Four pairs of feet chased a football on grass. More followed as the ball was kicked from left to right. Suddenly Messi appeared from nowhere and got behind the ball. The goalee, anticipating his move, stepped to his left, seconds before Messi kicked the ball to the right. Goallllll! The audience rose, clapping and cheering.
Rajendra hurriedly clicked all his computer windows shut and picked up a book. His mother came in, pleased to see him study. Coming closer, she ruffled his hair, then held him close.
Rajendra didn’t like it. “Let go, mom, I’m not a baby now. I’m 10 years old.”
She laughed. “Ok big boy. Come, everyone’s waiting for you for breakfast.”
His father and brother wolfed their uttapams as Rajendra sat staring at them. His father hated to see him just sitting. “What are you waiting for?”
Unhappily, Rajendra picked up the bottle of ketchup. A smiley on the label gave him an idea! He drew red eyes, a red nose and smiling red lips on his uttapam with the ketchup. The thought of a laughing football made him smile.
His father shouted again. “Why don’t you eat?”
“Rajendra-la. Should I cut the uttapam into pieces?”
“Keep on doing that, and you’ll make a sissy of him. He should be able to eat by himself.”
Rajendra gave a sullen look to his father.
“Look! Look how he’s looking at me.”
Rajendra hated it when his father scolded his mother. Why did she have to listen to everything he said?
“Have you completed your homework?”
“Ha! He was busy watching football on his computer.” Suresh poked.
“He is lying!”
“O ya! Check his browsing history. It’s full of football sites!”
“If you touch my computer again, I’ll…” Anger choked Rajendra’s voice.
Suresh got up. “You’ll what? Dad, he’s signed up for the school’s football team!”
Rajendra gave a scornful look to Suresh and ran to his room.
“That’s it! From today, he won’t go anywhere except school unless he gets 80% marks!”
Rajendra slammed his door and flopped on the bed, crying. It was always “If Suresh can get 90%, why can’t Rajendra?”
For two weeks, Rajendra went only to school and back. Through the bars of his classroom window, he saw the empty playground. After school, it filled up with team hopefuls. Every day he stood at the edge, looking eagerly at the practising students. Every day the coach with a whistle in his neck would ask him to join them. Rajendra badly wanted to play, but Suresh would jump out of nowhere like a leopard, jaws bared, green eyes burning, and Rajendra had to apologise to the coach and walk home, feeling the leopard’s stealthy eyes on him. He hated this leopard! He wished he could turn into a tiger and eat him!
On his birthday he distributed sweets to his classmates. His friends were sympathetic, and the rest sarcastic. Somebody sniggered, “His stepfather won’t allow him to play football. Smart alec! Thinks he’s the next Lionel Messi!”
“How do you know?”
“Suresh, in IXth C, is his stepbrother. I heard it from his friends.”
Voices shut up as he glared at them. Sheepishly, they accepted his sweets.
“He’ll never make it to the team as long as his stepfather is alive!”
Rajendra came home to see his mother decorating the hall. He helped her by cutting the cello tape, holding one end of the ribbons and blowing balloons. They both laughed when one burst in his face and startled him. She hugged him and kissed him and said “Happy birthday to my Rajendra-la!”
Everyone clapped as he blew the candles out and cut the cake. He fed the first piece to his mother. She subtly pointed to his father. Rajendra fed him unwillingly, for his mother’s sake. His father and Suresh both wished him a happy birthday and gave him a bundle of books.
Rajendra hadn’t invited anyone. He was new to the school and had no friends yet. If his father had been alive today, he would still be in his old school and this birthday, too, would have been fun.
His father went off to sleep after dinner. His mother hugged Rajendra one last time before saying, “There’s a surprise for you behind your door.”
He sprinted to his room, closing the door. He saw a life-size Lionel Messi, poised to kick a brand new yellow-and-black chequered football. First he thought the football was part of the poster, but it was real. He gave a whoop and picked up the football, bouncing it all over.
