The return of the prodigal
“Bhuvan,” Lakha addressed the captain of the team and his sworn enemy, turning to him in this moment of peril.
“Bhuvan, I am sorry. I really am. I have committed a grave mistake. Please...” he fumbled for words as he looked into the red, questioning, and unforgiving eyes of all those around.
“Please forgive me!”
The Mukhiya spoke again, his mouth frothing, his sensibility blinded by uncontrollable anger. All he could see at the moment was this traitor who was working with their oppressors to jeopardize the chances of the villager’s victory. The sole thought that occurred to him, as he looked at the man standing in front of him, hands folded in pleading submission was that such a person should be immediately destroyed. He did not even notice the trembling hands that were in contact with his; Hari was watching their leader in fearful apprehension – what would he say?
“Such a turncoat as you should not be allowed to live, Lakha!” The force with which these words were uttered by the Mukhiya stunned the angrily-whispering gathering.
In the silence that ensued, a tremulous and shaky voice spoke up, “What have you done, child!”
The profound grief in it pierced Lakha’s heart as he looked at the speaker. Shambhu kaka’s words of wisdom, that he had so conveniently ignored that night, came back rushing into his mind. And suddenly, that feeling of solidarity and sense of responsibility towards his own people, which he had buried deep in his heart, surged forth, suppressing the emotions that had led him to go against them.
He staggered at this abrupt change of mind. He felt lighter, cleansed, but the contemplation of his dastardly actions weighed him down. These conflicting emotions threatened to burst out. He swayed from the effort to control himself.
But the words of the Mukhiya were starting to have their effect on the people. They stirred in wrath and Lakha, recognizing the peril he was in started to run.
The angry villagers roared in fury and lunged at him, as the condemned man made a bid to escape. He swerved, dived, and kicked at those who held onto him, and made a dash to the temple – the only safe haven he could see at the moment – at the feet of god. The clamor of the chasing mob grew louder as they realized where Lakha was heading, and they made to cut him off.
But Lakha was swifter and before the villagers could stop him, he had ascended the stairs leading to the temple in five rapid leaps, entered the sanctum and closed and bolted the door behind him.
It had been just in time, for as soon as he took a breath of relief, there was a deafening bang on the door. Lakha held on, hoping that the flimsy hinges of the door would stand long enough. Terror seized him as he heard more bangs and shouts from the other side of the door.
“Come out, you traitor,” someone was yelling. “We will kill you for having done this.”
He could hear Baga’s shrill vocalization of fury.
‘Save me, O god!’ thought the poor man. ‘Is it in vain that I have realized my mistake? Won’t you give me a chance to redeem myself?’
Hari, pale and wobbly, was watching the scene of his son’s temporary escape unfold in front of him. There were not many left in the square now - all having made their way to the temple. He wondered whether there was anyone amongst them who would save his son. The father’s heart was at war with his mind. The heart loved the son – wanted to support him, protect him in spite of his shameful act, and could bear no harm to him; the mind agreed with Shambhu kaka, ‘What have you done, son?’
He felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked into the eyes of Shambhu kaka – the calm and tranquil eyes, the eyes that had seen more than any other in the village had, the eyes that now told him to hope.
“The boy will now change, Hari. Let’s just hope that the others, in their senseless frustration, do not deny him that opportunity.”
Both of them looked to the top of the hillock on which stood the temple and prayed.
“Wait! Wait!” Bhuvan was screaming at the top of his voice to make himself heard over the roaring mass.
He pushed his way to the front of the group that was now trying to force an entrance into the sanctum. He felt himself being compressed by the sheer number of people who were pushing at the door. With one great effort, he heaved some of them away, yelling as he did, “Wait, people. Wait!”
“Wait for what, Bhuvan?” asked Bhura.
“Wait for him to do something else? No, Bhuvan. We have to kill him before he does any more harm!”
The horde of angry villagers chorused aloud, “Yes!”
“Please, men.” Bhuvan continued to plead.
“I will talk to him before we do anything rash.”
Ismail looked at him in astonishment. He had not expected Bhuvan to behave so. He sounded not in the least like himself, but like Dwarakadas and Shambhu kaka. The potter looked into the eyes of Bhuvan and saw a calm resolution in them and wondered what was in store for the traitor whom he had once considered his friend. Bhuvan turned to face the door and hoped he had calmed the villagers enough to allow Lakha to speak in his own defense.
“Open the door, Lakha!” he called to the trapped man. “Open it!”
“No, Bhuvan. I will not. They will kill me if I do,” Lakha sounded terrified, frantic.
“How long do you think you can stay inside unharmed, Lakha? These people will not rest until they have pulled you out.”
A roar of assent from the mob accompanied Bhuvan’s words.
“Open the door and let me in,” Bhuvan called again. “Did you hear me? I said open the door and let me in!”
