“Music was his life, not just his livelihood”, the priest proclaimed from the head of the casket.

I looked at him sharply. Was he really paraphrasing Harry Chapin? Probably not, it was just eulogy talk, which accidentally made lyrical sense.

My eyes rested on the figure in the casket, and I smiled thinly. Tim loved Harry Chapin. Oh, Tim! It’s been so long since I last saw you. We were so full of life back then. Singing lustily through our shows. Arguing for hours till we got the lyrics just right. Debating the role of music in our lives. And now, look at you, cold and silent, in a box.

Should I, or shouldn’t I?

You were the successful musician, the ARIA-winning artist, the darling of millions. And who am I? Still a struggling singer, making ends meet at dingy bars with rowdy audiences. You dropped me like a hot potato when your career took off. Maybe you had no choice then.

Should I, or shouldn’t I?

“…..leaving behind a devoted wife, and a loving child…”, the priest’s monotone droned on.

My gaze shifted to Susan, petite in black, clutching a handkerchief damp with tears, her eyes fixed resolutely in the distance. The infant in her arms was playing with her mother’s collar, innocent to the occasion.

Poor Susan. Does she know at all? I was surprised to receive an invitation to the funeral, and even more surprised when requested to speak today. I belong to Tim’s world before he knew Susan, before fame and stardom. Obviously, he has told her about me. I wonder what, exactly?

Should I, or shouldn’t I?

“…and now, James Headley, former collaborator and good friend of Tim, will say a few words…”

I cleared my throat, and walked to the front of the casket. Tim looked so much at peace, nothing in this world mattered to him anymore. I looked around the sombre gathering, and I began.

“Holly came from Miami FLA….”

I was missing the bass line introduction, but it couldn’t be helped.

“…. take a walk on the wild side”

People were looking at me curiously. Susan’s gaze was boring into me. Her child had stopped toying with the collar.

“…Candy came out from the island….”

I was channelling my inner Lou Reed, and even as I sang, I knew this was just right. Half-song, half-poem. Full of life, full of despair. A lament for the living, a dirge for the dead. Tim, oh Tim!

“… take a walk on the wild side”

By the time the final “doo-doo” had been sung, my face was wet with tears, but my mind was clear.

I knew I should.

I spoke softly and clearly, “This was the song Tim and I first made love to.”

I could feel everyone hold their collective breath. Susan’s lips were parted, and her eyes were beginning to widen. The sky was grey above, but I knew Tim was grinning down in amusement.

I smiled, and carried on.

 

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This was his moment. He knew it.

He pushed his hair away from his forehead and looked up to the heavens. The sky was grey, the scent of rain was in the air, and the humidity was unbearable. His long shadow on the red clay below him gradually dimmed and faded away as the sun went into hiding behind the thick rain clouds. He paused for a second and looked around.

This was his moment. He knew it.

It was deathly quiet. It was hard to believe there were so many people around him, watching his every move, clasping each others’ hands in nervous support, muttering words of prayer under their breath, encouraging him, goading him, dreaming his dreams for him. But at this moment, everyone was still, waiting with bated breath, and it only seemed to add to the oppressiveness of the atmosphere.

This was his moment. They knew it.

He looked high above the crowd, and there, in a lonely box, spotted the man he admired the most. His hair was receding and sprinkled with silver now, and he looked half the man that he once had been. But this man had been his inspiration, his hero. It was his legendary feats on this same red clay so many years ago that had set him on this path he had chosen for himself. And each time he felt the effort was not worth it, the image of his hero had pushed him on. Higher and higher, till, at this moment, he stood at the threshold of immortality. Looking up at his old hero now, he felt their roles to be strangely reversed. And it gave him confidence.

This was his moment. He knew it.

He spotted his wife in the crowd and allowed himself the luxury of a private smile. He thought how beautiful she looked at that moment, how she stood out among the throng of people around her, radiating the same calm assurance that she always felt for him, the same assurance that never failed to mystify him and comfort him in equal measure. He felt comforted now.

This was his moment. She knew it.

His gaze settled on the man in front of him. He looked weary, tired and his clothes were covered with red clay. Their eyes met with the wariness that men have for their opponent’s next move. He realized he had one more step to take, a few more moments of focus left, one more point to make. He steeled himself, and forced his mind to go blank.

This was his moment. He knew it.

