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From my seat in the stands, I see Mahendra Singh Dhoni hit the final runs to win India the 2011 Cricket World Cup. There is an explosion of noise as people around me yell, clap, whistle and scream. Fireworks light up the Mumbai sky. Strangers feel like family and I hug the middle-aged man in front of me. “Aaa whaa aaha yeah!” he says; it is the articulation of a fan whose life has peaked. Others jump in and it is the sweatiest, most wonderful group hug. I stand on my chair and see Sachin Tendulkar, Indian cricket’s mainstay for the past twenty years, jog on to the field to join his celebrating teammates. A close-up of his face appears on the big screen; it sends shivers down my spine and a blast of happiness through the already delirious crowd.
There’s a lot competing for my attention: the sound of forty thousand fans chanting “Jeet gaya bhai jeet gaya, India jeet gaya,” the three hours I have in which to send an article on what this victory means, and the message I received from Anita last night – “Heading back to the States the morning after the final. Would love to meet if you’ll be free.”
I look around; this is a moment India’s been waiting the past 28 years for, a moment fans have wanted more for Sachin Tendulkar than for themselves, and a moment I’ve dreamt of since I was seven. But it does nothing to keep Anita out of my head. My phone buzzes. “Still on to meet?” reads the text from her, and it widens the smile on my face.
“Yes,” I reply, and make my way out of the Wankhede stadium.
This is a moment… I’ve dreamt of since I was seven. But it does nothing to keep Anita out of my head.
A week earlier, I was walking towards the Motera Stadium’s West Pavilion Stand when I heard a woman read my name off the press pass that hung around my neck.
“Mr Rajiv Raman, I’m sorry to bother you. But could I ask you for a favour?”
There was an American tinge to her accent, the hard ‘r’ discernible in her pronunciation of ‘favour’. She seemed to be in her mid-twenties, and blocked the unrelenting Ahmedabad sun with her hand.
“I hope it’s quick,” I said. The India-Australia quarterfinal was about to start.
“They’re not allowing cellphones inside.” I looked past her to see a growing line of cantankerous ticket holders loitering by the entrance. A huge roar arose from inside the stadium and it made them antsier. “But I’m guessing that rule doesn’t apply to you.”
“Can’t you leave it with a friend?”
She looked away and scanned the area. Was she scouting for some other journalist who’d be more willing to help?
“Here’s the thing,” she said, finally. “I don’t have any friends or family in Ahmedabad. I’m travelling by myself and I need my phone.”
“What if the guards notice that I have two phones on me?” I argued.
“They haven’t been patting down press pass holders,” she replied immediately.
I felt myself caving, and from the hint of a smile on her face I could tell she knew it too.
“I really don’t mean to put you in a tough spot, but I’ve travelled too far to give up now,” she said.
“Fine”, I conceded.
Her face lit up. “Thanks”, she said, handing me her phone.
“Meet me by the concessions stand. It’ll be to your right after you walk in,” I said. “And Anita?” I called out as she turned, her name printed on the back of her jersey. I handed her my business card. “Just in case we miss each other inside.”
The day after the quarterfinal, Anita texted me: “Read your article about the game. Loved it.” It triggered a slew of messages between us where we discussed the piece I wrote and India’s chances of winning the World Cup. Cricket is one of the few things I can speak confidently about, and I had met a woman of my age who was interested in discussing the game with me. I tried to tone down my infatuation by thinking practically – she lives in the US, and I live in India. But when I received her text last night, I found myself smiling at my phone and replying that I would love to meet her again.
I walk towards the Members Stand entrance where Anita and I are supposed to meet. I notice a policeman blow his whistle and then fall back when a firecracker bursts by his feet. Various chants overlap one another. Music blasts out of parked cars. Fans stand atop waving their flags. Traffic is at a standstill, but no one cares. This night has been a long time coming. Half the people walking around, including me, weren’t even born the last time India won the World Cup.
Pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump. An insanely happy fan parked on a packed Marine Drive makes music with his car horn. A throng of people dance around his car, revolving around the Honda Civic dressed in shades of blue, chanting “Sachin! Sachin!” Some of them climb on to the green metal top of a jeep inching by to orchestrate the chants. “Ooh aah! Ooh aah!” yells the leader of the pack. I imagine him to be a wealthy banker, hints of grey distinguishing his trimmed hair, a platinum watch sliding up and down his wrist, and gold-rimmed spectacles framing his eyes. But here he is, away from his well-varnished desk and air-conditioned office, dancing on top of a stranger’s vehicle and slapping his belly for percussion. And then I see her emerge from behind the jeep. Pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump-a-pump.
It’s a cacophony of horns as the neighbouring cars join in on the celebrations. I opt for a handshake, and she moves in for a hug. She’s a few inches shorter than my 5’9” frame, and my right arm dips and grazes her hip in an attempt to course correct. “That was awkward,” I admit with a weak laugh, but it goes unheard amidst the chants of the crowd.
“This is insane!” Anita says as she looks around. The ends of an Indian flag are tied around her neck and the tri-coloured cape billows in the breeze. Her shiny blue cricket jersey is golden in the headlights of the jeep beside us. Her hair shimmers in the streetlight glow and the remnants of a hand-painted flag are visible on her forehead.
“Do you want to celebrate with a drink?” I ask, just as a new round of honking begins. I don’t have much time, and I’d rather spend it in a place where we can hear each other. Anita taps her ear. “Can’t hear you,” she mouths.
I lean in. “Grab a drink?” I shout over the noise.
She considers the question with a headshake, a slight tilt to either side. And then, “Chal, let’s go.”
It’s past midnight when we push open the doors to a packed restaurant. It’s almost as noisy inside as out: the clatter of dirty plates, fans talking amongst each other, bottles of beer being slammed on tables, the excited voices of cricket analysts on the television sets, and overworked waiters shouting orders over the din. One of the TVs plays Dhoni’s match-winning six – once in real time and once in slow-motion, once in real time and once in slow-motion – over and over, emphasising his nonchalant twirl of the bat. A chant of “Dhoni! Dhoni!” begins at one table but is quickly hijacked to become “Sachin! Sachin!” when the neighbouring tables join in.
“We are full,” the manager of the restaurant says. “But if you don’t mind sitting there”, he points to a waiting area, “we’ll see what we can do about the beers.” Anita sits down on a burgundy couch and I take the plastic chair across from her. She scans the restaurant, and I fiddle with the watch on my wrist. We’ve already covered the basics and an opening feels harder to come by as each second passes. Over text message, I had time to craft what I wanted to say. I don’t have that luxury anymore. Her gaze settles on the television set at the far wall. Say something… anything!
“So India won, huh?” I offer.
She looks at me. “No way! Really?”
“Yeah,” I play along. “It’s going to be all over the news.”
“And will there be anything from you?”
“There will be, but I haven’t written it yet.”
“Oh, right! Sorry, am I keeping you from your job?”
If I don’t leave now, I won’t be able to make it to my office in time.
“Nah, I have time for a beer,” I say with a confidence that belies my nerves. It’s not the article I’m anxious about; I can write that as long as I give myself an hour. Being a charming human capable of carrying on a conversation with a pretty girl, that’s the nerve-racking part.
A waiter arrives with two mugs of Kingfisher. I catch the eye of the manager and mouth a thank you.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” she says, clinking her overflowing mug with mine.
“At this restaurant?”
“Yeah”, she grins, playing along. “At this restaurant.”
I relax a little. “It feels like a dream come true,” I say. “India winning the World Cup in Sachin’s hometown.”
“It wasn’t so much about Sachin for me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes”, she says with a laugh. “It was the energy in the stadium that stood out for me. It made a difference.”
“To the result?”
She pauses to take a sip of her beer. “Do you remember – it was towards the end of the game – when the DJ played ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’?”
I nod. The song’s been in the national consciousness ever since it was composed in 1997.
“Every Indian fan stood up to sing along, man. Every Indian fan,” she says, and spills some beer in her excitement. “You sang along too, right?”
I laugh. “Yeah, I did.”
“Every Indian fan,” she repeats. “The batsmen turned towards the crowd and I think that’s when they knew. India was going to win the World Cup and no one could do anything about it. The crowd would make sure of that.”
