Mahira was her name. It meant “expert”. And she was. At her favourite game, the only thing she looked forward to every day. Carrom!
It started when she was 6… with much older brothers who had no time for her, and a mother battling with chronic depression and uncontrollable outbursts of rage, she had no company except the old small carom board that her siblings had long discarded. And she liked it like that.
They were not very well off, and lived in a small apartment in Sunshine Housing Society in Mukherjee nagar, Delhi. The only person she really loved was her father, a old looking man defeated by the trials of life. Not only because he was the only one who gave her hugs and got her toffees, but because he used to play carrom with her every evening!
As the years went by, she got a better hang of the game. By 8 she could defeat all her family and friends, by 10 she was fighting off 15 year old champs. No one talked about Mahira's beauty, or her performance in school, but they all noticed her talent at one of the most popular indoor games of the country. And she swelled with praise.
It did not go to her head though. She worked hard, and deserved the praise. At just 12, she was taking part in all local and inter-school sports championships, and rarely came home empty handed. If only people gave more importance to Carrom, she thought, I would be no less than a Sania Mirza! She was almost obsessed with her carrom board, playing with it while eating, watching TV,… Her family did not understand her craze, but did not care much. As long as she was getting decent grades at school.
Finally the day came. Every summer the local Sports club celebrated sports day and held various competitions for children of all ages. Last year, Mahira managed to reach the finals for Carrom, but lost her last game. She had never been more devastated. Since that day she swore she will not lose again in this competition. She practiced more, challenged as many friends and relatives she could find to a game, and worked on improving her concentration skills and hand dexterity. It was all worth it, for that week in June when she would get to finally prove her mettle to all. She had managed to win the initial matches and now was gearing up for the finals to be held that weekend.
She went to the old sports room in the neighbouring apartments where the competition was to be held. With 3 children, her family could not spend on a big fancy carrom board with accessories for her, especially when they had other important expenses towards the brothers. So this was where she came everyday to practice. She had made quite a lot of friends there. An otherwise shy girl, carrom was her only source of friends. They were all impressed by her abilities, and loved to play with her. No one minded losing to her; she was a sweet, fun-loving girl passionate about her game, never haughty and always quick to help the learners. They all looked forward to having her around, and were even gunning for her in the competition. Since the people of Megha Apartments knew and trusted Mahira, they even allowed her access to the room unattended.
When Mahira reached the room, she found it the door wide open and a few lights on. It was a large hall, with some table tennis equipment, and lots of tables for indoor games like scrabble, chess, pictionary, carrom, cards. There was an adjoining room for squash, and 3 huge lawns outside for cricket, tennis, football and badminton. It was a Friday afternoon during summer vacations, so a few 8-yr-old kids were playing table tennis inside (or trying to). Mahira smiled at their efforts to keep the ball on the table, and went on to occupy her favourite table with her favourite board.
Suddenly she heard some noise. There was a small toilet in the corner of the hall, near the carrom tables. It was hardly used by residents, as it was dingy and smelly. The servants, watchmen, drivers etc occasionally used it. At first Mahira dismissed the noises to be that of some servant using the toilet. She was embarrassed to hear the noises, which she thought were not her business. But soon when they turned into apparently painful moans, she could not stand it any longer. Emboldened by the 2 boys playing TT (she was not alone in case anything WAS wrong) she slowly made her way towards the half open door of the bathroom, to see the most shocking sight of her life.
A young guy with a stubble, dressed in trousers and shirt, head tilted towards the ceiling, eyes closed, moaning away, was shaking his hand vigorously near his waist, holding on to something Mahira could'nt see properly. And then it suddenly came into view, as Mahira let out a gasp, and the man let it go in a fright… Mahira had never seen ‘it’ before, though she knew about it. She did not understand what was happening, but in a second she felt sick: she knew something was not quite right. She ran out of the door, the guy running out after her shouting “Please don’t tell anyone!!”
