Wednesday 20 December 2023

Short Story 2023 Third Prize, Preetha Vasan

The “Famous Five”

Tenzin loves summer holiday projects. Last summer we solved mysteries because Tenzin insisted that we were the Famous Five (though we are only four). So we went around investigating everything: the suspicious gardener who always disappears at ten a.m. sharp, the new folks in our block (Tenzin was sure they were terrorists), and the mysterious yellow van parked in the by-lane behind. It all turned out to be completely ordinary after all. And we got into plenty of trouble with our neighbours for not minding our own business like “good children”.

Tenzin, Zarine, Jenna and I are double-buddies. We go to the same school- Kasturibai Memorial and live in the West Block of the apartment complex- Royal Residency whose other three wings, are rather boringly, and quite predictably, called: North, South, and East Blocks. Sometimes we wish they were named like the blocks where, insufferable Joe, our classmate, lives. Because his Zeus Heights’ blocks are named after the Greek Gods. That should be like living in Camp Half- Blood everyday of your life.

Royal Residency overlooks the biggest playground in the city. Nehru Park is more a public park, though we at Royal Residency have claimed it as our own Wankhede stadium. Joe says Zeus Heights’ private playground is way bigger. We still think ours is the biggest. And in our self-proclaimed Wankhade Stadium a zillion cricket matches go on in different parts of the field at the same time. Some of our teams are so good we even attract a few spectators.

“Just idlers,” Tenzin dismissed my proud claims, pulling his goofy cowlick over his shiny forehead.

Since June this year our involvement in these matches has not been as active as we’d have preferred it to be, thanks to school and parents.

Jenna’s mother’s, “No Nehru Park in sixth grade” has not, thankfully, come true. Our parents have concluded that all work and no play make us not dull; definitely cranky.

So here we are on the first Saturday since school re-opened.

I have my cordless microphone and speaker, my advance birthday gift from Appa. He calls me “Royal Residency’s Harsha Bhogle”. Tenzin says the title suits me perfectly.

I perch myself at the correct distance.

I begin “It is a bright, sunny day here at Nehru Park.”

A stupid opening line; all days at Nehru Park are bright and sunny. Except when it pours. Then it becomes Nehru Lake.

“In today’s opening match West Block’s master blaster Jenna faces North Block’s deadly in swinger. The little lady is dancing down the wicket like the mighty Tendulkar and …”

Jenna is out.

“First cherry. And gone”

She glares at me as she walks up “It’s a tennis ball dumbo! More like first mango!”

Nobody else likes to be a commentator. So I pretend to be Ravi Shastri, Harsha, Bhogle and Sunil Gavaskar . It gets a bit annoying. For the others.

Tenzin sprints up “Dude, I think you should cool down!”

Genuine talent is never appreciated. I resume as Bhogle, “At the end of the first innings West Block’s score reads forty-four for three. After a short drink break Northern Block is ready to take on the mighty onslaught of Zarine Haneefa”.

One of the openers glares at me and pulls Zarine for a six. More burst of energy continues. Not for long.

“North Wing players are not so confident after the loss of both their openers”, I smirk .

The match is really heating up now.

“Zarine Haneefa is on a hat trick” I holler into the microphone, causing a match between South Block and East Block to come to a halt.

Despite Zarine’s feat we lose the match. After that it is too hot to continue. We laze around licking our golas, its pink water soaking our sweaty t-shirts. Jenna immediately brings up the topic of our weeklong heated investigation: The Mystery of Muthu.

Schools always reopen on Mondays; ours decided not to be the exception. So, after we had dragged ourselves to the first of many dull Mondays and agreed to meet at our secret spot for lunch, Tenzin and Zarine headed towards their sections. The first thing Jenna and I saw when we got to ours was the new boy surrounded by our class bullies.

“Why does he stink like that?” Mira held her nose.

Neeta, who does everything Mira does, did the same. She looked at him with disgust “He is dark, isn’t he?”

“He is an I.A.S officer” Joe declared.

Everyone looked at him, puzzled.

“Invisible after Sunset, Stupids”

Mira, Neeta and others don’t like to be called stupid; they laughed anyway.

Jenna and I moved closer.

