This short story is selected as Story of the Month February’2017 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
Shalimar Vidyalaya was a reputed educational institution. They had good students who performed consistently during exams and excelled in performing arts. Every year, during the inter college tournaments, they were guaranteed winners and often picked up the grand prize for most individual or team medals. The one department they seriously lagged in was sports. In particular, football.
Over the years, there had been several individual players that possessed the requisite ability to go the distance. However, the lack of effort put in by coaches along with the failure of these marquee players to inspire the entire team led to collective failures.
This year, a new principal was appointed, Mr. Raj Pillai. Having been a former gymnast himself, he was adamant that this incessant ignominy, when it came to annual sporting events needed to be rectified. He put in an enthusiastic effort into revamping his sports department, hired applicants after extensive interviews and ensured he had the crème de la crème among the trainers for most sports. However, none of them dared to rise to the challenge of trying to set straight a footballing reputation that had been on the decline, pretty much since the inception of the institution.
When all hope seemed lost to Raj, one day, out of the blue he received a call. It was from Vishnu Prakash. Even though he was shocked initially, Raj quickly regained his composure and invited Vishnu over for a meeting the next morning. Raj was perturbed during the entire day, wondering what Vishnu could possibly want. The two had been batchmates, and while Raj was a star gymnast, Vishnu was a key part of the greatest team that the college had ever boasted of. The Class of 1990. The team that had star striker Nikhil Bajaj and was coached by his father Ajit Bajaj.
Raj’s nervousness carried on til next morning, until around 10 o clock which was when his secretary informed him that one Mr. Prakash was waiting. He asked her to send him in. Vishnu walked in within a few seconds. While the years had been kind to Raj, who had continued to work out to stay fit and look far younger than his 45 years, the same could not be said for his batchmate. Vishnu’s hair was long, unkempt, and more gray than black. He had a stubble, and dark circles underneath his eyes that gave him an impression of being drunk. He was wearing a black shirt and jeans, and sneakers that were so worn out, they looked ready to disintegrate.
“Good morning Mr. Prakash”.
“C’mon Vishnu. You know you can call me Raj. What can I do for you?”
“Well, Raj, I heard about the vacancy for a football coach. I thought I’d give it a shot.”
“Uhh, I don’t know about that. I mean, of course, you were part of the great team and trained with Mr. Bajaj..”
Raj suddenly stopped and looked almost apologetically at Vishnu. He knew that he was broaching a sensitive topic and he didn’t know how Vishnu was going to react.
“Let’s not delve too much into the past please, Raj” Vishnu continued after a pause. “I know you’re short of candidates, heck, I’m probably the only one ready to take it up. What have you got to lose? You know I don’t care about money. I just want a chance, and well, a job would do me good.”
“Of course, it’s not that. I mean, it’s been so many years. The game has changed a lot. And you’ve probably been out of touch for so long. Are you sure about this?”
“I’m asking for one chance, man. You know about me. I’ve watched the game from the touchline more than I’ve been in it. And besides, I’ve…I’ve worked up close with coach Bajaj. I know how he thinks. I can try and emulate that. Give me a shot.”
“Well, all right. I mean, like you said, not too many candidates anyway, so all right. We’ve got the other coaches conducting trials and putting together a team. Plus of course, the guys that have been playing since the past few years. Some are real talented. So, you can start from there.”
“Thanks Raj. I’ll accept on just the one condition that I can have complete autonomy on the running of the team. I think you can trust that I won’t do anything illegal or unethical.” He smirked. Raj noticed that despite his age, Vishnu still had that mischievous twinkle in his eye.
And so, terms were agreed. Vishnu Prakash was going to coach the Shalimar Vidyalaya football team. That was the hot new buzz for the students and staff of the college. A few of Vishnu’s batchmates had come back as professors. Mostly, his arrival was met with a rather lukewarm reception. Even though he was a fairly popular student back in the day, his reputation had depreciated over time, particularly since his abrupt, and still somewhat mysterious decision to quit college, all those years ago.
