The “Time is up!”
20th February 2020, Nine AM.
The supervisor approached the first table, where I was seated and I handed him my paper. Technical Drawing had surely challenged our conceptualization and the appropriate use of time. Some had accepted a graceful defeat as they forgot about the follies they committed in the examination. Some were mulling about ‘the could have’s and should have’s’ and people like me were considered as a mixture of ludicrous and bold for I had deliberately submitted an incomplete paper. It was justified because I was not equipped to finish in the first place. I had done one concept well, one that would bolster me above the ‘line of failure.’ No regrets to that, I say.
Besides, more than half our class had something much more appealing on the agenda. Football selections for the inter-departmental team. If there is one thing, most of the male young adults look forward to, other than the saucy and spicy, it corresponds to football. Twenty of the sixty in our class had their backpacks stuffed with their apparel. You can forget your drafting equipment, or not been scrupulous while selecting the type of lead to draw your diagrams but I guarantee you will pick the right jersey, and deodorant for the upcoming session.
Another hugely delightful aspect was the selection ratio. Ten out of twenty-five would be prospective members of the team. If you get such good odds, you must embrace them. Unlike the inter-college team, which is placed at a blatantly crazy 1:1000 odds!
I was raring to hitch the first visible rickshaw with my friends and head right to the turf. We were about to exit the hall when, Ms. Manisha announces the setup of an installation, pertaining to Germany’s energy plans for the future on the ground level. While I am enthusiastic to reach the turf at the soonest, certain factors entice me to at least scan this installation. Number one, plans with friends always work with a time differential. Don’t be last and don’t be first at any given place. Number two, keywords like Germany and renewable energy sound attractive to the Indian ear. Number three, it is nice to appreciate someone else’s effort, however briefly. By the time I was scooping for another reason, I was already at the entrance of the installation. Not the type that would be packed to the brim with students but certainly laudable with five displays to act as a visual aid and large information plaques. This was a far better sight than that of toiling bodies, working with saws and files accompanied by their characteristic raucous sounds along with saw and aluminum dust flourishing in the immediate air. Lo and behold, it was our workshop area that had been transmogrified.
I still recall one factoid that I read. Germany was maintaining a trajectory to phase out nuclear power by the year 2022 and replace them with renewable and safer power. ‘Nothing learnt goes a waste’, as the saying goes. Now, back to my ‘trajectory’ to the turf! I get two calls from my friends and I scamper to the college gate, finding them huddled and sharing the lighter moments of life. That really eases the feeling of being institutionalized, I tell you.
Post school, I was required to display feistiness and an athletic mindset. When tens of students leave and file on the opposite road, hailing for an aperiodic and scant number of empty taxis, you need to adopt that outlook. Firstly, cabs never stopped where you stood because it was a perennially busy artery of running traffic. It would cross the signal and even if you stood there, they would go couple of feet farther, since the signal was common for another road that descended and merged into the mainline. Those few feet and the willingness to dash across with the cab was the difference between being seated and hailed victorious by one’s comrades (students usually carpooled) and simply staring and watching, aghast, as another group swoops in. Sometimes, when the light was red, and cars were halted, it was wise to run and scout an empty cab. If successful, one hops in and instructs the driver to halt after the signal, while he/she shouts triumphantly “Chalo! (Lets go!)” to their pals. Boy! those were the days.
Five of us, mates, ambled towards two rickshaws, standing right outside the main gate. Hitching a ride here is so easy, that it astonishes me even today. We spent more time discussing who would ride with whom! Those rickshaw drivers watched us restlessly but I tell you, that was an important discussion. For among us was Aahil. The guy who could and would talk about anything that would tickle his brain. It’s not a buzzkill. It can actually bring some freshness and laughter (caused by him being ‘him’ and because his nature made us devote a part of our brain to either listening or feigning to but it sure diverted our attention from other mundane things) Few seconds about the examination, some memes making rounds on the Internet , the next about how our mutual friend Param, ruined his Minecraft game and later about an exotic Anime personality. That and much more. How do I know? Care to venture a guess?
