Rakesh looked up. He had just finished playing a fast paced game of table tennis in the TT lounge. Bharat was standing there.
Bharat and Rakesh were class seven students of Navjeevan High School. Bharat was short and slim. He had been afflicted by polio as a child and his left hand was as thin as a reed and twisted. Rakesh was a tall and well-built youngster. He was the reigning Junior TT champion and the Captain of the School Junior Team. Bharat had joined school after the first term and Rakesh had hardly ever spoken to him.
“I could not participate in the inter-house TT championship because I joined the school late. Your doubles partner Mandeep is down with chicken pox and the inter-school championship is next month. Can I be your doubles partner?”
Rakesh looked at him and then stared pointedly at his left hand. “Mister Bharat, do you think we have a quota for handicapped boys in our team? I would prefer playing only the individual rounds rather than partnering some one like you,” he sneered and his friends Yogi and Sujit sniggered.
Tears sprang to Bharat’s eyes and turning around he walked away. He went and sat on the bench under the shade of a peepal tree.
After some time he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned. Imtiaz was sitting beside him. Imtiaz was the class monitor and one of the few friends Bharat had. He was a happy go lucky fellow who was liked by everyone.
“Bharat, I heard what Rakesh said to you. But you shouldn’t take it to heart. You know what a mean fellow he is.”
Bharat did not say anything. He kept looking down.
“But tell me Bharat are you confident you can play good enough to be in the school team.”
Bharat looked at him. “If I wasn’t I would never have proposed my name to Rakesh.” Imti asked Bharat a few questions and then said, “Okay, tomorrow at four during the sports period, I’ll get our T.T. Coach Ranga Sir to the lounge. Rakesh will also be there. We can then talk it over. Now cheer up.”
At four the next day Imtiaz went up to Ranga Sir who was watching Rakesh and Sumit play and told him what had transpired the previous day.
“Rakesh come here,” Ranga Sir called.
Rakesh walked up with his typical swagger.
“Did you insult Bharat yesterday?”
“But sir, he had the cheek to suggest that he should be included in the school team and I should partner him.”
“Do you know anything about his TT playing abilities?” asked Imtiaz.
“What is there to know? Can’t we all see?” Rakesh said pointing at Bharat’s left arm.
“Rakesh appearances are often deceptive. Bharat was the TT champion in his previous school.”
“Which school was that?” Rakesh asked.
“Government High School, Aurangabad.”
“There! That says it all. Becoming a champion in a Government School in Aurangabad and aspiring to be a part of the team of Pune’s best school is like the captain of Bangladesh cricket team wanting to lead the Australian team,” Rakesh said a look of contempt on his face.
“Okay then, Rakesh I challenge you to a best of seven match,” Bharat spoke very quietly. Everyone turned to look at Bharat. “Hey Bharat! Rakesh is too good. He has been the champ for the last three years. He will make mince meat of you,” Imti whispered.
“No, no Imtiaz. Don’t discourage him. I accept the challenge. It is after a long time that anyone has dared to challenge me,” Rakesh said
Imtiaz looked at Ranga Sir. “Okay, all this is a bit unconventional but I think we should go ahead. Tomorrow same time we will have the match. In case Bharat wins he gets into the school team.”
The next day the lounge was packed. Everyone was keen to watch the clash between the Goliath Rakesh and the David Bharat. Of course no one had the slightest belief that Bharat would be able to win a single game or even cross five.
The game started. Rakesh won the toss and chose to serve. Rakesh’s service was fast and accurate. Bharat returned it. Rakesh whose offence was extremely good, smashed the return and half turned not expecting it to come back. Bharat sprang forward and returned the smash. Caught by surprise Rakesh made a last ditch effort but failed. Everyone clapped enthusiastically.
Rakesh next served his best serve. A back hand top spin. Bharat coolly chopped it back and the rally continued.
When the service change the score was 1-1. Everyone was now anxious to see how Bharat served. He would have to hold the ball in his left hand which was twisted and then toss it up. As they craned their necks to watch Bharat, he held the ball in his left hand quite expertly and tossed it high in the air. As it came down his right hand flashed and the serve was deftly executed. Rakesh who had been prepared to smash the serve checked himself and stepping back tried to chop it. It kissed the edge of his racket and flew at a tangent. The next serve of Bharat was a forehand top spin. Rakesh failed to return it. The rest of the game too Rakesh struggled and lost it 6-11.
Rakesh was now rattled. Bharat was a far better player than he had imagined him to be. He was quick, accurate and his reflexes were superb. He also had a calm and cool temperament. But his greatest asset was his service. Rakesh had played against many players but none who could serve as effectively.
In the second game Rakesh decided to go on the defensive. He would not try anything ambitious and play a steady game. Seeing Rakesh adopt a strategy of defence Bharat moved closer to the table. His returns were now quick and because of his sharp reflexes he placed the ball all over the table. Rakesh who was bigger was also slightly slower. He couldn’t match Bharat’s reflexes and lost the game 7-11. In the third game Rakesh put up a spirited fight but lost narrowly 9-11.
Bharat moved in for the kill in the fourth game. It was clear he wanted to finish the match as quickly as possible. He varied his serve and smashed at every opportunity. Rakesh watched helplessly as Bharat outsmarted every move of his. In a few minutes the game was over. Bharat had demolished Rakesh and won the game 11-3. Rakesh had lost the best of seven match 0-4.
There was a stunned silence. Rakesh the school Junior Champ had been trounced. He had been completely out played in all the aspects of the game by a newcomer. Imitaz started clapping - slow, deliberate claps and soon others joined. Bharat got a standing ovation. As he went forward to shake Rakesh’s hand, Rakesh just glared at him and walked out, his face red.
Next day Rakesh was sitting alone in the library when Bharat came and sat beside him.
“Hello Rakesh!” Bharat said.
“What is it?”
“I came to discuss something.”
“What is there to discuss? You won the challenge and in the process succeeded in taking revenge on me.”
“Where is the question of revenge Rakesh? I badly wanted to get into the team because I was convinced that I was good enough to represent our school But you were not willing to give me a chance. So I had to challenge you.”
“Then why have you come here? I have told the coach that he can make you the captain and you can chose your own partner. I want to be out of the team.”
“Ranga Sir told me, and that is why I am here. Without you there cannot be a team.”
“Why? You are so good that you do not need anybody else.”
“Come on, you know that is not true. I need you. The school needs you. And together we can make a terrific pair. My defence is good and you are terrific at offence. In doubles anyone returning my serve will have to contend with your smashes. I am sure together we will be really difficult to beat.”
Rakesh kept silent.
“And one more thing.”
Rakesh looked up.
“You will continue to be the captain of our School team.” Rakesh’s eyes widened in surprise. “Yes,” continued Bharat, “I told the coach that you have played many tournaments and are far more experienced in leading the school.”
Bharat and Rakesh practised very hard for the Inter-School Table Tennis Tournament for the Uberoi Cup, under Ranga Sir’s watchful eyes. Eventually their effort and team work paid off. Navjeevan High School lifted the trophy. Bharat and Rakesh won the doubles championship and Bharat bagged the runners-up position in the singles.
Another noteworthy incident occurred during the tournament. A player of the rival school had the cheek to pass an insulting remark at Bharat. He was presented with a black eye by Bharat’s best friend, Rakesh.
Image under license with Gettyimages.com