Love, Set, and Match

by Murty S. Challa

The ferocity of the south Indian sun had abated some by now, prompting many of the out-of-shape middle-aged members to brave the perils of viewing club tennis. The courtside was crowded, with the members happy to laze about in the cane chairs, lustily cheering on the players while drinking cold beers, eating chegodi, and generally looking like a pod of seals basking on a beach. A keen singles match was going on between Madhusudhan Rao, the “Woodcutter”, and Ram Singh, the “Cobra”, in the second semifinal of the Independence Day tournament. Rao was in peak form, chopping viciously on both forehand and backhand. He seemed to be imbuing the ball with a shy disposition for it refused to rise more than a foot off the ground and spun awkwardly away from Singh at the merest hint of his violent intentions.

The air was wild with especially strong encouragement for Singh and there were delighted whoops whenever he reared up like a cobra to dish out his much feared serve. However, Rao inevitably tamed it in his patented nefarious manner, and all of Singh’s strength or temper could not raise the ball above the net. The breathless anticipation of the spectators at the start of a point evaporated into despairing sighs, like those of a movie heroine in the villain’s den, eagerly expecting to be rescued by the hero only to find that he was tied up too. To make the analogy complete, Rao smirked villainously at Singh’s doldrums. It is safe to say that Singh dearly longed for a pair of extra poisonous fangs at times like these, to complete that analogy too.

A passing observer would be correct in surmising that the crowd was not an objective one. In fact, they could not have been more partisan. Not a single person there could have graced a judge’s seat at that moment and this included the District Judge, who was secretly praying for Singh’s victory under a mask of dispassionate objectivity. There is something detestable about a man who uses chops and wicked spins onboth sides to disable his opponents, all thought. The universal feeling was that this was not manly, if not downright illegal. Had Nehru used this sort of skullduggery to achieve Indian independence, the members would have preferred to remain under the British. And the way his handlebar moustache danced in synchronization with the evil gleams in his eye did not endear Rao to anyone either. But the moral support was to no avail – it was a total rout, with Rao winning 6-2 and 6-1 in a little over a half hour.

Thus did Rao reach the final the next day. Only one man stood between him and his third consecutive club championship – A-to-Z Sastry (no one could remember the seven initials in his name) – who did not feel particularly manly. Sastry would gladly give up this particular tryst with destiny and the resulting public humiliation, except he fancied it to be a stepping stone on the way to marrying Sita. His latest angel was the only child of the Superintendent of Police, Sivaji Kumar. And SP Kumar, himself an imposing specimen of masculinity, admired only the physical arts. His ideal son-in-law would remind him of Arjuna and Bjorn Borg, and be somewhat better than either of them. SP Kumar will preside over tomorrow’s final, and Sita will give away the trophy.

No, the only way that Sastry could get in the SP’s good books was by demonstrating his mastery of racquet skills. But he did not fancy his chances, noting that he reached the semifinals only because of the withdrawal of his two previous opponents. The first simply refused to play in the heat, and the second said he had caught a cold on the day of the match, although his detractors said that he caught it from too much scotch on the rocks. This was not exactly the run of victories that inspired confidence, and the more enterprising club members were offering sixty to one against his raising the champion’s cup.

To make it more futile, it was not going to be pleasant even if he could – Rao was the manager of the Dhanalakshmi Insurance Corporation branch where he worked. And he did not take kindly to subordinates who outshone him. At such times his moustache twitched in a very sinister manner like the six-shooters of a trigger happy Hollywood cowboy, earning him his other nickname – “Dhana Dhan”. The errant underling then promptly dimmed himself if he could not altogether commit hara-kiri. In the entire history of that company there was only one person who did not play by the rules – he found himself transferred to a branch office in a Naxalite area and has not been heard from since. “What’s the point of gaining a wife whom you cannot support?”, Sastry asked himself. It appeared as if the three crore or so gods were determined to keep him single all his life, a modern Majnu separated from his beloved Laila not by the priest’s curtain but by a tennis net supervised by Rao.

