Sports, Luck and Dhoni

What is difference between a T20, a fifty overs match and a Test match? Is there a hidden dissimilarity? The game essentially remains the same, the ball, the bat, the pitch, stump height, the rules (more or less) and the players (not always). Then why is it that some teams can consistently play well and win in one format but look pedestrian in another?

More interesting questions: Why do teams manage over 200 runs in a T20 while in fifty over game they struggle to reach 300? And why 400 runs in fourth innings (even on a good pitch) in nearly unlimited overs (100 to 120) are nigh impossible? How come Dale Steyn is carted for over 20 runs in an over by average players but in test matches, they can’t lay bat to his deliveries?

Let’s begin with a ride. Why do we love to play Candy Crush? I am sure you have played it or its avatars.  It looks so silly at times to slide fingers over a smart phone, but let’s face it, everyone does it. Why? The answer I presume is not that we love sweets or chocolates (though it is a nudging factor) but is the nature of the game. It involves lots of luck and only a little bit of smartness. If you lose, you say it was luck, if you win, you can silently pat your ego for being smart. In a way it is a win-win situation bringing you fun overall.  Will we play chess like this? I can’t imagine, because chess is essentially a game that diminishes the luck aspect totally. In chess, no one can ever benefit from random distribution, a lucky move (as in board games) or from a benevolent bounce of the delivery (cricket, tennis and others). If you win, it entirely proves that you are smarter than the opponent. Even in card games, when the experience of the players starts to converge, it is the lucky one who is dealt all the aces, wins. Sometimes even a novice beat a seasoned player (kids love beating the fathers in card games). But in chess, a novice never wins. If players are equal in ability, the one who is more alert on the day, may win but still, he can’t be called lucky. Chess

Unlike most sports, chess begins on the same board with same pieces arranged in the same spots. There is no toss, wind, sunlight, a line call or injured players to induce luck. Some other games are similar like checkers, but chess’s possibilities make it vastly superior. In spite of an absolute lack of unpredictability, it is hugely popular as well.

So we have two extremes for sports, one is coin toss and the other an intense physical and mental battle. Both can be unspectacular unless some fun is injected by rule bending. If I can represent graphically, it would look like this.Sports

The popular games will always be slightly high on luck factor because watching unpredictability is easier than facing. Uncertainty also keeps the underdogs interested and hopeful of toppling a giant team or a player. Sports which have no element of luck like Badminton struggle to penetrate for viewership. This is of course not to say that only sports with luck are popular. Olympic track and field events are hugely popular but they owe viewership to sense of event. Imagine watching 100 m or a wrestling match or a shot put event every month!

Soccer too has an element of luck which introduces unpredictability and hence reduces the dominance of perennial favourites. True, some teams dominate but others are never out of contention. Where else do we see a rank outsider Senegal beating France or Cameroon stunning Argentina?

original_bee-ball-optimum-basketball-nettennis-ball-on-line

Why Tennis and Test cricket are high on intensity while low on luck? Primarily because a lucky line call or a streaky boundary might give you a point or a run, they can’t win you the match. In limited overs match though, a couple of lucky hits, wickets or even dot balls can make the difference.  And remember, there are no second chances in limited over cricket.

This is not to say that players who excel in shorter format don’t have these attributes, but test cricket does require a lot of patience, perseverance and grit. To turn a test match is no joke; it needs a sustained high quality performance to tilt it, even more to turn it in your favour.

The length of a test match is much like life. It helps to avoid luck dominating the game. It helps to avoid the impact of streaky patches of chance and bolsters it with the requirement of fortitude. If it were not there, we would see a lot of inferior teams winning test matches and no one likes that. In life too, an odd bump doesn’t bother us if we know the path is the correct one. A man lacking depth will eventually be caught short in the long run. It is the depth.

 

In IPL, every year all the teams have chances of qualifying till the end. Usually they are separated by a run or a decimal. This is pure randomness. Who are the players who excel in this? Those who are not only brilliant players of shorter version but are masters of cashing on randomness. MS Dhoni is such a master. Using his influence as captain, he loves bringing every game to a state where a stroke or a wicket can decide the game.  If a chase comes to a point where 120 runs are needed in 20 overs, instead of batting with sustained aggression, he would stretch it to make a game of chance. He would bring the equation to say, 75 in 10 and then 40 in 4 overs. At this state, the opposing captain will not have a choice but to gamble. He would forget ideas of field setting or wicket taking and would indulge in pure run stopping tactics. Before I proceed, let me clarify, there is nothing unethical in Dhoni’s methods. Many teams other teams have tried these as I would talk later.

Dhoni works hard to find himself in a 10 balls-22 runs situation. He loves it. This introduces randomness in the game. An edge can fly over third man, a catch might be dropped or the bowler may drift to leg side under pressure. All such things help the batting side. Moreover Dhoni, invariably the senior batsman in such a state, hits the ball out of the ground with his muscular swing and wins it. Dhoni becomes a hero while the audience and fans are left to bite the nails.

Australia is the team which has most narrow wins and losses. Curious? Especially when since 1987, they have been the most dominating team. An answer lies in these tactics. If they would lose wickets while chasing, they would let the match dawdle, aiming to bring down the equation to less than 25 runs in the last over. This would get them back in the game. Not only 15-25 runs can be scored by a few hits, under pressure mis-fields, overthrows too increase and help you. This is why Australia always lost by narrower margin. Many a times players like Michael Bevan scored boundaries of the last or penultimate deliveries to win the games. I recall once Brett Lee scored 11 off three balls in a Sydney ODI to win it for Australia. Now that takes a lot of courage too and indeed is a great attribute to have. But this doesn’t work in test matches.

A test match cannot be brought to a lottery state where it can be decided by a swing or two. A few fortunate happenings will even out in the day itself. This is where a quality player excels. He needs to bat or bowl session after session with the same intensity, aggression and most importantly, with the same calibre. This is indeed very tough. VVS Laxman did this for five sessions against the world’s best in Kolkata 2001! His effort produced possibly the greatest cricketing contest.

Five deliveries compared to five sessions. Which one do you prefer?

Batting in cricket depends a lot on horizon. Arguably, every delivery can be hit out of the park- even the ones delivered from stratosphere by Ambrose and Garner. But all deliveries cannot dismiss the batsman. In reality, the best deliveries are the ones that the batsmen manage to escape. Batting depends on the match state and batsman’s mind-set. So, if the horizon is an over, it is not at all a heroic act to hit sixes against Dale Steyn, even two or three in the over. In fact, it is more like a gamble that paid off. It does need however, a basic capability of hand eye coordination and a good swing. Further, in T20 situations, if a batsman fails, he has nothing to lose, especially if he has scored well in his previous innings. So with that knowledge, he can always swing with abandon. If the same state becomes surviving a whole day against Dale Steyn bowling at his will, scoring even a hundred runs becomes a challenge for most batsmen.

The more you shorten the game, the more it hinges on a few events- most of them can be pure luck. Try playing a one over game. The outcome of a match between international teams would not be far away from the randomness of a coin flip.

Meeting a Successful Manager

I am an unsuccessful person. Primarily because I always find the person in front of me more suave, more confident and as a result I am compelled to believe that he or she earns more than me. However strongly I wish to feel successful, I also dread that my world might crumble if I am satiated with my state.  I don’t know what success is. But most of us know – a person  earns more or has a flashier title (presumably manager) is more successful- works manager (seventies), maintenance manager, quality control manager, general manager and more recently, the real fancy ones- Portfolio Manager-Americas, Potential Markets Manager- Europe, MEAF Resourcing Manager and  Asia-pacific Emerging Business Venture Manager – whatever that means.