The man inside thought for a while before unbolting the door. He was going to let his main adversary in. But Bhuvan’s voice did not carry the same mad anger that Lakha heard in those of the others. He saw a faint ray of hope, a chance that he could escape the fierce retribution he would otherwise face. The door slowly creaked open. Bhuvan let himself in and latched it securely behind him, lest the others changed their mind.
As the door closed, Lakha fell back, trembling. He had believed in Bhuvan and let him in. What was the man now standing in front of him, menacing in his reproach, going to do? Was his trust in the man he had once regarded as his enemy warranted? Lakha didn’t know what he felt about Bhuvan now. He had not had the time to reflect upon that, while fleeing for life. It was just guilt at the wrong turn he had done the whole village that washed over him. But now, as the man stood before him, silent yet questioning, Lakha wondered whether his spite and hatred for the man had changed. And as he pondered over it, he realized, in that part of his consciousness that had awoken so recently, there was some difference in the way he felt about the man, though there was no change in his love for Gauri and also none in the affection between his loved one and Bhuvan. He felt he understood why it was so. For Lakha, his entire life had revolved around three entities – himself, his father, and Gauri. It did now too, but he also appreciated the part essayed by the others in it. He recognized his mistake in not having considered the eight hundred others who constituted the village in the equation of his life. He now became conscious of the fact that he formed an intricate part of the village and that he had erred in thinking that he was separate, not one among them. He now comprehended the effect he had on their lives and they on his, and wondered how foolish and deluded he had remained all along. Lakha stood on the threshold of reformation, seeing the world around with more openness, more consideration; realizing the futility of his mad craving for Gauri and of his senseless hatred for Bhuvan. He felt he had the strength now to accept reality; and the reality was that try as he might, he could not do anything about the love between Bhuvan and Gauri, and that if he wanted to continue to be a part of the village he should work for them and not against. Lakha prayed to god, at whose feet he now lay, that he was granted a chance to speak, a chance to justify himself. “Forgive me, Bhuvan, I was deluded,” he said.
“Why, Lakha? Why?”
Though he believed he knew the answer, Bhuvan thought it best to let Lakha spill it himself, get it out of his mind, and be free of its tormenting hold.
Bhuvan had felt the same anger that had its grip over the others, almost drive him to insanity too. But Shambhu kaka’s voice had calmed him and had allowed for Dwarakadas’s words to penetrate the rage that had been clouding him. ‘Life, my son, is all about leverages.’ He saw that behind the veil of thoughtless ill will, Lakha had had a very good reason for having done this. Bhuvan felt sorry for the kneeling man in front of him. He felt that he had unconsciously used Gauri’s mistrust and dislike for Lakha to strengthen his own relation with the girl. In that light, he acknowledged that the only leverage the woodcutter had was this – doing all he could to shatter the respect and liking that the girl had for him.
What Bhuvan could not comprehend was how Lakha had forgotten, in his eagerness to defeat him, that he was effectively destroying the lives of all in the village and also himself. Did he for once think that the white lords were going to treat him any better than they did the others once he had served their purpose? Bhuvan felt it was time for that curtain of misapprehension to be removed and for Lakha to see the self-destructive nature of his actions. He waited for Lakha to respond.
“I had been driven crazy by my love for Gauri, Bhuvan. But, she? She had eyes for none but you.” And all the venom that Lakha had filled in his heart poured out, easing his troubled mind.
“I adored her – I still do – and I wanted her at any cost. This craving led me to hatch the plan of demeaning you in front of everyone and Gauri. I thought I could have her then.” Lakha’s voice was pained and Bhuvan felt it stab at his heart. But he forced himself to talk, to make Lakha see sense.
“And while doing so, did you ever stop to think what affect it will have on the rest of the village, the rest of the province or even yourself? Could we, could you have survived?” He let Lakha ponder over it.
“I am sorry, Bhuvan. I realize my error and want to rectify it.” He came forward on his knees, hands folded beseechingly.
Bhuvan considered the pleading man for a moment before saying, All right, Lakha. But you will have to prove your loyalty on the field tomorrow. This game that we are playing is not for anyone’s amusement or entertainment. This is a question of our lives. Do you understand?”
Lakha nodded vigorously.
“It better be that way, Lakha,” Bhuvan looked at the idols of Krishna and Radha and continued, “Otherwise even god will not be able to save you.”
A convulsive spasm passed over Lakha’s face before clearing into an expression of heartfelt gratitude and joy at the chance granted to redeem himself.
Bhuvan felt moved to see the man so genuinely happy. He offered his hand to the kneeling man and pulled him to his feet.
And as they embraced warmly, Bhuvan hoped this episode would signal the end of the bitterness between themselves.
Lakha hoped so too.
After the frenzy of the previous night, daybreak was a stark contrast – quiet and tranquil.
Having spent all their pent up fury, the villagers and the eleven players in particular found their minds totally devoid of thoughts and emotions, when they awoke the next morning. They had a chore on hand, that of playing a cricket match, but beyond this understanding, there was no overdrive to go for a win, no remorse for not having done too well on the previous day. All such thoughts began to percolate into them slowly as the sun started to rise and people began to fill them with ideas of pride and humiliation, honor and disgrace, arrogance and meekness.
