Playing Hookey for Shorty

Published in Cricinfo, February 12, 2014

The call always arrived after dinner. Located in the living room, the telephone offered little privacy. Pesky and nosy busybodies (siblings and parents) were always hovering and any spilling of the beans now that half the school day had been kissed goodbye would create mayhem. Poker face and minimalist was the way to go.

The voice never wasted time on pleasantries; straight to the point:

“Did you go?”

“Mmm…”

“How much?”

“27”

“Brilliant?”

“Two flicks. One cover drive. A leg glance. Two back-foot cuts behind point. Later than God. Where were you rotting away?”

“Had a chemistry lab report to finish, dude. That son-of-Hitler professor would have killed me if I didn’t.”

“Sure. Rot in hell, will you?”

The details could wait, to extract maximum envy the next day. The mind was still preoccupied by the manic dash that morning. Plus the nagging prospect of Sanskrit or biology homework (depending on the classes that had been skipped) that still lay waiting. But an unscathed escape from the morning’s clandestine mission was at hand. Soon it would be bedtime.

****

It required meticulous planning as you snuck out of school. The time of day mattered. If it was afternoon, you chose the Lal Bagh-JC Road route. Past the Victorian Town Hall, skirting Cubbon Park to arrive at the roundabout at Queen Victoria’s statue. If it was morning, it was Ashoka Pillar, Double Road – past Syed Kirmani’s house – to Richmond Circle and up St Mark’s Road to what is now Anil Kumble Circle. Turning left to reach the statue of Gandhi.

The Gandhi and Queen Victoria statues still stare eye to eye in front of the KSCA (also known as Chinnaswamy) Stadium, Bangalore.

Slide the rickety bicycle to a stop at the makeshift parking lot housing a hundred-odd bicycles, scooters and motorcycles in the shadows of the cavernous stands – if the match was on inside. Or pull up at the boundary ropes if it was at the KSCA matting wickets outside.

Look around. Unnecessary, for the scattered crowd was the same. The same lot of elderly gentlemen, middle-aged businessmen with leather cases, anxious looking twentysomethings, and of course the throng of students with satchels and backpacks slung over their shoulders. Regulars.

A State Bank of India v Syndicate Bank match, perhaps.

Formalities and etiquette are nothing in such situations. Fortunately, utterly redundant. The person next to you will do:

Kulla”? [“Shorty?”]

“Not yet. Just one down”

Whew.

Kulla: “Shorty” in Kannada, the language of Bangalore. A small word. For a short person. A word used literally and casually in the language. As a term of endearment, too. An affectionate grandfather ruffling his grandson’s hair, saying, “Yeno kulla?” [“What’s up, little one?”]

Such an appropriate word for him.

****

No one called him Gundappa back then. Just Viswa. And in Bangalore, he was always kulla. If you were born there, you were automatically enrolled as a member in the Brotherhood of the Fellowship of Kulla. A membership you took for granted. Never missed meetings – over lunch boxes at school, or in office cafeterias. Over breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. Lounging around neighbourhood coffee houses and pubs. At parties, weddings and funerals. Always conducted dreamily and cheerfully. Like everything about him, nothing was screamed out. But it was everywhere. You just breathed it in.

And when it was a match at the KSCA…

No paltry physics lecture was going to be an impediment. Of course, you went. And they came from all corners of the city, young and old. Tracking the progress of the match in local newspapers, meticulously calculating odds on the timing of his arrival at the crease. Oh, six-down and Sudhakar Rao still batting for Syndicate Bank on 70? Skip the morning then; late afternoon looks promising. Lie to the boss. Lie to the wife. Hop on the bicycle and scoot the hell out of school and arrive at the stadium sweating. Desperately seeking out the scoreboard, heart in mouth.

