As the five of them fell to death one by one, he walked on, stoic and composed. He knew the reasons behind their fate. He wondered if he would be joining them soon. For, in his eyes, he had sinned. No, not that subtle lie! That might get him some punishment. But the other grave folly that was likely to have many a twisted, horrific repercussion on humanity for years to come.
As he cuddled his canine companion on top of the mountain, he shook his head in repentance.
He was welcomed warmly into the luxurious elysian world, after a brief glimpse of hell (the lie..remember?) . The comforts appeased his senses while they pricked his conscience.
He decided to have a word with the other five,..err..six when they joined him. They would crib, and complain, and argue. But eventually, they would understand.
He was right. After a brief discussion they complied, just like they had always done before.
Ah, and the mastermind had to be persuaded too. He could well imagine the mocking smile and the disarming charm trying to dissuade him out of it. To his astonishment, the only words he got to hear from the azure divinity were “I am out of it this time!” Was that even possible?
It seemed all too familiar. She stood at the centre of the court. The jeering men circled around her and her fiery eyes glared menacingly at them.
As he witnessed the scene ,his throat went dry and his heart thumped violently against his chest wall . Images from the past flashed across his eyes……scenes from the past few weeks……. And scenes from days of yore.
Surely, this couldn’t be happening again?
College would have been a breeze for Yaj Thakur, had there been well-defined rules. Unlike most of his peers, a sense of discipline and righteousness nagged him throughout. While a few dismissed him off as a nerd, there were others who envied him because of his family’s political affiliations. Both the reactions were incomprehensible to the unbiased, level-headed boy and so, he preferred burying his nose in textbooks of history, philosophy, sociology or politics, vis a vis hanging out with dissemblers. In fact, that is exactly what he was doing on the first day of the new term when his tower of books was toppled by a gigantic force. A big, lopsided grin and a rugged face perched on the herculean frame responsible for the mishap greeted him. Much to Yaj’s amusement, the giant lamented, “Sorry,bhai.. but can you save me from the ragging?”
Bhav Singh joined Delhi university just because no one from his family had been there. It gave his father something to brag about to the village elderly. That he got through the Sports quota was not surprising for a guy coming from a village in Haryana where you wrestled before you learnt to walk properly .Bhav would manage a couple of hours at school while shuttling between the Akhadas and the kitchen. He was a conossieur of good food and enjoyed dishing out scrumptious meals for his clan .Ironically, he was a meagre eater himself.
“Phew..thanks to that temporary distraction ,I escaped.”said Bhav, pointing to the entrance. Yaj’s gaze followed his finger and fell upon the focus of attention.
The harder Aryan Rathore tried to go unnoticed, the more he became the centre of attraction. It was baffling whether it was the inborn aristocratic demeanour, or a mystic aura , which incited collective sighs of admiration wherever he went. Today was no different. The senior girls found every possible excuse to tease him , and were smitten by his humility. But where there is adulation, there is also jealousy and it wasn’t long before Aryan had made enemies for no fault of his. Yaj noticed the frenzy caused by the new entrant and his underlying discomfort.
Pulling a reluctant Bhav along, he called out authoritatively in Aryan’s direction “Arre Bhai, where were you? Looking for you everywhere since uncle told to keep an eye on you.”
“Not even picking up your phone!” added Bhav. He winked at Aryan.
As the three strangers walked away from a scene of discontent, an indescribable bonhomie pulsed through their beings. Yaj felt his ear twitch….. “Oh, he had lied!…Hmm…compassion, eh?”
Neil & Sehaj
Neil Namchu and Sehajveer Dhillon were inseparable. No, they were not twins tragically separated at birth and neither did they have much in common. If Neil loved the mountain air, Sahaj was the beach bum. While Neil would be engaged in wildlife documentaries on the National Geographic, Sahaj would be tending to his latest hydroponic experiment on the balcony. But destiny had not let them stay apart a single day in the last thirteen years (except the fourteen days in 2008 when Neil got the chickenpox and they both had howled endlessly at the injustice). Same neighborhood, same school, same playground and now, same college; one would think luck had an uncanny fondness for their camaraderie.