When Ram Singh with his shiny brass megaphone announced the commencement of the second day’s play, it was an eleven, re-saturated with both aspiration and despondency that took the field.
The pall of gloom was soon to rise and make the possibility of any depression to follow much more sufferable. Deva in the very first ball of his over induced Brooks to drive uppishly.
Brooks obliged, picking the former mole who was no longer one. The reformed man sprang away, hand outstretched, a picture of perfect poise and plucked the ball from the air as it strove to get past.
The young man was jubilant. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he experienced the joy of contributing to a larger cause. He ran up to his gathered mates and embraced Bhuvan, which was surely another singular occurrence. He was now truly one of them.
Russell was stumped, glaring away at his former nefarious mole, now turned to a fearless pouncing leopard. There was deafening applause.
Brooks returned and Wesson replaced him.
Not expecting much to happen in the first few overs, Major Cotton had marched out to the rear of the pavilion on a frivolous personal errand. When he got back, the sound of ovation was just dying down and those seated around still showed traces of fading excitement.
“Did I miss something?” asked he of no one in particular.
“Yes, Major, you did, and so did we!” replied Boyer, winking at Elizabeth.
The score was now 182 for 3; Russell, not having faced a ball yet on the day and Wesson yet to score. But from then on until lunch break, it was an Andrew Russell show.
He demonstrated the handsome execution of every shot in the manual, was a cricket connoisseur’s delight, a personification of a perfect batsman. His century crowned his exemplary feat.
Wesson was not too far behind in the rate of scoring or manner of batting. It was just a case of class being overshadowed by brilliance. Of the last ball before lunch, he had posted his half century.
Even Elizabeth set aside her prejudice towards her brother for a while to take pleasure in his exploits.
Umpire Doherty called lunch on the second day.
The giant score board displayed the tally to be 271 for 3. The two opposing camps reflected its true import. One was an embodiment of self-importance while the other was a picture of bleakness.
It was customary for a cricket team to have a group photograph taken whenever a high-ranking dignitary of the government happened to be in their midst. Such pictures were generally taken at midday when sunlight was at its maximum.
The photographer had made all necessary arrangements for the exercise and immediately after lunch being declared, those nominated to be present were herded by attendants to their pre-assigned three tiered positions.
The most privileged were seated in the front row. Those who followed next in the hierarchy stood behind the seated personages and the last in the chain of command stood upon stools behind this standing line.
There was a lot of small talk in the assembly while the photographer went about his preparations.
“271 for 3 is a good score, Captain,” said Boyer to Russell seated next to him. “I suppose you are headed for a mammoth total.”
“Yes, Sir. Something like 600 or thereabouts is what I foresee,” replied the captain haughtily “We entertain our visitors well as you will agree, I am sure.”
The manner of the reception accorded to him by Boyer at Jubbulpore not many weeks ago was still vivid in his memory.
“Smiles, please!” commanded the photographer. Everyone complied – Cotton sporting his most amiable, which was followed by a loud click and a muffled “Thank you,” from the man under the black cloth with his eye riveted to the camera lens.
The crowd dispersed for lunch. Elizabeth made her way to the opposite camp.
“You have to change your tactics, Bhuvan. This will just not do. Why don’t you make Kachra bowl?” Elizabeth was seated on a bench with the Champaner team members squatting around her.
“Memsahib, Kachra seems to have lost his ability to spin the ball,” protested the man seated at her feet.
“No, Bhuvan. It was my mistake that I did not mention to you about the inability of spinning a new ball. The ball is now old and Kachra would certainly be able to spin it. Why don’t you try him today?” insisted their well-wisher and unofficial coach.
“All right, Memsahib, I will make him bowl,” replied Bhuvan, not entirely convinced.
Umpires Neilson and Doherty walked in punctually to initiate proceedings of the post lunch session of the game, followed by the fielding side and the two not-out batsmen.
‘Now to get a double hundred and make that contemptible old man, squirm in his seat,’ said Russell to himself. He would have butchered many birds with a single stroke – the misplaced self-righteousness of his superiors, the arrogance of his disobedient sister, the indecent pride of that insignificant slave and his motley cohorts, and the apparently waning respect and confidence of his junior officers in his ability and decisions.
Bhuvan started the proceedings from one end and Deva from the other. Two uneventful overs were bowled by each, yielding 6 runs a piece to the batting team. The fielders were doing their best to restrict the flow of runs. The score was 295 for 3.
Of the last ball of the second over of Deva, it was Kachra who accomplished a smart save and threw the ball back to his captain with his crippled hand.
All this while, when the need was to make sharp and quick throws to the wicket-keeper or at the bowler’s end to prevent runs, he had used his better arm. Now, as the umpire had already called, “Over” and the want for promptness not being there, he had made an unhurried return.
The ball, which was more than a day and a half old, had become rough and worn. The innate spinning action of Kachra’s crippled hand made the ball spin sharply as it pitched, which made Bhuvan swerve hastily to one side to hold it.