Vishnu himself was a rather relieved man. He finally had an opportunity to set straight a lot of things. He still had fond memories of the team of the 90s with the enigmatic father-son duo that almost led the team to unprecedented glory. For him though, the task was going to be cut out. He had to virtually build a team from scratch. The next morning, Vishnu got up, and went for a jog. He still had an occasional pain in his leg, because of the injury from all those years ago, but it rarely resurfaced. He returned home, freshened up, put on his jacket and cap, and reentered the gates of the building he had once felt was like another home.
The notices for the tryouts were put up, and met with widespread enthusiasm. There were a great many students who turned up for the tryouts, and that pleased the new coach. He was going to have to be very severe with his selection, he was glad he had options to work with. The jovial nature of the coach who met them also lifted the spirits of the students. However, the happiness soon faded and everyone began wearing looks of intense concentration. Vishnu had appointed two other coaching staff as his assistants and they were to assess each student on three categories: stamina, skill and teamwork.
The first test involved students to commit an exercise that was known as a suicide drill. Basically, the students had to run as fast as they could and back to points of increasing distance across various parts of the pitch. The distance to be run was marked out by the orange cones used for training.
The second test of skill was a more orthodox one. Students had to dribble along the length of the entire pitch with the football at their feet, ensuring that they didn’t run into the various cones that were set up as obstacles. Once at the end of a pitch, from a distance of 20 yards, they had to shoot the ball into the net.
For the third test, students would be clubbed into groups of five. They each had to complete a run along the length of the pitch with the ball at their feet, getting in at least four touches per person before reaching the 18-yard box.
Students were given the permission to opt between whether to do test number one or two first as Vishnu believed that even those with less stamina, but sufficient skill could find a place in the team. The third test would then be taken by those who were remaining at the end.
By the time all these formalities were completed, Vishnu Prakash had a final set of 28 players with varying abilities. Some were good technicians, with great vision, others could find a great pass, many could shoot capably and others were good runners or leaders. He had deliberately held off tryouts for goalies because he felt that those who didn’t make it into the team at the first round of selection should be given another go.
Pretty soon however, he realized that this was a big mistake. There were far too few aspiring goalkeepers and amongst those who turned up a mere handful had the ability to take the full brunt of a powerful kick. Desperation soon turned into exasperation for the new coach who began to focus on his other players.
His days were spent planning tactics and strategies in his head, while the evenings involved training with his boys. He ensured that everyone stayed in top shape and that the squad was rotated and rested often enough so that injuries were avoided. Soon enough, the team began acquiring the right shape and attitude, and this did not go unnoticed by the principal, who was pleased at himself for making what seemed like the right call.
Vishnu had gotten up one morning and went off on his morning jog, when he saw her again, after all these years- Drishya. Time seemed to stand still for him as the flood of memories came rushing back to him. Drishya Bajaj, the daughter of his coach, his best friend’s younger sister. Vishnu Prakash was an orphan. He was a fairly bright boy, so the orphanage had no trouble arranging admission for him in Saket Vidyalaya a school closely affiliated with Shalimar. He had become friends with Nikhil from a young age, and therefore spent more time at the Bajaj residence than he did at his own hostel. He and Drishya had always had a soft corner for each other, and over time, that had blossomed into love.
Drishya had aged gracefully, and to Vishnu she still looked like an angel. Her hair was medium length speckled with just the occasional tinge of gray amid the sea of black and her eyes, bespectacled now were ever like the beautiful petals he kept being reminded of every time he looked at them. There was a glimmer of recognition in those eyes today as she spotted him looking at her, before it turned into a cold, almost malicious glare. Without so much as the exchange of a word, she turned and walked away.
To Vishnu, the glare was like a slap across the face, even though he knew that he was not to expect better. Ever since that dreadful day all those years ago, things had irrevocably, irreversibly changed and Vishnu held himself responsible. He knew there was nothing he could do now, so blinking back tears, he continued his routine, even though his mind was now slightly troubled.