Neil got late on the first day of college. And needless to say, Sehaj too!
It was in the canteen where they were first noticed , and a sneering voice called out to Neil “ Arre Bahadur..do chai lana!”Feigning nonchalance, Neil continued with his snack when he was grabbed by the shoulder “Oye..didn’t you hear what my brother said?” .
“Paaji, I will get the chai , kadak wali.”Sehaj humoured the offender. “By the way, his name is Neil, and he is not really ‘bahadur’…hehe!”
Not placated, the perpetrator uttered the notorious Delhi introductory threat “Mr Smartpants, do you know who I am?”
Daman & Dvit
Daman Pandey and his younger brother Dvit definitely did not need the introduction they prided themselves with. Sons of a heavyweight media house owner whose success story could be attributed to cheap publicity stunts, a blatant disregard of ethics, secret liaisons and a corrupt foundation, most people were wary of them. Sadly, their overt narcissism and flamboyance attracted like-minded attention seekers who validated their delusions of superiority.
First year newbies defying his commands and cracking jokes with him was something Daman would not take lying down, and the consequences would have been dire, had she not appeared; she, the tall girl with long tresses who oozed confidence and attitude with every step she took.
Dwija had been looking forward to the freedom that came with joining college.
The girls’ school she had studied at had not only compartmentalized their academics but also their dreams. The school had a clear definition of how girls should conduct themselves which didn’t agree with Dwija. She felt like an outcast. Athletic, sharp and fiercely independent, Dwija steered clear of frivolous gossip and preferred to sweat it out on the sports field. Vacations would see her volunteering and teaching roadside children.
Bias or partiality of any kind irritated her .
As she walked into the hushed canteen, she felt a hundred pair of eyes sizing her up. Unruffled, she walked up to the first table at the corner and asked “Hi, could you direct me to the administrative block?”
Aloof and disinterested in the ruckus, the guy at the corner table had been engrossed in some disturbing news from his hometown. Without lifting his head, he replied rudely “Guess you would be literate enough to read the signboards!”
“Oh, I didn’t realise you were literate, but not educated right !” came a curt reply.
The moment he looked up , he regretted his words. It was love at first sight for Kaizad Hakim. He watched helplessly as Dwija walked away in a huff.
A quiet and brooding Kaizad , had spent a good part of his teenage years in turmoil, like most young boys from the northernmost state of the country. In Delhi, since the past two years, he had found people intrigued by his intelligence and charisma, and extremely friendly until they found his place of origin. And then, they would disappear with some excuse. With time, he had got accustomed to sniggers and suspicious glances.
And now, he could sense an impending heartbreak that he had invited upon himself.
Daman Pandey, looking for an excuse to talk to Dwija, summoned the flustered girl reprimanding her on her behaviour towards a senior.
“What an opportunist !” thought Kaizad .
Not to be intimidated, Dwija , turned her back to the onlookers and stepped out .It was then, that she met Aryan, who helped her out.
Snubbed twice in a row, an angry Daman turned towards Neil and Sehaj, only to find them missing. On someone’s suggestion, the two had sat down at a distant table .Its other two occupants, Yaj and Bhav had been silently observing the drama that had enfolded.
“Yaj Thakur, opening a shelter for the weaklings, are you? Would get you some political mileage, haina?’ roared Daman, as he spotted the foursome.
“Even if I don’t, Pandeyji’s channels can run the false news, and mint some money just like the other trash they show!” chuckled Yaj. “My blessings!”
Seeing Aryan join the table with Dwija irked Daman further .
He went up to Kaizad, put his arm around him. “Sure, Breaking news… Aspiring leader uses prospective girlfriend to discriminate against youth on the basis of religion and state” bellowed Daman. “Sounds good, na?”
“Bhaiyya, what girlfriend? ..Just friends…. with benefits..there are five of them.!”taunted Dvit.
“What the heck?” jumped up Dwija. Yaj and Aryan had to hold her back from pouncing on the opponents.
After a heavy crossfire of the choicest expletives between Dvit and Bhav, the seniors intervened.
