My brain worked better when I was playing the game full time, straining my body six days a week out there on the sunbaked arena of the field, hurling the ball at demonic speed, scampering after it, steadying myself to catch it while staring into the sun, hitting it with exquisitely timed force. Those were the days, on the greensward as the poets among us called it, with the various buff colored linen or canvas tents billowing in the breeze, the crowd moaning or raving as we did this or that, and, oh bliss at the end, the long drinks. I am thinking of the Gymkhana Ground, Bombay: better than most, with mowable grass and august temple like buildings just beyond the fringe of the playing area, as if our antics were sacrificial offerings to one of the massive religions. One sign, I think, read MY PETAL, and there was another word below it, also in red, that in all my years of play I never took the trouble to go and read. I was too tired or too forgetful, possibly more aware of white minarets behind the nearer steeples. There were always those spectators who, instead of watching, sauntered around, turned their backs to watch birds, or plunged their noses into food they had brought along. Sometimes, I felt. nobody watched us at all but needed our doings for vibration or faint genteel agitation out in the heat shimmer. You played on, heedless of their oblivion, knowing that one day, even if you were only half decent at the game, you would be given a benefit match from which you would receive all the proceeds, good or bad. That, the theory went, would set you up for life, not with a Rolls Royce and live in belly dancers, but humbly, with fish and chips or chips with curry a couple of times a day and a mattress to put sheets on.
You were not supposed to care about such matters, anyway. The game was the thing, not the money; you played it for love and magic, knowing that, if you did especially well with the bat, you would evoke the great Ranjitsinhji (or Ranji), and that was all you needed on Earth and all you needed to know. In your dreams, if you were that good, the great Ranji would stroll out from the pavilion as you walked back in at the end of the greatest innings you had ever played and embraced you right there in front of thousands. And you covered in sweat, your hair a salted curd. I was always hoping for a Ranji hug, or even a pat on the back, but the grand moment never came, neither during play nor in my dreams. What did happen in my dreams, though, was that I played with an outstanding team of oldsters, all with impeccable reputations, and they treated me as one of them: hearty, jovial, civil, as if their lives would not be complete without me.
We played against successive layers: tents, trees, brown temples, white temples, and behind these the whole sorry catafalque of India, all those who had not the urge or the money or the energy to come watch us play. Compared to what they did, scrabbling for a few coins or a ball of rice, what we did was trivial, except that, really, the ball was a tiny thing much in demand, certainly when contrasted with the vastness of the field we played in, the enormous fame of our sport around the world. To touch the ball during play was to be galvanized beyond the torments of hunger and sleeping in the streets; but we knew, some of us, we were a razor blade’s width from disaster, and that later in life things would get worse as we became too lame to play. So, logically enough, we played harder than ever in order to keep ourselves fit to play harder than ever. It worked until you reached forty, forty-five perhaps, and then you had to step down into umpiring (if you could), coaching, working the Scoreboard, things as menial as that after the days of applauded glory. There was always this edge to your performance: Will I be as good as this next year? Or, if you were playing badly. Just think how much worse you will be next year. Thankful to have some facility with English, taught me by a man named Engineer, I expected not too harsh a middle age, perhaps reporting for some newspaper, damning feats I could no longer perform. You played with a cold wind from the future blowing upon your sticky neck. No matter how good you were, the body would rot, as I was to discover, so you were better off being burned early and dumped into the Ganges to become waterlogged confetti.
Yet we were always being tempted to become more efficient, more elegant, almost inhumanly suave, so that, when we played, the applause was incessant, the crowd went home with numb hands, unable to sleep for dreaming of unthinkable prodigies we would execute on the morrow. We would strike the ball beyond those white minarets. We would hurl it at well beyond one hundred miles an hour. We would take catches that actually struck flame from our calloused palms. This we, of course, is the team we, or the sport we, nothing a nurse would say; which is to limn the illusion of total excellence, the notion of contest vanishing into some noble vision of the sport, our true competition being gravity, the flesh, light, the structure of the eye, the sudden occurrence of rain, dark, and wind. Prevailing over the elements, both teams would march off together into the tents, to take tea from steaming urns, all thought of the result forgotten. We were revised men, destined to take the sport to Mars.
