My eyes followed the ball closely, waiting for it to tear into the net. I didn’t really care who was to score, as long as the ball would settle in. Everyone was cheering loudly, but I almost couldn’t hear any of their cheering, as all my senses were focused on that white ball getting kicked back and forth between the two ends of the playfield. To see it smeared with dirt like that and treated so savagely made me think of how many hours it took to get it stitched together, and wondered if it was one of mine.
The small coffee shop where the village men gathered to watch football matches was a tiny room with yellow walls that smelled of sweat and cheap cigarettes. I called it the Den, although I can’t remember how or when I came up with that name. I used to sneak there after work, since my mother wouldn’t let me go, saying I was too young to go there. That was a year or so ago, when I used to attend school. My mother used to brag about me to her neighbors, saying I would be a famous doctor one day, and that we will move out of this “desolate nondescript village” as she called it.
Many nights when we were sitting in silence, while my sick father lay in his bed in the next room, my mother sewing in her chair and me hunched over my notebook, earnestly doing my homework, she would raise her eyes to look at me, but I never felt like she was really seeing me; for her smile and the sudden glitter in her eyes made her seem to me as if she were looking out to the ocean while effectively daydreaming of something more beautiful than I could ever imagine. Once, she said to me after a long spell of silence: “You know what, Maniram? You’ll go to school, learn your lessons, and then you’ll go to the best collage in India, where you’ll study to be the best doctor in the country. You’ll make lots of money, and once you do, we’ll move out of this rotten cell and go live in Mumbai.”
My mother has always had very high expectations of me that I was afraid there was no question I would let her down. Each time I remembered my mother’s dreamy gaze I would become keener to rise up to those expectations. For all I remember, my mother wanted me to be a doctor more than anything in the world; that’s why I found it hard to understand how she could get herself to tell me I was to leave school.
“Maniram” My mother said hesitantly, with her eyes drooping. “You know how much I want you to go to school and be a doctor.” There was a long pause before she continued. “But, as you know, your father has grown very sick, and I can’t afford the medicine anymore. My work is not paying even for half of it. I need your help.”
The very next morning my mother took me to see a man she called “the contractor”. His office was located in an old building, and the office itself was a small gloomy room that reminded me of the coffee shop in some way. There, behind the desk, sat a man about my father’s age, but much bulkier than he was, clinching a cigarette between his lips, under his heavy mustache. He took a look at me, studied my hands for a while, and then asked my mother a few questions I don’t remember, mostly because I was busy trying to figure out the reason behind them. After that, he opened a notebook that was in front of him, took a pen in one hand and the cigarette from under his mustache in the other, then he let out a curt sigh and wrote something down..
“Okay” He said after a brief pause. “Bring him in tomorrow. I hope he’s a fast learner; I’m having much trouble with dense kids these days. They work half as fast and cost us twice the effort to teach them!”
“Don’t worry sir; my son is a very clever boy.” My mom said, and then pressed her lips together as if to keep herself from saying any more. I imagine she had a pressing urge to tell him I was going to be a doctor someday, and that we’d move out of here forever, and that I wouldn’t have to work for him anymore.
The next day my mother took me to the factory in Meerut, where I was to start working. I was very nervous at first, but my tension was eased a great deal when I saw that there were many children my age. My mother got to her knees so her eyes would level with mine, looked me square in the face, and told me in an assuring tone that I would be all right. I suspected from her tone that she herself wasn’t feeling that way, and the trembling of her lips when she kissed me confirmed my suspicion.
In the factory, a man showed me what I was supposed to do. He then handed me pieces of rubber, leather and bundles of thread and needles. “The more balls you stitch together, the more money you make” He said as he bent down. “If you need to know anything, you can ask the other kids, but try not to bother them with too many questions as they also have work to do.”
