Salem, Sports and Childhood.

Salem is the reason I’m into sports. It’s my dad’s native place and as a kid, I used to look forward to spending half of every summer vacation at Salem. Getting off West Coast express at Junction and taking the bus (typically No. 13) to First Gate, my arrival was eagerly awaited by 2 chittappas (dad’s brothers), 4 athais (sisters), a somewhat grumpy thatha (grandpa) and a doting paatti (grandma).

My (late) chittappa managed a youth cricket team affiliated to the Salem Cricket Association. It was a ritual to get up at 5.30 a.m. every day and head to the Ramakrishna Higher Secondary School (now called Sharada high school) ground, field balls hit by the players, chase them fervently and throw it straight to the bowler or the keeper as hard as I could. Till date, whenever I play cricket, my first love remains fielding. I had access to the team’s kits where got to see and feel pads, gloves, guards, worn out leather balls for the first time. And bats. Genuine Gray Nicolls, GM and Slazenger. I also enjoyed the privilege (yes it was a privilege because I was the boss’ nephew) of being bowled to by the players at the end of day’s play as a reward. Gaaji. No tennis balls back then. Just rubber balls. Hollow ones with variegated pattern predominantly in orange and blue, with some blobs of yellow. If they were suspended from a string, you could probably hypnotize someone with it.

Another ritual was collecting Big Fun stickers. I always thought that green gums had star players who fetched ‘fours and sixes’ while the pink ones had the mundane ones worth just 1 or 2 runs. Numerous Benson & Hedges series were watched over bowls of famous Salem pori (puffed rice) roasted with garlic, curry leaves, pottu kadalai (bengal gram), peanuts and chilli. Countless hours were spent arguing about matches and players, narrowing down whose change of posture resulted in a wicket or a boundary, imitating Srikkanth and Sachin’s mannerisms and stances. One of my athais was smitten by (and continues to admire) Sourav Ganguly. She also believed if she watched him bat for more than 5 minutes, he would get out. Poor soul!

My chittappa who managed the cricket team was also a huge tennis fan. His Snauwaert Ergonom racket still hangs in the house and I can’t help but feel a lump in my throat every time I see it. Back in 90s, it was gobsmacking to see a racket with a racket with an unconventional, crooked shape. I grew up admiring Stefan Edberg as he was the least theatrical and the most graceful and elegant of them all. But he had the entire family’s seal of approval because he was ‘very fair’ and had blonde locks. And oh, that nose. I still remember how he was once demolished by Goran Ivanisevic, thanks to his monster serve. Next day, there was an article in the newspaper stating that Edberg had suggested tennis could consider only one serve instead of two. Of course, I found myself beaming as Goran destroyed Pete Sampras (yes, I abhor Pete Sampras) before losing to my teenage tennis idol Andre Agassi in the Wimbledon finals. We also followed women’s tennis closely. It didn’t matter whom we supported but “Steffi Graf is the most beautiful tennis player ever” was never contested. Gabriela Sabatini came close. This also meant one could not support Steffi’s arch nemesis Martina Navaratilova. I remember cheering hard for Conchita Martinez when she beat Martina to win her only Wimbledon title.

When Sharada high school barred outsiders from entering their ground, we had to resort to Thiagarajar Polytechnic (now called Sona college) at 6 a.m. and hit the courts there. I remember a game where I had teamed up with my cousin and beaten a couple of folks. It was a best of three sets affair. I don’t remember the score but I remember how nervous I got in the third set when we were trailing and probably serving to save the match. Well, underhand serve was allowed but what the heck. I think we relied heavily on playing drop shots to make our opponents run, tire them out and eventually make them hit the ball outside due to sheer frustration.

One of the benefits of having a large family living under a roof is that your home often became your playground. Also, during summer, Salem gets hot. 35-40C is fairly normal. So playing outdoors after 11 a.m. was not a smart move. But those days, summer was synonymous with one word – mangoes. The Malgovas and Banganapallis were to die for. Well, to kill for, as it turned out in reality. But amidst slices of mangoes and quarrels about who would NOT suck on the kottai (the middle part with the large seed), lot of games were played indoors.

My dad and athais were (still are) excellent carrom players. I think my dad’s ivory striker is still one of his most prized possessions. Every time a coin heading towards the pocket fell barely short, intense debates about the application of boric powder would be triggered. My dad would point out the spot on the board along the path of the said coin where boric powder was lacking or absent. Suddenly the topic would shift from boric acid to how the carom board resting on the table was not level. One of my athais would place a coin vertically and make it roll. A level board would require the coin to stay still. Even a centimeter of rolling would be construed as uneven board so seating arrangements would be shuffled to ensure a level playing field! Else,  they would crumple some paper and place it under the board or the table’s legs to make things level.

Chess was another family favorite. I have replayed a lot of moves from Bobby Fischer’s “My 60 memorable games” and “Spassky versus Tal (1973)” with my dad. I used to love King’s Indian defense because that’s the only thing “Indian” I could find in chess those days. Also, given the umpteen variations of Sicilian defense, I jokingly declared that by playing one move differently, there could be an Ajit’s variation.

I wasn’t into cards but Rummy and 28 were a huge hit. I was actually taught probability at by being told to remember the cards discarded by others on the table and then determine the odds of the card I wanted in the remaining pack. What I found later was that some folks had devised an alternate method to avoid the statistical rigmarole. Just stretch and try to peek into the other person’s cards with subtlety that came with years of practice.  Yes it sounds uncouth and loutish but don’t tell me that your family plays cards but there isn’t one member who doesn’t look over others’ shoulders!

For those (me) who were too ethical (wussy) to bet 5 bucks on cards, there was dhaayam kattai. It is similar to Ludo in terms of the objective. But here, you got to have toothpaste tube caps, sozhis (shells) and buttons from your erstwhile favorite shirts as your coins as opposed to impersonal, identical, store made coins. Also, the wooden board was hand crafted the plain side of a large board meant for correcting exam papers (some athais were teachers) and the lines and squares were  drawn with balpam (slate pencil similar to chalk). The clanking of the metallic dies took me back to Mahabharata days. And oh, you get to cast 12 in dhaayam kattai! Like Shakuni. Which reminds me of the prayers offered to gods and goddesses by my athais to get that prized dhaayam (the number one) on the dies. Without casting one, you couldn’t start your game. In fact, on her first turn in every game, my oldest athai rolled the dies 3 times, dedicating each to her favorite gods. The fourth time was her actual turn. This was an axiom that was accepted without further probing. After all, she was the one who had all the peanuts and pottu kadalai for the pori.

I guess these are some vague memories stitched together into a shaggy rag. But I know that every stitch is etched in my mind forever. Sports has helped me connect with my family and have a terrific childhood.

Life has taken a different course today. But sports continues to be a source of excitement, solace, exhilaration, exasperation and hope. In short, life. I do feel bad that I’m not able to connect with my roots better by visiting Salem regularly. I feel that some of my most cherished memories might erode from my memory and may even be expunged. But all that changes when I sit with my athais for a game of dhaayam kattai with a bowl of pori made by the same athai who has been feeding it to me for the last three decades. With rasam poured on it. Ajit’s variation. Everything comes back flooding. Life is blissful…