AN EVENING OF TENNIS

Original in Assamese by: Purobi Saikia
Translated by: Bibekananda Choudhury


I am watching from the spectator’s gallery – my son Rishi on the far side of the court in front of us. He shifted from looking at us  to take a side-on posture, instinctively bounced the ball a couple  of times on the ground while gauging the opponent, then tossed the ball temporarily locked  in the grip of his left hand, the torso bent backwards in a rhythmic way, the right hand bent at the elbow and grip of the racquet momentarily stopped just behind the shoulder, the ball is coming down from the highest point of its trajectory, the torso has commenced its return journey, the racquet head is coming forward in a beautiful arc trajectory, the left shoulder is dipping a bit, but the head is relatively fixed, but he has not, for a moment, veered his vision from the ball (I know – he is expecting the successful application of the tactic at the point of contact), a perfect swing serve – the ball is coming fast towards us in an elliptical route, its aim is the inside part of the touchline – the thin strip, the landing strip, the ball after impact, would move further away beyond a distance possible to be covered by the running opponent – a certain ace. The ball went away puffing some coloured dust on the white touch line, and hit the side barrier board with a single bounce – thud. I felt jubilant, score line now 4-2 in favour of Rishi and 30-00 in his Service Game; with this ace his score now read 40-00, if nothing abnormal happens, scoreline 5-2 in his favour is certain. But what is this? His opponent has challenged! The chair umpire was astonished – ohh! The line umpire is not in position! Chair umpire came down personally, the opponent is standing with his racquet pointing to a spot mark just outside the touchline. The umpire checked the mark and declared his decision ’30-15’.

I nearly lost my cool – why are the people here in Assam so casual? The line umpire leaves his position and starts chatting with the officials sitting on the other side of the barrier board, what is this? I would definitely lodge a complaint with the chief referee of the tournament, and will take the fun out of him.
  • Just a point, don’t lose heart, he is really playing well’ – consoling words of Jumi’s mother’s entered my ears.It’s not that, there’s no hawk eye facility here in Assam, that would facilitate to watch and check replay, if this is the state of the organiser-umpire, player would definitely grab the chance, isn’t it?
  • Shh! Tone down your voice, opponent Ankit’s parents are sitting just behind us
  • Jumi’s mother whispered in my ear. My anger was fuelled.
  • What is there to worry, there is something called integrity, one should teach one’s child – Jumi’s mother fell silent, I too tried to concentrate back on the game.

Rishi tossed the ball, the right leg moved slightly closer to the stationary left leg, both the knees are bent a little, I sensed – his entire body would come up like a spring for a power serve (his target is definitely the corner of the T), he would dash into the court immediately on landing putting his left foot forward at the follow through of the serve in the hope of picking up the point with a volley or a cross-passing shot. The ball landed a little to the right than at the corner of the T as expected, but the opponent mis-timed as it was packed with power, the ball has moved up, but in a steep curve, most probably it would remain somewhere near the net, Rishi is adjusting his position riveting his eyes at the flight, his left hand is moving upward, the watch is pointing up, the left first finger pointing skyward,the ball is coming down, the racquet head is moving forward at electric speed, a smash! The chair umpire declared – 40-15.

  • Look you just keep on worrying for nothing – Jumi’s mother pressed my right hand. 
  • It’s not that, I haven’t come for nothing to stay at a hotel room in an unknown town tugging along the boy. Our Mister is never free from work. Haven’t you noticed the others, both the parents, coach, trainer, everyone is present. And look at us, the court is rendered unusable covered with mosses during the six month long rainy season, then two-three months would be spent in fixing a coach, by the time the coach takes over and hardly starts learning them with name and face, the State competition is already announced. But even though you may term it to be extreme risk, I set out with the boy. Then, above all, if the officials and umpires have such casual approach, such attitude, why shouldn’t you be angry?

Just one more point is required. Rishi served – a kicking serve, opponent’s down the line return, Rishi’s backhand heavy slice cross-court, opponent’s inside-out forehand, again Rishi’s heavy cross-court slice, opponent’s down-the-line but a little short of length, a fine opening – Rishi dashed into at lightning speed, heavy top-spin cross-court, a winner! Ohh, the ball dipped, jumped up hitting the cord of the net, Oh God? The opponent is running - perhaps a soft drop, Rishi also sprinted towards the net, a desperate attempt – if the opponent can be brought under pressure. The mistake is committed, the opponent has committed the mistake – lobbed the ball rather than soft drop shot, a few extra seconds in the air, the distance of about a metre covered – what more, Rishi came down with a cross-court backhand volley, Ha! The chair umpire declared – ‘Game. Rishi leads 5-2’.