The turf we had booked was relatively nearby. Roughly three kilometers from college. It was a wise choice because picking one too far off hinders participation from people who lived in areas that even trains cannot reach within the hour. Areas within the limits of Mumbai. But ask any Mumbaikar and you shall hear only that which is true. “It’s different.” Every segment is, for that matter. North, South, East and West.
The turf was part of a club and situated on the rooftop. Fortunately, the sun wasn’t at its peak, in strength or position. We got changed and made our way to the top. Some of our peers were awaiting us, while the rest came within the stipulated time. Two girls had also decided to tag along. Not with any intention to play but they could create a talkative and vibrant ambience almost anywhere, I reckon. And they did have a few companions amongst our masculine lot. Our bags were huddled together along the periphery of the turf. We stepped inside the contrived field of green, netted on all sides yet contrarily, I felt free and sprightly, the moment I stepped foot within. I warmed up while most thronged toward the single ball and started taking penalty kicks. Soon, the primary four, or more notably, the ones who had the reputation of being verified football players were declared captains. The teams were made. I wasn’t the first choice, which was acceptably neutral and logical, since they had never seen me play. A chance to impress!
The matches were allocated seven minutes or two goals, whichever occurred first. We removed ‘our’ ball (turf footballs are overused and taking headers with them is asking for a swirling concussion. The toss is completed. The first two teams designated to play step onto the pitch while the rest retreat to the side-lines or behind the goalpost. I was part of the former and it was finally the time to play!
It’s the first time I’m playing with my college group. Properly at least. The original first was on the last day of the first semester exams. (That’s a lot of firsts. Reminds me of the fact that when you repeat a word in quick succession multiple times, it loses sense.) We had booked a turf at Goregaon (which is mighty far from our college). That too under the beastly two o clock sun and the sweltering heat that accompanied it. The craziest part was that we had merged two turfs to accommodate the sixteen of us. Same protocol as usual. Get changed, warm up, make teams, play. It seemed exciting to play long passes across the wider play area but after literally five minutes, one of our players withdrew with exhaustion. Within fifteen minutes of moderate gameplay, half the players had thrown in the towel and the corner point next to the entrance had become a chat hub. The rest of us, including me, began improvising and organized set-pieces. We took corner kicks, volleys, quick passes, spot kicks and attempted to ‘cut’ another player with slick feints and cool tricks, like the ubiquitous rainbow flick. I think what differentiates us from the ones, who were sunbathing on the turf with their legs stretched out, was not a factor of physical prowess, such as stamina. It involved an abstract quality. The feeling and the inner urge to play with that ball. Not perhaps, to be the best but to make the best of the limited moments on the pitch. Such is the passion that drives some. It results in a spectacular display, I tell you. My friends Param and Omkar demonstrated it beautifully. All within those fifteen minutes!
Omkar was a fantastic attacking player, adept at making quick changes in direction and possessing powerful finishing in front of goal. Param, was on the left wing. Both were in the opposing team. He received a pass and made a dash straight ahead before delivering a cross into the box. I didn’t anticipate anyone to collect it, although it was a fabulously weighted pass, let alone what happened next. Omkar, springs into the air and with a powerful swerve of his neck muscles, strikes the ball. It hurtles past the keeper and into the net of the goal. I was awestruck! Speaking of myself, I too made an ambitious run down the flank and took a powerful shot on goal which was equaled by the opposing keeper. It was totally worth coming here, in retrospect. That too, at rates that were a bargain, compared to the prices they charged in South Mumbai. How I wish I could foster a permanent team/club and play regularly!
Fast forward to the impending match. I took up a defensive responsibility alongside another while the remaining two formed the attacking pair. (fifth was the goalkeeper in case you were adding things up). Positions don’t stay intact on the turf due to the deficit of players and the paradigm being a continuum of swift gameplay but a general structure prevails.
