Dr. S. MOHAN RAJ
ABISHEK could see the eight boys from his apartment balcony. Suresh, his classmate in fifth standard, was reeling off the rules for the day. "Five overs match. Both teams should field. No umpire. If you hit the compound wall of Mantra apartments, it is a `four'. Hitting into balconies or into Bala's compound is `out'."
"But Bala's was `six' last week," interrupted Chandru, Abishek's neighbour.
"Have you forgotten that they didn't even allow us to search for the ball," said Suresh. Everyone agreed that hitting into Bala's meant `out'.
Before play began, some of them noticed Abishek and waved. Abishek tensed, looked behind and then waved back. The only way Abishek could get involved in the game was by watching. Occasionally, when his father was not in town, he had been the umpire, standing in the balcony and giving verdicts.
The first ball almost knocked the wickets. There were encouraging screams. Suresh hit the second ball to the Mantra wall. Abishek rubbed his hands. The bowler came running for the third. "What the hell are you doing in the balcony?" screamed his father, as he rushed menacingly towards Abishek.
"I...I came here...just now..." Abishek gulped. Abishek's father pinched his forearm and said, "Sit down and study. Playing is waste of time. We have to start in an hour".
It had always been this way. " Playing is waste of time". Father would drop and pick him up from school. He would also be there at lunchtime. Abishek had to finish eating in 10 minutes. The rest of the time was to revise the morning's lessons.
Abishek could see his classmates playing. "Don't get distracted. Stay focused," his father would snap and then give a lecture on the importance of concentrating.
" What are you doing, looking at the wall?" his father's yell shook him.
" Nothing pa. I was revising in my mind"
" What were you revising?"
"Nobel prize for Physics"
"Good. But, don't be lost in thought and waste time. Time is precious". This time, he escaped without a lecture on time being precious.
Thinking was a luxury in this house. At times, even sleeping was a luxury. Two months ago, the night before a circus performance, his father had made him read, revise and remember through the night. Whenever he fell asleep, his father would pinch him or knock his head with his knuckles and shout, "Go and wash your face. Walk 10 times up and down the stairs. You will become alert." He allowed Abishek to sleep only for an hour.
Father did not like the word "circus". He called it "demonstration of prodigious excellence". Once one of Abishek's teachers used the "circus" word and father responded by taking Abishek out of that school. Lakshmanan uncle was the only one who could use the word and get away with it. Father regarded him highly he was an engineer, teaching at the Anna University. Lakshmanan uncle tried telling Abhishek's father about how yesteryear's prodigies burned out and led miserable lives due to high pressure but couldn't convince him.
" Abee...are you ready?" his mother asked. Abishek wasn't sure whether mother agreed or disagreed with father's methods. She never consoled Abishek after his father put him through gruelling schedules. She was just a mute spectator.
They came down and got into a taxi. "Thud". The ball bounced on the bonnet and rolled away. "Fools. Wasting time, playing," father snapped. Then he turned to Abishek, "Do you remember the scores of the Ashes series?"
"But what?" father glared.
"I thought we were not doing that today," said Abishek reluctantly.
"If we have time, we can include it," said father.
The banner at the auditorium read "Prodigy night". His parents seemed to love the attention they got at these events, as parents of a "Child Prodigy". The circus started with younger children. The compere announced, "Presenting Ms. Anusha, an L.K.G student from Sunshine school. A child prodigy, Ms. Anusha will now recite the names of all the Tamil calendar years".
"Prabhava, Vibhava, Sukla, Pramodhudha..." a child recited monotonously. Her eyes looked empty. Whenever she struggled, she glanced at her parents. Abishek knew what she would see anxious or threatening faces. She recited 60 years and left amid applause.
A series of girls and boys displayed various skills. A three-year-old identified the flags, the capitals, currency and language of various countries. A four-year-old listed all the rivers of the world and their origins. Another rattled off the names of the Pacific islands. A four-year-old boy started reciting Thirukkural. This was a favourite trick item with parents of "prodigies". Under-five-year olds would recite all the 1330 Thirukkural verses, without understanding them.
Abishek looked at the children's eyes. He had seen them before. Motionless, sometimes fixed on the ceiling; sometimes on the wall. Whenever there was a snag in the recitation, a fleeting look towards parents. Some eyes were filled with fear; some with tears. Rarely did the eyes make contact with the audience. It felt like looking into a mirror. Abishek was engrossed in the eyes. He did not concentrate on the lists.
"Now we have the pleasure to introduce Abishek, our star prodigy for the evening", the compere announced.
Abishek started performing like a seasoned juggler. He recited the names of the Nobel laureates in Physics since 1901, their country and their research. He followed it with the same details for other disciplines. With a brief interlude of Thirukkural and Rg Veda to display his Tamil and Sanskrit skills, he ventured to sports.
The chief guest and few others were given almanacs to check whether his lists were accurate. He ran through the list of the winners in 100 metres in Olympics, followed by other events. Next was world cup cricket. The compere announced, "Mention any match in the world cup and Master Abishek will tell you the statistics for that match." Someone in the audience asked, "The match between Australia and Canada in 1979."
Abishek responded in a reflex, "The match was played in Edgbaston on June 16, 1979. Canada's captain was Mauricette. The players were Sealy, Chappel..." he raced through the batting and bowling statistics. People in the audience asked about more matches, some obscure and inconsequential but Abishek did not falter. He had a mechanical precision to his performance. Not many knew that Abishek had not seen a single match.
"Please appa, let me watch just the last 10 overs," Abishek had pleaded during the last world cup. "No. I have got a new GK book. I have marked out pages for you to memorise."
"Your cricket will come in next year's almanac. Now, go to your room," his father had said coldly.
Towards the end, Abishek looked into the eyes of the younger children. Were those eyes horrified? Would their parents want them to master these? The applause was loud. He saw his parents being congratulated by others. Abishek was given a shield and some prizes. After some customary questions, the compere asked, "You are so talented. What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"Ch...Ch...," Abishek was barely audible.
All the eyes were looking at him. "Pardon", said the compere as she moved the mike towards him again. This time the words were clearly audible.
"A child... Not a prodigy. Just an average child."
The author is a Chennai-based Consultant Psychiatrist. This is his first short story.
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