I was travelling by train.  Ten to twelve school children in orange-coloured sports uniform with hockey sticks in their hands, got in at Guindy station.  They shouted with joy as soon as the train started moving.

One of the girls held a trophy above her head.  The other girls held the trophy too and shouted ‘we are winners’.  Another girl took the trophy and danced, holding it on her head.

When the guava seller came with her basket, they all went around her shouting.  One girl took three guavas from the basket and started juggling with them, like a magician.

One of the guavas fell on one of the passengers sitting there, by mistake.  Immediately, the teacher shouted in a stern voice, “Enough girls. Stop it.  Control yourself” and suddenly everything turned silent like a kite suddenly cut off from its thread.

I was surprised to see the Sports Teacher sitting among the girls.  She was Jayalakshmi, who studied in my school.  I had seen Jaya playing hockey during school days.

When housewives stood in queues to buy milk, early in the morning, Jaya would be cycling towards the playground in black trousers and purple T-Shirt.

She chose to join our school, which was a co-education school, instead of the Girls’ High School, just because we had a huge playground.  She loved the playground more than the classroom.

Jaya had four sisters and her father was a clerk of a law firm.  They ran a tailoring school at home.  I have seen many school drop-outs attending that school.  I do not know how Jaya took a liking to games.

Girls who were good in sports were of different nature.  They do not show any interest in tasty food or lovely clothes.  Instead they love different types of shoes.

Jaya too had a pair of light blue shoes.  She never wore bindi or bangles like the other girls.  Never had she ever gathered the flowers that fell from the tree near the water tank and felt them.

She always hung a hockey stick on her shoulders like a soldier who hung his sword.  Just as Samurais say ‘it is not the size of the sword that matters but it is the distance between the tip of your sword and the opponent’s chest that is important’, Jaya handled the hockey stick very efficiently.

I once told Jaya that she looked better in her sports attire of black troussers and purple T-Shirt than in her school uniform.  She was thrilled and treated me with rose milk for having said that.

While returning him, she said she loved the Punjab team the most.  She said with a smile that when Punjabis hit the ball with the sticks, she felt the sticks were kissing the balls.  She took me home.

The house was very small and everywhere pieces of cut clothes lay scattered.  She offered me Ragi dosas and we both ate a couple of them.

When she asked for the third dosa, her mother angrily retorted, “that’s enough.  Just with this quantity of food, you do not stay home at all.  Only when you are partially hungry will you obey others.  Go wash your plate”.  Jaya quietly left the plate, without washing it and came to the main door.  Even during our SSLC exams, Jaya happily played hockey in the morning and then attended the exams.  Even though she passed SSLC, her parents did not let her study further.

She joined a fancy store as a sales girl.  Even then, I have seen her playing hockey all alone in the school playground early in the morning. One day when her father got infuriated, broke the hockey stick and threw the pieces into their hot water oven, she did not cry like the other girls.

Instead she packed up her clothes and her prizes and left home on her cycle. She continued working at the fancy store during the daytime.  In the evenings, she would roam around on her cycle, play hockey and sleep at Valarmathi Teacher’s house at nights.

Jaya’s father was very furious and accosted her on the road and shouted at her.  But she replied in the same tone and questioned as to who he was to control her. She threatened him that she would report about him to the police.

After losing connection with her home, she joined the free Government hostel and started studying further in the Government School.  She was the secret model for all schoolgirls in those days.  All the teachers would say, “she will definitely play hockey at the national level some day and her photos will appear in the newspapers”. I left that town for my higher studies and forgot all about that town in a few years.

Once, when I went home, I found out that one of her sisters was married and they never knew where Jaya was. A few years ago, when Jaya’s father passed away, I heard she had sent a telegram ‘Hearty Congratulations’ to her family.

She never played at the zonal level or national level.  She was shrunk by life like the eight-limbed octopus.  She remains the Sports Teacher of some school, swallowing her desire of winning those trophies.

I thought she would suffer the pain of defeat, if I recognise her and talk to her.  So, I never spoke to her.  I kept looking at her.

In reality, what is the difference between victory and defeat?  Just a single goal, a single run! Nobody loses out of ignorance or by not playing properly!

I felt we should seek the autograph of the loser rather than the winner.  The reason being, victory makes the game proud, while defeat helps understanding the game better.  Haven’t all sportsmen been losers some time?

I remembered what Jaya had told me, when she was playing hockey long ago-

‘No player in the whole world knows in which direction the ball is going to turn!  That is a great mystery.’

Do sportsmen keep playing all their lives just to unfold this mystery?

Jaya got off at the next station.

I felt sad that I could not talk to her, despite having seen her.  I kept thinking about her till I reached home.  Was Jaya a winner or a loser?  Can anybody tell me?

Translated by Sudha Narasimachar

From the book Thunai Ezhuthu