A smile of delight blossomed on the captain’s face. He had regained his potent weapon. Elizabeth had been right. His heartfelt gratitude went out to the girl.
Kachra too was surprised at this literal turn of events. He too had believed that the knack to spin was lost to him. A depressing thought that he was merely an unnecessary and unproductive baggage being hauled by his team, had begun to gnaw at his heart.
“Come on, Kachra! You are bowling next,” called Bhuvan.
“Is he out of his head? Calling Kachra again to bowl after his pathetic performance of yesterday,” commented Bhura.
“Looks like the pressure has got to him,” opined Ishwar.
None, except Bhuvan had noticed the little incident that elicited this decision.
“More sumptuous fodder for our ravenous blades, eh?” remarked Russell winking at Wesson at the striker’s end. His partner smiled back.
Kachra bowled his first ball.
It pitched well outside the leg stump. The batsman initially made to sweep. Having taken guard in line with the off stump, he felt that the ball was too far to the leg to attempt one and decided to let it through to the keeper.
But the ball that pitched about two feet away from the line of the third stump, turned viciously, went around the dumbfounded batsmen’s legs, and felled the off stump.
Ten pairs of legs pummeled the torsos above them skywards. The breakthrough had been made. Optimism resurfaced after an over-extended submergence. There were whoops of sheer ecstasy. The crowd exploded into rapturous jollity.
“That ball spun more than three feet!” exclaimed Boyer.
“Stupendous!” put in Warren.
Cotton who had been sipping at a glass of water, choked on it, his naturally pink complexion turning red.
The giant score board read 295 runs for 4 wickets.
Edward Wesson, stood his ground for a long time, bat raised, legs apart, frozen in the stance of his aborted sweep. He could not believe that the ball could have behaved as it did.
Umpire Neilson waited a while to let the batsman walk away by his own volition, but seeing that this was not forthcoming raised his finger. The skeptical man had no further option but to depart shaking his head in bewilderment.
Richard North strutted in as the replacement.
“Steady, North. This man spins the ball nastily,” cautioned his captain.
Kachra, his mind spinning like the ball that he bowled last, was ready for the next one, gratification and anticipation chasing each other in circles.
The leather bound sphere in fading red, spun in its looping flight with out any lateral deviation but spun off the pitch with an enormous one. North was prepared for a slight turn, not a spiteful twist, which is what the ball did in line with the middle stump. It nicked the edge of the bat that was on its way to block it and flew towards the dependable and secure hands of the waiting slip fielder, Bhura, who made no mistake.
The overjoyed fielders took flight again, this time even higher. The audience did an encore.
Puran Singh was on his feet. “Bravo! Bravo!” he shouted uncharacteristically.
“Goodness gracious! This man is on a hat-trick. Unbelievable!” gasped Boyer. His normally serene face, bore all marks of extreme astonishment.
“Incredible!” chirped Warren, always thrifty with his comments though his facial expressions said a lot more.
Cotton who had hazarded another sip of water almost choked again but controlled himself. He was however in no state to join the verbal spree where opinions and remarks were circulating unreservedly, to his utter dismay.
Kachra was the cynosure of all eyes. The Raigadh team was reeling. They had slumped to 295 for 5.
North made a quick exit hardly looking up to see Benson pass by to take his place.
Alarm began to take root in Russell’s mind. Panic is something he had never known. Even when he had been facing death in the battle fields of the Middle East. He was always prepared for defeat, an eventuality that in his reckoning did not exist in the present context.
The new batsman took guard.
“Smother the spin, Benson. Come to the pitch of the ball,” advised Russell. It was the very measure that Benson was contemplating and was glad that his captain too counseled him so.
“Buck up, Kachra! Do it once again!” the fielders yelled encouragingly.
The crowd screamed “Kachra! Kachra!”
The bowler hurried through his run up and angled one in. Having decided on the counter measure, the batsman charged. The angle of the delivery coupled with the acute turn, took the ball further away from the advancing batsman who missed it by a wide margin. Ishwar was alert. He gathered neatly and broke the stumps.
Kachra had done it.
He had done a hat-trick, never having known what it was. Before he could comprehend his situation, he was riding the shoulders of three of his mates doing a little victory lap close to the wicket.
The mood of the crowd had to be seen to be believed. Spirits soared as high as the sparse white clouds that dotted the azure sky.
All in the pavilion were up on their feet, clapping and acknowledging this accomplishment. In the span of three balls, this man who hardly knew the game had brought a team of regular cricketers down to their knees, single-handedly.
“He has done it!” whispered Boyer, amazement overwhelming him. Warren just shook his head. Cotton, who had taken the precaution of returning the glass of water to the tray on the table ahead, was at a loss for words for the first time.
Russell stood at the bowler’s end watching open mouthed. They had now plummeted to 295 for 6. But he was not a man to give up so easily. While Harrison marched across to fill in for North, Russell worked out an alternative strategy.
