By Vipin Nair
“Two, two, two,” Uday yelled as they crossed each other in the middle of the pitch.
Nikhil wasn’t so sure about it. The ball hadn’t been timed too well, and the Reds fielder stationed at square leg was almost upon it. Still, Uday was his friend, the better batsman, and the captain of the Blues team. He didn’t want to be ridiculed later for refusing a risky run. He tapped his bat inside the crease and turned.
The folly became apparent to him ten yards into the second run. Uday was still rooted to the crease at the other end, his hand held up to indicate a change of plans.
S-m-a-c-k. The sound of ball knocking over the stumps felt like the crack of a whip on a horse’s behind. After a confident forty-nine, studded with eight glorious hits to the fence, Nikhil Tiwari was out.
Uday made a helpless face as Nikhil passed by. “You should have looked, duffer.”
“You should have shouted, you oaf,” hollered back Nikhil. Tears welled up in his eyes. The skin on his forehead crinkled. His chewing gum lost all its saccharine integuments and tasted for what it was: a strip of rubber that corroded the tongue.
For all practical purposes, a half-century in gully cricket was like a century in other formats of the game. That is to say it was rare to get one. And he had missed it by one run. One run. And that too on his birthday. His stomach churned at the injustice of it all as he walked back to the edge of the playground –- the pavilion, they called it, though it was merely a wooden bench stacked against the community water tank.
As he sank unto the bench, he caught Avani’s gaze upon him. She was watching the boys play from her verandah on the first floor. Had she seen him make a fool of himself just moments ago? A sullen prickle wormed its way up his throat as he considered the possibility. He averted his eyes.
Moments later, a few claps went around the ground as Uday brought up his half-century. Watching him raise the bat in celebration, Nikhil felt a wave of indignation sweep through himself.
The idiot always evoked mixed feelings in him.
Sure, Uday was the closest thing Nikhil had to a best friend, at least as far as Bengaluru was concerned. He had, in fact, readily taken Nikhil under his wings and often looked out for him. But the boy was also exceptionally skilled at driving those around him up the wall. Small, loyal acts of friendship would unfailingly be followed by some selfish, indefensible absurdity. He was incorrigible when it came to that.
For example, he’d always pick Nikhil in his team when it came to playing carrom, even when better players were available. But then he’d proceed to dominate the play in such a way that most of the coins were netted by him alone. Nikhil would simply end up providing assists.
Similarly, Uday would never say no when Nikhil sought him out to fly kites. But he’d insist on helming the string all the time. Cribs would spew forth from his mouth like latex from a lacerated stalk of the jack tree were the firki* ever thrust into his reluctant hands.
He was double-edged at school as well. He’d pick fights with other kids on Nikhil’s behalf for the silliest of reasons. But he also expected to be compensated for this loyalty by way of food. Lots of it, actually. This was a particularly difficult condition to fulfil on the days Mummy packed Nikhil her special three-cheese sandwiches for lunch. But Uday wouldn’t have it any other way.
And today, it had to be said, his Janus-faced tendencies had come to a boil.
It was obvious that Uday had purposely run Nikhil out. Having called for a second run and despite seeing that Nikhil was halfway down the pitch at his beckoning, he had chosen to stay put in his crease. Even the fact that it was Nikhil’s birthday had not prompted any altruism in him. In a similar situation, Nikhil would have gladly sacrificed his wicket for Uday. But such displays of large-heartedness were not for Uday.
Maybe he didn’t want Nikhil to score that half-century. Maybe he wanted to hog the limelight all alone. Maybe, just maybe, it had something to do with Avani observing the game.
Oh, how Nikhil hated Bengaluru! Uday was just one of his many vexations in this darned city.
Things had been so different in Delhi. He had friends there – real friends, and not just the ones he made do with, like was the case over here. He had doting relatives who would fawn over him all day. And he had Daadi, his grandmother, with her reams of stories and never-ending stack of sweet pinnis. His school had been so much nicer. Larger playground, better chemistry lab, that sort of thing. The teachers had been nicer too, more authentic accents and all. Heck, it was even easier to buy an ice cream, what with dozens of vendors hanging around the colony like wasps whizzing over water lilies, unlike here where everything was far from home and difficult to get to. If only Papa hadn’t gotten transferred! If only!
“Are you daydreaming?” The question snapped Nikhil out of the reverie. It was Uday. The match was over, and the leading run-scorer of the day had returned to the pavilion, victorious, bat held aloft.
Nikhil didn’t reply and merely shifted a little to the right to allow him to sit on the bench.
“Then? Are you jealous?” Uday’s eyes were fixed on Avani, who was pacing up and down the long verandah, trying to memorize something that was printed out on the paper in her hand.
