Stories

Some facts. Some fiction. Some a combination of both. Some a stretch of either.
Pour a beer. Light up. Munch an apple. Pull a chair. Stretch on a lawn.
Just feel at home. As I do when I write.
Mostly.
Like charity, most insanity also starts at home.
Welcome.

Victory Cry

 

1.
Xavier was spending the summer vacation with his uncle’s family in a village called Uccasaim (Ooh-ka-sa-aye) in Goa. Uncle Patrick, his wife Aunt Jessie, and two children, William and Augustine lived in a big house with tiny blue shutters and large brown furniture. At the back of the house, Xavier had found more inhabitants. Hens and cocks strutting hither and thither; a pig, a sow and a litter of seven piglets oinking about; and three cats, one orange, one black and white, and one with large grey whiskers.

The house sat on an enormous parcel of land enclosed by palm, mango, jackfruit and banana trees. The house had a name: Happy Home and it was the last dwelling in a dusty, red-earth road that petered out into a field. When he first saw Happy Home, Xavier actually rubbed his eyes in disbelief. He was a city boy who lived in an apartment block surrounded by other apartment blocks that were further surrounded by other apartment blocks and he had to take a taxi to a garden or a park.

Bombay, he decided, was a bleak place fit only for moneymaking and shopping. Xavier’s father was a banker who made tons of money and his mother encouraged Dad to make more by spending his money on things big and small, some extravagant, others merely expensive.

Aunt Jessie had met Granna and Xavier at Happy Home’s entrance. After giving Granna a hug, Aunt Jessie had picked Xavier, held him dangling away from her arms before enveloping him in a hug that smelled of cinnamon and Vicks Vapour Rub. ‘My God,’ she had said. ‘You’ve become such a big, strong boy. Come meet your cousins. Willy, help Granna with her bags. Gus, you show Xavier his room.’

Willy was ten and Gus eight, the same as Xavier. Both were tall and lean with shiny, curly black hair and gleaming white teeth. Gus gave Xavier a big smile and said, ‘Race you to the room?’

‘I don’t know where it is,’ said Xavier.

‘Follow me,’ said Gus.

Xavier ran after Gus. As much as he tried, he could not catch up with Gus. Inside the house, Xavier saw Gus dart around a corner. When he turned around it, Xavier found Gus waiting for him at the far end of a long passage. Xavier slowed down to a trot. He reached the end of the passage and walked into a large bedroom. Gus was lying on the bed, hands clasped behind his head, a mocking smile on his face.

‘First,’ he said.

Xavier promptly burst into tears.

Much later, after much cajoling from Granna and a large bar of chocolate from Aunt Jessie, Xavier stopped crying and fell asleep on Granna’s lap.

 

2.
Xavier woke up from his afternoon nap. He stumbled out of his room and made his way to the hall where he found his cousins playing Snakes & Ladders. Willy called him over, pulled out a chair and told Xavier to sit next to him. They began to play and within minutes it was over. With what amounted to a great amount of luck, Gus had won with just a few rolls of the dice. Gus laughed with delight and Willy reached across the table and patted his arm.

‘Yah, I beat you’ll hollow, ha ha ha,’ said Gus.

‘Well played, you lucky dog!’ said Willy.

Xavier could not believe his eyes. How could he have lost? It was the first time he ever lost at anything. He just couldn’t understand it. With a wail he summoned Granna into the hall.

‘What’s the matter, Xavier? What happened?’

‘Willy and Gus are not letting me win. I don’t know how the snakes only bite me all the time. Gus cheats when he throws the dice, Granna. I don’t want to play with them.’

‘Stop crying,’ said Granna, ‘Play another round. I’m sure you will win this time.’

Willy set up the board. Gus placed the counters on Start.

‘Here Xavier, you go first,’ said Willy. Xavier threw the dice with an angry hand. It rolled across the length of the table and Granna had to stretch to retrieve it.

‘Good Lord,’ she said. ‘You’ve got a six. Roll two, and you’ll get to a ladder.’

Still sulking, Xavier threw the dice. Once again, it rolled far away.

‘Two!’ said Granna. ‘Xavier, you lucky boy.’ She moved his counter to the No. 8 square and then up the ladder to 26.

Willy and Gus looked mystified while Xavier looked composed and happy.

The game moved on and Willy and Gus got bitten galore and slid down ladders twice as many times as Xavier. Yet the three boys found themselves in the top row of the board. It was anybody’s game now!