Who am I? I am an engineer. That’s all.

Sometime ago I had a chance to meet this lovely young manager (unmarried) and probably younger to me. An invisible canopy wrapped around him proclaimed, rather shouted- I am a successful. I had noticed him in meetings and in cafeteria and in the car park, he was always turbocharged. All his days were apparently positive. He was never grumpy (an emotion experienced many times even by Sachin Tendulkar), and never did his body language reflected his mind. Every business except for drug smuggling has dull days (even stock market); our business too had its tidal motions, but our successful manager never flinched from his state of positivity. To sum up, he was always in total control. He was thinly built but packed a punch in his voice that could dislodge Mohammad Ali.

He held a business related managerial position; the title was of course more exciting than his work. We interacted in a session of business improvement (what else) and set up a time to know more about each other.

So I met him, with an obvious intent of finding his seemingly fool proof plan of success. Did I find one?

In thirty minutes, the “talk” was over.  I came out the room with mixed feelings. The dialogue was not a total waste, he had enriched me.

We talked from the value of technical knowledge in the corporate to the value of relationships, stopping in between to talk about success. In our dynamic manager’s words, he was successful but in my opinion, he hardly had a clue how he became one. He was happy about it, but did not question if he deserved it. I was sure if he were asked to tread the path from the beginning again, he would not be able to reach the point where he currently stood. I anticipated that like many, he had benefitted a lot from luck and contextual events rather than from a well planned expedition.

 

Our manager told me how he grabbed every opportunity that came his way. He talked with conviction, he walked with purpose and he presented with a vision. I believed him. He narrated me instances when he faced awkward choices but came out with the correct. And in quick time. He told me he had an uncanny knack of finding what people like to hear, especially managers. He had worked on it for years to master it. He hinted me that unless I emulate his ways, I better call myself a failure. He made me agree.

 I listened him wondering if he would narrate to me his biggest goof ups with the same charm. Would he recollect when he fell, and tell me what he learned from it? Would he care to explain how silly he looked when he fumbled? Would he share with what he did when he was clueless? Would he reveal that a decision he took in a week proved disastrous and the one he embraced in a flash proved fulfilling? Would he tell me that during the most nervous moments of his presentation, the top boss went to answer a phone? Would he tell me that he happened to spot a potential threat just because he was present at the moment by default? Would he tell me that the positive changes he sprung up were actually a result of something else?

 I realised soon that he wouldn’t.  Or maybe he had never failed or had never benefitted from divine intervention, unlike most of us. But if that is true, he has leaned nothing. I soon realised that there was nothing to learn for me.

An apology to all the Bosses!

Last night at dinner my daughter, while overhearing a conversation between my wife and myself, asked a question, “Who makes Boss the Boss?”

She isn’t too young but still at eleven, the question is deep enough. I praised her as my mind searched for an answer. Then I came up with this: a verbatim account of what I told her. Did my wife approve it? We‘ll see at the end.

Imagine thousands of monkeys inside a huge building. The monkeys are of different age, agility and smartness. From the ceiling of the gigantic hall they are confined at the moment, bananas appear and are lowered to a tantalizing height. A few monkeys jump hard but can only touch the tip of the lowest hanging banana. Others try harder, almost grabbing a banana but the grip isn’t strong enough. Some others try even harder; they reach within grasping a handful of bananas, but fail to decide which one to grab.

This continues for some time. Afterwards, a few of the monkeys- both young and old decide to take a break from the proven useless attempts- and walk to a corner. They huddle for an hour or so, the break apart. A few of them walk back to the bunch of bananas while others (from the huddle) watch them. Sometime later, the ones which came nearer to the bunch walk back to the huddle and draw some pictures on the nearby wall. For the next hour or so, they keep drawing pictures of monkeys in different positions- upside down, standing, kneeling and bent over and squatting.

 

 

Monkeys

 

After the drawings are done, they start an animated session in which, turn by turn, one of them points to the pictures. Monkey after monkey points to a picture and finally one of the monkeys gets applause in the form of grins from all of the monkeys listening to him (or her). Meanwhile, the monkeys, who were still trying to get the bananas by jumping harder and harder are exhausted, and have fallen down over each other.

The winner monkey walks back to the centre, lets out a war cry by beating his chest. He then lets out a speech in the form of gestures, grins and tail wagging to the fallen monkeys, who start to stand up and look towards him, wide eyed. After numerous grins, pats on the backs and handshakes, the monkeys nod in some agreement. The winner monkey re-arranges the monkeys in the form of a pyramid and climbs over their defeated bodies and crushed souls, reaches with both hands to the bunch of bananas and breaks a couple of them.

“Okay, okay enough!” my daughter interrupted me, “So that’s how you become a boss!”

I wanted to tell her that when bananas at this height are finished, another layer of monkeys is spread and so on…

My wife looked at me and gave me an expression which was neither a smile nor a frown.

Neither of us is a boss.

Trip to Paris

High up in a sixth floor apartment of a suburban town near Delhi, Simran scrolled down the mouse up and down. A post on her social media grabbed her eyes. She clicked it open. It read: …has changed her profile picture.

“Hmm, the bitch must be forty now, but she refuses to believe that her beauty days are well over. Idiot, first get your fucking teeth cleaned, then dare to grit them.” She clicked opened her album. “She never had any dress sense. As if wearing this long, frilled skirt with a clown-like hat would make her a beauty queen,” Simran fumed, scrolling down, stopping to see who had liked it. “What does she want to show? Is she the most glamorous among all? She has not seen real beauty. And her low IQ fan number one Alpana has to like it. Even if she goes for an ovaries transplant, her helper Alpana would “Like” it.”   

 

Paris

The woman that made her furious was her childhood friend Leena, who had moved to Delhi a couple of years ago. Leena was actually a friend of Simran’s elder sister. Leena in childhood was committed to showing off her dolls and jewellary. In college, she flaunted her figure and cloths and now her husband’s wealth in the form of holidays, parties and celebrity connections. She was married to the lone offspring of a family business house that lived and thrived in Delhi since the days of partition. Her husband now owned the business while her father-in-law worked as political grease that helped the ruling party and the corporate to remain in perfect mesh.

To make matters worse, Simran’s husband Jai worked in the company that was partner to the business owned by Leena’s husband.

Simran found another post by Leena.

 This was a set of photos tagged as “Trip to Paris.”  

Simran felt like a girl whose boyfriend was kissed by another girl. For a moment, she forgot the world around her, she felt weak, fragile and brittle. Unknown to her, her hand had already clicked the album.

Her eyes fell on the photos of sunglasses covered Leena and her plump, squishy husband who could be none other than a descendent to the Oranges. In front of Eiffel tower, Leena was kissing him hard on his shaven, porous cheeks. 

Paris, she thought. How much Paris had intrigued her ever since she was a child. When will I go there?

She threw the wireless mouse. In a violent impact, it bounced off the glass tabletop before landing on the sofa. The batteries crashed to the floor and steered in different corners. After rolling for a while, one settled below the dining table, the other struck the glass door. The maid stopped wiping the balcony door, picked it up and without uttering a single word, returned it to Simran.

 “Why do some people have such wonderful lives?”

