“Three rejections. THREE BLOODY REJECTIONS, Xuri! What in the world is wrong with you?”
I’m sitting uncomfortably as my boss, who’s obviously yelling at me, stands up in fury. I’ve never felt like this- so horrible and unsuccessful- in all my years working here. I’m completely aware the my shoulders are tensed, there is an unusual frown tarnishing my otherwise very confident expression and I’m fidgeting with the miniature statue of Charlie Chaplin that always played its role in adorning my boss’ desk.
I still can’t wrap my head around this situation, so opening my mouth and forming a sentence that goes beyond “I…” is impossible. Moreover, the elevated level of tension makes me feel as if the elephant in the room has walked up to me and put its foot on top of my head, and is waiting to push down and kill me.
My boss, who’s staring down at the busy street below from the window, turns around slowly. With a lot of effort (cough, elephant, cough), I manage to lift my head a little and meet her heart -stopping gaze. She sighs, closes her eyes and says, “Have you any idea of how much money we have lost? We never held back any expense, I supported all your ideas, I trusted you…” Her eyes fly open and she yells, “Now I have to go back and tell boss that your third pilot has been rejected! You were one of the best we had! You came up with Indian Vagabonds! What is wrong with you? Absolute rubbish… Such an embarrassing position for me… losing your touch…” I only seem to register parts of what she says, feeling smaller than ever. I’m just sitting there, my eyes back to staring at Charlie’s little face, and feeling that elephant bring his foot down little by little, in tune with the menacing verbal blows my boss continues to hit me with.
When she’s finally done with her yelling, and after I finally leave that cabin of hell, I walk straight to my much smaller cabin on the other side of the office, grab my bag, and head out. The Mumbai monsoon is in full swing, so I run to my car. Slamming the door shut, I throw my bag into the passenger seat and rest my head on the wheel, and I can’t help the tears that pour down my already wet face when I close my eyes. What is wrong with me?
The drive is long, and the traffic murderous. It takes me ages to get home, and when I finally do, I can only think about hitting the sack. Falling to sleep, however, isn’t that easy. What is happening here? I’m a creative director. My boss has threatened to fire me. I came up with two of the three top shows the production house has ever produced, and all of a sudden all that is old news and all my newer ideas, which, by the way, sounded super at the start, have been frowned upon by the channels they have been presented to.
I roll uncomfortably in and out of sleep, before giving up and pulling myself out of bed. I walk to the window and stare out into the not-so-dark darkness. The clock on the wall reads 5:34 am. Taking a spur of the moment decision, I pull open my closet and change into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, put on socks and my running shoes, tie my hair in an untidy ponytail and head out. Looks like my daily morning run is going to happen much before it usually does.
Running on Carter Road is definitely one of my favourite things to do. Sandwiched between the road and the Arabian Sea is a promenade, where there are always people walking, running, or just hanging out. My run and the sun simultaneously make progress; its risen by the time I’ve reached the end of the stretch and I’ve experienced the light orange coloured spectacle that occurs in Mumbai everyday. It makes me want to run more, and take a different route. I cross the road and get into a random lane, which I follow with more random turns. I’ve lost track of time, and my mind is all over the place. Suddenly, however, the sight of one single edifice in front of me makes me stop.
Seven years. It has been seven years since I last came here. Seven years since I last ran into these gates trying not to be late, the gigantic bag bouncing on my shoulders with every hurried stride… yet excited to see the faces of the four people who brightened my every day, just as the sun rises over the sea to brighten the city. Unconsciously, I begin walking. It’s as if my legs have a mind of their own, and before I know it I’m walking in. That distinct smell, the memories that I haven’t faced for what seems like an eternity, the sound that the tiny black rubber ball makes while following the pattern of hitting first the racquet, then the wall, then the wooden floor, and then the glass… its all hitting me at once.
By the time I’ve managed to seat myself at a table by the pool, I’m completely taken away from the media world where I’m being broken into smithereens. My mind is swimming with memories that I haven’t looked at for years, and its as if a chest that has been locked up in my mind has suddenly been opened and its old contents are taking over by whole body. The waiter whom I had feverishly asked for a coffee comes and puts down a cup in front of me, which I sip on instantly, relishing its strong taste. I can’t help but remember how three disgusted faces would watch me drink my coffee in those days. I can’t handle it anymore. I was born and brought up in a world that I had left. A world of squash. Now that I had re-entered it, I had to re-discover its heart.
