Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ramesh And The Great Match

Some play well on field. Some, like Ramesh, play well off it! Now read on...

Mr. Gupta, the Principal of our school, carefully polished his spectacles with a handkerchief, replaced them on the bridge of his nose, and looked owlishly at Ramesh and me.

“Do you want to know why I’ve summoned you both to my office?” he asked politely.

Ramesh and I shuffled our feet uneasily and stared at the floor.

“Or perhaps you do know why I’ve called you?”

Our uneasiness increased. We knew all right.

Mr. Gupta went on, still very politely. “Why were you late for school, yesterday?”

Ramesh, the more courageous one, stuttered an answer. “We—we missed our bus, sir.”

“And why did you miss your bus?” This time, Mr. Gupta’s tone was icy.

We did not answer. Some questions just cannot be answered.

Mr. Gupta spoke, and the temperature in the room fell a further few degrees. “Wasn’t it because you both decided to spend time in Mr. Thakur’s apple garden?”

There was nothing to say. We stood there with our heads bowed and our hearts heavy.

Mr. Gupta leaned back in his chair. He looked like a Roman emperor who had been growing fat on starchy foods, and was now dealing with some upstart rebels.

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, addressing the ceiling. “Since you both decided to take some time off from school yesterday, we must help you put in some more time, mustn’t we?” he asked, not choosing to explain the “we”.

Ramesh and I continued to shuffle our feet uneasily. There was nothing else we could do.

Mr. Gupta’s voice became purposeful. “You will both stay back in school after classes today, and each write one thousand lines on ‘I will never be late for school, again’. Which means, of course, that you will miss seeing the football match against St. Thomas’. As I’ll be going to see that match myself, you will now inform the security guard at the school gates that he is to watch over you.” And with that, he dismissed us.

Ramesh and I left the Principal’s office, shattered. My battered brain could only think of that line of Tennyson, whom we were then studying: “The curse is come upon me.” The Principal’s words had dealt us a great blow indeed. The match between St. Thomas’ school and ours was an annual event and the high-point of the football season.

The silver cup for which it was fought had become one of the most prestigious symbols of inter-school rivalry in our town. To miss seeing that match! The thought was too shocking for words! Nevertheless, the Principal’s order had to be obeyed.

It was while we were searching for the security guard (like all good watchmen, he was not available at the spot he was supposed to be guarding) that Ramesh got this crazy idea. He grabbed my arm excitedly. There was a glint in his spectacles which I did not like.

“Listen!” he exclaimed, breathing quickly. “Why shouldn’t we go to the match after all?”

I patted his shoulder kindly. “There, there,” I said sympathetically. “The shock’s been too much for you.”

Ramesh brushed off my hand irritably. “Don’t be an ass,” he said. “I’m dead serious.”

Warning bells began to ring in my head. “Wha-what do you mean?”

Ramesh, acting like a hero of a C-grade spy movie, looked carefully to his right and left and then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “What if we don’t tell the security guard to watch over us like the Principal said?” he hissed.

My head, never strong, was beginning to swim. “Are you crazy?” I nearly screamed.

Ramesh became persuasive. He started massaging my arm. “Just think carefully. Nobody except the Principal knows that we’re supposed to stay back after classes. We can easily write the lines at home, after seeing the match. If we hand them over to the Princi the first thing tomorrow morning, nobody will be the wiser. All we’ve got to do is to stay out of sight of the Princi during the match.”

Even I could understand the logic of all this. Ramesh, when he wants to, can be very persuasive. But if the Principal caught us playing truant… But then, on the other hand, I really would like to see the match…

Ramesh saw me wavering and grabbed this chance. “That’s settled then!” he exclaimed heartily, energetically shaking my limp hand. “Ah…there goes the bell for the next class!” With that, he hurried off, leaving me feeling lost.

What had I let myself in for?

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘it might have been.’ As I followed Ramesh from the bus-stop to St. Thomas’ school, a few blocks away, glancing nervously over my shoulder at frequent intervals and jumping at every small sound, I thought of the mess I was in. But for Ramesh, I might have been, at this very moment, sitting in school peacefully writing out my lines. In fact, but for Ramesh, there might have been no lines to write out at all! For it had been his suggestion to spend some time in Mr. Thankur’s apple garden. And look what it had led to…

Ramesh halted before a small restaurant.

