The Last Game
Their's was called the 'Gang of Six'. Eldest among them
was Lalji and he was 14 years old. All of them lived close to one another in the
densely populated locality of Maniyar.
The name was not given to them for nothing. It was coined by
Sama Kakh, a retired police officer of the locality, after giving due
consideration to the boys' life style and activities. The six, Sama Kakh said,
had, as per his knowledge, broken all records of being in one another's close
company for such a long time. Frankly speaking, the boys were seen together
right from the day they were enrolled in a near-by primary school, eight years
back. Their meeting point was the shadowy space under a big Mulberry tree, in the
middle of their mohalla, which they had cleaned and converted into a nice
sitting place. They were there, except during rains & snow, every evening,
doing their home work, discussing the issues they thought were important to
them, planning their picnic trips and eating Shahtul (a large
reddish-black, acidic and deliciously flavoured fruit), by climbing up the tree,
one branch reserved for each boy. And they had the exclusive right to the fruit
by virtue of having engraved their names with a knife, on the trunk of the tree.
During heavy snow fall in winter, they would invariably mould a Snowman by
rolling snow, placing it vertically up at a fixed spot, resting it against the
tree, and shaping it well like a fat man's torso. They would then place on it,
a spherical head made up of snow again and also attach the limbs. It was the
duty of Ramji, the youngest among them, to engrave and mark with soft charcoal,
the Snowman's ears, eyes, nose and mouth. An old Kangri (Kashmiri Fire-pot)
was also placed near by, to give a colourful touch to the artifact. And this
Snowman was there to represent the 'Gang' till early spring when it would
melt and vanish.
All this was till Lalji got a transistor radio as gift from
his Delhi based cousin, with the added information that India-England Cricket
Series was about to commence in England and they could hear the running
commentary live on it. This changed their schedules altogether.
It was not that they had not seen or listened to a radio
earlier. In fact, two of them have had radio sets in their homes, but they were
of no use to them. Their parents would switch on the radios only for the news,
being least interested in the games. Now, this transistor set gave them the
immense pleasure of listening to what they wanted, at their own will.
Lalji was now busy, collecting information about the cricket
matches to be played at various places in various countries. He got a new
notebook and kept each and every information handy. Before the India-England
Series got underway, Lalji had maintained record of all matches to be played
over a period of one year. He would now occasionally be seen absent from the 'Gang'.
Others were least worried, knowing fully that he was on the 'job'.
None of the boys ever played cricket, or even watched a match
before. But they had heard about it from their senior schoolmates. Lalji's
cousin had informed them that the game was so tough that even the big
powers like America, Soviet Union and Japan were scared of indulging in this
deadly game. This however did not diminish the boys' interest in cricket. They
waited anxiously for the first match between the two countries, commentary of
which really came live on the little transistor radio during late evening hours.
There was some confusion initially, in understanding the words and phrases used
by commentators which they overcame at the end of the first match spanning 5
days of play. All through the match, they were seen sitting beneath the Mulberry
tree till midnight when under tremendous pressure from their elders, they had to
disperse to their homes to have dinner and sleep.
This new development gave Lalji an added responsibility.
Being senior, it was his duty to know more about the game. So, every day he
would put lot of questions to his seniors and teachers and share the information
with his mates. He would also give his comments, to impress others that he was
picking up the game fast. After conclusion of the first match, the boys had
known a lot about the game, or at least they thought so.
By end of the test series of five matches, Lalji and his team
had a fairly good knowledge of the game. They were now aware of most of the
rules. At times, they would also analyse the comments of a commentator and
pronounce their judgment. And in the heart of hearts, they thought they were
perfect players as well. "We are ready to prove our mettle, only if a team
from other locality was ready to play with us", Lalji announced. Others
They needed eleven people to form a team and they were only
six. But this did not pose any problem. The barbed wire fenced plot of land,
half a mile away from their home, which was recently purchased by one of their
neighbours to construct his new house, was too small to accommodate eleven
persons to field. Moreover, they thought they could always invite a couple of
boys from the gathering to field for them on a bigger ground, if need be. And to
bat, they decided that during a match with a rival team, five of them would bat
So, on an auspicious day, the boys finally announced launch
of their cricket team. They arranged four stumps, three for the batting end and
one for the runners end, in the shape of small lengths of mulberry branches. A
new bat was available in the market at rupees ten which they could not afford.