I’m walking down the corridor that leads to the squash courts. The walls on each side are covered in frames of pictures of the squash players that had represented the club over the years, while boards listed the national champions the club had produced since the club’s establishment. I’m walking slowly, looking at every picture, until I finally reach one that leaves me stumped. This was one I had never seen before. I’m looking at my own face.
There I am, along with my fellow “thanes”, my face shining with sweat, hair tied up in a messy ponytail, the collar of my shirt popped. The caption below the picture reads “L-R: Karthik Saxena, Xuri Roy, Raj “Ricky” Chainani, Mark Fernandes, and Coach Bagley”. The picture has my full attention, and I’m analyzing every bit of it. We’re all smiling, with Coach Bagley donning his signature curving of the lip. A sudden voice makes me jump. I’m looking at that very same face with that very same little smile, but the face is now a little different from the picture- slightly more aged.
“I wondered when I would see one of you again. Something did tell me you would be the first one to fly back to the nest.”
“Coach Bagley,” I manage, still unable to get over his presence. “You’re… still here!”
“Not dead yet, if that’s what you’re saying,” comes the quick reply.
I can’t help but smile. I’m just realising how much I’ve missed that distinct accent, more Indian than British, which in itself explained that Coach Bagley had moved to India decades ago from England. I don’t even know what to say, and its only when his figure starts becoming a little blurry that I realise that my eyes are getting watery. I can’t help myself anymore, and I just go over to him and hug him. I hope that somehow, in that hug, I was able to convey the mixed feelings and more than anything else, an apology for not having seen him once in seven years. The four of us had, in our own ways, managed to escape, and we had left him here to deal with the disturbing reality that had made us swerve from our common path.
An hour later, I’m sitting with Coach Bagley on the pool-deck and we’re sipping on Earl Greys. We’ve been catching up, and its mostly me updating him on what I’ve been up to. The rain has today allowed the sun to take the spotlight, at least for now, and though weak, the light and the dryness is most appreciated.
“So coach… all these years, and you still love what you do?”
He looks at me straight in the eye for a good five seconds, and the well- trained lines on his face form that little smile as his eyes twinkle.
“Of course. You guys are still looking for whatever on earth you’re looking for. I found what I was looking for, and I have it all. This isn’t a job anymore. Its just life itself.” He drains his cup and breaks looks back at me. “But what about you? Media, I heard?”
I gulp. I’d completely forgotten about my job for a couple of hours. I mean, I haven’t even called my boss to tell her I won’t be in today.
“It’s… good. Creative director, which is great. Usually. Well, to be honest, it’s all going for a toss right now. I’m messing it up.”
“Ah, say no more. When I was your age… I was a waste of space. A waste… and just, you know, wasted most of the time. Just look for something to hold on to. Everything will fall into place.” He winks, and the stands. “Got to go, little one. Got to ref a doubles game so that those guys don’t re-create a squash-themed Shakespearean tragedy. It was nice to see you, Xuri. And it’d be nice to see you again soon. Try to get the rest of the monkey brigade with you as well, okay?”
And with that, he’s off. As I watch him walk away, I can’t help but smile. The “monkey brigade”… I’d almost forgotten he used to call us that. We all really did go our own separate ways, didn’t we? And all this time, coach was still here, still playing squash, still refereeing doubles matches… hold on? Doubles matches? I don’t remember that ever happening here.
I walk back to the courts wondering what he was talking about. This time I make it all the way down the corridor, and push open the double doors. I gasp. It’s different. For one thing, all four courts are now glass back, as opposed to just one. And it’s all air-conditioned. The AC used to be a big deal for us, because we used to train with just the fans on. I see Coach sitting outside the one court that’s occupied and walk towards him to see whats going on. I’m a little perplexed with what I see. There are four men playing on the court, and the sight takes both the flashbacks I’ve been having all day and the changes I’ve seen and throws them out the window. The men are dressed-old school, which doesn’t look too out of place, because the men seem to be at least in their 60s or 70s. They’re just playing simple doubles squash, and they seem to be having the time of their lives. Looking sideways at me for a moment, Coach looks at me and says with a smile, “Every morning. When you’re retired and all you have to do is reap the benefits of your life’s work… nothing like doubles on a singles court, eh?”