Lately Leena had started writing prose on social media that irked Simran beyond control. Each photo had a caption too. Romancing the Seine, Kiss at heights… Simran felt her blood was boiling.

With a murderous shove, she closed the notebook and went to the bedroom. She unpinned her long, straight hair. For a minute, she watched herself in the mirror, checking her skin for any new blemishes.  “Thank God,” she exhaled.  Satisfied with the look, she turned sideways to scan her hips and the waist. 

She walked to the living room again. The maid had brought the morning coffee. She coiled up on the sofa with the newspaper, which had an eye grabbing half page advertisement for a new mall opening up shortly. Simran never spent more than two minutes on the news but today something caught her attention. She brushed her eyebrow.

 

She moved her eyes over the nuggets of stories that filled the metro news section.  After reading the entire section, she threw the newspaper away and walked up the balcony with her coffee mug clutched in her left hand.

She stood at the balcony of her tenth floor apartment, watching the azure pool below – mostly calm except when an occasional whiff of wind moved the lucid water. As she sipped her coffee in a white mug, her mind flashed a face in several forms – a moment it was frozen, the next flowing, a moment the she saw an enticing lip line, the next it was drooping; she saw a female figure that would be curvy or distorted at the same moment. She pursed her lips, curled in her eyebrows and stole a glance at her nails. Her eyes kept moving in the wet water. She then turned sideways and smiled to her neighbor, who went inside as soon as she had came out, but the smile on Simran’s face stayed. She stood for another minute, occasionally, she would shake her head to approve or reject an idea. She was watching her plan taking shape.

She sprung back and flipped open her notebook. For the next ten minutes or so, she downloaded pictures with abandon. She then searched for a Bollywood actor and studied her face closely.  Pursing her lips, she picked up a magazine and spread another picture of that actor to match the two. After a minute of shuttling her eyes over the two pictures, she lay back.

Her eyes fell on the wall in front. It had a painting that depicted Punjabi festival “Lohri”. A group of men and girls in colorful costumes was dancing around bonfire that had swelled to huge colors dipped in red, orange and yellow. She had hated it since the day Jai had brought it from a local gallery. She wanted to have a work from a European painter. Below it stood a sculpture of dancing girls from ancient India brought from a trip from Southern India. Beside that, lay a carved table brought from a small town in UP.

Simran scoffed at the décor and got up.

Thirty minutes later, she was at a software store in a mall nearby her building.

“If she can elongate her legs or trim her nose …” Simran thought, entering the lift, thinking hard, “if a woman’s clothes can be removed…” She pressed the floor number in the lift, “I can too strip my walls full of ordinary Indian stuff and pour some European color.” She checked her hair in the metallic wall of the lift, “Why not? Just because my husband thinks… his country is the best. Only me! Only I am the one in my group, who is yet to have a holiday in Paris. And the way my youth is passing by…” she eyed her bosoms and increased the exposed area of soft plump, flesh, “… I will never be able to post pictures of a trip to Paris or London.” A picture of Buckingham palace moved in her mind.

Unlocking the door, she walked into the house. It was perfect for two – comprising of a large bedroom with ample space for changing and a spiraling living hall in L shape. Simran used the guest room to keep her paintings. Ever since marriage, Jai had given her complete control to upkeep the house as per her will and Simran had a done a decent job.

Entering the living room, she stood watching the walls for thirty seconds and then turned around. Her eyes moved from the sofa to the bookshelf and finally to the wall in front.

“Here…” she breathed. She first removed the painting then the sculpture and the carved table. The wall was clear now. “No blemishes, hmm…”

After watching the wall closely for a minute, Simran sat down and turned her laptop on. On her browser, she typed Google.

 

“Simran, what is this? Are you fine?”  Jai kept the coffee mug down as Simran pulled him to stand in front of the wall.

Simran stroked her printed silk dress, ironing out imaginary folds. She then lowered her cleavage, exposing her bright skin. She stood with her hand on her waist. Jai did not notice.

“Painting?” Jai picked up the coffee.

“Removed for cleaning,” Simran said, “Where is the camera?”

“Hmm, not bad, but why?”

“I want to go out today. Nice?” Simran twirled the dress.

“Hmm…” Jai sipped coffee. “First drawer. Can I sit?”

Simran came back as speedily as she had gone, with a camera in her hand.

“Put the mug down,” she said. Her husband obeyed. “Smile now.”

“Can I have my coffee?”

“Wait, what’s the hurry?” Simran handed him the camera. She then walked near the empty wall and stood with right hand caressing her brown hair. “Shoot.”

“What is all this?” After clicking four times, Jai sat down.

Simran took the camera. “Not what I wanted,” Shaking her head she stood up, “I need to change.”

After a few steps into her bedroom, she turned, “You also change.”

Jai kept sipping his coffee, scanning his phone at the same time.

 

“Since when have you become so photo savvy?”

“I told you, photography is my secret desire. I am practicing for a contest,” Simran said, holding the camera. She was watching the photos she had clicked just before leaving the house.

“I’ll have continental today,” she said.

“What? Is this also a secret desire?”

“O honey, we have not eaten out for several months.”

“That’s because I also needed to fulfill my secret desire,” Jai said, stealing a look of his lovely wife, “I needed to save.”

Simran continued to flip her phone.

He stopped at a red light, sped along and stopped again. Simran remain hooked to her phone, her eyes scanning the upward sliding screen.

Jai brought her lips near her cheeks. “Mmm,”

“Okay okay, later…you’ll crumple my saree,” Simran pushed him.

 

Next morning, Simran downloaded all the pictures to her notebook. After selecting some and discarding most, she opened the folder she had populated yesterday.

Her phone beeped. A new app had loaded. Her social media also had a new post.

“Dinned at heritage restaurant. Loved the vareity of chats and deserts.  Dahi vades were mind-boggling. Have a look.”

Posted by Leena through her hand phone, 1 hour ago. Alpana Mhatre and 15 people like it.

Simran checked he time, it was twenty past nine. An hour ago, she was in the toilet.

She clicked open the pictures of the food with Leena pointing towards something that resembled a cousin of vanilla ice cream. “She did not know the spellings in school, and does not know even now.”

Dropping the mouse, she ran to the kitchen and gulped a bottle of cold water. Her nerves relaxed. She resumed her picture sorting.

Sometime later, she looked up. The wallclock struck 40 past 11. “Almost done.”

 

At five in the evening, Simran woke up. Without wasting a moment on loosening her limbs, she ran out to log on. Fifteen people already liked her post. She exhaled.

“Expected more,” she tapped on the comments.

“Nice pics, Simran, When did you go?”

“Last year,” she typed.

“Was this a secret honeymoon?” Hearts swarmed this post.

“looking gud,” the next said.

“so romantics.”

Simran scrolled up and down to read the messages again. She tapped the table and smiled. The doorbell rang.

“Jai?”

Instead of reacting, he hugged her and held her hand. He then kneeled down.

“O my love, will you accompany me on a trip to Paris?”

“Stop it Jai.”

“Please.”

“This is not a joke,” she said, turning her back to him.

Jai got up. He pulled out a paper.

“Look Simran, I have worked very hard for this. I know you. You love Paris,” he said, walking towards her, “If not every year like your rich friends, at least in three years, we can go to a foreign holiday.”

“Why can’t we go to London or Hong Kong? I have already gone to Paris,” Simran said.

“Really? When?”

Simarn was crying now.  Her note book was open, showing a backdrop of Eiffel tower. In the foreground stood Simran, in the same silk dress she was wearing yesterday evening.