“Do not rush into the stroke, Harrison. Wait for the ball to spin and come to you. Go on your back foot,” explained he to the new striker.
This time his plan proved effective. Harrison waited for the next ball and at the last minute flicked it to his right to take a single. One unproductive delivery later, Russell adopted the same design to flick the ball past a diving fielder for a four. The scored had limped up to 300 for 6. There was a short and unenthusiastic round of applause for the batting team having reached this milestone.
“Gurran, you have a go now,” said Bhuvan, throwing the ball to the genial giant.
“Harrison! This man has a variation-less attack. I have faced him yesterday. If you cope with the first, you can deal with them all.
“Listen, O ye leathery lump! Go and shatter the batsman’s stump!”
Standing with his bowling arm outstretched at the striker, Gurran, for whom being theatrical was rather normal, blew a loud incantation at the ball.
The bowling was indeed prosaic. Harrison stepped out and clobbered it past the fence behind the bowler for a six.
“That is it, Harrison. Now that you know, it is your show,” commended Russell.
The bowler was unmoved. Another shrill incantation, another ball, a similar shot, and it was another six.
Gurran had made a note of the batsman’s tendency to step a long way out of his crease to hit the ball. He resolved to beat this white man at his own game. The enemy may have mastered his style but not his guile.
“Come on, pale-face!” he taunted, “Come on. Hit this if you can.”
Harrison had been baited. He took a couple of steps forward to heave the next one too past the ropes. But the ball flew over his head straight into the waiting hands of the wicket-keeper - Ishwar, who promptly whipped the bails off.
“Of you go, pale-face! The way you came!” thundered Gurran standing in the middle of the pitch. If anyone could picture Time as a Destroyer, then this was it. Long unkempt hair and beard fluttering in the breeze; sharp uneven teeth lining an open mouth from which issued forth a terrible roar; piercing round eyes that discharged streaks of lightning at the victim; legs spread far apart that made little difference to the height of the tall well built frame; a clenched fist raised to the sky and the index-finger of the other outstretched arm pointing to the one who has been destroyed. The next moment however, he was the warm and gracious Gurran again, surrounded by his excited teammates.
Ram Singh’s thrilled voice was reverberating through the megaphone, “The Raigadh team has lost yet another wicket. Their tally now is 312 for 7. The end of the innings is imminent.”
Russell was loosing his cool. Watching a steady procession of batsmen at the other end was irritating enough. Here was his own underling gloating over their debacle.
“I will show this man his place very soon,” muttered he.
Flynn took his turn at the wicket.
One more run was scored of the last delivery of Gurran’s over, rendering Russell to remain at the non-striker’s end yet again. The total stood at 313 for 7.
Kachra was once more at the helm. Russell desisted from imparting any suggestion. His thoughts still dwelt on Ram Singh and his infidelity.
Flynn attempted to smash the ball past the ropes like his predecessor only to have it airborne in a direction opposite to that he intended. Baga was under it, a model of concentration, all organs of the senses open and quivering. All eyes were fixed upon him. Every heartbeat queried rhythmically, ‘Will he... Won’t he... Will he... Won’t he...,’ for a while and then suddenly made a sudden leap and stopped ‘He did it!’
Jigni, who had buried her face in her palms, unable to face the possibility of yet another fiasco, was nudged by Gauri to convey the end of her ordeal. Her eyes opened to the unforgettable spectacle of her sweetheart doing an extended jig across the length of the field in childish abandon.
It was 313 for 8. Wickets were falling at such a rapid pace that a fresh round of celebration started even before the earlier one had abated. Major Cotton was constantly on his toes, constantly muttering, not really worried whether anyone was listening.
The batsmen having crossed over while the ball was in the air during the preceding delivery, it was Russell to take strike, and the new man in Willis was at the non-striker’s end.
Five runs were scored of the remaining five balls of Kachra’s over, a single being taken of the last ball. This made the tally 318 for 8, Russell once again retaining strike.
Deciding that the rival captain was too crafty a customer for Gurran, Bhuvan decided to take the mantle upon himself. The first four deliveries were evenly contested with no runs accruing. On the fifth, the bowler strayed a bit and was promptly punished with a hit to the boundary.
For the last delivery, both captains had their own game plan. While one wanted to take a single to keep the strike, the other wanted him to go for the fence as that would give the next bowler an opportunity to target the weaker batsman. The result turned out to be a potpourri that was ultimately advantageous to the bowler.
Bhuvan deliberately sent in a loose ball inviting Russell to hit. The batsman consented, but in two minds, that resulted in a skied shot that lacked the clout to carry it beyond the ropes. Russell ran to complete a run and Willis backed up. Arjan was positioned below the descending orb, a yard inside the fence.
There were wild yells of, “Hold it, Arjan!”
They needn’t have worried over the outcome. The hands that wielded hammer and tongs through the years were more than strong and steady to hold a mere ball. While Bhuvan and the other fielders celebrated their conquest in midfield, Arjan disappeared under an impassioned mob at the boundary.
