Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What a hit son!

“So, how do I get along with the locals here?” I asked my manager, so eager to make friends with the locals, just two days after arriving to London.

“It is quite easy if you are good at a few things” he replied with a broad smile.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Alcohol, sex and football” he said with a very straight face. The first two would very easily qualify as a big taboo in Indian society.

“Boy! I don’t have too much experience with alcohol” I told myself. Especially after looking at the shops that sell alcohol and the way they promote alcoholic beverages, I thought I could never compete with these guys in pubs.

“So, one down and two to go” I thought.

“Again, Though i have some theoretical knowledge on the subject, I have no practical experience in sex either” I thought and went deep into thought. It was strange. If a 24 year old Brit had said that, the entire nation would have given a weird expression. But, being a conservative South Indian, I knew taking up this option to get closer to the locals wouldn’t help.

“It has to be football” I decided.

“How does football help in knowing people here” I asked my manager after a minute.

“It is simple, you have to support the team they support and watch with them and I can guarantee that you will love you just for that” he said.

“What team they support?” I asked as there are various teams in London that plays in the premier league.

“Various” he said and smiled. “They even support teams from outside London” he added.

“Is there a game this week” I eagerly asked.

“Yes. Liverpool is playing Olympiakos tonight 8 PM” he said and checked the calendar to confirm.

“Go to the Gilman’s pub half an hour before kick off to ensure good seat”.

“To a pub? To watch football? It is quite strange” I thought. Being a Liverpool fan since 2001 I thought it would be great to make friends who are fans of Liverpool football club as well.

Exactly at seven thirty, I entered Gillman’s. All the windows were closed as the bartender installed a temporary giant screen in one corner of the pub. The screen was as big as Satyam cinemas in Chennai. They had a big projector and few flat screen televisions in all corners of the pub so that no one missed out on the action. When the bartender pushed the power button, the giant screen came to life with Andy Gray giving his expert comments about the game that night. Jamie Redknapp was the guest and both were going through the team sheet and were discussing the strategies both teams should adopt.

“Liverpool should win with a two goal margin to progress to the knock out stage” Andy Gray commented after looking at the league table.

Fifteen minutes to kickoff!

Fans wearing Liverpool colors and Liverpool scarf started coming in.

“Cranberry juice please” I said to the bartender and paid two pounds.

Small group of fans appeared ten minutes to kickoff and started occupying the tables in front of the giant screen. I chose to stand and watch from the last row so as to observe the fans’ reaction. Every table was filled with pint glasses of lager, mostly Foster’s. Almost everyone wanted to watch the game with alcohol. I wasn’t sure how many would stay sober at the end of the game. So, I was on full alert and stayed close to the door. The door would be my emergency exit in case of trouble. I had never seen so much of alcohol in one place before.

“My manager was so right about the locals’ preferences” I felt

Three minutes before the game started, the fans in Anfield started singing “You will never walk alone”. When the song started, people in the pub sang along with them, with their scarf held up high using both their hands

“Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain. Though your dreams be tossed and blown, walk on… walk on… with hope in your heart... and you’ll never walk alone” they sang.

I knew the song and so sang with them. The lyrics of the song don’t just apply to the game but to real life as well. I felt so inspired after the song and started to develop a sense of belonging with the group gathered in the pub.

The first half was very bad. Olympiakos scored in the 26th minute which made entry into the knock out stage very difficult for the hosts.

At half time, I managed to empty my coke but Liverpool did not manage even a single goal. The fans started to feel irritated by the first half performance.

“We need three fucking goals in forty five fucking minutes” said a frustrated fan at the bar.

I was under tremendous fear as I was not sure how many were sober and what would they do when they were not, and especially when Liverpool lost. I was getting ready to go back home but decided to stay on for the first ten minutes of the second half. All the pint glasses which carried numerous liters of beer forty five minutes before were empty but were promptly replaced by full glasses during half time.

The second half started. In the second minute of the second half, Sinama Pongole ran in through the center to collect a brilliant pass from Gerrard from right flank. The crowd in the pub jumped up to their feet for a second. Sinama expertly volleyed the ball past the keeper for the first goal. The crowd in the stadium erupted. The crowd in the pub erupted too. Lots of jumping, shouting, swearing were evident.

“Is it the passion? Or is it just alcohol?” I wondered

I decided to stay on for some more time.

“A foster’s please” I said to the bartender. Things were getting heated up in the pub and I did not want to miss the action.