I remember a sea of blue jerseys rising up as the chorus blasted through the speakers. It was a wave of song, a surge of energy.
“Don’t you think the energy in the stadium had something to do with Sachin?” I ask. “This was his last chance at a World Cup.”
She frowns, and turns to look out the window behind her couch. “Sachin didn’t even score much. Tonight’s win is bigger than him.”
“But he’s been the symbol of hope for Indian cricket for the past twenty years,” I say, trying to suppress my annoyance. “And tonight, his wait for the World Cup finally ended. There can be no greater gift than this for Sachin.”
“Putting your tribute to Sachin aside for a second”, she says with a smirk, “what I’m trying to say is that when the DJ played ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’, I felt so close to the people around me.”
I turn my attention to my beer. She taps me on my knee, forcing me to look back up at her. “It was the best part of my trip, you know? I got to meet strangers I wouldn’t have had I been here with my parents or friends.”
I don’t know why, but I had assumed that she had immediate family in India.
“Do your parents live in the US too?” I ask.
“Yeah, we moved from Bangalore to California when I was sixteen.”
“Did you grow up watching cricket?”
She nods. “My dad would sit me down beside him whenever there was a game of cricket and we’d yell together at the TV if India was doing poorly.”
“You must have yelled a lot in the 90s.”
“A lot.” She smiles, and it’s one that I recognise from that afternoon in Ahmedabad. “This Indian team’s come far. And going back to Sachin”, she pauses for a sip, “this isn’t the team of the 90s anymore. Tonight, they showed that they can win without him, and that is a greater gift than the World Cup.”
I lean in to disagree, but I realise I have nothing. What she said makes sense. This is no longer the team that Sachin had to carry with the weight of his singular performances. “The Greater Gift” – I like the sound of that narrative.
“I can drink to that,” I say and clink my mug with hers.
She finishes her beer and turns to look out the window again. “Hey, it’s my last night before I fly out… and I’d rather be outside soaking in the madness.” I catch her eye in the reflection, and then look down at my watch.
“Do you need to get going?” she asks.
If I don’t leave now, I won’t be able to make it to my office in time. But I can risk another half-hour with Anita if I write from the nearby internet café instead. Anita and I are clicking, and I want to keep talking to her.
“I have a little more time,” I say, and try to bottoms-up my drink, immediately regretting the move as beer dribbles down my chin.
She laughs, and offers a tissue from her handbag. “Let’s get out of here.”
A generous breeze keeps us company as we sit on the C-shaped wall that frames Marine Drive. The Arabian Sea stretches out in front of us and streetlamps curve around to form an electric shore. Interlocked concrete tetrapods lie below our dangling feet and face the brunt of the waves. Strands of Anita’s hair rise and fall as they sway with the wind.
“We would have these watching parties in college,” she says, when I ask about how she stayed in touch with cricket in the US. “A bunch of immigrants awake in the middle of the night rooting for a team thousands of miles away. For a few hours, it felt like home.”
“Do you still see India as home?”
“I don’t know what home is anymore. I look Indian, but I feel like a foreigner here,” she says with a sigh. “I remember I was so nervous when I landed here a month ago. My accent seemed to out me, and I was afraid to come across like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“But you didn’t appear nervous at all in Ahmedabad.”
“Well, I didn’t really have a choice. I figured the worst case scenario was that you’d say no and I’d never see you again.”
“Well, I’m glad I said yes then.”
She smiles. “A month ago, I had no idea I’d get to be a part of this,” she says, looking back at the fans crowding the streets. “But now that I’m here and India’s won the World Cup, it’s hard to believe that this is it. Tomorrow, I’ll be in a gloomy cubicle in California.”
“Talk about a long commute,” I say with a laugh.
She frowns and flicks a pebble into the dark waters.
“The night’s not over yet,” I say, thinking of my own fast-dwindling timer. I wonder if there’s a chance I’ll get to meet her after tonight. My work won’t take me to the US, but maybe hers will bring her back to India. “Speaking of your gloomy cubicle, what do you do in the US?”
“I work in tech.”
“You don’t sound too happy about it.”
She gazes at the waves lapping the concrete. “My life’s great on paper, you know? I have a close circle of friends, a nice apartment, and a well-paying job. But this trip happened because I couldn’t stand my daily routine anymore.”