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The match was over, the members had all moved over to the billiards and card rooms, and Sastry found himself alone on the verandah, glumly drinking his beer. He realized that he was not quite alone and that Ramu, the tennis marker, was going about his end-of-day chores. Sastry earned Ramu’s undying gratitude ever since he gave the latter an autographed picture of N. T. Rama Rao, the film star. He now hoped to capitalize on that for some sympathy as well.

“Ramu, I have to play Dhana Dhan Rao in tomorrow’s final,” Sastry said.

“Yes, saar. They are all talking about it”, said Ramu, rolling the net on the ground and stretching the “sir” after his usual fashion. “They think you will not win, saar.”

“Hah! I think so too, Ramu. But it is very important that I win.”

“Why, saar?”

 “I am the only child of my parents and my father often told me that I should beget children before his heart stops altogether. He sees too many movies and, seeing that his heart is as rickety as a government bus, I am sure he will exit with a dramatic heart attack just to make his point.”

Ramu mulled over the logic here. But he was used to occasional incoherence from members as well as bouts of Sastry’s immortal love.

“The SP’s daughter, saar?”

“Ramu, you are unusually brilliant today. You hit the nail on the head. But there is an additional complication I have to make sure that Mr. Rao does not get angry.”

“I understand, saar. But that may be difficult.” Ramu looked away and concentrated on putting away the chairs. Sly chap, very sly. But, there’s no free lunch, thought Sastry.

“Hasn’t Mr. Rao asked you to string his racquet?”

“Yes, saar. I need to start on it right after moving these chairs. He wanted it tomorrow morning.”

“When do you think you will done with the racquet?”

“In about an hour, saar. Why, saar?”

“Never mind, just see me when you are done, Ramu. There will be lubrication, of course.”

“Very good, saar. I hope you noticed that everything is very difficult these days, saar. Due to the rupee devaluation, saar”, he said as Sastry sauntered away to the billiards room. Hmm, unusually greedy today but we have to seize the moment, he thought, and gave an understanding nod reluctantly.

He was restless all through the hour and was shooed away from the billiards room because he couldn’t stay seated. He then went over to the cards room and kibitzed at a bridge table. But his faced twitched so much due to his anxiety that one of the pairs complained that he was signaling the other pair with his tics. So he just sat on the verandah and drank more beer, lost in pleasant fantasies of crushing Rao mercilessly resulting in SP Kumar proclaiming his worth to the citizenry and proudly offering him the hand of a blushing Sita. He was brought to earth unceremoniously by Ramu, who intimated that the racquet was strung.

“Ramu, show me that racquet.”

“That one, saar?”

“Yes, Ramu.”

“Very difficult, saar.”

“It will be double the usual incentive.”

“I don’t know, saar”, he mumbled.

“Triple. And that’s my final offer.”

“Well, saar, considering this is so difficult, maybe one more thing. Next month there is a cricket match against the West Indies at Visakhapatnam…”, his voice trailed off.

 “You want a ticket to it?”

“That will one of my life’s great accomplishments, saar. I will always remember you in my prayers” He disappeared and magically reappeared almost instantly with Rao’s racquet in hand.

“Done. Now leave me alone for 10 minutes.”

As Ramu wandered off, Sastry took out his pocket knife and started working with it on the two vertical strings in the center. His plan was to make two microscopic notches in the strings. One of these should break during the match tomorrow. Devious but simple. Ha ha ha!, chuckled Sastry silently. Yessss, won’t the Great Leader be in for a surprise tomorrow when his string pops! He will never again play without a spare racquet. Sastry got carried away in these pleasantly sadistic thoughts and almost broke one of the strings with his added vigor. He held up the racquet and surveyed his handiwork. Very nice! You can’t tell unless you looked closely with a “double million magnifyin’ gas microscopes of hextra power”, as Sam Weller said. He he he. Let’s see your uppitiness after the match, Mr. Woodcutter. My penknife is stronger than your axe! He he he. Fortunately for him, his wild-eyed soliloquy ended with the return of Ramu.