A defender is often stereotyped as a rough and imposing figure. A conventional mindset assumes that a defender must simply prevent the ball from passing his feet. While that is axiomatic, there is a different aspect to it. Every position has a different zone of perception but I’ll stick to this one for now. The defender is the only active position that can see the entire pattern of play (the goalkeeper is the passive one.) He doesn’t have to hustle the ball in most cases. A combination of tactical awareness and slight guesswork can convert into a pinpoint interception. They also require reducing the influence of an attacker by racing parallel to them, forcing them into positions from where it is difficult to score or make a pass. I more than often, resort to these two techniques to vie for the ball since I’m inherently not overaggressive nor can I land a sharp, quick tackle that easily.
The sidelines were kept active this time. Usually we neglect them to avoid holding up play if the ball rolls past them in order to maintain the momentum and also more accurately because our passing is a little less than sublime. Some of the guys take full advantage of this lapse. They hit the ball against the frame of the turf in a 45-degree angle when facing a defender. He runs ahead and the ball ricochets back to his feet! I always found that unsportsmanlike, so good riddance. On the flip side, passing became a lot harder and retaining possession even more so. The game became erratic and I was itching to move quicker. We still generated decent individual movement and defended robustly. I even spurned one shot on target and made one perfectly weighted lob to my team-mate along the side line, having been blocked by the opposition member. I remember it vividly as it had just the right amount of force and backspin without straying off its linear trajectory. It was a touch of finesse. The alarm sounded and a fine first match ended in a draw.
The other two teams jogged onto the pitch and I retreated behind the goal line with my water bottle. I have a penchant for observing the other teams’ players as well, unraveling their patterns, marveling at key events. Omkar enthralled us once again with his dynamics. He scored the opening goal of our team selection session. (people had placed a friendly wager that it would be him). Eshan, a thin lad and friend, who looked unremarkably indolent and wore the countenance of sleepiness almost all the time was superbly smooth. He was playing in a highly attacking position. He received a defense shattering pass from Omkar and nudged it cleanly into the corner of the goal. No chance the keeper could have kept it out. I was amazed. These instances which I expect to be rare, instead, make me leap forth with excitement, ever so often. It’s like a hidden form of communication. It doesn’t just end at the appreciation. You can reflect upon these moments, even though they were not yours. You can subsume the mindset with which they were made. For instance, people may look at it as a great goal by Eshan. I see a bold and composed mind to successfully make a shot like that.
That’s goal number two and the match ends. It was time for my second game!
Winner stays on. Omkar and his squad re-aligned themselves. I, admittedly was not at my razor-sharp performance. Yes, the passes were better well but you just know the subtle difference between simply being conscious on the pitch and being instinctively brilliant. It’s different for every person. A phase of resonance when the body exudes spontaneity. Sprints are somehow lightened and the breeze that accompanies it propels you forward. The mind eliminates the apprehension and fatigue and replaces it with adrenaline infused zest. You feel as though you could outclass anyone willing to cross your path. Miraculous feats are achieved in this window of sensational feelings. No shot too far or incapable, no ball impossible to control, no situation that is inevitably against you and every chance that you will prove to be a game changer. You just need to seize that fine- tuned opportunity.
We conceded our first goal very cheaply. A direct counter attack and a shot on goal that could’ve been saved but our keeper’s reflexes failed him. Our two attackers then pushed ahead from the center start. I would’ve liked a return pass to restart with a wider and tactical attack but they were fixated on goal. It was them versus three of the opposition defenders. They exchanged a couple of passes and when the ball finally landed in Hritik’s feet (attacker one), he noticed that there was a clear line of sight on goal and he had somehow managed to retain possession of the ball with his back to one of the defenders. He darted sideways and took a shot. In it went and the equalizer was registered.
