Second Innings

by Srinath Perur

The new occupants of No. 26, Crescent Road, moved in on a Sunday. A blue Fiat arrived at the head of a small convoy, the remainder comprising a van and a tempo. Mr. Ramachandra set about supervising the unloading at once. His wife and daughter followed later that afternoon, each in an auto rickshaw laden with footwear, utensils, wire baskets, plastic jars of food, and bundles fashioned from bed sheets. I was fielding on the footpath near their gate while they emptied the contents of the autos into the house. I wondered if I should offer help, but decided to ignore them.

We had waited eagerly for the new tenants. Varun, whose father worked in the same company as the owner of No. 26, had brought news that the new occupants were a couple and their daughter. We played cricket across the street, in Praveen's yard, and the prospect of a girl at hand to admire our exploits had proved heady and a little disruptive. The oldest among us, Praveen and Rajesh, had a half-serious rivalry going even before she arrived.

"Just missed the stumps! Stop batting like a half-wit. You'll make us all look bad in front of her."

"That was a wide. And since when do girls look at you?"

"Oho, listen to him! Seen your face in a mirror? Did it break?"

"Shut up and bowl. The truth will be out once she arrives."

When she did arrive, we were miserably disappointed. It wasn't clear if we'd had any reason for believing her to be our age and desirable, or if we had somehow made that up along the way. She turned out to be at least thirty–more than twice as old as any of us. She was also at least twice the girth of any of us (with the possible exception of Varun). She looked sullen, and snapped at her mother as they moved things into the house. "Didn't I tell you to throw away the leftovers? You've simply created twenty more things to carry."

That evening, as we walked to the booth for chocolate milk, Rajesh was pensive. He cuffed Varun on the back of his head: "All because of you. You could easily have found out about her. For no reason we spoiled our heads over that dummi." From then on, we called her Dummi–the Kannada pejorative for a fat woman.

On Crescent Road, people seldom invited each other into their houses. The compound walls and gates were low, and it was easy to greet people while they pottered about in their gardens or sat on the front steps. Conversation, gossip, and small transactions with vendors all took place across gates and walls. The week after the Ramachandras moved in saw more people than usual at the gate of my house–my mother was the first to make a quick inventory of the newcomers' possessions and circumstances. On her way to buy vegetables, she noticed Mrs. Ramachandra in her yard and stopped to say hello. After some small talk, she was invited in for tea, accepted, and emerged almost an hour later after a full tour of the house.

"They seem quite well off. You must be knowing–he works in the same place as Mala's husband. Originally from near Tumkur it seems. His parents are still there. Color TV. Good sofa set. Was asking about domestic help. I said I'll enquire with Lakshmi and let her know."

"And the daughter?"

"Doesn't talk much. Just yes or no when asked something. The mother says she has a B.Sc. Married. Husband based in Bombay, but in Australia on work. She's living here until he returns."

We played two- or three-a-side cricket matches every evening in Praveen's yard, opposite No. 26. Praveen's house was only one room deep, and occupied the entire width along the back of the plot, leaving a large yard for us to play. A mango tree extended over much of the yard, providing shade and diverting the course of the ball in unpredictable ways. Our pitch was the mud path from the gate to the small portico, with the keeper perched on the steps leading into the house. Bowlers ran in from the footpath across the road, and launched into their deliveries at the narrow opening of the gate. Fielders stood in the yard, as well as on the road beyond. (This was Bangalore in the 1980s–traffic was sparse.) Our boundary was the compound wall of No. 26, and a well-hit six would send the ball crashing into the rows of potted plants within.

If there was a drawback to playing at Praveen's house, it was the compulsion to include his little brother, Pradeep, who, besides being an inept player, ran in to complain to his mother every time he was out. But we found an exciting player through him when one of his friends joined us for an evening and insisted on fielding absurdly close to the batsman at short leg. From there, he leaped, flew, or stuck his hand out to grab near-impossible catches. This made Rajesh ask in awe if he had come out of the Benson & Hedges Great Catches show on TV. Soon, Pradeep's friend became a regular, known to us only as Benson & Hedges.