It was Xavier’s turn to play. He was on 95. ‘I hope I don’t get a three,’ he said.

Three would mean reaching 98 where a snake waited with bared fangs. Xavier traced the snake’s body through the board. It ended at 13. Xavier cupped the dice in his palms. He shook it vigorously and opened them. The dice flew out and landed on the floor. It was still spinning and everyone’s eyes were on it as it lost momentum, wobbled and came to a stop. It was a three. Big tears swelled up in Xavier’s eyes. His lips went crooked and began to quiver. Granna scooped up the dice and handed it to him.

‘Xavier, you’re lucky the dice fell down,’ she said. “That means a retry.’

Gus opened his mouth to say something but Granna raised a finger in admonishment. Willy nudged Gus in the ribs as said, ‘Keep quiet Gus. Listen to Granna.’

With a sniff, Xavier wiped his nose. A trail of snot appeared on the back of his hand. Granna wiped it off with her saree’s pallu. She patted his back as he petulantly raised his hand to throw the dice. He was upset so he flung the dice. The dice bounced on the table. Granna deftly palmed it. She opened her fist, looked at the dice, then after arranging it on her palm she showed it to the boys. A five! She slid Xavier’s counter across 96, 97, 98, 99 to Home.

‘Look, you reached Home.’ She said.

Xavier jumped off the chair and raced around the room, waving his arms in triumph. He cocked his thumbs at Willy and Gus, and stuck his tongue at them, more so in Gus’s direction.

‘I’m the winner, I’m the winner,’ he said, over and over again.

With a sigh, Granna leaned back in the chair.

 

3.
Over the next few days, Xavier observed that Willy and Gus’s sole purpose of existence was to compete in a series of impromptu competitions where being able to say ‘first’ was the trophy. Willy and Gus raced each other for every little thing. Who finished first at the dinner table; who woke up first in the morning; who got to hug Daddy first when he came back from office; who could first hit that mango hanging from the fourth branch; who would not be first in becoming the DONKEY in jod-patta.

Over the next few days, Xavier observed that Willy and Gus could defeat him at most games. Whether it was Catching Cook or Hide ‘n’ Seek or jod-patta or panja or football or Stone, Paper, Scissors. He always began losing from the get-go. He couldn’t help crying and creating a fuss. Didn’t he always win with Dada and Mamma and Granna at home? Thankfully, Granna was always by his side when they played. He always won when Granna was around.

Over the next few days, Xavier also observed that Willy and Gus stopped whatever they were doing when he went across to join them.

Xavier found their behavior very strange.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked Willy on one of the mornings.

‘Nothing,’ said Willy as he folded the Ludo board.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked Gus on one of the evenings.

“Nothing,’ said Gus as kicked the football away and went into the house.

 

4.
‘’So what are you boys doing today?’ asked Aunt Jessie.

‘Nothing,’ said Willy.

‘What do you mean by nothing?’ asked Aunt Jessie.

‘Nothing as in n o t h i n g,’ said Gus.

‘Very smart Gus, very clever. If you’ll don’t do anything then Xavier will get bored,’ said Aunt Jessie.

‘That’s exactly why we are doing nothing, mom. Xavier. Xavier is a crybaby fusspot cheatercock and we don’t like to play with him,’ said Gus.

‘Augustine!’ said Aunt Jessie. ‘What is wrong with you, Augustine? How dare you be so mean to your cousin? Say sorry right now to Xavier or I’ll smack you.’

Granna said nothing.

A large tear ran down Xavier’s face and sank into his jam sandwich.

Gus folded his arms across his stomach and set his mouth in a tight line.

‘Augustine,’ said Aunt Jessie. She picked the ladle from the bowl with scrambled eggs.

‘Augustine,’ she said.

Gus jumped up from his chair and landed heavily against the table. Dishes clattered against bowls and Willy’s mug overturned spilling milk all over the tablecloth.

‘I hate him. I hate him. And all of you’ll don’t tell him anything at all. He’s horrible. I hate him.’

Gus ran away from the dining room followed by Willy.

Uncle Pat looked at Granna.

‘Mamma, you must stop pampering Xavier. He is a brat, you know…’

Xavier did not want to hear anything more. He threw the sandwich on the plate and raced out of the house. He couldn’t believe his ears. A crybaby! A fusspot! A brat! A cheatercock! Tears were freely flowing down his face. Venomous thoughts about Gus flowed freely in his mind.