“I figured you’d been planning this trip for a long time.”
She shakes her head. “A couple of months ago, I was at work late one night looking at a bug in my code when the lights in my office turned off. We have these sensors that detect movement, and if there isn’t any for a while, the lights – well, they turn off. I had been sitting in front of my computer staring at a line of code for ten minutes. I wondered what would happen if I didn’t fix the bug. Nothing. The company of twenty thousand would keep chugging along, with or without me.”
“It’s ironic,” I say.
“That you felt insignificant in a company of twenty thousand, and then left on a vacation to a country of a billion.”
“I’m still searching for what I really want to do. But it’s good to know that it can happen. That you can… find your passion. I mean, look at you,” she says, turning to face me.
“I’m lucky as hell to write about cricket for a living,” I say. “Every night isn’t like this, though. A World Cup shows up once in a while, but there isn’t much to savour in between. What I do isn’t art at the end of the day, it’s about page views.”
“But think about how far your words might travel.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s something to be said for the reach of the written word. In a few hours, let’s say someone thousands of miles away reads your article on tonight’s game. It brings a smile to his face and maybe even makes his love for the game deeper. You may never find out that you affected him this way, but isn’t it wonderful that this is possible?”
“Sure, anything’s possible,” I say with a laugh.
Anita looks up to the sound of fireworks that glitter the sky. A strand of her hair catches the wind and rests on her cheek. She brushes it away and stands up on the wall.
“I may not know what home is anymore,” she says, looking out at the sea. “But right now, this is where I want to be.” For a second it seems like the saffron, white and green of her fluttering cape is one with the tricolour of her jersey. The skyscrapers and houses of Nariman Point shine in the distance. If I were a filmmaker, I’d bokeh this visual: keep her in focus, blur the lights in the background, and let the sound of the waves flood over the audience. I sense a connection between us, but I’ve run out of time to see where that can take us.
“Hey, I need to get going.”
She takes my hand and gets down from the wall. “How are you going to find a cab right now?” she asks, looking at the crowded road in front of us.
“Oh, there’s an internet café over there,” I say, pointing to a side street.
“I’ll walk with you.”
What do I even tell my editor? That instead of making my way to the office, I’ve spent the buffer time I had to flirt with a woman I’ll never see again?
A Bhangra number blasts out the open window of a car we pass, and Anita moves her shoulders to the beat. Chants of “Hoy! Hoy!” emerge as fans congregate around the car. I walk past them briskly. I am composing the piece in my mind, ready to go the moment I log on, when we turn the corner and see the internet cafe shuttered down. My stomach drops. An Indian flag, with “Sachin! Sachin!” scrawled on it, is draped across the storefront, covering their ‘24/7’ sign. I shake the shutters in case there’s someone inside. “Hello!” I yell, but I hear no response. What was I thinking? The owner’s probably out on the streets celebrating the victory.
“Fuck fuck fuck.” I bang my fists against the shutters.
“How much time do you have?” Anita asks.
My apartment and office are too far away in this traffic, and I don’t have any friends in the neighbourhood to help me out either. My editor had given me more time than usual to account for the potential madness after the game, and I know it’s going to hurt the magazine if I miss the deadline. This is our website’s biggest payday of the year – fans from all over the world are visiting it and the sooner our articles go up, the more money we make. What do I even tell my editor? That instead of making my way to the office, I’ve spent the buffer time I had to flirt with a woman I’ll never see again?
I dial my editor’s number to ask for forgiveness and a little more time. I see Anita beside me and I walk a few feet away so that she doesn’t hear me stutter through an explanation. Just as I hear a ring on the other end of the line, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Hold on,” I say, not turning to look.
“My hotel’s a fifteen minute walk away, Rajiv. And I’ve got a laptop.”
“Are you sure?” I ask, wheeling around. My editor picks up the phone. Hello?
She nods her head. “Let’s go,” she mouths.
“Just called to say the article’s on track,” I answer my editor.
“Let’s go!” Anita says, taking me by the hand, and I hang up before my editor can hear the cacophony of Marine Drive.
