Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Locker Room

This is Safdar's.

When Swayam Patel felt a slight tug behind his right knee while stretching before the all-important final, he knew that it was something which was not supposed to happen. He sat down in slow motion and cautiously dug his fingertips into the flesh. It did not hurt, but it did not feel great either.
 He was a lad of twenty one, with a most endearing smile, and a gentle tuft of hair protruding from his chin on an otherwise spotless face suggesting that he’d never felt the need for using the razor on his skin- very different from the face you’d expect a merciless striker, who was the biggest name on the University circuit to have. If one looked at him strolling down the street, he could easily be mistaken for a school student who loved math and was going to appear for his tenth standard final examinations. It was, in fact, right about that time when he had to choose between appearing for his board exams and attending the National under-18 trials, when he realised that all that mattered to him in life, was playing hockey. Hailing from a conservative Gujarati family which expected him to take care of his family business as soon as he got out of school, getting this thought across to them had not been easy. But he was no good at math, nor could he remember names of customers, and he refused to learn anything about bathroom fittings. He’d hardly left his family with an option other than let him do the only thing he could.
He looked around the locker room at players who were busy warming up, the first spots of sweat appearing on their foreheads, and his thoughts went back to the day he sat all alone in a corner crying his guts out after an inter-house match back in school. His mother had passed away the previous day, and nobody in his family understood why it was so important for him to play a match that people skipped when they were down with cough. He had probably played only to take his mind off his mother, he had thought later, but there was a strange fatality that he had attached to that match back then. He had had abuses hurled at him from the opposition team throughout the match. Whispers also went around that he had faked his mother’s death to garner sympathy. He hammered five goals that day, a middle school record.
Casting these thoughts aside, he sprang up and got on his feet, he wouldn’t let anything get the better of him today, and tried walking around.  With every step that he took, he felt a slight niggle, but no major pain. He sat down again and absent-mindedly wrapped his palm around the Toofaan, a gift that his great grandfather had given him when he was shorter than the hockey stick itself.  The canvas grip had been replaced by foam, the stickers had given way to imprints made when dirt sticks on to the glue left behind by stickers, but the hockey stick itself was just the way it was when he had first laid his hands on it.
The coach called out for a last-minute pep talk, and everyone huddled around the chalk board. The strategy was to hold back during the first half, play the lone striker and play long balls to him, depending on him to convert and get the early break, after which they’d step it up and go all out. He drew stick figures and criss-crossed through the board, marking out what would be a flawless seventy minutes if the match went on the lines drawn on the board. The players could hear the buzz outside, the entire University had come out for the finals. Glucose was passed around, along with thumps on the back, and the odd come-on. Swayam glanced at the smiley that blinked on his phone screen as a text message and tried to think of all the nice things that had ever happened to him. He thought of Priya, who was in the stands, it would be the first time she’d see him play. He thought of her smile, he tried to pretend like it didn’t make him nervous. He felt the scar on his left elbow. It had become smooth over the years, fingers almost glided over it. He remembered how he’d got it, one of the first memories of the field for him. He thought of the Number 8 jersey, and how no one had touched it in his absence. He thought of how he was allowed to bunk the first three periods for practice during school for two years every day, because he was their star player and the school wanted to claim support when he finally made it big. Yet, somehow, this match held a lot of significance for him. He was back on the field after an enormous gap of a year and a half, and he had a lot to prove to his team and himself, a burden he’d almost become accustomed with over the years.
The team ran out to a huge roar all across the field. Their yellow jerseys shone brightly as they took their positions and waited for the referee’s whistle. Swayam looked all around, noticed a familiar smile, ran down the pitch and felt that the stage was finally his. The game started, he darted down the turf, in an opening move which had been rehearsed over and over again in the locker room. The ball was lobbed to him, he received it on the face of the stick, faked a flick and drove the ball between the defender’s feet, moving to his right while he threw the opponent off, and then pulling it back in spectacularly, while stretching for the drag. He felt the ball under his eyes and in front of his right toe, in perfect position for the end strike, and as he lumbered up, his right knee gave in, making him collapse onto the ground.
In the few moments between the whistle blowing, and him being lifted off the ground, he knew it was all over. He knew he wasn’t supposed to return to sport for another six months, he knew the ligament had torn again, he knew how it felt. He had just heard his life pop under his breath.
In the haze that followed, a familiar face was spotted hovering around, only without the smile, clutching the Toofaan very close to her, while Swayam Patel let out a sigh.

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