The Bet

A man challenges another to a bet over a woman…

The Bet

 “Great Aakash, very impressive,” Mr. Torani, the CEO, said, “Mark shares the same sentiment.” He turned to his overseas client, who nodded. Both walked up to the front of the room. Aakash, who had just finished presentation for his new project, stood smiling as words of appreciation ringed across the room.  Bharat, his counterpart for the western region, stood beside him.

“I loved your campaign strategy, its smashing,” Mark said. Aakash’s smile widened.

“Bharath, I expect similar standards from you,” Mr. Torani said. Sameera Raghuraman, the deputy CEO of the company, joined him.  

Bharath felt his lips were glued together. His throat went dry. The cold perfumed air of the room seemed like the hot wind of the desert. He listened to the crackling chairs and watched rest of the board members leave the room. The door swung in and out several times.  His folded hands moved to his hips, then folded again, “Right… sure sir.”

“I am a bit apprehensive by the slowing economy, but Aakash, you really know how to spring a game-changer,” Mark closed his sleek ThinkPad. “Did you see that Samayraa, Wow!”

“Thanks,” Aakash disconnected the cables out of his laptop. Bharath turned off the projector and wound the cable.

“Lunch, Mark,” Sameera slid her right hand into Mark’s arm. Her long fingers with nails painted in scarlet red dug into Mark’s jacket. He smiled.  She smiled back and looked at Aakash and Bharath. Aakash pursed his lips and then rolled his tongue over the lower lip. Sameera raised her left eyebrow with a subtle shake of her head. Ever so slowly, her eyes moved from Aakash’s flat chest to his waist, where a gold pin held his silk tie. Aakash pushed up his Calvin Klein leather belt, which secured his no more than thirty inch waist.  She then shifted her eyes to Bharath’s broad shoulders. His prominent chest had always pulled her gaze like a rising stock market pulls investors. Finally, she signed off with a parting smile to both the executives.

“Excuse me, I need to go for a media interview,” Mr. Torani said. He extended his hand to Mark, who shook it with the ferocity of an arm wrestler. Sameera clung to his left arm.

“Spare the old man,” Aakash said under his breath. Bharath did not react.

“See you guys,” Mark walked out of the room. Sameera flung her long hair and waved her right hand fingers. The door squeaked back leaving Aakash and Bharat behind.

“Fucking beauty, she is, what a woman,” Aakash glanced at Bharath.

“Successful too,” Bharath said, handing him the cable and adapter, “Let’s go.”

“Let’s celebrate!”

Both left the room.

Aakash flipped a rubix cube a couple of times during a traffic signal. It was something he carried since he was six. Though he had never solved it, he never stopped trying. He kept it back on a ten-year-old spiral bound book. When other boys in teens ran after a soccer ball or thumped the leather ball to all parts of the ground, Aakash arranged stamps and postcards from all over the world. His mother wanted him to play but he never cared about his non-existent physical self.

All he cared about was his mind.

“Wow, Aakash you did it once again,” Sid said, raising his glass of wine. Aakash flashed his teeth. Besides Bharath, four other guys had joined him for the dinner at the Oberoi.

“Now I believe he made money in college by selling his methods of studying,” he said.

Aakash grinned. He had once finished a book on semiconductors with a speed often seen with a bestseller mystery novel.

“If anyone has known presentation skills, it’s him. The same stuff we had been trying to sell for years. He did in twenty minutes.”

“You know what guys; I am leaving for London next week. Torani wants me to oversee this project,” Aakash waved to the waiter.

“Lucky bastard, you!”

“But I still think Aakash, you manipulated the data, you may get into trouble,” Bharath said. Aakash gave him a skewed smile.

“Give me a Bruschetta with tomato salad and a Pizza Margherita.” Aakash said, “You guys order whatever you want. Rich man pays.”

A waiter cleared the table that was getting over crowded with empty bottles of wine and whiskies.

Bharath sat in silence, listening to the heaps of praises thrown on Aakash. The group of six had occupied a table near to the entrance of the restaurant. From a glass wall, he watched men and women entering the hotel lobby. His eyes moved from their stylish clothing to their footwear, from esoteric paintings to the glass panels displaying jewellery marked with mocking prices. In between, he allowed the music to soothe him. He continued to sip his beer as others around him rattled off one continental dish after another. When the waiter approached him, he shook his head.

“Come on Bharath, have something,” Aakash said.

“It’s fine, I am not hungry,” he said.

“Not hungry or you can’t read the menu.” Laughter picked up around the table. Aakash clapped a few high fives.

Bharath held the glass with a vice like grip. Then he let go.

“You think success is only about belching out-of-the-box ideas, speaking in accented English, impressing white men and dining in these high end restaurants?”

Aakash raised his eyebrows. “If it is not then what?”

At first Bharath did not know what to say. “It’s about honesty and saying only what you can do,” Bharath said, after a ten-second silence. He had learnt only one path- the honest, uncompromising one, though he was unsure how far it would lead him.

“Oh, I am sorry, I forgot one- the most important- impressing chicks like Sameera.” Aakash went for another set of high fives.

Bharath put down his glass forcefully. “I never do that, maybe…”

“Or you can’t?”

Bharath wiped condensed water on the exterior of the glass. “Excuse me, I need to leave,” he stood up.

Aakash moved fingers over his stubble.

“Hey buddy, cool down, I agree to what you say, honesty, hard work, dedication works in life. Maybe it hasn’t worked for you so far in your job, but…” Aakash rolled his eyes around, “Can you show me if it works on a woman?” Two guys sniggered.

Bharath stared at him.

“Look Aakash, I don’t want to…”

“Why not?” Aakash slapped his hand on the table. A wine glass fell over. Red wine spread on the table like warm blood. “You say a lot about my methods, why don’t you show us what you are capable of?” He looked round the table. Everyone nodded.

“Come on Bharath, what he says is fair enough,” one of the guys said.

Bharath put his hands on the hips. Aakash slumped back on his chair. “Let’s see what this Bollywood star can do.” He pulled out his blackberry and stabbed it a few times.

“Okay, I am going to call that bitch Sameera and you are going to invite her to a date for an Italian dinner. Easy for a man with self-confidence, honesty and what did he say…?”

“Aakash, this is not a joke.”

“It is not!” Aakash stumbled over. “Date that girl and you win,” he rubbed his goatee.

Bharath lowered his eyes. He counted his pulse. It was fast, furious and thumping.

“Okay, incentives.  I’ll help you in your presentation. And free coaching for success. Otherwise, I’ll drop the London project.”

“Come on Bharath, show him!” the chorus picked up.

Bharath strode off.

 

 

“A real man is one who can say what he believes, without worrying about going with or against the tide,” Bharath’s deceased father had told him. He was a government officer, who rode a bicycle to work when his colleagues drove cars.  Bharath studied entire nights but his grades did not move higher.  His father never complained, nor did he, for the lack of sports shoes or denim jackets. He never left his dreams to become dirt. Dreams of getting success someday, to become a confident man who can achieve what he wants.

What if you land up in this situation? I wish he had told me, Bharath thought as he entered the lift next morning.  “Sameera is high flying, influential and I hope she’s got nothing against me, what is the harm? Aakash helps me or not, I don’t care. But I can’t let them know how nervous I feel in front of women,” he thought aloud.

He saw Sameera breezing past in a pencil skirt with a striped top. “How does she manage to look so good every day?” he thought, watching her from the back.

