The Missing Hero

By Richard Rose

For Bibin, as for many other Indian boys and girls in Kalapurum, cricket was a passion. Some would even say that it had surpassed all normal levels of enthusiasm and had graduated to become an obsession. Before and after school and at weekends Bibin, in company with as many friends as he could muster, would hurry to Sethupathi Park where makeshift stumps fashioned from three ill-matched lengths of bamboo, a crudely carved bat and a balding tennis ball provided all the equipment needed to secure a game that could last for many hours.

Bibin’s sister Manju did not share her brother’s interest in cricket or any other games, but there was one aspect of his enthusiasm that she observed with quiet admiration, though she would never have admitted this to him. Manju was a studious girl, who preferred to spend her time immersed in a book or writing poetry, but she held her brother in some regard for the knowledge that he had accumulated about the game he loved and those who played it. Much of the information he had gained, and which he would willingly share with anyone inclined to listen to endless lists of facts and statistics, had been obtained from the colourful cards depicting India’s cricketing heroes of the past and today, which could be purchased in packs of five from the local corner grocery.

In the midst of any conversation, which might be about any subject other than cricket, Bibin was likely to share with great authority a raft of facts from his vast cornucopia of cricketing trivia. Examples of these occasions were aplenty, such as the time one morning at breakfast when he suddenly announced, apropos nothing in particular, “Do you know that Anil Kumble took 619 test match wickets, more than any other Indian player, and that he once took all ten Pakistan wickets in an innings? Isn’t that incredible?” Those seated around the table, having become accustomed to such declarations nodded silently and feigned a little interest, but devoted marginally less attention to Bibin’s supposedly interesting facts than was currently demanded by the idli and sambar on plates before them.

While Manju had not the least interest in the statistics associated with cricket, and indeed had only a vague notion of a cricketer named Kumble, she did hold a quiet admiration for her brother’s ability to learn and retain such figures. Maybe, she thought, if Bibin’s teachers taught all his mathematics through the medium of cricket, he might prove to be a genius.

Some of the cards that had been collected by Bibin were strategically arranged on the wall beside his bed, in the room that he shared with Manju. A dividing curtain strung across the centre of their room provided demarcation of their individual territory, and a visitor to this space would be in no doubt as to which sibling occupied each given half. Manju’s space could best be described as pristine, with books neatly arranged along a makeshift bookcase comprising four wooden shelves hewn from an old packing case and supported on bricks. On the wall beside her neatly arranged bed, two framed pictures, one of Gandhi working at a charka and one taken from an old calendar depicting a scene from the Himalaya formed the only decoration in her half of the room. Her clothes neatly ordered and folded, were carefully arranged on a chair beside her bed. By contrast, Bibin’s quarters were strewn with much of the paraphernalia associated with his passion. A pile of well-thumbed Cricket Today magazines, and cuttings from the Deccan Herald reporting the performances of local, state and national teams, littered both the floor and Bibin’s unkempt bed. Crumpled clothing, bags of ill-defined detritus and discarded sweet wrappers littered the floor. Leaning against the wall, his prized possession, a much worn and taped cricket bat gifted to him by an uncle, far too large for him to manage at present, but with which he intended to score many boundaries in the future, took pride of place and acted as a stimulus for many of Bibin’s finest aspirations.

It was however, the card collection which adorned the wall that stood out in his half of the room. Not only for the colourful display which they made against a grey plastered background, but more especially for the orderly fashion in which they were arranged. Here was a considerable contrast with the apparent chaos that dominated much of Bibin’s domain. Each card was neatly ordered beneath a hand drawn banner proclaiming “India’s Greatest Players”. In this reverential display each sportsman had been positioned only after careful contemplation of where they should be located in a distinct pecking order, based upon their achievements with bat and ball, but more especially upon the impact they had on Bibin’s imagination.

Portrayed on this wall could be seen many of the great performers of today, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and M.S Dohni each depicted in action with bat or ball and accompanied by details of their best performances and records in tests and limited overs games. In amongst these modern gladiators were other great players from the past, Sunil Gavaskar, Mohamed Azarudeen, Kapil Dev, Bishen Bedi and Anil Kumble similarly posed and carefully pasted to Bibin’s handmade chart. One glance at this exhibition was enough to demonstrate the pride which Bibin took in the collection and his dedication to the sport.

Bibin could often be found seated on his bed, considering his display and shuffling through a pile of cards illustrating players, who had not quite met his criteria for a place upon the wall of honour that he had created.  He had often wondered about Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh, neither of whom had quite made it to the wall. Was he perhaps underestimating their contribution to the game? The records of some of the great players of the past represented on his cards, the Newab of Pataudi, Mohinder Amarnath and Vijay Hazare would most certainly justify their inclusion, but perhaps because they came from a distant age and had not attracted Bibin’s immediate attention, they hadn’t made the cut.