“Here it is, Ramu. It is a lovely racquet.”

“Yes, saar”, said Ramu, with a cursory glance at the murder weapon.

They parted, and Sastry went home with a lighter heart and a jaunty step. Sita, O my beloved! Tomorrow is the first step in our journey together. Tomorrow I will make you adore me after I win the championship and get to sit beside you and your father at the luncheon. Rao – don’t ever poke your asinine face again in the midst of true love! Game, set, and match, you old buzzard! True love shall reign!

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Independence Day dawned bright and clear and Sastry felt that the world was going to be all right, after all. A thousand visions of the fair Sita danced before his eyes as prepared for battle. He even tried singing some of the stirring patriotic songs emanating from All India Radio, but prudently ceased and desisted after he woke up the neighbor’s child and was threatened with dire consequences. His father wondered if that was really his son, to which his mother said “Obviously” under her breath. Finding that his neighborhood inexplicably did not share his sense of well-being, Sastry quickly completed his preparations and swaggered to the club, whistling and twirling his racquet like a movie hero.

The club was buzzing with activity. The secretary’s teenage son gathered his gang with promises of extra sweets, and they were all busy festooning the buildings and grounds with little tricolor pennants. The staff were busy sprucing up every corner of the club and preparing the flag, the dais, and the temporary awnings. Ramu and a couple of the boys had finished painting the lines on the tennis court and were busy installing the net. A number of members, especially those who dealt with law and order were already there, obsequious smiles at the ready for the SP’s visit. This being tacitly acknowledged as a family event by one and all – the SP’s daughter herself was going to sing the national anthem! – a number of them also brought over their womenfolk and the attendant blaze of color.

A deep, satanic voice shouted “Sastry!” from the far end of the verandah and Sastry froze in his tracks. That voice usually sent the shivers up every spine in his office. “Happy Independence Day, Sastry! Are you ready for the match?”

“No, sir, I mean, yes, sir. Happy Independence Day, sir”, said Sastry softly, he could barely hear himself.

“I am sure you will give me a tough fight this time, my boy. By the way, Sastry, a matter came up at the office, and I wanted your opinion”, murmured Rao. “The Head Office is looking for someone from our office for a three-month temporary assignment to Parvathipuram. Their accountant had a nervous breakdown recently after the branch received a vague threat. It’s a nuisance, of course, and probably all a prank. But still, he is convalescing, and they need help. There will be hazard pay, of course. Let’s talk about it, tomorrow perhaps?”

“Yes, sir”, mumbled Sastry, who understood the threat. Win the match and be thrown to the Naxalite lions in Parvathipuram. And, no doubt, if I survive the first three months, he will find a way to prolong my stay.

“Ah, here comes the SP. I must say ‘hello’ to him. See you at the court soon, and may the best man win.” There was the implicit suggestion that bosses make the best men.

“Good luck, sir, although the way you are playing you don’t need any luck, sir”, said Sastry humbly, which led to another smug smile from Rao. That’s right, Bloody Wretched Sir, what you need is the best racquet! I wish you would writhe on the battlefield from 10th degree cramps, begging me for relief! We’ll look for your smugness then! May you one day make four consecutive wrong line calls against a dyspeptic Naxalite in Parvathipuram! Let’s see your beaming smile then!

Sastry was still in his Liza Doolittle-like reverie, as Rao’s next words slowly sunk in, like those of Professor Higgins: “By the way, Sastry, how do you like these new racquets my cousin got me from America? They’re made of something called a graphite composite and even got fancy new strings which give a lot more spin.”

In total shock, Sastry examined the weaponry in slow motion with a sinking feeling. “Very impressive, sir”. His words seemed to come out of a well.

“They are, aren’t they? I guess I’ll forget about my old racquet and play with these today.”

