Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Eddie Had to Dive

(Published recently by Scholastic in their collection 'Sports Stories - Nine Short Stories by Contemporary Children's Writers')

[The photo is unrelated; courtesy]

No one knew very much about Edmont G Spitzworth. He was obviously firang, gora as he was. But when he sat down with his haph-cha (in Calcutta, that half a glass of tea is a legitimate menu item) on a bench by the side of the pavement and held forth in Bengali on the government’s failures in the city, he seemed anything but firang. When someone asked him, he might say he’s of German descent. To someone else, he’d probably say ‘Australian’ or ‘British’.

Eddie loved that aura of mystery and that people spoke and speculated about him. As it happens, there was much talk of him in certain circles – because along with being a pavement party hero, Eddie was also a champion boxer. Not the sort who goes to the Olympic Games, but the sort who takes on opponents inside a warehouse at night. You’ve seen them in Hollywood films, haven’t you? Hollywood was in Calcutta in the 1970s and ’80s. Even in the early 1990s, which is when Eddie was around. Warehouses became boxing rings at night. The rings were made of wooden boxes. People bet money on boxers. People – layabouts, dockyard workers, local gangsters, small-time businessmen.

Boxers fought with their bare fists, bare-torsoed…they bled when they got a good punch on the face, they bled when they fell hard against the wooden boxes. The businessman booed. The dockyard worker cheered. The layabout had fun. The local gangster paid good money for the night. And made some as well.

The boxers fought through the pain; meagre as their income was, it was more money than they could make otherwise.

But I was telling you about Eddie, the champion boxer. It’s true. He was only 5-foot-7 and he wasn’t too muscular, but Eddie had something the bigger guys didn’t. He had speed. And agility. He could avoid punches better than anyone else in the warehouse. So he won often and made enough money. Enough money to rent a little hostel room in Middleton Row, eat decent food, buy decent clothes and have his haph-cha. Every now and then, he would get drunk at night and create a racket outside the expensive restaurants on Park Street, the most exciting road in Calcutta, just off Middleton Row.

In the warehouse, people bet only about a hundred rupees in a night. You didn’t win too much, and you didn’t lose too much either. And you bet on the safe boxers. Not the ones who would be brilliant one night and stupid the next. You bet on boys like Eddie. You bet on boys like Eddie because you knew he wouldn’t do anything stupid. You knew that he always gave you a good chance of making those extra bucks.

Until he lost a few fights in a row. Four of them. In the warehouse, losing meant no money. Losing also meant that no one offers you a chance to fight. You wait your turn. If one of the regulars fall ill or something, you get an urgent call. If no one fell ill, Eddie wouldn’t get a chance to fight.

Now, Eddie’s friend Kisser was one of the guys who promoted the warehouse fights. Kisser – Qaiser Mohammedally – worked hard and ruthlessly to make money. One of the things he did was to scout the dark alleys of Calcutta looking for youngsters to join the warehouse circus. He promised the young toughs a good time, a bit of money and a lot of glory. To youngsters in the dockyards and the mean back-streets of central Calcutta, this was as good as it got.

When Kisser came to Eddie, the boxer hadn’t paid his hostel rent for six months and everyone was wondering whether he would go back to Germany or Australia or England or wherever. Kisser had fixed a fight for Eddie with a six-foot Bengali boy. Everyone in the warehouse circus knew the newcomer was a muscular but dumb fighter. He could swing big punches, but he’d telegraph them so far in advance that he hardly ever landed them where he wanted to. Kisser had fixed for Eddie to fight with him.
For Eddie, it was an answer to his prayers. He finally had a fight – and against someone who had no hope in hell of beating him.

“But it’s a fight you must lose, Eddie,” Kisser said.


“Yes. His dadas are powerful local people. They want him to win. They are willing to pay you big bucks to lose. They are willing to pay anyone who gets into the ring with him and loses.”

“But how can I lose to him? He is an absolute idiot. He has to punch me for me to lose.”

