Gully sports exist in a realm of their own. We devote ourselves to mimicking our idols, imagining the narrow driveway to be the field at the Bernabeu, and the teenager dribbling through a crowd to be a Zidane or Kaka. Indeed, I grew up wanting to be Maldine, trying to adhere to his philosophy that when you make a tackle as a defender, you’ve already made a mistake. In my apartment complex, while certain driveways played the role of cricket’s Meccas, the gravel playing field at the complex’s far end played the role of Wembley, or the Nou Camp, or Anfield, (or to my singular fancy, White Hart Lane). Once the lights came on – at 6:15p.m. – we trudged in, emerging from the palm fronds that ringed the field as if exiting the dressing room tunnels at those glittering Meccas of football. The evening prayers at the temple behind the ground served as our crowd ambience, their lilting chants reminiscent of our teams’ best songs.
I didn’t choose to be a right-back. At least, I don’t remember choosing that. I guess because I was small and scrawny for years, I was left behind to play defense during games periods at school- because as children, who wants to be a defender or goalkeeper? – and it just kind of stuck for a while. So now, here I was, excessively one-footed, and largely incapable of trickery. My normal role, when playing on larger fields – get up the pitch, on overlaps, cross the ball, fall back and defend narrow. Simple, right? Well, that wasn’t how it worked at home, where the ground was a forty-by-forty square. Full-backs don’t exist in five or six-a-side football. Strikers, dribblers, close control experts – those are what you need, and those are what I wasn’t. So, when the time came to pick teams, some of the guys (who were better in the dribbling and close control divisions than most of us) banded together, leaving the rest of us misfits playing together. The results, predictably, were often one-sided.
Why am I sitting here and telling you all this? Well, when you’ve just been thrown out of your third class in a row, time seems to stand still. And talking to someone, even a figment of my imagination, is better than focusing on the sweat dripping off my eyelashes and wondering when it will fall into my eyes. That, and maybe the Chennai heat, is making me delirious. I can’t be sure. One of these days my teachers are going to put their heads together and decide to just leave me baking out in the hall for the whole day, because there was no way I’d have done my homework for their classes.
A pat on my head broke me from my thoughts, and I found myself staring into a blue-shirted chest, with another one close next to it. Two guys had stepped out of class and in front of me, with the rest of the class filing out behind our Maths teacher. I hadn’t heard the bell go off, signalling the end of the day. I looked up into the faces, grinning like the wicked foxes you find in children’s tales.
“You lost, little boy?” the one who’d patted me – Arjun – asked. I ignored him, and tried to walk back inside the classroom, only to have an arm come out and block the door.
“Where are you going? Kindergarten’s over that way.” He pointed in the direction of the playschool. His goon friend guffawed like this was the best joke he’d ever heard. Except, they’d used the same trope on me ever since we were in kindergarten. I wasn’t even that small anymore— five-four, even if I was still stick thin. Normally, I’d ignore their idiocy and walk away, but I was exhausted, irritated, and thirsty beyond belief right now. Definitely not in the mood for pointed, personal jokes.
“Can you idiots just shut the fuck up and let me go?” I yelled, pushing Arjun’s hand out of my way. A few faces in the room had paused in the middle of whatever they were doing and gawked at me. Before I could walk inside though, a large hand clapped down on my left shoulder, spinning me back around before grabbing onto my collar. Arjun pulled me up into his face. He’d dropped the smile, and now glared at me. I much preferred this expression, it suited his face far better than the wily grin he’d been wearing – just not enough in the brain to pull that one off.
“You better watch your mouth, you little shit. Don’t think I won’t fuck you up just because you’re tiny.” he said, tossing me to the floor and walking away. “I’ll see you for football tonight, bitch. Let’s settle this there.” His crony feinted a kick at me, laughing when I flinched away from it. I picked myself up and dusted my pants off, swearing under my breath as I entered the classroom. That cretin, unfortunately, lived in my building. And there, with a paucity of players to pick from, I had no choice but to play together with him. Or rather, against him. He liked nothing more than humiliating me on the field, or when I had the ball, roughly throwing me off it.