A minute of nail-biting and scribbling purposeless lines on a notepad followed. Bharath opened and closed his mailbox, tried to start his presentation and then picked up the phone, only to put it back. He then lay back, closed his eyes for a moment and got up.

“Hi, may come in,” he said, opening the door of Sameera’s cabin. She was filing a nail with the phone receiver hanging precariously on her left shoulder. Her eyebrows moved up as she saw him.

“Wait,” she said.

Sameera put down the phone. She brought out a small mirror. After a quick check, she said, “Come on in.”

Sameera leaned forward. Bharath walked in. His eyes moved from her hair to the glistening pendant an inch above her cleavage.  She watched his pregnant lips. She waited. Her left eyebrow moved up. Bharath felt tightening of his muscles. “Would you, I mean… care to join me for a dinner?”

“A date?”                                                       

“Aahh, no… it’s a polite invitation for a dinner,” Bharath interlocked his hands. He moved his eyes off her. She grabbed the mouse and moved it around.

“Fine, but I’ll drive,” she moved her finger over the falling hair.

 

Bharath watched Sameera move out of the car park. Her maroon, clinging dress with sequins gave him a kick. Her walk, timed to the beat of an inaudible music, mesmerized him. He swallowed a slug of saliva. He prayed to pass the next two hours. “They asked for it, I did it,” he thought, “I’ll just be myself.” He walked behind her.

“So, any special reasons for this?” she said. Bharath pulled a chair for her. He was a few inches away from her shiny black hair. Her perfume intoxicated him.

“My friends thought, well…I am not comfortable with women, especially good looking ones, I mean, beautiful ones.”

“What else? Stupid male ego again,” she laughed. Bharath waved for the waiter.

“No… sorry, I really…I, you know I mean actually… admire you,” he said. His heartbeat increased. ‘What have I said?’ he added in his mind.

“Admire? Wow? I thought men only care to fuck.”

Bharath felt as if his tongue had rolled inwards. He moved his eyes sideways. He expected someone to watch them- as a part of the bet. If someone has, he would end this drama right here, he firmed up his mind. He stood up and turned back to look around. He spotted a guy. He exhaled.

“So, if you wish, we can end this?” he said.

“You won the bet? What will the loser do? Kick the boss? Send me a porn MMS?” She rolled her eyes.

“Please, I am sorry for the inconvenience,” he said.

She laughed and took a long sip of her drink. “Are you a Hotel staff?” Bharath’s face turned white. ‘How did I get into this?’ he thought.

“Relax; I am not a guest or a passenger. I am your date, and I am loving every moment of it. Why do you want to end this? You will win only when I will give you a certificate of satisfaction,” she said, looking straight into his widened eyes. He noticed the long eyelashes that forced him to check if he were really with her. “You are, just be there,” he told himself.

Bharath recalled the day he joined the Smart Inc. In every meeting, he would struggle to forge the meaning, but fail to grab it. He would be scared to ask questions fearing someone might mock him. That was two years ago. He has to end this. Her words eased his clouded mind.  A silence of ten seconds followed in which Sameera finished her drink.

“Okay, thanks,” he said, exhaling.

“Shall we dance?” she said, standing up. She reached out for his hand.

‘No way! Oh God! Save me,’ Bharath shouted silently. His eyes closed. ‘I am dead. What should I do? Dance? With her?’ Moments of indecision passed. Sameera stood with her stretched hand.

Sameera had waited enough for him to get up. She gripped his right hand with a force that would leave imprints.   She led him to the dance floor like a pet. Bharath moved as if his legs were tied together. He watched other couples moving their bodies to the popular Bollywood number. Visual of the movie song flashed before his eyes. He tried to grab a dance step.

“Relax, just do what I do,” Sameera shouted.  She started twirling like a trained Bollywood actress. For a moment, Bharath thought he was watching a movie. Her perfect, lilting movements seemed to have washed her body in a magical lure. The tempting yet heart throbbing moment blinded Bharath.

He found the dance easier than he had expected. He forced his rigid waist to shake. Soon, his inhibitions melted. He could see the admiration in Sameera’s eyes. ‘Just a few more minutes,’ he thought.

Sameera pulled his right hand to her waist and pushed her body forward. Next instant, her lips were brushing against Bharath’s. He pushed her back.  He walked towards the exit.

 

Bharath stood at the bus stop trying to control the turbulence in his mind. He would rub his arms, look at his watch, rub his hands against his nose or scratch his head. Nothing seemed to work. Cold winds before the rain swayed him.  Thunders jolted his heartbeats every few seconds. His eyes scanned the traffic in the heavy rain that had begun to pour as if to douse the fire inside his heart. A few showers hydrated his face. He wiped it.

 A familiar car stopped a meter away from him. The door opened. Sameera held his arm and pulled him inside. She drove off.

“I thought no man could resist me,” she said.

“Stop the car, please,” he said, “Here is the money for the restaurant bill,” he threw a couple of thousands on the car’s dashboard.

“The date isn’t finished. We are going to my place. We’ll order something,” she said.

“Please drop me at the next Metro station,” Bharath said. His voice resembled that of a caged prisoner.

“Relax”, she said, taking a minute to pronounce the word. She held his hand and massaged it.  Bharath found it soothing.  After stroking for a while, she clutched it tighter and then let it go. Veins, muscles or nerves inside his body, whatever were resisting, silenced.  He pressed his back against the seat. His body felt the cool lavender rich air. He closed his eyes. All he could hear was falling rain drops – noisy, but with each passing breath, turning into music.

Ten minutes later, the car stopped. Air had got cooler. Noise had gone down. Bharath opened his eyes.   His hair still had a few raindrops clinging. A hand pressed against the back of his head.  He felt the same sensation that had shaken him earlier.   This time he liked it, more than anything he had liked before.  He slid hands over her hair, then her arms, waist and finally to her legs. The more he touched her, the more he liked it.

An hour later, they stood on top of a building, watching the skyline.  

 

 

A year later.

Aakash parked his Honda city in front of a bungalow in South Delhi. He folded his glasses and walked towards the entrance.  A speeding car stopped his stride.  He turned to look at the driver. “Some rich, spoiled brat.” He had a sense of déjà vu. He scratched his clean-shaven chin to strike an imaginary irritant away.  He walked in.

“Hi Aunty, Mom told me about it,” Aakash said. He leaned forward to hug the lady. “How is Ishika?”

“Upstairs, she hasn’t eaten for two days,” she said.

“I am sorry aunty,” Aakash said, “You know I planned a fifteen day trip, only for this marriage,” he exhaled. He hugged her again.

“Go and meet her.” The lady with short hair walked inside.

Aakash and Ishika had spent their childhood together in Delhi. Their mothers were sisters.  For a few years, both the kids were in the same school.  Aakash loved Ishika as much he loved his career.  He had led her to college on the first day; he would accompany her whenever he sensed a risk. Once he had run into a boy double his size for her.

“Hi brother,” Ishika ran down the stairs and hugged Aakash. He clutched her tight. She burst into tears. His eyes closed. He patted her back and hair. When he opened his eyes, he saw a magazine lying on the lower shelf of the table. He kept staring it.

Thirty seconds later, both moved apart. Aakash helped her sit down.  His eyes were trying to read something when he was in embrace with her dearest sister. He picked up the magazine.

“CEO of Smart Inc. India tested HIV positive,” it said, “In a candid interview, businesswoman of the year Sameera Raghuraman accepted she is HIV…”

Aakash’s eyes widened, and then contracted as he flipped pages.

