December 29, 2019 6:01:25 am
By Amrita Mahale
Sheetal surveyed the coupled names in the entrance foyer of Galaxy Saraswati.
101. Mr Harshit Rathi and Mrs Sheetal Rathi
102. Dr Suraj Fernandes and Dr (Mrs.) Alisha Fernandes
201. Mr Ravikumar Nambiar and Mrs Sumitra Ravikumar
202. Mr Puneet Hingorani and Mrs Bindiya P Hingorani
And so on. The wooden board hummed with fairness and order, names perched on it in neat pairs.
All but one. Flat 504. Mr Anirudh Iyer. Ms Neha Rao.
Now, Sheetal Rathi thought of herself as a feminist. It was she who had convinced the society committee to start giving every flat two slots on the board that displayed the names of residents: one each for husband and wife. Eighteen years ago, this request had caused a flutter. Sheetal the new bride, with half-a-dozen red-and-white choodas glistening on each wrist, had insisted on attending a committee meeting just three days after returning from her honeymoon. She had reminded the committee that they were in the 21st century, not in 1921. The men of the committee had looked at each other, prayed for a note of protest to rise above the chham-chham of her bangles, but when none came they were forced to release the funds for a new slotted wooden board that would hold twice as many names. Eight months later, Sheetal had become the first woman on the committee and for three years she had remained the only female representative across the four buildings in the housing society; all four named, incidentally, after river-goddesses. Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati, Narmada.
Sheetal was waiting in the foyer for her team to show up for cricket practice. Galaxy Premier League was only a week away: she was the captain of one of the two women’s teams. Every December, the four buildings that comprised Galaxy Housing Society competed in a cricket tournament, the GPL. This year, the tournament had been thrown open to women. But over a hundred flats put together had yielded only two women’s teams. Why can’t we do it in the new year, many families had protested, we have already booked our holiday tickets.
Neha Rao was the other captain. She and her husband had moved into the building eleven months ago and she had quickly joined the society committee. Neha was a professional dissenter, a ball of chaos from the very first meeting. And it seemed to Sheetal that Neha reserved her strongest disapproval for her ideas. Who could have a problem with CCTVs in every corridor? With a Women’s Day fun fair? Or requiring all new tenants to be vetted by the committee first? Mrs. Iyer could, thought Sheetal acidly. How did her little frame hold so many questions, so many objections? Fresh blood, the older men said, Neha has so many good ideas. They were fools.
Sheetal had wanted a cap on the age of participants in the GPL. Neha had strongly opposed that, too, and had prevailed. But, for this, Sheetal was glad, for the strongest player on her team was the 62-year-old Alisha Fernandes, her next-door neighbour and a sensation with the bat. Sheetal looked at her watch again. Five minutes past six. The rest of her team were wastrels: Alisha aunty had a nephew’s engagement to attend but where were the other eight?
She walked towards the parking area where the other team was still practicing. A 16-year old from Galaxy Narmada was their coach. A chubby woman wearing a red cap was on strike, a younger runner standing next to her. Three fours in a row. The runner had nothing to do, but give the batsman a high-five after each shot.
Wait, what was this? That was Alisha aunty in the red cap, exchanging high-fives with Neha!
“Aunty? You had a family function today, no?”
“Yes, yes, Sheetal, I am just leaving,” she said sheepishly. “Neha suggested that I practise with their team instead of missing a full day. I’ll see you at the morning session tomorrow. Bye, girls.”
“Bye, champ.” Neha winked at Alisha aunty, who blew her a kiss.
All evening, she fumed, cloves and pepper in her blood. The next morning, Sheetal went to talk to her neighbor.
“Aunty, you can’t practise with them. They want to study your game and find your weaknesses.”
“But Sheetal, look at the IPL — every team has players from all countries. They then have to play against each other in international cricket matches, no? You think Virat Kohli will score fewer centuries against South Africa because he and AB de Villiers play on the same IPL team?”
Alisha aunty has gone mad, she thought, she thinks she is Virat Kohli.
“But please be careful, you are our star player. Our secret weapon.”
“I am flattered but it’s just a game, child. What weapon-sheppon? Look at me, picking up a new hobby at sixty-two.”
Later, she called her mother, like she did every Sunday morning. Her mother, who was just a year older than Alisha aunty, had no hobbies other than charting the fortunes of the people she knew.
“Beta, we just found out that the man whom Simran maasi’s daughter is marrying is a divorcee. A divorcee with a six-year old. How much she taunted me when you decided to not work after Arhaan was born. This is how god sets these arrogant people straight.”
For women like her mother, simmering grudges were most likely to be settled in someone else’s battlefield, in the middle of somebody else’s war. You were unarmed, your opponent too strong and safe. You could only wait till a passing arrow, any arrow, hit your enemy. Then you rejoiced. But Sheetal had decided a long time ago that she could, and would, fight her own battles.
The week passed. Christmas lights went up in many windows. The day of the match arrived. The other team went first. Their women fell like pins, but Neha, the captain and opener, remained unbeaten at 31. Fifty-three runs on the board.
Arhaan looked up half-heartedly from his phone to give his mother a thumbs-up. A team huddle to kick things off. How’s the josh, Sheetal cried. High sir, her team bellowed back. Fifty-four runs was easy.
First up was Alisha aunty. Two runs, then two fours and a six. Seventeen runs after the first over. Easy. But at 26 runs, their star misjudged her shot. The ball went up and outside the nets, missing the top of the nets by a few inches. OUT!
They lost three more wickets quickly. Thirty-five for four. Sheetal was the last of the batsmen. After her were the runts of the team. As she walked to the crease, she saw Arhaan in the audience, glued to his phone. His father was nowhere to be seen. You have to play a captain’s innings, she reminded herself.
The runs kept piling up, slowly. Ones and twos and lots of dots. She kept the boat steady. No, she was getting the battleship ready. Her heart hammering, tingling at the ends of her fingers. Across the pitch stood Neha, frowning.
They needed three more runs in two balls. Sheetal hit the ball hard and ran across. The fielder fumbled. There was time to run back. Come on, come on, focus, focus, Neha yelled at her team. The audience cheered. Even Arhaan was watching.
Only one run to win. This one is for order, Sheetal said to herself. Neha stood a few feet away from the net with her hands cupped like a lotus. For the old year to go on just a bit longer. The hard thwack of bat against ball, a red comet against the sky. For me. Neha leapt up to catch it but the ball went up, up, up.
(Amrita Mahale is the author of Milk Teeth)
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