Doubles on a singles court. We used to play that every Sunday. Karthik, Ricky, Mark and I. “Just look for something to hold on to,” he had said. Its time, I think, for the thanes, the monkey-brigade, to come together. As soon as I reach home, I feel like a different person. We couldn’t change what had happened seven years ago. Life had gone on, but I feel as if some unworldly force was pulling us together once again. I’ve been feeling it for a while now, actually, but I’ve just been ignoring it. I settle down on the couch with a plate of sliced apples and make the call to Ricky.
“Hello Xuri Roy.”
He has always been a happy-go-lucky lad. Not many things made a lasting impact on him. I have always envied his outlook on life, because to Ricky, life is a holiday. He is laid back, and the kind of guy that preferred to watch the action than actually perform. On court, he was known for his patience. He could play drives forever and ever and never get bored.
I had been in touch with Ricky a few times. He’s now running his family’s hotel chain, and is enjoying his life to the fullest. He often jets off to random places for holidays, and has a bachelor pad on Pali Hill, where he lives with his pet golden retriever, Maple. Overall, it seems as if his life is just like his personality- relaxed and never changing. I knew that Ricky would be the easier one to convince.
Karthik, on the other hand, was proving very hard to get in touch with. Mind you, he always had been, which is why I, just like everyone else I had spoke to about him, had failed miserably in finding him. No calls, no emails, no messages. Its like he’s vanished, which is why I had given up trying to get hold of him a couple of years ago. But now, I’m more determined than ever. I’ve checked every phone book, gone through the contacts on my phone, my laptop and basically done everything I can think of to find some number or email ID that will lead me to him. Sitting on the floor with papers strewn all around me, I feel like a detective. Amidst all these papers are things that are pushing me towards finding him even more, mostly in the form of pictures. There are so many of us together, in so many places… Köln, Stuttgart, Amsterdam, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Hong Kong… the list goes on. They’re mostly all the places we traveled to play squash. But after digging through all the drawers and closets in the house, I’ve found nothing that I haven’t already tried before. I start gathering all the photos so that I can pile them up neatly, when one I that had so far managed to evade me catches my eye. It’s a candid photo of the four of us sitting causally at a round table, with cups in front of us, and it looks as if Mark has cracked a joke and we’re laughing. Of course, I think to myself. If there was one person who Karthik would have been in touch with at least once, it was the very person who took this picture, and she would be at the very place this picture was taken.
The next morning, I’m standing on a footpath in a small and quiet by-lane in Fort, and staring across the road. As I expected, nothing had been changed, and nothing had been repaired. ‘Mark’s Tea Shop’ was still written in cursive on a now decaying wooden plank, and the old-world charm it would exude back in the day had only been enhanced by the years. The family had named the café after Mark because they had started it the year he was born. I hadn’t even thought of what I as going to say; I hadn’t even told her I was coming. The only person I’d called was my boss, who sounded quite mad that I’d called in sick for the second day in a row. I mean, I had kept in touch with Mrs. Fernandes over the years, but I’d only managed to visit her twice in the past seven years, and both those visits were six years ago. Well, it’s now or never. I gulp away my nerves and start walking.
There is a new guy behind the counter, I notice, and not Nikhil. He looks at me questioningly when I walk up to him and ask for Mrs. Fernandes, and asks me my name before going on behind. Several seconds later he re-appears, and tells me to follow him. I know where we’re going after walking for just a few seconds. Playing Dark Room in this house during my childhood so often meant that I know the ins and outs of this house with my eyes closed, literally. Finally I enter the room I’ve dreaded to for so long, because if I know anyone in this family at all, then I’m sure that this room especially had not been touched. Mark’s light-blue themed room is still the same, except now the walls are peeling and it was a little cleaner than it was when he used to occupy it. And there, sitting on the chair by the window that looks over the tiny winding street is Mrs. Fernandes. Mrs. Charmayne Fernandes. We lock eyes and I can’t seem to find anything to say. Funny thing is, it seemed that neither could she. Our silence, however, was unbearably loud. It was yelling at the top of its voice, about Memories that were begging to be visited. She gives me a sad smile and in her eyes I see both forgiveness and relief before she stands up and we embrace.