“Oh, hello losers! Now with darkie here you all can really be the Famous Five”, Sameer’s grin was positively malicious, “Where’s chinky-chink, the china man?”

“Tenzin’s Tibetan” Jenna growled “not Chinese!”

“Okay the refugee, then” Joe smacked the table. “Perfect. The Famous Five: the darkie, the refugee, the nerd, the burqua and the …”

I didn’t let him finish. I pushed him down and landed on top of him.

“Fight! Fight!”

The advent of Shilpa ma’am brought the brawl to a rapid conclusion. She said that we escaped detention, it being the first day and all

By the end of the day, we had found two things about the new boy: his name was Muthu; he did not talk. At all.

By the end of the week, we have found more things.

Zarine flips open her notepad. She had got it when we were trying to be the Famous Five.

“Good detectives always make notes”, she had said.

She reads out her week’s entries,

“What we know about Muthu:

Can talk

English, not good. Maybe that’s why he does not talk much (our theory)

Sleeps a lot

Disappears during lunch break

Doesn’t complete his homework.

Has never been pulled up for that.”

“Maybe we should spy on him during lunch break. Find out where he goes.” Tenzin suggests and offers to do it on Monday.

We all agree. This will give us our first break through in our new mystery.

On Monday evening Tenzin is bursting with hunger and news. The skipped lunch, on account of following Muthu all over the campus, disappears in enormous mouthfuls.

“He eats nothing,” Tenzin sputters almost choking on his roti –subzi. “He lives off the water from the cooler the entire day.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because he is poor” Jenna has stopped in her tracks.

Zarine grabs Jenna’s shoulders “That’s why they are not pulling him up.”

I wish Jenna and Zarine will stop talking in their usual code language.

I’m glad Tenzin is equally puzzled.

“Like the way they don’t pull up Tenzin” Jenna’s eyes do their I-figured- out-wide-as- discs -thing.

“Because he is a refugee”. Zarine pipes up

“Hey” Tenzin stops eating.

“Jenna, Zarine can you please explain” I practically shout.

“Don’t you get it?” Jenna looks at me with disbelief.

“No” I yelp.

“That’s why you should pay attention in class” Zarine winks.

“Though we’re yet to get to Civics.” Jenna explains, shrugging her shoulder, “You know how painfully slow Mosambi is. We should have got to the chapter on fundamental rights last week. She has just started the Aryan Civilization.”

That’s unfair .Moushumi ma’am is patient; makes sure all of us “understand”. Jenna reads all her text books in the holidays and gets restless in class. I’m still figuring out what the hue and cry was all about as regards the Harappans .

I’m still clueless about what Muthu has got to do with Civics and Moushumi ma’am.

“Civics. Chapter 1, page 18, second paragraph” Jenna says this before Zarine can open her mouth.

Jenna can be such a show off sometime.

As we reach our block she whispers in my ears “Go check Education Act 2009” and dashes up the


When I get home, I don’t bother changing. I flip the pages of the Social Science textbook to get to the Civics part.

I swear softly; I can’t remember the page number. I read the entire chapter; almost fall asleep, when I spot the Act in the yellow “Did you Know?” box.

It’s all a lot of blah about fundamental rights. I still can’t reckon what it has to do with solving the mystery surrounding Muthu. Google is no use. Only Zarine and Jenna can figure out all those big words. I decide to wait for Appa.

Sundays are Appa’s rest days. He puts a “Closed” sign outside the kitchen like the one he puts outside his clinic. We order pizza; discuss school. On all the other days, between housework and his clinic, I don’t like to disturb Appa. Today is an exception.

Yesterday when I told him about Muthu he was not at all puzzled. Till I came to the part about him going scot-free even with incomplete schoolwork. Then Appa’s eyebrows jumped.

Appa comes home at ten. He doesn’t like it that I’m still awake; he ruffles my hair and raises his eyebrows, “Test or project?”

“Appa, what is the Right to Education Act?”

He brings his curd rice to the dining table. Usually he polishes it off in the kitchen in rapid mouthfuls like Tenzin, the spy.

He goes on for five minutes like our Social Studies textbook about how the act ensures compulsory education for every child.

I cut him off, “What does it have to do with Muthu?”

“The new boy?”

