The Cracked Ball
by Charles G. Chettiar
The ball sat on the parapet, disfigured and shapeless; it awaited succour in the sun. The sun had reached its zenith, and Palu stood, watching the ball miraculously become its full size again.
“It will become full again,” he told his friends.
He had taken out the ball kept locked inside his house, and had tried playing football, a game he had seen on cable TV but not yet tried. He saw rugby-playing classmates, watching them from afar. He didn’t join in, appalled by the violence of the game. He stood outside the basketball court talking with like-minded students about things scientific.
He never believed that he would have a football but, during his cousin’s last visit, his cousin had brought it and given it to Palu. This cousin was a good decade older than Palu; he worked in the Gulf. Palu didn’t know exactly what work his cousin did, but his parents loved this cousin as he was “foreign returned.”
The ball had no air. Palu saw that it didn’t look anything like a football but like a skullcap, with its black and white hexagons. He put it on his head.
“Are you Muslim?” his mother said. “Take it off!”
“But where can I get it filled?”
“From the cycle wallah,” said his dad, in between pegs of Scotch the cousin had brought.
“No, not the cycle wallah,” said his cousin. “Go and see Turture Sports near Morapur Railway station. Not Balwa, mind it.”
He took the ball in his bag after school while going to his tuitions. Before he had put the books inside, he put the skullcap football in his bag.
After the tuitions, he kept a lookout for the sports shop. He had never seen it. He nearly missed it. He found it nestled between a tea shop and a dry grocer. The reason he nearly missed it had to do with its display board being a little more inside than those of the shops on either side of it. Also, its interiors were in gloom.
Palu pulled out the ball from his rucksack. “It needs filling,” he said.
“Of course,” said the man behind the long counter.
The attendant took out a pump with a fitting. He inserted it in the ball and pumped. Palu saw that the ball inflated.
“Nothing,” said the attendant.
Palu couldn’t believe his ears. Free, always a sweet word to hear.
He brought the ball home nestled in his elbow. He kept it locked on his shelf, not taking it out for fear that it would get punctured.
His other possession was a racing car, remote-controlled, which his cousin had brought for him. He kept it under lock and key after the incident that cost his parents more than ten thousand.
Relatives were invited for his freeloader uncle, who, with his family, wasn’t ready to leave Palu’s family alone. Some function had to be celebrated on the behest of the freeloader, and the space in the ground-floor row house ran out. The house teemed with children who were eager to play and kept getting in the grown-ups’ way.
“Come here, Palu,” his mother called. “Take this key and go and play at D’Souza auntie’s.”
Palu knew D’Souza auntie, whom his father had helped in getting a house, for which his mother had now given the key. Auntie was an old lady with two married-off daughters. His mother used to send Palu to her house bearing some sweet dish, which she used to make monthly. Palu knew her, couldn’t say that he liked her. She used to be away for most of the time at either of her daughters’ homes, and she would leave the house key with Palu’s mother, in case Palu’s mother needed to use it.
Palu and his cousins were tired of screeching and running, sniffing the country liquor placed at various corners, shouting, “Camel’s blood, Camel’s blood.” They indulged in a game of finding out whether the neighbors’ house had any country-made liquor, placed there by his dad and the freeloader uncle. The party most of the time divided into two bars: one with country-made liquor and the other serving ‘English’ one.
As this was the first of the parties, which would become a constant practice, due to the freeloader, Camel’s blood was also a novelty.
“It’s terrible,” said Abaj, Palu’s Muslim cousin, as he ran shrieking, “Camel’s blood” outside to the corridor.
“Come let’s go there,” said Palu pointing at the locked door. “Mother has given the key. The coterie of his cousins proceeded to the door, and Palu opened the door. The children were inside, but then Palu saw something which arrested him.
At the far corner of the living room, the kadappa perch was empty. Fallen like debris from a garbage truck rested the exploded remains of the CRT TV, below it.
“Everyone hold,” said Palu. “Don’t go inside. We all will play in the verandah only.”
He took out his remote-controlled car, and started racing in the verandah, not allowing anyone to go further inside. They had fun, and Palu was pleased, but a nagging feeling kept gnawing at him, saying that they shouldn’t be there. He nearly listened to the voice telling him to shut the door and go back, but he disregarded it. He thought about going and telling his mother about the broken TV, but the play took precedence, till it was time for the children to have their food.
Palu was the last out, locking the door behind him. “Mamma, the TV was already fallen down,” he told his mother, after most of the drunks had left.
“We’ll see,” said his mother.
But in spite of many protestations of innocence, and his reiteration that none of the children had crossed the verandah to the living room, no one believed him, and when the D’Souza aunty returned, it was the affirmation of the complaint. Palu got no leeway, and putting the blame solely on his head.
If Palu had any misconceptions, that only speaking the truth granted you immunity, then he was sorely disappointed and had overestimated man’s gentle nature.
