Umpiring for the Underdog – Vidyabhushan Arya                                   

Illustration by Aarushi Periwal

Illustration by Aarushi Periwal

As the final hour drew close, students grew anxious to abandon books of all variety. Some went directly home, others ventured a more crooked route, some went to the fields and others simply loafed around the dust-filled village lanes. And among them – a group of ten school students who waited for the bell to ring so  they could dash out to with unchecked ambition and play – not hockey (was there anything to this game?), not even football but cricket.

The young  zealots belonging to standard VII, VIII and the higher classes were bold enough to take bats, balls and stumps, hats (for the umpires) into the classroom along with their school bags. A collective pool of accessories.

Anwar, a sixth standard student was a real cricket lover and a part of the team, but the most gullible one, as he was the youngest. His passion outdid that of the others by several ounces.

Anwar’s team mates belonged to the influential families of Ambula. It was only Anwar who belonged to an underprivileged family whose mother worked as a maid in the house of the former Sarpanch-head of Village, who was dearly called ‘Aba’. His father worked on a runaway farm.

Anwar’s tryst with cricket began when he started watching it on the TV at Aba’s house where he often accompanied his mother. While she washed clothes, utensils and swept the floor, he would sit glued to the set. So much so, that he was almost always transfixed and had to be shaken out of it. In school, too, cricket was on top of his mind and he talked about it all the time.

Anwar was a jolly good fellow (as the rhyme went) and with his manners, he befriended one and all. His positive energy made him extremely playful, like a fawn on the playground. He cavorted, clapped and guffawed on the ground. Whenever the ball was hurled outside the ground, it was Anwar who jumped into action and threw it back onto the ground. Sometimes, he threw the ball in slow motion like he watched it on television – a human replay machine! And whenever the boys felt thirsty, it was Anwar, who went to the school block and filled the bottle for the team. The other boys expected this from Anwar, and no thank yous were due.

The rules of the game were twisted according to the convenience of the boys. There was no question of forming two teams as the numbers of players were inadequate for it. Each one came to bat as per the decided serial order. The method of allotting the numbers was like this:

One of the players was made to stand facing the back wall of the school. Another student squatting behind him drew a number on the ground with his finger. The standing fellow had to guess and pronounce the name of the player for each number that was drawn on the ground. Thus, everybody got his turn and batted accordingly.

Anwar never missed a day of his passionate game. He enjoyed every bit of the game. Batting, balling, fielding and appealing. Evening was the time he craved the most. He went to school regularly, because it gave him friends who played cricket.  When Anwar came to bat, other boys on the ground hated it. He swung his bat so deftly – not a ball hit the stump. The bat lasted a long time in his hands. It tested the patience of other boys and his turn was never welcomed by all. The boys tried all types of tricks to get him out but none of them worked. Anwar would play his innings. Whenever they got his wicket early, boys would jostle, clap and jump.

Understandably, boys were not happy with Anwar’s tenacity to stick to the bat. . A feeling, that a junior boy always dodged them was hurting their ego. Discontent was searing among them and they abhorred Anwar’s involvement in the team. Boys began their search for a reason to oust him.

On that particular evening, when they finished the game they let Anwar leave the ground and stood in a cluster. “Somehow we have to get him out of the team. He is getting on my nerve,” a tall boy said. The taller members standing close by reciprocated his feeling.

“But what pretext we can find?” the tallest asked.

A secret discussion ensued and a pretext was found! “Anwar will not play from tomorrow,” they decided. And thus, they dispersed before it got too dark.

Next day when the bell rang, boys, as usual, rushed to the ground. So did Anwar; frolicking in his distinctively fervent and agile manner. Boys had formed a group and they were gawking at Anwar. The scene was strange for Anwar, yet he appealed, “Let us start the game friends.”

But the boys had their plan up their sleeves and stood expressionless and continued gawking at him. Anwar felt awkward and sensed a problem.

“What happened? Why don’t you start giving the numbers,” Anwar asked.

A boy came forward and declared thus: “Henceforth, you can’t be a member of our team.”

Anwar was taken aback by this sudden and unexpected verdict.

“What is wrong with you? What have I done?” Anwar asked.

“You Pakistani… traitor, enemy of the nation, don’t you dare ask the reason,” growled a boy. Anwar stood stupefied. He was at a loss. In this desperation the young boy could not hold back his tears. He couldn’t utter a word as he didn’t hold any stake in the game in any form; bat, ball or even a stump.