“You have to let him punch you then, Eddie. Land a couple of your own. Do whatever. Just lose.”

“But I can’t lose to him. There’s no way I can lose to him. You want me to take a dive? Come on, dada!”

“Then there’s nothing I can do for you, Eddie. This is all I have. If you don’t take it, someone else will.”

“I want it, but I can’t lose. If I get the fight and win it, I will still get some money, won’t I?”

“Yes, but if you don’t agree to lose, there’s no fight. And if there’s no fight, you don’t get anything. Don’t you see it? Eddie, you are going to get chucked out of this room if you can’t pay your rent. Everyone’s tired of loaning you money. This is your chance. Your last chance.”

It was the face of his Armenian landlady that finally swung it. Germany or Australia or England, wherever he may have been from, Eddie didn’t actually have a home outside of Calcutta. It was a one-way ticket that had landed him in this city, and he had to live here or die here.

If he lost the fight, he’d have enough money to pay off the six months’ dues and a few months’ advance.

Finally, it was a deal Eddie couldn’t say no to. There was no point in fretting over it. If he had to dive to live, he would dive. What else could he do anyway? And keeping the Bengali dadas happy might just help him sometime.

Eddie reached the warehouse on the night of the fight. So did the layabouts and dockyard workers and local gangsters and small-time businessmen. A lot of the regulars knew Eddie. They had bet money on him in the past. When he started losing, they chose one of the other Eddies. Any Eddie that won was good enough. But against the Bengali boy, Eddie was the favourite. The ones who knew Eddie also knew Bengali Boy. They knew Eddie could beat him with his eyes closed.

These people in the warehouse, they lead hard, tough lives. They like seeing people getting beaten up. They like their boys winning. They like making a bit of extra money to go with their meagre earnings. And when they had a fight with an obvious favourite, they knew they wouldn’t lose money. They might not win a lot of money, but they wouldn’t lose anything.

Eddie knew that he had signed up for his last chance. He hoped it wasn’t his last fight. The Bengali dadas knew what they were about too. They were new to the business, but they were rich. The Bengali Boy was part of their new plans and they were willing to cheat. They’d pay people to lose, and they’d be sure to make way more money than they’d spent on the fight. So they had paid Kisser a lot of money, and Kisser was happy to pass on a share of that to Eddie.

If Eddie lost the fight on Diwali night.

It was like a carnival that night. Diwali was on outside the warehouse. Calcutta’s North Indians were playing cards, betting, gambling. Inside though, it was just another fight night. As people stepped into the warehouse, they looked up at the fireworks once again. The money riding on Eddie was much more than on other days. He was the favourite, wasn’t he? And it was also Diwali night; the night to loosen the purse-strings a bit – especially when you knew you could get back more.

The fight began. Eddie was looking good. He landed a couple of punches. Not as well as he would have on another day… Kisser smiled. The Bengali dadas smiled. The plan was working. It worked even better when Eddie let Bengali Boy swing a couple towards his face. Avoiding them was easy. Eddie could do it with his eyes closed.

Five minutes passed. Eddie kept landing punches...soft ones. Bengali Boy kept missing.

The dockyard worker told his friend – Eddie won’t ever let Bengali Boy land a big punch.

The local gangster thought to himself – Bengali Boy doesn’t even know where Eddie is half the time.

The small-time businessman told himself he wasn’t gambling – it’s Diwali night; two hundred rupees extra will let me buy enough firecrackers to bring a smile to Titlu’s face.

The layabout knew it was only a matter of time – Eddie would get it right soon.

Kisser knew it was only a matter of time – Eddie will falter; he will dive, he will let one big punch hit him.

The Bengali dadas knew it was only a matter of time – the money had been well invested; this firang boy is playing to the script.

And Eddie knew it was only a matter of time.

