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'Something cold touched my spine. One of them was about to die'

August 14, 2014 11:09 IST

'Something cold touched my spine. One of them was about to die'

Ashwath Nityanandan

The magnetism of a yo-yo... two friends getting estranged over a game shooting incident that saves lives... A short story by Ashwath Nityanandan.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

When I was six years old my mother went to a small town in America to bring me a yo-yo. She went to America for other reasons as well: she had just wrecked her car, for example, and wanted to calm her nerves with the insurance money. But I understood none of them.

The purpose of the yo-yo, however, was quite clear. It was meant to make me a celebrity up and down the dusty south Chennai street where we lived, and it did. The street was named for Sir CV Raman, and the yo-yo made me feel no less than the Nobel Laureate in eminence. In later years I saw this power struggle in Indian society escalate to the point where heavier artillery was involved, such as VCRs from Singapore and wives from West Germany. But in a glorious era of student power, a tethered plastic hamburger from Geneseo, New York was all it took to make me cocky. Life was simpler then.
It still wasn't simple, though. My best friend Raghu, who lived three houses away, quickly learned to operate the yo-yo in a nearly horizontal plane, while I still went uncertainly up and down. I hated his guts for it, especially when Mum was tactless enough to admit that his was the trendy axis in America.

Raghu was two years older than me, so he was permitted a certain amount of superiority at things like cricket and marbles. But it seemed unfair that I should have had a fortnight's headstart at yo-yoing and lag behind three days later.

Raghu's passion was guns. I don't know whether he ever reached the stage of firing anything more lethal than roll caps, but he was always talking about Daisies and Winchesters and the relative merits of rifled and smooth bores. He had acquired an impressive collection of ballistic literature and stowed it away in a hidden spot in his bedroom cupboard, undeterred by the fact that nobody we knew had ever actually fired a gun. The lack of wildlife in our neighborhood was Raghu's excuse for not getting his father to buy him a gun, since he sneered at mere target practice.

The real reason was that his father wouldn't hear of it despite months of unmanly pleading, but at the time it never occurred to me that Raghu could grovel fruitlessly for a weapon. So he contented himself with reading on the sly from the secret library, while I fiddled around endlessly with the yo-yo, wondering how to get the bloody thing to move more than ten degrees from the plumbline.

I got a chance to call Raghu's bluff during the monsoon, when the field adjoining our street got flooded and turned into a nesting ground for the little snowy egret. The field stretched out forty acres, virgin greenery that survived by some oversight in the heart of the city even as the metropolitan edges inched outwards every day. When I dabbled in birdwatching as a teenager I marvelled at how migrating waterfowl could calmly settle down to breed in the midst of two million people like that. I even wondered if some avian radar system was jamming at the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary forty miles away, sucking them down short of their landfall into a miniature Bermuda Triangle year after year. When I was six I never noticed the anomaly.

Neither, apparently, did the egrets, or they shrugged and nested anyway. Each November they launched their fledgelings on sputtering test flights through the grimy air, teaching them to avoid telephone poles and distinguish hawks from harmless species like low-flying Piper Cubs. Nobody bothered them or even paid them any attention, but this year I decided it was time to make a move. I did it the only way I ever made a move: I told Raghu about it.

"Get a gun," I said as we sloshed through the mire one afternoon in search of a lost cricket ball. "You can shoot them easily. It'll be fun. Look, there's lots of them nearby."

"They'll be gone before the gun comes," said Raghu. "Those postal things take months."

"You can buy them in shops on Mount Road. They'll be back next year anyhow."

"I don't know," said Raghu uncomfortably. "I'll have to ask Appa."

"So ask him," I said.

"He won't get me anything unless I keep on asking him," admitted Raghu with rare candour.

"Keep on asking him, then."

"Shut up and look," snapped Raghu, and the egrets remained safe from our bloodlust for the time being.

But the neighbourly coexistence of man and bird was soon to be disrupted by a different interloper. He was called Lakshman Babu, and I had heard vaguely of him from my movie-mad cousins. Lakshman Babu starred in flashy Telugu movies by the dozen, occasionally even acting in one. He possessed many of the accoutrements of the rich and famous, and among them was a twenty bore shotgun. Why he brought it out to the egret field that season is debatable, but he was probably hungrier for attention than for meat (he may have been a vegetarian for all I know). An audience which willingly devoured all the blanks he fired on screen would have loved to see some real action for a change, even if the victims were spoilsports enough not to shoot back and make it interesting.

