Ajith matched his father’s brisk pace, “The champion’s boat…it is just what I want papa!” Susheel smiled, “One day yes, you will have it…for now, I’ll get you a catamaran that is faster than your old one…what do you say?” “Oh yes papa…then I’ll win by even a bigger margin!”
Five years ago Susheel had left his job at a private firm and moved his family back to their picturesque village in Kollam district. He had agonized at first, wondering if he was making the right decision but then his wife had pointed out, “What about our ancestral home and land, Susheel? Ajith has to take care of them…he is our only child.”
Observing his son’s glowing face, he was glad they had left the anonymity of the big city and returned to their roots. The boy was already a star pupil in his school, achieving top grades in all exams. And for the last two years, he had been lifting the trophy in the annual teenager’s boat race, a mini version of the grand Kallada Vallamkali. The elders of the Karayogam, the village committee, had proclaimed in awe. “You are fortunate Susheel sir… such a bright lad…he has become the pride of our village!” “And for good reason,” another had added, “Sir is so kind, so generous…Goddess Annapurna is showering her choicest blessings on him and his family.”
As he walked with Ajith down the narrow path flanked by green paddy fields on one side and the tranquil river on the other, Susheel reflected that there was much to be thankful for. Voices in the distance made him look up. He could discern two figures, the older dressed in the lungi commonly worn by fishermen and the younger in a shirt tucked into cotton pants rolled up till the knees. It was Mukuvva and his son Gopu. Susheel’s brow wrinkled into a frown. As they came abreast, Gopu waved at Ajith, trying to catch his attention but Mukuvva slapped his hand down. “Show some respect, you rascal!” Gopu grinned but Ajith shifted awkwardly on his feet, looking at his father instead.
Six months back, Mukuvva had appealed to the Karayogam for his son, “Please help my motherless boy…he is hardworking, an asset to me…but his heart is set on joining Famous school.” Everyone knew that Gopu loved to read. He had become the lifeline of the fishing community ever since it had realized that the boy could decipher the official notices sent out by the fisheries’ department. Not only did Gopu untangle the meaning of the sentences enmeshed in bewildering legalese, he also helped in negotiating good prices for the catch. He was quick as lightning in calculating profits, coming up with the figure even before the fishermen had tapped out the digits on their calculators.
But Gopu had thirsted for more. He had long outgrown the village primary school and had craved to be a part of the noisy, happy crowd that entered the gates of Famous school each day. But Famous, the domain of those who could afford its high fees, had no provision for the poor. “Mukuvva,” the elders had advised. “What will Gopu do with an education? One day, he will fish just like you and your father before you…education will spoil him…make him useless for you.” Mukuvva had returned home to find Gopu swinging from a fishing net with a book in one hand.
The next day the fisherman had set out for the landlord’s house, for Susheel’s generosity and charitable nature was well-known in the entire village. And as it had happily turned out, Susheel had spoken to the school authorities and made Gopu’s admission to Ajith’s class possible. The hoary Karayogam had been vexed. “Sir is too impulsive…he is still a city person…he should understand this is not how things are done here.” The elders had summoned Mukuvva and instructed him to impress upon Gopu his extreme good fortune. That he should be careful in how he spoke to Ajith, always deferring to him, his superior in every way.
But Gopu was like any boy his age brimming with youthful optimism. Instead of treating Ajith, his benefactor’s son, with reverent courtesy, he had behaved in the casual, friendly manner that came naturally to him. Ajith, the brilliant student and the tallest boy in the class, had been affable and quite often encouraging, especially when Gopu had shown signs of having grasped some tough lessons. Till one day, the quarterly exam results had been announced.
Ajith had ranked 1st as always and as he had acknowledged the cheers of his friends, the teacher had announced, “There is someone who has beaten you in two subjects Ajith…and that is Gopu!” The class had been stunned. Ajith’s smile had slipped, the word ‘beaten’ ringing in his ears. And Gopu, unconscious of the reaction around him, had jumped up with joy. The teacher had continued, “He has scored full marks in Mathematics and General Knowledge…not a single incorrect answer!…Well done Gopu!”