“Yes, and how is he like Tenzin?”


I sum up Jenna and Zarine’s grand revelations. Appa’s face clears up. He smiles.

By the time I get the big picture, it’s almost eleven.My head is swimming; there’s also something warm and happy filling me up. Suddenly I feel a great pride for my school. Look how they were the first school to admit a Tibetan refugee in the entire city.

They are doing the same for Muthu, helping, in Appa’s words “the underprivileged boy get quality education”. For free.

That’s so cool for Muthu.

It still did not solve his other problem.Food.

“Maybe we can share our lunch with him” I ponder over my breakfast .

Appa stops scraping the dosa pan, “If he wants to.”

Why wouldn’t he want to? I almost ask. Then I get it. It’s exactly like the times we forget to charge my batteries.

For all the tedium of the term our friendship with Muthu grows at a terrific pace, this despite Joe and gang’s frequent “Hola Famous losers!”

Even though he lets us help with homework and stuff, Muthu still does not eat with us. I explain Appa’s point of view to the others

“That’s different” Zarine argues “This is a matter of nutrition. Lack of carbs and proteins makes one sleepy”

Zarine sounds exactly like her mother, who, forever thinks I look malnourished.

“If we tell him it will help him stay awake in class, he might share our food.” Tenzin is excited.

Muthu bursts out laughing at our sleep theory.

He explains, in broken sentences, going hungry is no big deal for him.

“I have problem”, he frowns. “No money.”

“We don’t get pocket money either” I blurt out.

Jenna scowls darkly at me.

Muthu guffaws.

That’s when he reveals the impossible wall, we almost think we cannot scale.

He is very poor. Before he came to school, he used to do several odd jobs to help his parents: paper delivery in the morning, masonry through the day, cleaner in a restaurant in the evening. Now with school he can’t help his family. His sisters are very young; his mother has to stay at home to look after them. Earlier Muthu would take care of them between his several jobs and mother could work in a few houses.

“Now only newspaper delivery and table cleaning. No sleep at night. So sleep in class”

“But that’s child labour” Zarine protests.

Muthu wipes his forehead on his shirt sleeve, “School good. Money bad. Better to leave school”

“No, no you can’t leave” we all object at the same time.

Muthu smiles and walks away leaving us with our full and bursting dabbas. Except none of us are hungry anymore.

“Guys we got to do something” I protest. “Maybe we can collect money from our homes…”

Tenzin cuts me short “Dude he won’t even share our food.”

For an entire week we brainstorm. We only come up with no brainers.

By Saturday I feel so wretched I go to Nehru Park without my speaker and microphone.

Mr.Khan , our neighbor who runs an NGO, is distributing some fliers. He sticks one i n my hand, “Arre beta please come. It is to help a sick kid”

The flier says “A Fundraiser …”

Suddenly it hits me. I know how we can help Muthu. I’m so excited I can’t wait to get to the others.

Jenna brings me to a sudden halt, “Hey, you are going to hurt yourself”.

I grin at them from ear to ear.

“What’s so funny dude?” Tenzin asks.

Slowly and steadily I explain my idea. Everyone’s eyes grow wider and wider. Yet none of us can beat Jenna’s. They are like flying saucers when I finish.


The following Sunday we decided to pitch it to Appa.

“It could work” he smiled at us.

The pizza turned into mulch in my mouth. Could?

“A plan of this scale “he said beaming at me “requires a lot of ground work.”

“Like what uncle?” Zarine pulled out her notepad

“For starters you have to meet the M.L.A to get permission to use Nehru Park, which, could be easily arranged through Khan Saab who always has his fundraisers there.”

Zarine’s pencil zipped. No wonder she finishes her classwork faster than the time I take to finish my pepperoni pizza.

“As it involves Muthu we also need your school’s consent.

Of course, Royal Residency is the core. You must explain the whole thing to the residents.”

Since that Sunday, Appa has helped us quite a bit.

The local M.L.A kept muttering, “Badiya. Bahuth Badiya”.

Then Mrs Kiran, our principal, shook our hands for being such “fine children”.

Now all we have to do is convince the residents who are wandering around the party hall as if it’s yet another kitty party.

The four of us look at each other nervously. The hall is slowly getting scarily crowded.