He gestured to the boy behind him for the ball. A murmur went up around the crowd, which was admonished by a loud but dignified call of “s’il vous plait”. He served down the middle. His opponent stretched, grunted and managed to return it to the centre of the court. It was a short ball, and he thudded a forehand back into the farthest corners of the baseline, following it up to the net to receive a return. But the return never came.

The crowd erupted. He fell to his knees and let the red clay embrace him. The rain poured down.

The drought had ended.

I am in free fall now…so I guess I’ll know the answer soon.

I am almost sure this is the ninth, but it’s always better to be certain, right? OK, let me try keeping count one last time, even though I know I’ve tried this a thousand times before.

So let’s see, the first time was when I was really young, when my brothers and sisters were still around, and I fell out of the litter basket. That stupid woman Lalitha, she kept us in that cramped basket on the top shelf, of all places…what else did she expect? That’s when my mother told me not to worry, that I still had eight more left to go, and that all I needed to do was use them wisely. Sometimes, I think she shouldn’t have told me that, it made me a bit…complacent, I think.
Like the second instance, when I found myself right in front of the speeding car. I was rooted to the spot like some dumbstruck deer in the headlights. A deer of all things…sheesh!…a creature my cousins have for dinner everyday!
Then there was the incident with that moody Doberman. Man, I never thought he had it in him to tear me to pieces like he did that day! I somehow managed to drag myself into Lalitha’s place like something I drag in usually.
The fourth time was…let’s see now…oh yes!…when I was exploring the new water heater, and Lalitha, being her usual absent-minded self, turned it on. I thought my brains had come out with the shock! When I came to, I was being smothered in a hug from Lalitha. She just didn’t let go for ten whole minutes and I came close to asphyxiation!….hmm…maybe that should count as the fifth time…anyway, you cant blame me for using my claws there….I just had to get away!

And that’s when it gets a little blurred. I remember falling off the third floor balcony when I was chasing that butterfly….darn butterflies! They just keep flitting around and give you a headache….and I landed on my feet. Does that count? It’s hard to tell. We’ve always had very flexible bodies, and we’ve always been known for landing on our feet. So maybe that’s not the fifth time, but I can’t be sure. Just like when I drowned (or was it almost?) in the storm-drain.
Anyway, I know I am either seven down or eight down, though my money is on eight…and there’s only one way to find out. Hell, twenty floors is a long way up, and I was completely exhausted at the end of the climb. But it all felt worth it when I stepped off the ledge. If this is only my eighth, I know I can do this all over again, and if it is my ninth, I know I’ve had enough of it all.

I am in free fall now…so I guess I’ll know the answer soon.

It was, as Mark Nicholas would have commented, a perfect day for cricket.

Cotton-white clouds drifted in the blue skies, blown around by the gentle summer breeze. The trees lining the maidan danced lightly in appreciation of the wind’s efforts. The maidan itself was an undulating sea of various shades of green. The greenery was broken only by the occasional white of a player in flannels, dotting the playing area. The overall silence accentuated the crack of bat making contact with ball, and gave a good indication of the batsman’s sense of timing. The distant beeps of the cars and honks of the auto-rickshaws beyond the maidan seemed to be coming from a different world altogether.

Samit surveyed all this from the boundary line. He shifted the weight of his 90 kg body frame from one leg to the other, and sighed in contentment. He always loved fielding at long-on. It gave him a broad perspective of the game, without having to get too involved in it. It gave him the big picture. Not that he had much of a choice. His captain Anand wouldn’t dream of putting him anywhere else. As he loved paraphrasing Navjot Singh Sidhu, “Samit always looks as lost as a baby in a topless bar when he is fielding”…and the peals of laughter would follow. And at long-on, he had the opportunity to cause the least damage, especially in an innings match.

But Samit didn’t mind that too much. After all, he was free to relax at the boundary-line and watch the match developing. The only problem was when some idiot of a batsman decided to go for a ‘big one’, and skied the ball in his general direction. Samit’s track record at holding skiers was, at a generous estimate, poor. This was in part due to his reluctance to move early, and in part due to his agreement with Peter Roebuck in his statement that “There is nothing in cricket more calculated to raise a laugh than the sight of some determined and serious man under a spiralling catch.”

Anand brought on a bowling change at one end, and Samit tut-tut-ted to himself. “When will he ever learn?” Three balls into the over, and two boundaries had been scored of a pull and a cut. Samit smiled to himself, thinking of Anand’s deficiencies as a captain. He was also content in the knowledge that the new bowler would never bowl full enough to bring long-on into play.