After eighty minutes into the game, it was still 1-1.

“Ten more minutes to go. And Liverpool needs two goals. Will it go down the wire?” I thought

In the eighty first minute, Neil Mellor, a rookie, curled the ball in from just outside the penalty box to the left of the keeper. No one expected him to shoot from that angle, but he gave himself a chance. The ball went past the diving keeper and hit the inside of the post and then hit the back of the net.

2-1 and one more goal required to seal the promotion!

The crowd in the pub, which was so impatient for that moment, erupted yet again. People were jumping and punching the air. The celebration lasted only for a moment as Liverpool players regrouped for the remaining vital nine minutes left in the game.

“Are we in for something today” cried the commentator.

I was standing in the middle of a group at the last row now, vociferously cheering for Liverpool.

“Come on reds!” I shouted and a group joined me in shouting.

I felt so attached to the local people there!

Five more minutes went on. Liverpool was pressing for the all crucial third goal. Olympiakos was only contempt to defend and so put all eleven in defense for the last five minutes.

Carragher pushed forward from the left flank and crossed into the penalty box in the direction of Neil Mellor. Mellor, being surrounded by three men from Olympiakos, decided to head the ball back to Gerrard, who was twenty five yards from the goal and with a lot of space.

“Shooooooot…” I cried as I sensed an opportunity to score when I saw Gerrard with such space. I knew he was too good a player to be given that much space around him.

“…lovely cushion header from Mellor… GERRAAAARRRD!!!” cried Andy Gray from the commentary box at the same time.

Gerrard hit the ball fiercely from outside of his right foot with such a pace that the keeper could not stop the ball from going inside his own net, even after an extravagant dive.

“…You beauty! What a hit son! What a hit” Andy Gray screamed on top of his voice.

The crowd in the pub, who were switched off till that point anticipating a defeat, jumped up and down with the beer in hand.

I was jumping up too. For three minutes. The people near me were hugging each other like crazy and in the process, I was hugged too. By almost all the guys and girls near me. I felt like I were one of the locals there.

At the end of those crazy three minutes, I was so excited that I did not even realize that I was covered with beer head to toe. During the wild celebrations, no one realized that they were pouring beer out of their glasses and some of them were on me!

But, I was too excited to bother about that! Already one beer from the pub felt like ten vodkas with redbull for me!

“What a hit that was” I thought after looking at the replay. I was not thinking of Gerrard. I was thinking of how people accepted me as one of them and how football helped me to achieve it. “What a hit I was” I thought and felt so proud.

After the game, while looking at the replay, I heard Andy Gray saying “… with one swing from his gifted right foot, Steven Gerrard says ‘Champions league… knock out stage… here we come’”

“Champions league… knock out stage… here I come… to the same pub and watch” I promised myself.

PS: The same season, Liverpool went on to win the Champions league… in the most emphatic way ever possible. If this game was considered thrilling to the finish, the final was a cliffhanger! As the Liverpool FC anthem reiterates, “When you have hope in your heart, YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE”

Click here to see Gerrard's heroics on that day!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pricing the priceless!

“Vidhya, are you OK? You look pale and sick since morning” Sowmya asked, truly concerned about her health.

“I don’t know. But I feel a bit stable now. And I am vomiting everything I ate since morning”

“Oh my god! I think you should see a doctor right now” she ordered.

“Hey, there is nothing to worry. I just got the result of my test”

“What test?”

“Pregnancy test!”

“Oh... Are you pregnant?” she asked innocently after a few seconds.

“I am” Vidhya said with a tinge of shyness in her voice.

Sowmya’s eyes widened, jaw dropped down for a moment as she hugged Vidhya tightly and said “Congratulations, that’s a great news!”

Even though Vidhya shared a wonderful news, perhaps the news of her life so far, Sowmya felt that something was not normal. She felt that Vidhya looked both happy and worried at the same time.

“Is everything ok at home dear?”

“Well… not really, but my husband is gradually coming to terms with his recent loss in business and is really working hard to find a job to support our family. I think everything should be fine in a month or so. Let’s see whether my daughter brings any luck to our family” she said and smiled. Unconvincingly.

“Hmmm… But I thought you were so not ready for a baby now”

“I am now. Trust me. Everything will be fine when I deliver my daughter”

“Do you realize that you have to quit your job sometime soon to deal with your child birth? And do you realize that you need to spend a lot for hospitals and child care?” Sowmya asked with a worried expression on her face.