“She was the one who refused you, right?” Ishika said. Aakash did not react.

Aakash’s head flooded with memories. In the same house, two years ago, Sameera had turned him down as Aakash and Ishika’s parents listened in disbelief. Aakash closed his eyes. Sameera, wearing a cleavage popping spaghetti dress had walked out of the house, leaving her father with much to explain. The then free spirited Aakash did not care for her reasons.

Aakash dropped the magazine. Ishika held his hand. “Forget her. I heard about struggles. How’s your job now?”

A uniformed man brought a tray of drinks and snacks.

“I am doing fine. What happened? Why did he say no?” he said.

Ishika checked the fading paint on nails. “I don’t know. We had been going out for two months since we met. He was so kind to me- just what you always wished. He would never hold my hand until I did. He always pulled a chair for me, never allowed me to spend anything,” she cleared her throat. “We always watched movies of my liking. We never argued. He didn’t like to dance, but he took me to pubs, always protected me, as if I were his most prized possession.”

“Then why?”

“Last weekend he called me and said he can’t marry me,” Ishika said, “He did not give any reason. I called him several times but he kept repeating the same. Mama and Pa requested him, but he returned the gifts and the ring. All the invitations were sent, flights were booked. Papa is still trying to manage all the guests who have come in for the marriage.”

Aakash pressed his teeth together.

“You know I had almost given away myself…it was he who pulled out at the last minute,” she breathed hard through her wet nose. Aakash pulled her closer. Ishika’s sobs grew louder.

Aakash meshed his hands and then rubbed the thumbs. His eyes steadied. His jaw tightened. “Tell me his name. Where does he live?” He stood up. His right foot landed near Sameera’s face on the magazine cover.

 

Aakash waded his way through the Delhi traffic to reach the eastern end of Delhi. He stopped at a signal.  A young girl, not more than ten, asked for money.  Aakash looked at her mud brown hair, which had dirt clinging to the ends; her cheeks had roughened due to lack of nourishment.  His eyes moved to the background. On footpath, a mud drenched woman was nursing a newborn. Two other kids were looking at her. He pulled out his wallet, found Indian currency among dollars and pounds and handed over ten hundred rupee notes to the girl. The girl looked at the money, as if checking the authenticity. Aakash smiled and gave her the box of chocolates he had bought for Ishika. The girl ran off.

The name of Ishika’s fiancé had spawned visuals of his life prior to the turn.  The windscreen changed into portal, events of his days in Smart inc. and the last year of his life unearthed.  The day he joined to the day he became the smartest guy around. Days of bulldozing all comers to the day he landed in London, to the day he left Smart Inc. Days when he was on road and platforms to the day when he found his first real success.

Aakash pulled into a narrow lane, wide enough to allow only one car. He parked and walked out. He knocked at a door.

An old lady opened the door. He walked behind her into the living room. The décor reminded him his old house of the nineties, where his family lived for a year in a Delhi suburb.  That was the only time when a financial crisis hit his otherwise affluent father. He sat down. A photograph of a man not over forty hung on the opposite wall. He knew it was Bharath’s father.

“Aakash, is that you? What a surprise? I thought you were in London? Or New York?”

Aakash tightened his fists. “Yes, I stay abroad. But you stay here. Then why did you do this to my sister?”

“Oh, I didn’t know, really…” Bharath lowered his eyes. He took several breaths and turned to a chest of drawers.  He brought out a paper.

 “Answer my question, you bastard,” Aakash stepped forward and grabbed him. “You know what she means to me. Tell me, why?” The paper in Bharath’s hand fluttered with his shaking arm.  Aakash noticed a photograph of Bharath with two girls. He let him go. He moved back.

“I am sorry, please accept her, she loves you. Please marry her,” Aakash said, folding his hands.

“Sit,” Bharath said.

“You have changed a lot Aakash. Good for you,” he said, “I hope you have reached where you wanted to.”

Aakash brought his eyebrows together.

“I have not changed. And this is good for your sister,” Bharath said, “You know what is this?” He held out the paper. “This is the reality of life. Unlike your presentations, which predicted bloated profits and unassailable targets, this tells you exactly how much longer you will live. Remember the bet?”

Aakash took the paper in his hands. Somewhere in one of the rows was written.

HIV     :           Positive

A good old, tried and tested method of chasing a girl…

 

“Move, rhino!” I cursed the man standing in front of me. He was so slow in moving the two steps required to enter that another train might have come and departed. As I entered the half-closed doors, the strap of my bag stuck. I held it in position, sticking myself to the doors.

I looked at the faces around me. A few were dazed, a few focused to the ritual of walk, train ride and bus while others were probably praying that a bomb falls on their offices. The son of King Kong stared at me. I moved my eyes. Then I saw her.

She was sitting two hundred and forty six centimeters away from me. Measuring lengths every day had made my senses sharp as razor. I could measure the height of a building just by estimating the distance and the angle and then taking the inverse of… well, she had hair like a waterfall. Her dress was dapper as a receptionist in a five star hotel. Her perfume was refreshing. How did I know that? I was sure the cold breeze that filled my mind was hers even though an army of woman was onboard. Such was her beauty.

It seemed she had not smiled for years.

I went down the train at the next stop, stealing her looks for exactly a hundred and forty eight seconds.  She faded from my thoughts as my bus approached my office. 

Three times in the lunchtime, my eyes sketched her long, curly hair. My memory though, had lost her face. It was possibly oval with a sharp nose. I wished I could see her again just once. It was near to impossible, I knew. She may be a one off traveler or maybe she usually travelled at other time.  It was an association of two minutes, I thought.

 I did not have a girl friend but had stared at thousands of lovely faces as a part time profession. She was truly beyond all. I scribbled the possibilities and counted the odds of seeing her again. I ended at one in seven hundred and six. I gave up.

Not really.

Next morning, I ensured I reached the platform at the same time. I stood at the same location as yesterday. My heartbeat resonated with the noise of the hustling train. She might be somewhere inside. I hoped that like me, she too preferred a fixed location of boarding the train. My heart started pounding as I entered in sea of lifeless faces. In a flash, I had scanned forty-eight faces. None was hers. “Silly me, let’s see what I need to do today.” I smiled.

Three minutes later, I slid out of the train. An avalanche of people flowed out.  There was no one standing now. I saw her inside the train, fiddling with her phone.  The train moved. I kept staring at her through the aperture like opening I had. She was not smiling.

So she is there, I thought, moving out of the station towards my bus stop. It felt like bubbles were erupting in my heart.  I sighed at the coming weekend. I was new in the town, did not know anybody except for a couple of boring office friends.  For the past three months, I hated Monday. Now I waited for it. My plan was clear – same time, same location, enter the train, and tell her I …

The whole of the next week, I watched her in the available three minutes. She looked prettier each day. Dressed mostly in tight hugging jeans or pencil skirts with light colored, polka dotted tops, she radiated dazzling, yet cold sensation to my eyes.  The expression on her face remained the same – somber.  I waited for her to smile. What a moment it would be, I thought.

A week passed, then another, but she never smiled. I was convinced now I was attracted to her. But the worried look on her face unnerved me. Why does she stay expressionless? Perhaps she is a high profile manager or an expert with too many thoughts in her mind. No way. Why would she then travel in the train? She looks so young. Then maybe she has had a fight with her boyfriend.  I felt a war going on inside my brain. Maybe nerve cells, which believed she was destined to be mine, were thrashing those, which thought she had a boyfriend.

