by Vikas Prakash Joshi
The spectators watched with bated breath and pounding hearts. This was the moment they had all waited for.
Bathed in Pune’s gentle early morning September sunshine, the Khadki Football Ground echoed with raucous, full-throated cries of “GO DIS!” and “Come on Royal!” It was the finals of the Pune Under-13 School Football Championship. Cinnamon Paranjape, goalkeeper for the Diamond International School, adjusted his goalkeeping gloves, green football jersey and bit his nails. He knew how important it was to keep this penalty kick out.
The scoreboard showed 2:1 in favour of the DIS. For the first time in ten years, DIS had a chance to defeat the defending champions Royal National Academy (RNA) and win the championship. Dressed in their trademark maroon shirts, socks and shorts, the RNA team stood on the left side of the field. On the other side the Class VI DIS team, in their stylish dark green outfits. Cinnamon looked to the right for his team’s supporters, a noisy green gaggle of parents and friends. They had their water bottles, bananas, Gatorade and electrolytes—all that young athletes needed.
He spotted Baba dressed in a green polo t-shirt and jeans, recording on his iPad. Maa, sitting next to him, wearing a white kameez and green salwar, shouted enthusiastically “Go, Cinnamon!” Come on, Cinnamon!” She whistled, two fingers in her mouth. Pallavi, his best friend, sitting next to Baba, waved a placard with ‘EAST OR WEST, DIS THE BEST’.
He looked ahead. On the field were his buddies: Captain Harpreet, Chhota Sidhu, their best defender Onam Kutty, and the rest of the DIS football team. Coach Shetty Sir bit his nails. Cinnamon saw the tension writ large on their faces. He took a deep breath and said a prayer.
Rishabh Keswani, RNA’s best striker, was all set to take the penalty corner for the defending champions. Rishabh had already scored more goals than anyone else in the tournament. “Go, Rishabh!” Come on, Rishabh!” his team members called out to him. Rishabh ruffled his normally stylish, combed back hairstyle now ruined by sweat, and raced up to the ball.
Coach Shetty’s words flashed in Cinnamon’s mind. “Remember, Rishabh scores most of his goals in the top or bottom left-hand corner. That side will be on your right.”
Cinnamon took a deep breath and crouched down, nails digging into his thighs. The audience rose to its feet in anticipation.
He threw himself boldly and confidently to his right and crashed, close to the white bars of the goal. Time stood still.
When he scrambled up, Rishabh’s face told him everything.
His hands and body stung from the sheer force of Rishabh’s kick and the crash to the ground, but it didn’t matter, for school captain Harpreet was running towards him. “Congrats, Lambu Das!” shouted Harpreet as he jumped on him and hugged him.
“Goalkeeper kaisa ho? Cinnamon jaisa ho!”
These slogans were music to his ears. After ten years, DIS had won the football championship. Coach Shetty later carried Cinnamon on his shoulders and they did a victory lap with the entire team.
All of them gathered together to pose for photos, with the medals around their necks hanging till their waists, and the huge golden Royal Trophy at the centre. Rishabh was awarded the ‘Highest Goal Scorer Award’ while Cinnamon took home the ‘Best Goal Keeper Award’ of the tournament. The parents came and took the mandatory post-match selfies with them.
After much back-slapping and high-fiving, they climbed into the school bus. Cinnamon grabbed his favourite window seat. He hummed Aashayein from Iqbal.
The breeze blowing on his sweaty face was refreshing.
“Lambu Kaali Das, tell one thing.”
Cinnamon turned to his side. It was Awaneesh or Teacher as they nicknamed him, digging his nose furiously as if there were diamonds inside. He always dug his nose or ears when thinking hard about something.
“Why one thing, Teacher? I’ll tell two things.”
“How you became so tall? Your mom and dad are not so lambu. You look also different from them.” Teacher adjusted his spectacles on his thick nose. His fat legs shook as he asked this question.
Cinnamon shrugged. “Arey, Teacher, your mom and dad are super thin but you became so motu. How come?”