“No,” replied Nikhil, mournfully. “Why should I be?”
“Sorry, yaar(friend). It happens.”
“I know. Never mind.”
“I wish you had gotten your fifty.”
Nikhil glared reflexively at Uday. So the missed opportunity for him to score a half century had crossed the moron’s mind. Roiled and unwilling to prolong the conversation, he sprung to his feet. “See you at the party.”
Walking off, Nikhil distracted himself with happier thoughts such as the new shoes Mummy had bought him. The fit him snugly like a warm glove. He’d always wanted a pair of red sneakers, and now he finally had them. He’d wear them to the party. Avani was going to be there, and he’d like her to notice them.
When the doorbell rang, Nikhil was still to change into the new clothes Mummy had bought him on the previous weekend. It was Uday.
“Happy birthday, big fella” said Uday, holding forth a bar of chocolate. “I thought I’ll help with the arrangements. Must be hard to do it all yourself.”
A barely-concealed pall of disdain descended upon Nikhil. A regular-sized Dairy Milk? That’s the birthday gift? Cheapskate. Also, did Uday’s last-minute offer to help with the arrangements mean anything at all? Most of it was done anyway.
The furniture in the hall had been rearranged to open up more space for the guests to move around. The board games and jigsaw puzzles had been brought out into the living room. Mummy had made four different kinds of savouries, baked a banana cake and checked on the status of the order with the caterers. A bucketful of milkshake had been prepared and stowed into the fridge. Papa had even sent an office-boy home to help put up the fairy lights and attend to other handyman jobs. Only the return gifts remained to be placed in the paper bags.
“Thank you for coming, Uday,” said Mummy, as she came in from behind. Upon hearing of Uday’s offer to help with party arrangements, she suggested that they pick out some comics for the smaller kids who might show up.
“Good idea,” exclaimed Uday as soon as she finished talking and trotted off to Nikhil’s bedroom which housed the bookshelf. Left with no option, Nikhil followed suit.
As they pulled out old issues of Asterix, Tintin, Tinkle and Spiderman from the bookshelf, a frayed copy of Ouran High School Host Club caught Nikhil’s eye. It was the only manga series in his collection. Knowing that Avani was an avid manga fan, he quietly slipped it into his stack, careful not to attract Uday’s attention.
The duo had barely finished setting up the comics on the corner table when the doorbell rang again. The evening’s guests had begun showing up.
Over the next hour or so, the rest of the invitees too trickled in, some with their parents, some with their younger siblings, carrying gifts of varying sizes. The cricketers, the Reds as well as the Blues, turned up in full strength. A couple of classmates from school dropped by as well. At some point, Avani walked in, dressed in a checked pinafore dress, with her younger brother for company. Nikhil’s father, the busy corporate honcho that he was, was one of the last ones to arrive.
The evening swung along fairly expected lines, like birthday celebrations of twelve-year-olds tended to.
The parents huddled together with their favourite poisons in two groups, the men in the verandah and the women around the couch, exchanging notes and being silently dismayed by each other’s enfant terribles. The kids spread themselves more democratically around the house and played every newly-discovered game twice over. Some food spilled onto the carpet. A few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle went missing. A bawling infant somewhere wetted his mother’s saree. The milkshake ran out. Eventually, everyone came together and sang Happy Birthday to Nikhil. The cake was cut, photographs were taken and dinner was served to the guests.
At an opportune moment after the cacophony had died down somewhat, finding Avani sitting alone flipping through a magazine, Nikhil approached her.
“Do you like manga?” he asked, holding out the copy he had picked from the bookshelf.
“Oh, I love it,” she replied and pounced on it like a kitten served with slivers of dried fish. Wasting no time, she riffled through the pages, causing Nikhil no little exultation.
“You can keep it,” he said without trying to sound desperately magnanimous, prompting Avani to smile. Her eyes sparkled. “Can I really? Oh, that’d be so cool. Thank you!”
All of a sudden, a sharp voice to their left put paid to the jolliness. “It’s not for kids.”
Both Nikhil and Avani turned their heads in unison to look. It was Uday. He was licking the last driblets of chocolate sauce off the ice cream stick, and staring at them.
“Of course, it is,” retorted Nikhil, his eyebrows bunched together in exasperation. Why, oh why, did this imbecile have to show up!
“Well, my mum says it isn’t.” Uday walked over and flumped down on the futon right besides Avani. “Certainly not for girls.”
“I am just one frigging year younger than you,” sneered Avani. The peeve showed on her face.