Next day I had an argument with my boss. I felt wretched the whole day. In a foreign land, I felt even more pitiful. A thought struck me. Maybe she too is not satisfied with her job.  Maybe she had joined a company that is not aligned to her style of working. This is a reason that can linger on for weeks and makes one grumpy.

Next morning I did not find her in the train. Next day too I could not see her. Two more days of her invisibility started worrying me. Has she been fired? Or maybe she has left her job? I ruled out the former. It would take a man with a granite heart to fire such a pretty girl. If I were her boss, I would just ask her to sit in front of me. For a moment, I imagined her in front of me. I shrugged off the image.

I fingered my hair. Maybe she has moved out of town. That would mean I would not see her again. I imploded at the thought.  I cursed myself for not helping her. I should have approached to tell her to be patient, I thought.

Next morning, I walked with heavy steps. I did not rush for the train. What is the rush? I told my heart. I did not walk on the elevator. Like moving a heavy load, it lifted me to the platform right at the moment my scheduled train was closing its doors.  I did not care to rush in.

The train moved with a stilted, whistling sound. I saw a face through the glass. It was her. My senses cajoled me to run and catch hold of the train and her. Maybe this was the last time I would see her. I thought of running down the platform, of chasing the train in a cab. Then I kicked myself. She’s back idiot; she is still around. You can see her tomorrow. Excitement shivered my body. How beautiful would the next morning be?

That night I slept dreaming about her. She was not smiling even in my dreams. What can be the reason? Maybe she has someone terminally sick at home, like a parent or a sibling. And my poor darling is working hard to save money for the treatment. I convinced myself of the possibility and dozed off.

Next morning I had springs in my feet. I reached the station five minutes earlier. A woman frowned at me as I missed the train earlier than my regular one. She had to run her way to the door past my blocking frame. My heartbeat raced. Another minute. My plan was simple. Follow her to her destination.  I needed to know who she was, what she did and where she lived – good old tried and tested formula.

She was there, charming as usual. I stood a meter away from her. She looked like a sculpture of frozen ice or a wet painting in her shiny printed shirt. Her curly hair reminded me of dancing night sea.  Her soft, glistening skin above the cleavage gave me a mini orgasm.  If she smiles now, will I be able to control myself? I wondered.  Five minutes later, the girl sitting beside her got up.  I let an old man sit. I sighed.

The train entered the tunnel. The lights in the train went brighter. Her face lit up even more.  I noticed the rich shade of baby pink on forever-sealed lips. I imagined kissing them. But first, she needs to laugh, I reminded the more sensible self of mine.

She got off three stops later. I followed her close. She might smile when she is standing, I thought. The real reason was that I did not want to miss her walk. I watched her skirt wafting around. The sound of her heels thrilled me.

She used her beige colored handbag to tap the turnstile.  I kept myself a few paces behind. Though it was crowded, I maintained secrecy. Who knows, she might have noticed me.

She walked into a set of twin towers, which housed head offices of many multinational companies. Good, I smiled, she has class. Just like me.

We now waited at the entrance to the lift. Inside, I was shocked to see the floor number she pressed. We were alone for twenty eight seconds. I stood behind her. I wanted to hold her in my arms. I watched her move out.

I travelled up and down and came of the building. Her perfume was making me wild. My mind though, was full of questions now. What can be her problem? I had watched her for three minutes a day for three weeks and today for an hour. Why does she never smile? Why is there this permanent frown? There has to be a reason. I cannot give up, I thought.  I decided to while away the time around the building. The workplace seen, now the home.

I stationed myself at the same lift lobby. I knew the time she would walk off. I prepared myself for another journey. Nine hours and five minutes later, she appeared. We walked off.

I stayed close to her in the train. She looked as ravishing as in the morning. Smile or no smile, morning or evening, her charm hadn’t reduced. A few times, I felt like holding her lovely face in my hands to feel her breath.

She got down at one stop further from mine.  I watched her entering the lift of one of the blocks before deciding to call the day off. It was tiring. Both physically and sexually.

The entire night I kept thinking of her. What would she be doing in the office? What would her room look like? Was she living with her parents or friends? Should I go and talk to her? What would she think? What if someone close to her is ill? What if she is married? I shuddered.  Before I slept, I had taken the decision.

Next morning, she got down at the same stop as mine.  She walked to the same location where I boarded my bus. She queued up for my bus. It was hard for me control my throbbing heart. Had she seen me yesterday? Is she now following me?  I entered the bus and hustled on to a window seat. I was afraid to look up. She is in the head office of my company. She is going to lodge a complaint against me. But I have not done anything. Maybe she read my mind. You asshole, your dirty mind has screwed up, I chided myself. Save me God, I prayed.

The bus moved. I kept staring out of the window. After slowing down my pulsating heart, I turned around to locate her. She was not in the bus. I let out huge amount of air. But I could smell her inebriating essence.

“Hi, I am Roshni.”

I jumped to find her sitting beside me.

I had heard about losing speech at a breathtaking view. I was witnessing it for the first time. She had big round eyes that reflected more light than a diamond. Even if an artist spent a hundred years, he could not have drawn or sculpted a better nose. Her lips were inviting. Curves couldn’t be better than hers. The missing smile now had enhanced her beauty many fold. I sensed some fluid bubbling inside me. As I inhaled more of her, I felt shivers. Should I stay quiet, say sorry or smile and turn away, I weighed the options.

“I am sorry.”

She brought her eyebrows together. “Is that your name?”

“Vinay is my name,” I said. “And yours should be Gorgeous.”

The driver shifted into a lower gear with loud noise. I should shift the place, I thought. I waited for her reaction. I moved around my eyes.

She laughed.  My nerves calmed down.

“Actually I know you, you are in manufacturing,” she said, “I am in business. You came to the waterfront yesterday?” She unfolded her arms and offered her hand.

She had seen me. I gasped. I offered my hand. The touch felt like holding an ice cream.  I did not want to leave it. No rings, I noticed.

“From today, my location is changed,” she said. I did a micro punch in air.

Will you promise to sit with me every day, I wanted to ask her. “That’s great.”

She let out her laughter again. It rang like glass beads bouncing in a china cup.

“Can I ask you something?” I said after my heartbeat was close to normal. She nodded.

“I was scared of you. I never saw you smiling. Everything fine?”

“It is now,” she said, pointing to her front teeth. “This was cracked a month ago.”

It was my turn to laugh now. She joined me.

My First Love

She was my English teacher. Taller than the most, she seemed straight out of the pages of textbooks we studied. Our English schoolbooks in those days- the 1980s, had mostly stories from English writers. Our names were Indian but we kept reading about Johns and Marys. In those days, we did not have any gorgeous models on the net or TV. All we had were a few of the actors but they were nowhere near the style she possessed.

English teachers were invariably more stylish than other teachers were. Since I was in grade 5 only, she too was young. And attractive. In the class, I would listen to her in complete awe. I would notice her movements when she would turn to write on the black board. Her hair would match the rhythm of letters she would scribe. Her ts and gs would be lovely to look at. Especially when she would stretch the serifs longer than required.

