Ajeet was second down in the batting rooster for the cricket trials at school; hoping to break the glass ceiling this time.
Dug out for him was a lone piece of ground along with the fluttering, empty packets of chips and cringed newspaper leaves, used by people to sit on. He rose from amongst the oil-headed, ganji spotting audience; towards the municipality park to exhibit his skills with the bat. Ajeet stood up and walked towards the pitch with shaky legs, but a steady head. He faced the first swing ball and flipped it for a six, caught by a vegetable vendor. Ajeet’s face pumped with confidence. He looked around for appreciation, but that was a rare joy to come. Amongst the audience of village urchins, vendors, passer-bys and on-lookers Ajeet’s display of skill was nothing more than the audacity of a boy from the backward caste. While Ajeet scored half a century, most by-standers mulled over Hariram’s courage to let Ajeet compete with the upper-caste boys.
Cricket game knows no upper caste or lower caste; the player in Ajeet scooped the ball to the boundary and collected four runs. But there were still no cheer girls or loud clapping for him. How could the poor villagers; dare they cheer a lower-caste boy.
Ajeet’s focus had always been cricket, just like archery for Arjuna in Mahabharata. He was an exceptional batsman who could accumulate a humungous score for his team. Poor guy had never experienced applaud and appreciation. Therefore an absence of same did not deter his spirit. All of fourteen, he was not oblivious to the reason of this discrimination. Ajeet stood like a single crusader, fighting the odd balls from odd people, who had already been poisoned with caste and creed. The only person he trusted other than his father Hariram was his couch Dhani, who had honed his batting skills. Even on that day, Dhani’s single resonating clap was giving Ajeet the stimulus to hit for the next six.
Dhani had spotted him recently and desired to groom him. “Give your son to me for just three years, I will make a Sachin Tendulkar out of him,” reflected the couch. Hariram had not accepted the offer; it was akin to opening a barrage of ridicule for Ajeet from the upper caste. Also why would he let loose an earning hand for the family?
Next day morning at school, chirpy boys stood at the bulletin board. The cricket list was out. There were obvious names. Decision was not driven by skill but by favoritism. Ajeet had missed school. He did not wish to be a piece of meat in the tiger’s den. Absence of a few days from school would settle down the itchy ridicule of the upper class and things would just get normal.
In the evening Ajeet was oiling his father’s cycle when Dhani came running towards them. “Ajeet my boy, you are in the school cricket team. I saw your name, Ajeet. Congratulations. Hariram I told you, your son is a gem,” pitched Dhani while sprinting towards the father-son duo.
Ajeet did not budge and Hariram sat hunched on his ant thin legs. The clarion trumpet had fallen on deaf ears. When Dhani got close to Ajeet, he shook him looking for a mutual celebration. Ajeet stepped out disgruntled, “Coachji, it is not me. But it is Jeet with his father’s name in initial. A. Jeet (Atal Jeet). They did this on purpose to ridicule me. I had checked the list even before the guard opened the dilapidated gate of the school, least they all would hound me out.”
But the coach did not bat his eyelid and spoke to Hariram, “Bhai, I am going to adjust Ajeet into the team through the caste quota.” Unfortunately his words worked like fuel to the fire. “Coachji, I don’t want favours. I am a young man of blood and muscles. My caliber and integrity should give me what I deserve. Not these candies thrown by you people. Can’t we just be human beings? With no caste and creed tag attached to us! I feel suffocated when anybody tries to cage me in a type,” was the raged reply from Ajeet.
Hariram had no say in his son’s stubbornness. He worked as a LDC at a college and could give his family a below average lifestyle. He wished Ajeet to avail the job quota, but he knew that his son did not believe in free lunches. As for Dhani, he genuinely saw the talent in Ajeet and wished him to excel. He had coaxed Ajeet’s parents into accepting the offer but Ajeet was a tough nut to crack.
Ajeet completed school and joined college based on his average marks and not on any recommendations by his father. Over the next couple of years Ajeet continued playing and participating but he was never selected in the team. Ajeet finished college and decided to look out for job in the city. He got a job with a travel house. And cricket was a closed chapter at least for his family.
City was a new change for him; very different from how he had looked up to its sky-kissing buildings when he was a kid. It was more chaotic and cacophonic now and the stillness in the air strangled him.
One day when Ajeet had stepped out for a meeting, his eyes had caught the sight of the formidable Shivaji Park. It bedazzled under the sparkled flood lights with aspiring souls strutting around. Their white jerseys wore the colours of rainbow. Ajeet’s heart missed many beats looking at the freedom on the field. The scene reignited a million dreams in his heart.