Samit was, in his own words, a tactician first, and an athlete last. He read a lot about the game, and prided himself on knowing the history of the sport. He followed the international Test cricket calendar religiously, and treated the various Twenty20 tournaments with a mixture of contempt and resignation. He was the unabashed cricketing purist.

His entry into the 3rd division of the State Junior League had been incidental, but he had managed to hold on to his place on the basis of being a calm-headed opening batsman, who held ‘anchor’ at one end, while the others played their slam-bang game gleefully around him. This trait of his had overshadowed his obvious weight problems and consequent mobility issues. His friends and team-mates affectionately called him ‘Aloo’ after his batting idol, Inzamam. Samit liked to believe the analogy lay in his batting prowess, and refused to consider that the reason could lie elsewhere.

Samit felt some movement behind him and jumped to see a big, white cow nuzzling at him from the other side of the boundary line. He laughed at himself, and moved to give the bovine some space. The cow seemed happy enough to be the only neutral spectator at the ground, and gazed serenely at the action in the centre while patiently chewing on her cud.

In amusement, Samit wondered what the cow thought about the entire scene. Was she in agreement with Neville Cardus’ poetic assertion that cricket was the “best and loveliest of games”, or did she accept Bernard Shaw’s outright rejection of cricket as a “game played by 22 fools and watched by 22000 fools”? But then, wouldn’t that mean….?

Crack!…

The connection of willow on cork had sounded distinctly loud this time, and Samit could hear vague yells in his direction. As he wrenched his eyes away from the cow, he could see every player turned in his direction and either gesticulating at him, or looking up into the sky. Anand had given up his gestures and was watching him, hands on his head, with a sense of despair. Samit desperately scanned the sky, looking for the ball, which he knew was somewhere in his vicinity. After what seemed an eternity, he finally spotted it, already in its downward trajectory, headed to ground at a spot close enough to invalidate any claim of it being too tough a catch for him……And he then moved.

With a sinking feeling of déjà vu, Samit felt like a ‘determined and serious man under a spiralling catch’.

 

It was dusk, and the threat of thunder showers had cleared the streets early.

 

Lakshmi shuffled along the darkened pavement, gathering her rags around her. She was diminutive, even for her twelve years of existence. Her fingers clutched tightly at a tin box which contained her day’s earnings. Walking into a pool of light thrown by a nearby petrol-bunk, she sat down on the kerb to total up for the day. Five minutes of struggling with numbers later, she confirmed what she had suspected all along. She was five rupees short of meeting the daily target.

 With a sense of resignation, Lakshmi knew that her father would use his belt on her again that night. But she had grown numb to that exercise by then.

Just the way she had grown numb to those pretending to ignore her when she begged for alms.

She no longer minded the shop-keepers who shooed her off impatiently, and the pedestrians who turned angrily on her, and even the people who refused to acknowledge her very existence.

She was past feeling.

Lakshmi was numb.

 

A car drove into the petrol-bunk and Lakshmi was caught in the glare of its head-lights. She looked up to see a middle-aged, bespectacled man looking preoccupied at the wheel. Ravi tapped on the dashboard absently as he waited for the attendant to fill the tank. It had been a big day at office for him. After five years of slogging in his boss’ shadow, his promotion had more or less been confirmed that day. Congratulations had started pouring in and a lot of back-slapping and banter had happened.

But Ravi had always hated his boss and his snide remarks, his sneering laugh, his pompous ways.

And he hated himself for sucking up to him.

He hated himself for ignoring other people to get into his boss’ good books.

He hated himself for not acknowledging the security guard while leaving the office that day.

He wanted to be more receptive, open and frank with people, but had forgotten how.

Ravi hated himself.

His gaze rested on the grubby, filthy girl sitting on the kerb next to the car, with a tin box nestled in her hands. Their eyes met for a second…and lingered.

 

Poor begger-girl…Maybe I can make it up to the security guard here…hmm….yes, I do have a ten rupee note with me….

Should I go and ask him?….I might be able to get the five rupees from him, but…

………Let her walk over to me…till then, I’ll just pretend to ignore her…….

………He’s not even looking at me….Do I really need to be driven away again?….What’s the use?…….

……..She’s walking away….Maybe she doesn’t even beg to begin with…Darn! How pathetic can I get with people….Darn!…..

 

Ravi paid the attendant and drove away. Lakshmi trudged homewards.

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

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