Read part 1 of this story here.
“Winner stays.” Arun said, lounging on one of the chairs in the living room. Of course he’d say that, because he was better than the rest of us. Arun’s my height, with skin that had seemingly never seen the sun, and the thinnest line of hair connecting his eyebrows. The zebra-patterned lounge chair —one of two— he was sitting back in was set uncomfortably close to the flatscreen tv while the people not playing had to sit on the pergo wood floor and crane their necks to odd angles to watch the game unfold. A 2-litre bottle of Coke sat on the floor next to me, with steel tumblers next to each person in the room.
“Go fuck yourself.” Sushil replied, but we end up playing by those rules anyway. Sushil’s two years younger than Arun, Ram, and me; he’s like a nursery rhyme teapot—short and stout, but with an even shorter temper. He can be somewhat extreme—he once hit me in the head with an ironbox, though I just can’t seem to remember how that happened.
While Ram and Arun played the first FIFA match, Sushil and I sat on the ground behind them, with my dog lying between us, and a glass bowl full of cut raw mango,liberally covered with chili powder and salt, in my hands. The conversation turned naturally to our evening plans. I wanted to go down early to play cricket with a different group of people before we started football.
“Fuck off. I’m not playing cricket. Shut up and sit here. We’ll go down at five-thirty. OHWHATAGOAL!” Arun said, the last part punctuated by him punching the controller into the air, while Ram sat next to him looking dejected—though, to someone who didn’t know Ram (affectionately known as T-Rex, on account of his gait when he ran,) he might have just looked expressionless. Only a select few could read the minute changes on the (almost) blank slate that was Ram’s face.
“Macha, do you really have to sit and watch all the replay angles?” Ram asked, as Aubameyang sprinted forward with the ball before bending it perfectly into the top left corner from 25 yards—for the fifth time.
“Shut up, T-Rex. Look at that bend!” Arun whistled appreciatively, “What a goal, man.” Sushil rolled his eyes at me while petting my dog absently.
“Okay, no cricket. But do you want to play the same teams today?” He asked.
Arun was the only one of us who played for the “enemy.” He didn’t get what pissed the rest of us off so much. “Yeah, why shouldn’t we? It’s fun, no?” He asked, without looking away from the screen.
“Sure, for you. We’re sick of Arjun and Rohit playing together. They’re too good. And Arjun’s an asshole. Bastard threatened me in school today.” I said.
“Really? When did this happen?” Ram asked, wide-eyed. Only he and Arjun were in my school, so the others didn’t know what Arjun was like on a daily basis.
“When you had your head stuck inside your desk after Maths. He cornered me outside class and started making fun of my height.” I narrated the events of the afternoon to them while they played.
After, Sushil said, “Dude, I know the guy can be an ass, but it’s all just hot air, you know. What can he actually do?”.
“I don’t know. But I’m worried that if I play against him, he’ll try to pull some crap, like try to injure me.” I said.
“Then you want to play with him?” Arun asked.
“Then what do you want?”
I threw up my hands and groaned, exasperated. What did I want? For him not to play with us, but they wouldn’t agree to that.
“Also, those two won’t play if you put them in separate teams. Who wants to lose to me next?” Ram had lost, and I waved Sushil forward. “It’s cool. I’ll wait.” I said.
“Let’s just play the same teams da. If he’s been this much of a prick, then I have a feeling it’ll be better today.” Ram said, as he sat down. Misha pawed at him when he didn’t immediately begin showering her with affection.
“Yeah bro. Just chill, it’s just a game anyway.” Arun said, while picking out a team with which to torment Sushil. Cue: Shakhtar Donetsk beating Barcelona 5-1.
It wasn’t “just a game” to the rest of us, though. We’d been losing for a couple weeks, and we were sick of it. Still, Arun was right—those prima donnas would refuse to play if they were separated from each other.
We lounged for a little longer in the air-conditioned room, playing more FIFA and passing the Coke bottle around, careful not to spill any on the wood. My mom would murder all four of us if it got stained. Misha had grown bored of us, and left to go wait for my parents on a couch near the door, next to a window that offered her a clear view of the lift. It was her vantage point to keep track of all comings and goings.
The balcony door adjoining the living room had been left open, so at five, we could hear the temple bells ring clearly — that’s when the evening puja began everyday — so we knew it was time to start calling the others.
We each called two people, splitting the load between us four, and today all of them said they’d play. Needless to say, I left calling Arjun up to Arun. The others left my house to go change and to get their studs. We agreed to meet at the ground at five-twenty, which meant that I was there by five-fifteen. Despite it being late evening, it was still sultry outside. The temperature, rarely, if ever, drops below 30℃ during the year in Chennai. We needed sweaters during “winter,” when temperatures dropped to a frigid 20℃. Add to this heat the krait -and cobra-infested swamp right behind the ground, and you’ve got a recipe for constant sweat.