Such dilemmas far from troubling Bibin provided him many happy hours of diversion, and often served as a useful means of displacement activity when he should have been focused upon his homework. However, on too many occasions as he lay upon his bed gazing at the display that he had made, his attention was drawn to an empty space, one that awaited the arrival of the player who he knew should be located at the summit of the pyramid of greatness that he had built, but who had thus far eluded him.

Every Saturday morning for the past six months on receiving the small sum of pocket money given to him by his father for the menial chores that he conducted during the week, Bibin had dashed to the corner shop to purchase a pack of five cards. On leaving the shop he would eagerly tear open the packaging to reveal the colourful pictures inside, sorting through them in the hope that this week his missing hero would be amongst them. Throughout these months the same pattern had been followed with a similar disappointing result. Yet another Dhoni, a fourth Yuvraj Singh, and a fifth Dilip Vengsarkar, but never the elusive master of them all; never Sachin Tendulkar. Returning home Bibin would add the latest acquisitions to his growing pile of cards and curse the unfairness of a situation in which at least four of his friends had bought packets containing Tendulkar, whilst he had never hit this long-awaited jackpot. One of his classmates had to his knowledge at one time held three Tendulkar cards in his possession but had swapped these with other students before Bibin had a chance to negotiate.

At first Bibin had thought that it would only be a matter of time before his luck would change. But as time had passed and each week his precious pocket money had bought him nothing more than duplicates of cards already in his collection, he began to despair. Before long Manju and his parents found themselves hardly daring to ask for news as Bibin returned from his Saturday shopping excursion. The name of Sachin Tendulkar was never mentioned in Bibin’s presence and even during his absence was spoken only in hushed tones. Hardly daring to broach the subject, Manju and her parents quietly hoped that before too long the Little Maestro as Tendulkar was often named, would put in an appearance and relieve them of the tension which surrounded their Saturday mornings.

As with Bibin, every Saturday Morning Manju would collect a few rupees from her father in lieu of small jobs performed during the week. Unlike Bibin, Manju was more inclined to save her earnings until she had identified a potential purchase that she regarded as justifying parting with her money. In recent weeks Mr Desai the principal of Manju and Bibin’s school had taken to reading a story to the assembled students as the last act of Friday afternoons, before dismissing his charges for the weekend. Manju who for some time had been in love with literature, found herself transfixed as each week’s story painted pictures in her imagination. Most recently the principal’s readings had been taken from a collection of tales written by that great master of storytelling R.K Narayan. These had so enchanted and amused Manju, who had determined that she would save her pocket money until she would have accrued sufficient funds to visit Katha Bookshop and buy a copy of Malgudi Days, which Mr Desai had suggested she would greatly enjoy.

Each Saturday Manju had added her pocket money to that from previous weeks and placed her accumulating wealth in a box on her bookshelves. Having visited Katha Bookshop and spoken to its owner Mr Prasad, she knew precisely how much money she needed to purchase Malgudi Days, and the kindly proprietor had ordered a copy in anticipation of Manju acquiring the required amount. It was therefore with great anticipation that on the fifth Saturday after beginning her savings, Manju realised that she had finally saved the exact total needed to make her desired purchase.

Keenly anticipating an afternoon lying on her bed and reading her newly purchased book, Manju set out purposefully towards the bookshop. Along the route she repeated in her mind the tale of Rajam and Mani most recently recited by Mr Desai and looked forward to immersing herself in the wonderful woven words that awaited her in Narayan’s writing.

Half an hour later Manju entered Katha Bookshop where she observed that Mr Prasad accompanied by a customer was busily hunting amongst the crowded shelves, presumably in pursuit of a specific title. In no hurry, she began to indulge herself in a favourite pastime, that of grazing the well laden bookshelves, picking out books which may be of interest and making mental notes of titles and authors she would explore in the future. Familiar names; Ruskin Bond, Mulk Raj Anand and A.K Ramanujan sat shoulder to shoulder with those as yet unknown; Raja Rao, Shashi Deshpande and Meena Kandasamy whose books in future years Manju would come to regard as close companions. Manju moved slowly, navigating the shelves, indulging herself in the comforting smell of the books and the familiar textures of pages and dust jackets, until she came to the far end of the shop where she knew she would find a box containing volumes that had been reduced in price, possibly because of a soiled cover or torn dust jacket, or maybe because they had occupied Katha Bookshop for too long with no one interested enough to give them a new home.