I was making encouraging progress on the yo-yo one day when I heard a ruckus on the street and hurried out on the balcony. Dozens of neighbours, street urchins and cinematic flunkeys were clustered around a man dressed in political whites who was obviously enjoying being noticed as he leaned against the wall surrounding the field. Lakshman Babu is a small, blurry blob in my rearview mirror today, but I suspect that his presence was large and overbearing then. I stared in puzzlement, then saw Raghu waving frantically from the crowd.

"Come on down," he yelled. "You're going to miss the whole thing."

I paused in an agony of indecision. I had been working on a crafty wrist flick at the instant the yo-yo was fully extended, and I sensed a breakthrough around the corner. I really didn't want to suspend my research, but curiosity finally won and I raced down to the street, still clutching my constant companion. "What's he doing?" I gasped.

I saw a look in Raghu's eyes that I had never seen before, and it scared me.

"He's got a gun," he hissed. "A real shotgun. He's going to shoot an egret."

I shrank back in awe. The onlookers fell quiet too as Lakshman Babu loaded his shotgun. He rested it on the wall and squinted down the gunsights in a deathly silence. The egrets fluttered about or loafed on the water, doing whatever egrets do on a Saturday morning. Something cold touched my spine when I thought that one of them was about to die.

A few seconds later Lakshman Babu looked up and muttered something to his right-hand man. I gathered that he was waiting for at least two birds to be lined up on the water for a clear shot. I could contain myself no longer and started practising the wrist flick again. Grownups who had never seen this triumph of Western toy technology started watching in amusement, and I felt nearly as important as Lakshman Babu.

In two minutes my pulse was racing wildly. I was right. The wrist flick was the trick. Raghu had been keeping a trade secret, or maybe the idiot didn't really know how he was doing it. Every time the yo-yo went out I managed to jerk it up a tiny bit higher on the way back. On the thirtieth stroke it was going almost straight out ahead of me, and I was drunk with glory.

Where was Raghu? He had to see me in action. Once I stopped I might never get the angle right again. It was a terrifying thought.

"Look!" I yelled. "Look, Raghu, I've got it!"

"Shut up!" came Raghu's furious whisper from five yards away.

"He's going to fire."

I hardly heard him. "Look!" I pleaded.

Raghu called me a word that I had never heard before. "Give me that thing." He lunged at me.

I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye and half turned. The yo-yo stayed in step beautifully as I did so. When he was four feet away it was in perfect rhythm to hit him right on the nose. Raghu was so surprised that he jumped back and lost his footing on the muddy turf. He went sliding towards Lakshman Babu and crashed into him like a rugby player. Three egrets had lined up at that precise instant, and Lakshman Babu squeezed the trigger as he staggered sideways. Two ounces of birdshot took off into the blue sky, followed by a collection of startled storks bigger than anything since the baby boom.

There were no birds of any kind in the field for ten days after that. Post nuclear reconnaissance patrols finally began to fly nervously by, and in three weeks the entire community was back in place.

Lakshman Babu never came back for another crack at them, though. He was probably busy having a career setback.

Normalising relations between Raghu and me took longer than that. After four months, the loneliest I can remember, his father threw his hands up in exasperation and offered to take us both to the Sholavaram races if we would start talking to each other again. Pride drowned in the exciting snarl of the motorbike engines, and we did.

Besides, I was sick of the yo-yo by then. I left it out one rainy night and it was borne away by the floodwaters of the great cyclone, oblivious to the blow it had struck for ecology.

Raghu outgrew his predatory instincts and went peacefully to sea with the Merchant Marine. On the rare occasions when I met him afterwards reassuringly little had changed between us. The same could not be said of the egret field. It was noticed by the hyperactive urban developers of the seventies, who stared in amazement and quickly flooded it with cement shoeboxes. Groundbound humans continued to do what the birds had done, though with less grace and one fewer dimension of freedom.

My family had moved to the suburbs by then, so I never actually saw this happening. I later set off on travels of my own through the mystic Occident, and when I finally got home I found my commute taking me through Sir C V Raman Road again. It was short and narrow and claustrophobic compared to the street where Raghu and I had played cricket. I wondered if the physicist had foreseen his street suffering this curious space-dilation effect that afflicts us as we grow up. Or whether, like me, he had ever pondered the mysterious dynamics of a yo-yo.

Ashwath Nityanandan sits on the diversity council of a large corporation, where his job is in manufacturing infrastructure. His professional interest lies in studying the effect of human systems on technology, especially on the factory floor.