About a dozen boys, between the ages of eight and fourteen, were jeering at him. He in turn was making the situation worse for himself by confronting the gang and hurling abuses at them. The boy was older than the others. The spurts of thick beard and moustache, spoke of his seniority. His legs were thick, short and bowed. He had a small chest but his lanky arms almost reached the ground, giving him an ape-like appearance. He was ugly by normal standards, and the gibberish he spoke fighting back tears, did nothing to discourage his tormentors. They slung mud and stones at him, while keeping well out of his reach.
This was a daily ritual, performed to please the childish egos. What fun an elephant derived by fiddling with an ant, only the children overpowering the slow poach could tell.
The cricket match was about to reach its climax and Suhail was battling with just one more chance to bat. Every time he tried to enter the pitch, the children pushed him and pulled him out of the playing area.
“Hey Half ticket, go and fetch water for everyone,” commanded the gully cricket captain, Manoj.
Suhail, mockingly called as Half Ticket, trotted to obey the croaky call.
“After this boy, can it be it my chance to bat?” Suhail tugged at Manoj’s Tendulkar number ten jersey.
“Ya, ya. We will see. You first go and get some chilled water from your Ammi’s refrigerator.” False promises ensured never ending supply of unlimited icy-cold, fresh water. Gleefully, Suhail rushed to open the doors of his Ammi’s deluxe possession, the Voltas refrigerator. Abbu sent it from Abu Dhabi after a year of saving and scrimping his waiter’s salary. Or that was what Ammi believed.
“Suhail stop pleasing those children!” Shabana chided him.
“They are not going to allow you play even half the match.” She was well aware of the gloomy reality yet for her only child’s sake, she mixed Rooh-hafza in the icy water.
Ignoring her worn out annoying words, he fled with the bottle to ensure it didn’t get warm before reaching its recipients. Half spilling, half retaining, finally he managed to hand over the trophy like bottle to the Captain, Manoj.
“Now is it my chance?” He waited with anxious, innocent eyes.
“Okay, okay but after this over is finished.” Again, fake assurances were hurled at a truly yearning heart.
The match was finished but there never came an over, where Suhail was given a chance to bat.
“Tomorrow will it be your number but the Rooh-hafza should be sweeter. Tell your Ammi to be liberal with it.” Manoj picked his bat up and placed on the bicycle. He left Suhail looping in a cycle of hope and despair.
Wiping briny tears, Suhail dragged himself to the kholi where Ammi awaited the return of her brave warrior.
The kholi, a room Abbu had rented after his marriage. A room where his bride had first felt the pang of an innocent arrival; a space where his bride, Shabana, metamorphosed into Ammi; a structure that enveloped a family of three, was the only place where Suhail felt liberated. No one bothered to judge his large body and small brains.
The walls freshly painted began losing their lustre as the baby grew. The roof shook under the slightest splatter of rain and shivered in the wind, as Suhail was diagnosed with small pox. The penultimate blow was struck, when the door was shut with a final bang, to let Abbu walk out of this arrangement. The money kept coming but with no love and care. Ammi, nursed her child without a father; a father who would correct him when Suhail faltered. The baby fought the pox, but he bore the marks; some with severe consequences.
She knew, today too he must have fought humiliation, and discrimination, but would remain unaware of it.
“Ammi, because of you, I didn’t get a chance to bat. Why are you so stingy with the syrup? Children tease me that your Ammi wants to preserve the bottle all-year-long to welcome Abbu.” He flung his bat on the floor as he sloppily opened the buttons of his shirt. The mismatched buttons tucked incompletely into gaping buttonholes, spoke of his dependency. Shabana rushed to rescue him but he pushed her aside. He was strong now, she contemplated.
“Ammi, WILL Abbu come back? WILL I ever grow up and go to work like him? WILL you anytime allow me to go by the train alone? WILL I get a chance to bat, ever?”
Like an auxiliary, Suhail too depended on others for his survival, his happiness. Will, the doubtful auxiliary tormented his living.
For Shabana Begum, the question itself had left an indelible mark on her soul. All the questions had no definite answers yet Suhail, kept them coming at indefinite intervals.
Cradling him in her lap, she massaged warm oil on his grey, sparse hair. He was aging but not growing; a fate Mother Nature had conferred upon him and her, years ago.
“Shabana, the child will always remain your baby. Never will he grow up to be a man.” The young doctor’s words reverberated in her ears. The dictum was given when the treacherous small pox left marks on his pea-sized cerebrum. Suhail was thirty but behaved like someone half his age and quarter of his intelligence. Half-Ticket was his perennial name.
Shabana’s baggy eyes had vented their teary baggage on multiple dark nights, brooding over the dictum. The burkha veiled her anger, disgust and pathos. The pale wheatish skin, stretched over a gaunt face was now reaping wrinkles in abundance. Cheeks that once adorned dimples were now smeared with mottled brown agonies. Saggy shoulders perpetually lowered; she couldn’t remember the last time she had held them up. Though being Suhail’s Ammi, her attitude was in stark contrast to his. He was the shade and she the shadow. He was the silver lining and she, the dark cloud. He was the merry butterfly while she, the grumpy gardener; he the blissful load, she the trudging donkey.