Eddie waited for Bengali Boy to catch him with a big punch. If he had to dive, he had to make it look authentic. In fact, Kisser and he had gone over it again and again. Eddie would land a few soft punches here and there, and Eddie would dodge all the big punches that came his way. And then, he would let Bengali Boy get him. And crash, not to get up. That way, no one would suspect anything. Simple.

And Eddie did keep it simple. His opponent was much bigger than him, so it didn’t look odd when his punches didn’t rock Bengali Boy much. No one needed to know that Eddie wasn’t punching as hard as he could.

Three minutes...Eddie had landed many more punches than Bengali Boy. Five minutes...ten minutes of sweating, punching, abusing, and missing.
Till Bengali Boy did actually land that big fist on Eddie’ jaw.

Silence. A smile flickers across the older Bengali dada’s face. Kisser raises an eyebrow.

Eddie stumbles at the impact, but only for a second. And he replies. A right just above Bengali Boy’s left ear, a left on his chin, a right on his left jaw and another left on his right eye. The four punches fly out in less than a second. Remember, I told you Eddie had something no one else had? He had speed. And agility. He could avoid punches better than anyone else in the warehouse.

Bengali Boy looked blank for a second. Then his eyes closed. His arms flailed. Before Eddie had even stopped to remember the dive he had forgotten about momentarily, his opponent started to fall, his arms now by his sides. And then the head crashed against one of the wooden boxes.

I’d like to have told you that the story ended with Kisser and Eddie having to return all the money. No, actually, I wish I could have said that it ended with Eddie making a good return to the ‘ring’. It could have ended like that...

It did end. But differently.

Indeed, it ended the day after the fight; the day after Diwali, was when I first heard of Eddie. I was sitting on the pavement outside the Armenian hostel where Eddie stayed with my friend. We were sitting on the pavement with a haph-cha, talking about nothing in particular; maybe the government’s failures in Calcutta, or about going to watch a fight in the warehouse ‘one of these days’.

My friend caught sight of Kisser-da standing some distance away. He was smoking a cigarette; his eyes red, looking rather dishevelled, stinking…possibly drunk. He was a man my friend acknowledged but was also clearly intimidated by.

“I know him well, he usually chats with me,” my friend told me. “No idea why he is behaving strangely today.”

“Call him,” I said.

And he does. Kisser-da brings his haph-cha and sits down with us.

And that’s when we meet Eddie.

Kisser-da tells us Eddie’s story. He tells us what happened on the night of Diwali that year. He tells us about losing a lot of money and having to spend most of the night trying to pacify the Bengali dadas.

And then he tells us about the phone call. A phone call the younger Bengali dada made immediately after Eddie ran out of the warehouse. Eddie ran out without picking up his shirt, without wiping the blood off his face; in just his jeans.

But Kisser-da said, with the hint of a smile, that Eddie did raise his arms to acknowledge the cheers. Only for a couple of moments...before starting to run.

Kisser-da hadn’t slept all night. Even after the Bengali dadas left. He had come straight to the hostel on Middleton Row at four in the morning. He had been drinking. He had been waiting. And now, we were waiting with him, waiting for the police to bring Eddie’s body back to the hostel. I was waiting to say farewell to a young firang man I hadn’t ever met. I was waiting to sight a young man who had no address, no citizenship, but had often helped a lot of people go back home with 200 extra rupees in the night.

The 20-year-old I was, back then, felt he knew this man. I was waiting to say farewell to a boxer who knew he had to lose, but just couldn’t. He tried, but he couldn’t stop his hands from tightening into fists and letting fly when a punch landed on him unexpectedly. He was a boxer, and a good one, no matter that he’d never fought outside a warehouse. When that one punch came his way, and his agility wasn’t good enough, he didn’t think. Not for a moment. Nothing crossed his mind. It was only his arms. They knew what they had to do.

Maybe Eddie was an idiot. He was, wasn’t he? But strangely, many years after the 20-year-old me heard the story about Edmont G Fritzworth, I think of him as a hero. And I think of him as someone I lost along the way...somewhere.