“Sorry about the mess, I wasn’t… ” Anita says, flicking on the lights in her hotel room. I wasn’t expecting company, I finish the sentence in my head. A roller suitcase, filled to the brim with unfolded clothes, lies beneath a wall-mounted TV. Plastic gift bags are strewn around her bed. It’s a big room, and classier than any place I’ve stayed in. There’s the feel-good fragrance of potpourri, the floors are hardwood, and lights from the glittering buildings nearby stream through the window. “Tick tock,” she says with a smile and points to her laptop on the desk. I check my watch – I’ve got forty-five minutes.
She turns on the shower, and I long for one too as I smell the day’s sweat on my skin and clothes. “Write about why Sachin needs to retire,” she says, right before she shuts her bathroom door. Her comment irritates me even though she’s just saved me from an embarrassing conversation with my editor, maybe even from losing future assignments. I bite my lip, and stare at the blinking cursor. The irritation does, however, remind me of our conversation over beer, and the words begin to flow freely.
Clearly, India could not afford to lose. Losing would mean that the greatest one-day cricketer would leave without the format’s ultimate prize. This is for Sachin. This is for India. In that order. Imagine forty thousand people channel that energy. Imagine all your personal demons pop up simultaneously. Imagine a champion spinner at the other end whose twisting body and malleable fingers have ended many an Indian dream in the past. How did the men in blue not crack?
I have fifteen minutes left when the bathroom door opens.
“How’s it going?” she asks.
I turn around from the laptop to see Anita in t-shirt and shorts, drying her hair with a towel.
“So far so good,” I say.
She tosses the towel and starts heaping together the gift bags on her bed. “Sorry, didn’t mean to disturb you.”
An hour ago, I thought I was never going to see her again. But here I am, writing in her hotel room while she packs up for her flight. What do I do after I send in my piece? Does she want me to stick around? I glance at the clock on the laptop screen, and the deadline brings back my focus. I type up the final section, rearrange paragraphs, fix for grammar and delete the redundancies. I proofread one final time, and send with a triumphant mouse click. I recognise the adrenaline, the charge from being in that zone that is so undependable and rare, that short range of time when the words popping on the screen mesh with what I’m trying to say. I know that in a few hours I’ll read the piece I just submitted and berate myself for being over-the-top, but I’ll deal with that self-hatred later. I shut the laptop, and turn to see an empty bed. The door’s propped open.
I spot Anita talking on her cellphone by the elevators at the end of the hallway. She’s out of earshot and doesn’t notice me, and so I pick up a few fries, cold and soggy, from a tray abandoned beside her room. I take a seat on the carpeted hallway and wonder what life would be like if Anita and I lived in the same city. I imagine the two of us in my favourite coffee shop. She lifts the cup to her lips and holds me in her gaze, the mid-afternoon light bringing out the brownness of her eyes. I feel a surge of happiness.
“Are you eating someone else’s leftovers?”
I break out of my reverie, and see Anita walking over, no longer on a phone call.
“It’s not that bad,” I say, offering her the last fry as she sits down across from me. She cringes, and pushes my arm away.
A silence hangs for a few seconds. I follow Anita’s gaze to the carpet. There’s a repeating pattern of concentric circles woven in shades of blue, and she stretches one out with her toe. I eat the rejected fry, and wipe my hands discretely on the wall behind me.
“Everything okay?” I ask.
She nods. “Was on the phone with my parents – they wanted to check if my flight’s departing on time.”
“Yeah. I need to be at the airport in a couple of hours.”
She yawns, and I’m reminded of how late it is. It’s been a long day, but our conversation for the past few hours has kept my tiredness at bay. Now that the conversation’s come to a pause, I’m not sure what’s next. Will I get to meet her again? She yawns once more, and I wonder if it’s a signal that I’m getting in her way.
“So, umm, I need to finish my packing.” She tucks a few errant curls behind her ear and gets up.
I get up as well. “I should probably get going, too.” This time, I avoid an awkward attempt at a handshake, and go for a hug. When we part from our hug, I see her eyes trained on me. I lean in, but our lips only graze before she backs away.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” she says.
“ – Sorry if I misled you. I know I invited you here, but that was just so that you could write your article.”