“I do” said Vidhya. That was all she said and stood up from her chair to declare that the conversation with Sowmya was over.

“I am sorry dear. But I was only concerned for you”

“Thank you. I really appreciate that” were the last words from Vidhya that day.

Three months went by. Vidhya stayed healthy. The developing baby inside her was healthy. Her husband was still in huge debt. And he was still jobless.

One fine day, against all the odds, Vidhya quit her job so as to ensure that the baby stayed fine inside her womb.

“Are you crazy? What will you do for your expenses? Do you know how much it costs to see a decent doctor these days?” Sowmya said furiously ready for a big confrontation with her dearest friend.

Vidhya was silent and lost into her own world; the world in which she and her daughter only existed. Even she could not explain why she wanted a baby girl, but she always dreamt of delivering a baby girl; dreamt of feeding her ; dreamt of giving her all the care in the world; dreamt of her going to school and returning ever smiling. But, in reality she had no money. Not even to fulfill one of her many dreams.

“I don’t really understand what you are doing now” Sowmya shouted again.

The rise in decibel level inside the room brought Vidhya back to the cruel world she belonged to.

“So do I” said Vidhya and smiled. At that point, Sowmya realized that there was no point in taking the conversation any further.

“Please do let me know if you need any help, whatever it may be” Sowmya pleaded.

Days became weeks and weeks became months. Every day was a struggle. Her husband was still jobless. Somehow, they managed to keep the debtors away and managed three decent meals per day.

But, Vidhya never stopped dreaming. She tried to confirm the gender of the baby with the doctors a few times. But, the law in India prevented the doctors to pass on this vital piece of information to her. Somehow, Vidhya was absolutely sure that her dreams were real. Every one of them!

Three meals everyday were converted into numerous vomits. Even after the sixth month of pregnancy, she never stopped vomiting.

“Only baby girls make the mother feel nauseous, right?” She innocently asked her husband.

He just nodded. What does he know about pregnancy? He nodded only because he wanted to make her feel happy; he wanted to make up to her for the state they were in as the feeling of guilt was written all over him. He feared for the pain Vidhya had to go through during child birth.

And after!

The day arrived. She was lying on the bed, semi conscious and tired after the child birth. The nurse came in and congratulated Vidhya.

With great effort, she raised her head to look at the nurse who was holding the baby. Her baby. Her treasured treasure!

“Is it a baby girl?” she asked

The nurse smiled. Looking at her smile, Vidhya smiled.

“Can I see her?”

The nurse placed the tiny one on her laps. The baby opened her eyes to see her mother. For the first time. Vidhya looked at her as she experienced tears of joy for the first time in years. She couldn’t actually believe that she produced something as beautiful as this one. All the pain she had gone through to look after the baby inside her; the pain of sleepless nights; the pain of vomiting everything she ate; the pain of swelled legs that made her immobile for weeks suddenly became worthwhile. Just for this moment; the moment the baby gently closed her eyes and reopened to see her mother again. Her dreams were about to come true. Then, the baby extended her tiny arms towards her mother. In fact, she was living her dream at that point.

Vidhya cried. Was it the ‘tears of joy’?

“I have given the money to your husband. Five lakhs in cash” A man said while walking into the room.

“Also, I have paid the hospital expenses. The money I gave your husband will take care of all your debts. Do let me know when you are ready to work again. I will find a job for you” he continued.

“Thank you, we are so grateful to you” Vidhya said and continued crying.

“No. Don’t say that. We are grateful to you this entire life”

“You are always welcome to come and see your daughter anytime” he said and picked the baby from her lap.

“Do you have to take her away now?” she asked and wiped her tears. But, that was of no use. Tears reappeared within micro seconds.

“I understand your position. I don’t want to take her away right now. I will wait” he said.

A relief! She thought.

“I will wait outside for ten minutes. My wife is on the way. We will take the baby with me when she arrives” he said.

Vidhya could not believe it. Someone from somewhere was taking her priced possession from her. Forever. Yet she was unable to fight; unable to stop him. What could she do? After all, she agreed to bear the child for someone else and she had to fulfill her promise.

Five lakhs was the price set for her baby. No one knew what pricing strategy was adopted in this case. Maybe that was the amount Vidhya’s family needed to pay off the debt. In the end, the price of the baby was equal to the price of the family’s debt. Vidhya would never forgive herself for what she was doing now.

She had priced the priceless!