Not much changed after the arrival of the Ramachandras. If the ball went into their compound, one of us would open the gate and go in to look for the ball among the pots. Dummi usually sat reading in the garden in the evenings. She never looked up when one of us went in, and we assumed she didn't mind.

One evening my mother escorted a tearful Mrs. Ramachandra and a couple of other women into our house. One of the women was saying, "Don't worry. These things happen with every couple. It's just a matter of time."

I remember being impressed that the Ramachandras still had it in them to fight. I was sent out before I could hear more, but I was present at the dining table later that evening when my mother explained the matter with great relish to my grandmother. The couple in question was Dummi and her husband. The women had been returning from the temple when, in the course of idle talk, Dummi's mother had been teased about having a rich son-in-law who lived abroad. She played along for a while, then suddenly broken down. They brought her home, gave her a cup of tea, and extracted the complete story. Dummi, they learned, had accompanied her husband to Australia. After eight months she returned to her parents' house alone, carrying only a small bag. She said she wanted to separate from her husband, but refused to give any reason. The husband had not been forthcoming on the phone either. It had been two months since Dummi had returned, and she spent most of this time brooding. Occasionally she snapped into a state of great activity. She would call people and go out, or set about rearranging the furniture, or cook for her parents. But these phases lasted only a day or two, after which she fell into a slump, hardly moving out of bed for days at a time. Mrs. Ramachandra did not know what to do, and wondered why god had chosen to bring such a fate upon them. My mother and the others consoled her and walked her home.

Granny was not impressed. As she rose with her plate, she said, "Things will be fine once they have children. Girls these days..."

Mother added, virtuously, "She requested us to avoid mentioning the matter to people."

Within a day, all of Crescent Road knew of Dummi's marital troubles. She seldom ventured out–just the odd trip to the circulating library or the general stores–but each time she did, she attracted pitying glances even from people unknown to her. Groups of women fell silent as she passed; children stared, fascinated. I once saw an old woman at a store counter advise her, cryptically, not to worry about anything. Word spread carelessly, and some people thought she was already divorced. That would have made her only the second on Crescent Road. (The first was Manjula, who lived alone with her five-year-old, wore makeup and sleeveless blouses, and who had a drunk Mr. Rao bang upon her door late one night before he was dragged away by the neighbors and his angry wife. However, she was thought to have more or less brought it upon herself.)

It was around this time that Dummi became a problem. As I was retrieving a ball from her yard one day, she looked up from her book and said, "Don't play here from now on. I find it disturbing."

I nodded and ran off with the ball. When I told the others, they were quite disdainful. Praveen said, "Who asked her to sit there? It's not like we're playing in her house anyway."

The next time the ball went into No. 26 we found the gate locked. Dummi picked up the ball and went inside. We waited, hoping she was only trying to scare us, but she didn't return. We made a new rule: anyone hitting the ball into No. 26 was out in addition to the four or six runs they had earned. Still, every couple of days, there would be someone who managed to hit the ball in. If Dummi was not around, one of us would hop the gate and fetch the ball. Otherwise, she just kept it, and we would have to buy a new one. Our pocket money didn't amount to much, and on days when we could not raise enough, we would not play at all. Politely requesting Dummi to return a ball, even begging, did not work. She wouldn't even look at us. The few times we actually used a ball until it broke or went limp, we just threw it into No. 26 and let Dummi take care of it.

Freshly dispossessed of a ball and with nothing to do, we'd speculate:

"She must have at least thirty by now. What do you think she does with them?"

"Must be selling them somewhere."

"Used tennis balls?"

"Maybe she's saving them up for her future kids."

"Who do you think will marry her?"

"Tchah! If she has troubles with her husband, why take it out on us?"