After pooling all their pocket money and the additional grant, which one of them
received from his parents, they were able to make four rupees. Lalji, who was
the natural choice for the captainship because of his age, volunteered to get a
selected piece of willow firewood from his home. This piece of wood was given to
a carpenter, who got it beautifully transformed into a bat. Knowing that they
had no more than four rupees on their body, the carpenter charged them only that
amount and also gifted them a wooden ball. Boys were all thrilled. Now they
thought, they were in a position to challenge any team. But Lalji's views were
different. He thought it was wise to practice for at least a couple of days,
before they challenge any body.
Next Sunday, they went to the 'play ground' fully
equipped and took along a dozen of children much less than their age to watch
them play and clap. They decided the batting order by drawing lots. Lalji was
overwhelmed with joy as he was to bat first and Kundan, the last man to bat, was
to bowl first. Lalji gave some useful instructions to Kundan. 'How to bowl a
fast ball and how to deliver a spin?' Kundan nodded his head, confirming his
grasp of the things. Lalji took charge as opener and looked around in a manner
of a great batsman looking out for weakly defended territories. He was set to
receive the first ball but wanted to receive a trial one first to gain
confidence. He took the stance and signaled Kundan to bowl. Kundan delivered a
fast ball, which took some time to reach Lalji. Lalji hit the ball forcefully.
But it was dead before it could reach back to the bowler. Children clapped.
Now was the time to deliver first 'official' ball of the
hour. Kundan came running from quite some distance and threw the ball. Lalji
took a step forward to make it bigger this time, and in a flash, he was clean
bowled, the middle stump thrown two yards away licking dust. Lalji's bat was
still in the air. Children behind him clapped again as Lalji stood motionless
with his cheeks red.
It was the turn of Raghu now. He was two years younger to
Lalji but had robust health and wide chest. Kundan was spinning the ball in his
hands. Having sent the first ball very 'fast', he made up his mind to send a 'spin' this time. As soon as he delivered the ball, which was anything but
spin, Raghu moved to his left and hit the ball high in the air, and through a
large glass window right into the attic of a bungalow at the boundary. Glass
panes came crashing down. Raghu was terror-stricken. A baldy, his eyes red with
anger, peeped out of the window and yelled. Before the boys could assess the
situation, a servant came running from the bungalow and caught Raghu by neck.
Soon after came the baldy with the wooden ball, his white shirt miserably
splashed with tea. He slapped Raghu hard on his face. Raghu fell on the ground.
Baldy was mad. He continued to thrash Raghu with his fist and foot. Lalji, as
leader of the team, intervened and pleaded for mercy, only to get a hard slap
from the servant. This provocated Kundan. He came running from his position and
caught servant's raised hand, and in a moment, Kundan was thrown away by the
baldy with a kick. Children sitting at the fence were now crying and weeping and
abusing the baldy and his servant. The baldy 'captured' Raghu and Lalji and
would not leave them unless they pay for two glass panes, a china clay cup and
laundry charges for the shirt. All this amounted to rupees eight. Boys did not
have a penny and the baldy would not let them go. All the boys were weeping and
wailing. A passer-by intervened. He pleaded with the baldy to lower his costs.
Baldy, taking a lenient view, offered a two-rupee discount on the cost of
damages, but the boys had nothing. The passer-by mediated a deal. Boys were
asked to part with their bat and the ball, which according to their own
confession, was valued at rupees four. Making sure that they had no money to pay
the balance, and seeing them in tears, the baldy was further moved. He let them
go with the promise that they would pay the balance next morning.
The baldy was gone and so were his servant and the passer-by.
The boys started towards their home in a perfect line, Lalji at their head and
the children at the tail. All of them had their heads down. Lalji, Raghu and
Kundan were still rubbing their body parts to eliminate pain. There was no
weight to be carried back home. Stumps were not removed from the ground. They
were kept standing there as a token of the Gang's entry into the game of
cricket. They decided, and also persuaded children, not to reveal this episode
to anybody in their mohalla.
The boys' dreams were shattered and next day, they took an
oath not to play cricket again. Lest the running commentary tempt them to play
again, Lalji wrapped up his transistor radio with a piece of cloth and placed it
under the heap of old books in a large wooden box in his home. And for a full
year, no one from the Gang took the route alongside that bungalow, lest the
baldy spots them and demands two rupees. This, inspite of the fact that they had
to traverse a long distance around to reach their school everyday.
As far the boys' permanent spot under the tree, it remained
an abandoned place thereafter, as the boys were scared to think of being sighted
and 'arrested' by the baldy. Came winter and with that a heavy snowfall. But
there was no snowman under the tree this time. Everything around was frozen. The
branches of the tree were hanging low, drops of water trickling down their
leaves, perhaps mourning the disintegration of the 'Gang'.