An Englishwoman in India part two

Continued from yesterday

Then I found my workplace and had my first game of office cricket. It’s quite fierce and wholly relentless. Again I was no good and, being competitive, this was frustrating. But not to worry: I soon forgot my woes as we headed by auto to Bandra, through streets lined with slipper sellers and random elephants, to watch a play about Gandhi. It was sumptuous: colourful, authoritative and adorned by light touches of humour. Speeches before and after sandwiched the play, and the audience were thanked for coming – a rarety back home, but imbued in the friendly culture over here. It’s not second nature, it’s nature.

Afterwards we dined al fresco which was bliss after a cold English winter. Two days later more outdoor activity – my first net of the summer. This was a net like no other. It began at 7am for a start. This involved my colleagues and fellow nettees – George, Naga and Sid – swinging by my apartments at 5.30, just in time to catch sunrise. I’m no early bird, but I was still running on wide-eyed, wide-grinned adrenaline.

We threaded our way through streets and link roads where Bollywood posters mixed with huge photos of Flintoff and Vaughan plus the usual assortment of Indian megastars – all against a contrasting backdrop of poverty and riotous splendour. An hour later we reached the Oval maidan in uptown Mumbai, three pitches’ worth of sprawling municipal ground which is maintained for public use. The pitch is flat and true, perfect for batting. No run-up is marked, but that doesn’t seem to hamper the bowlers for whom the nets are more an excuse for socializing afterwards. Still, they came in whites.

The commute

After two-and-a-half hours of this warm weather training, the sun was scorching and we were beat, so we repaired to a café for burjee bread (spicy scrambled eggs on white) and beer. It was not yet 10 o’clock.

The only cricket I took part in on Wednesday and Thursday was of the office variety, where I am getting no better, and beers are at stake. Friday was my day off, so I headed into town again, having been placed carefully on the train in the ladies’ first-class carriage by another colleague, Rajesh, who was off to watch the Davis Cup.

I had heard so many stories about the trains and the gasps in the office when I had mooted the idea of catching one were so loud that I was disappointed they were no warmer nor more cramped than your common-or-garden Tube. I’ve since learned that there are ten train deaths a day (from climbing on the roofs, from crossing the tracks) that when a passenger dies and delays the train it’s more an exasperating inconvenience than anything else. I didn’t do anything so daredevil, instead sitting quietly, my eyes and nose pressed in the thin gap between the wire mesh, drinking in the atmosphere. Smells – musty, thick and rich – rose up from the streets, shanty towns and smog and enveloped the people, so many people, who were milling around at all points.

I arrived at Victoria Terminus – renamed, with limited success, CST as the authorities try to wipe away traces of the empire – and it felt just like Paddington: a vast, ornate cavern housing train after train. I ducked next door into the Times of India, a cool, marble building, where I delved into the archives for some historical research on old matches.

One such match was in 1993, the prawns farrago involving Graham Gooch. I chuckled at how the paper had reported: ” Prawns are a luxury not many can afford in England and hence, perhaps, the temptation” but then realized immediately that many of my tourist eye’s perceptions over here will be ‘wrong’ (I hope not) or perhaps amusing.

The archives closed for lunch, so I visited another maidan, the Azad, which was next door to the Oval. There were games and games, of course, and I was amused to see one groundsman marking a pitch which spilled over into another, while a live game was taking place, with umpires, scorers … but no boundaries. Apparently, the ball goes for four roughly where the strips stop. Next door to the higgledy-piggledy pitches are the immaculate lawns of the Bombay Gymkhana, a 100-metre stretch of a pleasingly symmetrical pristine clubhouse overlooking manicured, lush green turf, with taut, proud nets anchored firmly into the ground.

But back at the other pitches, another instant swarm; this time schoolboys. They gathered round fast and fired questions faster. What’s my name? Where am I from? Do I like cricket? Who is my favourite player? They were quick to speak of Sachin, quicker to introduce me to mini-Sachin, a Mumbai Under-19 player. The Little Little Master. We chatted about cricket for a while – heaven, as usual – before the drinks cart rolled up.

Two men stood behind, cheerfully squeezing out fresh watermelon juice and lime juice. “You must try it,” Salman, a slender, elegant boy with dazzling teeth and an easy manner, told me. Trying to pay for anything is proving impossible wherever I go and here was no different. Much to my embarrassment, but in spite of my insistence, 14-year-old Owais bought my drink. Salman explained: “It is our pleasure that you have come to India.” This experience has been often repeated and never diminishes in its delight. There’s nothing forced about it, either.

In the evening I returned to the maidan: more nets, more people. I was invited to watch and immediately offered a chair. Nets take place here every night – apart from Fridays – with matches on a weekend. No wonder they are all so good. I was transfixed by one player in particular who casually swatted the ball to all parts with quick wrists and keen eye.

Ah, Mumbai. As if the sun, food and friendliness of everyone is not enough, there’s also cricket in abundance. Cockroaches, mozzie bites, power-cuts and swollen feet aside – just a part of life – I’m not sure I want to come home.

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