Omkar’s team was back with the ball. Omkar himself ventured forth but Jash and Hritik (calling them attackers repeatedly sounds too generic given that I know them and am part of their team) kept him pinned in the central area. Eshan had strayed away from his striking position into the right wing to provide passing options. Omkar obliged and Eshan made a foray from there. Me and the other defender rushed onto him, hoping to run him into the side lines or force him to pass backwards. He did appear a little confounded I thought, for he paused for a second. To my absolute surprise, he unleashed an oblique pass, in-between both of us. The ball rolled unchecked into the feet of Tapan, who had surreptitiously advanced into the deep left wing. I had time enough to turn and hope that he would mess the finish or that the keeper would be an unlikely hero. None of that happened. The ball was popped into the goal calmly and I wore the dismal sight while walking off the pitch. Eshan had once again proven his predatorial skill because it was his pass that sealed our fate, that had sliced the defense cleanly and I was the prey who witnessed and was once again fascinated by it.
There was one more game that was played which ended in a draw. I did not pay much attention this time and instead chose to rest and replenish my water deficit. A team change was then proposed to shake the player chemistry. This shuffle and the halfway point were the metaphorical triggers for me.
The captains remained the same, that is Jash, Omkar, Mohit and Aayush (I hadn’t mentioned this before). I was called in by Mohit. Transfers are a huge moment in professional football and I emulated that feeling of getting a reboot under a new hood. Two of my previous team-mates continued along with me into the new team. The toss was also in our favor and we proceeded onto the pitch.
I made a suggestion to select a formation that best suited us. Mohit concurred. Here is how we stood. Sharad was our trustworthy and fearless goalie. On the left we had Shalin, short and nimble footed. I was his antipode while Soumya, who had slightly sluggish movements but the adequate defensive mindset was all set to uphold the center-back position. Finally tying us all at the midfield was Mohit, the tall and stout lad, adorning a yellow Barcelona jersey and a hairstyle which was his most conspicuous feature. The first passing months of college, I recognized him with that very hairstyle.
The game begins and I was feeling rejuvenated. Our strategy was concise. Shalin to I were to make a run into enemy lines with a pass from Mohit, following which he too would come ahead to complete our attacking trio. Defensive duties were also allocated mutually. The attacking men were synonymously the first line of defense. Mohit who orchestrated attacks was a veritable rock at defense. One shove and the attacker was displaced, being suddenly shaken off balance and his most prized asset (the ball) was captured with ease. Shalin and I had to pressurize the other team constantly and had to make runs behind within our respective wings in case they managed to infiltrate our half. This was a significant test of our stamina and I was up for the challenge. My body complemented my mind, as it had found the required traction on the turf and was edging towards the resonance phase.
Let me describe some instances from that match which are well remembered by me, more than two months post their occurrence. We regained possession of the ball near our goal. Mohit quickly passes it to me. I scan the field and notice that everyone, save one opposition defender and their goalkeeper were in our half. Immediately, I burst forth, dribbling with unstoppable zest. Tap, tap, tap, I raced forward. The others may or may not have pursued but they did not cross me. Even the defender never reached me and I took a powerful shot from a tight angle. Chances for it to end up in the net were slim. The keeper positioned his body and the ball was deflected off his left leg into the air and the game remained ceaseless. Light cheers, were made for my try. Critics would’ve wanted me to go inwards before shooting but I felt that crisp connection when I hit the ball. The ‘sweet spot.’ For me, that moment was enough to be sent into the archives of my mind.