Of late, Shabana’s back ached more like a donkey than her womb resonated of her being a mother. Tauter muscles, complimented her tauter outlook. Where the mohalla women forced their progeny to target extra-terrestrial skills, Shabana just wished her son would stop being the alien. All she wished was for Suhail to become independent and cognizant. So that, one day when the donkey was laid to rest, the load carried on its fruitful journey without being overloaded.
Shabana’s apathy failed to end here. It leaked like methyl isocyanate choking her hyper-inflated misery, further. The neighbours had started complaining of Suhail eyeing their teenage daughters. On occasions, he just sat there, marvelling at their perky bosoms.
Once mistakenly, he had touched Shabana’s breasts, asking innocently,- “Ammi, when will mine grow this big?” Simultaneously, he rubbed his cheat.
Slapping him hard, Shabana had reacted instinctively. For a moment, shocked with the sudden intrusion, Suhail stood staring at her, wide-eyed. Frozen in the awkward moment, Shabana too had not uttered a word but left the dingy room for some fresh air.
At night, when he refused to cuddle next to her, she, in the warmest way possible, explained,
“Suhail, my baby, Allah has made man and woman differently; as different as cheese and chalk, as distinct as the earth and sky; each having his own characteristics, which the other needs to respect. There is nothing unusual about one’s body parts being bigger or smaller. It is one’s attitude towards it, that shouldn’t be small or narrow.”
What had seeped into his raw mind was difficult to assess but Shabana had cleared here guilt. At least that slap would take care he didn’t disrespect any woman, in any possible way.
Many a times, she suspected Manoj’s influence was adding fuel to the fire. The lad played a paramount role in shaping her son’s willpower. She was witness to how frenzy and unreasonable Suhail could get, when it came to Manoj. The bigger picture told her maybe his craziness was a desperate attempt to be a part of the group; to feel one as a troop. Or maybe to share things, which he couldn’t do with her.
He needed his Abbu whose presence in their life was ephemeral; as short as the vapours of scented sticks-sublime till it lasted, ashes once it was gone. Shabana needed her husband to return-only for Suhail’s sake. A storm was brewing in him. Hormones were encouraging his desires. Some body parts were calling out to him like the hooter of a siren. They needed his attention and privacy.
Days when she scrubbed his night falls off the bed sheets; Shabana’s mind felt at the vortex,- turbulent eddies around but silent in the centre. Clueless and helpless, she scrubbed hard at the bed sheets but the stains refused to fade. She could identify with his turmoil, for her own body longed for some tender love and care. Again shoving aside her own needs, Shabana with the threats, pleas or together, had convinced Abbu to return. But alas! No help arrived, except the refrigerator, to cool her anger down.
“Hey Half Ticket, are you coming to play?” A new day, a new promise arose.
Manoj, the eternal captain of Azad Nagar cricket team, dished out commands with the ease of an adroit minister handing out portfolios. No one knew what commanded that respect, whether it was his brawny arms or that fierce incisor, that protruded, even from pursed lips. At fifteen, he had broken around fifty bones, punctured more than 200 tyres, shattered nearly the same amount of window-panes. He had done it all, seen it all.
Today, too, he commanded an almost tyrannical authority over Suhail.
Ammi smiled half-heartedly as her optimistic son, happy with the call, marched with his bat placed on his proud shoulders.
“Suresh, you are at the boundary. Salim, you guard the keeper… “And, the fielding was set.
“Chandu, you will bat first.” Opponent team’s instructions too were set. Suhail didn’t know for which team he was playing, but he loitered around like a faithful puppy, wagging his loyalties for both the teams.
The scorching sun was burning down on the ambitious players.
“Run, run Ramesh!-Oh, that’s one more run in the pocket!” Manoj cheered for his boys from the tin roof pavilion.
“Buck up, buck up you duck. Stop waddling and start running! “He screamed.
Impatience in Manoj was building up.
“Oh no! That is a wicket!” The captain picked his bat up, for now he had to show his valour as he swaggered towards the pitch. Suhail, too, picked his bat and ran to occupy the ultimate batting position. Today, he had to prove his worth. Something his will told him always.
“Hey Half Ticket get lost from here!” Manoj abused and pushed Suhail to the ground.
“You never let me bat. I will complain to Ammi.” Suhail leaked in the eyes and partially in the pants due to the fall.
“First learn to manage your full bladder and half age!” The children laughed as Manoj guffawed into Suhail’s face.
Helplessly, dusting off his wet pants, and after wiping the equally wet eyes, Suhail went back to the lonely pavilion.
