Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Miss Competition

I miss competition.

The half-crazy man sitting at an adjacent table in the restaurant, half-turned in his chair, told us that,

“I miss competition. To die a gladiator rather than keep alive a drunken raconteur with false tales of old fights.”

Most of us, customers and waiters, were watching the 2010 Commonwealth Games on the wall-mounted TV hoping and waiting to see the finals of the 100 metres sprint event. But we missed it, didn’t we?

The half-crazy man stood up with disbelief and anger plainly visible on his face. He settled his bill at the counter leaving his dinner barely touched. On his way out, he came swaying to our table and leaned towards me. I could smell liquor and tobacco in his breath.

“How could they do that? Don’t they know what it is like – the 100 metres sprint?”

I remained silent and motionless.

“Ah! Eight at the starting line, wild dogs barely domesticated, flared nostrils, the crouch, eyes focused on the string 100 metres away, the rhythm of the crowd, the thumping of the heart, springing from the starting block, do you remember Ben Johnson’s start, then 9, 10, 11 seconds, for us it is just that, seconds, for them, it is eternity, thoughts of victory, defeat, niggling worries, even domestic problems, drugs, steroids, alcohol, issues, everything, of course, the training of months, of focused thoughts, motion, just twenty, thirty strides, just five, ten breaths, you feel the air more than the ground, and then that string, how you stretch your neck forward to feel that liberating noose…”

Then, he stood up straight, remembered to breathe, turned around and left the place. I wiped spittle from my face and the waiter came and changed the plates, spoons and knives. Then, our meal was served and I did not think about the half-crazy man till later that night.

We went to bed early and I was lying sleepless, remembering

“I miss competition.”

I thought of the competition of my life…not any race or sports…I am not really the sporting kind. I remembered the debates with her.

We competed against each other for five consecutive years, from Std. VIII till Std. XII, in the annual debate competition. That was the only event in our school where boys and girls from the five years (Std. VIII-XII) competed together. There were four houses and each house selected their four best speakers. It was a prestigious event with a trophy named after some big guy. It was held in the school auditorium and the audience was allowed to give a whole-hearted response. A speaker had to be ready for hearty applause, nasty comments, booing and hooting and, the dreaded chants of stop-get-lost.

We were in the same grade but different divisions and we shared the same school bus. I remember that first competition in Std. VIII. I had seen her around but I had had no reason to talk to her (it was not cool, either). She looked like one of those characters in fairy-tales – pony tail, smiling, petite, charming, prim and angelic. On stage, we made the perfect pair, the beauty and the beast.

The topic for that year – corporal punishment – turned out to be one-sided (even then when it was the norm rather than the exception). I was against and her team had to speak for. It was a disaster because the for-side wanted defeat more than the against-side wanted success.

When it was my turn, I had little to do by way of defeating arguments and I could leave reason aside and go for the emotional stranglehold. I took the stance of a defense lawyer, placed the image of a school-child in the dock, pleaded my case against merciless predators and by the end, I had the audience on their feet, baying for cruel teachers’ blood. The members of the staff were squirming in the seat.

She spoke after me. She did not raise her voice. Damn, she sounded like Mother Theresa! She narrated an incident involving the most benign and motherly teacher in school and how even she had to send a student outside the class. Even she, that teacher, made that boy stand a few feet from the wall, bend at the waist and touch the wall with his nose. The whole school knew that it was me. She stuck to reason and arguments after that. At the end she asked softly, “Is there a student here who is like me – who thinks he/she can be a small devil at times and might face corporal punishment from a caring teacher – could you please stand up?” The same devils that had bayed for blood now stood up en masse seeking her endorsement. That’s what the common masses are like!

Our team won that year and I won the best debater award. But, I knew that I had got it for the wrong reasons. I went to her and snarled, “Next time, I will defeat you.”

In Std. IX, the topic was the death penalty with my team for that and she against. Then, my world was black and white without shades of grey. I had no reason or experience to suspect authority nor did I have any idea about subjectivity or relativity and I believed that justice could actually be absolute and true after much deliberation.

During that year, she and I attended the second-language period in the other’s class (mine Malayalam and hers Hindi). The day before the debate, I took her seat during that period. I opened her bag since I wanted her diary or notebook with notes of her team’s plans. On top of her books and tiffin-box, I found a loosely covered pack of sanitary napkins. I closed her bag quickly and left it beneath her chair. We lost the debate that year. Much later, in life, I realized that I used her points whenever I talked against the death penalty. During that competition, I realized that she had opened my bag during that second-language period, looked at my diary and spied on my team’s strategy. I guess she knew that I would close her bag without searching for her diary.

The next year we fell in love. Well, being in love was a different matter then. The phone in my house and hers was meant to be used, like telegrams, for emergencies. Though I tried to write poetry, I was not daft enough to show that to anyone. Her house was out of bounds. There was no way to talk to her in the school bus or at school or anywhere outside. Being in love meant that I did not look at any other girl and that my gang of friends was not allowed to talk about her or comment at her in my presence. She reciprocated my effort with a nod or a smile once in a while.

By the time of that year’s competition, we were madly frustrated and raring to go at each other’s throat. The topic that year: separating the State from religion. I, the believer with nebulous and self-serving faith, managed to win speaking against. She, the atheist, speaking for ended up sounding like a rabid believer. We did shake hands after the event but we shook off all pretense of love, too.

In Std. XI, the topic was censorship. My team had to speak for and hers against censorship of books, movies and what-not. For me, all that mattered was the competition. Ideology and principles came second to that. We were the team-leaders and took part in the toss. When she won the toss and chose to speak against censorship she added, “Only guys like him can speak for that.”

The competition was bitter. Even the audience felt the animosity and remained aloof and silent. My team won that year. I cheered as loud as I could. But her silence was more deafening. I swore to hate her all my life.

During the Christmas vacation, she phoned my house. My father called me to the phone with a surprised accusation, “A girl.” I stuttered to her, “Hello.” She said, “I just called to wish you Happy Birthday.” I replied, “Thanks…same to you.” Well, I was more used to greetings like Happy Holidays and none of my friends ever remembered my birthday. Anyway, she had delivered the message and disconnected.

We resumed where we had left off. I avoided other girls religiously and she smiled. In Std. XII, the topic for the debate was communism. I had to speak for and spoke like Che though my guide at that point of time was Ayn Rand. She spoke with great fervour against communism though I could see her clench her fist behind her back, her nails probably drawing her own blood. We split the audience between us.

The judges invited by that middle-class school tilted towards her side and she won. Since it was our last year in school, we bought cool-drinks for each other at the school canteen. We gargled and spat the first mouthful, trying to remove the bad taste of our speech. Then, we enjoyed the rest in quiet silence.

Does this story end here? Or, did it end when we sat next to the half-crazy man who said,

“I miss competition…”

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