Seeing me, brimming with stamina, Mohit advised me to move up the pitch. A goal kick from our end soon followed. I ran to the farthest end, save for a few feet, on the opposite side. Mohit decides to take it. His feet lock in my co- ordinates and the ball is scooped off the ground, into flight. The spherical projectile sailed over the other heads and began its descent as it neared towards me. ‘Too high’ I thought. Unless…
Within a fraction of a second, I decided to go for it. Impulses were conveyed from my brain, to every necessary part of my body. I jumped up into the air and rotated my body. My right leg stretched out to the fullest. As I spin, the field bears a sight which is a thrill in itself. All inverted to my eyes. The fluid in my brain registered a sudden flux. This was not the time to contemplate the act but to complete it. Does a gymnast pause while summersaulting? does a cliff diver break his stance mid-air? Does a ski jumper halt during his descent from the slope? My examples seem many degrees greater than what I did but I wish to convey a point. I completed the turn. The famed ‘Bicycle Kick’ of football. I turn a little sideways to land both my hands in order to break the fall. The back and legs follow through with a light thud on the turf. I felt a sense of joy, an octave higher than usual. Everybody is gasping ‘Woah’ and ‘Wow.’ Then, my cognition intervenes. ‘I missed the ball. Yet, all the viewers are in praise of me. Didn’t I make a fool of myself through my overzealous endeavor?’ I received a satisfactory answer from Param, that quelled my concerns instantly. (I shall tell you that later). For in the current moment, I sprang back to my feet, running across the field because the game hadn’t ended.
The final seconds had been clocked. We were given the leeway to mount a final attack. I have the ball. Mohit beckons for a pass. Instead, I lob it Crossfield to Shalin, who was running towards the corner. A beautiful pass is truly valued when it is collected with the same deftness and Shalin upheld that statement. He paces in a couple of steps and tucks the ball into the bottom corner with a quick, sharp kick. The goalkeeper, in a state of alarm, couldn’t make a timely crouch. Goal!!!
We leapt with happiness, roused from our exhaustion, awaiting the next set of five. I was motored up as it is. Another hour, I could gallop across the pitch, I thought to myself. The next game commences. A true player must always learn to control his emotions, even the ultimately joyful. He/she can store a little, as an elixir, to remain motivated but any more and it can cause distractions and unbalance. I obey that principle and get moving. A corner kick ensues in the initial moments. All of us huddle next to the goal. The kick is taken. Adwait, the person I was marking, collects the ball. He braces for a shot. Before I can make a lunge at him, Soumya, relieves the tension and the ball is tossed ahead, at a safe distance from goal. I turned to make a move in the forward direction. My body leaned forward but to my horror, my legs were caught sideways. There was no avoiding it. Gravity and inertia made sure of that.
I hear a subtle crack as I tumbled down to the ground. The attention shifted to me as I simultaneously let out a cry. I wrapped my palm around my right ankle tightly and tried to sit up. To no avail, I winced, incapacitated. I was helped up immediately by my team-mates. Param and Aahil, volunteered to escort me outside onto the bench. Aah! the warmth of camaraderie eased the pain that was being sensed in my lower extremity. A hand around each of their shoulder. My weight deliberately shifted to my left leg, while the right, limped on cautiously. Onto the bench I was seated.
Here, I began my rudimentary diagnosis. The preliminary objective was to prolong the onset of a swelling. It was as though my friends had already received the message. I looked up and saw Aahil with a Relispray and a bottle of water, whereas Param was holding an ice pack. I requested for a chair as well, to raise my injured foot and stem the blood flow. Param said “the RICE method of first aid treatment. It’s effective.” I replied that I never thought that an excerpt from the twelfth-grade physical education handbook would come in handy. Both of them sat next to me, until it was time for their match.
I gave Aahil a piece of advice before he set out to play. Most considered him to be an amateur at football and he was fine with that tag because he was disinterested in the sport. “I play table tennis.” he would say. Since he had decided to at least participate in the fun, he was patronized by being assigned the defensive position, without any real role and passes were also made sparingly to him. Yes, a rookie can disintegrate the working of a team but hold that thought! We aren’t officially practicing. This was supposed to be a fun team selection. Especially after an Engineering Drawing test. In addition, since I had been compulsively relieved from my duties as a player, I could dish out some managerial advice, having observed a handful of matches that fine morning.