Some of Ajith’s friends had quickly fostered a friendship with Gopu, eager to take his help for their homework. No longer was he an object of amusement nor spoken of as, “that poor fellow whose papa catches our daily fish.” And Gopu, who enjoyed nothing more than revealing the simple beauty of mathematical logic to anyone who cared to listen, had cheerfully assisted his classmates. But Ajith’s uncharacteristic grumpiness had created an uncomfortable situation for the boys. “Oh, I wish Ajith would stop sulking…he is still the best,” one of them had groused. “But not for long,” had been the sly retort from another. “Gopu is working hard on other subjects.” “You mean one day Gopu will stand first? It will never be so!” Ajith had overheard the conversation and felt deeply betrayed.
His mother had noticed that for some days her boy hadn’t ventured out to play, shutting himself up in his room instead. She had asked Susheel, “Do you know what is the matter with Ajith? I have never seen him so dejected.” But Susheel had not been able to coax one word out of his son.
But the Karayogam, the repository of all the local news, had disclosed the details to Susheel. “These things are good only in books sir…now see where this Equality business has landed your boy!…That shameless Gopu has challenged his position…if this is the situation in the classroom, what will happen when they are older, when they step out into the real world?… Tsk, tsk…as it is these low-caste people get too many benefits from the government…there are no jobs for the upper caste anymore…at least in the village, in our home, we should have our say.” Susheel had responded with a forced laugh, “What upper–lower caste? All that is outdated.” The Karayogam had sighed. Sir had much to learn. Caste did not come with an expiry date.
The conversation with the elders had left Susheel feeling restless. It was true, he had mused, that he believed in a casteless society, one that did not put any man above another simply by birth. But it was equally true, he had argued with himself, that life in the present age was far more difficult, more complicated than it had been in his grandfather’s time. Back then, every person had known his place, not daring to cross the sacrosanct boundaries. No, Susheel had shaken his head, it had been an unjust world and yet, people high or low, had not quite worried about their children’s future. “It is so competitive now…will Ajith have to struggle all his life, constantly under threat from a mere fisherman’s boy?” The instant this question had crossed his mind, Susheel had felt the pinpricks of shame. He had immediately set about providing a diversion, as much for his despondent son, as for himself, unwilling as he had been to face his troubled conscience. And so, the two of them had gone to watch the popular snake boat race on river Kallada. Ajith had brightened up, cheering for the winning team along with the roaring crowds. Father and son had enjoyed their outing and had been happily discussing Ajith’s new boat when they had run into Mukuvva and his ebullient boy.
“How are you Mukuvva?” Susheel felt a flare of resentment at the sight of a smiling Gopu. “Getting ready for the season sir…hopefully the river will bless us with a big haul of fish this year…” “Good, good.” Susheel was about to walk on when the fisherman stepped hesitantly forward. “Sir,” he began in a pleading voice, “If I could buy a new boat…a small one with a motor…then I could fish further down the river, near the sea…the variety of the catch there would fetch me a good price in the city market…I’ll pay off the loan quickly.” Susheel stiffened, “Er…it is quite late Mukuvva…we need to be on our way.” And he hurried off with Ajith, muttering under his breath, “Always asking for favours…he should take the loan from the bank…I have other commitments too…not just him and his brat!”
Ajith’s new catamaran arrived and it was welcomed with great ceremony. His mother broke coconuts, sprinkling the sweet water over it. Ajith and his friends solemnly offered flowers as directed by the priest. Then shouting gleefully, they pushed the boat into the river and took it for its maiden run on the sun-dappled waters. Gopu watched from the bank, his thin face mirroring Ajith’s joy.
He ran home to a small thatched cottage that Mukuvva had built a long time ago, at the time of his wedding. “Acha, acha,” he screamed romping through the one room into the backyard. Mukuvva was painting his only boat, a weathered catamaran, with all the love that a mother has for her newborn. “Ah, Gopu! Look what you have made me do!” He pointed to the untidy streak of red paint that had crossed its border into the white band. “Acha,” continued an unrepentant Gopu. “I want to participate in the boat race!” After a moment’s pause in which Mukuvva observed that his son was in earnest, he replied, “So, you have finally lost your mind…you know very well nobody from our community has ever put in their name for it…although no one can wield an oar better than a fisherman!” “That’s right acha,” exclaimed Gopu. “Why haven’t any of us ever taken part? I have checked the rules…the race is open to all.” “Even so child, how do we make it possible? You need to practice first…a lot of practice…and for that you need a boat…how can I get you one?” Gopu looked at his father, his eyes dancing. “No, no,” Mukuvva was horrified. “Don’t even think of it!” “But acha,” Gopu’s voice was persuasive. “The fishing season will start only next month…and by that time the race would be over…and I promise I will be careful…very careful…please dear acha.” Gopu’s eyes were big with hope. Mukuvva’s heart wavered. Deep within him, he sensed the stirring of an ancient call to adventure, a call hard to resist. “Alright…you can have my boat…but,” and he wagged his finger in Gopu’s shining face. “On one condition…no getting away from homework, eh?”
