling Nepali and the hoarse cries of Menon. It was all a blur now. He stopped and looked down. The peaceful gurgle of the water in the canal seemed inviting. He dived straight in.
* * *
TWO DAYS LATER
Lunch break had only twenty minutes left. The boys were busy driving the stumps on the ground and standing in their positions. Ajith was lucky and got the first chance to bat.
Just as the bowler was about to throw, he stopped. At the far end, Ashwin was slowly ambling towards the ground. He noticed that everyone was looking at him now.
“Do you want to bat?”, asked Ajith loudly.
Moments later, Ashwin stood inside the crease holding the bat. As he surveyed the field, he noticed that almost everyone was looking at him admiringly. He understood that they knew. He couldn’t help smiling.