Sundown was at around six-thirty in Chennai, and we usually began playing by six or so, so most of our games happened under floodlights. Lights which were turned off by nine on the dot. I stopped to check someone’s phone as I ran back onto the ground (we piled our phones up on the pavement a bit away from the goal, to keep stray shots from breaking them,) it was almost eight-thirty, and we were down one goal. We didn’t keep track of wins, or make a competition out of it, but I absolutely didn’t want to lose today.
“What’s the time?” Sushil asked me, as I jogged out to play defence with him.
“It’s almost eight-thirty. They’ll turn the lights off soon.”
“So we need to score two goals now. I really don’t want that bastard to win again, after the way he’s been acting.” If anything, Sushil hated losing even more than I did. He was also far more short-tempered than me, which meant that he’d been seething all game.
“Yeah.” I don’t know how it is with others, but even though I tire quickly, when I find myself playing in a crunch situation, like in the final minutes of a close tournament game, I always find a boost—a sudden adrenaline-fueled burst of energy. I play faster, react quicker, and tackle rougher than normal. This game now felt like a tournament final to me. The same desperate need to win was there, and with that came that same high. I got one of the younger kids to switch in goal with me, and I started throwing myself into tackles, pushing and yanking people out of the way so I could get the ball. Still, they were good players, so they weren’t going to surrender that easily.
Finally, three of us pressed forward in concert, I went for the ball, the other two covered the closest available passes. Arjun, who had the ball, tried to cut past me, but I kept with him, pushing him with my shoulder. I wondered if he’d stop playing and pick a fight with me again, and I wondered if I wanted him to do that. Maybe a fight would do me some good. But he didn’t do it this time. Instead, he saw Arun running on the far side, and made a hopeful clearance to him. It never got there, as Sushil ran across and jumped to head it out of play.
From the throw, my team won possession quickly and broke up the pitch. When the ball was passed to me, I saw Ram’s run out of the corner of my eye, and knowing that Arjun was coming up to tackle me as soon as I touched it, I pulled the ball in with my right foot and released it behind my standing leg in the same motion, a little ahead of Ram. A chorus of “oohs” went up from the rest of my team, while Ram loped forward and slid the ball past their keeper. Scores even now, the other team was finally feeling the pressure. They must have forgotten what a challenge felt like.
We high-fived each other, and went back to our positions. No excessive celebrations yet.
“It’s almost nine. Last goal?” I asked the group.
They accepted, and started play again, trying to pass quickly to throw us off our game. There wasn’t much any of us could do, they were passing it short and with one touch, so the ball was gone before we could tackle them. Still, we all held stubbornly to our marks, and wouldn’t let them pass it behind us, or dribble past us. We were running into a stalemate.
They kept the ball, passing it around patiently, waiting for an opening. We tried to press them and win the ball back, but always arrived a split second after they passed the ball on. It was frustrating. We were tiring ourselves out, and they seemed so calm. Then, through a stroke of luck, they got the opening they were looking for. The ball was on the right wing with Arjun, but he was marked closely. I tried to cut in front of Arun, who he was passing to, but tripped in a small pothole left from the previous night’s community movie and fell down. I watched in horror as Arun received the pass, took two steps to his left and unleashed a shot at goal, and then I sighed in relief as our keeper – a kid named Pradeep – threw his hands up to block it, sending the ball over his head, and above the cricket stump we’d stuck through the fence to indicate the crossbar of the goal. He grimaced and shook his hands to ease the stinging in his palms.
I got up and ran back to defend the corner. My teammates waved off my apologies—not much anyone could do about those potholes—and told me to mark the guy going for the short pass.
Seeing how close I was, Arjun waved his teammate off, saying he’d play it into the “box.” He took the corner, and the ball bounced off someone and towards goal before it was kicked clear by the keeper. Ram chased it down and forced a corner at the other end.
At this point, everyone was breathing hard. The last few minutes had taken a lot of energy out of us, and the fatigue was starting to show. We took our time setting up for the corner, just to get a breather. I dropped deep on the right side, away from their goal, and Ram passed it to me, so that we could try to build up at our own pace. This time, they sat back and waited for the inevitable cross to come in. I’m not a dribbler, always opting to pass or cross instead of running with the ball—which meant that they wouldn’t expect it. I waved for Ram to run into the box, and he did, taking his defender with him, leaving me with space to run into.
In that moment, I cut into the middle of the pitch before putting my laces through the ball. I imagined that it was Arjun’s face I was kicking, and put all my anger and tension into the shot, like if I threw all my rage into it, I’d suddenly be free of the burden I was carrying. I watched the ball cut straight through their team and hit the opposite tree-post—and deflect inside the goal. I probably wouldn’t hit the ball that well again for a while. I looked at my boot to check that it was still there, and that it hadn’t been burned off by the force of my shot.
Now, I won’t say that this was as important a game as the World Cup final, but nah, fuck it, it definitely was. I roared until my throat was raw, as my teammates mobbed me. As cliched as it sounds, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
“Otha, eppadi da nee adha adiche?” (How the fuck did you hit that?) Ram asked, his face showing more emotion than I’d ever seen before.
“You’re probably never going to hit it that well again.” Sushil said, reflecting Ram’s surprise. I told him to fuck off.