In the past, Manju had on occasion turned over the books in this box in the hope of uncovering a title of interest, and indeed had twice purchased such texts at greatly reduced prices. Today, knowing that her quarry was a specific title held in waiting for her by Mr Prasad, she visited the pile of bargain books with no purpose other than that of passing time. Lifting a couple of volumes from the box with great care, for Manju quite rightly believed that books deserved to be granted respect, she idly scanned their covers, exploring illustrations, titles and authors before returning them to their place. It was during this diversionary process that she noticed at in the depths of the receptacle, a plastic folder, which on further scrutiny revealed in its contents a set of familiar objects. Leaning over the box and moving to one side a large encyclopaedia and an edition of Collins Concise German Dictionary in order that she could gain better access, Manju took up the plastic folder to more closely examine its colourful contents.

Only the briefest of perusals was needed for Manju to confirm that the clear plastic folder contained a set of cards identical to those with which she was so familiar from the display in Bibin’s half of their bedroom. Opening the folder, she removed and began to manipulate the cards, looking at faces and actions that she had come to recognise, though not to an extent where she could accurately name the cricketers depicted. The folder must have contained more than a hundred cards, none of which under normal circumstances would have commanded more than a fleeting glimpse from Manju. Indeed, as she turned over the cards in her hand, she became ever more convinced that cricket was never likely to fire her imagination in the manner that the hundreds of books surrounding her, most definitely could. But now, as she held these objects in her hands, the thought came to her that she just might have come across hidden treasure. Just suppose, she thought, that somewhere within this collection lies the very object of Bibin’s obsession. Might it be possible, that here amongst these cards that held little interest for herself, she would find the elusive card bearing a portrait and the records of the evasive Sachin Tendulkar?

With her usual attention to detail Manju began a systematic shuffling of the cards. Here were names which through her brother, Manju despite her lack of enthusiasm for cricket, had come to recognise; Sourav Ganguly, M.S. Dhoni, V.V.S. Laxman. Ten, twenty, maybe thirty cards had been scanned when there at last, held between her fingers was a card bearing the unmistakable image of Sachin Tendulkar. Manju could never have anticipated that she would feel such excitement from discovering a card, which for her was of so little interest. Yet at this instant she was aware of a broad grin lighting up her face and the customer with whom Mr Prasad had been engaged, and was now about to leave the shop, turned to see from where the loudly uttered cry of “yes” had emerged.

Returning the card to the folder, Manju hesitated as she wondered what her next action should be. She knew that in her possession at this moment was the very item most coveted by her cricket mad brother. As she stood staring at the plastic folder her reverie was disturbed by the distinctive voice of Mr Prasad, summoning her from across the shop.

“Good morning Manju, I thought you might be in today. I have your copy of Malgudi Days here beneath the counter waiting for you.”

Manju turned and acknowledged the friendly bookseller, but still held on to the plastic folder containing the many cards. Here in her hands she knew that she held the potential to bring joy to her brother and relief to the whole family. How then should she proceed? Mr Prasad had confirmed that the book, for which she had saved her hard-earned pocket money over many weeks, was awaiting her collection. In her pocket she had just the right sum of 1,200 rupees to make her purchase, but now found herself facing a dilemma and realised that she must decide. She had entered the shop clear in her mission, but now she was confused and wondering what the right thing to do would be.

Approaching the counter carrying the folder, she smiled at Mr Prasad and enquired of him;

“This folder contains a lot of cards about cricketers, if I want to buy just one card, the one with a picture of Sachin Tendulkar, would that be possible?”

“Ah, Sachin Tendulkar, always a great favourite,” began Mr Prasad as he played an imaginary perfect forward defensive stroke before his customer. “Indeed, I would tend to agree with those who say he is the greatest batsman of all time, greater even than Bradman many say. Though of course the great Australian played well before my time.”

Manju nodded without revealing that she was not quite sure who Bradman was, or might have been. “So, is it possible to buy just that one card?” she repeated her question.

“Oh no, I’m afraid not,” replied the bookseller. “You see these are much sought after by collectors, and therefore I can only sell the folder with all of its contents. The folder contains a full set of all the cards in the collection and I am sure I will eventually have a customer who wishes to buy the whole package. If I were to remove cards, this would most certainly make the package less attractive to the ardent collector”

“And how much would the whole package cost?” Manju enquired, already feeling a sense of disappointment.

“Now let me see.” The bookseller took the folder from Manju as if weighing its value in his hands. “I think I could let the collection go for 800 rupees, particularly if I knew they were going to a real enthusiast such as you seem to be.”