Our field was a small gravel playground in the apartment complex. The paved walkway that circled it formed the boundaries, and two trees formed the goalposts on one side, and we arranged rocks or slippers parallel to them for the other set. Large crossworked iron fences were set up on two sides of the ground, against the compound wall—which was topped with jagged glass to prevent trespassers from jumping it—to prevent the ball (and us) from going over into the marsh behind the complex. It didn’t work. We routinely broke the iron bars of the fence, and the jagged glass on the wall itself, because getting our footballs back was more important than our safety. The side facing the apartments themselves had a row of small palm trees form a natural wall against the outside world. The gaps in these trees were what serves as our dressing room tunnels, us emerging one by one from behind palm fronds like all the Messis and Ronaldos of the world, the final crescendo of the Champions’ League theme music playing in our heads. The fourth side—where we set up slippers for goalposts—bordered the complex’s temple. So there was a twenty-foot-tall fence set up there too, to prevent us from desecrating holy ground with our footballs. We still managed to hit the ball into the temple on a daily basis. Call it perseverance.
Today, the tension was palpable in the air. Well, it was palpable on our team. The other guys, they were laughing and joking between themselves, without a care in the world. On my side, Ram, Sushil, and I were discussing tactics with the rest of our team.
We started with the ball, and it came straight to me from the kickoff, and two of their guys were on me immediately. “How are they so fast?” was all I had time to think, before one of them kicked the ball off my feet, and out behind me for a goal kick.
“Pass it quickly da. If there’s no one ahead, give it to me.” Ram said. “You can’t hold the ball, they’ll close you down.” Sweat was already streaming down his face, and his sky blue t-shirt was quickly turning into one that resembled a storm instead. By the end of the game, we’d be able to wring sweat out of our clothes as if we’d jumped into a lake fully clothed.
From the goal kick, he passed it out wide, where one of my teammates had found some space. But he lost the ball quickly, and set our opponents up for a quick counter-attack.
Before I could react, Rohit and Arjun played a quick one-two pass to get beyond a defender, and then Arjun dribbled past Sushil, waited for Ram to come out to make a desperate tackle, and then passed it to Rohit, who was waiting in front of an empty goal. This was what they did. In a matter of seconds, they’d humiliated four players.
They laughed, and Arjun taunted the guys he’d sent to the floor – putting a hand over his eyes and pretending not to see anyone around – and walked back to their half, while my team slowly picked themselves up from the dirt and wiped themselves off. This had become routine for us. Usually, we’d be deflated after something like this happened, and then the game would turn into a rout. Not today. Today, I was angry. I wasn’t going to accept being shown up like this, especially not by that bastard. And I could tell that the taunting had gotten to my friends, too. More than a few of them glowered balefully at Arjun’s back as he retreated.
The game went on for a little, they scored a few more, and we got one back, but the frustration was still building up. Every time one of us got beaten for pace, or got tackled, we got more irritated. Eventually, it spilled over. Arjun got the ball, and tried to nutmeg me and I pulled him down, tearing his shirt, when he did. He did not take kindly to that, not at all. He was up in a flash, wheeling towards me with a wild look in his eyes.
“What the fuck was that?” He growled, pushing me hard in the chest with both hands. I fell to the floor hard, the breath punched from my lungs in a wheeze. Now, I’d had just about enough of him for the day, what with school and his attitude on the pitch. I almost heard something snap in my brain when he shoved me. Blood pounded in my ears, drowning out whatever the guys around me were saying. I picked myself off the ground, balling my fist. Before I could begin what would most certainly have ended poorly for me, four arms grabbed me and pulled me away – while two of Arjun’s teammates dragged him, kicking and screaming, away from me.
“Otha thevediya paiyya, play properly, or else—” He wagged his finger at me threateningly as he was pulled away. I just stared at him, my heart fighting to break free of my chest.
“Chill da, Arjun. It’s our ball.” Arun said. He looked at me, his eyes asking Did you have to piss him off?
I turned to my teammates, who had come up to defend me, if the need arose.
“Nice one.” Sushil said to me. “I’ve been wanting to do that for some time now.”
“I’m sick of him, acting like some god, here and in school.” I said.
They’d gotten Arjun to calm down, and called out that they were going to take the free-kick.
They kicked it short—because of course they did—and the game carried on.
I was tracking Arun, who was the only one of our group who played barefoot—even on gravel. He said it was because his feet were different sizes, so all his studs were uncomfortable. He still bought a new pair every month or so. I never understood the logic there. I tried playing barefoot once, but didn’t last five minutes with my soft feet on the gravel and stones. I had no idea how he managed to play like that. Still, it was hard to tackle him, because we always had to be careful not to step on him with the studs.
“When are you going to be keeping?” He asked.
“Next goal, I guess.” I replied.
“Cool. I’m definitely killing you today.” He smiled. We had this ongoing “thing,” where he’d smash the ball at goal when I was keeping, often narrowly missing my face. With the others, taking a shot to the face might not be so bad, but Arun’s right foot was a cannon. His shots instilled very real fear in people. Thankfully, they were just as likely to clear the fence behind the ground as they were to hitting the target.
