It was five in the evening. Poltu’s eyes scanned the stretch of road in front of his house. Standing beside him on the footpath, his friends Pocha and Montu shuffled their feet restlessly. “How long do we have to wait?” Montu whined. “My mathematics tutor will arrive in half an hour and I will get caned if I’m late for class.” Pocha nodded his head sympathetically. He was familiar with the damages inflicted by that particular form of punishment.
“There he is,” Poltu whispered, clutching the sleeve of Pocha’s shirt. The three of them stared as the figure of a young man appeared at the end of the lane. As he walked closer, the boys gaped at him unashamedly. At the man’s crisp white half sleeved tee shirt that had a tiny blue horse emblazoned over the left breast and his matching white shorts. The sports shoes on his feet looked brand new and quite expensive. Poltu had seen the brand advertised on television recently and received a brutal whack on his head and an expletive from his father when he had politely asked whether he could have a pair.
The fellow looked around nineteen or twenty, a few years older than them. He flicked back an errant strand of gleaming black Bryl-creamed hair as he sauntered past.
“Look at his bag,” Poltu pinched Pocha excitedly. Pocha let out a yelp of pain that led the young man to turn around and look at them coldly as he walked on by. A bright red Wilson tennis kit was slung over his shoulder, a perfect foil for the white sports costume he had on.
“He does look familiar,” Montu spoke in a hushed whisper. “I think I’ve seen him on television but I can’t be sure.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m quite sure he’s a famous sportsman. I see him walk by every day at 5 pm in the evening. I want to find out where he’s headed.” Poltu’s eyes followed the man down the road.
“Let’s follow him then,” Pocha’s eyes sparkled excitedly. “Let’s find out where he’s going.”
The three boys set off, keeping a safe distance. They didn’t want the young man to think they were following him, which they were. Sportsmen were athletic beings, capable of great strength and this one looked as though he might be able to take the three of them on singlehandedly.
The man walked on steadily ahead, flicking his hair back once in a while self-consciously. Poltu noticed that a few of the girls who lived in the lane had come out on to their balconies and had placed themselves in various seemingly unobtrusive postures. There was Ratna pretending to be checking whether the clothes on the rack had dried while Mitul was reading a book almost hanging out of the balcony. Reena and Shyamoli couldn’t be bothered to hide their true intentions. They were gaping at him as the boys had earlier. The young man passed them all by without a glance.
“The girls. Have you seen the girls?” Montu stared at the balconies around them that had suddenly come to life with all the pretty girls.
“Never mind the girls, walk fast. We can’t lose him,” Poltu muttered under his breath. He was determined to find out where the man was headed. A few yards ahead of him, the young man had disappeared around a bend.
The boys broke into a run. Montu almost fell over when Poltu and Pocha started running. He had been distracted momentarily by the sight of Mitul on her balcony. She had the prettiest hair he had seen. Falling in waves over her slim shoulders.
He teetered uncertainly staring at his mates in alarm before yelling at them to wait for him. But the boys had turned the bend already. Montu huffed and puffed to find them standing at the crossroads looking perplexed.
“He’s disappeared,” Pocha looked stumped. “Where could he have gone?”
Poltu threw a baleful stare at Montu. “It’s all your fault. If you hadn’t been ogling your girlfriend, we could have run faster.”
Poltu looked mutinous. “She’s not my girlfriend and I wasn’t ogling her.”
“Enough fellows, let’s not fight now,” Pocha tried to broker peace between his two friends. “He couldn’t have gone far. He couldn’t have climbed on to a bus either. There was no bus on the road when we got here. Just one auto which is still here.”
The auto driver peered out of his auto rickshaw curiously. “Are you looking for someone?” he enquired.
Poltu cleared his throat. “Dada, have you seen a young man pass by just now? With a red bag on his shoulder. A tennis bag?”
The auto driver grinned revealing a set of yellow betel-stained teeth. “I don’t know whether it was a tennis bag, I’m no expert. But I did see a young fellow with a red bag. He walked into that house right there.” The man pointed towards a building a little further down the road. It didn’t look like a tennis academy or a sports club. Just someone’s house. Ordinary, shabby looking with paint peeling off the walls. A two storeyed house with a small garden in front. Poltu had passed by the house many times on his way to buy medicines for his grandfather from the pharmacy on the main road. But he had no idea who lived there.
Pocha had suddenly gone all quiet. He was staring at the first floor balcony of the house. The other two boys looked up following his gaze. A young man had walked out on to the balcony.
They couldn’t recognize him at first. He wasn’t wearing his smart sports uniform. Instead he had a shabby white undershirt and pajamas on, his gleaming hair ruffled up and messy. They hadn’t realized how scrawny he actually was without his sports uniform on. As they stared, the young man took some books out from a red tennis bag and threw the empty bag on the ground. As he turned around to go back inside the house with his books, his eyes fell on the three boys on the road. A flash of recognition was replaced by a look of alarm.
Without a word, the sportsman beat a hasty retreat. It was time to change his route.