He had, of course, been to office to sign the attendance register. Not that it would have mattered if he hadn’t. After all, it was his sporting prowess that had got him his job; and the boss was the president of the local tennis association. Every transgression was forgiven.
Back from office, Pintu Bose was resting in an easy chair on the veranda. All the muscles in his body were relaxed. All this was part of the preparations for the severe test this afternoon. The music on the radio was turned on very low, so that his tingling nerves might be soothed by the gentle caresses of the music. And yet he did not intend to sleep. For it took a long time for the eyes to adjust to bright sunlight after a nap. But how was he to rest peacefully? Khoka had been whining all the while.
“Khoka doesn’t have a stomach-ache, does he? Try patting his tummy.”
“No the tummy’s quite all right.”
“He isn’t hungry, is he?”
“It isn’t time for him to eat yet. Want a biscuit, Khoka? Yes bistu. He just won’t say biscuit.”
“What time is it, Malobika?”
‘Three to one.”
“Time I got dressed.”
“Or else there’ll be last-minute panic. You’d better get dressed too.”
“You’re the one who should be dressing today.”
“It doesn’t take me long. It’s the ladies who need time.”
“Oh no, I won’t be long at all.”
“Wipe the oil off the racket-guts.”
“I’ve done that already.”
“Why’s he started crying? Is the biscuit finished?”
“Wipe him down before dressing him. And you’d better hurry too.”
“Yes I’m off now to get dressed.”
Pintu Bose rose from the easy chair. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror: The canvas shoes had been chalked. Malobika had set out towel, handkerchief, socks, shirt, shorts, two rackets and some extra things.
“Where ‘s the chewing gum?”
“In the attaché case,” Malobika responded from the next room.
“There’s mint too, in the small tin.” Her arrangements were flawless.
Khoka had been dressed in a fresh set of clothes. He had started crying again.
“What’s wrong with him today? How can we take a crybaby before such a large audience? You might as well stay back, Malobika.”
“I’m most definitely going. You expect me not to watch you play the semi-final? If he cries he can sit in the car with Ramtahal. Khoka! No don’t cry! Is he going outums with us in the car then? Yes, vroom-vroom! Ramtahal, take Khoka out to the car.”
Pintu Bose glanced at his watch. Yes, it was time. Malobika was shutting the doors and windows. After muttering a prayer to the portrait of the goddess Kali on the wall, Pintu Bose walked towards his car. Ramtahal was about to lift Khoka out of the front seat when the boy gurgled and threw up on the seat. Pintu Bose screamed.
Malobika came running. Ramtahai ran for water.
“I knew it. Just as I was leaving. You’d better not go, Malobika. Stay at home with Khoka!”
The seat was cleaned. Khoka was washed and dried. By then Pintu Bose ‘s temper had softened a bit. Glancing at his watch, he said, “Get in. Don’t waste time.”
Dugga dugga! When the car began to move, Malobika said, ‘So that’s why Khoka was whining all the while.”
Meaning, a baby had thrown up, that’s all. It wouldn’t do any harm! There was no reason to think of it as it a bad omen.
Dugga, Dugga! Malobika shut her eyes and brought her palms together at her forehead.
“You too, Khoka, Yes, like this.” She put Khoka’s palms together and raised them to his forehead.
The two contestants took the field amidst quick applause, both of them wearing forced smiles. Kulovic was a famous player from Yugoslavia. He had played in the Davis Cup and had reached the last sixteen at Wimbledon the year before. Everyone knew that he was going to win the tournament, which accounted for the stiffness in Pintu Bose’s posture; his feet seemed to have gone to sleep. The eagle-eyed spectators did not miss this.
Everyone’s sympathy lay with him … Just your luck. If you’d been in the other half of the draw who could possibly have stopped you from going through to the final? What can you do when…
Reading the silent message in the spectators’ eyes, Pintu Bose simply could not play his natural game when the match began. He could not return any of Kulovic’s bullet-like serves. The more carefully he tried to play, the worse his game got. Kulovic won the first set 6-1.
In the second set the boot was suddenly on the other foot. A desperate Pintu Bose started hitting out at everything. If he had to lose he might as well go out with all his guns blazing instead of being steamrolled – such, at least, was his thought. He returned Kulovic’s serve even faster than a bullet. He hit every stroke equally hard. Superb! Not one shot fell outside the court, not one hit the net! The ball was dropped precisely where the court was unattended. Volley, half volley, forehand, backhand – every single stroke was at his command. Kulovic had to run around like a horse. Pintu Bose led him in whichever direction and whatever manner he pleased. He seemed to be guided by some external power. The spectators constantly applauded the magic from his wrists.