Zarine and Tenzin have put together a power point presentation. I wish Jenna, the smooth talker, would do the talking, but she shook her head “It’s your idea.”

The first slide reads “Royal Residency Quadrangular Series: A Fundraiser”

Everyone grows quiet. I start nervously, “Muthu is our classmate, our friend.”

As I go on the nervousness slips away; the excitement takes over,

“Our series is like any other cricket tournament. Only here the teams will be from our complex.”

A buzz breaks out. I go on,

“At the end of the round robins, based on the points table we play two semifinals” Tenzin’s slide is an ICC World Cup points table.

I sigh and continue “Team 1 and 4 will play the first semi-final and teams 2 and 3, the second”

A huge round of applause follows my last statement, “Teams who qualify will face each other in the finals.”

Yikes! I have left out the most important part. I get it all out in a rush, “Spectators will be charged just ten rupees per ticket. This money will go into a bank account the school will create in Muthu’s name.”

That way Muthu can come to school and not worry about his family.

Once the Q& A session turns into a back –patting one, help comes from the most unexpected quarters.

Mr. Bose runs a printing press. He will take care of the tickets.

Mr. Khan’s NGO will sponsor the trophy. In fact, the whole event!

Only Muthu requires convincing. Tenzin has an idea

The captains decide to play only five players per team. We are only so many. Teams with inadequate numbers bring in ‘guest’ players.

That’s how Muthu becomes West Block’s “thirteenth” man.

After Mr. Khan & co take over, all we have to do is focus on the training and I hope to watch a few matches to brush up my commentator-skills.

But there will be , Mr Khan tells us, real T.V. commentators, I lose my only role. There’s still lot of stuff to do: distributing fliers at school, ( Joe and gang promptly tear them up); ensuring teams get their right jerseys and keeping the score card with Tenzin on the day of the tournament .


Which is today!

Nehru Park is packed.

“We are sold out” Mrs Kiran announces to us in the stands.

The crowd roars as the captains walk in.

The first round robin begins. Our T- 10 idea has been cut down to 5 overs per team.

“Ten overs are too exhausting” one of the captains had explained.

By afternoon the points table looks something like this.































“Things looking dismal for the West Wing” I mutter to myself.

“They will tear us apart in the semis” Tenzin clenches his fist.

But in the first semi- finals Jenna hits five consecutive sixers and Zarine rips through North Block’s middle order. Suddenly , just like that, we are in the finals.

“Early celebrations in the West Wing green room” I declare staring at Jenna and Zarine hugging each other as if they have just been handed over the trophy.

Tenzin shakes his head “Never celebrate till it’s over”

When the Final commences sharply at 4:30, things begin to go wrong.

North Wing wins the toss and decides to field. Not good for us. The ball is keeping too low.

Jenna goes for a duck. West Wing still manages to put up a 40/5.

Tenzin’s “Zarine will do it” is more a prayerful statement than a vote of confidence.

In the second innings Zarine, crashes into the boundary fence and tears a ligament. She hobbles out of the field.

We are one bowler short. We are one player short. Tenzin and I stare at each other in absolute horror.

Muthu, the thirteenth man, runs into the field. The team gets into a huddle. The captain tosses the ball to Jenna.

We heave a sigh of relief.

Jenna ‘s jersey reads “10”; her bowling action is a clumsy rendition of the little master.

“And he hits her straight through midwicket for a smashing four” I cannot help myself

Tenzin glares at me “Seriously dude?”

By the third over North Block is cruising to victory, even though they have lost two wickets. Muthu ‘s brilliant run out from Mid-on brings their run accumulation to a temporary halt. After that they continue their brilliant performance and win, with an over to spare.

When our MLA gives away the trophy to the North Block, Tenzin almost cries.

“I also request you sir,” says the announcer “ to hand over this cheque ,worth ten lakhs, to Muthu.”

A deafening noise follows this announcement.

“And now for the special awards”, he continues. “Can Tenzin, Zarine, Jenna and Geetha come forward to receive the Champions Award for their extraordinary service to society.”

My friends huddle behind me.

I move the gears on my joy stick.

Like I said, it is always good to charge your batteries. My wheelchair moves, better than a Lamborghini, towards the dias.

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