But, she was given ten minutes with her daughter; ten minutes to hold her in her arms; ten minutes to kiss her; ten minutes to admire her tiny folded fingers; ten minutes to care for her. In short, she had ten minutes to live her dream.

But, somewhere in the bottom of her heart, she knew that her dreams were on fire and would be burnt into ashes in mere ten minutes!

Friday, October 02, 2009

The disaster

Vidhya was getting ready for the parade in her school. She was wearing her tiny little shoes when her mother came running with some milk in a Mickey Mouse cup.

“The bus would arrive any moment. Drink fast” she said and offered the cup to Vidhya

Vidhya grabbed the cup and drained it within a few seconds.

“Mama, you know… I will be leading the parade in my school today” she said proudly, wiping her lips with her left hand.

Her mother bent down, pecked her check and said “Very nice dear, so proud of you”.

Vidhya’s mother, like any other mother, was so proud of her, especially as she was very good in academics and sports in her school, even though she was only in her third standard.

Vidhya gave the cup back to her mother, hugged her, grabbed her bag and said “Love you mom, see you” and waved her tiny hand towards her mother.

She waved Vidhya good bye, watched her go down the elevator from her flat in the fifth floor. The elevator stopped in the fourth floor, picked her best friend and class mate Sowmya and continued its journey towards ground floor.

It was 8:03 AM then!

Inside the school bus, Vidhya and Sowmya chatted about numerous issues. From the new pencil box Vidhya bought to how Sowmya managed to polish her shoes all by herself.

Back home, Vidhya’s family and Sowmya’s family were planning for a get together. As the country was celebrating its 51st Republic day, and since it was a national holiday, the two families decided to meet for lunch.

Vidhya’s parents would host the lunch and hence they were getting ready to prepare the meal.

“Don’t forget to bring Rohit with you, Rahul loves to play with him” Vidhya’s dad told Sowmya’s parents over the phone. Rahul and Rohit were Vidhya and Sowmya’s little brothers, both a little over four years old.

The school bus reached the school in nearly twenty minutes. Vidhya and Sowmya got down from the bus and were getting ready for the Republic day parade.

The school clock showed 8:23 AM!

“Request all students to assemble in the designated lines” barked the principal of the school from the stage over the microphone.

All the students were scrambling to find their designated area to start their march. Vidhya took the role of the ‘Flag bearer’ for her section and was standing in the front row with a flag in hand.

The school clock showed 8:34 AM!

The chief guest arrived at 8:40 AM and was swiftly moved towards the main stage, where he had to hoist the flag. He hoisted the flag, everyone clapped when the tri color flag opened up beautifully on top of the pole. The national anthem was then sung.

The school clock showed 8:44 AM!

When the national anthem was over, it was time for the march. Every section in the school would march one full round of the school ground while passing the chief guest, who was standing near the flag pole.

The band was getting ready. The drummer took the drum with both his hands and strapped the leather rope around his shoulder.

The school clock showed 8:46 AM!

When the drummer hit the drum for the first time, the entire stage started shaking. Another hit, and the stage was moving wildly. Everyone gathered in the line were in a state of panic. No one had a clue about what was happening around them.

The students were scurrying inside the ground in panic. Someone in the middle of the crowd was shouting “Its an earthquake, all run towards open ground in the middle”

Almost all the students were running for safety. Instinctively all of them were running towards the open ground. Vidhya was clutching Sowmya’s hand as they both ran together.

Thirty seconds passed. The entire school building was shaking violently. The stage was not moving anymore, as the stage got reduced into rubbles ten seconds earlier. Another thirty seconds passed. The school building was still shaking, but more violently then before.

Small cracks started appearing on the ground. When one of the students spotted it, panic stuck the entire mass. Some feared that everyone would be buried alive within seconds.

Another ten seconds passed. Everyone heard a thunderous noise. To everyone’s horror, they found the big school building collapse right in front of their eyes. Dust from debris engulfed the air near them.

Another twenty seconds passed. The shaking stopped. The entire city of Bhuj got reduced to rubbles as it succumbed to ninety seconds of cruelty.

When it all became silent again, the air was full of dust from the debris. Both Vidhya and Sowmya were covered with dust all over their body. The sweat due to panic made the debris stuck to their face. Both were just eight years old and both were in trauma. There was no one around to console these two kids since everyone around needed to be consoled.

It took some time for the principal to find his feet and to understand what just happened. Two minutes back, he saw a hundred smiling kids in front of him. Within two minutes, all the smiles vanished, along with the school building and assembly stage.