The next few days passed by with the same usual routine, until one day, while sticking around the grounds post tryouts, Vishnu happened to witness the basketball tryouts. They had a talented squad of players, full of energy in going about their game. During one set of player rotations, Vishnu played close attention and noticed that one tall boy, quick on his feet was unable to keep hold of the ball because he lacked the dribbling ability. However, his positioning, jumping and speed along with his stocky build made for an immaculately intimidating presence overall. There was something about the boy that seemed oddly familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. However, he had an idea.
He approached the boy after his turn at the trials.
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Jimmy. Why? Did I do something wrong?”
“Not quite. I was watching you at tryouts, and I saw that you had a tough time keeping hold of the ball. Maybe basketball isn’t quite your thing. If you’re done here, why don’t you come with me?”
“Sure. I’ve got nothing better to do. These guys aren’t gonna take me anyway. They’re scared of a little physicality. The ninnies.”
“I don’t think that’s quite the right attitude about your teammates, but we can work on that. Have you ever seen a game of football?”
“No. I hate it. My father says football ruined his life.”
“Well, I don’t know about your father, but I think you’ve got quite the future in the game, if things work out as they are in my mind. I want you to try goalkeeping.”
“That’s the most boring job. I wanna be a striker. At least a midfielder if I play.”
“I’ll tell you what. Try out for the goalie now. Just a little one on one with me. If you’re good, I’ll think about taking you in the team and we can talk your position later on.”
Within twenty minutes of trials, Vishnu knew that he had found his goalie. The boy was a natural. His height and build allowed him to cover a large part of goal, and his surprising flexibility and agility ensured that even the shots that seemed to be beyond him were well covered. During the period, Vishnu must have hit at least fifty shots, out of which a mere handful were conceded. The boy seemed to realize his talent too, and with a sheepish smile admitted to his coach that he wouldn’t mind playing in that position.
The next day, Jimmy was inducted into the team. Although the team were initially reluctant to accept someone who was selected without a proper tryout, their opinion soon changed after seeing the skill possessed by the boy. Within no time, the team was starting to look in good shape. The players had developed an understanding amongst each other, and Vishnu’s system of using different formations every game and differing starting line-ups, ensured that the team remained fit, refreshed and flexible.
Time seemed to fly by and before anyone could believe it, the inter-collegiate tournament was upon them. The format of the tournament included six groups of four teams, with the top 2 going through to the next round which was would be an elimination round. Vishnu was as eager as he was nervous, although his squad seemed more inclined towards the latter emotion.
The first game started with the boys showing a lot of promise. Vishnu hung around near the touchline, with a cap on his head and a whistle around his neck. At half-time, the boys had played produced an exhilarating exhibition but were still goalless. Immediately, Vishnu made three substitutions and adjusted his formation to include three strikers instead of just the one he had started with. Within ten minutes of play resuming, his side were a goal ahead, and they carried that score line all the way to the final whistle courtesy of some great saves from Jimmy.
The mood around the team was incredibly buoyant as there was finally a sense of belief amongst the members and staff. The players, who had earlier developed a system of divide on the basis of seniority now began mingling freely and the spirit was lifted further by the charisma and energy of the goalkeeper.
Vishnu began monitoring his progress closely and giving him lessons and advice on how to be even better at what he did. He also told him to ensure that he watched his diet and stayed fit so that an untimely injury could be avoided. He began personal training sessions with his favorite pupil after regular training hours, and both the master and protégé enjoyed it equally. He also began to make him practice dribbling the ball regularly so that he could get a feel of the outfield.
The tournament was now in full swing, and no one could seem to stop the juggernaut that was Shalimar Vidyalaya or get past their incredible goalkeeper. The crowd turnout started building and there was a buzz surrounding the college football team that hadn’t been there for many, many years. Even Drishya began to occasionally visit the stands although she would never even make eye contact with the coach.
