“Woh kaata!” the shout rang out clear, piercing the lazy winter afternoon air.
Johnny, who had been dozing, jumped up. The shout was like music to his hears. It meant only one thing – a kite’s string had been ‘cut’ and it was now sailing away just waiting to be ‘looted’.
Johnny set off looking at the sky for any sign of the kite. After twenty metres or so of running he saw it sailing away quite fast towards the biscuit factory to the north. Johnny picked up speed. Ahead of him he saw Chinna, Aslam, Tikia and Sreenu running with all their might. They entered the maidaan, a sprawling field that was used for walking, jogging, playing cricket and football and for many other things. The kite was now headed straight for the Banyan tree bang in the middle of the maidaan. Johnny picked up speed and his legs just flew. Soon he had overtaken Sreenu, Aslam and Tikia and was running neck and neck with Chinna who was very quick. The kite landed on one of the top branches as Johnny overtook his rival and reached the tree. Without pausing for a moment he climbed up and within no time the kite was in his hands.
And what a kite it was! Maroon red with a bright green band in the centre, it had a multi-coloured butterfly on one side and a rainbow on the other. He had never seen such a beautiful kite in his life. As he got down the rest surrounded him.
“Wah kya patang hai!” Exclaimed Sreenu and the rest nodded, looking enviously at Johnny.
“Will you give me one chance to fly this kite?” asked Tikia wistfully eyeing the kite.
“I don’t think so. You are hardly an expert and if it gets cut will you be able to get me a kite as beautiful as this one? I have ‘looted’ hundreds of kites, flown an equal number but I am yet to see a kite as lovely as this,” Johnny said, walking away with his prize catch.
Johnny was an orphan who lived in a slum in Hyderabad. He worked in a motorcycle repair shop owned by forty-year-old Jagdish. Today was Tuesday and every Tuesday afternoon was the off day for Jagdish. He would lock up the shop and go get drunk. Johnny was crazy about kites and had developed some kind of expertise in ‘looting’ as well as flying them. He was fast, real fast and invariably ended up grabbing the best kites. Many a time in the process of ‘looting’, the kites would get torn; he would paste scraps of paper and make them almost as good as new. He would fly these kites or give them away as gifts to kids younger and even poorer than he.
Johnny took the kite ‘home’. Johnny’s home was a four feet by six feet kholi, which he had inherited from his father who had been a coolie. He decided he would not fly this kite. Suppose the string got cut - he did not want to take the risk of losing it. He would preserve it, keep it with him forever.
That night he kept it beside his pillow and slept.
Next day when he woke up the first thing he did was to look for it.
“Are you checking whether I am there or not?” he heard a voice – soft and gentle. Johnny leapt back and looked around.
“Don’t worry. It’s me your favourite kite talking.”
“B….but kites don’t talk.”
“But I can because I am a magic kite.”
“A m..magic kite!”
“Yes, you know I am more than three hundred years old!”
“Yes. I know it is difficult to believe. But it’s true. I belonged to a Chinese emperor whose name was Win Wang. I was his favourite kite and was kept in his chamber. One day his own relatives attacked and killed him. I managed to escape before they set his palace on fire.”
“How did you reach India?"
“Oh! It’s a long, long story and will take years to tell. To put it briefly when relations between the two countries improved I was given as a gift by the people of China to the people of India.”
“Wow! You are a VIP then.”
“I may be but right now I need your help.”
“Yes. My beloved King Win Wang is in heaven. He has sent me a message. He wants me to join him.”
“Later tonight, you fly me as high as you can. It will be a full moon night with a strong breeze. When I have gone up as high as possible you release me. I’ll just fly up and up and reach heaven.”
Johnny was silent. How could he give up this lovely kite? No, he would not do it. As he was about to shake his head he remembered his father’s words, “Son, sometimes you get more happiness by giving than by receiving.”
“Okay.” Johnny mumbled without looking at the kite. “But when you reach heaven will you locate my parents and give them a message.”
“Sure. What is the message?”
“That I love them and I miss them very much. Please also tell them that I need their blessings,” Johnny said, his eyes growing misty.
“I wish I could give you a hug,” the lovely kite said.
“What is your name?” Johnny asked.
“I am called Shaolin.”
“Johnny, get up. If you reach late Jagdish will skin you alive,”
Johnny opened his eyes. It was Giri waking him up.
He got up with a start and looked around. The lovely kite was still there beside his pillow – looking lovelier in the sunlight, which was streaming through the hole in the roof.
“Was his conversation with Shaolin all a dream then? Of course it must have been. Who has ever heard of kites talking - whether Indian or Chinese!”
The entire day Johnny couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
At night after dinner he waited for things to become quiet. At around ten he picked up the kite and went out. He walked to the deserted house behind the slum, which had been put up for sale. It was a two-storey house. Johnny climbed up a huge Peepal tree next to it and crawling along the thick branches, which sloped over the roof dropped down. He looked at Shaolin. It was in perfect shape – not a single tear.
He took the huge bundle of string which he had prepared during the day and tied the kite to one end. The sky was clear, the moon was shining bright and there was a strong breeze. In no time Shaolin was sailing in the brightly lit sky. As Johnny released the thread the kite soared higher and higher. Johnny was really enjoying himself. All alone, under the starry sky, with the string of the kite in his hand he felt he was in complete control – he felt a kind of contentment he had never felt before.