Kulovic was the most astonished figure on the court. He lacked the ability to match up to such lethal skill. Pintu Bose didn’t need five sets. The match ended amidst tumultuous cheers and applause. Pintu Bose had won 3-1.
Journalists photographed the vanquished Kulovic shaking hands across the net with the victorious Pintu Bose. Pushing through the crowd of spectators, reporters, autograph-hunters and known and unknown faces, Pintu Bose approached Malobika and Khoka The boss smiled his congratulations from a distance. Everyone wanted to meet him, to come near him, but he had no time now. He wouldn’t even wait for a massage, nor for a shower; he would change his clothes at home, he would meet everyone later. Come, Malobika, hope the car can be taken out safely through this crowd. Yes, I’ll be back. See you later.
“Khoka! Has Khoka fallen asleep?”
“The car ride is making him sleepy.”
“Did he bother you a lot?”
“Oh no he didn’t cry at all. At first he was a bit put off by the crowd. But then he got friendly with the people next door. Someone said he’s your son. And then what a reception both of us got. Toffee and chocolate all over the place. Someone asked whether you exercise every morning. I even told them that you have sprouts every day. Your boss’s wife came and kissed Khoka too, she insisted that I go to the party at their place with you tomorrow night. I said I didn’t have anyone at home to look after Khoka. She wouldn’t listen to me – said I should take him – there’s nothing to feel shy about – there are children at their place too – there’ll be people to look after them – there’s nothing to worry about – it’s the president’s party – how could the finalist’s wife not be there – finalist was probably the wrong word, should have said champion – Mr Bose’s victory is assured – no excuses – you must come … ”
Malobika went on chattering. Only some of what she said registered with Pintu Bose. The victorious hero was flying along a bridge of rainbows to lay siege to the gates of heaven.
The boss phoned early the next morning.
“Congratulations! The party’s at eight – you haven’t forgotten? You must bring Mrs Bose. No excuses to be entertained. Kulovic and Fujikawa are also coming. There’ll be well-known sportsmen and sports-lovers. KuIovic’s victor will undoubtedly defeat Fujikawa too. OK, good luck.”
Malobika had bought three different newspapers. All three carried KuIovic and Pintu Bose’s photograph. The first said, ‘Giantkiller Pintu Bose’, The second: ‘Completely one-sided match’. The third said: ‘Bravo Pintu Bose! Kulovic loses to a better player. ‘
Leave alone reading the papers, even baths and meals were at a standstill thanks to phone calls and visitors; local boys and girls came in hordes for Pintu Bose’s autograph – it hadn’t occurred to them all these days. A few journalists dropped by. A sports-goods manufacturer took permission to name a new racket after Pintu Bose. The day before, he had managed to take an hour’s rest after lunch, before the semi-final tie; there was no hope of a repeat on the day of the final.
The match was to start at two. It was best to get there half an hour earlier. He felt apprehensive – what if he couldn’t play as well as he had the day before! Suppose his game went flat despite all the good wishes, congratulations and accolades? He suppressed the desire to check his horoscope in the papers with great difficulty. Suppose it turned out to be unfavourable – why court trouble just to satisfy curiosity?
“Khoka! Where’s Khoka?”
‘There he is, playing on the veranda. A perfect darling today.”
“Is everything ready?”
“Yes, you don’t have to tell me.”
‘The clothes for tonight’s party?”
“Yes. Yours, mine, Khoka’s, they’ve all been laid out separately.”
“Get ready. It’s nearly time to leave. Call Ramtahal, let him take Khoka out to the car like yesterday.”
For an intelligent wife this smallest of hints was enough.
Malobika took Khoka out to the car and made him sit on the front seat.
“Honk-honk. Look Khoka how the horn blows – honk-honk. Ramtahal, come and sit by Khoka! Blow the horn, he’ll be quiet.”
Five to one.
Pintu Bose emerged from the house and became very playful with Khoka, He tossed him up in the air, catching him as he fell. Khoka couldn’t stop laughing with joy. After several rounds, he put Khoka back on his seat and went back inside the house.
“Malobika, it’s getting late. You have a try.”
Malobika came out, played catch with Khoka for some time before depositing him back on the seat.
Pintu Bose looked questioningly at his wife.
She shook her head. “No.”