Vishnu continued to rotate his squad with continued success and soon the team were in the knockout stages. They had picked up a convincing 3-0 home win during the first leg of the semi-final. The usual excitement followed the final whistle and the coach was wearing a proud smile as he patted his star player, his goalie on the back before sending him on the dugout. It was then that he heard the voice, one which he thought he would never ever hear again. It shook him with an unbelievable rage.
“You were fantastic, Jimmy. I should have seen you play more often. You’re so naturally talented. I’m so proud of you, my son”
Vishnu turned around and looked with disbelieving eyes at the only man he hated: the man who had single-handedly turned his life upside down- David James. He may have lost his hair, and stocky build he was famous for but there was never forgetting that face. Vishnu realized with a jolt why Jimmy looked so familiar. He shot David a solitary, unbroken glance of pure hatred before walking back, away from the ground, far far away from the man who had ruined his life.
The next day when Jimmy turned up for training, the coach told him to pack up his kit and go home. There was no explanation, no reason, just a simple command to leave the premises. The whole team was shell-shocked and it made a profoundly detrimental impact on their morale. That day, for the first time since Vishnu had taken over, the team lost. They lost by a score line of 2-0, and pure luck was the sole reason that allowed them to qualify for the finals- against Don Bastian.
Since then, every evening, Vishnu began to get drunk. It had never been a habit, nor an addiction, but it was a desperate attempt to wash out everything from the past- everything that had come rushing back when he saw David again. He felt a desolate sense of Déjà vu as his memory carried him back to that fateful period in the 1990s.
Shalimar College, guided by coach Ajit and talismanic striker Nikhil had reached the finals of the intercollegiate tournament for the first time. Also part of that iconic squad was attacking midfielder Vishnu Prakash and second striker David James. Beyond doubt, Nikhil was the star and the most talented player of the team. He was the most popular boy in school and David, despite possessing commendable skill himself was always second fiddle and this made him deeply envious.
To top it all off, they were both in love with the same girl- Namya Kumar, a beautiful junior from a humble background. Namya and Nikhil were in love with each other, a fact that was only known to the pair of them, Vishnu and Drishya. Nikhil feared that his father, the coach, would never approve of the relationship as Namya was from a poorer background. So, he hatched a plan to run away with Namya after the final of the tournament. David, however, got wind of this plan and he tipped off the coach.
Ajit Bajaj was furious when he heard. He decided to get Nikhil employed in a friend’s company in the US, as soon as the college year ended. Realizing that they would never be allowed to leave after the conclusion of the tournament, Nikhil decided to elope with his lover, the night before the tournament. Despite Drishya’s begging against the same, Vishnu decided to side with his friend. The plan was for Vishnu to take the car from the Bajaj residence, so as to reduce suspicion and pick up Namya from her home. Nikhil would meet them at the training ground and then take the car and leave town.
Drishya once again begged both her brother and her boyfriend not to take the drastic step and to approach her father and make him see reason instead, but the younger Bajaj had already made up his mind. Unbeknownst to all, David had tampered with the breaks on the car, cutting it so that the brakes would soon stop functioning completely. His objective was two-fold- spoil the plan, and injure Nikhil so that he could be the star in the next day’s final.
The night before the game, while the coach was busy, Vishnu collected the car, picked up Namya and went to wait near the ground. By this time, the break cables had completely given way. By this time the break cables had completely given way, but no one realized this. Nikhil arrived soon, hugged his dearest friend and promised to see him again soon. He then got into the car and began to drive away but before he was far, there came a speeding truck in the opposite direction and Nikhil, unable to control or stop the car, had crashed into a tree nearby. Vishnu who was witnessing the carnage ran towards the demolished wreck, but by the time he reached there was an explosion. The impact sent Vishnu hovering in the opposite direction before landing on his left side- the reason for his occasional limp.