Varun discovered the fate of all those balls. Sent to empty a rat-trap by the railway tracks, he had decided to travel the lazier route through the vacant plot behind Dummi's house. Once there, he saw no reason not to insinuate the rat into the house itself. He waded through the parthenium to reach the rear wall of No. 26, and while he crouched to open the trap into a drainpipe, he saw a familiar looking ball. That evening, he arrived at Praveen's house with a large plastic bag slung over his shoulder. He walked to the middle of the yard and shook the bag empty. Ball after ball fell out, each neatly cut into halves. Every ball we had hit into No. 26 lay there wobbling or cupped against the ground. We looked about our feet in disbelief. Pradeep burst into tears.

"I hope she dies," said Rajesh.

I tried complaining to my parents. Father said, "It's their house. Who asked you to hit the ball there?"

We returned from school one day to learn that Dummi was gone. Varun, at home pretending to have loose motions, witnessed her being taken away in an ambulance, but had no idea what had happened.

The neighborhood swung into action. At the vegetable market, our mothers haggled only cursorily, giving in to the seller and turning to talk to each other. Women who had only exchanged smiles for years found occasion to hail each other from across the street and strike up conversations. They gathered in small groups across gates and over compound walls and spoke in low voices, always ending with a skit of absolution.

"Anyway, who are we to talk about other people?"

"Yes, yes. Why should we sully our mouths by speaking of such things?"

"I never say or listen to a single word against others."

"After all, to each the fate they have earned."

"Pxch. Very true, what you say."

"Have you finished putting the cooker on?"

"About to. Drumstick sambar today."

In their kitchens, those cordially disposed toward their mothers-in-law would narrate the latest with some garnishing. Later, over dinner, they would repeat the story to their husbands, who would grunt acknowledgement as they ate, and after it was over would ask, "What is it to us? Why do you pay attention to such things?" Yet, when two men met on the weekend over the borrowing of a spanner, a longer hose, or a ladder, they would not be able to resist a brief mention of the matter, each vying with the other to be more dismissive. Senior citizens met at the park or temple and repeated, with complete confidence, stories filtered through poor hearing and fading memories. The domestic help, women who went from house to house doing the cleaning and washing, ferried versions spliced from the manifold accounts that had fallen upon their ears. Given an occurrence invested with the slightest hint of mystery, Crescent Road effortlessly produced a hundred explanations, each more sensational than the next.

In Dummi's case, all of Crescent Road agreed only on one point: she had tried to kill herself and failed. A variety of reasons were put forth: she wanted to return to her husband, but he had demanded a divorce; a distant cousin, the only known male visitor to their house, had rebuffed her advances; she had managed to get herself pregnant by the (now willing) cousin; she was insane, eliminating the need for a reason. This last theory gained more subscribers after Pradeep told his parents about the cut up tennis balls, and for a few days we reveled in the importance of being stopped and asked about it. There was no consensus on the method used either: she had taken an excess of sleeping pills and had to have her stomach pumped; she slit her wrists, but her father bound her arm with cord and called for an ambulance; she attempted to hang herself from a ceiling fan, which, unable to take her weight, had fallen on her causing a head injury but sparing her life. She had even jumped from the terrace into a flowerbed in the backyard.

"No chance she slit her wrists," Rajesh said. "After all that practice, no way she could have survived."

With Dummi gone, we regarded No. 26 with hushed awe for a few days. Bowlers that started their run-up by kicking off from the wall now started a respectful step ahead. The gate was still locked, but it no longer posed a problem. With Dummi not around, the batsman could cross the road, climb over, and retrieve the ball. Still, we did so solemnly and were careful not to make noise. Every time I was near the house I felt a vague sense of guilt, as if I was somehow responsible for what had happened.

Dummi's departure brought about a more relaxed batting style. Hitting the ball into the compound of No. 26 was still "six and out" by tradition. But there wasn't as much at stake, and batsmen would sometimes try to loft the ball delicately, so it hit the compound wall on the outside and bounced back. If the ball sailed in just over the wall, there would be cries of "Almost" or "Bad luck" and the batsman would trot across pleased at himself despite being out.

