“And who will help me in the house?” Mother cried.
Muthu turned a deaf ear to Mother’s cries as he brought down a brass tumbler from a tiny alcove in the kitchen. He took a huge gulp of water and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He spat out a few cardamom seeds that had entered his mouth along with the water. It was his grandmother’s habit to toss a few pods of cardamom after boiling water, and it was this habit that her mother had brought into this house. Some people never change.
“Muthu, the priest has agreed to teach you to read and write, and you must do something useful with your life!” Mother paused here to see if her words had any effect on Muthu’s mind, but discovering the opposite quickly, she turned to her everlasting lament:
“Oh, what will I do with a son in the playing field? How will you earn money if you spend your childhood playing games?”
Muthu merely walked out of the kitchen. He wanted to remind his mother that many footballers were millionaires, but he refrained, very well knowing that she would cruelly tell him that they all had some talent for the game, whereas Muthu did not.
He took eager strides down the road, to where Samuel and David lived. He admired the statue of the Virgin Mary in the lawn. He put his fingers to his lips and made a whistling sound which mimicked the birds’ calls. He repeated this sound thrice, before Samuel appeared, clutching a tattered football. David followed with the wooden sticks which they used instead of goalposts.
They all made their way to Kannan’s house, and then they half-walked, half-ran to Dilip’s house. Then they collected the two sons of the Sarpanch, whom they considered the inferior players, but they dared not tell them, as they owned the grassy square plot that was their playing field.
These boys formed the Kumarakom United. They would have like to play with eleven players, but they had not found anyone “worthy enough”, as Muthu, the captain, put it.
As they approached the field they found a group of little boys playing cricket in it. Kannan, the oldest and largest boy, made it very clear to them about what he was capable of if he was angered, and the poor boys left without a word.
They waited for five minutes for the Kumarakom FC to arrive, and between the two teams the match began. United won with a lead of 5-1. They were clearly the stronger team. In fact, they considered themselves the strongest under-15 team in the district, possibly the state- they had won the Open District Tournament thrice, and were even the defending champions at the State Tournament. However, they had not been allowed to take part in the national tournaments, as none of them had ever seen the inside of a school, except the Sarpanch’s boys, and the national level authorities only permitted school teams to participate.
“Muthu, I can’t come next Sunday.” Samuel said, “Christmas is drawing near, and my mother wants me to help out in the house.” Joshua could not come either, and the Sarpanch’s boys had exams at school. The other boys saw no sense in playing in threes, so they dismissed practice until the New Year.
The footballers gathered near the pond. They were amused to find Muthu fooling around with a set of marbles. They sat on the clayey mud and began teasing him. “Muthu is the baby who is playing with marbles!” “Shut up, you dimwits. Listen to my marvellous plan.” Here Muthu looked up and was satisfied to see six curious pairs of eyes looking at him fixedly. Using green marbles to denote Kumarakom United, and blue ones to denote Alleppey FC, he briefly outlined the tactics he had in mind for their first match of that year’s Open District Tournament. The boys praised strategies greatly. “Here was a boy,” they all thought, “who has never really grasped the basic concepts of Mathematics; and yet he is drawing up game plans that could put the greatest football coaches to shame!” Theirs was a tiny world.
“Muthu,” Kannan spoke, “What is the use of elaborate game plans, and rigorous practice, when we have already done as much as we can?”
Muthu nodded his head gently in assent. Samuel did not know what to make of this, and he asked Muthu the question he had been dreading since the first time they had been told that they would not be allowed to play in the national tournaments:
“Should we stop now?”
And to this Muthu gave the reply he had been replaying in his head over and over again:
“No. We can only go skywards from here.”
Kannan, the wily boy, led them all the way to huge bungalow that nestled in a huge plantation by the side of the river. Samuel had once unwittingly mentioned the tiny boat his father owned, and Muthu and Kannan were only too eager to pull it out from his backyard, and take it all the way down to the river, much to Samuel’s protest. Kannan had paddled this boat against the river current for a distance of six miles, from the part of the river near their village to this bungalow, and he was covered in a layer of glistening sweat. He anchored the boat to a tree with a sturdy rope. They all quietly climbed out of the boat, not out of politeness but out of trepidation. There were only four of them-Kannan, Muthu, Samuel and Dilip. The Sarpanch’s sons and Joshua had chickened out, and Joshua had even threatened them saying he would remind his father of the boat, but he had been bought off with a fistful of animal-shaped sugar candy.
These four made their way to the huge bungalow and went through their plan. “Remember our positions: Dilip near the doorbell, Samuel at the goal kept in the lawn, Kannan near the other end, and me next to him.” They took their positions. Kannan placed the ball fervently on the ground, and Samuel kissed the little cross that hung from his chain.
Dilip rang the doorbell. A tune blared through the house, and an athletic man opened the door. “Yes?” He asked, and Dilip pointed towards Muthu in reply. Kannan began dribbling the ball down the lawn towards the goal, and Muthu took the ball from him and drove it further. At this point Dilip joined them. Muthu kicked the ball towards him. It went high in the air, and Dilip was stopped its movement with his head. He kicked it back to Muthu, who had gained considerable distance, and was only a few feet away from the goal. He redirected the ball towards the goal. Joshua, the expert goalie, blocked it superbly, and this concluded their little show. They turned to see the man standing by the door.
He smiled. “I recognise you now,” he said. He went back into the house and brought back a newspaper and showed it to the boys. They identified their own faces now, occupying a tiny portion of the sports page. ‘Kumarakom United emerge champions again.’ The title said, but the boys would not know this. Kannan traced his finger along the letters, and the man realised that they could not read. He read it out to them, and they smiled proudly.
Back home, Samuel narrated the story with great detail to the other members of his team. “Naresh Kumar, the captain of the Kerala Warriors?” “Naresh Kumar, who fears no goalie?” “Did Naresh Kumar really agree to be our coach?”
“Yes, he did.”
8 years later.
Muthu wheeled over to the empty cupboard that had held his national level medal. He looked at the circular spot that had gathered dust differently than the rest of the shelf. That’s where it had been, until he had sold it to pay for his surgeries.
“Yes, we should probably stop now,” Was the last thing he had thought before Kannan had driven their motorbike into the back of that unforgiving truck.
He had only gone skyward from there.
Ananya G Upadhya, aged thirteen, studies in Grade 7 of Sri Kumaran Children’s Home, Mallasandra.