The Karayogam was outraged. Mukuvva and his son had turned their world upside down. And to add insult to injury, the ecstatic fishing community had raised the sum of one lakh rupees as prize for the winner. “Always crying no money, no money…now where did they find one lakh?” The elder who posed the question spat viciously into a flowerbed. The Karayogam had hurried over to Susheel’s house to discuss this pressing matter and sat quivering with indignation in the large patio overlooking the garden. “The women sold their gold! They think Gopu will win…hah!” The men sniggered. But Susheel stared at the floor in frowning silence. He knew what was rankling the Karayogam. It was gnawing at him too.
The fishing community believed they had already won the race, a far more significant race. The cash prize was a symbol of triumph, for in entering his name for the competition, Gopu had done the unthinkable. He had broken an unwritten code. Susheel looked up, “I will add to the prize…by another one lakh.” The Karayogam was thunderstruck and then all at once they broke out in an excited babble. “Two lakh rupees! This is the biggest prize for an event in the district…it will send out a message to Mukuvva and his kin that their celebration means nothing…when Ajith wins, they will never dare to raise their heads again! What a masterstroke sir!”
“Hey Ajith! Did you know Gopu has entered his name for the race?…I just saw him towing his father’s boat up and down the river.” It was Ajith’s best friend imparting this vital titbit in a shocked voice. Ajith’s face burned red in anger. “Why is he always trying to compete with me? Even here he won’t leave me alone.” “But he’ll never win against you…you needn’t worry.” Ajith glared at his friend, “Why should I worry? I am going to race ahead of everyone in my new boat and that rat, Gopu, will never dream of participating again.”
Mukuvva took out his old catamaran everyday on the emerald river, assessing its strengths and flaws. As soon as Gopu finished his homework, he dived into the river and swam to the boat. He watched his father’s patient demonstrations with a keen eye absorbing the instructions like dry mud soaking up water. “She is old and heavy for you no doubt…but she can take a hard knock unlike some of the other boats…so this is how you must oar…use the weight of the hull to push ahead.”
Soon the placid waters churned as the other boys took to practicing alongside Gopu, eager to show off their skills. Meanwhile, well before daybreak, Ajith and Susheel skimmed the river in their new boat, testing it against every curl and wave. And by the crack of dawn, satisfied with their drill, they returned home.
As the day of the race drew close, Ajith went quiet, the strain evident in his sombre eyes. “Forget the cash prize…I shouldn’t have mentioned it,” Susheel said. “You are easily the best…you must believe it.” Ajith tried to smile but his facial muscles felt stiff. Gopu’s participation and the two lakh rupees had electrified the village. It was different this time, he thought. It was no longer fun.
The sun shone bright in a clear, blue sky proclaiming it was the day of the race. Everybody made their way to the river carrying baskets of food and colourful banners to cheer for their favourite contestant. The fishing folk occupied the bank on the opposite side, at the finish line, waving constantly to Gopu and shouting advice across the river that couldn’t be heard. The Karayogam smirked, “Now they understand…simply sending their boy to participate does not change anything.” A senior government official, invited to flag off the race, climbed the makeshift podium. Instantly a hush descended on the spectators. The official greeted the elders and Susheel before holding up the trophy and the bag of cash for all to see. “This year, one boy will not only make his family very proud but also rich!” The crowd burst into a deafening applause. Finding the enthusiasm infectious, the official decided to forgo his long speech and dropped a red handkerchief, a signal that the Boat Race should begin.
There was a minor commotion as the contestants scrambled into their boats but soon it became apparent that Ajith had wasted no time in taking the lead. Susheel relaxed, a small smile curving his mouth. His eyes searched for Gopu and he was astonished to see the slight frame plying the oar with confidence, his movements precise and economical. Mukuvva paced the bank on the other side gesturing wildly. But Gopu remained intent on cleaving a path for himself, edging his boat past one frantic competitor after another. Susheel felt a sneaking admiration for the boy.
