You are a teenage girl in a man’s sports world. You can’t make a pass, you suck at volleyball, your backhand is lame, and the queen eludes you on the carrom board. But you love spectator sports. And you’re crazy about cricket and the Indian team. Even though you can’t follow the game very well, and the balling end changes send your mid-off orientation smashing through the window. You ask Dad why the batsman is out leg before wicket when his leg cannot be detached from his body and he as a whole has to stand in front of the wicket to avoid being bold. Or is it bolt?
You zap your brother a quizzical look embedded with what did he say?
A white ball? But isn’t the ball red?
He shakes his head condescendingly.
You are in the classroom, biting your cuticles off like radish tips. You duck behind the girl with rings for hair, and struggle to stifle a sneezing fit with your ink-stained palms. The chalk dust dances in the sunlight beaming through the oblong windows. Yellow flowers twirl and frame the sills. You learn the physics behind twisters; recall lavish country homes blown into nonrecyclable timber, and swear off any future travels to North America.
The cloudless sky forebodes an unimaginative summer.
A radio crackles beneath a boy’s desk. You want to know the score, but you don’t ask him. You’d rather be a prude than a fast girl. Not that you like the boy. He has pimples all over his swollen face, and besides, he likes the girl in commerce class, the one with an organizer and NASA-certified designer black shoes ideal for moon walks.
The bell screams for a break. You sit in the outside corridor, munch your soggy cucumber sandwich, and wait for the fifteen minutes to pass. The high school mating dance on the basketball court—the deliberate brushing of arms, thighs, ribs, the cha-cha steps around the ball—is a routine you’re all too familiar with but never a part of.
You wade through the weeds growing unchecked in the outfield: an eighteenth-century romance writer exiled to an island, forbidden to love, destined for a life of involuntary chastity. A senior smiles at you from the thicket, and your lungs stop. But you know it’s fleeting, this look. You’ll grow old, bloat like an advertisement balloon swaying on the tallest tower. Your skin will crack like the Gobi desert, your scalp will glisten through a mesh of graying hair, your fingers will gnarl like Captain Hook’s hand, and your brain will serve you scrambled eggs. Nobody will give you a second look.
The drumbeats get louder and louder as the last day of school approaches its end. You can hear boisterous cheers running the length of the corridors and sometimes, during the flashes of silence between the drumbeats and the loud, hooting calls, you can hear the tear of a senior’s shirt stamped with farewell wishes, the unlocking of lips behind the door of an empty classroom, and the mad scribbling in the slam books of popular girls.
You can’t wait to go home.
It’s a replay of last year’s summer vacation, and the year before last, and so on: The left row migrates to the south for family reunions. The row to the right drives north with their army dads, handbag moms, and trunks filled with glassware, books, and clothes, to guard the borders against insurgents. The backbenchers, the ones with Golf Link addresses, car keys, and skirts a good two inches above the knees, fly over the U.S., Europe, and Mauritius.
You’re the center. You’re the guardian of your people’s history, culture, and way of life, uncorrupted by foreign ideologies sneaked past customs with rum chocolates, Mills & Boons, and digital cameras.
Finally you reel back into the warmth of the car cushion and sigh. Your eyes are closed, yet you can see the stiffness in your back melt away. The drops, sticky, roll down to the dirty carpet and glue you to the car, to the only life you know, the only one you’ve lived so far. Soon you’ll be home.
When you’re on vacation, a watch is a defunct device. Time an abstract construct. Channel time slots inform you of the hour; program schedules confirm the day. One evening, as you lie staring at the doodles left by paintbrush threads on your bedroom ceiling, the windowpanes shudder, and the living room bursts with booms with cheers. Is it a stampede? An earthquake? Why, you’ve not even started on your life’s grand plan.
You jump off the bed and rush out into the living room. There, there, you calm yourself, it’s only the woofer set on max. The vibrations flow outward, engulfing you in static energy. A current runs through you—your nerves, your bones, your heartbeat. Your limbs tighten; your toes knead the living room floor. It’s time for the India-Pakistan match in Toronto.
You clutch your hands before your nonexistent breasts and hold your breath as if underwater. The scents of warm samosas and hot tea try to lure you away from the TV, but you don’t let your gaze travel the distance lest you miss a moment that could change the course of the match. By now you look like a zombie. Sure, you can’t follow half of what unfolds on the field. But there is no other moment in your life when you feel more alive.
You can feel the air rushing over your skin, your breath heavy. Your eyes zoom in on the players’ sparkling white uniforms bright against the spotless green field and aquamarine sky. You wonder where the mud and sweat stains of the past matches have gone. No amount of enzyme-infused washing machine powder or beating at the hands of the neighborhood dhobi wala could create that angelic brilliance.
A plane flies over your apartment and you don’t wonder where it’s headed. You’re not home.
You’re at the stadium, bashing the guy who hurls plastic bottles at the outfield players. You’re the ripple in the Mexican wave that courses through the Indian fans, cheering Tendulkar on to his nth century. You’re the lips that send out prayers for India’s win and hexes for the opposition’s failure.
You’re not alone.
Your family is there. So is your class. And your neighbors and the entire city, roaring in the stands, cheering the Indian team to its first victory of the season.
When the school reopens and the biology teacher explains the workings of the human mind, you turn around and notice the absence of one of your classmates, the one with mahogany hair and skin as white as the players’ uniforms.
The bell rings and the backbenchers start chirping. You overhear them. They say lucky her. She went to Canada for vacation, and now look, it’s her new home. Gawd! I wish Dad would move us to Los Angeles. I so wanna become an actress! Well, I want to live in Australia. Isn’t it hotter down there? I hope so, silly, the guys here are such sissies. Come off it already, I like Avi, he’s so cute and adorable and—Shut up. You’re such a geek.
You can’t resist. You say how wonderfully bright her white uniform must be. The laundry in Toronto is fabulously divine.
They stare hard at you. Their eyes shrink behind squinted eyelids, as if you’re wrong in the head or a button is missing on your off-white shirt.
You don’t wear uniforms where she is now, they say. But you wouldn’t know that. You’re ignorant. Naive.
You’re alone in the world. You have no friends or chums or mates or whatever you like to call the people you share your tiffin and laughs with. All you have is cricket.
When a match is on you’re no longer alone or confined to your insulated space. You’re traveling with the Indian team. You’re in Toronto, Cape Town, Antigua, Perth. The zinc-based saffron face paint sparkles under the noon sun, the green pants merge with the field. Your shirt is spotless white. You’re one in a million, cheering the Indian team to victory.
Wrapped in the Indian flag, you’re as important as the popular girls are ordinary.
*Previously published in The Rambler