The room is the catalyst. It is a world on its own. We’ve not only managed to speak to each other after so long, but we’ve managed to strike up a flourishing conversation. I had pretty much grown up with these three guys, they had always been my family, and our home was the club. But here, this little cafe was our refuge. Every weekend, after training in the afternoon, when the rest of the city was indoors and the shop was shut for an hour, we would cart ourselves here and camp out. The four of us and Charm, who would supply us with platefuls of lemon tarts, shortbread, and sugared khari biscuits, along with our choice of beverage to sip on. But this room… this room is Mark. We used to hang out here when the shop was open and Nikhil wouldn’t allow us to hang out there. The walls are still adorned with posters of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Mark’s favourite Indian movie, Sholay. At the head of his bed was a large cutout of Freddie Mercury: the classic pose with one hand up and the yellow jacket. Below is a picture of the four of us outside a squash court, striking poses and looking serious, while pretending our racquets were guns. Its as if it was only yesterday that the we were here and talking about nothing and everything, and right now it almost feels as if Mark is going to walk in at any moment. But he isn’t. It has taken me a long time to accept and make peace with the fact that mark is gone, he is dead.
Round two of the day. I’m now back on my side of town in Bandra, and I’m looking at Karthik’s old house, which is one of the old bungalows that line both sides of Turner Road. I don’t understand. It’s a five-minute drive from my own house, so he’s been right under my nose! Charm said that the whole family had moved back to Dubai, and then she’d heard from his mother saying Karthik was planning on coming back. That was a year ago. Had he been just here the whole time? All these thoughts are making me angry. He could have dropped a bloody line. Idiot. I rap on the door.
Ten seconds later, the door flings open and in half an instant, my anger has disappeared. Okay I hadn’t been ready for that. In front of me is a man clad in a wrinkled sky-blue shirt and dark wash jeans, his hair a little unkempt and spiked with grey, and wise but tired eyes. He is well built, and nothing like the lanky boy I had known. Yet, even if his cheeks aren’t pulled inside like they used to be, there is no doubt that its still Karthik. He just isn’t the boy who’d run off after his best friend died. He’s a man, and a handsome one at that.
Some time later I’m seated on one of about thirty wooden boxes, and Karthik is on one opposite me. When I’d asked what it was all about, he had said, “Flew in from Pondicherry two days ago, actually.” Though we started off a little awkward, we’ve managed to talk a lot. Its always been easy between us, even in the old days we confided everything from family issues to dating problems, though Mark and him were inseparable. So far I’ve learned that Karthik left for Dubai to live with his uncle after Mark died, as his parents had planned to shift base there anyway, though he never broke that news to us. After deciding to move back to India he been in Pondicherry for two months, and now he’s here. He is an investment banker, which, I can’t help but think, means that he’s done pretty well for himself. Suddenly, the front door flies open and a little girl in a olive green frock bounds towards Karthik. Upon reaching him she says “Hi pa!” I’m shocked as Karthik’s lights up and he says, “There’s my princess! Why don’t you go wash up before coming down again?” Hold on, rewind.
I’m glowering at him as he makes a sandwich for his daughter in the kitchen and he tells me all the things he had obviously and so convenientlymanaged to leave out. He’d gotten married in Dubai, two years after which he had his daughter, Naina. However, his wife and him had gotten divorced a year ago, and he had decided to move back. I’ve noticed how sensitive and somber he’s been while telling me all this, so I’ve reluctantly chosen to omit questions like “what went wrong?” and “how did you get custody?” Before leaving, I converse with Naina, who I almost immediately fell in love with, and, of course, tell him why I really came. Somehow, after a LOT of talking, I had managed to convince him to come to Mark’s.
“One week. Just give me a week off.”
“A week! Even the bloody prime minister doesn’t take a week off!”
“Well, of course he doesn’t. I don’t quite think he has a leave clause in his contract, now.”
“DON’T get cheeky with me. You want a week off? Fine, take it. But you better come back with a terrific idea for a show. Now leave me be. Unlike you, I’m working hard here.”
And the line goes cut.
Well, it wasn’t smooth, but mission accomplished. I look up from my phone to see that Ricky’s arrival is well timed. Sitting next to me, he asks, “Think Kar-thin is going to show?”
“Yes,” I reply, sounding more confident than I actually am, “and you’re in for a surprise if you think he’s still thin.”
“Oh no! Got a beer belly, has he? Or maybe he ate too much of those- ”
He stops, and I know why. In walks Karthik, this time more groomed. I can guess why he made sure to look dapper- he’s nervous about seeing Charm as well.
We’re in Mark’s room. Charm and Karthik had an emotional meeting, but I don’t know the full story because I had to excuse myself to go to the washroom and cry. I had returned five minutes later to find Karthik still with his arms around her thin, trembling body, and when we locked eyes as he looked above her head, I saw that his eyes were shining as well. Now it’s just us three, and Ricky and I are trying and failing to convince Karthik to come back to the club and get on court. Suddenly, I burst.