Ajeet would sneak in to Shivaji Park every day after work. On the first day he strode out with wobbly legs, fearing that he will be chuckled out of the park for being a from a low caste. It was late evening and there was a sea of broods playing. Screams, shouts, shrieks were echoing from all sides of Shivaji Park. Small children could flip the bat with immense ease and confidence. Ajeet moved to an aloof corner, fearing getting spotted for being an outsider. He set-up the bails and practiced aiming them with his swings and continued doing so until it was time for Uncle to return from work.
Ajeet worked during the day and practiced his passion at day end. The still of the night was a witness to his insanity. He slogged hard. Aimed harder. Hit the bat hardest. It did not matter if his jersey was sponsored, but his sportsmanship was not acquiescent to any brand name.
It was midnight and Ajeet was in a pool of saline rivulets streaming throughout his body. Creaking sound of someone’s shoes and trampling of the grass caught his attention. Ajeet got scared. Not for the fear of the unknown, but of the known – of the classified people who used and abused the tribe of his kind to their advantage. He apprehended an unknown command ordering him to vacate the field. His heart lost a beat when he heard, “You are an excellent player. I have seen you practice here in the last five months. A little more fineness and you will sparkle in the galaxy of Indian Cricket Team.”
It was the voice of a Mumbaikar in his mid forties, standing at the wicket-keeper side. His demeanor was free-spirited, wearing a cheap quality shirt while showing off his neck-line. His feet stood firm; showing off his authority over the park. Ajeet ignored him and stayed focused on the bails. “Listen, young man, I can refer you to someone in the team. Maybe they could give you a chance to play in the team? Should you be interested, call me at this number,” saying so the stranger left the park.
Ajeet was flummoxed at the proposal. After much reflection on the stranger, he found no harm in trying his luck. Life so far has been deserts walk for him, with no mirage, least an oasis. Today luck has turned in his favour and opened the floodgates to opportunities. He was affirmative about calling the man and jumping into the unknown. His name was Rambir and he worked in the administrative block of the stadium.
After a fortnight of follow-ups with Rambir, Ajeet found a time slot for his trials in one of the finest stadiums of Mumbai. It was not like the Dusshera ground in the village spotted with potholes and puddles in rainy season. The pitch was as it should be – green. The players were in spotless white dress. The selectors were seated in the dug-out. Each aspirant played their game with perfection; however Ajeet’s hand work and foot work bowled one and all. He was a star performer - bereft of any fancy jerseys or sports shoes. Ajeet barely managed to fit into the decade old jersey of the stranger. The shoes were a tad big size, but Ajeet filled in the gorges with cotton wool. The special hands-me-down bat befitted a museum, but for Ajeet the participation mattered and no doubt he nailed it. In the coming months he was living his dream. His exceptional display of all forms of cricket won the hearts of not only the critics but also senior players. Columnist wrote about his meteoritic rise - his phenomenal skill at taking wickets or sweeping an easy six. Some sports journalist even wrote that he was on a performance enhancing drug. Ajeet was too naïve to understand the news coverage.
It was only when his name was announced in the team that he felt the heat of the attention. Brands sponsored his jerseys, shoes, cricket kit, rehydrating drinks and even wished for him to endorse their products.
“Uncle, I had always told Baba, that unless you have the talent and show your worth, reservations will not take us to the end of our destination. Quotas take us to a point, but eventually we have to show our mettle. We have been living in a farce. Today I am in the Indian team because they saw the required aptitude, not because I belong to a certain reserved class,” Ajeet had once debated with his Uncle.
In a fortnight the big match was scheduled. The run-up was tough. He still did not leave his day job, lest he had something to fall back on. Rambir often paid visits, giving his tips and trivia’s. The schedule for the Ranjhi Cup was announced and Ajeet invited his parents and old well-wisher Dhani to watch him play in the stadium.
Ajeet woke up to the aroma of his mothers cooking. His father’s face beamed with regalement when he skimmed through the pictures and write-ups about Ajeet in various sports editions of newspapers and magazines.
“Ajeet? I thought I will meet your new friend here and express my gratification to him,” said his father.
“Who? Rambir? He will meet us at the stadium. You can thank him there,” beamed Ajeet.
His father added, “He has been an angel. I remember how he came to our house, telling us what a brilliant son we had.”
Ajeet was sorting things for the evening match, when his father’s words electrocuted him. “What? When had he come home? He never told me!” exclaimed Ajeet. The conversation was cryptic but Ajeet had no time for it now and parked it. At the moment his focus was the match in the evening.