What could Anwar do? His father too was not a person whose word carried any weight in Ambula.  Meekly, he turned and sat under the Neem tree in the corner of the ground. The boys looked relieved and exchanged smiles before starting their game. Anwar, with tears in his eyes, was still hopeful that his friends might change their mind and call him back. For a moment he thought, “It is just a game, they are playing to fool me around.” But the boys were absorbed in the play without noticing Anwar’s existence.

 

Disheartened and crestfallen, Anwar returned home and silently entered his house. His house had two rooms. The roof of the entrance room was half covered with tin sheets and another room was entirely thatched. In the corner of the entrance room, there was a thatched bathroom without a roof.

When Anwar entered the house, his mother was cooking at the mud oven. Anwar came and took water in a tumbler from an earthen pot, kept near the bathroom… washed his feet…came out and took the towel that was dangling on a half foot wooden Khuuti jutting out from the wall.

Anwar’s mother felt something unusual about her son. Usually, Anwar entered the house like a just-born calf. He came leaping, banging the door and humming a tune of some popular Hindi film song. He handled the tumbler like a ball and splashed water as if he was throwing the ball on the wicket. Some of the water squirted on the floor. “Anwar, why are you spraying the water beta,” his Amma said. This kind of protest didn’t mean anything to Anwar.  Amma’s words just went unheeded and he would ask her for meal.

But on that unusual evening, silence had gripped Anwar. He washed and rubbed his feet silently. Neither the tumbler made any noise nor did the water splash on the floor. He didn’t hum a tune either.

Anwar hunkered down on the mat that was spread out in the corner. The house was lit up with a dim light of the lantern. The dimness was in much accord with Anwar’s grief. His mother could no longer withstand his silence. She was not used to this kind of hushed entry of her son. “Anwar, come here beta…Why are you so silent?….Why don’t you speak..?” she asked.

Anwar got up and came to her in a mechanical manner. When he came to her, she saw his grief stricken face. It made her more worried and she pulled him and made him sit on her lap and asked, “Who beat you my son? Did anyone quarrel with you? Tell me.”

Anwar looked at her and broke into tears and buried his head in her bosom. He let the deep seated cry make its way through tears. Then words followed sobs, “They have ousted me from the team Amma….calling me Pakistani and enemy of the nation….I did nothing to anybody let alone the nation…but still they won’t take me….” Anwar narrated the incident that had happened on the ground. Tears were flowing from Amma’s eyes too.

“First, you have your food beta…. we will do something about it, you don’t worry…” Amma tried to calm him down and promised to find some way out. She spoke several good things about him, “How good you are! Never trouble your parents, everyone likes you…..Alla will do all good things to you…my son…” and served him the dinner. After dinner, Anwar went to sleep clinging to his grief and humiliation.

Anwar’s father came from the fields. He usually spoke few words at home. His interaction with his wife centered mostly around the household matters and some time about their two  daughters Naseem and Shabnam, who were married off.  Otherwise, he kept to himself.

That night, after having dinner, Anwar’s father sat smoking a beedi on a square stone that lay in the open portion of the house. His mother was washing utensils with the ash, collected from the mud oven. She briefed the father about the incident and how the boys had behaved with Anwar.  “Now boys won’t take him along to play bat and ball. They are calling him Pakistani. Why don’t you meet these boys and say something?” Her husband quietly listened to her and replied, “Why does he need to play cricket? Isn’t it enough for us that he goes to the school? Don’t raise this useless issue ever again. Or else, I will not let him to school either.” Anwar’s mother didn’t argue any further and washed the utensils.

Anwar attended school but his mind ceaselessly traversed through the ground…. dribbling ball……and the swinging bat. Earlier, he sat in the school for the whole day to be rewarded with the game of cricket in the evening. He couldn’t concentrate in the classroom. And evenings had become onerous for him, since he was outlawed from the ground. He couldn’t think of any other pursuit in the evening.

Unknowingly, his feet turned towards the ground but he didn’t proceed beyond the Neem tree and watched the boys from there. Boys on the ground turned a blind eye towards him and continued their play. Anwar kept lingering there for some time, hoping that by some divine providence, their heart would change and they would call him. But Anwar, simply did not exist for them. After watching them for a while, he returned home with a heavy heart. He was still searching for the reason of his exclusion from the team. He had failed to understand the sudden animosity of his friends towards him.

Anwar’s mother was getting restless as she saw her lad in that melancholic state. She had to do something desperately to bring the smile back on the face of her child. She was aware that only his inclusion in the team would put him in his usual state. And it could be done only through an influential person in Ambula.