“There’s still some time to go before the match is due to start. Shall we have something to drink before that?” Before I could say anything, Ramesh answered the question himself. “Yes, I think that’ll be a great idea. And for heaven’s sake,” he continued irritably, “stop looking like a dejected tapeworm!”

Speechless at his unfairness, I followed Ramesh into the restaurant.

It was while we were finishing our soft drinks that it happened. I heard the door swing open behind me and somebody enter the restaurant. I heard the restaurant owner hurry forward and say: “Good afternoon, sir. Nice to see you again.”

Then I heard a familiar voice return the greeting: “Good afternoon.”

That was all it said.

It was enough. I nearly choked over my soft drink.

Time sometimes does seem to stand still. It did then. For almost a lifetime I stared at Ramesh horror-stricken. I had the momentary illusion that the management of the restaurant had hit me over the head with a sock full of wet sand. Ramesh’s bespectacled face, too, was a mask of horror. He looked like a bombed area.

I carefully replaced my soft drink bottle on the table and cautiously peered over my shoulder.

Mr. Gupta, our Principal, was quietly sipping a cup of tea at the other end of the room.

Beside him, on the floor, was a large bag which I recognized. It was used for carrying the silver cup which we had won in the football match against St. Thomas’ last year. From the way the bag bulged, I could see that cup was still in it. I straightened my head quickly.

Ramesh came to life.

“Out!” he hissed.

I was slow to the uptake. “Wha-what?”


Ramesh jumped to his feet and, in one swift movement, placed some coins on the table, grabbed my arm, and hauled me out of the restaurant.

I think we made it in three seconds flat.

It took us two seconds more to turn into the nearest alley. We leaned against the wall, panting heavily.

It was some time before I got my breath back, but as soon as I was sufficiently resorted I turned on Ramesh.

“You-you-you-” I gasped.

Ramesh guessed what was coming. He hastened to pacify me. “I know, I know,” he said soothingly. “But how was I to know that the Princi would choose this restaurant to have tea in?” He smiled ruefully.

“Anyway, no harm’s been done. He never saw us. We’ll just wait until he leaves for the school to see the match. Then we can follow him at a distance.” So saying, he carefully peered around the corner of the alley.

After a moment’s hesitation, I, too, peered round the corner.

I was just in time to see the Principal emerge from the restaurant, carrying the bag in one hand. As I watched, a shabbily dressed boy with untidy hair approached Mr. Gupta.

“Sir, could you spare a few coins?” the boy asked in Hindi.

Mr. Gupta looked surprised. After a slight hesitation he said: “O.K. Just wait a moment while I see if I’ve some change.”

Mr. Gupta put the bag down near his feet. He took out his wallet, opened it, and raised his head – just in time to see the boy take off with the bag!
He was heading towards us.

Ramesh and I gave one startled look at each other and then sprang into action. Ramesh fell back a few steps while I shot out my leg.

The boy never knew what hit him.

One moment he was running and the next instant he was not. Contact with my leg sent him sprawling head first on the pavement, the bag flying from his hands. As Ramesh neatly caught the bag, I pounced on the boy. But the would be thief was too nimble for me. Neatly dodging my arms, he gave one startled look in our direction and disappeared up the alley.

Riper years and a chronic stiffness in the joints had prevented Mr. Gupta from chasing the boy with a similar burst of speed. But he had been witness to all the later action. Now, reaching us as we got our breath back, he stared at us in frank amazement.

“What…what…what are you doing here?” he asked.

It was not often that Ramesh found himself in the position of being able to score a debating point against the Principal. It seemed to lend to his manner a strange, quiet dignity. He held out the bag to Mr. Gupta. “The cup, sir,” he said.

Mr. Gupta slowly stared at the bag and then at Ramesh and then at me. For a moment he looked thoughtful. Then a smile spread over his face. “Ah, yes…the cup,” he said.

The smile told us all we wanted to know. Our sins had been forgiven.

Later that day, sitting on each side of Mr. Gupta, Ramesh and I witnessed one of the most magnificent victories that our school has ever won against any football team. Playing superbly, our team trounced St. Thomas’ 7-0 to claim the cup for another year. Some people were later heard to comment on how possessively our Principal held on to the cup during the post-match celebrations. Almost as if he expected somebody to grab it away from him…