As if the afternoon sun had taken a break from its duties and descended to the earth disguised as a beach ball.
Riya looked out of the window. The Tata Sumo had taken a sharp left turn from the main road and was now proceeding at a dizzying speed on a narrow dusty road.
“Papa aren’t you going to the beach?” Riya asked her father Ravi who was driving.
“Of course, we are, darling! But we are not going to the place we usually go to. We are going five kilometers down the beach to a deserted spot. It is like a private beach – no messy tourists, no meddling hawkers, no shrieking, screaming and pushing – just peace and quiet and our two families.”
Riya looked back. Jeevesh Rath Uncle’s bright red Maruti was barely visible in the cloud of dust. Jeevesh Uncle, Lisa Aunty and Riya’s mama were traveling in the Maruti. Riya’s kid brother Rajat and Jeevesh Uncle’s son Deepu were with Riya in the Tata Sumo.
After another thirty minutes of traveling, the Sumo came to a halt. Riya looked out. They were now in a clearing surrounded by clumps of coconut palms. She got down, followed by Deepu and Rajat.
“Papa you told me you were taking us to the beach. Where is it?” Rajat asked in his high-pitched voice.
“This is only the beach, stupid?” Riya snapped. Though Riya was nine and Rajat five, she felt at least ten years older to him. She was convinced he had the brains of a three-year-old.
“But I can’t see the sea,” Rajat wailed stomping his feet and jumping in the air – the first indications of a king size tantrum.
“Come with me,” Riya said catching hold of his hand and dragging him forward.
Through the gap in the trees she pointed out. Rajat shrieked with delight. Half a kilometer ahead was the shimmering blue waters of the sea.
“Yahoo!” he jumped. In a flash he stepped out of his jeans and T-shirt and clad in his bathing shorts ran ahead screaming with joy. By then, the others had joined Riya and they laughed as Deepu too followed Rajat.
“See what I’ve got for you, Riya,” Lisa said. Riya looked back. Lisa had in her hand a huge beach ball – bright yellow in colour. It looked almost as if the afternoon sun had taken a break from its duties and descended to the earth disguised as a beach ball.
“Wow, its lovely, aunty,” she shouted and grabbing it, threw it high in the air.
* * *
Within an hour, the two families had settled down on the beach. The huge beach umbrellas had been erected; Ravi and Jeevesh had plunged into the waters braving the choppy sea. Lisa and Simi had gone for a walk. Rajat and Deepu were busy trying to catch snails. Riya was bored.
She had played about in the waves and was now tired. She had tried to teach Deepu and Rajat how to play football but they didn’t seem interested. They had started playing catch but that too didn’t work out.
Every time Rajat dropped the ball he would howl and accuse Riya of cheating.
Sick of all this Riya had started practicing dribbling the way she had seen the boys in the class do. She loved both playing and watching football. Ronaldo was her idol and her room was filled with his posters. She had persuaded her classmates to include her in the football team. It didn’t bother her that she was the only girl in the team.
She kicked the ball and it went soaring at a beautiful angle. ‘Even Ronaldo would feel quite proud of this shot,’ Riya thought to herself. She was about to run to retrieve the ball when it came back at a dizzying speed and landed at her feet.
“Wow! Lovely shot!” she exclaimed looking up. A twelve-year-old boy was coming towards her. He was tall, skinny and dark. He was clad only in a tattered pair of shorts.
“Did you kick the ball? ” she asked in Oriya.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, smiling shyly at her.
“Do you play football?”
“A little bit.”
“You must be in your school team?”
“I don’t go to school. My father is a fisherman. I help him catch fish,” he said, pointing to the sea. Riya could make out a man in a small fishing boat, quite far away – a mere speck against the backdrop of the pale blue sky and the dark blue sea.
“C… can I play with you?” he asked looking longingly at the ball.
“Yes, of course,” Riya said kicking the ball in his direction.
“I am Riya. What is your name?” Riya asked as he returned her pass.
Riya was enjoying playing with Jayachandra. He was quick on his feet and had sharp reflexes. He seemed to be a better player than most of her classmates. She couldn’t help thinking, had he been in her school he would surely have made it to the school team.
“Riya.” It was her mother’s voice. She sounded angry.
“Yes mama,” she turned around. Simi was standing with her hands on her hips – a sure fire indication that she was upset.
Riya walked up to her not quite sure what she had done to annoy her other.
“Who is this fellow?” Simi asked pointing to Jayachandra.
“He is Jayachandra. He is very good at playing football. He was teaching me how to dribble.”
“Teaching you! Don’t you have any self respect – playing with a beggar.”
“He is not a beggar. He is a fisherman’s son.”
“Oh! I suppose that makes him the Maharaja of Puri. Listen Riya, these people are all thieves. The first opportunity he gets he will vanish with our things.
Our watches, cameras, stereo are all lying here and instead of keeping an eye on them you are providing opportunities to petty thieves to steal.”
“Mama please. At least you can speak in English. Do you have to insult him in his own language.”
“I don’t care if he feels insulted or not. A fact is a fact,” Simi declared and turning towards Jayachandra, shouted, “Hey, you! Off you go. I don’t want to see you anywhere nearby.”
Riya watched in dismay as Jayachandra, his head hanging in shame, slowly walked away.
* * *
The day was completely ruined for Riya. She sat under the umbrella sulking. She cheered up only when her father picked her up in his arms and dunked her in the sea. They then posed for a few photographs and after packing up walked back to the spot where their vehicles were parked.
As they were putting their things in the cars Lisa shouted, “Where is the beach ball?”
Everyone looked at Riya.
“I… oh my God! I must have left it on the beach itself. I’ll go look for it.”
She ran to the spot where they had camped, with Ravi following her. Together they searched the beach but in vain.
They trudged back. Riya felt disappointed and also guilty. It was because of her carelessness that they had lost the beach ball.
Riya looked back.
Jayachandra was coming towards her carrying the ball in his hands. Walking behind him was an middle aged man clad in a dhoti. Jayachandra ran up to Riya and handed her the ball. He was wet from head to toe.
“See, my guess was right. This boy is a thief,” Simi shouted walking towards them.
“N… no… I didn’t steal the ball I -”
“Now don’t you try to spin a yarn. I am much too smart for the likes of you,” Simi interrupted him.
“You have no right to call my son a thief,” the middle aged man said. “When you were taking photographs you probably left the ball on the edge of the water. The tide carried it way. Jayachandra saw the ball and swam after it for almost a hundred yards. He is not a good swimmer and I tried to restrain him, but he wouldn’t listen. He went after it and finally retrieved it. And instead of thanking him you are calling him a thief.” He turned and walked away.
Simi was taken aback. Her face was red with embarrassment.
“I..I…” she mumbled, looking around desperately for some support but none was forthcoming.
She opened her handbag and groping inside removed a twenty-rupee note.
“Here, take it,” she said extending her hand towards Jayachandra.
Jayachandra simply shook his head and turning back loped away towards the shimmering waters of the sea.
* * *
On the way back the two families went in their respective cars.
As the Tata Sumo raced ahead on the narrow, dusty road, Simi put her arms around Riya.
“I am sorry Riya. I was too hasty in judging Jayachandra. He is an honest, sincere and brave boy. I am ashamed that I treated him so badly. But I have learnt my lesson. From now on I will not jump to conclusions while assessing people.”
Riya squeezed her hand. She decided that in the next trip to Puri she would give Jayachandra a gift – a brand new yellow beach ball.
This teen story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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