Ram sat at our desk, stooping his tall body down to bury his head under the hood, rummaging for something. It was just like him to completely miss what had just transpired outside. I breathed in, willing away the pang of resentment I felt at my friend’s seeming indifference to my plight. When his head finally surfaced, he held a sheaf of papers in one hand, and my water bottle in the other, which he handed to me and which I chugged immediately, like a donkey that’s been mistaken for a camel by a desert caravan.
“Please tell me those aren’t…” I asked, pointing to the papers, which looked to be test results. He nodded sadly, dropping them onto the now closed desk, revealing that which I dreaded more than anything else. 55 in Maths, 26 in Chemistry, 7 in Physics (these are out of 70, barring Math, which was out of 100). I put my head in my hands, my mind reeling from the shock. I knew I’d done badly this time, but this was worse than I’d expected. My parents would be receiving calls from school soon, I knew, asking for my presence at remedial classes. They were not going to be happy.
“I’m sorry, man. What will you do?” Ram asked, after letting me mourn for an appropriately long time.
“I don’t know.” I shook my head, “If I tell them, they’ll kill me. If I don’t tell them now, and if school calls before I can tell them, they’ll kill me twice.”
“Quite the conundrum you’ve gotten yourself into.” Ram said.
I flipped him off. “It’s not funny, man. I’ll be banned from leaving the house. They’ll confiscate my laptop, and my books. Who confiscates books?” I was panicking, slightly.
“Clearly it works,” Ram pointed out. “Look, man. Just promise that you’ll do better next time.” he said.
“Just like the last ten times, then.” I said.
“Ok. Will you still be coming to play today?”
“They’ll be back late, so yeah, I’ll come today. Might be the last time I see anyone for a long time.” I replied.
“Stop being so whiny. You’re not going to jail, you’re just going to be forced to study. Just like everyone else.” Ram said.
We walked out towards the school bus stand, rounding the corner from our classroom and holding our breaths while passing the boys’ bathroom – which constantly reeked, no matter how often it was cleaned. The bulletin board downstairs had listed the pre-board exam results for the class above ours – with my sister’s name right up there, fifth from the top. I looked away from the board, feeling that 95% burn itself onto my proffered cheek. Another reminder of what I was not. Classes were over for her now, with her board exams starting in two months, so she was at tuitions all day, trying to get that 95 up to a nice, round 100.
A few people milled around on the large school grounds, either crowding the school canteen for a chance at a chicken roll, or sitting on the stone benches next to the basketball court with their friends. I spotted my driver waving at me from across the length of the rust-coloured football field, and I turned back to Ram, who was angling for the buses.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me? I mean, why take the bus when you have an A/C car going to the same place?” I asked. Ram sighed heavily, we had this conversation almost every day.
“My mother has paid for this month already, da. No sense in wasting that.” he said.
I held my hands up in defeat. The guy was stubborn, and there wasn’t anything I could do to convince him, even if his reasoning made no sense at all. “Fine. Just tell her that you’ll come back with me from next month. This is a waste of time and money.” I said, and jogged over to my waiting driver. I don’t know if I imagined it, but I think Ram looked over my shoulder, at my driver, and shuddered as I gave him my ultimatum.
Before facing my parents, or dealing with my impending house arrest, I’d have to survive my trip back home from school. To others, this might sound odd – “what’s so difficult about being driven back home?” you might ask. But you, you have never met my driver Raju. When I got into the car, I said a quick prayer to Shiva, Vishnu, Pulaiyar—any god who’d listen to me—begging for Raju to be sober. Plainly they didn’t think I’d donated enough to their respective temples, since the man emerged from the car emitting a noxious cloud of cigarette smoke and alcohol vapour. His eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, and his face wore a lopsided grin, like his mouth was trying to fall off his face. I tried not to gag when he took my bag from me, and sat in the back seat, not willing to sit any closer to him. The inside of the car smelled like more cigarette smoke. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out like a dog, just to breathe.
“School epdi irrundadhu pa?” (How was school?) he asked me, turning around briefly to look at me through bloodshot eyes. I pulled my head back and looked at him. I briefly contemplated telling him that school was shit, and that I was worried about being an utter and complete failure. I wondered what he’d have to say to that.
“Okay-a irrundadhu. Veettukku pollama?” I replied, asking him to take me home. I took a book out of my bag and opened it to signal that I wasn’t interested in any more conversation.
