The compound wall of the school is quite high, higher than any wandering vagrant can jump. All visitors have to pass through an iron gate manned by brusque security guards. All students, staff and faculty members have been issued identity cards, which they show to the security guards to enter the school premises. Others have to get one made to get in side the school. It is one of the most reputed public schools in Delhi and most of the boys come from affluent families.
Cricket is the most popular game amongst the school boys. For many years, the school has been winning the state inter-school cricket trophy. The school cricket team practices regularly after school hours. The cricket team is the pride of the school, a cricket blazer is a rare honour.
Kunwar Sein, son of an army officer was the captain of the cricket team and Gurpreet Singh, son of a rich businessman was one of the probable players. Gurpreet spent good deal of money on Kunwar Sein and the team mates. It helped him to retain his place in the team. Kunwar Sein being the captain of the team received special attention from him. In fact, it was a matter of envy amongst other aspiring players.
There was another boy who watched all these players enviously. Whenever a ball was hit over the nets, he would run to get it. At times he would return the ball with a bowler’s action. The regulars did not like it as they noticed the stinging pace of the ball. This boy was Mohan Singh, the son of late Ranbir Singh, the former bookseller of the school.
Ranbir Singh died of tuberculosis when Mohan was only seven. Those days, suffering from tuberculosis was a social stigma, its treatment was ineffective and generally the patient and the family were ostracized. After the death of Ranbir Singh, the school management gave the school bookshop to Mohan’s mother on compassionate ground, which was the only source of livelihood for the widow and her son. Mohan’s mother sold books and stationery to the students and they lived in the servant quarter behind the school building.
Mohan read in a municipality school, which was run in tents like many other government schools. In the summer months, the tents were hot like ovens. There were no fans or other facilities in the school. The uneven small school ground had weeds and pot holes all over and the sports facilities were conspicuous by their absence.
Mohan was tall and well built. He loved cricket and often dreamed of playing for the state and the country even though his mother often told him that dreams seldom came true. He simply loved the game and loved watching Kunwar Sein and his band playing cricket. He often spent his evenings standing on the periphery of the ground and fetching the ball.
Over the period, the players had come to recognize Mohan. He had become their errand boy. Besides picking the balls, bats and the kit, he attended to their other needs like bringing water, tea, snacks or cigarettes for them.
"Can I bowl you an over," one day he requested Kunwar Sein who was ready with pads on, waiting for the bowlers to come to the pitch.
“OK, but don't throw the ball in my face,” he said feeling magnanimous.
It was for the first time that Mohan bowled as a regular bowler. His maiden attempt was more than Kunwar Sein had expected. It had pace, length and bounce, better than the team’s regular bowlers and much too uncomfortable for Kunwar Sein to handle. The captain was visibly shaken.
“You should practice with us. You can become a good pace bowler,” Kunwar Sein told him. Mohan was overwhelmed.
That opened the doors of the game of cricket for Mohan. Thereon, he put all his heart and soul in practising the game. The school coach saw the potential in him and started guiding him. In couple of months Mohan was the ace bowler of the squad. There was but one snag, he couldn’t have played for the school team.
The state cricket championship was only a couple of months away. That year, they expected tougher competition from their traditional rivals. Kunwar Sein could not think of defeat during his captaincy nor would it have gone well with the school authorities.
“Our chances to lift the trophy can brighten if we have Mohan in our team. We badly need a pace bowler of his calibre. Please talk to the Principal,” Kunwar Sein pleaded with the coach.
The matter was discussed in the school management committee. Should Mohan be given admission in the school? There were divergent opinions.
“We should be discreet in the matter. After all playing food cricket is not the only qualification to get admission in our school,” some of the members opined. Others were more explicit.
“He is the son of a widow, earning her livelihood by selling books and stationery in the school bookshop, which was given to her on compassionate grounds. How do you expect the young lad to be comfortable in the company of the rest?”
The varied arguments continued but the prospects of losing to the rival school cast gloomier feelings, which ultimately weighed in Mohan's favour. He was admitted in the school and granted sports scholarship.
It was a dream coming true for Mohan.
Mohan was soon the best attack bowler of the school team. He practised relentlessly for hours together. His mother was very happy for him but deep in her heart she had some premonition. She had a foreboding that things happening to her son were too good to last.
The school lifted the state championship trophy that year. Mohan’s contribution was commendable in achieving the honour. There were accolades for him but he had earned some enemies as well.
Gurpreet was not a happy person for he had lost his place in the team to Mohan. This was hurting him and his father felt insulted whose annual donation to the school benevolent fund was the highest.
That year the school decided to send its cricket team on a foreign tour to a neighbouring country. It was a rare opportunity for the players. Gurpreet, like any one else was keen to be included in the squad and that would have been possible only if Mohan was excluded.
Unfortunately for Mohan, his mother was not in good health. She could not keep the long hours of the bookshop. Mohan didn’t have time or inclination to work in the book shop. In fact, he felt it humiliating to work in the bookshop selling books to his school mates.
The bookshop was therefore not opened regularly and on time. The matter was reported to the school management. Gurpreet's father who had a major say in the school management committee decided to use the situation and get the matter raised in the management committee meeting.
“The woman should realize that the shop was given to her on compassionate grounds. She can’t take it for granted. Either she should observe the timings laid down by the management or quit.” Gurpreet’s father was unequivocal on the matter and the rest of the members had no reason or will to oppose him.
A notice was served on Mohan's mother conveying management’s displeasure over irregular functioning of the school bookshop. It read, “Irregular functioning of the bookshop is harming students’ interest. You are given a month’s notice to improve its functioning; adhere to the prescribed hours failing which you should vacate the school bookshop.”
For Mohan, the notice was no less than a death warrant.
“If only I were not poor, if only my mother were not sick …….. I would have gone with the team and played on a foreign land. That would have brought him money and fame.”
“The bookshop gives us bread and shelter. If they take it away, what will we do? Where will we stay? We will starve and die in the open. Son, I know how much you love cricket but it is your misfortune that you have to forgo your love for the game and instead run a bookshop,” his mother said in a feeble voice.
Mohan took the notice in his hand read it several times.
“Mother, I understand the gravity of the situation. I had only aspired for a bright future by excelling in the game. Perhaps it was not my destiny … perhaps it is a curse to be born poor. I am a better player than most of the team members but…,” he couldn't continue.
He knew he had come so near his goal and yet he was so far away.
That evening he wept in the lap of his ailing mother. He decided to stay away from the game and help his mother in the bookshop. That night, his mother wept more than she had wept on the death of her husband.
Mohan now opens the bookshop before the classes start and remains there till his mother comes to replace him. He rushes to the shop during recess and immediately after the last period. Consequently, he has been removed from the school team for not attending the practice sessions and Gurpreet included in the final squad. Gurpreet’s father has in the mean time made a magnanimous offer to pay for the team’s entire kit and blazers. Everyone has lauded his fine gesture.
These days the players are practising enthusiastically in a training camp arranged specially before the tour. Kunwar Sein, the captain feels that the team lacks a good seam bowler but he is not inclined to discuss it with the coach. He realizes that Gurpreet will be a better option to have by his side while shopping.
Standing in the book shop Mohan some times listens to the shouts coming from the cricket ground.
“A good shot or perhaps a good ball claiming a wicket,” he imagines and then with a little pause resumes his work.