For he never guaranteed a big window. Especially in matches with little on the line. Many were the days when you got there, out of breath, and glared at the scoreboard as it sheepishly conveyed the news: three-down, last batsman (No. 4) out for 32! Glance at the grey-haired gentleman smiling and still shaking his head. As you made eye contact: “Monkey mischief! He must have been bored. Tried to hit four boundaries in an over and got out caught and bowled. But the three fours…”

You could hop back on the bike and go off. Or try to get something for the effort: some piece of kulla. So you did. Sidled over to the stern-looking retiree and started up a conversation. Mentioned – well, let us see, Pataudi? And then leaned back and let it wash over.

The stories, oh the stories. Perhaps the one about Tiger concocting a fake kidnapping on a train in Viswa’s first year for India. The gullible rookie falling for it, reduced to a hysterical wreck. It never got old. And the look of affection on the storyteller’s face never faded. You rode back smiling. There was always next week – a Moin-ud-Dowlah Cup match, perhaps.

And the Ranji Trophy matches. Headaches galore: to go on Saturday or Sunday? Grab lunch packed by mom and gang up on the bus. Those matches were something else, you know: Sunny, Kapil, Bedi, Mohinder, Venkat, Shastri, Patil, Gaekwad, Vengsarkar, Srikkanth… everyone. Basking in the sun in packed stadiums. Getting lucky sometimes. A rapid-fire 30, studded with improbably delicious shots. Perhaps a 70 – all grace and panache. Or he and Brijesh Patel trying to one-up each other in audacity against a cowering Hyderabad attack. Bliss.

Also hit and miss. Like the day the Karnataka openers dug in like armadillos, batting out two sessions. As the light turned golden and shadows lengthened, a bunch of us embarked on a salvage operation – a pitch invasion. Slipping through a gap in the fence near the BEML stand, hoofing it to the middle to congratulate Roger Binny on his fifty. Or you eschewed such theatrics and took the easy way. Looked around and picked the closest avuncular gent. Mentioned the 97.

Now, Chepauk at full capacity (like on that day) was at best close to 30,000. To date, two generations of south Indians who have lived within striking distance of Chennai have been lying through their teeth (and are still at it), claiming to have been at the stadium for that masterful knock against West Indies. As would this uncle in the row behind. That was always good for a half-hour.

The years passed. Not much changed other than the bicycles, traded in for Bajajs and Hero Hondas. The rituals and habits remained intact. We now bided time sitting at outdoor restaurant patios near the stadium, sipping endless coffees. Trying to time it and get there as the second wicket fell. Zipping home soon after, still grinning at the 20-minute recital he had put on.

Our failure rate too didn’t change much. Like one Saturday, under blue skies and blazing sunshine, 25,000 of us sitting down with Tamil Nadu six down. Picture us five hours later: as L Sivaramakrishnan raised his bat on bringing up his century. Foiled by L Siva-friggin-Ramakrishnan, for god’s sake!

Yes, there was Lord’s, Melbourne, Port-of-Spain, Calcutta, Chennai and more. And moments like Bob Taylor in Mumbai. But to that entire generation of cricket newbies from Bangalore (none of whom were in Chennai for the 97, mind you), he would always be the shy smile and exquisite late cut at the end of the bike ride. Best savoured alone, leaning over handlebars at the boundary ropes on a sunny afternoon. Inhaling sharply as he leaned into a poetic front-foot cover drive to a ball on leg stump. Looking around and seeing others from the fellowship nodding heads and smiling. Lost in their own thoughts.

But always smiling.

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2 thoughts on “Playing Hookey for Shorty

  1. Great read as always.

    I got to see him live at the Kotla in March 1978…in a Ranji match between Karnataka and Delhi. Had positioned myself with friends at long off…opposite to the pavilion on a winter day. Had to be a silent supporter…lest I had the desire to go back home with broken limbs. Aaaah….the perils of being a Karnataka supporter in Delhi. Ended up going a day early. The next day he scored a century.

    I have 45 minutes of commentary from the final moments of the 420+ chase mounted by lndia at the Oval in 1979…One of the rare instances when Vishy did not walk off…caught in the covers… Bounced ball possibly? One of the best chases mounted by Sunny. Have you written about it?

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