‘Some kids are born winners. Some kids grow up to be winners. And some kids are born whiners and grow into bigger whiners. Xavier belongs to the last lot.’ Uncle Pat had a loud voice it carried all the way from the house to the mango tree across the yard behind which Xavier stood with shaking shoulders and a tear-streaked face. When he heard the words, Xavier, who at moment was invoking the heavens to strike his cousin Gus with a bolt of lightning changed the petition in favour of Uncle Pat.

Uncle Pat continued: ‘Willy and Gus have told me that there isn’t a single game that he hasn’t won by dint of a ready supply of temper, tantrums and tears. That makes him a thoroughly nasty piece of work. If this isn’t stopped, as God is my witness, Xavier is going to grow into a person who makes subordinates work on weekends, yell at waiters for no reason and fudge income-tax papers.’

With these final words, Uncle Pat stomped out of the house, got into his car and departed to work. Xavier watched him go. His heart was jumping in his chest and his head felt hot and swollen like an overblown balloon about to burst. As he slowly made his way back to the house, Granna came out on the verandah. He ran to her and she held him tight and wailed and wailed into the crisp, comforting cotton of her saree. Yet everything still felt horrid; everything; and the pain in his chest had moved to his stomach making him feel sick; but the sick feeling did not make him vomit; it only made him feel sad; sad, sad, sad.

 

5.
It was late in the afternoon. Xavier had had his lunch in his room all by himself. He did not want to talk to anybody, not even Granna. After he finished eating, Xavier went in search of Granna. He found her sitting in an armchair on the verandah. He hoisted himself on the parapet and looked at her.

‘Granna, am I a cheatercock?’ asked Xavier.

‘Xavier, oh, Xavier, what do you want me to say?’ said Granna.

‘I don’t know Granna. But I don’t feel happy. Why did Gus say he hates me? No one has said that to me before.’

‘Xavier, Gus was angry. When you’re angry nasty things come out of people’s mouths.’

‘But what he said was true. I am a crybaby. I’m always crying and making a fuss, aren’t I? I’m a bad boy, Granna.’

‘No Xavier, you are a very good boy. You’re sweet and polite and kind. You’ve got lovely manners. You’re good at studies. The only thing you’re bad about is you hate to lose. Actually, you don’t know how to lose. And when you don’t know how to lose, you won’t know how to win.’

‘I don’t understand, Granna.’

‘Have you seen how Willy and Gus play? Have you noticed when Gus loses he does not get upset. In fact he seems more determined to win the next time. And when Gus finally wins, Willy congratulates him. That’s called sportsmanship, Xavier.’

‘That’s so weird Granna. I always used to wonder why Gus never threw a tantrum when he lost. I think I understand it a little bit now.’

‘Xavier, now try to understand this. When you were small boy, we would play games. When you lost, you would sulk and refuse to eat; to do anything. So we: your Dada, Mamma and I would let you win. Deliberately. To keep you happy. What we did not realise is we cheated you out of learning how to win properly, how to win fair and square.’

‘Granna, what should I do?’

‘First, go say sorry to Gus and make friends with him. Second, play games with them without the fear of winning or losing. Play just to enjoy playing. Can you do that?’

‘I will try Granna. I promise.’

Xavier left the verandah and headed towards his cousins’ room.

With a smile, Granna leaned back in the armchair.

 

6.
At first when Xavier apologised, Gus did not take it seriously. However, that evening when they were playing football, Gus scored a goal and despite being on the other team Xavier rushed forward to congratulate him. When Willy saw the gesture, he too came forward and put a friendly arm around Xavier. In that instant, the three boys became the best of friends.

Later, they were sitting on the fence surrounding Happy Home, when Uncle Pat returned home from work. He whistled as he parked the scooter. The three boys raced towards him. As they almost reached him, Gus and Willy stopped in their tracks so it was Xavier who got to hug Uncle Pat first. Looking at the bright smiles on Xavier’s face, Uncle Pat beamed one at him in return.

‘Well kids, I have some good news. A sports meet is going to be held next week on the Village Feast Day. There’s an 80-metre dash for boys ten and under. Who wants to participate?’

‘Me! Me! Me!’ said the trio in unison.

 

7.
The three boys left for the field that adjoined Happy Home. They were going to practice sprinting. Willy has a stopwatch in his pocket, Gus a length of rope to tie between two trees as the finish line and Xavier was in charge of the starter’s gun: a Diwali toy pistol. As they jumped down off the road into the field, they met Victor and Francis, Willy’s friends from school.

