Shyamala took her stance as the bowler started running from the other end. With a glance, she checked if any fielder had changed their position. None had. With a grunt, the bowler released the ball. Shyamala grinned to herself. With the slip in place, that was what she had expected the bowler to bowl. She waited till the ball came onto the bat and then, with a flick of her wrist, she sent the ball racing away all the way to the boundary.
The commentators and the crowds went crazy, as her teammates rushed onto the ground to congratulate her. For today, Shyamala had done the unbelievable. From five down and 120 runs still to chase in 10 overs, Shyamala had singlehandedly scripted her team’s win.
During the post-match press conference, when a reporter asked who taught her to fight, Shyamala gave a grin and said,” The men in my life.”
Three years ago
“Move your legs! You are not at a kitty party. This is a training camp!” Coach Malhotra roared at the girls standing listlessly in front of him. They had been up from five, training the full day under the sun. Now at six in the evening, he wanted them to run five laps around the cricket ground.
Looking at the condition of the girls, Shyamala decided to speak up.
In a calm voice, she tried to reason, “Sir, the girls are exhausted. Please excuse them for today.”
Coach Malhotra sneered at her, “While your age might fit the criteria, are you their mother? Remember that I am the coach and my word is the law here.”
Shyamala flushed at the coach’s reference to her being the oldest in the group. He was not the first to remark on her age. Most doubted her presence there. She was almost thirty, the age when most professional cricket players retire. And yet, here she was, attending her first national training camp.
But Shyamala didn’t back down.
“Do you want a team that can play competitively, or do you want a team that is exhausted and burnt out? Look at them, most of the girls are barely out of school. Let them acclimate to the training sessions, build their endurance, and then push them. “
Coach Malhotra looked at the girls and realized that Shyamala was right. But his ego wouldn’t let him back down in front of a woman.
“Very well, the girls can go back to the dorm. But your insubordination leaves me no choice but to discipline you. If you want to stay in the camp, you will finish ten rounds before leaving. And yes, you are benched for the next two games.”
Giving his verdict, Coach Malhotra walked away, leaving Shyamala burning with rage.
Rage against the male ego against whom she had fought her whole life. She used that rage to fuel the ten rounds, ignoring the cramps in her legs.
That rage made her vow to become such an exceptional player that no coach would dare to bench her.
Six years ago
Professor Sharma looked at the woman sitting under the umbrella on the lawn. She seemed to be lost in her thoughts.
Professor Sharma had found her lying on the side of the road, unconscious. Her body had been covered with bruises and scars, some fresh and some old. Professor Sharma had felt a surge of anger and pity looking at the young woman. She had seen too many such women as the founder of a Domestic abuse victim shelter.
Professor Sharma had brought the woman to her shelter. For the past month, the woman’s body had healed. As the bruises faded, her beauty became apparent. With a lean body, sharp features and eyes as dark as the night, the young woman would have been called attractive if not for the perpetual fear in her eyes.
Professor Sharma knew very well that it could take years for the victims to overcome the mental wounds of the trauma. And even more, if the mind was not engaged productively. It was time, the professor decided, to know more about the woman and set her on the path of true healing.
She slowly walked towards the woman, taking care not to make any sudden movements that could spook her.
Settling down in the lawn chair next to her, Professor Sharma softly asked, “The others are watching the cricket world cup final in the TV room. Don’t you want to join them?”
The woman shook her head.
“You don’t like cricket?”
“I love it”, the woman whispered.
“Because then he will hit me!” came the anguished sob.
“Oh, my dear!” Professor Sharma said, reaching out to hug the woman. “No one, and I repeat, no one, can hurt you here. I have made this home a safe one, for you and for all those who have suffered for no fault of theirs.”
Touching her hands lightly, the professor said, “My dear, I wish to help you. I don’t know why, but I feel responsible for you. Will you allow me to help you?”
The young woman looked at the old woman with snowy white hair and kind brown eyes. She had been nothing but kind as she had let her body heal. She had fed her and given her the space she needed. Should she trust her? her heart asked, and as she looked into the other woman’s eyes, she felt she could.