The mute spectators watched with bated breath as Yaj Thakur and Daman Pandey confronted each other for the first time after a year. What had been an underplayed mutual discomfort had finally come to surface.
“Playoff” declared Daman “To save your fledglings! I was not too happy sharing the cup with you last year.”
Dismissing his proposal with a hearty laugh, Yaj answered “Have better things to do! I need to learn how to run a country, remember? Besides, most of my team members have left.”
“You have new ones now,” Daman nudged towards the first years. “And a cheerleader too!” he added, tongue in cheek, eyeing an irate Dwija. “And I keep Kaizad ; pity that a player like him did not get a chance to play the finals last time.”
Kaizad was taken by surprise. He had been a victim of bias during the sports selections the past two years and it was heartening to be appreciated for a change. He didn’t really want to take sides but a brief moment of flattery had got the better of his wisdom.
Besides, he had never taken to Yaj because of his general mistrust of politicians.
Even as Yaj hesitated (ah…the nagging voice at work again, cautioning him), the five freshers he had met just a few hours back, came forward and stood with him.
“Playoff ..and stay off!” announced Dwija , looking dejectedly at Kaizad.
The playoff was scheduled after five weeks.
“Bhai, at least tell me, what is this ‘playoff’ ?” exclaimed Bhav.
“Daman happens to be one of the better basketball players on campus. He couldn’t accept that his team couldn’t defeat the team I played for last year.” explained Yaj.“Plus he can’t take it that my family doesn’t patronise his dad’s media house”
“Ba..sketball!” fumbled Bhav. “I am a wrestler..”
“Well, wrestle the ball away. You are six and a half feet tall..just stand there and dunk the ball into the basket!” quipped Sehaj .“Neil plays, but I just know the basics.
“Bhav’s not wrong. I played school level basketball but they have two superb players. Kaizad is a state level player.!” Yaj briefed them .
“I am, too!” declared Aryan, to everyone’s surprise.
“Yuvraaj Aryan Rathore from the Rajasthan team?” exclaimed Yaj. Aryan nodded. Everyone cheered.
“Guys, there are six of us, will one standby be enough?” interrupted Dwija.
“We don’t have any standbys… just the five of us..” retorted Aryan. “Not you? It’s going to be rough!”
“Try me!” said Dwija. “Didn’t make it to state level because of an injury!”
As the countdown to the playoff began, tension mounted in the campus. Bets were laid, slogans created and posters designed.
Daman’s chamchas left no stone upturned to woo the crowds in their team’s favour.
Yaj’s silent strength drew loyalties of the underdogs. All freshers supported team Yaj . They hated being bullied by Daman and his buddies.
The unusual comradeship between Yaj, Bhav ,Aryan, Neil ,Sehajveer, and Dwija, was the topic of many a conversation.
The only person who seemed to be in a dilemma was Kaizad. As promised to Daman, he practised sincerely but his heart knew he was on the wrong side. Everytime he ran into Dwija, he fell deeper in love with her. Her aloofness towards him and her closeness to her teammates pained him .
The final blow to his spirit came with the disconnection from his family that he faced as a result of a change of political rules for his native place. Maybe Daman could help.
A rainy day in mid- August saw a buzz of excitement on campus after regular hours. Students cheered in anticipation of the “big playoff”. If Aryan was the heartthrob of the college, Neil was the dark horse who won the crowd by his agility. Yaj’s cool captainship was impressive. Sehaj’s wit and Bhav’s strength were the perfect defence. Daman, of course, had his own fan following. But the one who couldn’t be ignored was Kaizad. A far superior player than any of the others, he earned his opponents’ respect and admiration. As both the teams battled at par, the foul play started.
Daman and Dvit shoved and pushed and Bhav retaliated. As it turned murkier, Neil was tripped, punched, and elbowed in what seemed to be a planned move by the opposite team. In agony, he had to leave the match.
The stadium was now filled with chants for ‘Dwija! ,Dwija!’.
“What perfect timing” Dwija cursed under her breath, trying to fight the painful cramps as she walked to the court. Inspite of it, she scored a basket within two minutes .