‘Hi Victor, come with us. We’re getting ready for the Feast Day race,’ said Willy.

Victor, catapult in hand, pointed at a house at the end of the field.

‘We’re going on a mango raid. Coming?’ said Victor.

‘Are you mad, Victor? If The Bull catches you, you are dead,’ said Willy.

‘I’m not scared, man. Besides, I’ve been dreaming about those mangoes. Today, I am going to get one for sure,’ said Francis, taking aim at a bird overhead with his catapult.

Xavier avidly listened to the conversation. In Bombay he did not get much opportunity to have an adventure, and this talk of raids and bulls and mangoes and death intrigued him.

‘Is there a bull in that house?’ he asked.

Gus laughed. ‘Yeah. Do you want to see it? Come one Willy, let’s go. Don’t be such a darpok.’

Goaded, Willy snatched the catapult from Victor’s hand. ‘All right. But I’ll take the first shot.’

Xavier piped up. ‘Please Willy, can I try first? I’ve never ever used a catapult before. My Daddy doesn’t allow me to play with such things.’

‘Give him a chance, Willy,’ said Gus. ‘You have terrible aim, anyway.’

Willy picked a stone, fitted it in the catapult and let it loose at Gus. He missed and got Victor instead.

‘Hey, watch it, you fool,’ said Victor, aiming at kick at Gus’s behind.

The quintet finally arrived at the border of shrubs that separated the field from the house. It was a tiny home that was dwarfed by majestic mango trees. The branches were heavy with green mangoes.

‘Wow! Look at them, man. My mouth is watering. In another week’s time they will be ripe,’ said Francis.

‘Ya. But I’m dying to eat a nice khatta kyrie today. Come on, Xavier. Try to bring one down,’ said Victor. ‘Hey Willy, give him the caty.’

‘But what about the bull?’ said Xavier.

‘You forget about the bull. Just focus on the kyrie,’ said Gus.

Xavier selected a small, round stone. He readied the catapult, selected his target, lifted the catapult to eye level, cocked an eye, took aim, and released the missile in a smooth, fluid motion. It was a million-in-one shot. The stone unerringly hit the target. The mango plummeted to earth. Xavier pumped his fist in the air. Gus gave him a high five. The others patted him on his back.

‘Well done,’ whispered Willy.

‘Victor, go get the kyrie, man,’ whispered Francis.

‘I’m not going alone. You come with me,’ whispered Victor.

‘Why are you’ll whispering?’ whispered Xavier.

‘Wait and watch,’ said Gus as Victor followed by Francis crept towards the fallen mango.

No sooner had Victor got his hands on the mango, a huge bellow rent the air. Victor turned and ran. Francis ran straight into him. The sound of their heads clashing was drowned out by another roar. Xavier’s knees began to tremble. He expected a bull to charge out from behind the house and gore the two boys. Willy was laughing quietly while Gus hopped from foot to foot, guffawing loudly. Then Xavier saw a sight he would never forget for the rest of his life. From the backdoor of the house emerged a tall woman with hair done up in two ponytails. She wore a long, flowing black dress. She had a broom in her hand and she ran at astonishing speed towards the dumbstruck boys. With a scream of pure terror, Victor untangled himself from Francis. It was too late. With a deft throw, the black-clad woman’s broom landed between the boys’ legs, tripping them. They fell to the ground in a heap.

Gus couldn’t help it. It was such a funny sight. He cackled so loudly the noise distracted the woman. When she noticed another three invaders, she went berserk. She charged towards them but it was a futile move. By the time she reached the fence, the three of them had fled the scene. Luckily for Victor and Francis, Gus’s diversion saved their bacon. However, the dumb chums forgot to take the mango with them when they escaped.

 

8.
They were sitting below the mango tree in the Happy Home yard. Perpet, the family maid brought them a picnic lunch that Aunt Jessie had made for them. There were roast beef sandwiches, chicken cutlets, mango slices and lots and lots of lemonade.

‘That was The Bull,’ said Gus, munching on a mango slice.

‘Why is she called The Bull?’ asked Xavier. ‘Wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess. Is it because she was dressed in black and her ponytails looked like horns?’

‘No. Although that’s a very good description of a bull,’ said Willy. ‘We call her The Bull because she sees red when anyone tries to steal her mangoes. The are the best mangoes in the whole of Goa, you know.’

‘The Bull used to be a famous sportsperson. She was a champion dic… dac… what’s that thing you told me, Willy?’ said Gus.