“My name is Shayamala”, she said, a thread of hesitancy in her voice. Hesitancy, that soon dissolved as she laid bare her tale of woe.
As the story progressed, the professor’s face turned darker with anger. And yet, for her sake, she controlled her emotions.
When Shyamala came to the end of her tale, the professor kept a gentle hand on hers,“My dear, you have gone through a lot. But what do you want to do next?”
Shyamala looked at her and then towards the flower beds that bordered the lawn.
“I couldn’t finish my studies, so I don’t know if I can get a job. All I had was the talent for cricket, but that too was taken from me. I do not know what to do. How to survive.”
Overcome with emotions Shyamala sobbed into her hands.
Professor Sharma gently stroked her head and said, “Cry it out my dear, get rid of these emotions that are making you feel weak. And then, gather your courage to fight. You said you have a talent for cricket? Very well, I am a member of the cricket club here. We will go tomorrow and see how much talent you have. If you are as talented as you say, I will help you achieve your dream.”
Shyamala looked at the professor with tear-soaked eyes. “Why are you helping me? What will you gain?”
The professor grinned, “Let’s just say that I think our country needs more women role models and I am doing my bit towards that.“
Seven years ago
Shyamala shifted restlessly in bed. Her periods had started and she was trying to find a comfortable position to sleep.
“You are disturbing me. I have an early morning meeting tomorrow. Go to sleep,” Sameer mumbled from his side of the bed.
“Sorry, it’s just that my cramps are very painful,” she whispered.
“Did I ask? I just want to sleep! Pop a tablet, or jump from the balcony, who cares. Just let me sleep,” he growled.
“You know the tablet doesn’t suit me, “Shyamala replied.
“For god’s sake, woman! Just let me sleep!” Sameer shouted, shoving Shymala so hard that she fell from the bed.
“Ouch!” Shyamala cried, rubbing her head where it had hit the floor when Sameer leaned over and slapped her again. Hard.
“Get out! Let me sleep in peace!” he shouted.
Shyamala lay on the floor, stunned by the unexpected violence. Her eyes filled with tears of helplessness as she picked up the pillow and left the bedroom. Sameer was already snoring by the time she shut the bedroom door.
That night Sameer had moved on from verbal to physical and sexual abuse. Shyamala’s life soon took a turn for worse.
Nineteen years ago
Shyamala stared at her reflection in the mirror of the dressing table. It seemed as if someone had taken her face and stuck it on someone else’s body. For the past four years, Shyamala had worn only tracks and t-shirts.
Never in a lehenga, and especially not one that weighed like a ton.
The door to her room opened, and Shyamala’s mother, Sarojini, walked in. Petite, her head covered with her saree pallu, she bustled about the room. Shyamala looked at her with resentment. Her mother had always supported her, directly or indirectly, then why was she doing this to her?
“How could you do this to me?” Shyamala accused, gesturing to the lehenga.
“You are sixteen. Your sisters also got married at the same age,” Sarojini replied, not meeting Shymala’s eyes.
“But I don’t want to get married. I just got the call to attend the national camp. I might even play for India!” Shyamala cried.
“You can’t”, Sarojini replied flatly.
“But why?” Shyamala demanded.
“Because you are a girl!” Sarojini shouted.” Your only dharma is to marry and birth babies”
“But you were the one who told me to dream,” Shyamala asked, bewildered.
“Yes, dream, but don’t expect them to come true. Dreams of women like us are always sacrificed on the altar of family honour, or to pay debts.“ Sarojini added bitterly.
“Pay debts? What do you mean?” Shyamala asked.
Sarojini sighed and made Shyamala sit on the bed.
“Your father took loans to pay for the wedding of your sisters that he is unable to repay. Sameer has agreed to pay off the loans if you marry him.”
“So, he is selling me to Sameer?” Shyamala asked, tears welling up in her eyes.
Sarojini reached forward to console Shyamala when the door opened with a bang and Shyamala’s father, Ramswaroop, walked in.
“Why is she not ready yet?” he asked, pointing towards Shyamala.
Sarojini cowered at the irritation in Ramswaroop’s voice.
