The only time he skipped a day in the playgrounds was when one of his countless sporting idols was on display on TV. He would sit for hours on end, studying every move in minute detail, practicing it himself in his room. His game evolved to emulate those he worshipped on TV. He would even copy their mannerisms, not knowing which one would hold the key for that transition from excellence into genius.
When he slept, he would dream of one day playing in a huge stadium crowded with thousands of fans and watched by millions on television. He dreamt of kids who would watch him, worship him, and try to emulate him just as he had done to so many of his idols. He was notoriously difficult to wake up on these nights as his mind was reluctant to leave this world of dreams.
Gautum matured into a stout, athletic adult, and his talent had developed to a fearsome level. High school passed in a blur of trophies, medals and outstanding achievements. He had qualified for the Under 14, Under 17 and Under 19 nationals and was a class apart even at that level. He got into a Commerce college without any hassle under the Sports Quota and another flurry of certificates and trophies followed. He was a star, students loved him, teachers were proud of him. The transition into professional sports was thought of as only a matter of time.
But life seldom follows the track set out for it. His family had hit upon financial difficulties over the years and his consistently respectable marks had given his parents hope that he would graduate and take up a job in the corporate sector and alleviate their monetary concerns. On graduation, his parents set down the rules, put their foot down and absolutely refused to budge. Gautum resisted, fought, pleaded, begged, but their stance was resolute. Gautum was shell shocked. He saw before him, in a matter of days, his dreams of 20 years crumbling into a fine layer of dust which proceeded to leak out of the now gaping hole in his heart. He got a decent job at a decent company and proceeded to do decently well at it for the rest of his days. His parents were content and his dream was dead.
“I’d like to fly,
But my wings have been so denied” – Alice in Chains
He noticed a boy of twelve or thirteen struggling to keep up with the elder boys around him. The boy was not lacking in ability, but struggled to physically compete with his stronger, faster athletes. Gautum watched him closely, noting many errors in technique and a generally unpolished game. He could see the boy get demoralized every time he was outmuscled, out maneuvered, outwitted. But the boy kept coming back to play, no matter what the weather, and no matter what the challenge facing him.
One day, after a particularly tough match in which he was hopelessly mismatched, the boy broke down, crawled into a corner and began to weep. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Gautum.
“You will be a great sportsman one day.”
It was not a grand announcement, it was not an empty sentence of encouragement. It was a simple statement, one spoken with conviction and based on experience. Gautum had seen the two pillars of excellence in this boy, hard work and passion.
The boy he took under his wing. Every day for four hours he tutored him. Teaching him the tricks of the trade. Telling him how to use his opponent’s strength against them, how to maximize his skill and compensate for his weaknesses. In the boy he found a willing and sincere student. He never missed a session of practice, never made the same mistake twice and most importantly, never thought he knew enough and retained his hunger to learn even more. His game came along in leaps and bounds and soon he was not only competing with his earlier tormentors, but comprehensively beating them. His mental strength increased, but he never became complacent, he strove to better himself even when there was no one who could compete with him. Gautum taught him the intricacies and subtleties of the sport, pouring a lifetime of knowledge into this expectant sponge.
Their relationship grew stronger over the years. They would sit long after practice sessions and discuss their favourite moments or the sportsmen they admired most. They would regale each other with funny anecdotes. And all the while, Gautum held within himself the faint hope that this young man would become what he couldn’t.
One day, getting ready for the day’s practice session, Gautum looked up to see the boy standing in his room, his bags packed, clothed in a suit and tie.
“I’m leaving, Gautum sir. I got through the entrance exam at Delhi University.”
Gautum stared for a while, unspeaking. Then he went into his room, took down his favourite poster of his footballing idol, Ryan Giggs, and presented it as a gift. The boy, tears in his eyes, accepted the gift and left.
Gautum sighed, took off his shoes and settled back down on the sofa to watch the match.
A few years passed and Gautum was now a middle aged man, balding and obese. He had always retained his athlete’s appetite, but had stopped any physical activity years ago. His belly protruded forward and hung down, as he sat munching on a beef burger. It had been a boring Sunday so far, but a football match was about to start and he waited expectantly.
The show started and the pundits discussed both the teams.
“Very exciting news for Millwall FC as they confirm the signing of the bright young talent from India.
From all accounts, this boy is the next big thing in the footballing world and we cannot wait to see him ply his trade in the best league in the world.”
The beef burger lay still on the plate, confused by the sudden lack of interest from its holder.
Gautum stared at the screen transfixed. The picture of the young boy from his neighborhood popped up on screen. Only now it was of a young man. A young man who had just joined a professional football team in England. He was on his way to stardom.
Gautum felt something bubbling inside him. A smile broke upon his face. He began to quiver and shake with glee. Soon he was in raptures, laughing heartily, open mouthed, with his hands raised above his head.
That laugh never died.