‘A decathlete. She competed in an event called a decathlon. It’s an endurance race. You have to do different kinds of things. Ten, I think. Let me see… there’s a 100-metre race, a long jump, a javelin throw, you know that spear-like thing and… I can’t remember the rest,’ said Willy.

‘Daddy’s told me she took part in the Olympics games a long time ago and she has got a showcase full of medals and trophies and certificates,’ said Gus.

‘Wow,’ said Xavier. ‘That’s terrific.’

‘Hey! Talking of terrific, you have superb aim, Xavier. Don’t lie. Was that the first time you used a caty?’ asked Willy.

‘Yes, I’m telling the truth. Maybe I’m just a natural,’ said Xavier.

Gus went in and came out with his catapult. They spend the rest of the afternoon shooting at various objects. True to his word, Xavier put up a display of stunning marksmanship. He truly was a natural.

 

9.
That night Xavier dreamed about The Bull. When he woke up he tried to recall the details. He could remember much but one thing was clear in his mind. It wasn’t a scary dream at all.

 

10.
The Village Feast Day finally arrived. The boys had practiced hard in the previous days. Willy was the quickest among the three but Gus and Xavier were equally matched for pace. In one of their practice runs, Xavier had come second beating not only Gus but Victor and Francis too. He was keenly looking forward to the race.

The sports meet was going to be held in the ground behind the church. The entire street leading to the church was decorated with colourful bunting. Both sides of the street were lined with stalls selling sweets, toys, curios and clothes. Some stalls had games like hoopla, balloon-shooting, knock-down-nine-cans-in-three-tries and kick a goal through a tire. There even was small giant wheel and a merry-go-round. Uncle Pat promises to take the children to the fair after the meet. Loudspeakers blared pop songs and everywhere Xavier looked people were having a great time. Xavier happily skipped through the throng when he a wrench. Someone had stepped on his right sneaker and the sole had got completely ripped off.

‘Oh no, look mum,’ said Gus. ‘Xavier’s shoe has got destroyed.’

They move to the side of the street. Xavier pulled the shoe off his foot. He was disappointed. It looked like he would have to run the race in his bare feet. Aunt Jessie came up with a quick solution.

‘Don’t worry, Xavier,’ she said. ‘You have the same shoe size as Gus. Go home with Perpet and find a pair that fits you.’

‘Great. Thanks Aunt Jessie. Bye, guys,’ said Xavier.

10.

Xavier hurried into the house and went to Gus’s room. In a jiffy he found a pair that fit him. It was bright red pair; the laces were red too. As he was tying the laces, Perpet came into the room.

‘Baba, can you back by yourself. I forgot to do the ironing and Bab Patrick will shout at me if I don’t finish it,’ she said.

Xavier did not mind at all. He knew the way, in fact, he knew a better route; Willy once had shown him a shortcut; he simply had to cut through two fields behind Happy Home, walk down a narrow road that led to a tiny bridge that hunched over a small stream. Then the church’s ground was less than half a minute away.

‘No problem, no problem,’ he said.

He walked out of the room and as he stepped into the verandah, he spied Gus’s catapult on Granna’s armchair. He put it in his pocket and set off. He entered the first field, the one that led to The Bull’s house. He glanced in its direction, when he notices the trees in The Bull’s yard were gleaming with what looked like golden lights. It was such a beautiful sight that Xavier figured he had to take a closer look.

They were mangoes! The mangoes on The Bull’s trees had ripened finally. They were luscious, yellow-orange and sunlight bounced off them, making them glow. Mesmerised, Xavier knew he had to knock one down. He drew the catapult from his pocket. It was a dream shot. The mango fell out of the tree and for a moment it got outlined against the blue sky behind; it looked like a shooting star.

Xavier stepped into The Bull’s yard. Stealthily he approached his prize. He kept one eye on The Bull’s backdoor, prepared to fly like the wind if she charged out at him. It looked like he was in luck. Maybe The Bull was at church. Xavier bent and picked the mango. It felt warm and lay in his palm like a tiny sun. Then, suddenly it seemed like the world plunged into darkness. A shadow loomed over him. It was The Bull. Dressed in a dark blue tracksuit that had a sun-like design on the jacket.

Xavier let out a banshee yell that startled The Bull. It startles him too. He took off like a bat out of hell, his sneakers a blur of red motion. The Bull let loose a bellow and gave chase.