 I never spoke in the class, except when she called my name for a roll call. I would wonder if she knew who I was, how I looked. I had learnt that teachers’ focus remains on the kids who get the top ranks. Or on those who are perennial trouble makers. I was neither. I was a mediocre boy who would be ranked a juiceless eighth out of a class of forty! Who cares whether such students exist. Too smart to fail, too dumb to leave an impression. That’s what I was. The only time I stood first in the class was when I was in the lower kindergarten. It is hard to imagine now but that was the age of ranks. Ranking was done even in the classes in which most kids did not know how to tie the shoelaces.

I loved my English teacher. Many others would do so. But my love was the purest.  Because she was the reason that prompted me to learn English in the best possible manner. “Do not upset her”, was my motto.  Let me share an incident from standard seven.

The first story in our English textbook was ‘The man who hated time’- an extraordinary story of an Englishman who smuggled watches to France in his car. In the end, his luck runs out when the ticking sound of his stashed watches gets perceptible at customs due to Armistice day silence.  I had never enjoyed a story so much as I did that one. Why? Because of my teacher. She recounted the story with its elements, explained us the character of the man, the anecdotes in the middle and stressed the climax to heighten the fun so much that I hated the class ending bell.

I wanted her to notice me. But I didn’t have any means of doing so. I had my limitations as a student. I hated to raise my hand when a question was asked in the class. I didn’t have any leadership skills which could elevate me to the class monitor. Dejected, I decided to stick to what I knew best, even at that age – to follow my heart.

It was September of 1986; she read a story to us in which a Japanese old man asks his two daughters-in-law to bring fire and wind trapped in paper. Along the way in the story she acted like the characters – the young women – that were worried at the tough task. I could see the meanings of the words unfolding with her expressions. Finally, when the women came home with a lantern and a fan, I could see the joy on her face. As if, she too wanted to prove a point to the old man. That is when I learnt it is important to involve the reader in the writing.

Next day she gave us an assignment on the story. It was full of questions like why were the women sad, or how did the women manage to fulfill father in law’s challenge. To me these questions meant dissecting, disembodying a beautiful story. The story was clear to me, but I hated to do the assignment. The whole night I kept dreaming about two Japanese women in their quest of finding the gifts their father in law wanted.

When I reached school the next day, fear overcame me. It knocked the sense out of me. Not doing the homework was a punishable crime. I copied the answers from my topper friend’s notebook.

Later, the teacher called us to get our assignments checked. I walked to her desk. I waited at the nod to present my notebook. Her fragrance filled my senses. She was sitting cross legged, with her shining sandals visible below her saree. My eyes were transfixed on the diamonds in her flower shaped pendent.

My handwriting looked as if a tornado was blowing the letters away. All sizes of letter were dancing around. I prayed to get an average grade and to move away. She turned a page. My heartbeat relaxed a bit.

“Cheated. Cheated from …” she said.

“From Mohit’s assignment,” I said.

She kept her eye on the notebook. She circled the paragraph. She stood up and turned. I looked up; she was a couple of inches taller than me. I was sure she would slap me. I had never been hit by any of the teachers before. I held my tears back. She threw my note book down.  I picked it up and walked back to my desk.

My love reduced for her. For the next few days, I did not notice her aura. I did not let my eyes notice each beautifully crafted letter she scribbled on the black board or how she spoke.  Neither did I observe her graceful movements.

A few days later, she distributed the forms for an interschool competition on essay writing. I did not want to participate. However, my friend asked me to do so.

“You’ll have a great chance,” he said. He knew me well. I would do only those things that interested me. It was part of the reason I fared average in overall ranking in the class.  In some subjects, I would score higher than toppers but stood poorly in others. In maths, I was the benchmark. But in social studies or science, unless something really made me curious, I wouldn’t bother. And now I was losing my grip on English too.  I decided to write.

A week later, the teacher read out a short poem from Rabindra Nath Tagore on how God had created everyone with the same loving thought and we should be tender to everyone.

“Write a one line message on this poem. That’s your assignment,” she said.

I was determined not to disappoint her this time. I went home and wrote as neatly as I could. “Be polite to everyone.”

“Everyone has done the assignment?” the teacher asked the next morning. Everyone except me raised their hands.

“What’s the matter with you? Was it to difficult to pen a one liner?” she said.

I felt some one was squeezing the blood out of me. I stood up. I could feel the hot waves oozing out of my reddened face. I could sense all eye were on me.

“Can someone just tell him the message of the poem? Such a silly boy!”

A girl stood up. “We should care for everyone.”

A boy behind me said. “Everyone is equal.”

A few more one liners erupted out of different corners based on equality, love and tenderness.

“The whole class has done it. Why can’t you? Do you know you are holding up the whole class?”

“Ma’m, he’s done his work.” Mohit picked up my notebook and walked up to her.

After a quick look at my notebook, she walked up to me.

“So, you have done it. Then why did you waste my time?”

“Ma’m, I was rude to my mother this morning.” I said. The word ‘morning’ coincided with the ringing of the bell. The teacher turned around to signal other kids they could move out.

After a few seconds of eye contact, she lowered her gaze and turned back to her desk. I kept standing, unsure whether to move out or sir down. Without saying another word, the teacher walked out.

Two weeks later, the results of the Essay competition were announced.  A girl in my class was ranked second. A few more had got consolation prizes. My name was nowhere. 

“It’s okay,” Mohit said, as we walked back to the class after morning assembly. I smiled. Prizes were one thing that were forever out of my reach. I could draw, run, play but never stood first. Maybe I was jinxed.

“You know children; I was one of the judges who evaluated the essays. A lot of children had written well. From our school as well as others. But let me tell you about the essay which I liked.” She pointed to a bunch of papers in her left hand. “This is the way I have targeted my teaching style. This is the end result I want.”

 A few girls hushed a few words of congratulatory messages to Ritu, who had won the second prize.  The teacher noticed the murmur.

“Congratulations Ritu,” the teacher said.

The girl thanked her.

“But this is not yours.”

The smile evaporated from the girl’s face. More murmurs ringed across the rows.

“Let me come back to this essay. This captures the topic so well that initially I thought it was copied from some magazine or so. But I found shades of my teaching in it. I am not sure why it didn’t win any prize but to me this was the best. I am sure it is from my class.”

Murmurs increase in the class. Mohit and I exchanged glances.

“I’ll just read a few lines. It says India is young, like a troubled youth, it needs time to settle down. Just a couple of decades of freedom cannot make us a great nation. But we have potential… wonderful,” she said.

Mohit looked at me.

“Normally I want my students to be like that – to be able to break the conventions when it comes to writing essays. Almost all other entries were simply praising our country except for this one.”

She moved forward in the aisle between two rows. I was sitting in one of them.

“I can guess who has written this. I have read similar lines when we did the lesson on Mahatma Gandhi.”

She stood near me now. I sat straight with a taut body.

“Mohit, is it you?” she said.

“No ma’m. It is written by Vinay.” Mohit stood up.

“Who is this Vinay? Is he in our class?” she said. The question brought a flush of chagrin on my face.

Mohit nudged me. I saw in his eyes. I thanked him. He smiled.

I stood up. The teacher looked at me. Her eyebrows crossed. She looked at the paper. I lowered my gaze.

“Well done. Sit down,” she said. I felt like my knees had given away. I bent to sit. Mohit held me.

“Excuse me ma’m,” Mohit said.

She turned.

“Ma’m, you see I had also cheated his… Not his answer but his viewpoint on Gandhiji. So if you can…”

She walked up to me.

“Let’s begin a new chapter in our class.” She bent a little to bring her face down to my height. She raised her right hand, held my jaw and shook my face. “I am sorry,” she said. I loved her even more.