The bowler was this hulking girl who resembled Wolverine. As she sprinted down the pitch, I ducked to escape the ball smashing into my face. The next ball I adopted a stance like I had seen batsman on TV do. I couldn’t try a Tendulkar posture because he kept adjusting his crotch, and I have nothing down there to adjust. When this brutish girl came rolling down and swung her arm, I stepped down the pitch and heaved my bat in one smooth upward motion using all the strength in my biceps.
I shaded my eyes with my palm and squinted into the distance. The ball must have soared past the stands, out of the field and into the hands of a perplexed bystander. Papa should have seen it – he would be so proud of me.
The annoying sound of girlish giggles broke my reverie.
Nisha said, “Shaina, where’s your bat?”
I glanced down at my hand where the bat should have been, and back up at the field. The ball had bounded past me to the wicketkeeper, while the bat had travelled far and wide, whizzing past the poor ground staff who maintained the pitch. It lay in two mangled pieces near the fence.
Rimi was crying so hard with laughter that she had to speak through her tears. “I think that’s enough practice for now, Nisha. Let’s pack up.”
On the morning of the match, I woke up with dysmenorrhea. That’s a word I learned from the fat ‘Women’s Body and Health’ book stashed in a discreet corner of Mummy’s room. It described my condition accurately, and I had never been grateful for the cramps until that morning.
The girls called me from the grounds, at ten on a Sunday morning when I was still sleeping, thanks to the pain. When I told Rimi my problem, she laughed and handed the phone to Nisha.
“Shaina, we all have such problems. Don’t act like you’re the only one who gets monthly things, ok?”
“I do have a problem! I even visited the doctor for it – I can show you the prescription!”
“The match is starting in ten minutes. Where are we going to find your substitute now?”
“Didn’t you say you kept a twelfth man or something ready?”
“Uff! You are always acting too smart.”
“I’m sorry, Nisha. I swear the next time you guys do a team event I will join in.”
That’s how they trapped me into taking part in a ridiculous dance performance for the Talent show that would be held during our annual Ganpati celebrations.
I thought they would pick a peppy number, but they chose one of those fake Bollywood salsa-type songs. Nisha even designed a dress that reminded me of the frocks we used to wear to birthday parties when we were four. It sported puffed sleeves and layers of frills. I pictured us all tripping on the edges and lying comatose on the stage.
Rimi’s mom volunteered to help us with the dance routine. Both Rimi’s parents had joined salsa classes, and were eager to show off their newly-acquired skills. Rimi and I cringed, but the other girls clapped and hooted while her parents twirled around the floor, her father trying hard not to step on his wife’s toes, and his wife swerving away from his beer belly every chance she could.
Rimi’s mom had converted a spare bedroom into a dance studio. Wall-to-wall mirrors surrounded us, and speakers were mounted on the sides. The smooth flooring offered us the best chance to perform splits. Nisha executed a split to perfection. I could slide about three-fourths of the way, my thunder thighs proving an insurmountable obstacle.
I hated dancing salsa and samba and all those weird-sounding names. Why couldn’t we just pick up a beat-thumping Bollywood number and shake our hips to it? Salsa was a snooze-fest compared to any Hindi film song.
Nisha clapped her hands and called everyone back to the middle of the floor. “C’mon girls! Take it from the top. 1-2-3-4…”
When the time came to pirouette, several of us stumbled. Rimi spun without toppling. I tripped over my ankles and fell.
“Shaina! Can’t you even do this much? You better stay for extra practice.”
Tina skipped in much later, after her guitar class. I never understood how she did it – she played the guitar, she could wield a cricket bat with ease and she didn’t fail any subjects either. She could probably top the class if she wanted to, but academics didn’t interest her. Nisha declared she would get admission in a good college with a sports scholarship. Tina had even won the “Player of the Match” award in their cricket competition that day, scoring the winning runs and bagging crucial wickets too.
Nisha said, “Tina, can you teach your best friend to turn on her axis without collapsing?”
Later, when the crowd dispersed, Tina led me by the hand to a corner and broke the pirouette down into smaller steps. Before long I could turn without stumbling all over myself.
The talent show would be held towards the end of the Ganpati festival on a Sunday evening.
A fear of rain coloured the preparations. I gazed up at the sky every day leading up to the festival. As the monsoons drew to a close, it poured all the time. We skipped over puddles while boarding the bus and hiked across the school grounds in our raincoats.
