On a sunny afternoon, Suma was busy discussing something with her lawyer. As the lawyer spoke, her eye brows furrowed and the deep lines on the forehead of her dark face clearly depicted her worry. Her beautiful eyes wanted to burst out in tears, as if she had been holding so much for days. She looked up, turned her lips into her mouth and after a long breath, closed her eyes. In the midst of this she received a call.
“Aashi’s had an accident”, frantically announced a voice on the other side of the phone, “and the doctors said she needs to get her leg amputated! She’s admitted in Apollo now. Where’s the coach?”
“What happened…?”, said Suma hardly able to gather words to put forth her question. She got up from her seat trying to keep her calm and said, “I’ll be right there”
Aashi had always been more than a sister to Suma. “Just a week more… Aashi was in the best of her form… God…”, Suma said to herself as she rushed out of the lawyer’s office. She tightly interlocked her fingers, her lips were uttering a prayer and she couldn’t stop her heart rate from racing up.
Outside the hospital, a companion, was seemingly waiting for Suma. As soon as Suma reached, the girl hugged Suma and began to cry.
“Suma, this shouldn’t have happened…”, said the girl.
As Suma was about to speak, she was interrupted. The place was flooded with news reporters.
“Ma’am don’t you think this is a huge loss for the country?”, asked a reporter.
“How did this happen?”, asked another.
“Suma, first the allegations on you… and now this! What do you have to say”, another question fired up from behind.
Suma just folded her hands and said, “Please excuse me. I’m not in the position to answer any of your questions now”. Saying this she hurriedly went into the hospital.
After waiting for a while in a tensed silence Suma asked, “Tina, how did all this happen?”
“She was driving and met with a severe accident… The doctors say her right leg is so badly crushed that they have to amputate it!”, said the companion, Tina, with tears flowing down her cheeks.
Suma looked down at the floor, sighed and then looked up at Tina. “She’ll be fine. Stay Strong”, she said trying to keep all her calm.
Sitting on the couch of the hospital’s lobby she stared without a blink at an arbitrary point lost in deep thought. Her attention then turned to the television screen in front of her couch.
“Aashi Ahlawat shall no more be able to be a part of the Olympic squad”, blared a news reporter on a channel. Suma changed the channel.
“Young Aashi loses her leg, with that India’s hope to win a medal this Olympics has been shattered”, reported another news channel.
“India’s bad luck! No participants for women’s badminton in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics”, roared another reporter.
Exasperated with all of this Suma switched the TV off. First, the headlines had talked just of Suma and now Aashi. “I hope Aashi has the strength to bear this. What a hard time it’s been!”, Suma thought.
Suma felt it was better for her to go back home, where her mother would be waiting for her. Perhaps it was Suma’s only way to temporarily escape the chaos of the abominable mess that had been surrounding her life for quite some time.
As she went downstairs she saw a bald, frail man on a wheelchair. She was reminded of her dear father whom she had lost to cancer, when she was fifteen. She stood there for a while and remembered her father’s exact words, on his last days, “You are a champion… Suma! Remember there is no substitute to hard work.” With his weak hands he had drawn the five interlocking rings on the walls of her home and had said, “Olympics. I see you there. When I am gone this will remind you of that aim…”. Suma scampered out as if to get rid of her thoughts.
Suma wrapped her face in a scarf and took a cab to go back to her apartment. She took her seat in the cab and looked at her phone. It was July the 1st. ‘How good had the beginning of the year been’, she thought to herself. She looked at the phone again, and found a screenshot of a news article she had saved about five months ago. “Suma Vyasa and Aashi Ahlawat to represent India in badminton at the Tokyo Olympics: A moment of pride”, it read. Suma remembered how excited both Aashi and Suma had been after the announcement. She found herself smiling looking at the screenshot. Sitting by the window, as her head rested on the forehand of her folded arm, she was lost in memories.

It was seven years ago, in the National badminton academy in Hyderabad, that Suma met Aashi, after they had both been selected for the South Asian Junior Championship. Aashi had taken the initiative to utter the first word to Suma. Suma discovered a great companion in Aashi. Eventually they became the best of friends. The Asian games, the Commonwealth games, the Uber cup they had both done the country proud. It was in January that year that the Badminton Federation of India announced that Suma and Aashi would represent India in the Tokyo Olympics that year.

“No Suma don’t go back to those memories”, she said to herself as her mind was about to recall what happened after that. And then it was the sound of the car’s horn of that interrupted the flow of memories in Suma’s mind. “We’ve reached, madam”, said the cab driver. She gave a lackadaisical response and walked in plodding steps towards her flat. As she rang the bell of her house, her mother opened the door for her.
After a half-hearted dinner, Suma sunk into a chair in the corner of the hall and began to weep. It was as if the fracture point of her mind had arrived. On seeing this, her mother rushed towards her. “Chinna...Everything will be okay.”, she said trying to comfort an inconsolable Suma. Her mother’s eyes became teary too.
Amma, what wrong have I done? There’s no hope now”.
Her mother sat on the floor and looked up at Suma, “Suma, remember what your Appa taught you. Stay strongChinna”.
Suma came down to the floor and lay on her mother’s lap, the one place in the entire world she found solace in. She cuddled her mother close. As her mother affectionately ran her fingers on her
hair Suma felt as if she was miles away from all her troubles. That’s what a mother’s touch does, drags you away from all worries. Suma closed her eyes and fell asleep.