Though none of us went as far as actually admitting to missing Dummi, there was a constant feeling of some important player being absent. Without our common adversary, play became strangely listless. We found ourselves disbanding earlier than usual. Every other week someone would ask Varun with feigned casualness, "So, did your father say anything about when she's returning?"

"Why? Do you want to marry her?"

"Speak for yourself. No one else can take her weight."

Months passed, but she did not return. She was supposed to be living with her grandparents at their village near Tumkur. Other events supplanted Dummi as the subject of neighborhood conversation. Someone had tried to snatch our neighbor's gold chain while she was on her morning walk, and women began going out on their walks in groups of three or four, armed with rolling pins. This became such an adventure that even late risers began taking to the streets at dawn in sneakers and salwar. Opposite my house, the Raos let their first floor to hotel management students from the northeast. The Chinese (as they were known) kept odd hours, men and women living together, and caused the smell of frying fish to waft all day across our mostly vegetarian street. Soon, it was rumored that they didn't stop at fish, but ate snakes and frogs as well. To corroborate everything suspected of them, one of the girls was seen smoking on the balcony in shorts. The Raos were forced to give notice and put an end to the disgrace. Further down the street, Manjula, the divorcee, had been dropped off late at her house a couple of times, sparking a frenzy of rumors. In all this excitement, Dummi was almost forgotten. Occasionally, someone would ask as an interlude, "Any news of the Ramachandra girl?" But there usually was none–the Ramachandras were not around most of the time, and when they were, they seemed wary of talking.

It was the estate agent, Dubey, who brought word that the Ramachandras were moving. They had felt the need for a fresh start, and found a house in Jayanagar. We saw Dummi only once again, the week before they moved.

Rajesh had become an expert at the precise placement of lofted shots. The rest of us might have been appreciative had this not been accompanied by commentary in an atrocious accent: "Exquisite lofted shot by Rajesh. High above the fielders, into the stands for six, and bouncing back onto the footpath, so not out. The bowling has been taken apart here." If anyone else tried and failed, he would be overcome with mirth. Sometimes, after he had finished laughing, he addressed himself to an imaginary colleague: "I don't think I have ever seen a worse cricketing shot. John?"

In one particularly bad over (admittedly by Pradeep), he had managed to get three hits to return from the wall, and his increasing delight after each one became unbearable. Praveen, after throwing a stone at his brother, took the ball himself. I was keeping wickets, and I ran down the yard to plot the dismissal. We posted Benson & Hedges to what was an unconventional position for him: he was to stand on the opposite footpath and patrol the wall for a catch that was sure to come. The first ball, full on the legs, was spooned into the branches of the mango tree. The next pitched on a bump and cut sharply away to beat both the batsman and me. The third ball was slow and pitched short, and Rajesh stepped back and played a tennis lob that sent the ball flying high over the bowler's head. To shouts of "Catch!" Benson & Hedges, positioned slightly square, ran to his left. As the ball sailed through the power lines across the road, it was clear it would go well over the wall. Benson & Hedges made a last, heroic effort. He raised himself on the compound wall of Dummi's house on one hand, back towards us, neck craned, and just when it seemed he would make a lunge, he stalled and the ball went beyond him. For a moment he was still, draped over the wall. He then landed back on the footpath, wore his slippers, and walked slowly across the road. He looked puzzled, and we gathered round him. "What happened? Where's the ball?"

"She's back."


"Dummi. She was sitting there dusting some suitcases. Must have come out from the back door, or we'd have seen her."

Any reaction to her return was overshadowed by the thought of a ball lost so early into the evening. We were back on familiar ground: Praveen raised his hand to his forehead; Rajesh threw down the bat; someone spat; Pradeep looked ready to cry. A rustling from the compound drew our attention. The ball, bright yellow in the evening sun, looped over the wall through the leaves of a croton and dribbled over to us. Rajesh tried arguing that the ball had returned of its own accord and that he wasn't out, but no one listened. Pradeep snatched the bat from the ground with a whoop and ran to the crease. That evening, we played until it was dark and we could no longer see the ball.