And Mahira ran. Ran like crazy. Faster than P.T. Usha! She ran and ran till she entered the gates of her apartments. She looked back to make sure that crazy guy was not following her. He wasn’t. She was relieved. She ran farther to her doorstep, rang the bell continuously till her flustered mother opened the door, ready to give a piece of her mind to the person who was disturbing her afternoon siesta. But Mahira did not have time to listen to yet another scolding from her mother. She ran up straight to her room (thankfully she did not have to share her tiny room with her brothers), and collapsed on the bed. Never the religious type, even on the eve of any match, suddenly she started to chant all the prayers she ever knew, to ward off the evil she carried with her from that room. But to no avail. Even after 15 minutes she was still sweating, breathing heavily, unable to forget the scene which was playing in her mind over and over. She felt sick, but had nothing in her stomach to puke out. Her mother came to her room and on finding it locked, started banging on the door and shouting “What happened Mahi?” But Mahira did not reply. She just broke into quiet sobs, not knowing why she cried, why she felt guilty, when she had done nothing.
She did not emerge for lunch. She did not go out in the evening. When 7 o clock came, they all asked her to come out and go for the final match. But she was petrified of entering that room again. What if that guy was still there waiting for her? She opened the door and mumbled something about not feeling well. Her parents checked her temperature… she was running 100 degrees fever. They decided to let her rest. She was glad that she developed fever, and could avoid the match. She stayed in her room all that week, going out only to use the bathroom or have food. Her parents could not understand her behaviour. They assumed she was just unwell. The boys were glad to have the TV all to themselves. They were happy to get rid of their kid sister who was more of a pest to them. The mother was happy to have one less mischievous child to run after, and the father was sad, to see his little princess so glum. He tried to talk to her a few times, and cajole her to play a few rounds of carrom, but she flatly refused. She was distant and awkward with him. In just a few days they had grown apart and he would never know why. Finally he gave up and went back to his own bleak empty world, alone. And Mahira never played carrom again.
Over the next few weeks, Mahira took up studies with full frenzy, forgetting about everything else. Though everyone was happy to see her dedication towards studies, there were some who missed the passion Mahira had for her game. Especially her teachers. “Mahira is doing well in math, Mrs. Sharma, but she has lost total interest in carrom… Do you know what happened?” Ofcourse I know what happened, Mrs. Mehra thought, she has finally grown up and over her silly obsession and realised that studies are the most important thing.
And so the chapter of Mahira and her carrom was closed. Most people regarded it as a passing phase, a sign of growing up. Her mother was happy the child was not spending all her time on games, and took up this opportunity to hone her home-making skills. After all who wants a sports woman at home, cooking and homemaking are more important skills than anything else.
And Mahira forgot about carrom and spent all her time helping her mother, studying, and occasionally taking a walk in the park. She stopped meeting the few friends she had. After a few days of asking about her, they also gave up. She was afraid to see other people, she was afraid they could see the guilt on her face, that they could look at her and know what happened that day in that room. God knows what torture she went through to avoid looking at or talking to people at home or in school. She kept to herself. Spent all her time in her room, slept fitfully at night, haunted by the dark room with the evil man. Her reticence went unnoticed, since she was usually shy around people.
This went on for a few months, after which they shifted their house to Ghaziabad where they had finally bought their own house. With a change of scenery and people, Mahira finally found the courage to forget that incident and move out of the house and make friends. They cycled around, played various sports and hung out at the happening spots. Her family was happy to see her old self once again, though no one dared to mention the C word again.
And Mahira was happy as this place had no sports room. She never told anyone about that incident, or that she played carrom. Maybe she would find the courage to tell someone some day, maybe after a few years she would forget about it completely. Or maybe she would one day be able to look back and laugh at the incident. But for now she was at peace, having laid her demons to rest. She was free from that room, that man, that moment, forever. Now I never have to play carrom again, she thought, with a grim but relieved smile.