Half past one. Jatin peered into the hall to see if the coast was clear, if he could silently let himself out of the house. Lunch was long over, Ma must be having her afternoon nap, but he’d peek into the bedroom and make sure anyway. Just when he was about to step out of his room, his mother sailed into the hall from the kitchen, wiping her hands. She sank into the sofa and picked up the TV remote. Jatin slammed his hand against his forehead. How could he have forgotten! The Sunday recipe show! Now Ma would be in the hall for another half-hour before she went in for her siesta.
The thirty minutes dragged on like ages, as Jatin bit his nails and stared out of the window. Naren must have reached the stadium. Jatin berated himself with some colourful phrases. Why, oh why, had he broken that vase last week? His mother wouldn’t have forbidden him from going out if he had been at his best behaviour. Jatin fumed. He didn’t understand all the fuss over a sculpted piece of coloured china, and all he knew was that its existence, or rather its demise, was preventing him from going to the tennis match with a clear conscience. He’d begged, pleaded with his mother all week; even offered to baby-sit his pesky little sister whenever she wanted. But Ma was being unreasonable. It wasn’t as if Rafael Nadal visited India everyday. Sure, his opponent was a non-entity, but that didn’t matter. If his father were in town, he’d somehow convince her to let him go, and serve out the remainder of his punishment later. Women! They simply had no idea of what really mattered. They didn’t understand how much more important cricket, football and tennis were than Geography and Science.
At last, Ma was in her room. Jatin waited another five minutes, then cautiously looked in. Yes, she was asleep…even snoring in a rather embarrassing manner. He also made sure his sister was asleep and not watching him so she could wake their mother and get him into trouble. He’d manage Ma when he returned. He’d get her an autograph, perhaps, or if lucky enough, a wristband. But he did doubt if his mother would value a sweaty wristband as much as he would.
Slowly, warily, Jatin slipped out of the front door. Stepping out on the porch, he almost fell over his lazy dog Max, who, oblivious to the rest of the world and its cares, was enjoying a noon nap as well. Max opened one eye, saw it was only Jatin and no intruder (not that he would have done much had it been one), and went back to sleep. Jatin grinned his lopsided grin- summer was definitely the best time for such escapades, when the heat sapped everyone’s energy, except of course twelve-year-old boys’. His mother was an exception too, because it only served to irritate her more, and he was sure to have an earful when he returned. But who cared? Right now, he was off to be overawed by a star!
Jatin ran like crazy. The sun beat down mercilessly upon the isolated streets. There was not the slightest hint of a breeze. Undeterred, Jatin legged it to the stadium at top speed, stopping finally when he saw Naren at the gates, waiting impatiently, spinning around in agony whenever a cheer sounded from inside. There was no time for explanations; Naren grabbed Jatin’s hand, and the two handed over their tickets (coutesy Naren’s father) to the security guard and rushed straight in.
Settled into their seats finally, Naren turned to Jatin. “Next time, you’d better be on time, or I’ll bring someone else along”, whispered Naren furiously. “We’re fifteen minutes late, and Nadal is probably going to bagel the man, which will hardly leave us with anything to watch.”
“Sorry”, mumbled Jatin, and embarked on a breathless explanation. The rest of the match passed off in relative peace; they clapped, they cheered. They also had an important conversation.
“We have to take back something today, at least an autograph. We need to teach Mani a lesson. He’s been strutting around proudly ever since his father managed to get him a Michael Schumacher-signed cap. It’s not something he earned on his own!” said Naren. “And he doesn’t even admit it.”
“Yes; and I need something to show Ma, to tell her what I’d have missed if I hadn’t come here today”, added Jatin. He turned around, surveying the crowd. A motley group; there were even some elderly men among the spectators, sitting a few rows in front. He recognised one of them- Mani’s grandfather. Funny; wasn’t he a little too old for this stuff? Naren saw him too, and whispered to Jatin: “Mani’s grandpa here! Strange; I was sure he would be home napping.” Both Naren and Jatin liked Mani’s grandfather despite his weird sense of humour and feeble jokes; he was always ready with many fantastic anecdotes. In fact, he was more popular than his grandson.
The match ended in a predictable straight-sets victory for Nadal. He punched the air with his fists, shook hands with his beaten opponent, and then…slipped his wristband off and threw it into the stands. Jatin and Naren stood up, excited. It was coming towards them, in their direction. They stretched and grabbed at it…their hands locked, but the band slipped out and fell. Shocked, they glared at each other. However there was nothing they could do about it; it was irretrievably gone.
Naren and Jatin were locked in a verbal duel. They were both very disappointed, and blamed each other for being clumsy.
“That’s it; I’m not going with you to any more matches!” declared Naren in a fit of anger.
“Why do you think I want you to?” retorted Jatin, equally upset. They looked away from each other, forgetting even to go and try to get an autograph. They stared straight ahead…and saw something strange.
Mani’s grandfather was hopping gleefully like a child, waving the prized wristband in his wrinkled fist. His friends were clapping his back, cheering him. As Jatin and Naren watched, he made his way up to the exit. He didn’t see the boys; he didn’t even know the souvenir in his possession had slipped from their grasp. A dozen pairs of hands had gone up simultaneously when the wristband was thrown, and had Mani’s grandfather espied his two young friends fighting to get at it, he would have gladly made them a benevolent gift, notwithstanding his desire to prove himself to his grandson.
“Mani said I was too old for sport. He laughed at me when I said I was going to the match. He said I wouldn’t be able to get a souvenir. This will show him! I’m not old…I’m as fit as anybody else!” As excited as a child with a new toy, Mani’s grandfather hobbled out of the arena with his friends.
Jatin looked at Naren. All of a sudden, the lost wristband didn’t matter much. They smiled, each instinctively knowing what the other was thinking.
“My dad says he’ll get us passes for next week’s India-England cricket match. We’ll get to see Andy Flintoff! Make sure you don’t break any more vases.”
“Yes, and Daddy will be back tomorrow in any case, so I’m safe! I’ll have to deal with my mum tonight, though”, said Jatin, appearing slightly crestfallen. There was a momentary silence. Then Naren had an idea.
“Let’s go for some ice-cream now. We’ll worry about your mum later!” And off they went, forgetting their cares for the present.