Two new super-duper racquets! And as if he needed more spin! To make matters worse, all the lubrication he paid Ramu has now gone down the drain. It’s no use, all is lost! Life is unfair, my fair Sita! Sastry made his way slowly to the tennis room, his mind singing a tragic movie song.

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SP Kumar, helped by his police underlings and Ramu, unfurled the Indian flag. Sita sang the national anthem and was joined enthusiastically by the men, while some in the ladies wing lamented that the audio was as bad as the video. The secretary’s son and his friends were particularly forceful in their singing after spying the volume and variety of the celebratory sweets. Sita was dazzling in her pink chiffon saree, a veritable walking sine wave, but Sastry knew that she was but a mirage. In fact, he felt weak in his knees and the whole scene seemed to go a little wavy. It seemed somewhat unfair that even Ramu, who should feel beholden to him, was far away, chatting with the police crowd instead of commiserating with him.

After a long speech full of patriotic sentiments and exhortations to the youth to work hard and save the country, the SP bade the match to begin, much like Caesar to his gladiators. The future saviors erupted into loud applause to celebrate the end of the speech, the commencement of the match, and, above all, the distribution of the sweets. The two finalists marched into the arena, their gleaming white clothing and shoes contrasting starkly against the clay’s ochre.

The warm-up itself overwhelmed Sastry. The clay made a perfect foil to the racquets by adding to the spin and made the new weapons as impregnable as the Guns of Navarone. Even when Sastry could make contact with Rao’s shots, his replies swung randomly away from the court so much that spectators in the front row began to cower every time he had to return a shot. Sastry stole a glance towards Sita and found that she was following the match intensely – and was frowning. Could it be that she wanted him to win? That was encouraging. But Dhana Dhan’s moustache is bouncing wickedly across the net. That was decidedly discouraging.

The umpire announced the start of the match proper and there was a buzz among the crowd. Just like the Romans – they love to see a slaughter. Rao got used to the racquets by now and his shots became yet more unreturnable. All the action was on Sastry’s side – he kept running from side to side and front and back, a comical marionette manipulated by Rao. He could only flail at Rao’s shots, which kept slithering off the court after the first bounce, amid the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ of the awestruck crowd. When Sastry inadvertently diverted the ball into the crowd once too often, a young heckler hastened to remind him that the court was the other way, leading to widespread guffawing among the spectators. The score kept rapidly advancing in Rao’s favor until Rao won the first set easily at 6-0. Sastry managed to win only five points in total, of which one was a net cord winner and two were double faults by Rao. Singh, who was watching sympathetically, thanked the gods for their grace and his own less ignominious defeat of the previous day. Someone in the crowd sarcastically predicted that lunch will be early today, which led to more titters.

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Ramu brought drinks at the end of the set, his face expressionless. Breathless and despondent, Sastry asked him while sipping the lemonade: “Ramu, did you know of his new racquets? He is killing me!”

“No, saar. Yes, saar.”

“Any suggestions?”

“No saar.”

“You seem to be chummy with those policemen. You think you could borrow a gun and shoot at him? Just to scare him?” He was now wildly grasping at straws.

“I would not do it, saar. I could not do it even if I wanted to, saar. They don’t have ammunition. The guns are just for show, like scarecrows.” He moved off to serve Rao. That’s that – game over!

Sastry started the second set by serving in a depressed fashion while trying to determine how to salvage any remnants of honor. But, incredibly, Rao made his job easy – he was a completely different player in the second set. He started sweating profusely in the very first game, and it surprised all when the racquet slipped out of his hands sailed into the crowd when returning the serve on the first point. There was pin drop silence until someone in the crowd intimated him that javelins were more suitable at the Olympics – and then they erupted into nervous laughter. Rao could not even contact Sastry’s emboldened serve the next point, and lost the next point when the racquet again came loose. Some of the youngsters started jeering “Dhana Dhan Olympics!” Apart from endangering the spectators, Rao thus could not get a single ball in play in the first game.

