I hated crowds.

I would suffocate in a taxi when the driver was present. I was horrified at the idea of travelling in a local bus. As for trains, the mere thought made me want to throw up. I avoided going to office along the common routes and took the most circuitous one, mostly devoid of humans. Tuticorin was not a metropolitan city. Yet, it had enough of my species to make me claustrophobic. I was relaxed for the past month or so, with my office on leave. That gave me the perfect reason to be holed up in my room, with my daughter.

My daughter learnt the art of picking up a ball and throwing it, just a month back. It was glorious, to see a bundle of flesh plodding after a ball with giggles and all sorts of sounds – most of which I could not understand, but loved. You know, she had a special look for me. The tone of her voice when she called me appa differed from the tone she used for other people. We bonded over the ball game, much like how my classmates said they had gotten close with one another over cricket. So this must be the feeling, I thought dreamily when her voice cut in, “appa thaa, appa thaa,” meaning ‘give the ball, dad.’ I flicked the ball towards her with my forefinger.

An incident that day changed the course of my life, and that of my daughter. We were playing ‘throw and catch,’ my daughter and I. The front doors of my house were made of steel grille. There were two doors which could be slid from the sides to the centre and then secured with a lock, a common feature in South Indian houses. The left door was open and the right closed. The ball sped out of my room and landed on the verandah. I came running, to see the ball bouncing out of the open door to the street.

To my utter discomfiture a dog rushed up, caught the ball in its mouth and ran off. It was a common Indian mongrel, the likes of which can be seen on almost all Indian streets, and tough to single out. To retrieve the ball, tougher… The toughest would be to go out among people, brush against them if necessary and worst of all, give reasons as to why I, of all people, was on the streets… I could feel the hair on my hands and legs standing straight at the thought.

“Did you have to keep the door open at this time?” I shouted.

“So you remember that there is another room in this house! Do you realize that you have come out of your room after five days?” my wife retorted.

“Didn’t I tell you that my office is closed?”

“Don’t you have a wife? What do you consider me? A maid? At the least, can’t you sit and talk with me?” came a volley of questions.

This was too much for me. I retreated to the sanctuary of my room. Peace reigned for a minute.

Appa, ball thaa…” came a demanding voice near me.

I glanced up from my mobile to see my daughter looking at me expectantly.

“My kuttyma wants a ball? Wait… Dad will get one for you,” I said, getting up from my mat. I went to the corner where her toys were heaped on the floor and searched for the multi-coloured ball that she loved. I returned with the ball, cleaning it with my tee-shirt.

“Here you are baby. Come on. Let’s play with this ball,” I said.

She set up a wail that would have been heard for miles, making my wife come running from the kitchen. The little girl stood pointing at the ball and refused to stop her cries. What she said through her sobbing was difficult to decipher.

“Red ball,” said the little one. “Red ball,” she repeated amidst her cries.

“She knows red?” I shouted in surprise.

“My mother taught her,” my wife replied bluntly.

“Here, kuttyma… let’s play with this ball. I will get you a red ball in the evening,” I said, trying to placate her.

“Ignore her for the time being. She will forget the ball in a while,” said my wife, bringing the vegetable cutter and some beans into the living room.

The crescendo of my daughter’s cries increased. I swept her up in my arms and took her to the book shelf, trying to change the scenario. I found it strange that the usually amicable Mickey and Minnie had turned despicable to her. All that she wanted was a red ball. And I couldn’t find a replacement. What was more disconcerting was the smirk that played around the corners of my wife’s mouth.

This left me with the inevitable. Someone had to go out and buy a ball. And that someone was me. The oppressive feeling of going to a crowded shop came upon me heavily. I looked pleadingly at my wife as I had done in all the other occasions before, but an iron curtain had been drawn across.

“Do you think Murugan Anna’s shop will have a red ball?” I asked, a wild hope flaring in my heart. The shop was at the corner of my street. I need not walk for a long distance or meet many people. Furthermore, Murugan knew of my predicament and never asked unnecessary questions.

My wife’s answer snubbed the spark of hope that lit up.

“Murugan runs a grocery shop,” she replied with a chuckle that made me want to bang my head against the wall. ‘Should’ve observed the shop,’ I cursed myself. She continued, her words dripping sarcasm, “Do you know that today is the twenty second of May, 2018?”

“Yes… I know. Why?” I asked, thrown off-balance by this sudden question, but wary.

“Just to know if you are on this earth mentally too,” she replied.

I said no more, but deposited my girl gently into my wife’s hands, re-tied my lungi securely and made for the grille. The moment I stepped out of the door I could feel a difference in the street. People stood in groups. Big groups! Unusual! I panicked. Would they strike conversation with me? What should I answer them? I steeled my heart and moved on. None seemed to pay any attention to me. As I left my street and walked to the main road, intending to go to a supermarket there, I found to my dismay that the shop was locked. I had to cross two more streets to go to the next shop. It was then that I heard the noise, akin to the rumbling of thunder. It got closer.