It wasn’t till Ajith had crossed the half mark that he noticed the feverish excitement of the crowd at the finish line. He shot a quick glance behind and the reason for the uproar became clear. Gopu was inching close to him. Panic gripped Ajith and he began to oar vigorously. Looking over his shoulder constantly, he was relieved to see the gap widen between the two boats. “I won’t rest till I reach the finish line,” he vowed. Mukuvva stood quietly watching his son struggle behind Ajith. A friend reassured him, “Gopu has given the reigning champion a big scare! Take heart…our boy is coming second…that is good enough for us.”
The race was almost at an end. Susheel crossed to the other side and glanced at Mukuvva. The fisherman began to clap, slow deliberate claps. Soon others joined him, the sound echoing across the water. Ajith puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. He was nearly there. He turned to cast a triumphant glance at his rival. Gopu’s gaze was fixed on his father as he strained every nerve, every muscle to catch up with Ajith. Sweat poured down his face, his chin jutting out resolutely. He seemed tireless, unable to give up even when he didn’t stand a chance to finish first. Ajith recognized the yearning. It was an intense desire to push oneself beyond all limits of mental and physical capacity, to expand and become limitless. He felt a lump rise up in his throat. Gopu’s face resembled his own. And in that instant he made up his mind.
As his oar struck the water, Ajith let it slip from his hands into the splashing waves. The crowd gasped in horror. Mukuvva and his kin fell silent, their heartbeats erratic. Only when Gopu pulled ahead of Ajith, did they erupt in incredulous shouts of joy. The new champion leapt out of the boat into his father’s open arms. “We did it acha! We did it!”
The fishing community broke into a cacophony of bugles, drums and conches while the Karayogam tried hard to mask its consternation. Susheel watched his son make his way slowly through the crowd, acknowledging the commiserations with a quick nod. When he reached his father, Ajith’s gaze skittered to the ground. Susheel patted his shoulder, “We all make mistakes…even the best of us.”
Quite soon Ajith came to regret his impulsive act of kindness. He desperately wished to forget the race but wherever he went people reconstructed the moment of his defeat. “If only you had kept a firm hold on the oar! Just one strong move and the trophy would have been yours like always!” “Well you almost came first! They should have given you a cash prize too,” his best friend declared stoutly.
Ajith went late to class and was the first to leave so that he could avoid Gopu’s friendly overtures. At home, his mother was too solicitous, eager to soothe her son’s chafed feelings while his father was more preoccupied than usual, a shadow of discontent marring his face. The swiftness with which Susheel had discarded his principles, which had defined his life so far, had deeply shaken him. He wondered about the stranger who walked in his skin, the one who had alienated him from his true self. His son’s loss in the race, he felt certain, was divine retribution. It was his failure, not Ajith’s.
Ajith sat by the river tossing pebbles in it listlessly. He must have been mad to do what he did, he thought for the umpteenth time. He sighed, if only he could make his father happy again. His hand stopped in midair. He knew what he must do. “I will tell Mukuvva the truth…then he will return papa’s money…that will make everything alright again.”
It was twilight when Ajith found the fisherman’s cottage. He could hear voices in the backyard. All of a sudden he was overcome by nervousness and hung back in the shadows to listen. “Acha, you will catch plenty more fish in the new boat…I did a rough calculation of the profit…I think it should be one and a half times more.” “One and half times more profit?” Mukuvva’s voice rose in disbelief. “Yes dear acha!” “What are you saying Gopu? With that kind of money we can repair this old house, maybe add another room, get you to college…”
Ajith slipped away. He turned once to look back at the fisherman’s cottage. A light burned in a window. The faint sound of the banter between father and son reached his ears. A laugh bubbled up inside him and with a whoop of joy he ran all the way home.
A graduate from MCRC Jamia, New Delhi, one of India’s leading film schools, Gitanjali has over 20 years of experience in TV production and Broadcasting, twelve of which were at senior creative and programming positions in organizations such as Fremantle Media, Zee TV Network and Sony Television. This experience, rich in its diversity and depth, built her core strength in Content Development with a special emphasis on Storytelling.
She quit corporate life to fulfill her dream as a writer and filmmaker five years ago, to tell stories about social issues afflicting India, and the struggle of common people to overcome them in their daily life.
Gitanjali was recently conferred the Women’s Entrepreneur Award 2018 in the field of Media & Entertainment by the Delhi Management Association.