They clapped me on the shoulders, and we looked at the other team, who were staring at the tree in disbelief—like, did that actually happen? I grinned widely at Arun, who flipped me the bird. “you’re never going to do that again.” he said with a laugh. Even though I’d thought it myself, it was starting to annoy me. I mean, I wasn’t that bad of a player, that I’d never hit the ball like that again. I resolved to keep talking about my goal for the next few days, until I made a stupid mistake. I wasn’t going to let them live it down.
Arjun, on the other hand, looked furious. He stormed towards me, his long black hair flying behind him in the warm breeze, barring the locks that were stuck to his forehead with sweat. The others around me tensed—what did he want now? Even his teammates looked a little concerned. Arjun had gotten into fights before for less. And I’d done my best to rile him up today. He stopped in front of me, and glared at me for a few seconds.
“Uh, Arjun? You okay?” Ram asked.
“I’ll see you at school, midget.” he said, smiling that snide smile down at me. He bumped his shoulder into me as he walked me, staggering me.
“Coward.” I whispered.
He spun around, furious. Boy did I love wiping that stupid smile off his face.
“What did you call me?” he asked, his voice a deathly whisper.
“A coward. It starts with C-O-W, for cow—” I didn’t get to finish my jibe, because I was suddenly staring up at the black night sky. There really are no stars anymore. I thought sadly, as my head spun, before the pain kicked in, a dull throbbing around my left eye. I felt something dribble down the side of my face, and I had to blink the sudden red haze out of my eye. Around me was chaos, but it seemed to be happening in slow motion. Arjun was screaming, while Ram and Sushil held him back, and Arun stood in front of me, his arms held out wide.
Someone kneeled down next to me and lifted me up by the armpits. He was asking something, but it wasn’t quite clear yet.
“What?” I asked, wiping my face with my sleeve and wincing as something burned above my eye. My sleeve came away looking oddly like a parakeet – blue run through with a bright red.
“Dude, are you okay?” the blurry face – Pradeep – was asking me. “Your face is bleeding majorly, macha, we need to wash it.”
Why is my face bleeding? Oh. I got punched. My thoughts were coming a little slowly, like the punch had restarted my brain and it was just sputtering back to life. The commotion around me started to filter in, as did the realization that OH MY GOD, THE FUCKER PUNCHED ME.
My gaze tinged over red, and I shot to my feet. Pradeep hovered behind me, and through my anger, I could vaguely tell that his arms waited over my shoulders, ready to hold me back. Of the others, I could only see Arjun, his struggling profile almost limned by a red light in my eyes.
“You piece of shit,” I stalked forward, shrugging off the first set of arms that sought to entrap me. “What? Can’t deal with losing to the child you put down all the time? Well, get used to it.” I’d like to think my voice was firm, and that I was in complete control, but that would be a lie. My voice quavered like a kitten’s first mewl, and salty tears flowed down my cheeks, mixing with the dirty trails of blood and sand that already lined it. I looked like a mess. But I was done with keeping my peace with him. He liked to lord over everyone, using his size and his prowess at football to act like a god – at school, and here.
Now, his Lordship was brought low, losing to the lowest of serfs under his thrall, and he couldn’t handle it. That punch said it all. “Take your insecurities out on someone else. I’m done with you.” I dismissed him with a wave, and walked away. I didn’t wipe at my face or sniffle, I wasn’t going to give him that.
I tried not to look behind me, but paranoia’s a bitch, especially right after you antagonize someone. So I looked back out of the corner of my eye, turning my head as little as possible, expecting to see a giant shadow looming over me.
But he wasn’t there. He stood staring, mouth open in shock. I don’t think he’d expected me to fight back. A couple of the others behind him were grinning. I continued walking, and when I exited through the palm fronds, it felt like a weight had lifted itself off my chest. I mean, I was still going to be in deep shit for my marks, and this would likely be the last game I played for some time, but I felt good nevertheless. Arjun had been the bane of my existence for years now, and I’d always put up with it, because bullying builds an inferiority complex in you – you’re weaker than your bully, so why fight it? You know you’ll lose. And that insidious thought seeps its way into your bones, until you can’t even think of acting against your tormentor. You believe you’re weaker, and so you are.
But now, I’d broken that spell. Arjun wasn’t some invincible monster, he was just a big, dumb, brute. And I knew he’d continue to make life hard for me at school, but I had no intention of meekly putting up with it anymore. If a fight was what he wanted, then that was what he’d get.
I’m not sure if fighting releases dopamine to the brain, but I felt happy. Not just about standing up to the prick – I felt like I could take whatever I’d get from my parents. I felt like my grades would pick up, I felt like I was on top of the world.
For the time being anyway, my parents’ concern was going to be the blood streaming down my nose. The adrenaline had dulled, and now it hurt like nothing I’d ever felt before. I touched the bridge of my nose gingerly, and even that light touch was enough. I jerked my head back involuntarily, my brain trying to distance itself from my nose, but all that did was make it hurt even worse.
Yeah, my nose was broken. And once they found out how it happened, I was going to be in even deeper shit. I looked at my stadium, my chosen arena, once more. Two of the four floodlights had shut down, and light pooled in opposite corners from the other two. I waited there for a minute, and watched the other two lights fizzle out, shrouding the field, and my friends in darkness.
And then, I made the long walk home, head held high.
(Mostly to keep the blood in. Because that’s how you deal with nosebleeds, right?)