“Just two minutes, ji. I just have to drape the ghunghat”, she replied.
“Get her out in two minutes. Sameer is getting annoyed and threatening to leave the mandap. Troublesome girl, and that crazy fellow wants to marry her,” he muttered.
“Then don’t get me married. Let me live in peace!” Shyamala shouted.
Ramswaroop turned around and slapped Shyamala. Sarojini rushed between the two, putting her arms around Shyamala, trying to protect her. Ramswaroop leaned over them threateningly.
“I have had enough of your tantrums. Your cricket and prancing about in tracks pants have made us the butt of jokes in the biradari. Your sisters’ husbands are threatening to send them back. So, you better do as I tell you to do before I break all your bones with the bat that you are so fond of! Two minutes!” Ram Swaroop said, clicking his fingers towards Sarojini before leaving the room.
Stroking Shyamala’s hair, Sarojini whispered, “Maybe this marriage will be your escape from your father’s clutches.”
“But my dreams…,” Shymala sobbed.
Sarojini just shook her head sadly as she gently covered Shyamala’s swollen face with the
Twenty-three years ago
The naked bulb cast a yellow hue to the brick-paved courtyard. Twelve-year-old Shyamala hesitantly walked over to the charpoy where Ramswaroop sat. Next to the charpoy was a small stool with a steel tumbler, a jug of water and a bottle of country liquor. The only liquor that Ram Swaroop could afford on his salary as a low-level clerk in the district court. On some days, he stopped after one glass. On others, he didn’t stop until he had finished the bottle. It all depended upon how much his superiors had shouted at him.
Today, he was about to start his second glass. Shyamala knew because she had waited until this moment to approach him from behind the kitchen door. She knew he would be in a mellow mood after one glass, ready to do anything for his family. After two glasses invectives would flow freely from his mouth. Disgusting curses, blaming the god, the government, Sarojini and her brood of girls for all the discomforts in his life. After his fourth glass, Shyamala knew she needed to hide. For then, the blows would start. And usually, Sarojini would be the target.
But not yet. Today, he had just finished the first glass.
Noticing Shyamala, he beckoned her closer, “Kyon chhori? You want something?”
Shyamala gave a shy nod before holding out a paper.
“Papa, there is a cricket tournament in the next town. Sports sir has asked you to sign the sheet so that I can take part in it.” She said, keeping her eyes lowered.
How much cricket will you play? Now start learning cooking from your mother, that will help you when you get married,” Ramswaroop scoffed.
“Sir was saying she plays very good cricket. And if her team wins, they will get five hundred rupees as prize money! “ Sarojini said, standing behind the kitchen door. “Only a few more years, then she anyway has to get married and go to her own home. Let her do what her heart desires for now,” she added, cajoling Ramswaroop.
“Five hundred rupees, eh?” Ramswaroop asked, twisting the tip of his moustache upwards.
“Very well, give me the paper, I will sign. But don’t forget, if you win, you give the money to me,” Ramswaroop said, smiling at Shyamala.
Seeing his smile, Shyamala sucked in her breath. In moments like these, when he was almost genial, she almost loved her father. Later that night, after her father had imbibed five glasses and was raining blows on Sarojini, hate for him resumed its position in her heart.
Twenty-seven years ago
The lane was full of shrieks and laughter as the neighbourhood children gathered in the late afternoon to play. The girls were at one end skipping rope and playing hopscotch, while the boys took over the end playing cricket. It was a rare day since Shyamala and her sisters had also joined playtime. Ram Swaroop was not in town and they had three whole days of freedom. Ever loving, ever patient Sarojini had twinkled her eyes as Shyamala and her sisters had pestered her to let them skip chores and go play.
“Mind you, be home before dark,” she had said, wagging her finger.
Shyamala had just stepped up for her turn at hopscotch when her elder sister cried out, “Ouch!”
The ball from the boys’ cricket had hit her in the middle of her back. As her sister’s eyes welled up with pain, Shyamala marched up to the boys and demanded they apologize. The boys dismissed her with rude gestures. Not one to take things lying down, Shymala insisted again.
The boys looked at the eight-year-old spitfire and laughed.