“Don’t call me Teacher.”
“Ok teacher, I won’t call you teacher. I’ll call you Motu.”
There were guffaws.
“Shut up, Lambu Kaali Das.”
There were cries of “Motu! Motu!” in the bus.
Teacher took a pen and threw at Cinnamon, who ducked, and it safely sailed out the window. Pulling out the small pencil he always kept in his hair, Cinnamon threw it. To Cinnamon’s satisfaction, the pencil deposited itself in Teacher’s arm. It was impossible for anything thrown at Teacher not to hit him, there was too much of him.
“Ouch!” Teacher winced, more in surprise than pain. The boys burst into laughter.
When the bus dropped him home, his heart jumped to see the red Skoda Octavia parked in the society parking lot. Maa was home before 7 pm for a change.
Baba and Maa sat in Baba’s home office. Maa put aside the red, voluminous legal tome she was studying and gave him a rib-crunching bear hug.
“Abhinandan!” Baba said, and gave him a high-five and clapped him on his back. At dinner, they had puri, amras and batata chi bhaaji.
He described the game, his eyes shining with excitement. “We knew that Rishabh had to be kept under control, so our team marked him very well. Harpreet scored two goals before the first half. And then Rishab scored a goal. I had my heart in my mouth till the end. The penalty kick was so exciting.”
“Harpreet scored two goals but you saved many more. Sardar and Asardar. A winning combo,” quipped Baba.
“In school, I was very good at sports, Cinnamon. My son, after all,” Maa observed as she patted his head.
“Basundhara Ghoshal Paranjape, you came first in every subject in school. You were also a sports champion. Remind me which school you went to?”
Maa ignored Baba’s comments and concentrated on scooping up the amras with her flaky golden puris. But Baba’s face showed there had been contact between Maa’s foot and his leg.
“Maa, whose face do I have? Yours or Baba’s?”
“Someone in your class said something?” Maa said, after a pause.
Maa carefully touched her black hair, streaked with silver and cut in bangs—her latest hairstyle. She had swarthy, oily skin and was short.
Baba chuckled and stretched out his skinny, fair legs. There was a twinkle in his grey-green eyes. “Why do you need to look like us? You are good-looking as you are.”
Before he went to bed, he looked in the mirror. He started making weird faces at the boy opposite him. The boy in the mirror opened his mouth as wide as he could, squinted his eyes and pulled his front teeth out like a beaver. He stuck his tongue out, put fingers in both his ears before puffing up his cheeks and rolling his eyeballs. He scrunched his face into the most hideous expression. He made his nose into a pig’s snout.
Cinnamon stared. The boy sneered back. Unperturbed. Though it was the same face he saw every morning, these days he looked at it more and more often.
Sharp cheekbones, dark skin, crinkly hair and chocolate-coloured eyes which held a curious, mischievous look, stared back at him. Yes, he, Cinnamon, officially named Roshan Rishikesh Paranjape, did look different from his parents—especially his father. He had heard it many times, said in different tones: curious, suspicious, malicious, and sometimes as a statement. ‘You look different’.
It was true. I don’t have my father’s face, or my mother’s face. I have my own face, he thought. That was all that mattered.
He fell asleep, dreaming of being the Indian goalkeeper in a World Cup Football Final against Brazil. The match was played in front of the Prime Minister and other dignitaries, top Bollywood actors, Baba and Maa and, of course, Pallavi aka Palli, who kept energetically waving the Indian flag throughout. The crowd kept blowing on their vuvuzelas. The Brazilian team was defeated as they could not put a single goal past Cinnamon.
All the players got gold medals, trophies and jumbo sized cheques. But one special prize was reserved for Cinnamon. The Prime Minister handed Cinnamon the grand ‘Player of the Match’ prize.
They weighed Cinnamon in a giant scale or thulabharam and then gave him a huge, rich silky fruit and nut chocolate bar equal to his weight and size. A car had to be hired to bring it home. Super yummilicious.