Gathering all his courage, the principal gathered all the kids in one place and tried to console them. He had to ensure that the kids were back with their parents.

That is, if they survived!

The principal had no idea about the damage until he took all the children in the school bus back to their respective home. There was no road back home. Every road was damaged beyond immediate redemption. The bus driver, who was already in a state of shock after the way events unfolded right in front of everyone’s eyes, was very careful and took whichever route was drivable, to get the children back home.

The way back home was horrible. The children inside the bus did not even speak a word. Only three things were prominent outside. Blood, dust and debris. The principal asked everyone not to look outside and urged them to close their eyes all the way.

Vidhya was still clutching Sowmya’s hand as both were trembling with fear. To principal’s relief, more than eighty percent of the children’s parents were alive.

Alive but homeless; a proposition anyone was ready to take that day.

At the end of the day, the principal was able to identify either a parent or a guardian for all the children but for Sowmya and Vidhya. Both were still sick with fear. They both had no idea whether their parents were still alive.

Relief workers started pouring in. As many as 185 NGOs started working on the area immediately. Both the state and the central government were swift in starting the aid services. Heavy drilling machines worked day and night so as to rescue anyone trapped inside the rubbles.

The principal took the girls to their apartment hoping to find their parents. It had five floors a day back. Now, it had none. No one could actually count the floors in the heap created by the collapse. Looking at the rubbish, the principal was certain that all the inmates of that apartment would have perished.

He felt for the poor little children, who didn’t do a thing wrong to have deserved such a punishment. He took the kids back to his relief camp. He lost his house too. Along with his family. Just like the two girls.

Two days passed. The drilling into rubbles with heavy machinery continued. Nonstop. A lot of bodies soaked in blood were recovered. A lot of body parts were recovered too. Most of them beyond recognition. The principal viewed all the bodies himself, and ensured that the kids didn’t go through another trauma.

One trauma of this magnitude was enough for their entire life!

Three days passed. The drilling stopped. The drillers declared that the possibility of finding anyone alive would be remote.

From the second day, the local municipality started cremating hundreds of unidentified bodies. No one could ever say whether any parts of the kids’ parents had gone into the fire.

All hopes were lost! Like a puff of smoke!

Before the heavy machinery was moved off-site, the diggers wanted to have one more go at the big heap. After thirty minutes of digging, they heard a slight moaning sound from deep inside.

The digger started sweating. Were they in for some miracle?

“Some one is alive” he shouted on top of his voice.

A couple of more drillers came in within a minute and all started working simultaneously.

Within thirty minutes, the diggers found a large room beneath the heap of rubbles. Excited by the prospect of finding someone alive, they all gave one last push.

An hour passed. Suddenly, they made enough opening to squeeze one person down the rubble inside the room. In exactly three seconds, he came running towards the opening

“There are three alive, but unconscious” he cried.

The rescue workers started expanding the opening they made and within an hour, they pulled out all three. Ambulance was waiting outside for medical aid.

The principal, Vidhya and Sowmya, along with half of the town, gathered near the rescue operators to find out who was alive. Anxiously. As the heap belonged to the children’s apartment.

When the three were pulled out, Sowmya started screaming. The three were her parents and her little brother Rohit.

She had found her family! It was a miracle!

Tears were rolling on Sowmya’s cheeks that she had found her family. At the same time tears were rolling on Vidhya’s cheeks as she could not.

Vidhya ran away from the other two, towards the heap.

“Rahul” she cried on top of her voice, anticipating that she would hear her brother’s voice back from the heap; anticipating that she would find him alive; anticipating that a miracle would hit her too.

“Rahul” she shouted again.

No response!

“Mama” she shouted and waited for a second.

No response!

“Papa” she shouted and then cried.

No response again!

She sat down near the heap, covered her face and cried as long as she could cry; as long as she had the energy to cry; as long as she had tears inside her. Inbetween her cries, she shouted the three names again and again.

But, there was no reply!

All her hopes started evaporating.

The principal was initially happy to find Sowmya’s parents, but was completely disheartened to see Vidhya. “What did she do to deserve this? Why did god give her slightest of hope only to disappoint her again bitterly?” he thought

Amazed by recovering three guys alive, the rescue operators decided to drill down the same heap further for one more day. The same heap where Vidhya’s family lived.

Or living still!

Will she find her parents? Will she reunite with her little brother?

God help her!