A few of the practice sessions coincided with my, ahem, monthly problem. Even then I missed just one session in which Rimi’s mom taught new steps. But the next time I turned up, Nisha accosted me at the front door itself. “Why didn’t you come last week?”
I hemmed and hawed. She rolled her eyes. “Oh God, don’t give me the same bloody excuse again.”
Rimi roared with laughter and others joined in. Her mom patted my head. “Oh, don’t make fun. When I was your age, I suffered the same problem. And we didn’t have napkins like you do these days…”
“Oh, yuck. Mummy, stop talking, please.”
Poor aunty*. She took it in good spirit and let the matter drop.
They had moved on way ahead in the dance. Nisha issued an annoyed tut-tut each time I sashayed to the front and performed my steps.
The following session, I turned up a little late because Papa had a meeting and couldn’t get me to the ‘dance studio’ on time. Nisha’s sighs became longer and more pronounced. I hadn’t practiced my pirouette at home so I couldn’t execute a flawless turn. I held my balance enough to avoid stumbling headlong on to the floor and landing flat on my nose.
Nisha drew Tina and me aside at the end of the session.
“Shaina, your name sounds so fancy like you would be a great dancer, but you’re not. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to sit this one out.”
She even looked sorry. I pursed my lips to suppress a smile, to conceal the joy and relief that swelled in my twenty-eight inch chest. I wore my finest morose expression to show regret, but not enough to move Nisha to change her mind.
She turned to Tina. “T, you dance well but you got stuck with such a crappy partner. I’m sorry but since you’re paired up you’ll have to sit out as well.”
Tina shrugged. “Let’s go.”
As we walked away from the dancing troupe, I said, “Well, at least she can’t blame me for not trying.”
“I heard that.”
We stopped in our tracks and turned around. Nisha stood there, hands on hips. “I can accuse you of not trying! Even Leena missed some classes but she stayed late and came early to practice and make up for it. You didn’t even try to catch up.”
Something snapped in me. “Who cares? It’s a stupid dance anyway!”
All activity braked to a complete halt. The song blaring on the speakers died a premature death. The sound of silence was ringing in my head. The girls stared at me, their mouths hung open.
Rimi strode to us in her stiletto-heeled boots. “Oh yeah? If it’s so crappy, Shaina, then you better get out of this state-of-the-art dance hall.”
Tina and I sneaked out the door as fast as we could. We reached our apartment complex and headed for the clubhouse. I suggested we play a little carom before heading to our respective homes.
But in the huge lawn where the tiny tots usually played running race and catch, a group of boys were playing football. One of them was Rohit, my senior in school. He flashed a smile when he saw me, and returned to tackling the ball. I blushed, but before I could consider my next move, Tina zipped down her jacket and threw it on a plastic chair. “Hey, c’mon, let’s join them!”
She ran into the field without even waiting for my answer. I jogged after her. The crowd of boys dispersed. Someone watching from the terrace of a top-floor flat might have viewed it as a game of carom, where Tina and I played the part of strikers scattering the cluster of black and white coins through the board.
“Hmph!” Tina stood with her hands on her waist, glaring after the retreating footballers.
“Come on, we can play by ourselves.”
Two goal posts had been set up. That was unusual – I’d never seen those in our clubhouse lawn before.
Tina was an expert in tackling the ball. After a few minutes of what she called ‘warm-up’, she pointed to one of the goalposts. “That’s your goal and the other one’s mine. You have to kick the ball into the net. Can you do that?”
“I’ll try,” I said.
Most of the time the ball was in Tina’s control. At one point I snuck it away from her, and sent it spinning into the net. I raised my arms in the air and whooped.
“Great kick, genius. But you hit the wrong target. You should kick it in my goal but you did what’s called a self-goal. Now do the same thing but aim correctly.”
I didn’t understand how footballers remembered which the “right” goal was. Was it just by checking the goalkeeper’s uniform? We didn’t have goalies and after running around the lawn I forgot which was supposed to be my goal and which was Tina’s. I misfired a few more times, before getting it right once.
By the end of it, I was clutching my sides in agony, and begged Tina to take a break. While I stretched out on the grass, she jogged over to the snowy-haired Uncle* who had been watching us from the comfort of his plastic chair on the edge of the lawn. He looked familiar – I guessed he was one of the committee members.
“Uncle, why are the goalposts set up? Looks like there is a match scheduled here.”
He lowered his newspaper and eyed her through the tops of his glasses. “Football tournament. Next month.”
“That’s great. Can we also take part?”
He grunted. “This is not for silly girls like you.”