“Run away and play your little games, little girl,” they taunted.
Shyamala flushed at their tone and raised her fists to fight with them. The eldest of the group, thirteen-year-old Sameer, laughed at her outrage.
“Ok, let’s make a deal, you hit a four and we apologize to your sister. You lose, I marry you!” he said, with a lascivious wink.
The other boys laughed as the girls gasped at his outrageous remark.
Shyamala’s face turned red with humiliation, but she wordlessly held out her hand for the bat.
“What are you doing?” Shyamala’s elder sister hissed, “If papa finds out, he will skin you alive.”
“Who will tell papa?” Shyamala replied.” I am fed up with this obnoxious Sameer. Did you know he follows us every day from school? I need to teach him a lesson.“
Shyamala walked up to the makeshift wicket made of bricks as the boys jeered from the sides. Ignoring them, she focused all her attention on the ball that Sameer had chucked from the other end. With a grunt, she hefted the bat and with a satisfying thwack, the wood connected with the ball, sending it racing away to the drain at the end of the lane that marked the boundary. The girls surrounded Shyamala congratulating her, but Shyamala continued to look at the bat in her hand.
She had felt the power coursing through her when the bat had connected with the ball. Shyamala grinned, she had just discovered her passion.
She would become the best cricketer in the world!
Thirty-three years ago
It was a moonless night. The dark was so deep that it penetrated hearts and minds. Sarojini slept exhausted. It had been less than two weeks since she had delivered her youngest daughter, Shyamala. She had failed once again to provide Ramswaroop, and his vitriolic mother, with the son that they so longed for. In fact, only a few hours after the delivery, her mother-in-law had come to her bed and watching her suckle the newborn, had spat on the ground cursing her newborn granddaughter. Sarojini had cried silently. She loved all her daughters but knew that life would be toughest for her youngest.
Because she was not a boy.
Today twenty-one days had passed since the birth, and Sarojini had been asked to take over the household chores again. As her mother-in-law had sarcastically remarked to Ramswaropp, “If she had birthed a son, I would have allowed her to rest for three months. But with a third daughter, she has had more than enough rest.”
And thus, on that moonless night, as Sarojini slumbered exhausted, Ramswaroop picked up the baby from Sarojini’s side.
The baby blinked up at the man who was supposed to be her father, taking in his stern demeanour, the moustache that was his pride and joy, and the dark eyes that looked at her with something like dislike.
She squirmed, uneasy in his arms, as if aware of his nefarious intentions. And yet, she remained silent as Ramswaroop crossed the courtyard and walked out of the house. He walked to the end of the lane, where he looked around to see if anyone was around. But who be there? It was past one in the night, and the whole neighbourhood slumbered.
Ramswaroop continued walking until he came to the public park two lanes away. The gates to the park were closed, but Ramswaroop knew where the wall was broken. Entering the park, he reached the banyan tree in the centre. He laid the baby down on the plinth under the tree.
By the dim light that illuminated the park walkways, Ramswaroop stared at the baby, feeling a clench in his heart. He had not wanted to do this. But as his mother had said, bringing up three daughters was not easy. And already, this one was trouble.
Her entry into the world had broken Sarojini’s body. Sarojini couldn’t become a mother again. Which meant that his dream of having a son to carry on the family name would not come true. Leaving this baby here at the mercy of the elements and stray dogs meant that he would have at least one less dowry to save.
As if sensing his thoughts, the baby’s eyes, the same as his, bored into his, unblinking. The baby was only twenty-one days old and yet her half-open eyes seemed to flash fire as if fighting for herself.
Ramswaroop gulped, the accusation in the baby’s eyes was clear.
Get hold of yourself, he sternly reminded himself, she is just a baby.
He turned to go back and saw Sarojini standing in the shadows. She didn’t utter a word as she walked over to the banyan and picked up her baby. The baby, who had been quiet until now, let out a wail as if complaining to the only person willing to listen to her.
Sarojini shushed her as she walked back home, and Ramswaroop followed behind. Shame burned in his heart for his actions that night, which soon turned into rage.
Rage that would repeatedly hurt Sarojini and his daughter.
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