Manju pondered the situation. A real enthusiast she thought was certainly a description that could be applied to Bibin, though most certainly not to herself. But 800 rupees, when all that was needed was a single card seemed to be excessive. As Manju considered her dilemma another customer entered the shop and Mr Prasad, with Manju’s consent went to speak to the newcomer.

Opening the folder Manju once more removed the image of Tendulkar. Here she knew was the source of all Bibin’s recent strife. With one purchase she believed that she could make him the happiest boy in Kalapurum. But if she were to leave this package here in the bookshop, she knew that Bibin could never save the money needed for its purchase, and even if he did, by the time he had 800 rupees, the chances were that the collection would have been bought by some other fanatic. What was she to do? As she turned the problem over in her mind she became aware that Mr Prasad had returned and knew that the time had come to bring her procrastination to a conclusion.

“Mr Prasad,” she now spoke with what she hoped sounded like an element of authority, her mind having been made up. “If I were to buy this collection of cards, do you think you could keep the copy of Malgudi Days for a few more weeks? I promise that I will then return and buy the book.”

Mr Prasad smiled down at Manju. “I see,” he began. “I have always seen you as an avid reader and enthusiast for books, I had never imagined you to be a great cricket fan. Of course, I will be happy to keep the book under the counter until you are ready to return and buy it.”

The decision having been made, Manju thanked the kindly proprietor and counted out 800 rupees which she handed to him in exchange for the folder and its contents. Even now she was uncertain whether her actions made sense. It had taken her many weeks to accumulate 1,200 rupees, and she had been looking forward all week to returning home with her much-anticipated new book. But the deed was now done, she had parted with her money and there must be no regrets. Tucking the folder beneath her arm she left the shop and commenced her journey home.

Arriving at home Manju found the house deserted. Her father she knew would be working, scouring the streets looking for passengers in his auto-rickshaw, and her mother had probably gone to the market to purchase vegetables. As for Bibin, this being a Saturday he would almost certainly be found at Sethupathi Park playing cricket with a group of friends.

Having made a selfless decision to purchase a set of cards in which she had very little interest, other than that of pleasing her brother and bringing peace to the household, Manju decided that she would arrange a surprise for Bibin. Having formulated a plan, she entered the shared bedroom and removed the cards from the plastic folder. Kneeling beside Bibin’s bed, she reached beneath and pulled out the cardboard shoebox in which her brother kept his prized collection. Taking the new set of cards, she began to place these into the box, mixing them randomly with others so that when Bibin next shuffled through his hoard, he might come by chance upon his missing hero. As she pictured this image in her mind she smiled and looked forward to her brother’s reaction on finding Sachin Tendulkar hidden amongst the other cards. Only after his discovery and allowing him a little time of puzzlement, would Manju tell him of her deed.

Having completed her stealthy mission and feeling particularly pleased with her intrigue, Manju began to push the box back into place beneath Bibin’s bed, now convinced that her decision to buy the cards had been a good one.  It was only at this point that she became aware of a noise indicating someone standing behind her in the room.

“What do you think you’re doing?” The question shouted by Bibin from only a few yards away startled Manju, who turned and began to raise herself up from the floor. Before she could think how to answer without revealing her secret, Bibin commenced a violent tirade.

“This is my side of the room, you have no right to be here going through my things. Your space is the other side of the curtain. I don’t want you interfering with my things. Do you hear me? What are you playing at? I don’t mess with your books, so you leave my things alone. If I catch you going through my property again I’ll give you a good thrashing, do you hear?”

Manju had heard all too well. She was flustered and embarrassed at having been discovered behaving in such a surreptitious manner. Her intentions had been good. No, not just good, more than this, her motives had been kind. But now she was facing her brother’s ire and didn’t know how to respond. She could feel tears welling in her eyes, as pushing quickly past Bibin she fled from the room and didn’t stop running until she reached the end of the street. There she flung herself down on a patch of grass and sat for quite some time waiting for her heart to stop racing, whilst contemplating all that had passed since leaving home earlier in the day.

That evening at the family meal Manju felt uncomfortable. Not knowing whether she should tell Bibin the full story of her morning’s activities or remain silent. She opted for the latter option. The image of Bibin finding the card and being overjoyed remained in her mind, though this was juxtaposed with negative feelings in respect of the injustice that she felt had fallen upon her shoulders. Pretending to be focused on the meal, which her mother had prepared, she found herself unable to lift her eyes in Bibin’s direction and hoped that soon the situation would be resolved, and life might return to normal. If the meal would only pass without a recommencement of hostilities, she would be able to escape to the sanctuary of her room. Manju’s mother, ever astute and sensitive to the needs of her family, could sense the unease around the table and sought to understand the causes of the tensions that were manifest between Bibin and his sister. Looking first at Bibin and then at her daughter, Talsi tried to break the ice between them with small talk.