I settled in my place on the floor, it was dirty and nowhere near comfortable. I began stitching while stealing glances at the boy next to me. I was trying to pour all my concentration into the work, having my sick father in mind and my mother’s dreamy gaze before my eyes. For a moment, I even thought she was observing me from her chair. Hours went by and I still didn’t finish my first ball. My vision began to blur, and my back ached from bending over, trying to work as fast as I could. When I couldn’t bear the haziness and pain anymore, I let go of the needle and leaned my back against the wall. My eyes welled up with tears as I thought of how slow I was. It was at that moment when the boy next to me decided to start a conversation that soothed me a little. “Tired already?” He said half-jokingly. “Don’t worry; it’s always hard at first. But you seem to be doing well so far. You know, none of us could finish more than 2 balls a day.”
His words were somehow comforting; for I knew I wasn’t a slow worker. But, for 3 rupees per football, I thought I was supposed to make 5 or 6 balls a day to say that the job was worth it.
I continued going to the factory, stitching balls day in day out, and within one week I was able to produce 2 balls a day. Often when I finished a ball I would hold it up to the bars of light filtering through the small rectangular window at the top of the wall, and I would feel a great temptation to take it out on the street and kick it with all my might. I’ve always been fond of football; I used to play it with the neighborhood kids with balls made of worn out socks. But I knew then more than ever that there was no time for me to play with that ball, even though I made it myself. I often consoled myself by thinking that when I became a doctor I would buy one of these balls. I heard that they were being sold for what amounts to 100 rupees each.
At that thought, I found myself starting to pick up speed, which caused me to prick my thumb with the needle, but I didn’t make such a big deal of it; I only put the needle aside and sucked the blood from the small wound. I have taken to that kind of accidents by now; it was bound to happen as I always tried to work as fast as I could. The first time I pricked a finger I panicked, fearing it would grow septic. But by then my hands were studded with punctures, and with some of those punctures growing septic, my hands looked like a rusty sifter.
The World Cup tournament started a few months after I’d started working in the factory. One evening after I was done for the day, I decided to sneak to the Den; for there’s been much talk about the next game that seemed to be a very important one. To tell the truth, I didn’t care to know who was playing, all I wanted to see was the ball rolling on the playfield; I could hardly believe the balls I was making would be juggled by the feet of world renowned players, and that all the eyes and cameras would be following it, waiting for it to rest in one of the nets. What I found most mind-boggling was that, after being kicked around and smeared with dirt, the ball was many times worth what it was when I first stitched it together and held it to the bars of light in pride. For some reason, this made me remember the needle pricks in my hands, and felt them starting to ache.
I stayed in the Den for an hour or so, watching closely as people around me went fanatically on ranting and calling names. I didn’t know what they were so angry about, and didn’t even try to find out; being too busy counting the balls thrown in the field. I was surprised at the number of balls used in one match. If one ball flies out of the field, they throw in another one immediately, like it was nothing. This made me think of how many people and children my age were making footballs out there. I tried to do the math in my head all the way home, but I still couldn’t figure it out.
I went on my way thinking, unaware of the bustle around me; for it seemed the match had ended and the fans of both teams were celebrating and engaging in fights on the streets. As I reached the house, I opened the door as quietly as I could. Everything was as I left it in the morning. My mother was sewing in her chair, my father groaning in the next room, and the same heavy silence filling the place. Who said silence has no sound? Maybe we’ve just grown too familiar with it that it became very hard to distinguish.
My mom didn’t ask me anything, and just responded to my good night with a curt nod. I figured she didn’t want to shatter the silence around, or she’s just lost the desire to speak. I headed to my room with the same thought still spinning in my head. As I lay in my bed, I tried so hard to shut it out. In the past, I loved to stare at the ceiling and indulge in daydreams for a while before I finally gave in to sleep, but I stopped this habit ever since I started working in the factory. I was often too tired to think, but even when I had some energy left in me, I forced myself to sleep because all I could think of was worrying about what lay ahead of me the next day, and it never fell short of my expectations. But that night I couldn’t block out that same pressing idea. I wondered what would become of me in the future, and how it would turn out to be.
I can’t remember when or how I fell asleep that night, maybe my brain was too exhausted at last from all those thoughts. All I can remember is that I closed my eyes, wishing with all my heart I would never have to wake up again.