Rao apologized to the SP and crowd when crossing over for his service and embarrassingly rubbed his hands in the clay for a better grip. His very first serve was a disaster when his ball toss landed in the front row. Someone promptly remarked that Dhana Dhan had now shifted to shot put. This was followed by more cries of “Olympics!” His first service game consisted of three double faults and a missed overhead. Sastry felt rejuvenated, like Arjuna after listening to the Bhagavad Gita. With a feeling of recklessness, he next delivered a stunning service game consisting of three aces off the first three serves. He won the game when Rao slipped and fell flat on his face trying to return the fourth serve. Thereafter, Rao did not offer even token resistance. He could not return even the most mediocre of Sastry’s shots. Sastry glanced at the dais and saw Sita beaming. Emboldened, he quickly reeled off winner after winner – such was the power of love – and won the second set fittingly 6-0.

Rao continued to dwindle in tennis stature in the third and final set. The District Judge could have sworn that this was not Rao but an impostor. SP Kumar sympathetically suggested that Rao should consider going back to his usual wooden racquet. Rao meekly obeyed, but it did not help because it broke a string in the second game. There were loud sniggers when someone suggested that the Woodcutter should use the old racquet as firewood. And thus it went on, Rao heading to an ignominious defeat with another 6-0 in the final set while Sastry became more dashing by the minute. There was thunderous applause when the last point concluded, which almost drowned out Sastry’s apologies when shaking hands at the net after he realized the enormity of his crime.

“No problem, my dear boy! You played wonderfully well and deserve to be the club champion this year”, said Rao, leaving Sastry pleased, mystified, and suspicious, in that order. He promptly forgot all the worldly cares and worries when he received the trophy from Sita, who threw admiring glances at him during the luncheon which followed. At the table, SP Kumar was effusive in his praise of Sastry, and so was Rao. Sastry almost choked on his lassi when the SP, prodded on by his daughter, asked him if he could teach her tennis. Rao heartily seconded the notion. Sastry acquiesced incoherently; his plate was full and he was in a trance.

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Triumphantly, Sastry accosted Ramu that evening. “Ramu, did you see how that match turned around 180 degrees? Boy, did I puncture Dhana Dhan’s balloon! Although, I did not make use of my investment in you, a deal is a deal and so here’s the lubrication. But, be honest, do you really feel you earned the cricket tickets considering that he did not use his old racquet?”

Ramu smiled as he pocketed the cash. “Yes, saar. In fact, I was going to ask you for two tickets, saar.”

“TWO!?” Sastry almost bellowed.

“Yes, saar. One for my uncle too. He is the new subinspector of police in town.”

“What does your uncle have to do with it?”

“Saar, it was he who recognized Mr. Rao and related his escapades, and that helped turn the tide, saar.”

“Escapades? What escapades?”

“He told me of Mr. Rao’s ‘Midnight Olympics’, saar. During the last Olympics, Mr. Rao and his friends conducted their own version of the Olympics in the Visakhapatnam beach, saar. I believe it started with them wanting to see who could still run after a night of partying, saar. They soon started betting on the races, and they thought it was sporting for the losers to throw their clothes into the sea. My uncle stumbled on the event while these games were in full swing and most of the group had lost their pants as well as shirts. And Mr. Rao was directing the proceedings in his underwear, saar. It was only after serious warnings and countless apologies that my uncle decided to not jail them. Seeing Mr. Rao today brought the incident to his mind. He said he can never forget Mr. Rao’s handlebar moustache and ‘Dhana Dhan’, saar.”

“And this is what you reminded him of after the first set?”

“Yes, saar. I might have also faintly implied that you were distantly related to that subinspector, and that my uncle hated to see his relatives lose. I also gently encouraged the more vocal youngsters to Olympic analogies, saar, just to remind Mr. Rao.”

Shabash, Ramu! I will name my first two kids after you both. Two tickets it shall be. You deserve more lubrication Ramu, but I have run out of grease.”

“That is OK, saar. I did bet on you with Mr. Rao’s driver, and so that compensates me a little.”

 

Love, Set and Match

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