A Time of Champions

A Time of Champions, published in WIND (Issue 89) Winner of 2003 Short Fiction Award


A Time of Champions


by Inderjeet Mani


“Who’s running for Tata House?” Rahul asked Salman.

Salman handed him the binoculars. “It’s Tikki first, then Poggy Kapoor. Speedy’s running number two for Jaipur House.”

Rahul surveyed the field. He spotted Mr. Curtis, the Head Master, standing up and cheering. A sea of parents stretched behind him, heavily powdered mothers in sunglasses, and well-tended fathers in navy blazers. Beyond the far end where the field climbed into a rich green bank dense with neem trees, he could see saris and pajamas drying outside the servants’ quarters. A few chickens scurried about among the trees, and in their midst a red-shirted figure in dark glasses sat watching the race.

Rahul turned back toward the guest rows, where Reza’s sister Shirin was sitting in her salwar kamiz, her shoulders tense, locked between her parents. Her cheeks were pale, and there were dark shadows under her eyes. Her school was on St. Mary’s Road. He had gone there to meet her with her brother one day, and had become transfixed from that very moment. There was something in her eyes, wisdom and gentle laughter. She kept him up at night, and in Geography class he had looked out of the window towards the Himalayas, uttering her name over and over again. Then, suddenly, he had found strength in words, and he had written her a letter.

Rahul turned the binoculars beyond the lines of blue and gray uniforms. The four striped lanes curved steadily around the field. In two months, it would be time for cricket, and the lanes would be cleared away by the malis, and the canvas shells would be put up along the bank at the far end. Boys in white ducks would stand against the swathe of green, the batsmen casting heroic poses for the fans. Summer would set in then, and after the vacation, the field would be muddy and filled with footballs and boys running through the monsoon mud, some awkward and fumbling, others already moving smoothly with the ball.

The race was nearing the first station at one hundred meters. Jaipur House was in the outer lane, Hyderabad in lane two, then Kashmir, with Tata in lane four. In lane two, the Nepali prince from Hyderabad House reached the station first, a few meters ahead of lane three, but the next runner in lane two didn’t grab the baton fast enough, and lane three got a head start. Tikki, the new boy from Tata, made good time on the second lap, but he was still a good twenty meters behind lane three. Tikki held the baton out to Poggy, who began to accelerate; the baton seemed to hover like a wand between their hands.

Poggy was an academic star, unlike most of the sportsmen, and he had won the Shakespeare Prize twice. After the Prime Minister’s visit, there had been talk of de-emphasizing Shakespeare in favor of Hindi Lit, but the old boys on the Board would have nothing to do with it. And the HM, who lived for Shakespeare and sports, would have nothing to do with it, either.

Until the incident of the letter, Rahul had no reason to meet the HM. But then Dr. Singh, the Fourth Form Geography teacher, had found the letter in class, peeping out on his desk from the pages of Stamp’s Atlas.

“‘How do I love thee…Let me count the ways.’ Count indeed!”

Dr. Singh read the letter from a distance, holding it gingerly between two giant fingers. Then he said, “Perhaps, young man, you could restrict your counting to the Math class.”

A guffaw rose from the class. There was a pause in the flinging of paper pellets.

Dr. Singh’s hand twisted Rahul’s ear. As the pressure mounted, he caught a glimpse of the peaks glistening in the distance, and longed to ascend towards them.

“‘I love thee to the breadth and depth and height.’ This is Geography, young man, not Geometry! Who is the ‘thee’ you are thinking of — not a boy in this class, I hope?”

Titters. Raucous laughter. Rahul knew there would be endless taunting and thigh pinching all through the term.

“I’m afraid,” said Dr. Singh, his face turning gradually purple, “the rest is too shameful to repeat here. Filth, filth, and more filth!”

The ear was burning and throbbing, and Dr. Singh finally released it. Pellets came raining down, some with fresh ink.

“I wonder what the HM will have to say about it?”

The next day, the HM had a lot to say.