 

11.
Despite her age, The Bull was in fine shape. She almost caught up with Xavier as he reached the shrubs at the end of the field. Her hand touched his collar. Xavier spurted away from her grasp and cleared the shrubs in a single leap. He fell, tumbled, rolled over and watched The Bull easily sail over the barrier. He got to feet in an instant and hared away with The Bull in hot pursuit. As he ran, Xavier realized he was in the shortcut field. If he could reach Uncle Pat before The Bull caught him then he was safe. The thought galvanized him.

He ran the length of the field and careered into a herd of cows. Some were standing, vacantly chewing on the sparse vegetation; a few were sitting. To go around them meant losing his lead. So Xavier gritted his teeth and dodged past the standees and jumped over the sitters. The Bull copied his moved to a T.

Presently, Xavier got onto a road that separated the two fields. He found he could run faster on tarmac so he continued down the road. He flashed past a sign that said: Bridge – 200m. He looked over his shoulder. The Bull was tiring but she yet wasn’t ready to give up. As Xavier approached the bridge, he saw men in overalls and helmets blocking it. A roadwork sign said: No Entry.

Xavier was doomed. He stopped, huffing and puffing. The Bull bore down on him. Something clicked in Xavier’s head. He remembered something Willy had shown him when they had taken the shortcut. What was it? Xavier racked his brain. Yes! On the way back home they had not taken the bridge but had crossed the stream. No, no, no! They did not cross the stream.

Then it came back to him. The stream meandered through the field across the road. At one point it narrowed considerably enough so one could jump across it. Xavier scurried into the field and ran towards the stream. He ran down the side of the stream in search of the narrow part. Was it here? No. A little ahead? Maybe. Here, the gap between the two banks looked quite small: Three to four feet. The gap between The Bull and him was down to a few metres. Xavier stepped back and said a quick prayer. Then he ran towards the stream, arms windmilling, and he just managed to jump across the water. He landed on the edge of the other side, struggled to keep his balance and succeeded.

The Bull did not follow him. She simply stood there looking at him, chest heaving, a grim smile on her face. She held up her hand and pointed it at him. At first, Xavier did not understand. Then he figured it out. She had the mango. He must have dropped it when he jumped across the stream.

Oh shucks!

The Bull turned and trotted away.

 

12.
There were twelve boys in the 80-metre dash. Willy came first. A boy called Antonio was second. A hair’s breath separated Gus and Xavier from third place. The judges ruled in Gus’s favour. Xavier did not mind at all. He knew if he hadn’t used up most of his energy in the exhilarating run with The Bull, he might have placed second, even first. He smiled and waved at Granna who waved back.

 

13.
While the other events took place, Xavier shared details of his adventure with his cousins. Willy was very impressed. Gus more so.

‘Xavier. You deserved to win the bronze medal. Know what, I’m going to give it to you,’ said Gus.

‘Don’t be silly, Gus. I’m going to come next year and win the gold. Watch out, Willy,’ said Xavier.

Eventually, the meet came to an end. It was time for the trophy presentation. Uncle Pat had bought them cotton candy. The brothers sat on the ground while Xavier lay on his back. He contently nibbled at the candy as the emcee, over the loudspeaker, called upon a different Special Guest to present trophies in each event category. His mind was a pleasant blank as he heard the emcee summon the winners of the 80-metre race. Willy and Gus ran off towards the dais. Xavier got up slowly.

‘I now call upon the one and only Martha Fernandes to present the trophy,’ said the emcee.

Xavier stood up to clap. His hands froze in mid-air. Martha D’Souza was none other than The Bull. Xavier thanked his stars he came fourth. For safety, even though the dais was far off, he hid behind Aunt Jessie. The three winners were presented their trophies in quick succession. As Gus leaped off the stage, The Bull took the microphone from the emcee.

‘Ladies and gentlemen and children, if you don’t mind, I’ d like to tell you’ll about a little experience I had this morning,’ she said.

Xavier’s body went cold. He got goosebumps. This was it! The Bull was going to name and shame him in front of everybody. His legs turned to jelly. He could not even run away.

The Bull continued: ‘As you’ll know, I used to be a decathlete. I ran my last decathlon in 1980 at the Moscow Olympics. How I miss those days. They were the best days of my life. I miss the excitement. The adrenalin rush. The thrill of running. Of competing. I miss being an athlete. But thanks to an incident this morning, I became a decathlete all over again. I had to compete against a champion decathlete in a 100-metres dash across a field, a high jump over shrubs, a 400-metre dash down the Bridge Road, a long jump over a stream; we even hurdled over cows. It was like a mini-decathlon; a pentathlon of sorts. I’m not ashamed to say I was beaten fair and square. The fellow was a stranger to me. I did not know him at all. In the end, he ran off as I was catching my breath. We did not talk. I could not offer him my congrats. I thought I would never meet him. To offer my thanks and to give him a trophy. Then I saw him in action at the meet. And quite fortunately, our talented emcee, Joe, knows everybody in our little village. He very kindly supplied me with the champion’s details. Will Xavier D’Souza kindly come to the stage?