This is an almost religious view of the game, is it not? Imagine the plight of those who emigrated to countries where the game goes unknown, or certainly un played, and they go homesick to some so called Indian restaurant next door to a novelty store that carries videocassettes for rent of popular Indian films —romances —and they haltingly ask the émigré proprietor if there are films to rent of the game. What game? They say its name, and the look of affronted incredulity forms. It must be wounding to be so far from home, a poor enough home at that, with none of the consolations of the old way. Such would Catholics be without their cross. Mediocre as my fate has been, I have contained myself within my own country and restricted myself to countries that honor the game and play it raptly, even searching for new minutiae of finesse in its vicissitudes, in its very rules. Those who have never played cannot know the bright enough to shave by polish on the ball when it is new, the soft shimmy of the bat when you hit the ball just right and a vibration runs the length of the wood, smoothing and easing long before it jars your hands (which it does not do because the bat handle is cored with rubber inlays). When you catch the ball on a sunny day, it is as if you have caught the sun itself and the retina image lingers in your head for a quarter of an hour, bringing the sun down and setting it horizontally between you and all you survey. I even cared about the umpires in their short smocks, caressing in their pockets the six or eight pebbles that stood for the number of times the bowler had bowled. Best of all the spastic walk of triumph after getting someone out, as if the proud executant were being mildly electrocuted. Or, if he does not rise to that, he does a slow roly-poly run with fists high and elbows far back, slapping hands with anyone he meets in the field. When you have made a living at this kind of thing, your sense of delight narrows; you develop an honorable bigotry for what you yourself are good at.
But, of course, you have to be fit enough to do it. They boo you dead when you begin to creak, begin stopping the ball with your foot instead of crouching to take it by hand. Your eyes blur, your broken fingers refuse to work in unison, your timing errs; you become an elegant incompetent, included in the team but, as far as possible, placed where you can do least damage, which strictly speaking is nowhere. Sooner or later you drop an important catch, trip over your own feet while chasing a speeding ground ball, or throw with all the aplomb of a water buffalo. Then they look down their noses at you and, next game, make you Reserve, doomed to sit out the game in the building splendidly named pavilion. All you do is carry out trays of drinks and, sometimes, substitute for an injured player, one who, as the quaint idiom has it, “Retired Hurt.” At that point you would be better off joining the local fire brigade or becoming, as I did for a brief while, a professional letter writer, for a pittance taking dictation and creating from it a ripe old copperplate whose daintiness belied even the most tragic message. Indeed, I wrote the bad news much more prettily. A typewriter would have helped, but I was never that sublimely technical. Writing down the buried sentiments of others, I let my mind dwell on unique parabolas the ball had made, or catches made before the ball had even seemed to move toward the clutching hand, or savage dives made at the boundary rope to keep the ball in play. Or I would linger on such a word as pavilion, on its regal connotations: striped awnings, fluttering silks, combed and brushed horses pawing the turf, pennants on high poles, parasols, shooting sticks, binoculars, ascots, straw boaters, champagne bottles being opened. Such were my pavilions, and their awnings were not of canvas; the field of the cloth of gold, rather, ourselves the princes lolling in the shade as we waited our turn to bat or careering about, bat in hand, in the center of the arena, scoring with reckless refinement. I was one of the few who loved the game in the round, for its social and metaphysical aspects as well as for its lure as a sport. It was social history as well as athletics. It was smoldering doldrum religion. It was elongated reverie. It was a ritual with choir in white and, like a hymnal board, the score in shifting figures arranged by an amputated hand that crept out from a gap in the planks and just as swiftly vanished.
All that foppery, mine.
Incandescent memory has scars to show.
Enough, I was going to recall great Ranji, the magician.with hair cut short and brushed into a shiny quiff, his silk shirt flowing and rippling as he melted from one posture into another. They said he drew the ball to him rather than plunged out to it. He seduced the ball’s ghost. Supple as a squirrel, he struck the ball, and the sound was solider than it should have been considering the amount of wood he hit it with. Had he struck it with a tree, the plonk could not have been more bass baritone. The ball scampered to be away from him and his debonair maltreatment. It was timing, of course, but it was also his having clear in his mind the apparition of the ball some several hundred yards away from him; the ball was gone before it came, and when it arrived it had only that one destiny to fulfill: to peel away from him enchanted and snubbed, smacked home with apology. How did he do it?
Sleeved down, the cuffs linked with fine jewelry.
The hair shiny with thick white cream congealed now into a crisp retainer.
The hands, ah the hands! pliant on wrists that rotated through three hundred and sixty degrees.
Dead still until the ball came near him, then a predatory flash all shooting star and snake charmer—nothing to see except Ranji inert again, recoiled, and the ball racing away as from the scene of something shameful.
High cheekbones. Cropped mustache. After two hundred scored, he would sometimes fiddle with his links and fold back his cuffs a little, like someone preparing to go through old bank receipts.
Slight. Pulsing with blood. Urgent in stillness, languid in triumph.
What did he say to me that once? Don’t hit it, guide it. Use its own force against it. The world behind you does not exist. When the ball is behind you, you will not need to play it. Concentrate on what is coming at you, and what confronts you. The people waiting to catch you behind will be powerless if you never let the ball go near them.
I saw, but I could never quite forget what was behind me.