“Shh. Don’t do that. You’ll wake your father up!”
The voice was soothing, but he was frightened. Turning around, he could see only Messi’s poster. Could it be possible? He looked at Messi who was still poised to strike the ball, but the ball was in Rajendra’s hands.
“Hi. My name’s Messi. How’re you, Rajendra-la?”
“I – I – You know my name?”
“I’ve been lying in your mother’s room for a week. You want to play football, I gather.”
“Then sleep off buddy, we start early tomorrow morning.”
“Look lad, you wanna play football, you do as I say. Now jump into your bed and pull the covers over your head. Good night.”
A confused Rajendra obeyed blindly, clutching the ball. The next morning, someone pulled Rajendra’s bedsheet.
“Get up. Time to get moving.” Messi’s voice dragged him out of sleep.
Rajendra got up groggily and saw the clock.
“But it’s only 5 o’clock!”
“5.02, to be precise. You’re late. Get up. We do some warm-ups first.”
Messi’s voice egged him to some warm up exercises, and then jogging. At the end of it sweat dropped to his face from his hair and onto his clothes from his face.
“Rajendra-la, get up bachcha, it’s time for school.”
Rajendra looked at Messi. He was stuck on the door, poised to kick.
When Rajendra was ready to go, Messi said, “After school, go for the coaching practice.”
“But what about…”
“The leopard? Leave him to me. But you must attend practice daily. And tell only your mom about it.”
That day, Rajendra walked alone to school. Leopard was sick in bed and was taken to the doctor. Classes over, he ran to the coach and said he’d come for practice every day. The coach was skeptical but Rajendra’s enthusiasm scored its first goal.
Coming home, he told his mother about the football practice. He was super-excited. He couldn’t believe his luck when she told him that Suresh had measles and couldn’t attend school for three weeks.
That day Messi made him take out his books and study.
“Study? I thought you were going to make me a footballer.”
“Who said footballers don’t study? Remember, if you don’t get 80%, it’s goodbye to football!”
“Messi how did Suresh…”
“Get measles? You gave it to him.”
Rajendra gaped at Messi.
“You wanted to play football so badly, something had to be done, right?”
Every day Messi woke Rajendra at 5. He had to exercise, go to school, attend coaching. On Sundays, Messi made him study all day. Rajendra was tired, very tired. But whenever he slackened pace, Messi was there to kick him.
Rajendra’s father was surprised to see him finish breakfast within minutes every day. He would look at his wife quizzically. She gave nothing away, but she was worried. What if somebody found out? It would spell T R O U B L E.
Think of trouble and there it comes. On the last day of Rajendra’s test, his mother was shocked to see her husband at the door. Walking past her, he entered Rajendra’s bedroom. She followed him.
“What happened? Why are you home so soon?”
He shut the door after her and menacingly pointed his thumb at the poster. “This, is what has happened!”
When Rajendra came home, he found a crumpled Messi poster on the floor. His mother was crying. Suresh grinned, while his father’s eyes were red.
But Rajendra simply said, “My principal wants to meet you and mother.”
“See? See his insolence? It’s because of you. I’m sure he has failed again. Disgusting!”
Next day his father sat in front of the principal with apology written all over his face while his mother tried to be brave.
“Mr Damodar, I hear you have forbidden Rajendra from playing football.”
“I can’t tolerate disobedience.”
“But the school wants Rajendra in the team. Our coach feels Rajendra can be a star player.”
Rajendra’s mother was elated, his father unfazed.
“Not unless he gets…”
“80%? Well, he has not got 80%.”
The emotions were now reversed.
“He has got 85% and I personally recommend you to let Rajendra play.”
At home, Rajendra uncrumpled Messi’s poster and said, “Thank you!”
Messi’s foot was at an awkward angle, but his eyes were still on the goalpost.
Roughly Inspired by Cinderella