Granna almost jumped from her chair in surprise. Uncle Pat’s face was flushed with pride. Aunt Jessie gave him a big hug. Willy and Gus took hold of either of his hands and they jogged with him towards the dais. Halfway they peeled off and Xavier had to walk alone all the way to the stage. The whole village, every man, woman and child clapped and clapped till the ground resounded with the sound of applause. Xavier mounted the stairs to the dais. The Bull shook his hand and gave him a big hug. The village photographer readied his camera. Everyone waited for The Village’s Most Famous Personality to hand the trophy to Xavier. The trophy shone as it passed from the Bull’s large hands into Xavier’s tiny palm. Xavier looked at his trophy in disbelief. A look of joy appeared on his face. Tears of joy flooded his eyes.

‘Thank you, Mrs. Fernandes,’ he said. ‘Thank you very much.’

It was the mango.

 

Seeing The Light

 

1.
WHEN PUMPKIN was a little boy, life was divided between two phases. One was when Mr. Sun paid a daily visit to his home early in the morning. This normally meant it was time to get ready to go to school, to go to school, to have fun at school, to return home from school, and then to take lunch and have fun at home. The second was when Mr. Sun went to sleep and Mr. Moon took his place. Usually, Pumpkin was too busy playing with his dumper truck or racing cars on the terrace to notice when Mr. Sun and Mr. Moon exchanged places. All he knew that everything on the terrace went a little dim and Aaji, his grandmother would call him in to have biscuits or a muffin or some little snack before having a bath.

There was also a time when Mr. Sun disappeared completely for days. When Pumpkin first heard Mr. Sky make loud, awful noises as if he had a big, awful cold and scattered big, fat, cold tears, he too, shed huge, fat, warm tears from his large, shiny coal-black eyes. Mamma quickly explained that Mr. Sun was taking a bath, and the water was so hot even for him that it made him cry.

‘Just like you make a big hue and cry when you’re having bathy-bathy,’ said Mamma.

‘Oh. And are those white flashes Mr. Sky taking photos of us all?’ asked Pumpkin. Mamma simply smiled and smiled.

 

2.
BUT THAT was when Pumpkin was a little little boy. Now he was a big little boy who knew that the sun rose and set everyday, the moon appeared in something called phases and come June, it was the rainy season where the streets became shiny black, the plants turned shiny green and the mud smelled funny in a nice sort of way. Yes, there was day that was followed by night, and day again after which came night.

Pumpkin loved the night. It was when he watched his favourite TV programs, Pokemon, Bey Blade and Duel Masters. It was when Aaji fussed over him feeding him all sorts of nice food. It was when Daddy sat with him at the dining table and told him not to chew food with an open mouth and make noises like a buffalo coming out of a mud pool. This normally was accompanied by the sound of a buffalo coming out of a mud pool that made Pumpkin laugh and laugh. It was when Mamma told him the most amazing bedtime stories that made his head whirl and spin as he fell asleep.

Nighttime was fun time all right expect for one thing. The Dark. Pumpkin hated The Dark. When he went to the bathroom to wash his hands after eating, The Dark would be there, waiting for him like a big bad meanie. If he went to get chocolates from the fridge, The Dark would be present in the kitchen. Fetching a book from the shelf in the passage meant encountering The Horrid Dark. Worse of all, sometimes he would wake up from his sleep and The Dark would hang over him like a big black blanket and make him cry.

Daddy and Mamma told Pumpkin that there was nothing to fear about The Dark.

‘See,’ said Daddy, stepping into The Dark bedroom and locking the door behind him.

‘Saw,’ said Mamma, when Daddy stepped out after a couple of minutes.

‘No,’ said Pumpkin.

 

3.
AS TIME passed by, Pumpkin showed no sign of coming to terms with The Dark. Daddy tried to make him see the lighter side of The Dark.

‘Think of it as day without lights,’ he said.

‘Night is when everything goes to sleep,’ said Mamma who had had a tiring day at work. ‘And that includes all of you. Goodnight.’