Tina rolled her eyes. She walked towards me and leaned in conspiratorially. “We can form a team of eleven. C’mon, let’s do it.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rohit still chatting with his friends. “Let’s do it.”
That evening Papa told me that the tournament was for all residents of the apartment complex, and did not exclude ‘silly girls’ like us. Even outsiders were allowed, provided at least two members of the team were residents.
The next day in school, during recess, we told Rimi and Nisha about the tournament.
Rimi clapped her hands in mock delight. “Wow, will Miss Quit be joining us too?”
I was eating my way through the tomato-and-cheese sandwich Mummy had packed for my lunch. I opened my mouth to speak but only moist crumbs of bread fell from my lips.
Tina said, “She will play. Are you guys in? Then we can start making our team. We need seven more people at least, and some backups, just in case.”
Nisha munched on her grapes. “Yeah, you never know who will drop out,” she said, glancing at me.
Tina sipped her soy milk. “So how was your dance performance?”
I tried to stifle a giggle, but ended up gagging on the sandwich. Tina knew full well how their “show of talent” had gone. The top three prizes had been awarded to groups of tweens, and this lot didn’t even wangle a consolation prize. And in the ultimate travesty of justice, Tina and I had missed their humiliation because we had skipped the show as a sign of our protest.
By evening, Rimi had roped in her boyfriend and a couple of his friends to join our football team.
Like in my first practice session, I threw a few more ‘self-goals’ before getting it right. Rimi snorted when I kicked the ball way out of the lawns and into a ground-floor balcony.
During one of our breaks, Tina stood at the edge, casting an eye around the grounds. “I wonder if there’ll be enough place for people to sit.”
“The audience, you moron. The grounds aren’t that big.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks. There would be people watching. A cold fear sprung up in my stomach and meandered down to my knees. How could I play with an audience watching as I made a jackass of myself and stumbled all over the field?
I prayed for rain, hail, thunderstorms and even snow or illness but no reprieves were forthcoming. Twice, I had escaped. I couldn’t even plead my usual monthly problem as an excuse.
On the day of the match, our team put on identical yellow jerseys and black shorts. I tied my hair into a prim ponytail, leaving a few strands fluttering by the side of my cheeks. Tina tied a tight ponytail drawn far back from her head, and wore the tiniest of shorts. My father and even hers would be scandalized, but she didn’t care.
Rohit looked dashing in a red t-shirt. We wore matching black shorts. Maybe later I could use that as a conversation starter.
Since the football team was all Tina’s idea, the team voted for her as the captain. Her father was playing too, but his team comprised some ladies as well. They were warming up in one corner, bouncing up and down in their salwar kameezes** paired with brand new sneakers. The thought of them scampering about the lawn made me throw up a nervous giggle.
Nisha shushed me as the captains drew the names of their opponents from a bag. They stood huddled together in discussion and then Tina jogged back.
“We’re up first, against my dad’s team. Isn’t that great?”
Nisha groaned. “T, they’re a team of almost professional footballers. What chance do we have against them?”
“C’mon, don’t talk like such a loser. We’ll give them something to think about.”
I stood gazing at Rohit when Tina tugged at my arm. “What are you staring at? Let’s go.”
I felt like the football had been kicked right into my gut. There was no escape now – no way for me to weasel out of making a prime idiot of myself in front of everyone I knew.
I lingered while tying my shoelaces in a corner of the field. Soon, they blew the whistle and we were off. The first few minutes of the match passed in a blur. Everyone was running past me. I stood grounded for a moment, then joined in. In fact I could even see the ball hurtling towards me. I raised my foot for a well-aimed kick and threw myself into it.
The ball whizzed into the net. It wasn’t even a self-goal. I threw my hands up in the air and cheered. “Goal! Tina, did you see that?”
No reply. I turned around. “Tina?”
In the middle of the field where I had launched myself at the ball, both teams and even some spectators crowded around. I picked my way through them.
Tina’s father lay at the centre, blood dripping from his nose. He held a crumpled-up handkerchief over his face to stem the flow.
Nisha said, “You broke his nose, Shaina. Can’t you even see where you are going or what you are doing?”
Someone said, “It’s OK, it was an accident. But we need to take him to the hospital. Immediately.”
Rimi stood at one side, arms folded across her chest. “Wow, Miss Quit. Really wish you had quit now, huh?”
*Aunty and Uncle are polite terms, used in India when speaking to elders.
**traditional outfits worn in India consisting of loose pants worn with long tops