By force of habit, Puran Singh had almost removed his glittering multi-strand pearl-necklace as he would normally have, had been in his court, to give it away as a reward at getting this bully out. It was a momentary aberration that was quickly curtailed as the awareness of his present environs returned.
A grand innings had come to a close. There was great rejoicing that did not seem to be as striking as the earlier ones. It was perhaps because the preceding ones had followed a long period of depression and the sudden change in the atmosphere had made them sound louder and seem more effervescent.
The Raigadh cantonment players walked up to the fence to applaud their captain and escort him back to the pavilion. The score had reached 322 for 9.
Yardley was the last man in and faced Deva. It was just a formality to be completed. The bowler’s first ball uprooted the middle stump sending it cartwheeling beyond the wicket-keeper’s position.
“They have collapsed like a pack of cards,” said Warren in bewilderment.
“Collapsed like nine pins in a bowling alley would be a better allegory, I guess,” chimed in Cotton.
The last 8 overs and a ball had seen 27 runs scored and 7 wickets taken. Something beyond even the wildest of imaginations.
The men of team Champaner were falling one over the other, forming a human mound with flaying arms and legs. Ram Singh’s voice boomed announcing the end of the Raigadh team’s innings and the anticipated start of that of the Champaner team.
The men who mattered were gathered in the tent. The chiefs of the five villages, elders of the community and the Champaner team members. A little time was spent in banter about the happenings since the morning. A loud clearing of the throat by the Mukhiya announced that what was to follow demanded seriousness, and silence immediately descended upon the gathering.
“We have got them out in a day and a half. That is all very well. But in the remaining time, can we get the required 323 runs to win this match? It appears too daunting,” began Dalpat Chauhan.
“Yes. We can indeed do it,” said Bhuvan in all confidence. “We have to play according to a plan. The responsibility of making those runs rests upon seven of us – Deva, Baga, Arjan, Ismail, Lakha, Gurran, and myself. The rest are a little weak in batting.”
There were murmurs of affirmation at this enumeration.
“So, Deva and I will open the innings and stay unbeaten until the end of the day. The tally that we are able to put up will determine the course of action for tomorrow. Do you all agree to this general idea?” enquired the captain of his team.
“Yes, I suppose that is the best option,” answered Ismail speaking on behalf of the others.
The umpires made their way to the centre again. Ram Singh went through the ritual of proclamation. Captain Russell led his team to the ground and the two batsmen of the opposing team entered the field from the other end.
Elizabeth was sitting alone in a corner of the pavilion. She wanted seclusion. To be able to think about Bhuvan. Her Bhuvan. Her heart skipped a beat as he entered the arena – Confident; Inspiring; Fearless and regal. ‘My prayers are with you, Bhuvan. Win the match for your village, for your team, for us. For us Bhuvan,’ she thought fervently.
Shouts of ‘Our sinews we urge, we go, we surge’ reverberated all around.
Yardley opened the bowling for the Raigadh team. Facing him was Bhuvan.
The first ball was dispatched to the boundary in disdain by the batsman in response to the verbal and gestural taunts of the opposition, but the second had him almost edging the ball to the wicket keeper due to a thoughtless and over-confident swipe.
“Easy, Bhuvan. Don’t take their bait. Control yourself,” called Deva from the other end.
The captain realized the disaster that he would have pushed his team and people into had he got out. He nodded at Deva and resolved to turn a deaf ear to the continuing heckling.
The two played steadily, Bhuvan playing the role of a sheet-anchor and Deva the controlled aggressor. Barring minor hiccups, the score began to rise gradually.
The team had posted their half-century following a hit to the fence by Deva. The crowd cheered and Ram Singh was particularly elated as he announced this, the ball going past, very close to the spot that he stood, with Russell in hot pursuit. The announcer became a target of the frustration of the chaser being unable to field it. He was already a marked man and all the constrained wrath spurted out in a violent act. Ram Singh was slapped soundly and squarely on the face by his master, sending the megaphone flying and the minion staggering backwards.
He had suffered humiliation innumerable times before, but never in public. This was something that his self-respect could not tolerate. The reaction to the provocation was instantaneous. Staring back at the commandant, Ram Singh removed his ceremonial turban, which was a symbol of his position in the administrational hierarchy and also of his servitude, and threw it down at his feet. The village chiefs and elders had rushed to the spot and stood around him. Ram Singh held up the hand of his friend Dalpat Chauhan and shouted, “Our sinews we urge, we go, we surge,” as a gesture of defiance.
“Hurdles overcome, victorious emerge!” responded those around him in unison. There was a time when they cringed at this white man’s approach, were petrified in his presence.
Not any more. Never again.
“All right, Ram Singh, All right,” said Russell in a voice filled with hatred, as he began to walk away.
“That was totally uncalled for,” said Major Cotton jumping up. He would have gone on loudly with his criticism of Russell’s behaviour but for an imperceptible gesture from Colonel Boyer restraining him. Cotton gave the impression of a frivolous person with his garrulous behavior, but his allegiance to fair play and etiquette were as strong as those of Boyer were.
