“Today I saw that two mangoes were missing from the left side of our tree. If I lay my hands on that thief he will pay for it!” my uncle suddenly said in a fit of anger.
My uncle and my father had planted that mango tree with their own hands in the garden of the house and when the tree finally grew, it yielded excellent fruits in summer. This tree was the source of pride for my uncle and the source of greed for everyone in the locality. So when he found a few fruits missing from the tree every morning, he acknowledged the dishonesty of the people but he never acknowledged his inability to share the mangoes.
I ignored my uncle’s overtly ambitious plans to catch the mango thief and went to the balcony. Drops of sweat continued to trickle down from my face and wetted the collar of my t-shirt. I clumsily wiped my face with my hand. It was 40 degrees Celsius that day and the humidity made my whole body feel sticky from sweat and uncomfortable. I felt irritated that my uncle worried about insignificant matters like catching a stupid mango thief and not have any plans regarding installing an air conditioner in the house. When I was in Mumbai, there was an air conditioner installed in every room of my house excluding the bathrooms and the terrible heat of summer never caused any inconvenience for me. I felt a sense of annoyance rage in me and I clenched my teeth to control my emotions.
Both of my parents were business partners and had to travel frequently to make their business successful. When one would travel, the other would be there to look after me but this time both my parents had to travel and so, they left me in my paternal uncle’s house in Kolkata.
I knew that my summer holidays were going to be drab. My house in Mumbai was on the eighth floor of a giant residential building. From my window I could see the busy streets of Mumbai with pedestrians and cars honking at the traffic jam. My father had often told me that his paternal house was in the Northern part of Kolkata which was barely touched by the usual urbanization of the city. During these days of my summer holidays I could very well make out that what he was saying was true.The houses in North Kolkata were clustered close to each other in narrow lanes. Cars and pedestrians could barely travel in those narrow lanes simultaneously. Recreation for old men was not playing billiard in the evening, but eating deep fried potato snacks over a game of cards. Boys of my age never played football on the streets like that in Mumbai but they played video games in their homes. Even the Internet connection was unstable there.
I was disrupted from my string of thoughts and grievances when something shot right past me almost missing my face. Startled, I turned around to find that a football was lying in one corner of the balcony, still in a slight motion.
“Hey pass the ball fellow!” I heard someone call out. I turned back to find a group of boys on the streets waving their hands wildly at me and beckoning me to pass me back the football. I was already in a foul mood for the discomfort I was suffering in the sultry weather for the lack of an air conditioner and this event had fanned the flames in my mind. If the ball would have hit my face, I could have started to bleed.
I went out of the house with my anger speeding up my steps. The ball was tucked under my arm. As soon as the boys saw me with the ball, their face broke out in a grin. One of them came close to me to take the ball from me. I took a step back from him, preventing him from taking the ball.
“What is this? You people have no sense! The ball could have hit my face,” I yelled without trying to be polite in any way.
The boys exchanged glances then eyed me with confusion.
“How old are you?” one of them asked. The question confused me.
“Why do you want to know?” I asked in return.
“No because such complains are generally made by the grandpas in the locality. You don’t look like one. However nowadays the new beauty creams which are being launched in the market can make a grandpa look like a lad I have heard,”
The other boys muffled their giggles on this comment. I grew red with shame.
“What nonsense. I am fifteen years old. I have never seen anyone play in such an unruly manner like you before in Mumbai. You all better rectify yourselves,”
“You are from Mumbai?” the boys said unanimously. They all broke out in a grin. “Then I am sure you have never played football like us before and that is why you are getting so upset with our ball,” one of the boys said.
“I can play football,” I said. In actuality I had played football several times in my school.
“Then show us!” one boy among the group of boys demanded.
My ego was considerably hurt by then and I had to prove myself. I put the football down and kicked it with all of my confidence. The football rolled away with great speed up to a considerable amount of distance. All the boys stared at me with awe.
“This boy is good,” one boy said trying still gaping in amazement.
I felt extremely smug and went back into the house. I was sure that I had taught those undisciplined mongrels a good lesson and they would never challenge me in the future.
The next morning my aunt was the one who woke me up. “Poltu and his friends are waiting for you. They asked me to call you,”
“Who is Poltu?” I asked still confused in sleep.
“Don’t you know? He said you played football with them yesterday,”
On hearing my aunt I was fully awakened in a jiffy. I hopped out of bed and ran out of the house within seconds to find the four boys whom I met yesterday standing at my doorsteps grinning at me.
“It is too bad that a boy of our age does not play football with us so I asked kakima to send you down,” one boy said. His name was probably Poltu.
“I don’t want to play with you people,” I said still offended at them. It puzzled me to think that they felt that I would accept their offer to play with them.
“Sorry but your choice doesn’t matter here,” one boy said. He firmly gripped my wrist and pulled me out of the gate onto the road. I looked around anxiously for once.
“Let me introduce you to all of us,” Poltu said. “My name is Poltu and starting from left to right this is Anirban, Manas and Kushal,”
I glanced at all of them and nodded. “My name is Satyajit,” I said.
“That is a Bengali name. You are from Mumbai right?” Anirban asked.
“My father is a Bengali,” I said. “He gave me this name,”
“I see,” Poltu said. “Come on let us start the game now,”
Nobody noticed that I was a little sad at being reminded about my father. Poltu kicked the football to me. “Come on Satyajit! Show us that yesterday’s game was not a fluke,”
I took this comment up as a challenge and somehow started to treat all the boys as my admirers. I kicked the ball once again and it rolled away with great fury. Manas and Poltu ran after it.