When David realized what he had done, he was stunned. He did not intend for such disaster to strike, but there was nothing to be done now. The coach went into a depression and had a heart attack- one from which he never recovered. He passed away a week later. Drishya never forgave Vishnu for his decision to support her brother- she felt it had cost her the lives of both her family members. Vishnu was hospitalized with his injury, but the impact on his mind was far more profound than that on his body. He left the school without a word following his recovery and lived a life of regret ever since. The team, obviously shattered by the turn of events, withdrew from the competition and it resulted in a victory by forfeit for their opponents- Don Bastian. The football team became a jinx, something no one wanted to associate themselves with and with every incoming batch of students and professors, the rumors continued to persist about the unlucky nature of the team leading to a lack of interest overall. There were only a handful of coaches or teams since, but none could come close to the class of 1990- gradually, interest in the sport waned and people began focusing on other avenues.
Vishnu was still sleeping off his hangover on the morning of the final when he heard a knock on his door. Still feeling slightly dazed, he walked to the door and pulled it open. He couldn’t believe his eyes- David James was at his door. Both men stood silently, looking at each other- one with pure, unadulterated hatred while the other with a tired, painful gaze. Vishnu was about to shut the door in his face when he realized that Drishya was also there with David.
“Can we come in, Vishnu?” David’s voice sounded tired, feeble.
Vishnu said nothing but just walked away from the door. David made his way inside.
“Look, I don’t know what to say. You and I are no longer the only ones who know what happened. I’ve confessed to Drishya, and I wish I could admit everything to the Coach as well. But…”
Vishnu still said nothing. He was glaring at David although his gaze softened considerably when looking at his female companion.
“I’ve done a lot of things I regret. And God knows that no one wishes as much as I do that we could go back in time and change things from that dreadful day. But please. What’s my son’s fault in this? You couldn’t possibly hold a grudge against him for being born to me.”
“You’re the devil himself. The poison that runs through your mind, I’m sure your boy has some of that too. I’m sure we’ll know his true colors sooner rather than later.” Vishnu hissed venomously.
“Please, Vishnu. You know that’s not true. You know him almost as much as I do. He’s as harmless as Nikhil was.”
“How dare you mention that name, you cowardly wretch?” Vishnu almost made a lunge for him before Drishya came and stood between them.
“Vishnu, we’ve all made mistakes. I knew deep down that it wasn’t your fault what happened. Let’s just think of it all as an accident and please move on. The college needs you. The team needs you. I need you. Please.” Drishya had tears welling up in her eyes.
“How can you say that Drishya? After all that happened? After everything he did, you just want to forgive him?” Vishnu’s voice was beginning to break. He too was choking up from emotion.
“Consider it the last wish of a dying man, Vishnu. The cancer that had always affected my mind has started to spread through my body. I don’t have much longer to live. Please, give me one chance to set things straight. You have to win the tournament, and only you can do it. I implore you, please.”
Vishnu’s eyes had begun to relent as had his mind. “It’s too late Dave. The match must already be underway. There’s nothing I can do now.”
“Let’s just go there, please. Your presence is the only thing that the boys will need. I just know that it will inspire them.”
The three sat silently, looking at one another, for a few seconds before Vishnu got up, washed his face, and led his guests outside to his car. The ground where the tournament was being held was a mere ten minutes away on foot, but they did not have time to spare.
They reached the ground and saw that Shalimar was trailing by 1-0 with only ten minutes left on the clock. The coach reached the touchline, and took charge from his assistant. He realized that Jimmy was sitting on the bench.
“Why the hell isn’t he on the pitch?!” He barked at his assistant.
“Sir, you’d given explicit instructions never to include him in the team again. So we thought..”
“Shut up. All right, I’m sorry. It was my mistake. Okay, do we have any substitutions remaining?”
“Just the one sir. I was lining up the forward and preparing instructions for him.”
“All right, listen carefully. Make a substitution right away. Get that defensive midfielder out and put Jimmy in.
“But sir, at this point, you want to replace your goal-keeper?”
“No. He’s going to play in the outfield. I’ll talk to him”.