“So then, have you both been busy today? What have you been up to?”

Manju said nothing, but Bibin seeing an opportunity to vent his anger, could not resist.

“When I came home earlier I found Manju taking something from under my bed. She was in my part of the room messing about with my things.”

Talsi raised an inquisitive eyebrow as she looked at Manju.

“Is this true Manju? What were you doing?”

“Nothing,” offered a floundering Manju. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was just…” But before she could finish Bibin seeking to further his advantage, intervened again.

“I told her. She has her own part of the room and I don’t go in and interfere with her books, so she should leave my things alone. She had no right to be there.”

“That’s enough,” ordered Talsi realising the necessity to quickly defuse the impending row, “I don’t want to hear any more. When you have calmed down and are prepared to speak in reasonable tones I will talk to both of you and get to the bottom of this. Now let’s finish our meal in a civilized manner”

The rest of the meal passed silently. Having cleared the plates and assisted her mother with washing up, Manju announced that she had homework to do and would go to her room, and afterwards have an early night. Bibin, still feeling ill-disposed towards his sister, left the house to practice catching a ball by bouncing it off the back wall of an adjacent building. Talsi, having decided that she could not face an argument that evening, felt some relief at the decisions made by her children and elected to wait until the following day to talk to each child individually, to understand the true source of Bibin’s grievance and Manju’s silence.

It was much later that evening that Bibin re-entered the scene of whatever crime it was he imagined Manju to have committed. Before climbing into bed, he reached beneath and pulled out the box containing his treasured cards. An evening of catching practice had caused him to wonder whether he might have given too little attention to some of the great Indian wicket keepers of the past. Perhaps Farokh Engineer deserved a place on his wall of honour, then there was Syed Kirmani much admired by his grandfather, or the great Gujarati Kiran More. Opening the box Bibin began to search through the cards, looking for these fine wicket keepers amongst his collection. Here he first located Kiran More, whose record he compared with that of Dhoni who peered down at him from his place of honour on the wall. 110 catches in test matches, that is impressive, he muttered beneath his breath.  Returning to his cards, thinking that his collection now appeared even larger than he had remembered, he continued searching until.., What was this? Taking a card from amongst the many others Bibin stared in disbelief. How could this be? Here in his hand he held the one card that he had sought for so many months.

Bibin needed to look at the card’s detail for some time before he really believed that at last he held in his hand his missing hero, the great Sachin Tendulkar. Could this be true? But sure enough, there could be no doubt that here before him, was the clear image of India’s greatest batsman. The joy which Bibin felt was immense as he realised that his collection was now complete. From now on there would be no more anxious visits to the corner shop, no more tearing open of packets only to be disappointed. Here before him, and ready for placing at the head of the wall, it really was Sachin Tendulkar.

As his excitement gradually subsided Bibin began to consider how this final missing card had come to enter his collection. Surely, he could not have overlook such a vital piece of the jigsaw that had been there all this time? Bibin turned over the events of the day in his mind. With this reflection came a realisation of the terrible injustice that he had committed against his sister. There could be no other explanation. When he had entered his room earlier and seen Manju kneeling beside his bed, he had quickly jumped to the wrong conclusion. Far from interfering with his property she had been engaged in an act of kindness. He realised now that it could only have been Manju who had added this card to the others in his box.

With mixed feelings of gratitude and remorse, Bibin leant across his bed and started to pull aside the curtain that divided the two halves of the room. This was the time to not only thank Manju, but also to offer a grovelling apology and seek her forgiveness for his earlier accusatory behaviour. Having realised that he had done her a great wrong he must not hesitate in putting matters right. Opening the curtain just enough so that he could see Manju lying on her bed he observed that she was sleeping soundly. He now felt both embarrassed and uncomfortable, knowing that tonight he would have to sleep aware of the terrible injustice that he had committed against his sister. He would have to wait until morning, before it would be possible to begin to make amends for his appalling behaviour. Turning once more to inspect the detail on his long sought card, Bibin lay back on his bed and reflected on how tomorrow he might ensure that both he and Manju had a better day.

About the Author: 

Richard Rose’s fiction  has been published in magazines in UK, India and Canada and his essays have recently appeared in Bangalore Review, Jaggery and Coldnoon. He lives in rural Northamptonshire, England and visits India regularly to work as a researcher and teacher.

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