“Give him some milk.”
Khoka was given some milk and brought back to the front seat.
“Honk-honk-honk-honk-honk.” He was delighted.
Fate was probably looking the other way, but Pintu Bose was an enterprising man; he couldn’t sit back. It was time to leave.
He took Khoka out of the car and started playing with him again.
“Khoka, do you know eenie-meenie? Here’s how it goes. Eenie-meenie-myna-mo, catch a monkey by his toe, if he cries let him go, eenie-meenie-myna-mo.”
Along with Khoka, Pintu Bose also had to spin around several times.
Khoka didn’t like this game. Nor did Malobika want her husband to spin around this way before a big match.
Suppose his head reeled during the match or he felt nauseous!
The very thought terrorised her.
“Let him be, I’ll have a go now. Can Khoka run? Let’s see how Khoka can run with me.”
Malobika took Khoka ‘s finger and tried to make him run; he simply wasn’t willing. Both husband and wife had anxiety written large on their faces.
“One twenty-three. Ramtahal, sit with Khoka in the car.”
“Try giving him water.”
Last try. Malobika tried to make Khoka drink some water. He simply wouldn’t have any. A struggle ensued.
Malobika slapped Khoka. Hard.
“Nasty boy! Getting nastier by the day!”
Khoka had started crying. This child would ruin everything.
All their effort had come to naught. Khoka simply couldn’t be made to throw up like the day before. Fate!
It was past one-thirty. Muttering their prayers to the portrait of the goddess Kali, husband and wife got into the car gloomily. It rolled away.
The final! Much more pomp and circumstance than the day before.
Pintu Bose started hitting out from the beginning. Fujikawa was a calm player. He weighed every shot carefully. His was a cool temperament – his face didn’t reveal what he was thinking. He wasn’t in favour of playing to the gallery; his objective was to win points at any cost.
But what was wrong with Pintu Bose? All his shots were unforced errors – either hitting the net or falling out. Where was the magic touch of his racket! Had he forgotten those accurate strokes of the previous day? Why was he so nervous?
Pintu Bose was being routed. His luck was really off. He lost the spectators’ support too.
“Inflamed wrist or what!” “Yesterday was just a fluke.” “Slam-bang-wallop isn’t tennis. Play your natural game!” “This isn’t a gymnasium, Pintu Bose!” “Hopeless!” “This is what happens when luck’s against you!”
Pintu Bose couldn’t win even a single set. And since he lost three sets in a row, the match ended quite quickly.
The journalists, photographers and autograph-hunters were all present, just like the previous day. The handshake across the net between the vanquished and the victor took place too. But the Pintu Bose of the previous day had vanished. He couldn’t even force a smile to his face when accepting the runner-up’s trophy.
He couldn’t afford to linger. He had to take his wife and son back home right away. The president’ s dinner-party was at eight. A bath and a change of clothes were essential.
“I knew it all along.” Those were his first words to his wife in the car.
Malobika had no difference of opinion on this. So she kept quiet.
Khoka appeared to have something to say. Something important regarding the horn had apparently occurred to him. First he tried to attract his mother’s attention. Then his father’s. Neither responded. Both stared in different directions.
They had no desire to go to the dinner, but they would have to. It would be impolite not to go. What would the boss think! The foreign players would think Pintu Bose hadn’t come because he’d lost. Malobika would also have to go with her son at the boss’s wife’s request. Not request, order.
No no, sportsmen should have generous hearts. What did victory and defeat matter? This wasn’t war, after all, this was sport. If they left at seven-thirty they would get to the boss’s place precisely at eight.
Malobika said, “Yes, no point getting there earlier!”
Before leaving Malobika shouted from the car, “Don’t you leave the house and go gallivanting about, Ramtahal!”
What a big party! On the way they kept wondering what to observe, what to say, what to do. But were they allowed to consider all this in peace? Khoka whined. It would be scandalous if he started crying at the party. Ramtahal hadn’t been brought along either. They were almost at the boss’s place.
”What is it Khoka? Khoka will have biscuits there, he’ll have toffee, he’ll have chocolates, won’t he?”
A horrible sound emerged from Khoka’s throat.
What was that?
Khoka had thrown up – on his knickerbockers, on Malobika’s clothes, even on the seat. The car stopped with a jerk.
It was five to eight. Going to the party in these soiled clothes was out of the question. There was no choice but to return home. Let whosoever think whatsoever they wanted to.
Malobika slapped Khoka. Hard.