“Suma Vyasa- Gold!”, announces a voice in a weird foreign tone. “It is the first time in history that India bags a gold in Badminton”, the same voice announces. Giving a customary bite to her gold medal she poses for a photo with two other blurred faces. She looks up to the sky and shows the medal to her father. Suddenly someone from the crowd comes up to her and snatches away her medal. She shouts, she screams. Alas! No one hears.  

She awoke in a cold sweat, in a frantic panic trying to determine whether what she saw was a dream. After a long sigh, she looked at her mother who was asleep and tears were half dry on her mother’s face. She smiled at her mother and hugged her tight. Her mother then awoke and asked Suma to go to the room and sleep. Suma nodded and got up.
She looked at the five interlocked rings her father had drawn on the wall. That day she missed her father way too much and hoped he was there too. Suma began thinking about him.
Suma’s father was a small scale trader, who had mostly been debt-ridden. When Suma was eight it was her father who spotted her talent. Whatever he earned from his meagre income was spent on Suma’s game. From the moment she won the singles title in Vijaywada, in the National School games at the tender age of 9, her father decided to move to Hyderabad which was the nearest city to their town, so that she could be trained at the academy. He mortgaged their property to the bear the expenses. She was shattered when she got to know her father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, her father was a strong man, who taught his daughter to be strong in life. One thing he kept telling her was, “Stay Strong!”. After he passed away the academy provided her a scholarship for her exemplary performance. It was perhaps a year later, that Suma discovered that her mother had been cleaning utensils in other people’s houses to earn money to make their ends
meet. Suma was shocked to know this and immediately went to the academy and requested the trustees to provide her a minimum stipend to be able to live in the city. They agreed and Suma made sure her mother did not have clean other people’s utensils anymore.

As the dark night enveloped the never-ending sky and stars faintly shimmered on that dark blanket, Suma stood in her balcony, her cheeks glistening with tears. Her eyes caught a star in the distance that glimmered way more than the others of its kind. She believed that it was her father, watching her. Wiping her tears off, she said, “You believe me right, Appa? I haven’t wronged, ever. I’m sorry. I let you down and our dream is shattered now. I stayed as strong as I could Appa. But…your daughter is no more a champion”. She began pondering about the recent academy days.