Pumpkin’s final word on the subject before he fell asleep was, ‘bad night.’

 

4.
‘Something has to be done about Pumpkin’s fear of The Dark,’ said Daddy to Mamma. ‘We can’t have him taking the houseboy everywhere he goes to switch on the lights.’

‘I suppose we can wait for him to grow older,’ joked Mamma. ‘And more importantly, taller. So he can put the lights on himself’.

‘Why don’t you buy him a torch,’ said Aaji brightly.

‘I know what would really work. Luke Skywalker’s light saber,’ said Daddy joining in the fun. ‘Think about it. It glows so Pumpkin can see in The Dark. And if there’s anybody lurking about, he can whack it with the saber.’

‘Can somebody come with me to put on the bathroom light?’ said Pumpkin, entering the hall. ‘I need to wee.’

 

5.
The next night, Daddy took Pumpkin by the hand and led him into the bedroom. They sat on the bed and Daddy switched off the bedside lamp.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Pumpkin in alarm. ‘Is it time for bed? It can’t be. I’ve not eaten dinner.’

‘Pumpkin, we’re going to do a little test,’ said Daddy firmly. ‘You and I are going to sit here and see if anything scary really happens in The Dark.’

Immediately, Pumpkin inched closer to Daddy. Daddy put an arm around his shoulders, drawing him close. He began to say something when Daddy said, ‘Sshhh! Not a word. Keep quiet and observe.’

Slowly The Dark melted away and Pumpkin began to see shapes. Among them was one that stood massively and seemed to lean towards him. With a trembling hand, Pumpkin pointed his finger. Daddy looked in that direction and said, ‘Cupboard, Pumpkin.’

‘Really,’ thought Pumpkin aloud. ‘It looks like a big evil wizard with a flowing black cape made from the skin of dead black panthers.’

Even Daddy could not stop a shiver from running down his spine!

‘Okay Pumpkin, you made your point. What else do you see?’

This is what Pumpkin saw. The wrought iron footboard turned out to be a gate leading to a forest. The dressing table’s mirror was an entrance to another world. The decorative lamp hanging in the corner was a bird with cruel talons. The bookcase at the far wall was a giant’s face, and the books, his yellow, rotting fangs.

‘Did you say yellow?’ asked Daddy.

‘Y…y…yes,’ said Pumpkin, utterly petrified.

‘PUMPKIN, it’s dark in here. Are you sure the giant’s fangs are yellow? I think they’re red,’ said Daddy in a kind voice.

‘What?’ said Pumpkin with a tremor in his voice.

‘In fact, I don’t think they’re red. I think those fangs are books,’ said Daddy flicking on the lamp. ‘And they’re meant to be read.’

Light flooded the room and as if like magic, the evil wizard turned into a cupboard, the forest’s gate into a bedpost, the netherworld entrance became a mirror, the ominous bird was just a silly lamp and the yellow-fanged giant really was nothing but a bookcase grinning with books.

‘Daddy, you’re a wizard,’ said a relieved Pumpkin with a big toothy smile. He wasn’t quite sure if The Dark was actually day without lights but somewhere in his mind there was a glimmer of understanding that The Dark and its evil creatures did not really exist.

 

6.
The following night, Pumpkin had another test. He was to sit alone in the bedroom in The Dark for just one minute.

‘Here. I’ve put an alarm on my mobile phone. It will ring in exactly one minute. If you have the courage to face your fear of The Dark for a minute, trust me, you can laugh in its face forever.’

Pumpkin did not say a word. He sat on the bed with the mobile phone clenched in his fist. He nodded as Daddy said, ‘I’m waiting outside the door if you need me.’

The door shut behind Daddy and now the bedroom was well and truly pitch black. Pumpkin felt his skin go cold as The Dark surged around him. He closed his eyes but that made things worse. He opened his eyes and the shapes came up in front of him. He quickly shut his eyes tight. The shapes followed him in there. Just as he was about to scream, the mobile phone began to buzz in his fist.

‘Beep, beep, beep,’ went the alarm.

‘Thud, thud, thud,’ went his heart.

‘Well, well, well,’ went Daddy.

‘Baby, baby, baby,’ went Mamma.

‘Ah, ah, ah,’ went Pumpkin. ‘I want to go wee.’

Pumpkin walked down the dark passage, turned the corner and walked in the dark till he reached the bathroom. ‘Now will someone come here and put the lights on. I can’t reach the switch,’ he said in a calm voice.