Ajeet finished the match with a personal score of seventy eight runs. It was a pool match, irrespective Ajeet’s marvelous inning shot him to the ‘to look out for players’ list of aspiring cricketers.
No sooner did the match get over than Ajeet ran to get things sorted with Rambir. For obvious reasons Rambir was always his guest at all the stadium. Ajeet sprinted towards Rambir and without holding back asked, “Hey, have you been to my house? My parents told me.” Ajeet frowned wondering the reason.
Rambir ignored him. His new acquisition kept him busy and he gathered a strange horizon of content upon his face. Ajeet felt a shiver passing down his spine and said, “Rambir, answer me!”
Rambir flustered but out of dollops of accomplishment and content. “You know Ajeet, to me you appear like one of the many froth particles that make up the massive sea tide and once the tide reaches the shore, the froth becomes history. Likewise you were instrumental in getting that tide of revolution to the shore.”
“Stop the puzzles and tell me the truth,” demanded Ajeet.
“Did you read the sports headlines today? They have written about you. Your skill at the game and how easy it is for you guys to make your headway into any job, college, school and training through this ‘reservation ticket’,” said Rambir in an acrimonious voice.
Ajeet could not hold back any further and stomped towards Rambir and held his collar, “How dare you! Who says that? It’s all hard-earned for me. I have slogged for this day. I did not avail any quota. Better get that Rambir.”
Rambir smirked, “Ha, who says that? Look at the printed certificate. This says it all. You made it through this quota.”
Ajeet’s eyes were a ball of fire and blood gurgled through his head, beads of anger were visible on his face. He squatted, held his head in his hand and spoke inarticulately, “Now I know, why you had made those secret visits to my home. Why did you do so? I had trusted you. I am a non-believer in quota, but you proved me wrong Rambir”
Rambir flared, “When I was your age I had a similar passion for the game. Although exposures were limited at that time, I got through the list of probable’s at the University and State team level and waited with bated breath to play for my State and University. But unfortunately that never happened because some clerk in the office pulled out my name and instead appalled me by giving a mediocre players name. All in the name of ‘Quota’. I am not from your caste and neither I am a Brahmin. So basically I am not classified. And unfortunately humanity is no class to belong to.” Ajeet empathized with Rambirs’s agony on not being selected, but the foul play could still not be justified. “I understand the pain Rambir. But why have you pulled me into this soup?” implored Ajeet.
“Why? Because that gentleman who played the quota card for a friend’s son was your father,” answered Rambir.
Ajeet was transfixed at Rambir’s jeremiad. He felt cheated and abused. He saw his dignity crumbling down. But at the same time he marveled at the brilliantly executed revenge plan of Rambir for a ten year old pain - Disgrace for the son and revenge from the father. Ajeet wondered at who was the winner in this entire melee. Was it him who felt pride in a hoax honour or was it his father who extended a help to a fellow outcaste person or was it Rambir who succeeded in taking a revenge. He thought that at least the loser was unanimous – it was him.
Rambir walked out of the stadium without bidding a goodbye, while Ajeet sat lamenting. He looked out at the wide stadium, the dimming flood lights, empty seats, lifeless stadium and the strayed hawker’s, while bewailing at his misfortune. Neither could Ajeet let his anger run looser on his father nor on Rambir. One earnestly wished him to succeed and the other showcased his passion on the national level.
Next day was not a new day for Ajeet. He visited the team office to make some announcements. The team manager received him but with a brush of doubt about the recent controversies published. Without much adieu Ajeet started, “Sir, as you would be aware about the recent news circulated about my credentials; keeping that in mind I shall like to submit my resignation from the team. The truth is that I am a Schedule Caste, but I have always vehemently refused availing any reservations based on this segregation. To me the competence of the person matters more than any pre-defined segregations. That explains my exclusion from the school and the college team. I did not want to be a part of a political party’s paltry plan. To me these are only for winning voters. That’s the reason I never mentioned my status earlier to any office bearer here, least they would doubt my intentions. Regarding the news, I was a pawn played by a distressed soul who was himself a victim of this social isolation. However, if you still wish to file a case in the court, then I am nobody to stop you. But for me it’s a lost game, irrespective.”
The team manager’s welled eyes assured him that he is a proud part of the team and the team needs him. This reassurance did not give any comfort to Ajeet nor did the ‘man of the match’ awards. But his confidence bloomed only in the coming years, when he was an inseparable part of the Indian Nation Cricket Team.
Ajeet was second down in the batting rooster for the cricket trials at school; hoping to break the glass ceiling this time.