Mr. Curtis threw open the windows of his office. Ivy-clad walls looked out over a sunken garden. A mali was crouched over the rose bushes, watering them with a cracked hose. Behind him, a gulmohar tree was in bloom, its thick leaves bursting with scarlet flowers.

Mr. Curtis explained why he had left his Head Mastership at Gordonstoun to come all the way to this boarding school in the Himalayan foothills. Something special was happening here, a chance to shape tomorrow’s leaders.

He tapped his pipe on the desk.

“The moral foundation’s everything, of course. That’s why Shakespeare’s so bloody important. Cricket, too. And athletics. You’ll see — we British aren’t done with you yet.”

He began writing out the punishment slip.

“Moral qualities, my boy. Never forget that.”

Then he leaned close enough for Rahul to smell his pipe-breath, and patted Rahul gently on the shoulder.

“How’s the scholarship boy doing? Not giving you trouble, are they?”

“No sir. They are treating me fine.”

He peered inquisitively.

“I hear there’s been some teasing.”

On his first night, in the dining hall, Rahul had to give a speech introducing himself. It was a chilly evening, and he had worn the white wool sweater that his mother had knitted for him. He talked about their little home in Muzzafarnagar, about how his father’s teaching and precepts had inspired his own studies, about the little almirah in the kitchen where he kept all his prizes and certificates. He spoke a bit too earnestly. How they had laughed at his strong Hindi accent, at his pathetically unfashionable home clothes; they had called him names, asked him to go back to his Hindi medium school.

“Now, as you know,” Mr. Curtis continued, “it’s quite ridiculous for a boy like you to have all these fanciful thoughts. And General Khan’s daughter, too! What were you thinking of? Of course, we’ll have to let St. Mary’s know.”

Rahul felt the shame welling up. He wondered if Shirin would ever speak to him, whether she would consider him ridiculous, even offensive. He felt an unpleasant twinge in his stomach at the thought of having to meet her again. Reza had already given him the cold shoulder. Then his thoughts turned to her future, and he wondered if they would punish her, restrict her outings in any way. There was no suggestion in his letter that anything had happened between them; he had simply given free rein to his fantasies.

“I know you’ll straighten out and do well, my boy,” Mr. Curtis continued kindly, noticing Rahul’s worried look. “So many of our boys have done well. Even boys of your sort, who haven’t had all the perks from day one. Everywhere you look, in fact — politicians, industrialists, civil servants, even artists — in every field, you name it, our boys are the leading lights.”

Rahul had a vision of Poggy becoming Prime Minister, of Salman sitting in the boardroom of one of the big tobacco houses in Calcutta, his school tie fluttering proudly. He realized he liked Mr. Curtis, and resolved to attend the after-dinner meetings of the Shakespeare Society, at Mr. Curtis’s bungalow. He had conquered a lot after coming to the school, and he would add Shakespeare to the list.

By now, lane one had reached the second station, Jaipur last, but then the baton glided, even floated, into Speedy’s hand, and he was off, running as if he’d been waiting for it all his life. Speedy was expected to make it to School Athletics Captain one day, Rahul had been told, and Rahul felt a sadness in his chest as he saw how gracefully Speedy ran past the low green trees in the distance, then coming in between the cheering lines of blue and gray.

“What’s his fastest? Eleven point one?” Rahul asked Salman.

“Eleven point one eight,” Salman said, blowing a pink bubble and folding it in with a snap. “At the last District Sports.”

“Why didn’t they put him on last? The people with records usually come on in the last lap.”

Salman motioned to have the binoculars back. “Parents,” he explained apologetically. “Have to go sit with them.”

Rahul was glad his parents had decided not to come. His father would have felt most uncomfortable in that sea of navy blazers, with his ill-fitting brown school-teacher’s coat. His mother, he knew, would have become teary-eyed at the sight of him standing tall among all the other boys, but she had abided by his father’s wishes.