After the Game Rishi and his opponent both came back to their seats. Only one more Game is required, just one. The woman, I mean, Jumi’s mother, why is she silent now, she generally keeps on passing comments, oh! she is not by my side, I looked around, what is this, one should at least take leave before parting. I looked at the Court, Court No. 2 empty, there is Jumi’s mother near the officials, that means her daughter’s last game of the day is about to start now. It is better to say of the night rather than of the day. It’s the month of December, I looked at the watch, twenty minutes past seven, the sheet of fog is descending, suddenly I felt the pinch of cold, the legs are feeling cold and heavy even under the jeans, the soles are leaden inside the casuals and socks. Those clothes worn right at the morning, four hours in the bus with all the luggage, then the rickshaw ride, checking into the hotel room-literally throwing the baggage of clothing there and a hurried lunch, then again the rickshaw ride, document verification at the office of the organizing Committee (I was saved as Registration was done in advance courtesy a cousin, otherwise I was done with, the day before was spent in the practicals of Spanish Guitar, Bhatkhande exam, no consideration, no rescheduling), and now I am here at the spectator gallery. I looked back, just a few people, parents of Ankit – Rishi’s opponent, and another couple – perhaps parents of Jumi’s opponent, two-three boys at the last row. A small gathering of ten-twelve people in front of the office of the Organising Committee, appears to be waiting for an inside news to learn about the possible fixture of next days timing to save on waiting time. A chilly whiff of wind rattled my bones. I pulled the zipper of the jacket till the topmost point. Suddenly a worry encompassed me, it’s twenty past seven, and it takes at least ten to fifteen minutes-even upto twenty in a game, that means seven-forty, five minutes for arranging dress and kit bag of Rishi, that makes it seven forty-five, would I get a rickshaw? ‘Time’-the voice of chair umpire wafted in. I tried to contact my cousin in his mobile – Out of reach! What to do now?

Side change, Rishi now in the court adjacent to us, with his back to me, ready to receive. Ankit’s serve, perfect percentage serve, doesn’t want to take risk, Rishi’s cross-court forehand, opponent is rallying, an effort to keep Rishi confined at the Base Line, perhaps waiting for an unforced error! It was an unforced error, but not of Rishi’s, his opponent’s – score 0-15. The mobile rang, it is my cousin Bakul calling, went somewhere far on some errands, the coolant of the car is leaking, would be a little late to arrive. He informed me that some official of the Organising Committee, would drop us at the hotel by a car of the Tournament Committee, and gave me the mobile number the contact official. I came down from the gallery, the kit bag is with Rishi, I am not carrying anything except the purse and the mobile.

Ankit’s first serve-fault, Rishi took position moving a step forward inside the court from the Base Line, perhaps pressure tactics just before the second serve. Second Serve- though deep but comparatively little weak, Rishi adjusted fast, the back swing of the racquet a little more than before, a little extra power, a inside-out winner! Oh, my God! The ball jumped touching the cord at the top of the net, it’s coming down, Rishi is watching – helpless, it crashed onto the same side of the court. 15-15 the chair umpire’s voice echoed. I shouted.
  • What are you doing, Rishi? The mobile rang loudly, it’s Debu, I am shivering in cold here, he is least bothered, look at the role of the father, now he is going to ask, ‘Hey, how is everything? Is he winning?’
  • Match is going on, see what mistakes he has been commiting, I am totally upset. I would ring you later.’ 
How would he understand, so much tension! Have you noticed Roddick’s coach Jimmy Connor’s tension – sits biting his nails while watching; As Sarapova plays, her father clenched fists turns white, Jokovich’s mother sits with her face covered, she does not have the guts to watch her son commit a mistake, looks up only as her younger son shouts in exaltation. Serena’a mother does the right thing, hides her eyes behind a pair of huge dark sunglasses, one can’t understands what she is thinking, her face otherwise looks ever-smiling, gigantic figure, does not budge easily.

Ankit’s serve – Fault; second serve-Net. Aku, steady – the man ran down at great speed by my side, Ankit’s father. I looked back, the lonely woman is sitting face down, it appears she would take out the stitch of the falls of her saree clawing with the nails of her left toe. I concentrated back on the game, Ankit is bouncing the ball, not yet ready to serve. How is he feeling, what is he thinking? Is he seeing just the bird like Arjuna, the disciple of Dronacharyya did, or readying himself for the last effort of Abhimanyu to penetrate the Chakravyuha? I looked at Ankit’s face, a small full fair face, the long curly hairs drenched in sweat even in this month of December is hanging over his forehead.

Ankit’s serve-Fault;15-30 - the chair umpire’s said. I looked back at Ankit’s mother, she is still looking down, but her left toe has become still. Slowly, very slowly the woman opened the zipper of the bag in her hand, tenderly folded her husband’s muffler lying on her knees and put inside the bag, and then, then she pulled the hook of the zipper, from one end of the bag to the other, the passage to the bag is closed! I looked at Ankit, he is adjusting the spacing of the strings with the fingers of his left hand, then he tapped both heels of his shoes with the racquet head with an air as if the job is done. He wiped his face with the collar of his shirt and readied himself for another serve.