That is when the harassment began. It started with lewd whispers in her ear. Hands brushed against different parts of her body repeatedly . While trying to shoot, she felt a pinch. Daman while checking her moves, would keep bumping against her. The only one from the opponents team who was concentrating on the game was Kaizad . For the rest, she was the game. She tolerated it for the sake of her teammates, until the back of her t-shirt ripped because of manhandling by Dvit. Dwija turned around and gave him a tight slap.
A hush descended over the crowd. As Dwit raised his hand in retaliation, Daman stopped him ,grinning from ear to ear.
“What happened Dwija? If you play with men, accidents can happen, can’t they?” mocked Daman.
Removing his t-shirt, he added “Here, you can take mine !”
Disgusted, Dwija’s teammates moved towards her. They were immediately stopped by Daman’s chamchas.
Realisation dawned on Yaj as he looked around at the crowd in the twilight. Daman’s men and strangers had overpowered the students. The playoff had just been a façade to corner them.
Seeing the imminent threat, he declared that his team would be quitting the match.
Daman ridiculed, “Got the lady to create drama because you don’t want to lose?”
“Play buddy, play..show them who rules” Yaj heard his ego say.
And then Daman added “Lets play for her..whoever wins, parties with her!”Right, Kaizad?
Kaizad was nowhere to be seen. Daman,Dvit and their two teammates surrounded Dwija even as she kicked furiously.
……..Surely, it couldn’t be happening again?. Yaj’s head spun as he took in the whole scene. A voice rebuked “Not again, don’t keep quiet this time.” He visualised crowned heads hung in shame as yards of silk fell in heaps on the floor.
Furious tears of remorse stung his cheeks.
A flash of luminescence awakened him. Black clouds thundered in unison.
To everyone’s bewilderment, Yaj bellowed in an eerie deep throated voice “Halt!! If thou shall touch her or any woman with disrespect, thou shall not see the light of another day ! Though, Her strength is enough in itself to burn your evil hands, I, who follow the path of righteousness hereby declare it my foremost Dharma to respect Her choices and safeguard Her dignity.
Daman, taken aback ,but not deterred, laughed nervously .As he approached Dwija , the basketball that had been in Yaj’s possession hit him hard on the ear. Bhav, Aryan, Neil and Sehaj followed the signal and jumped into action.
“ Wrestling ..now we are talking!” chuckled Bhav.
They fought bravely inspite of being outnumbered. As goons pinned down Bhav, a flying kick on their faces released him. It was Kaizad.
Kaizad passed hockey sticks to the five as they stared in disbelief.
Daman shouted “ Betrayer, I will not let my channels speak the truth about your homeland!”
Kaizad replied “No motherland needs help from offenders who mistreat women.”
Dwija smiled at him. “One doesn’t choose a boy at a corner table for directions, just like that.”
Together, the seven tackled the odds.
The lights went out as it poured incessantly.
Daman and Dvit were thrashed mercilessly. Daman’s fractured thigh bone was unlikely to let him play again. Yaj and his troupe escaped.
The Silent Player
Cellphone recordings of the misconduct towards Dwija existed but there was no evidence of what ensued afterwards.
The camera zoomed in on the peacock hued basketball court . Mediapersons prodded the security guard for details. Kishan Yadav smirked “Lighte nahi thee.Kucho nahi hua! Kucho nahi dekhe hum!”
( There was no light. Nothing happened! I didn’t see anything!).
MahaJaya – 1)extremely victorious 2) Goddess Durga 3) Jaya is the original name for the Mahabharata
Akhadas- a place of practice of Indian martial arts.In this context, wrestling.
Aryan- warrior; honorable
Arre- an exclamation
Sehajveer- naturally brave
Bahadur –strong; (here)a racist remark
“Do chai lana” –get two cups of tea
Paaji- elder brother in punjabi
Kadak wali- (here) strong cup of tea
Daman – one who controls
Dwija- twice born
Kaizad- born of royalty
Chamchas- someone follows another without thinking
Kishan- names of Lord Krishna
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