“I DON’T CARE HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE WE HELD A RACQUET! I MISS YOU GUYS! ALL I’M SAYING IS AN HOUR OF SQUASH ON SUNDAY! IS IT REALLY THAT HARD?!” I cool down a bit. “Look around you. This is Mark. All these bands, the pictures, the tradition. Mark liked to hold on to the past. Maybe we should try to hold on to him, just a little bit, and in a good way. Karthik, you know he would have wanted this.”
I think I’ve done it, because ten seconds of silence later, Karthik looks at me again and says, “Okay. Sunday, 10 am.”
Its Sunday morning. I’m looking at the dusty squash bag in front of me; I’ve just pulled it out from the depths of my cupboard. From all the zips still hang key chains of the different places we had played tournaments in. I open it to find three racquets, my shoes, which were quite new when I bought them, and everything else I needed. It would work for today, but maybe I needed to update my squash kit.
Upon reaching the club, I find Ricky already waiting outside the court, all ready. “I woke up and I couldn’t wait!” he says excitedly, dangerously waving his racquet around. In walks Coach Bagley, all ready as well, and says “we better get started already, as quickly as these oldies are done.”
“Coach,” I whisper, astonished, “they’re pretty much your age, I wouldn’t call them old.”
“I appreciate the compliment, little one, but even if I’m their age it doesn’t matter. Watch me on court and you’ll agree, I’ll thrash all three of you put together.”
“For now” says Ricky, a played up evil smile on his lips. ”Alright, where is the late one?”
“I’m here, Riskster, relax.”
We turn to see Karthik walking in, dressed for squash, his bag in his left hand and with Naina hanging onto his left.
Of course, we don’t exactly play our best squash. In fact, I wouldn’t even call what we play squash. But that isn’t even the point. We play a few games of doubles, and then play three-quarter court for a while. After we play, the three of us head to Mark’s where Charm does everything she did for us when we were juniors. After feasting on lemon tarts we head to Mark’s room. It had felt strange not having him on court, but as we stare at that picture of us on his wall we know that he actually is with us, because we all carry him in our hearts.
Karthik breaks the silence and says, “I think this is what we needed. And I think this really is what Mark wanted. I feel like he’s right here. I’ve tried to run away form him in an effort to heal but I think I just realised that being right here, with you guys and squash and all our memories, is just what we need to heal and just… be.”
Its now six months since that first Sunday. We’ve played on twenty-four Sundays. Karthik and I, however, have been playing much more. We’ve been going to the courts at least twice a week, but we’ve also been just hanging out, the two of us and Naina. Work has been falling into place, because I was somehow motivated to take the first rejected idea and revamp it, which seemed to work. I’ve noticed Karthik starting to get a little happier with everyday- the tiredness is gone from his eyes and when he laughs I catch a glimpse of old Kar-thin. Right now, the two of us are sitting on one of the benches on Carter Road and staring at the sea; it was the first time I accompanied Karthik while he dropped Naina to school. “You know,” he says to me, taking a bite of his spiced corn on the cob, “she really likes you. You’ve been so good to her. She had started asking all these questions about her mother and I just couldn’t answer. But its weird, your entry into her life has made her forget about all that.” I smile and say, “She’s lovely. I love spending time with her, you know that. And you know I’ll always have her back.”
We’re silent for a minute. I check my watch; I’ve got five more minutes before I absolutely have to head to work. And there, right on cue and very gently, he holds my hand. We don’t look at each other, but I can’t help but smile as I hold his too. It took us long enough.
Squash did something for all of us. Our relationship with the sport hadn’t ended up being what we thought it would have been when we were teenagers. We didn’t play professionally, we didn’t travel to more places to play tournaments, we didn’t have sponsors, and we weren’t in the sports sections of newspapers. Regardless, we loved the sport and played for the sheer fun of it. We valued it. It brought us back together, Mark included.
We go through life experiencing so many changes. Even if we don’t want change, life just changes. People change, situations change, and its our job to adapt to these changes to live. But sometimes, we need something constant to keep us from losing ourselves completely. Even if it was just an hour or so of squash on Sunday, it was a constant tradition we had managed to re-establish, and we knew that it was the safety net we had to fall back on if and when everything else changed.