An idea struck her. She planned to talk to Aba, the former Sarpanch of the village in whose house she worked as a maid. He was a veteran, whom people respected for his age and his contribution to the village. Aba had been a popular Sarpanch of Ambula. He had assumed this office of a political head of the village for long time and had set an example of a dynamic leadership. But in his twilight years, he didn’t take active interest in the affairs of Ambula and preferred to remain aloof.

Late afternoon, when Anwar’s mother finished her work, she composed herself to talk to her master. Aba was sipping the evening tea. She had already spoken with the lady of the house. Accordingly, the lady had facilitated the discussion between Anwar’s mother and Aba.

He listened carefully to Anwar’s mother. “Aba, school boys are calling him Pakistani and are not just ready to play with him. Anwar is really a good boy. He never quarrels with anybody.”

Aba, while reading the news paper smiled at the allegation the boys had made, “Now a days, the people of Ambula are getting agitated about any trivial matter. Superfluous and minor issues are blown out of proportion culminating into cast conflict and factional politics. The matter in Anwar’s case is not so big but if I intervene directly, some people will just colour it differently,” Aba said.

But he was astounded by the words uttered by the boys against Anwar, “Pakistani…enemy of the nation….” and it added to his worry, “Is this urban disease knocking on our village door?” Caste conflicts and other squabbles had become the routine affairs for Ambula. But it had never experienced communal tension in the village. Aba felt that linking Anwar’s matter to the communal issue was an exaggeration. Still, the words uttered by the boys made him uncomfortable and he decided to look into the matter. “I will do something about it, ask Anwar to meet me after he comes from school tomorrow,” Aba said to Anwar’s mother. Satisfied with Aba’s promise Anwar’s mother returned happily. When Anwar came home, she told him about her meeting with Aba and asked him to meet the next day. Anwar saw a glimmer of hope and dreamt for a better tomorrow.

For Anwar, time just didn’t move in the school. He kept imagining himself    sitting before Aba.

When Anwar came to Aba, he was about to leave the house. Anwar shyly waited at the door. Aba wore his Gandhi cap, stepped out on the street and started walking towards the ground. Anwar was trying to match his steps with Aba. He saw several people greeting Aba on the way. After crossing the village, he reached the school. He saw boys were playing on the ground. Aba approached them. The boys noticed that an elderly person of the village with whom they had hardly interacted was coming towards them. A tall figure, wearing dhoti- kurta and Gandhi cap. Grey hair peered out between the ears and the edges of cap. While walking towards the boys, Aba made a sign with his right hand, stopped the game and called the boys. They were perplexed as something unusual was happening with them. When they came near, Aba asked them, “What are you playing boys?”

“Cricket,” was an immediate reply. “What a rubbish game you play! Why don’t you play  Kabbadi, Kho-kho, VeetiDandu and Kusti… those are our native games?”

“But we like cricket very much!” was the impulsive shout.

“It means you all are enemies of the nation, traitors and anti socials. You just don’t love your country.” The boys were stupefied over Aba’s statement.

“You know cricket is not an Indian game and it remained in India as a legacy of the British who ruled over us for hundred and fifty years. They left the country but we are still sticking to their habits. Don’t you have any self-esteem?” Aba continued.

The boys were perplexed over Aba’s logic. Soon, one of them came forward and said, “A sport is a sport. Be it Cricket, Kabbadi or Kusti. It can’t be the monopoly of any single country. Any country can play it”.

Another boy said, “What difference it makes if it is of British origin? Why countries like Australia , West Indies, Pakistan and Srilanka also play it?”

“Yes, that is what I want to tell you boys. If you are so thoughtful, how can you dismember Anwar from your team? Because, he is a Muslim? If sport is a sport, then how can it be branded with any single country or religion?”

Aba paid them back in their own coin. Silence pervaded for some moments. The boys were rendered speechless by Aba’s argument. Anwar was listening to the argument but he showed scant interest in it. He was happy to have man like Aba was arguing his case. Aba wasted no time and nudged Anwar towards the boys. “Now you all go and play the game.” Anwar didn’t wait for a second and hurriedly joined the team and the boys too began playing with him.

Aba stepped out from the ground and started walking. When he looked back at the boys, Anwar seemed at least, to have become one of them.

With over 11 years of industry and academic experience, Mr. Arya specialised in print and electronic media. He was associated with Indian Express, Times of India and E-TV News.

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