“Never mind that.” Adjusting his spectacles, Uday turned to face Nikhil. “You are spoiling her, you know?”
For the second time in the day, Nikhil glared at Uday but to no avail. Unsure of what to say or do next, he just stood there, immobilised and aware that despite the red shoes and the manga series, the bird had been chased away by the scarecrow.
No sooner had the realization dawned on him, Avani kept the manga comic aside and got up. “I guess I’ll go. Bye, Nikhil.”
Nikhil waved weakly as she marched across the room towards her little brother who was still piecing the jigsaw puzzle together in the company of younger kids. A few minutes later, the siblings made their way out of the front door, and Nikhil could only look on, lament written large on his face.
With the clock pushing past ten, other guests began leaving as well. By eleven, nearly everyone had left including Uday, whose cheer seemed to have multiplied since the scuttling of Nikhil’s prospects.
When an exhausted Nikhil slipped into bed that night, all he could think about was the smile Avani threw him right before Uday showed up and poured cold water over everything. It was a dreamy smile, one that pulled at the ripcords of something unexplained within him. It could have meant something, something he didn’t quite understand, had the moment been allowed to extend itself. A sigh escaped him as the moment replayed in his head. He finally drifted off to sleep only a good hour or so later, tired of all the cogitation.
At the playground, it was business as usual. The Reds, having won the toss, chose to bat and the Blues spread themselves around the field. Nikhil positioned himself at the boundary. Uday brought himself on to bowl. Avani peeped from between the curtains of her bedroom from time to time.
Unusually for a team that liked to hustle from the word go, the Reds got off to an ennui-inducing start. The openers got out cheaply and the rest of the batsmen simply plodded along. The ball wasn’t hit in Nikhil’s direction for nearly all of the first fifteen minutes, and soon he found himself bored.
Just as he was beginning to stifle a yawn, the persistent cawing between the parked cars to his side caught his ear. The birds had been at it for a while now and seemed to be in no mood to let up. He walked over to check.
There were three, maybe four of them, swooping down from the weather-beaten tamarind tree, along an arc of agony, investigating some kind of disastrous predicament on the ground. In that split-second of distressed flight, there was a clumsy grace that was seldom associated with these birds otherwise. The urgency of the hour seemed to lend them rare agreeableness.
Nikhil watched them from a distance, beguiled.
He hadn’t been required to wrap his head around something like this before. Owls were wise. Peacocks were pretty. Parrots were loquacious. Doves were peaceable. Eagles were sharp and cuckoos, sly. But crows? What were they supposed to be except unlucky, unwelcome, pestilent?
Well, he was beginning to find out.
They first began pecking it with their beaks. The one on the right went at it first, and then the others followed suit. Not too long after that, they began clawing it. It started with a nudge and quickly exacerbated into an amateur avian contact sport. The noise from their incessant cawing gradually rose. One by one, tirelessly, they took turns to goad it astir. They hovered around it, switching directions and swapping positions, flitting their wings about as they infused more vigour into every appeal of theirs.
With every failed moment of persuasion, their desperation grew direr. The cawing transformed into a ceaseless clamour. The pecking turned more furious. At some point, the clawing resulted in the ripping of the hapless creature’s skin and revealed the red flesh beneath. But nothing seemed to help matters. Nothing roused it from its final slumber.
The watchman’s pet mutt came strutted in out of nowhere, and dispersed the winged belligerents. Otherwise timid and respectful of the tiniest of birds, the prospect of a tasty snack seemed to have enkindled in it some latent courage.
The crows flew up to the tamarind tree and looked down at their fallen cousin. The dog pawed the dead bird, and upon ascertaining a satisfactory lack of response, gathered it in its mouth. It then looked at Nikhil for the faintest part of a second, and then trotted off, tail wagging and the prized trophy firmly ensconced in its jaws.
As if on cue, Uday called out to Nikhil. It was his turn to bowl.
On his way into the middle to take the ball, the fog lifted in Nikhil’s mind.
Even a guileless dog, he realized, will feast on a bird that has stopped flying. He had settled for the first hand of friendship extended to him. He was a bird; he belonged to the skies and with other birds. As one grows up, as he was discovering now, the rules of friendship change. One gets to choose one’s friends. And not everyone can be befriended.
Nikhil spat out the chewing gum. Who knew that crows and canines could teach so much?
Vipin Nair is a late bloomer on a born-again creative quest. Have survived seven cities, two major earthquakes and a dozen Zumba classes. Occasional marketeer. Compulsive alliterator. Passed out of Mudra Institute of Communication Ahmedabad once although exactly why remains a mystery. His work has been published in The Ken, The Times of India and The India Film Project’s short film anthology.
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