He was up against Eshan as his counter-parallel, in the attacking position. I had discovered that Eshan prowled in the extreme offensive position, no matter where else the ball was. His strategy was to remain there, non-threateningly until a clinical pass would bypass the defense and land within his range. This ensured minimum hassle for him, from the opposition side. From there, he had the required acumen to defeat the goalkeeper. So, I told Aahil, to stick with the guy, wherever he went. “But remember, tail him by a few feet. Don’t stand next to him, or ahead of him.” He nodded in affirmation.
Param was about to join him inside but before leaving he said the kindest thing to me. “You have a lot of guts.” I was slightly baffled because I was under the impression that he was talking in context to my injury. Then the next statement brought it into focus. “What made you even attempt an overhead kick?” The only answer I could manage was a shrug of the shoulders and a light smile.
I consider it a good omen that there were merely fifteen minutes of play time remaining post my injury. I psychologically felt nice because I didn’t have to sit and stare with a tinge of sadness. Within that period of time, whenever someone stepped out for a break, they would graciously question me about my ankle. “It’s better now.” I’d say and then I’d strike up a brief one-minute conversation. It was a fine way to break the ice, for I still didn’t know most of my classmates too well. I would even assert that had it not been for that day, I would still be fumbling around with names.
The supervisor soon gave a shout indicating that playtime had elapsed. Everybody trudged out and seated themselves. Some on the bench, some on the ground, which was beginning to heat up. Noon had struck. The vibes after a match are also very fascinating. Miniature groups of four and five are formed and people talk about any arbitrary topic. Lighthearted and an inherent social atmosphere. Some of them reverted to the jeans and top they had worn at college but I was always an advocate of shorts, unless prohibited or under special occasions (like a marriage!). I stood up from my spot, bearing down carefully on my injured foot. I could walk, although with a discernible limp. Nonetheless, a great sign, given that I had plenty of travel before I reached home. I picked out my bag, withdrew my phone, wallet and keys from my jeans and stuffed it back inside as neatly as I could. I grabbed my drafter, which had another role to play apart from assisting me in my drawing exam, albeit quirky. I donned my cap (another fashion trademark of mine) and seated myself once again with the peace of being promptly ready and all of my possessions bagged. Omkar called out to me and said “Nicely played dude. You will certainly be part of the team.” Hearing those words, subdued the rational sense in me, which argued about my recovery timeline. The first inter-departmental game was due in two weeks and I was relegated to the rest and recovery wing for a minimum of that much time as per my primary diagnosis. (Which was as accurate as hitting a target a mile away with a shotgun.) But those words, instilled a satisfaction that lingers even now.
We exited the club, onto the main road when one of the lads spotted a snack booth. It’s no ordinary one. In Mumbai, we call them Energee/Aarey booths because they serve a chilled, flavored milk beverage entitled Energee by the company Aarey. My grandmother used to relate tales to me, about my attachment to that drink ever since I was a child. On Monday evenings, it was an incentive to go to the temple because there was a stall along one of the routes to the temple. I didn’t sip it or savor it. Down it used to go, to the extent that my mouth could fill. Call it a 250mL shot glass for a six-year-old!
Everybody unanimously marched towards the stall and picked their flavor. The store owner pointed to the fridge. Three flavors to pick from: pineapple, coffee and chocolate (strawberry, cardamom, butterscotch, saffron completes the roster). I decided to stave off it, owing to reasons regarding health (I will not discuss this now but just say that through last year, I had come to concede and respect the proper functioning of my body.) Post a refreshing drink that buoyed everyone’s spirits, we bid adieu. I hopped into a rickshaw with Eshan and another and off we went, to Vile Parle Station. From there, our respective destinations branched. Each of us walked to a different platform, awaiting the train.
