Maadeva came home from school at 4:00, as usual. The missionary’s wife came out his door just then, which was unusual. She brushed past him, seeing and yet not seeing him, her lips stretched thin. She’d been in Maadeva’s house once before, with her husband the missionary, and there’d been a very polite conversation then. The couple had urged Maadeva’s parents to “give it a try,” and “to join them in prayer.” The couple had left a few slim books behind, with Jesus on cover of all of them, face framed by light-splash, halo on top.
“Read ‘em when you’re free,” the husband had said. Maadeva had so liked how the tall white man spoke.
Maadeva wasn’t surprised by this woman’s second visit, though. His mother was also at the door, sending off the white lady, and an anxiety brewing from yesterday gathered weight and turned into fear in his stomach. He couldn’t hug his mother today, and bury his face in her sari, because she did a right-about-turn and strode into the kitchen. Maadeva lingered on the steps, recalled the day before.
“I didn’t do anything,” he told himself.
What had happened yesterday was that he’d lost to Shri in a game of marbles, on penalty terms. And Stephen, the missionary’s son, had got entangled in the penalty part.
Right before his house Maadeva had lost, and Shri worked the marbles focused on exacting maximum penalty. The boys were both eleven, and attended the same class in school, but Shri was taller and stronger. Not smiling, eyes set on the marbles, and squatting in the street, he sent Maadeva’s marble flying with each strike of his own marble, delivered by mid-finger, thumb on ground. The marbles took an erratic course on the metaled-but-unaspalted street, colliding with stones, changing course, but never leaving the street. Shri went hopping along with them, and Maadeva walked in step. Presently, Stephen the missionary’s son appeared at his gate at the end of the street and, seeing them, came up. Which was unusual also, because he never mixed with any of the boys. It was a mystery where Stephen went to school, because he wasn’t in any class in Maadeva’s Jesuit school, the only one in town Stephen could’ve been in.
He joined Maadeva and watched his lengthening penalty. The defeated marble was making brisk progress. Shri never got up, just hopped onward to Maadeva’s marble’s next stop, to settle his thumb at palm’s length from it for the next strike.
“Gee,” Stephen said to Maadeva. “Aren’t you playing?”
“I lost,” Maadeva said. “This is penalty.”
“Oh,” Stephen said.
The party of three went down in step. Sweat flowed down Maadeva’s temples, it had made the back of Shri’s shirt altogether wet, and Stephen was wet all over. His mouth looked like he’d splashed water on it.
They reached Lavanya’s house. Fair Laavanya went to the Jesuits’ segregated school for girls. Maadeva went over to the compound wall of her house, climbed on it, pulled down a long leaf from a frond of the coconut tree there. Tearing the green from the rib, he rolled it into a conical tube, flattend the tube on the wall, fitted two bits of green into the narrower end, fashioning a mouthpiece there. He gave the thing to Stephen.
“It’s a peepi. Blow.”
“Gee,” Stephen said, blowing it. A flat monotonic screech issued from it.
“You’re my best friend,” Stephen said, after he’d blown it for a while. Shri looked up from the marbles. Maadeva was silent, aware of a just-born doubt worming around in his eleven-year-old mind.
Shri resumed, and cursed. “Ththu!”
He had finally missed. He stood up and kicked his legs in the air and went to fetch his marble which had gone a good distance. Maadeva squatted now. He started to sweep the marble up the street with the back of his hand. Shri and Stephen followed him as he went back up the street. After they’d gone a distance and a fair bit was still left to fulfill the penalty, Stephen spoke.
“Can I do it from here?”
Maadeva looked up. Stephen’s eyes were squinting in blazing light. Blue eyes. Yellow, tousled hair. Fruity lips pouting in a perfect round. Straight, flat-tipped nose. Nice curve to the nostrils. On Maadeva’s other side Shri’s dark face had turned darker in shadow of long hair that hung about it, and the sun behind him, silhouetting all of him.
“No,” Maadeva said, shaking his head. “Too many stones.”
The sweeping had to go on until Maadeva’s house. Stephen swept the marble with flourish, and hopped with equal spirit. But he had to stand now and then. Maadeva’s peepi peeped from his pocket. Reaching Maadeva’s gate, he had wiped his hand on his clothes so much he was as dirty as the other two. His hand looked bad.
“We’re playing again?” he asked, clapping dust off his hands, grinning.
Maadeva looked at Shri, who winked and, without waiting, folded down to the ground, drew a circle in the dust with forefinger, and readied a fresh game.
“Penalty?” he asked. Maadeva looked at Stephen, whose waning grin lifted back up.
“Sure,” Stephen said to Shri. Maadeva looked hard at him. The boy was all red now, and just glowing.
Finally, Maadeva went into the kitchen and got the slap he knew was coming. His mother’s brown oval face was all screwed up, specially at the mouth, which was twisted. She was shaking. “Loafer. Chasing white boys to play with. Look at you,” she said, and advanced again toward him. She didn’t hit him this time. Reaching past him, she laid a finger on a Bournvita tin on the shelves, on the chocolate-colored band round it.
“Always in the street,” she said. “You’re this color!”