If Arjun had said this, I’d definitely have lost my shit, but Arun was my oldest friend in the group, so all this was just normal banter for us. Still, I didn’t respond today. I was already too much on edge.
In the meantime, my team had won the ball back, and they passed it around between them while I stayed back, before one player ran through the defence and scored.
I whistled my appreciation. It was a well-worked goal.
“Brilliant play, man.” I said to Ram.
“Good play, guys!” He called out, then to me he asked, “Switch?”
I nodded, and took his place in front of the goal. Our rule was to switch goalies every two goals scored—by either team—or if a long period of time went by without two goals being scored. “Keeper change!” I yelled, waving my arms to show that I was the keeper now. We’d had arguments break out before, when people didn’t know the goalie had changed. You know, bullshit handball claims for when the team can’t score through fair play.
No one wanted to be goalie. It was tough, you either got embarrassed or hurt, and you had to stand in one place, which invited the cloud of mosquitoes to attack. When I say cloud, I mean it literally. Each of us on the field had amassed a personal cloud of the buzzing nuisances above our heads, with several alighting on exposed flesh any time we stopped running. As a goalie, I had to stay still, which meant I was constantly slapping at my arms and legs, killing one mosquito for every twenty that escaped. Other than that though, my tenure in goal was relatively calm. The game became somewhat sloppy, with the ball being out of play longer than it was in play. Every now and then, Arjun would push someone over, or kick at their ankles, lashing out for the foul I’d committed earlier. When they started arguing, he’d reply with a “enna? Foul-la ille. Mayira pudingindu poi aadu.”
From one corner that I conceded, he stepped deliberately in front of me, and pushed back against me, calling loudly for the ball. I grabbed him with both hands and tried to throw him out of the way, but he resisted. When the ball came in towards him, I jumped over him, my elbow hitting him in the face as I pushed the ball away. He dropped to the floor, clutching his cheek. The ball was still in play, so I tried to ignore him and watch the game, where Ram was shepherding Arun out, away from goal. The next thing I knew, I was on my back, with Arjun leaning over me, blood flowing down his face from the gash I’d left under his right eye.
“Keep that up and I’ll kill you.” he said.
I threw the sand I’d closed my fist around into his face and stood up. He yelped in pain and surprise as the coarse gravel hit his cut.
“You touch me again and you won’t get the chance.” I yelled, my voice hoarse, before the others got in between us again. I noticed several concerned looks turned in my direction, but I ignored them. I was sick of this guy lording it over me just because he was a little bigger. Someone tried to put their arm around my shoulders but I shrugged them off and stalked away to cool off by myself.
With tempers threatening to boil over, the others called a break for a few minutes to get water from the temple behind the ground—and so everyone could calm down.
Sushil came up to me, once Arjun had been to the temple to wash the grit and blood from his face, and asked me to walk with him to the tap—we didn’t carry water bottles because the temple had a mineral water tank, so we’d just cup our hands under the open tap and drink from what collected in them.
“You’re still mad about what he did in school.” Sushil said. It was a statement, not a question, made while we unlaced our boots—couldn’t wear them into the temple.
I didn’t reply.
“You were pissed when we were playing FIFA, and you nearly threw a punch at him back then. I get that he’s a fucking prick and all, but something else is pissing you off on top of that.”
He paused to drink from the tap, while the vyadhyars glared at us for interrupting their puja with our chatter. We paid them no mind.
“Plus, you’re not the type to pick one fight during a match, let alone two. So that was weird.” He continued.
I wiped my mouth on my sleeve before realizing that I was drenched in sweat. Instead of cleaning my face, I could now taste the salt on my tongue. Wonderful. I splashed some water on my face, and didn’t wipe it off.
“It’s just been a shitty day, man. Raju nearly drove into a ditch again —” Sushil winced. He’d been in the car with me on similar occasions. He knew what my driver was like. “ — and half-yearly marks came. My parents are going to ask soon. Don’t know what to tell them.”
“Did badly?” he asked.
“Just passed in Chem and Maths. Got 7 in Physics.” I said.
“Out of 70? How did you even manage that?”
“Someone else got 4, okay? I wasn’t the worst.”
“Good luck telling your parents that.”
“But seriously, why are you doing so badly?”
“I just don’t care. I can’t bring myself to study hard for this shit when it’s all so damn boring.”
“When are you going to tell them you don’t want to do engineering?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how to, either, but it has to be soon. Those IIT classes are fucking my head up.”
“How long are you lovebirds going to take? We’re only waiting for you now.” Arun called out from the ground.
“Chill da, it’ll work out fine. Your parents won’t go psycho just because you don’t want to do Engineering.” He said, lacing up his boots.
“Maybe, still need to pass, but.” I paused. “Listen to me, don’t take Science after 10th. It’s the worst.”
“Yeah, yeah. Come on, they’re waiting for us.”
I finished tying my laces around my ankles and we ran back, prompting everyone to get back to position.
Stay tuned for Part 3 soon.