It was a good time for rail travel. Hot and sultry indeed but since twelve thirty PM is not a peak commute time, the heat can be compensated with an airy compartment, a place to sit and the breeze that blew as the long, transport behemoth cut through the still air at sixty kilometers an hour. My station is Charni Road, which is twelve stops away via a slow train (they halt at every stop). I usually alight at Bandra terminus, which is the third station from Vile Parle. Why? Since, I get the opportunity to embark on a fast train from this junction. You might construe me as apparently crazy because I save merely ten minutes by taking a fast, that too only if it is on time. Before that, I must even cross the footbridge to another platform. But here is my justification. I don’t take it to save time. I have an abundant supply of time to be happy and see my day through. I can only imagine a day when I’d be scraping through desperately for ten minutes. I step on the fast train because it stops at every third or fourth stop. The increased distance between stations allows for a greater speed. I have once recorded its top speed at a hundred and eight kilometers an hour during the morning. It’s no surprise that its glorious to be seated next to the window on this train. It should technically skip Charni Road but due to some operating procedure, it converts into a slow train after a point and hence I get the speed and I don’t miss my stop.
Today however, the option was struck off by default. I didn’t want any unnecessary strain on my foot. I peacefully removed my snack box and relished some grapes and dried fruits while looking outside the window. I’d also gaze around within the bogey, at the multitude of people that would come and go. For a brief couple of minutes, I’d be absorbed in some vivid thought. Music, sleeping and using my phone, although practiced by many, are still activities I avoid, for music is dampened by the clickety clack and commotion of the compartment. Sleep is an idea that induces fear and my phone is a tool that, I get enough of as is. The train eased into Charni Road station. I stepped off carefully, once it came to a standstill. Then, an exciting scenario presented itself in what I think was the most apt circumstance. You need to know now that I love role-playing video games. Getting home with a damaged foot at a staggered pace sounded painful and weary. So, I devised a playful setting and an impromptu plot.
Shamit Doshi, a soldier, designated by callsign Delta-6. His bag contained his supplies and his drafter was a Spec-Ops Rifle. He was carrying out a reconnaissance mission with his team, in the northern tracts of Mumbai, when they were detected by enemy troops. The team was forced to disband after a light skirmish. He successfully evaded enemy outposts and search parties and boarded the train inbound to the nearest safe-house, in accordance to the instruction provided by Headquarters, callsign Echo-419.
“Echo-419, this is Delta-6, do you copy?”
“Roger that Delta-6, we read you loud and clear.”
“I have arrived at the drop-site and require immediate escort assistance to the Stonehenge, (code for the safe-house.), over.”
“Stonehenge is a little short of a klick (one kilometer), north from your current position. It’s located in the vicinity of hostile forces. The main road is swarmed with enemy patrol so there is no way past that. Your best shot is through the redundant lane running adjacent to the cemetery and into a local district called the Labyrinth. The dense network of narrow roads will keep the patrol cars at bay and allow you remain in the shadows. Easy work. The pinch is the hundred meter stretch that follows on the main road once again, right next to their Central Hub. No way around that. It’s going to be a dash and with your quivering voice, Delta-6, it seems like your knocked down foot can’t make it through that, over.”
“Don’t you worry about my foot, Echo-419. Good, bad, or broken, I am always up for a run. My GPS was broken during the brief firefight so I need a set of eyes to track my movement, over.”
“Acknowledged. We will stay with you on comms (communications channel). The entrance to the lane is, opposite to the train station. It’s covered by debris due to a recent demolition so it’s not frequented by enemy troops. However, some strays might be present so stay frosty! Ready when you are, Delta-6.”
‘Okay. Time to scamper, Sam.’ I said to myself as I secured my weapon behind my backpack to avoid drawing unnecessary attention.
I trod to the end of platform three, towards the foot-bridge, keeping my limp as inconspicuous as possible. ‘Slow and steady, one, two’ I murmured to myself as I ascended the staircase. Reaching the top, I paused for a minute and glanced at my watch. It was ten minutes to two. An hour had worn away since Bravo Company (team name) had scattered. I felt calmed by the cool breeze atop the cross-over as I scanned the area with my binocular vision (I tapped my spectacles to zoom- in!). Amidst the usual hustle and bustle of the public, I picked out a shady group of men from my vantage point. Too composed and synchronized to be ordinary civilians. They were at the opposite end of platform three, loitering by the other foot-bridge which had higher pedestrian traffic. ‘Must be a patrol squad. Random checks, nothing to fret about.’ I walked down staircase, onto platform four and seated myself on one the benches. ‘Men are stationed at the exits as well. Hmm.’