Two months ago, when the entire Olympic contingent was going through its paces for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, the academy was abuzz with talks that Suma might be the proud flag bearer for India. For Suma years of struggle were about to show their golden result. Confident as Suma was in her ability, she also never slackened her practice. Aashi and Suma were in the best of their forms. Both of them perfectly geared up. They constantly discussed their techniques, as always. It was the first time in many years that India was sure of winning a minimum of two medals in badminton that Summer Olympics; one of them had to be gold for sure. Everything alright, until she received that mail…
Standing in her balcony those days flashed before her eyes in order, yet again. She did not want to think beyond this, all over again, about what the mail had said, but sometimes like sand slips away from a closed fist, so do memories flow out from the mind, without control. No matter what you do, you can't stop them from incessantly flowing out. Suma sat down on the floor of the balcony,
her hands held her legs tightly to her chest. She put her head down, between her knees and then there was just flashback.
It was one of those mundane evenings when Suma and Aashi were done with their practice sessions that Suma felt her forehand and calf muscles cramping. She also had bad spouts of vomiting later that evening. She ignored it and arrived for practice the next morning. That morning blood and urine samples of athletes were collected. They were informed that it was a formality. Practice sessions went on with rigour for another week. One evening when
Suma returned home after an enervating practice session, her mother informed her that the coach had called. She said he had asked Suma to immediately check her mail. Suma scurried straight to her room. She logged into her mail and a faint queasiness engulfed her. What she saw was simply appalling, a forwarded mail from her coach originally sent by the Indian Olympic Association.
It read, “The IOA regrets to inform you that Suma Vyasa has been subjected to a life ban in badminton or any sport whatsoever, issued by the WADA for the illegal use of a Performance Enhancing Drug. She is thus stands disqualified from the Tokyo:2020 Olympics. The IOA however gives her a time of one week to prove her innocence”.
She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life--the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build--begin to crumble around her.
Sitting in the balcony, Suma lifted her head up and stared at the sky, yet again. “Suma… you haven’t slept Chinna”, came Suma’s mother’s voice from inside. Suma stood up and went inside to her bedroom. Her mother came and sat beside her.
Amma… The lawyers say there is no way for me to prove my innocence. They have found the drug in my blood sample. I lost. I failed Appa and you. You trust me, don’t you?”, said Suma who couldn’t look into the eyes of her mother, as if a burdensome guilt did not allow her eyelids to rise.
“Suma… See here. Look into my eyes.I trust you. He’s up there, looking at all of us. He knows who’s right and who’s not. Forget all this. You have done all that you could. I know what you have been through in these two months. The way you’ve handled yourself Chinna… Appa would have been proud seeing how strong his daughter has been. You never failed us and you never will. It is a test for you. You see everything will be fine soon”, her mother said and embraced her warmly.
In the past one month or so myriad efforts were made by Suma to prove her innocence. Appealing to the National Anti Doping Agency, requesting support from the Badminton
Association of India , swaying from one lawyer to another and what not. Nothing worked in her favour. In spite of all this, Suma did not stop training. She often told Aashi, “Training comes first”. Once Aashi told Suma, "Suma I feel so bad for you. Don't you ask God, why you?". Suma smiled and said, "I don't know if God is up there, looking at all this. But I do know, when out of the many greats, I won the Commonwealth Games, I didn't ask anybody, 'Why me?'. I haven't wronged, that's all I know.".
Suma went on to add, “Aashi what if I can't participate, you have the chance. You'll do the nation proud. Don’t worry if I am not along. You must win”. But now everything was over for Aashi too, after that horrendous accident.
For Suma time in the forward direction seemed to dawdle, it was as if all that she was left with, were memories. A burdensome week passed and it was finally time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Aashi was still admitted in the hospital. In spite of a numberless attempts that Suma made to prove her innocence, nothing worked in her favour. It was as if the entire universe was making an effort to put her down, to break her strength. Sadly that very universe didn't know who it was dealing with. A soul, hard to beat.
Days passed. There in Tokyo, the Olympics started in full rigour. Neither Suma nor Aashi could participate. Suma was in the hospital sitting in the lobby yet again. She had come to meet Aashi whowas asleep. This time on the television, was being telecast an event in which Suma was supposed to reign supreme. Suma switched off the TV and again as before began staring at an arbitrary point until a nurse’s voice came from behind, "Ma'am, Aashi is awake and she is adamant on meeting you".
Suma rushed to Aashi's room."S....Suma... I... ahh...so...sorry.", whispered Aashi in a voice that was hardly heard.
"What? Aashi you need rest.", said Suma.
"Suma... I have something to say. I can't live with this anymore", said Aashi trying to gather all her voice and strength. Aashi finally gathered her voice and spoke. As Aashi's words reached Suma's ears, every expression on Suma's face fell off. She stood there, still.

THE PARIS OLYMPICS (Four Years Later):
“Suma Vyasa- Gold!”, announces a voice in a weird foreign tone. “It is the first time in history that India bags a gold in Badminton”, the same voice announces. Giving a customary bite to her gold medal she poses for a photo with two other people. She looks up to the sky and shows the medal to her father. Suddenly someone on a wheelchair shouts, "Gold! You are Gold!". Suma is living her dream now.
This ends up being quite surreal for Suma, particularly when the crowd does not stop cheering. She is so overwhelmed, that she chokes up as she sees the medal she's wearing now. Suma kisses the five rings on her medal and reminisces the five rings her father drew on their wall. Suma’s runs up to her mother, who's in the audience and kisses her cheek.
Suma then goes straight to Aashi, who is on a wheelchair, sitting in the first row and gives her a hug. Aashi's face is beaming with joy. "Suma you deserved this long back", says Aashi looking up at Suma who can't stop smiling.
As Suma and Aashi are moving out of the badminton complex, a reporter comes up to Aashi with a microphone in hand and bluntly says, "Aashi, four years ago, after your accident, you called up a press conference and made a huge confession about you having mixed the drugs in Suma's food. Your jealousy costed India a medal! You were spared on Suma's request. What do you have to say today?"
"Let's leave Aashi", says Suma who seems infuriated by the reporter's question.
"Wait, Suma...Let me take this", says Aashi holding back her wheelchair.
"I can vouch, that there is no happier person in the world than me, today", says Aashi. "Not a single moment, in these four years, have I been able to live free from that guilt of having deprived a wonderful soul like Suma, of what she deserved long ago. And I got what I deserve for what I did and that's why I'm on this wheelchair today". Aashi cannot hold her tears back.
Suma looks snatches the microphone from the reporters hand and says, "What Aashi did for me is something a person needs a heart to do. It was her confession that made me prove my innocence. I am thankful for such a friend. So please stop making her feel guilty every single time. I hope you get that!". Suma gives Aashi a tight hug and puts the medal in Aashi's neck. "This one's for you, Aashi", Suma announces.
"You are pure gold", says Aashi wiping her tears off. The paparazzi begin clicking photos of Suma and Aashi. India's flag furls high in the air. The five interlocked rings in front seem to be proud, that they are not just rings, but rings of fire. 

Submitted: January 10, 2018

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