“Hold on,” I say. There are too many thoughts running through my head for me to offer a reasonable response. I think of the look in her eyes before we kissed – did I misread that?
“Don’t you think there’s something here? Between us, I mean?”
“I don’t think we should take this any further.”
I feel the same nervousness that trapped me when I first met her tonight. I need more time to figure out the right thing to say, but I feel her drifting away with each passing second.
“Why shouldn’t we?” I ask, finally.
“What’s the point? We don’t even live in the same country.”
“Is there a chance you’ll be back in India?”
“I don’t know,” she says, looking down at the carpet.
“You said that you didn’t like your job. Do you think you can find something here?”
Her eyes narrow. “I’ve got a job interview lined up in the States.”
“What’s the job?”
“It’s for a startup that digitises books for libraries.”
“But is that what you really want to work on?”
She looks up and I can tell from the stare that I’m probing too much.
“I don’t know, alright!”
There’s an annoyed thump from the next room, a signal for us to keep it down.
“By the way, how did this conversation become all about me moving back to India?” she whispers, anger still evident in her voice.
“I don’t know what I’d do in the US,” I say. “I write about cricket for a living.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you wrote about Sachin for a living. And I never asked you to move to the US!” she says, and there’s another thump from the room next door.
“Should we go inside?”
“We probably shouldn’t.”
“That’s not what I mean.” I take a deep breath. “Sorry, this isn’t how I wanted the night to end.”
“Neither did I. India just won the World Cup.”
“No way! Really?”
I see her trying to contain her smile, and I begin to laugh. Within seconds, she gives into the laughter as well.
“Rajiv… ” she starts.
“Anita, it’s just that connecting with someone is rare, connecting with someone you’re attracted to, even more so.”
“It does seem like a shame to give this up, but – ”
“ – We can stay in touch online.”
“For how long? Do you think we should keep talking over email in the hope that one day we find ourselves in the same place?”
“I don’t know… there’s something to be said for the reach of the written word.”
She smiles at me, but shakes her head. “Let’s not kid ourselves. This is only going to last till the moment you or I run into someone else we’re attracted to.”
“And do you think that temptation will ruin what we have?”
“What do you think, Rajiv?”
It’s possible that there’s someone else out there I’ll fall for, but what are the chances I’ll meet someone like Anita again? I lock eyes with her and I can tell that she’s made up her mind. She lives in the US, I live here, and I can’t get around that.
“I’m keeping you from your packing,” I say.
She nods, and walks into her room, but leaves the door ajar. “I could use some help.”
“You should write a piece about this crazy woman who took a month off work in the US, and travelled across India to follow the cricket team.”
I walk out of the hotel to see a brightening sky. I hear honking from water lorries and buses on their early morning routes. The remainders of burst fireworks – tiny pieces of red and white paper – litter the street in front of me. I stifle a yawn, and flag a cab parked a few yards away.
“Airport jaana hai,” I tell the driver when he pulls over. He asks for a ridiculous price, and I remind him that he needs to drive to the airport in Mumbai, not Bangalore.
“Kya saab, hum jeetein phir bhi itni kanjoosi?” he asks with a frown. We just won, and yet you’re so stingy?
I try to bring down the rate, but we both hear Anita from the distance asking me not to haggle. The driver smirks knowing he’s got the better of me, and I turn around to see Anita walking towards us with her roller bag and a backpack.
“I have an idea for your next article,” she says as I help load her bags in the trunk.
“You should write a piece about this crazy woman who took a month off work in the US, and travelled across India to follow the cricket team.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” I say, shutting the trunk. “I can pitch that to my editor. But he’ll want a quote from this crazy woman.”
“I’m sure she’ll oblige.”
I pull out a pen from my pocket. “What are your thoughts on this momentous occasion?” I deadpan.
The cabbie honks. She wraps me in a bear hug and shouts for everyone around to hear.
The smattering of early-risers in the vicinity ignore us. The cabbie honks again, and this time it’s my turn.
And then another hug, and she’s gone, with a final wave from the cab.
~ Niyantha Shekar’s work has appeared in the Cricket Monthly, the Madras Mag, the Aerogram, Asian Review of Books, and Nazar Magazine. His writing can be seen at niyantha.com.
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