The race was nearing the third station. Rahul hurried up to Tata supporters on the pavilion terrace. The air smelt of perspiration. A fifth-former in dark glasses gave him a drink of lime cordial and explained the situation. Speedy had closed in first on the Hyderabad fumbler in lane two; then he and Poggy and the smart one from Kashmir had raced abreast before Speedy took off.  Speedy arrived at the third station with a massive lead, only to hand it to a dark-complexioned South Indian fellow who lost it just as quickly, allowing Kashmir to get ahead. Rahul saw the runners coming fast towards three hundred meters. The terrace floor was sticky with lime cordial, and flies swarmed around his stockinged legs. In the back, a group of prefects were sniggering and passing around a cigarette. Rahul shivered a little, in spite of the heat. Then the gun went off.

The crowd began to cheer and Rahul saw the last runners running furiously in position, their arms stretched out impatiently behind them. There was a flurry of yellow vests, and then he saw Reza in the inner lane reach for the baton and take off, his hand empty, then firmly grasped around the baton, his head pointing towards the finish line, more than eleven point one eight seconds away. Jaipur and Kashmir had changed batons together and were now leading, gaining speed.  Rahul could see the runners speeding up before the bend, and then they dropped out of sight, before appearing suddenly over the rise towards him, large and glorious and life-sized. Reza looked so much like his sister, except for the hair. Rahul had a recurring dream of eloping with her. They would be sitting on a large verandah, somewhere in the States, possibly Kentucky, with low white fences, a horse or two trotting by, the grass a funny color seen in celluloid or in dreams, Shirin sipping champagne from his glass, her hand resting lightly on his thigh, his heart thumping.

Now Reza’s brown knees were lifted high, his head flung back, his spikes pointing down, about to tear into the earth. The chanting had started. “1-2-3-4. Whom are we for?” “Reza,” the crowd answered, some saying “Tata” as well. Rahul heard himself shouting with the rest. A prefect called for order. Reza had caught up with the fellow in lane one, and then shot suddenly past, and the crowd gave a great sigh. He was now sprinting in hot pursuit of Kashmir in lane three, Kashmir was flailing his arms, running straight for the finish line without looking back.

Rahul saw Reza’s mother touch her husband’s arm, and they both stood up and cheered loudly. With the usually indolent General Khan up cheering, several other parents stood up as well, their voices joining his, their faces reminding Rahul of those ancient games photographs in the Archives, well-groomed but tired faces with their expressions frozen forever in time. Then the girl stood up between her parents, and Rahul yelled somewhat louder than the rest, and then the Kashmir crowd began to count, very angry, glaring at the pavilion, beating a drum in time to the chanting.

The crowd swayed for a second, then spilt out after Reza, who was walking slowly, hands on his hips, picking his way towards the pavilion. The prefects quickly formed a corridor for him. Rahul could hear General Khan calling in an urgent voice. Reza waved. He passed Speedy and gave him a slap on the buttocks. The games photographer broke out from the crowd, and began to click away. Reza waited patiently for him to finish, then asked for an extra shot shaking hands with Mr. Curtis.

Rahul burrowed his way through the prefects’ cordon and walked up to Reza, offering his congratulations. Reza smiled a perfunctory smile, hung out his tongue in mock exhaustion, turned and waved pleasantly to the crowd before at last climbing the pavilion steps. Dr. Singh made an announcement. Beside him, entries were being made in the ledger. Eleven point one six. The parents stood again and applauded. Shirin was standing there, clapping, next to her mother.

The crowd was swarming towards the pavilion entrance. Rahul saw the fellow in the red shirt making his way carefully down the bank with the neem trees, and slowly, very slowly because of his steel callipers, limping across the field. The breeze picked up once again, rustling through the grass. He noticed that Shirin was very relaxed now, her shoulders no longer stiff, her hair waving in the breeze. Her eyes were alive, as if with fire, and her face was turned towards him, and she was staring.

 He felt a growing excitement as he approached her. Shirin said something to her father, then General Khan was looking at him; as he reached out to touch her, he felt himself bouncing back from the blow that General Khan dealt him. He fell to the ground, surrounded by a whirl of peering faces. Then he saw Mr. Curtis hurrying towards them, and he stumbled to his feet, his ears still ringing. Taking one last look at the crowd, he found a gap, and began to run.



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