As I stood wondering, from around the bend on the main road came a group of people, shouting slogans such as “Down with Sterlite… shut down Sterlite…” The shouts became louder as more groups joined in. A young girl kept shouting animatedly, “We need clean air,” which was taken up by the people around. So, the protest has become big, I thought. This was the reason my office had been shut for some days. I understood then, the reason for the rumbling sound. The crowd was approximately twenty thousand in strength. It was a motley crowd of elderly people supported by middle aged sons and relatives, mothers with their toddlers and infants, and youth, of all sexes, in their prime of power and courage.

I wished the ground would swallow up and cover me. My knees refused to support me. As I searched for support, I noticed the steps of a closed shopping complex. I sat down on the steps and buried my face between my knees. The noise kept increasing. I looked up. The road was not visible. As far as I could see, it was a sea of human heads.

“Come, we will sit here,” said a female voice. I turned to see a young mother standing with her daughter and son. The son gave me a smile that forced me to reciprocate – a first for me.

“I want lemon rice,” said the boy, to his mother.

“You will eat what I give. I cannot prepare a different variety for everyone in the house.” So saying she handed over a tiffin box to the boy, who opened it reluctantly. The girl had meanwhile started munching on the upma from her box.

The boy gave me a forlorn look on seeing the food in his box. I looked uneasily. He kept looking at me, hoping perhaps that I could be his saviour. “Hmmm… Upma is good for health,” I managed to stammer. His look turned outright hostile.

“Eat quickly. We have to go,” said the mother impatiently, pushing a water bottle into her daughter’s mouth.

The mother gave me a warm smile and asked, “Aren’t you joining the protest?”

“No akka…” I said, and noticing her strange look added hastily, “I mean, yes akka. I am just taking a breather.” She smiled. “Sterlite must be closed. I want clean air for my children.”

“Yes akka,” I nodded. 

“You have children?”

“Yes, yes… a daughter… she is two now.”

I watched the family move off, mingling with the crowd. Strangely, for the first time in my life, I dared to do the same. I became part of the human flood walking for the sake of their children and their city. As I came to a bend I saw to my delight that a petty shop was open, supplying water to the people. But what caught my attention was a hanging net bulging with balls of various colours. I pushed my way through the throng and reached the shop.

“Anna, do you have a red ball?” I asked.

“Ball? I do not have time to check. Here… check inside this net,” said the shopkeeper, and continued supplying water and buttermilk to the passing people. I searched. To my dismay, there was no red ball. It was then that sounds of distortion, anger and fear wafted through the air. I strained to see what was happening. I could see black smoke rising from the distance. Sharp blasts, similar to tyres being ruptured, echoed. People fled in all directions. I looked around, stupefied. The shopkeeper shouted at me.

“Run thambi… run… they are shooting… save your life.” So saying he ran from the place. Before I realized, I was running like hell, my legs pounding with pain. There was something in my hand. It was a white, fist-sized sponge ball from the shop. I made a mental note to repay the man later. I could see police jeeps and vans coming from all directions. There was a police van that had a dark and burly policeman on the top. In his hands was a rifle, its long barrel pointed at the crowd. His yellow jersey made him stand out. Without any hesitation, he fired into the running crowd. A cry rose up. There was no place to hide. The plains near the roads were full of police. And in the fleeing crowd, I saw the boy, the upma eating one who had sat near me some time back. He was running as fast as his tender legs could carry him. His mother and sister were nowhere in sight.

It was then that I saw something that sent shivers down my spine. The boy crossed a road and ran. I followed him. A Hero Honda Splendor came on the scene and slowed down. The man on the back pulled out a revolver and sent a shot towards the scattered people, in the direction of the boy. The shot was mistimed and the bullet went whistling in the air. How could a civilian shoot at the crowd, thought I? Then I realized… policemen in plain clothes… but why? That too firing to kill, at a peaceful crowd! Something was amiss.

I dived at the boy and rolled along with him. I saw that he was crying. I held him firmly and shouted, “Be still boy. Don’t move.” He kept still, too scared to move. People were still running around. I raised my head slowly. The bike was nowhere in sight. I took the boy by his hands and we started running together. I felt something hit me from behind. My legs felt tired and wooden. The boy felt the tug at his hands as I slowed down. “You keep running… I will escape.” He hesitated, rubbing the tears from his face. “Go boy… go. Do not stop… till you reach… home,” I gasped. The boy moved out of sight as I fell down.

The newspapers were filled with news of the brutal killing of civilians by the Police of the Tamil Nadu government. Nine people were killed on the 22nd of May, 2018. But none of the newspapers mentioned the young father who lay dead with a red ball clutched in his hand. On close inspection, it was a white ball, drenched red in his blood.

(This story was published in the book The Southern Concoction)