Just then he remembered his dream and on an impulse snapped the string and released it. The kite sailed away like a fast, multi-coloured cloud. Johnny watched it till it was only a speck in the sky and then trudged back.
Why had he released the kite? Did he really believe that it hadn’t been a dream, that Shaolin had actually spoken to him? Anyway, there was no point in thinking now. Shaolin had gone forever and he would never get such a lovely kite in his life ever again.
The next day Johnny was sitting in the repair shop when a white Maruti Zen stopped and a man got down. He was around fifty years of age, tall, with thick grey hair and an athletic body. He was clad in a white shirt and formal blue trousers.
“Are you Johnny?” he asked, his voice sounded exactly like Amitabh Bachhan’s.
“Y…yes,” Johnny stammered looking at the car and the man in quick succession.
“Can you come with me?”
“Don’t worry. We’ll go to a restaurant close-by. I have to discuss something with you. I’ll drop you back in half an hour.”
Johnny got up. Jagdish had gone to the market on some work. Sundar the other boy who worked in the shop was busy haggling with a customer.
Johnny followed the visitor who opened the door of the car.
He then got in from the other side and told the driver, “Take us to Annapurna restaurant.”
Johnny knew the place - it was quite swanky.
Ten minutes later, Johnny was having a pizza – the first one of his life and his host was drinking coffee.
“My name is Imtiaz Khan. I am the Director Sports of Quality Foods – a company which markets health food. We have a sports academy called Alpha Sports where we pick up budding athletes and train them. We provide them free education and accommodation and also give them a stipend. They get an opportunity to train under the best coaches.”
Johnny looked up, not sure where all this was leading up to.
“There is a reason why I am telling you all this. Two days back I was sitting in the park near the place where you work. I live nearby and often come to the park to relax. I saw four boys running after a kite followed by a fifth one. This fifth boy was more than a hundred metres behind the rest. I have seldom seen anyone his age run the way he was running. His legs were simply flying. In no time he not only overtook the rest, he climbed the tree where the kite had got entangled and retrieved it – all this without pausing for breath. I am sure you know that boy?”
“It was me,” Johnny said proudly.
“Of course it was and that is why you are here,” Imtiaz said looking fondly at Johnny.
“I don’t understand.”
“Johnny I have decided to pick you up for our Alpha Sports Academy. But before that I have to take your parents’ permission?
“My parents are dead. I am an orphan.”
How old are you?”
“Kishtayya, my father’s friend says I was born two days after his daughter Padma was born. That means I will be ten, three weeks from now.”
“I thought as much. Now do you agree to join the academy. I will see that you are given training in 100 metres and 200 metres race and long jump. In a year or so you shall be able to compete in the inter-school athletic championship in the under twelve category.”
Johnny’s face lit up. Sir, I can’t believe this. Does it mean I don’t have to work for Jagdish any more?"
“Yes. And it also means that you now get a chance to go to school, to learn to read and write.”
“I don’t know how to thank you, Sir.”
“You can thank me by working hard and doing well,” Imtiaz said.
The next one-year was the most exciting of Johnny’s life. He shifted to the hostel, joined a school. Since he knew to read and write a little bit he was put in class one. In the beginning he felt embarrassed attending classes with kids four – five years his junior. He worked very hard and soon he was far ahead of the class. He was given a double promotion and instead of going to class two he made it to class three with the prospect of another double promotion in the offing.
On the sports field it was even more work. His coach Hardip Singh was a national champ and a hard taskmaster. He made Johnny really slog. He taught him how to hone his natural skill, build up his stamina and above all develop a temperament that would make him a winner.
In the intra-city inter-school championship Johnny won the first prize in both hundred and two hundred metres but failed to qualify for the long jump. In the state championship Johnny won a gold in hundred metres and a bronze in 200 metres.
Two days after the state championship, Johnny was sitting in his hostel room studying for his terminal exams when Hardip and Imtiaz entered his room.
“Guess what Johnny! I have just heard from my friend George Kindo, President of the Athletic Federation of India. I had sent him your 100 metres timing that got you the gold in the state championship. You are just four seconds behind Feroze, the reigning champ from Maharashtra,” Hardip said.
“Johnny, the National Games this time will be held in Ahmedabad, three months from now. If you practise hard enough you can go for the record – you can become the national champ,” Imitiaz declared, pumping Johhny’s hand in excitement.
Johnny worked harder than ever. Under Hardip’s watchful eyes and tough training Johnny painstakingly improved his performance. However, on the day of the race he was still two seconds behind Feroze.
As the whistle blew they set off together. At the half way mark Feroze was ten metres ahead. Johnny somehow knew it was now or never. If he won this race he would hit the headlines and his entire life would change. Suddenly he felt a sudden surge of energy within him. He felt he was a kite not floating, but cutting, through the air. Inch by gruelling inch, he moved closer to Feroze. As he levelled up the tape was right in front. He closed his eyes and lunged forward. He breasted the tape and collapsed, his chest ready to burst. He didn’t even bother to look around to see where Feroze was.
“Puttar, you have done it!” he heard a shout that almost burst his eardrums. Hardip came running with Imtiaz behind him. Hardip picked him up and hugged him. You have not merely won the gold; you have set a new record. It is a fantastic performance.”
“I am proud of you son,” Imtiaz said pulling him close and patting him on his back.
As Johnny climbed on the victory stand to take the medal, the entire stadium resounded with claps. On an impulse Johnny looked up - was that a red kite flying high above him.