“Jimmy. Come here.”
He called the boy over and asked him to remove his gloves. He then gave him a kit to match that of the outfield players.
“I want you to play a midfield role. Everyone is tired. Your instructions are simple. Get the ball, and get to the 18-yard box. I don’t care what you do, but for the remainder of this game, I want to see you with the ball near the opposition’s penalty box. Are you clear?”
“But coach, I don’t think I can..”
“Listen here kid. The first thing you need is self-belief. Then you need to believe in your teammates and that will bring about team spirit. Now just follow my instructions and we can still win this thing.”
Soon enough, the tactical ploy was underway. The other coach was shocked to see a goalkeeper take up an outfield role. He gave instructions to his team to be wary but to relax slightly as their opponents seemed to have all but given up. But little did he know what was coming. Jimmy was not the fastest player on the pitch, but he was quick. And, combined with the fact that the opposition players were getting exhausted, Vishnu’s strategy worked brilliantly. Suddenly, all the chances were falling to Shalimar and with four minutes remaining on the clock, they found an equalizer.
The tide had turned. The crowd was beginning to find its voice again, and the opposing team were very worried. There was attack after attack for Shalimar but their opponents bravely held out til the dying seconds to ensure that the match went to a penalty shoot-out.
Vishnu immediately called his team over, and selected his five best shooters to take the spot kick. He then asked the goalkeeper to switch kits with Jimmy. The opposition coach who was watching closely was furiously arguing with the referee. However, there was nothing that could be done. What Vishnu had done had been a daring and almost dangerously suicidal a tactic, however it was perfectly within the rules of the game.
Soon, the shootout started. Vishnu’s instruction to the goalkeeper was straightforward- trust your instinct. The first kick was for Shalimar. The player missed and there was a collective groan of disappointment from the crowd. The first shooter for Don Bastian played a great shot which hit the post and slipped into the back of the net. Shalimar were already staring at a deficit and it seemed as though luck wasn’t on their side. For the second kick, the Shalimar lad slotted in a cool chipped shot straight at goal. The Don Bastian boy, clearly nervous from the occasion sent his shot blazing over the crossbar. Scores were once again level.
Both teams missed the target during the third kick. Pressure was building now. The Shalimar player tried an audacious chip shot to the right side of goal- fortunately the keeper completely misread it, dived to the left, and for the first time, Shalimar were ahead. Don Bastian’s fourth player stepped up. He hit a powerful low shot curling to the right, but even though Jimmy started to dive the wrong way, his outstretched feet prevented the ball from crossing the line. A stroke of luck. The Shalimar player taking the crucial fifth penalty stepped up. Vishnu had given him clear instructions. Hit straight at the goal. The keeper will certainly dive for the fifth kick. The player was a nervous wreck, but he didn’t show it. He blasted a shot, ramrod straight to the center of the goal and it went crashing into the back of the net. One final kick to make or break the game.
Vishnu looked at Jimmy and their eyes met. Vishnu tapped his heart and gave him a thumbs up sign and a reassured nod. Jimmy was breathing nervously. The Don Bastian player stepped up. He looked at Jimmy. He looked at his coach. He looked at the crowd. And he smashed a shot to the right of goal. Jimmy watched his movement closely trying to follow him and see what he was going to do. And he dived to the right, and felt the ball crash off his forearm and out of play.
For a few seconds, there was total silence, before pandemonium erupted. Jimmy was mobbed by his teammates, and Shalimar had finally done it. Vishnu, with tears streaming down his face, looked at the sky, for he knew that two members of the Bajaj family would be looking down and smiling at him, cheering for him, and celebrating with him.
Drishya came running out of the stands, applauding wildly and hugged Vishnu tightly. David James sat in his seat smiling tearfully. He felt such a surge of pride, joy and relief that he didn’t know what to do. Finally, Shalimar had lifted the coveted trophy. Finally, Shalimar had crossed the final hurdle and done the unprecedented.
Finally, after all these years they were all at peace.