Ankit’s deep serve, Rishi somehow managed to reach it, but couldn’t control, the ball zoomed skyward, then came down, would it drop inside the Base Line? Ankit adjusted himself, one forehand Down the Line - the mistake was done, Rishi needed quite some time for recovery leaving the entire court open, a cross-court passing shot certainly would have been a winner. Rishi didn’t falter, Backhand Down the line – caught the opponent on the wrong foot! Chair umpire declared – 15-40.

Two Break point, Match Point! Ankit couldn’t muster the courage to look at his mother. What is she doing now? Perhaps examining the cover of the water bottle – is it ok, any chance of spilling out! Perhaps looking at both sides of the place she was sitting – anything left behind to put back into the bag? Perhaps a vacant mind, stopped thinking. Perhaps a miracle or a last attempt, waiting for a final battle! I looked at Ankit, he wiped his face, both the palms and the grip of the racquet with the towel, hopped a few times putting the weight on both toes, then readied himself for the serve.

Ankit’s serve – an Ace;30-40, the chair umpire’s voice announced. ‘Keep it up Aku, don’t give up, snatch another point’ – father’s support. I was surprised at my own reaction – I was feeling so light – something to cheer about! I looked at the woman, she took a sip from the bottle. Our eyes met briefly – a sparkle in her eyes.

A break point, match point.
Ankit is ready, Rishi too.
Ankit’s serve, first serve – Fault
Second serve – Fault
‘Game and match, gentlemen, Rishi won 6-2 – chair umpire declared.

‘Ma’ – Rishi shouted from the court, I practically ran down the gallery! As soon as they came out after the customary shake-hand with the umpire, I took them into an embrace – Rishi and Ankit both – with both hands.

-Hard luck Aku – I tenderly touched his sweat drenched cheek

-Thanks aunty.

I looked back feeling something touch at my back softly through the jacket, the woman – Ankit’s mother! Her eyes are lustreless, but a smile on her lips nevertheless – ‘Thanks, thanks a lot’.

We are returning in a car arranged by the officials of Organising Committee, the street light paled by the sheet of fog is running in opposite direction. The mobile rang- It’s Debu again, he wants son’s news.
  • What happened, tell me the result, why are you keeping me in tension?
  • He has not lost.
  • What do you mean by he has not lost, Oh, that means he won! That’s it, you should say straightaway.
We were lying in bed at night, the sleep had been still eluding even after the day’s harrowing activities. Suddenly Rishi asked
  • Ma, that you said Papa then, - he has not lost, it is a big thing, isn’t it?
  • How?
  • You said, he has not lost, but I have actually won; perhaps you were referring to Ankit. Ankit has not lost, but I have won.
  • May be.
  • Ankit is a good lad, isn’t it ma?
  • You have never met him before, how can you surmise so?
  • No. But you hugged him.
  • Did you mind?
  • No, I actually felt good that you did that. But why did you embrace him?
  • All the mother’s do have the same heart, so. Now go to sleep, there are more matches to play tomorrow. – I could not fall sleep for a long time even that, what is Ankit’s mother doing, and Ankit?

About the author: Ms. Purobi Saikia writes in Assamese. At her tender age, she toddled in the words of poetry. It was in the pages of the ‘Agradut’, wherein her poem saw the first daylight.  A student of Language, it was Literature which was her first love. Her first short story ‘Uttaran’ was published in the ‘Pranteek’ (February 1-15, 2002).  To her credi ttill date she has two collection of her short stories, such as,‘Ajan AruKisu Bindas Anubhuti’ (February, 2013) and ‘Pohore-Endhare’ (December, 2014).

The short story, ‘An Evening with Tennis’ is a translation by Mr. Bibekananda Choudhury from the original Assamese story ‘Tennise-or EtaaGodhuli’ written by Ms. Purobi Saikia which was published in the ‘Boxundhora’ (Sunday supplement of the ‘Dainik Janambhumi’, March 16, 2008).

About the translator: Bibekananda Choudhury, an electrical engineer by profession, has completed his M S from BITS-Pilani in Systems and Information. He has also earned a diploma in French language from Gauhati University. He has got published works (both original and translated) in Assamese, Bengali & English in popular periodicals and newspapers. His translated poems has been published in 'Indian Literature', ‘Poets International’, Poetry International’, Rupsi Bangla etc.  'Suryakatha', the Bengali adaptation done by him of the Assamese novelette in verse in the same title by Prayag Saikia was well accepted. His English translated publications include – one short story collection and four poetry collections and one Information Book on Kaziranga, apart from few others in manuscript form. He hails from Bongaigaon and presently stays at Guwahati. [Read More]


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