Abruptly, my getaway presented itself. A train rolled into platform four and a flood of passengers sprawled in all directions. I quickly blended into one of the groups moving towards my destination. I held my breath as we edged past the station exit and to the pedestrian crossing. I took behind the parked cars, once I reached the other side. The entrance to the lane was merely 25 meters out. I equipped my rifle and fired a few rounds haphazardly. Chaos followed all over. Taking advantage of this, I made it to the opening of the lane, clambered over the debris and disappeared within.
“Delta-6, what’s your status, over?”
“Echo-419, it’s an infernal place to set up a safe house, I tell you that. All the movies I see, they take refuge in condominiums by the countryside or beach houses.”
“You can take that up with the Security Service. Now quit chit-chatting and report your status. We heard gunshots, over.”
“I made it into the lane. The gunshots were just a distraction. I’ll pitch in once I reach the end.”
“Roger that, standing by.”
I skulked past the cemetery wall, remaining wary of my surroundings. Suddenly, a head peeps out of the rooftops and hurls a projectile at me. I don’t stop. Basic training 101. If it’s not your mother tossing something, don’t be curious. I pick up the pace slightly, not wasting any time trying to aim at the disruptor. An explosion occurs and I keep making my way towards the end of the lane, which appeared in sight. It kept getting narrower, to a point that my backpack was brushing against one of the walls. I made it out and found myself on another main road.
“Echo-419, where to now?”
“The Labyrinth lies just across the road. Find an entry point and get inside. It’s a public market. Keep your weapon handy. The people are used to armed personnel strolling here so you wouldn’t look suspicious.”
(The Labyrinth was in reality a very busy zone. A juxtaposition that was fabricated, thanks to rapid commercialization, a transition of cultural ownership, and an ill- planned layout. On the ground level, the single street is lined on both sides by shops and stores selling their wares/services ranging from breads, flour and other unprocessed edible items to plastics, stationery, medicines, electrical parts and repair, mobile repair and recharge, a public computer café, wedding invitations, tailors, cloth ironers and circling back to the gamut of processed foods. The rest of the street is occupied by hand carts, filled with fresh produce and people ambling in disarray. On the first level was an alley of residential flats. Proceed west from my position and the paths become even more out of order. An entirely residential section where one can truly become lost for the first time, running into several cul-de-sacs before finally finding a way out far away, from one’s reckoning. A government school, church, temple, co-operative bank, Jain-run hospital were erected as well. I guess all that qualifies it to be called a crude township!)
I followed Echo-419’s instructions to the letter. A left after hundred meters, a right at the end of the road, then a left again and keep true till the main road approached. “Hut, two, three, four and repeat” I hummed along with some hymns as I gazed at that which I passed. I didn’t bother about the prying eyes and they didn’t seem to raise any alarm. Eventually, I turned right at the intersection and hobbled until I was next to a large iron gate. “Stonehenge, at last.”
“Walk inwards and enter the second building. Second floor, the door to your left. Hope you didn’t drop your keys!” I shook my pockets and heard the affirmative jingle of the keys they gave us during the briefing, in case we had to crash at the safe-house. “Alright, Echo-419, appreciate the support. Over and Out.”
I entered the three storied stone structure and climbed the wooden staircase. The ankle complained a little but I had made it this far with a hairline crack as a badge of honor. I stood in front of the unpolished wooden door, inserted my key and gave it a twist. The door gave way and I stepped foot inside my humble abode. I took a seat on the couch and gave a shout “Mama Bear, I’m home!”