Play resumed after this little incident and the score had reached 71 for no loss. Deva was at the threshold of a personal landmark. He was on 49. It was a Smith over with Bhuvan facing. What followed was so unexpected that it took even the umpire a few moments to make his decision.
Smith bowled over the wicket and Bhuvan drove along the ground intending to get it past the bowler, who dived to his right on his follow through, to cut it off. The ball was deflected off the fingers of the diving man towards the stumps at the bowler’s end, colliding with them and dislodging the bails. Deva who had set off for a run immediately after the batsman’s drive was caught stranded outside his crease.
After a couple of perplexed moments, the fielders gleefully appealed and a few more thoughtful moments later, umpire Doherty’s finger went up. Deva’s fate was sealed.
The beaten man was not so much heartbroken for not having reached his half-century, as he was for letting his team down. Individual milestones had always mattered little to him.
Even the fielders were subdued in their celebrations, so disciplined had been his game and his conduct.
“Oh, dear. What a pity,” sighed Boyer.
“Just when we were beginning to enjoy this absorbing fight-back. What else, but a quirk of destiny,” Cotton was more eloquent but genuinely so.
A silence that attends an obsequy spread across a stunned crowd. They were at a loss even to understand why Deva had been given out, until Ram Singh explained the rationale over the megaphone. The former valet of the commandant had shed his official attire and donned that of a simple villager, continuing as an informal announcer.
The score was 71 for 1.
Arjan made his way to the middle, his bulging biceps radiating an aura of unbridled power. Russell and Smith recognized their former farrier.
“Isn’t he the same misbehaving rascal?” asked Russell.
“Yes, Sir, the very same,” answered his deputy.
“The man is highly temperamental. Incite him into doing something suicidal,” advised the captain.
Smith turned to Arjan and spat out menacingly in the local tongue, “Just you wait and see what happens to you after this match. You will get thrashed repeatedly, the way you were the other day by the Captain.”
The biting words had their immediate effect. Arjan’s eyes became bloodshot. His hairs stood on end. He gnashed his teeth in fury.
The first ball that he faced from Smith faced the brunt of his ferocity, as it raced like a bullet to the fence. All that the fielders could do was watching it.
“Go on, keep at it, Smith,” said Russell.
“You will slither like a vermin under our boots, you scoundrel,” growled Smith walking up to the batsman, his face inches from that of his adversary.
“Be cool, Arjan. They are trying to provoke you into doing something foolish. Calm yourself!” yelled an alarmed Bhuvan from the other end.
The next ball from the bowler received a similar treatment with a comparable result as the one before.
Smith did not need the goading of his captain for further verbal abuse. Having been hit to the fence on consecutive balls had raised his shackles as well. “I will surely extract three times the normal tax from you!” he yelled from the other end before walking back to begin his run up.
Arjan once again responded in kind sending the ball crashing into the fence. That made three successive fours. The score had rushed on to 83 for 1.
Smith was livid. He also realized that he had already lured his victim on the path of self-destruction. He just had to persist a little more. There was one ball remaining of his over and he hoped to accomplish the task set by his captain within it.
“You and your family will be wandering like animals, naked and hungry!” he yelled as a preamble to his next delivery.
“Keep calm, Arjan! Keep calm. Do not get carried away.”
The desperate shouts of Bhuvan were falling on selectively deaf ears. The batsman was quivering with rage having let it overpower him and take command of all his senses and his ability to reason. The bat swung violently one more time but with no control. The ball went high up instead of angling towards the boundary. North quickly positioned himself under it and completed a fairly simple catch.
It was perhaps good for Arjan that he got out when he did. Had the skirmish continued, it would have led to something quite unsavory. The loss of his wicket brought him back to his senses. Comprehension dawned and the awareness of the enormity of his idiocy began to crush him. He averted his eyes from those of the condescendingly smiling Smith and the worried and reproachful Bhuvan. Spent and dejected he started on his long march back to the shadows where sharp accusatory stares welcomed him. Another pillar that proffered a promise of support to the hopes of the gathered multitudes had crumbled to dust.
“Good work, Smith,” Russell congratulated his deputy. For the Captain, this was war. And all was fair. History never remembered the vanquished. It only eulogized the victors and the commandant had no doubts about which of these tags he wanted for himself and his men.
While the predisposed camps were immersed in their respective emotions, the unbiased and colorless scoreboard proclaimed the present status of the match to be 83 for 2.
“Your turn, Lakha. Do not let your wicket fall until the end of play today.”
It was the Mukhiya, whose voice sounded abnormally loud in the unnatural silence. The lanky man, who had redeemed himself in the eyes of his people – and more importantly those of his own, joined Bhuvan at the wicket. Bhuvan having swapped sides before Arjan’s catch was taken of the last ball of the previous over, Lakha was to be the striker for a fresh over.
“Knock his bloody head off, Yardley! This double crosser deserves it,” muttered Russell, tossing the ball to his leading bowler.