Manoj enjoyed the unwavering attention bestowed upon him by Suhail. The man followed the boy’s orders as his life depended on it. Suhail was an elixir for Manoj’s ego; a humongous ego, fed by a petite innocence. Manoj derived divine pleasure by inflicting small wounds on Suhail, whether physical or mental, it didn’t matter. The sadistic approach was a gift of an abandoned childhood.
Manoj, an urchin, never experienced any form of parental love, and it manifested into a deep-rooted jealously. He was jealous of the attention lavished upon Suhail by Ammi. Somewhere within, he wished, he too was abnormal to receive normal love. All said and done, he was what he had experienced. He returned with interest- what he had received.
The match was gathering pace. Manoj was playing his best and was nearing a half century.
Manoj looked up in the sky to follow the ball’s direction but couldn’t spot the ball. Few birds of prey hovered in the blue expanse of the sky. Zigzag lines clouded his vision.
Why was the sky revolving in concentric circles along with the birds? The ground was smelting him like an ore. Hazy maze, blurry figures; his sight was betraying him. Was it some kind of a spoof? One, two, three-…Blank…. and dark. The expected Man of the Match collapsed on the ground. The ball touched the boundary as the master batsman fell flat on the field.
The children were scared of the happening, scared of its consequences. Though they surrounded their captain, they were dumbfounded. The fall saw a wave rise in Suhail’s half grown brain. He speeded home and pulled open the creaking doors of the refrigerator. Today, Ammi had kept the cold drink bottle ready as she too was hopeful someday the Rooh-hafza would land a bating chance to her son. The drink was purposely made sugary with the syrup bottle half empty.
Without a moment of delay, Suhail returned back on the battlefield where his captain lay muttering incoherent nothings. He quickly ensured that Manoj drank few sips of the cool Rooh-hafza. A sweet smile appeared on the recipients face.
The crowd was cleared by few elders of the mohalla and Manoj taken to the hospital. With the bottle pressed firm to his chest, Suhail chased the ambulance. After all, his God had been hurt. He couldn’t leave his idol in the hands of fate.
“Look! Half Ticket is running. He is the new doctor in town.” The torchbearers of the mohalla ridiculed.
Suhail ran as if his wild hounds chased him. He dodged the stray carts and high jumped over the potholes. On some occasions, he toppled, falling flat on his face, but gathering his wits, he continued. Swishing his way through the narrow by-lanes, he tried to keep pace with the clamorous vehicle. Not caring for pedestrians or accidents, he pranced like a dazed deer. His humble footwear was giving away and the poky pebbles hurt his soles.
The strap of his slippers snapped. Without withering a second, Suhail threw the useless rubber mass into a ditch. He pursued the ambulance bare-footed. Heat, pain, pricks; nothing deterred his anxious spirits. He just ran to catch up with the ambulance.
After a fifteen minute pursuit, the vehicle halted at the hospital doors. A semiconscious Manoj was taken straight to the emergency casualty ward-doctors intervened. Suhail’s run was intercepted at the doors.
The news had spread like wild fire and Ammi could feel the pecks of the mocking birds.
As a caring neighbour, she too reached the hospital. Flabbergasted, Shabana rushed to her wounded son. He was breathing heavily, drenched in sweat. Trembling hands, parched lips; poor boy couldn’t even voice his thirst for water. He sat there listless.
“What had brought this sudden aggressive chasing of the ambulance?” wondered Ammi. She knew Suhail was crazy after the loafer Manoj but not to such an extent, to risk his own life!
Shabana helped Suhail with a glass of water that he gulped down hastily.
“Ammi, will Manoj be alright?” His anxious gaze welled up tears in her eyes.
“If he doesn’t who will give me a chance to bat?” Amidst silent sobs, she smiled. For the first time, for the sake of her son, she prayed fervently for Manoj’s life. Even though in bad company, her son had bloomed to be a lotus. The mud certainly had nurtured him.
“Shabana Begum, your son has grown up!” The old doctor had not forgotten his verdict but today he had also not forgotten to change it.
“Suhail’s -presence of mind has saved Manoj from a partial stroke. His Rooh-hafza did wonders to his dehydrated body.” The doctor beamed with pride.
In the recuperating room, the saline drip rejuvenated a transforming body. The doctor’s words had reached Manoj’s ears. Realization dawned upon him. This unspoken love, one that he never paid any heed to, had blossomed into a beautiful friendship. What he had considered slavery had revealed it itself to be worship! Tears flowed unabated down his cheeks, soiling the pillow cover.
“Now is it my chance to bat?” The request was repeated after a definite interval.
The children surrounded Suhail. Would the torment begin? Suhail’s eyebrows twitched in anticipation. He could sense the incoming snarl from each one of them. Few of them even advanced towards him flexing their muscles. Some others pushed their sleeves up, ready to sprint in action.
“Now you are the captain, Full Ticket!” Manoj’s sudden intervention made the troop go weak in their knees.
“I have grown up!” Full Ticket walked towards the ultimate bating position. Suhail had finally found acceptance.
The auxiliary met its verb to complete the action.
Rooh-hafza- a sweet syrup to make a refreshing drink.
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