“Vandi-lla book paddikakoodadhu. Kannu kettupoidum.”he said. (You shouldn’t read in the car, you’ll ruin your eyes.)
There’s something—A chain-smoking alcoholic is lecturing me on my bad habits. It was almost funny to think about. I nearly told him this, but chose instead to just scoff and ruin my eyes further.
“Amma call panna. Tuition cancel panitta.” Don’t call her Amma. She’s not your mother. It always weirded me out that he called my mom Amma, despite a) being older than her, and b) not being her freaking son.
“Seri, okay.” I dug further into my Wheel of Time novel.
“Enna book padikkira?” he drawled, his voice slurring. Why is he still employed?
“Naa sonnalum unnaku puriyadhu.” I didn’t know how to explain a fourteen book fantasy series in Tamil, so I wasn’t going to.
“Try pannu.” He was a talkative drunk. That would have been annoying in normal circumstances, but right now it was already bad enough that he was driving—I didn’t want to talk with him and give him another distraction.
“Raju, please pesaama vandiya ottu.” Just drive quietly. That’s all I wanted. He got the message then. Last week’s rains had eaten into the shoddy roads, leaving them uneven and littered with potholes. This rendered reading almost impossible, so I put my book aside and looked out the window as we turned off the Old Mahabalipuram Road and onto Taramani Road near the American International School. The whole area, Velachery, had been undeveloped marshland for decades, and only in the last five or ten years had developers realized how much land was available to them there. My apartment was in a large building complex—ten buildings, a supermarket, a temple, a swimming pool, and a playing ground. It was also about fifteen minutes away now. Fifteen more minutes with a drunk driver, on a road with potholes as big as the Innova we were in. Great.
Thankfully, I made it home in one piece—despite Raju’s best efforts. The man had swerved wildly out of control while driving, taking the car into oncoming traffic for a time. When he nearly crashed into multiple panicked drivers, he took his hands off the steering wheel to hurl colourful insults at them, as if it were somehow their fault that he was drunk and an imbecile. I had tried to ask for him to be fired before, on account of numerous close encounters with trucks and cars, but his grovelling coupled with my parents’ reliance on him (aside from his alcoholism, he was a very reliable man, they told me), foiled my attempts each time.
“Saapadu table mela irruku” (Your food is on the table) my maid said, when I entered the apartment. I thanked her for keeping my lunch ready and said I’d be there as soon as I bathed. I went to my room—where the A/C was already on—and was greeted by the sight of my study table, currently occupied by a tricolour beagle sleeping on it, having pushed my stationery and books to the floor. She, Misha, woke up when I entered, and jumped off the table and onto my bed, waiting there for me to come to her. Diva.
I petted her for a few minutes, and then she got bored of my attention and went back to sleep—this time under the table. I went to my drawer and rummaged around until I found a suitable football jersey—a 2010 Germany World Cup kit, with ‘Schweinsteiger 7’ emblazoned across the back—and shorts to wear and then headed off to the bath.
The thing with the Chennai summer is that it doesn’t really matter what you choose to wear, you’re going to be sweating through it immediately, unless the A/C is on everywhere. The air is almost palpably wet, and the heat sultry—leaving you sticky and irritable all the time. It almost makes me rethink bathing after school sometimes—it just feels so futile, when I step out of the shower and begin sweating immediately. My mother would disown me if I tried that though, so I bathe and then pick up my food—freshly reheated—and sit down on the papasan to watch something on tv. Misha followed the smell of rasam sadham (a tomato-and-lentil soup had with rice—a staple meal in Tamil households), and potatoes and sat at my feet, looking at me expectantly. She didn’t do the puppy eyes, because grovelling was beneath her. She demanded with her eyes, and then clawed and barked when I went too long without giving her a piece. Still, we sat together in relative peace to watch Inuyasha on Animax.
My parents both work, and neither came home before eight p.m. On normal days, this was when I’d be stuck with tuition, but since I was free of that for the day, I decided to call a couple of my friends over. I wanted to ignore the dread I felt for a little while. Once I told my parents my marks, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house other than to go to school or tuition, so this was likely going to be my last chance to enjoy myself for a while. We’d play FIFA and Halo on my Xbox for a bit, and then get around to organizing the evening’s football game.