The imminence of violence that was felt before Arjan was out, returned again with full force. It was palpable in the air, conspicuous in the countenance of the players, obvious in the absolute hush that pervaded the environs, blatant in the racing heartbeats of the two batsmen.
The running footsteps of Yardley resonated like drumbeats in the stillness. He let the ball go at a searing pace, aiming it neither at the stumps nor the pitch but at the batsman’s head. It was uncannily accurate. The man stood there one moment and in the next was a heap along with the stumps that he had shattered.
There was a gruesome wound on his right temple where the ball had struck. Lakha had paid for his double treachery with blood and his sins were washed away as it streamed down his pain-contorted face.
The Raigadh-eleven gathered around at a distance surveying the fallen man. There were no smiles, no clapping, and no congratulatory repartee. They glared as they would at a prey that they had collectively hunted.
Bhuvan had rushed in from the other end to raise the tottering man to his feet.
“It is all right, Lakha, you have done your bit while fielding this morning. Go and tend to your wound.” The gallant captain tried to comfort his mate, as the injured man hobbled away.
Team Champaner were at 83 for 3.
“That was a nasty one,” mumbled Boyer.
“Grit alone cannot carry an innings. It needs technique as well. I suppose you were not in a position to impart that to the village team,” commented Cotton looking at Elizabeth.
The girl, though resenting what was said, knew it to be true. If she had not encouraged the innocent and sincere villagers so eagerly, may be things would not have come to such a pass.
Baga waited bat in hand for Lakha to exit the field before going in himself. On beholding the blood-drenched face of his comrade, the mute became infuriated, letting out blood-curdling roars of rage. It was in such a state of frenzy that he reached the wicket.
“Calm down, Baga. Calm down!” shouted Bhuvan. Over the last two overs, his role at the wicket had been reduced to that of being a helpless spectator at one end vainly attempting to diffuse extreme agitation at the other.
Baga was drowned in the sound of his own inhuman growls, to hear anything else. He belted the first ball that he faced for a six. The second fared no better. But extraordinary happenings by definition being rarities, his third attempt at a repetition resulted in his leg stump being uprooted.
It was 95 for 4.
‘Why is it that good sense always prevails after the damage is done?’ wondered Bhuvan gazing at the chastised Baga, remorse oozing from every pore, treading away, shoulders slumped and head bent.
The very air seemed to hold its breath. Not a leaf swayed. Not an insect buzzed. Not a bird chirped. The local team was reeling.
The sight of the calm and equanimous Ismail brought down by a few rungs, the unbearable levels of tension that Bhuvan’s mind had been subjected to. With him around, there would at least be a little while to reflect, to outline a new strategy to counter the unyielding bowling of the opposition.
Yardley advanced for the fifth time in his already unusually long over. The bitterness of being hit for two sixes by Baga was still rankling him despite having taken his wicket and the little leftover malice was packed in the delivery. Ismail, who was a comparatively slow starter made a feeble but failed effort at defense. The ball got his left heel on the full. The batsmen collapsed, as would a tree that has been axed from its base.
From the manner of his reaction, it appeared that his heel bone had been dislodged. Bhuvan was with the wounded man in an instant. Realizing the seriousness of the damage, he signaled towards the tent for help.
The only silver lining in the otherwise utterly dark prospect was that Ismail’s fall had not been close to his stumps that remained intact. If he were to be better tomorrow, which was only an improbable conjecture, he would be able to take the crease again. If this possibility were to be discounted then the team was precariously perched at 95 for 5. It required no great skill of deduction or power of imagination to construe that a gentle shove was all that was required to send team Champaner hurtling down into the abyss of defeat.
Hafiz Mohammad commandeered a cot and rushed out to bring his son back along with the Mukhiya, Baga, and Gurran, the cot playing the part of a stretcher.
The pace of events was much too fast for any one’s comprehension. There was another delivery to go of Yardley’s apparently never ending over.
Knowing that this would in all probability be the last ball of the day and meaning to conserve Gurran for the next day, Bhuvan sent word with the Mukhiya to send Ishwar in.
A part of the medicine man quavered. When men almost twenty years younger than him found it difficult to face the terrible bowler, how could he? If he were to be hurt, it would take a long time for his body that was beginning to show signs of aging, to cope.
Though Bhuvan had tried to be discreet, Ishwar had known and appreciated the fact that during the practice sessions he had been shielded by all his comrades from workouts that were too strenuous. They had trust in his capacity to stand together with them when the need arose. The need was now and he would not betray that trust.
Yardley charged in. The ball crashed into the batsman’s right pad, dodging the driving bat. There was a loud appeal for a leg before wicket decision. Bhuvan’s heart was in his throat. So were those of every one else. Umpire Doherty took his time, replayed the sequence in his mind, and shook his head.
The fielders sighed; there was no strength in all the others to do even that. Relief, though very temporary, flooded over, when the umpire called end of play on the second day.
The scoreboard read 99 for 4.
End of Chapter 9