“Dodge this! If it touches the wall behind your back then I score,” Manas called out to me and kicked the rolling ball back towards me. In an instant the ball was very close to me but I managed to step on it and stop it.
“Not bad but let me see you take it away from me,” I heard Kushal yell out in excitement. He was bulkier than the others and it was taking time for him to run up to me so I quickly dodged him.
“You guys cannot get to me!” I called out in proud excitement.
We all played for an hour or so. Initially all the four boys were on one team and I was on another trying to dodge them but then we formed two groups of three and two members each and played a full-fledged football match. Poltu was on my team and we both won the match. Throughout the game we were interrupted with annoyed pedestrians and shouted at by old people from their houses because their naps were getting disturbed because of our racket.
“You all sit here and I will get some sweets,” Poltu said. He shook his head and the sweat from his hair splashed everywhere.
After Poltu was gone, everyone sat on the front steps of a nearby house. I decided to stand as the nearby drain gave me a gross feeling.
“Where is Poltu going to get the sweets from? Does he have enough cash with him?” I asked Kushal who was panting heavily.
Seeing Kushal’s inability to respond Manas said, “His father has a sweet shop nearby. He will get it from there,”
Poltu was back within moments holding a banana leaf wrapped to form a bag. Each of us took a jalebi from there. As I bit into it I felt the warmth and juiciness of the sweet.
“Enjoy it Sattu! This is from my father’s shop and the best in Kolkata,” Poltu grinned at me exposing his yellow teeth.
“Sattu?” I smiled and all the other boys joined me. They had given me a nickname within two hours.
I returned home exhausted and threw myself on the sofa. I don’t know where my aunt came from silently and placed a glass of lemonade on the table in front of me.
“You were playing with the boys in the locality?” she asked softly.
I nodded still recollecting the happy events of the games.
“Well you better change now. You don’t like sweat on you right?” my aunt asked.
Her words seemed to pull me back into reality. I was drenched in sweat and I had not switched on the fan as well. A wave of uneasiness due to the heat engulfed me which I had not felt all this time. I remembered how my mother would wipe the plates in restaurants twice and how she hated eating street food in dirty containers made from leaves. I recalled the difference between Poltu’s shabby clothes and my fine clothes. It puzzled me to think as to how I had forgotten the difference. I knew that I had fun that day but at the same time I knew that somehow I had disobeyed my mother’s ideals for me. In Mumbai both of my parents would go for office and I would sit in front of the computer playing games or watching the television in my air conditioned apartment. For the first time it felt that I had released a lot of my energy during my summer holidays.
The next day again I went down to play with those four boys.
“Sattu is here!” Kushal greeted me thumping on my back.
“Today we will do something very special Kushal whispered in my ear.
“What? I asked in excitement of doing something new.
“Not here. Let us go a bit further from here,”
I noticed the tension on the faces of all the boys. Something very secretive was going to happen. They led me to a spot which looked like an old garage. Poltu lifted up the shutter and placed some newspapers on a nearby bench.
“We have something to show you. But promise that you will not tell anyone,” Manas said. He pulled out the schoolbag he was carrying and laid it on the bench. When he opened it I was shocked to see the amount of mangoes in there. It seemed that I had discovered my uncle’s mango thieves.
“We had asked your uncle many times but he would not listen. So we had to do so,” Manas said. I did not feel angry but this situation cheered me up.
“Don’t worry I won’t tell him,” I laughed. “But what will you do with them?”
“We have made juice from half of the mangoes. We will sell them and earn money,” Anirban said. He pointed towards some nearby cups and a big jar of yellow liquid. I nodded and inside I felt exuberated to discover the amount of trust they had in me. I felt great to think that they had accepted me as their friend.
For the next few hours I organized the cash earned and Manas, Anirban and Kushal handed the customers glasses of mango juice. Poltu was no novice and he knew how to run a shop. He did not allow the customers to bargain for a single rupee. At the end of the sale, we had collected two thousand rupees which we shared among ourselves.
“The sun is up too high today right?” Anirban asked shading his eyes with his hand.
“Indeed,” Poltu said the cash in his hands. “Let us go and swim,”
“Good idea!” Kushal exclaimed.
All of us got up from the floor of the garage and dusted our shorts. It puzzled me that there was a swimming pool around. The boys continued to lead the way and I followed them pondering as to how the swimming pool would be. The path they took became narrower and grassier till we came to a pond.
“Come on let’s jump!” Poltu exclaimed taking off his shirt. The others followed and soon they all were in the pond. I had not expected a pond and I was reluctant to swim. Anirban kept calling to me but I was reluctant. Suddenly, I felt a strong tug on my knee and my whole body lost balance. In the next moment I was in the pond gasping in the water. Manas had pulled me by the leg.
“Don’t worry you will not drown,” Manas chuckled. “The water is knee shoulder length.”
I realized that I could feel the surface of the pond with my legs. The water felt icy cold and Poltu splashed some onto my face.
However in that uncomfortable situation, I felt really happy with my new friends enjoying summer in a way that I had never before. Undoubtedly this was better than playing video games in an air conditioned room.
The same night my mother called me up. After a few greeting she asked me how I was doing. I had only one answer, “This is my best summer vacations,”