“It was you who broke the TV,” said his father.
“Of course, it must be he alone who must have done it,” said the freeloader. “I had told him to stop playing with that Manoj’s toys and keep still, but he never does listen.”
“Why did you go there?” asked his father.
“Mother—” said Palu.
“You were trying to watch TV, showing off to your cousins that you can operate the machine?” said the freeloader.
“No, no,” said Palu.
“Then why did you do it?” asked the freeloader.
A certain part of Palu’s innocence and faith in truth died that day, on account of the accusations. Sleeping on the ground over a quilt at night, it hit him finally that he was already proven guilty.
Now before touching anybody else’s items, Palu thought a hundred times. No one would touch his racing car from Dubai, one of the last gifts from his cousin from Dubai.
Manoj exceedingly had failed to turn up at their house after he had gotten married last year, and Palu had waited in vain for his gift. The letters to his father from him had also strangely stopped, and Palu’s stamp collection wasn’t moving forward.
So he would cherish the football.
Then summer vacation dawned and people started coming out of the hovels in front of Palu’s house. Some of the people became his friends, principal among them being Madhukar. Palu didn’t know the reason for the name when Madhukar was malodorous and his body purulent. Another was by the name Sachin, an urchin who used to call Palu “dada,” meaning “big brother.”
They started bashing the ball, playing for the goal. It was early morning when they started playing and wouldn’t have slowed down even when the sun reached its zenith. But the ball had sagged.
“Puncture,” said Sachin.
“No, nothing, let’s keep playing,” said Madhukar.
“No, stop,” said Palu picking up the slightly deflated ball. Palu felt like the ball, losing substance. He clutched the ball at his chest and thought, How?
“We can go to the cyclewala,” said Madhukar.
“No, he can’t even fill air in it,” said Palu.
The sun shone high over their head, making them sweat. The ball was lying on the parapet separating the two cluster of houses.
“Look, it has become a little fuller,” said Sachin.
Palu felt like fairies dancing in front of his. He took the ball and felt it. Genuinely the ball seemed a little fuller.
“Yes,” he said.
“We’ll keep it the entire afternoon,” said Madhukar, “and see.”
“See,” said Palu.
All three waited in the shade looking at the ball.
“A little better,” said Sachin. “We will wait.”
Since it was Palu’s property, he alone was left to guard it, standing in the shade of his concrete corrugated sheet.
He knew he needed to keep it, since the freeloader’s infant daughter had gone berserk last week and had junked his beloved radio-controlled car. Some scraps of it were lying in his drawer.
A motion from the corner of his eyes and Palu saw a bigger boy kicking the slowly inflating ball off the parapet.
“Hey you, you bloody fellow! Why did you kick my ball?”
The boy made like going.
“Hey, you, bloody!”
Palu felt his hands pushed behind him, and then against the walls.
“Hey, you boy! Why are you giving bad words?”
“Why did you kick the ball?” said Palu.
“Why did you put the ball on the parapet?”
The boy didn’t release the hold on Palu. Palu felt like crying, shouting for help, but even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to raise his friends, for his position was obscured. The boy tightened the grip momentarily and then released it.
“I warn you,” the bigger boy said, “if you give bad words again.”
The boy had gone only a few paces when Palu shouted again, “Hey, bloody, you!”
The boy came back again and twisted Palu’s arm behind him warning him again.
The boy seemed to be in a hurry for he turned to go again. Palu took a rock lying in the ground and shouted, “Hey” before launching it at the boy. The rock hurtled towards the boy, colliding with the wall, missing him by inches.
The boy turned and started coming towards Palu once again, but Palu took another rock and shouted, “Hey,” hurtled it toward the boy once again. The older boy took a step backwards. This hesitation fueled Palu’s anger, and he kept throwing rocks at the retreating boy.
With a screeching sound Palu shouted, a shout which had a demonic blood-curdling sound, launching another rock at the bigger boy.
The older boy bolted, with Palu on his heels with a large rock in his hand. Palu launched the rock, but the rock narrowly missed the older boy and landed in the nearby gutter, with its black water splashing. Palu stopped and regarded the receding figure of the boy.
Then the tears came. He felt mildly exhilarated, but also sad. He put the ball again on the parapet.
The ball sat on the parapet, disfigured and shapeless; it awaited succour in the sun.
He stared at it for some instant, then grasped it in both his hands. The skin of the ball depressed where he touched. He brought the ball close to his eyes and peered at it. Something exploded in his head, and he started applying pressure on the ball. It deflated with a wheece-wheece sound.
He bent and took a sharp stone. Using the parapet as an anvil, he brought the sharp stone on the ball, again and again. The ball gave out its air in a phurrtt, and deformed completely. Tears obscured his vision, but his hands told him that the ball was once again a skullcap.
He went inside to keep it among his broken toys.
Copyright © 2017 by Charles G. Chettiar