Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 9, September 1-15, 2020
Prelude: This story was made possible due to the COVID-19 situation as a group of close-knit friends met after 25 years over a Zoom call and recounted good old memories from their teenage days in Chennai. We were a set of easy-going teenagers raised in lower-middle-class homes in the United India Colony area during the late 80s and early 90s. Though we were 3-4 years apart, we did most things together. The core gang included:
Arvind: A happy-go-lucky guy, good cricket player, loved to talk a lot, had a big grin, and was thrilled to gain a sudden increase in height at the right time.
CS: Relatively silent unless provoked and that made him explode with the mildest of swear words, known to come up with exotic excuses for not reaching the ground in the early mornings.
Karthik: The noisy simpleton, always ready for a fight and could quickly end up in tears, but always a team player. Had a penchant for movies and street snacks.
Kunal: The then portly Sehwag of our group, all slogging and no running. Well-read, could talk non-stop, especially in English, and the origin of many light-hearted arguments.
Keshav: He was the fulcrum of the group and a true all-rounder, talented cricketer, great at hand-tennis, good with indoor games and very good at studies too, oh and yes, a huge Thalaivar fan too.
Srikanth: The only leftie in the group, the shortest and youngest but also the loudest, known to have a colorful language that put us seniors into shame.
My two brothers: The elder one would prefer to read a book than come and play, he was the intellectual of the group, had to be prodded to join us and never liked to occupy the crease much like Kunal, old Hindi movie song buff and shouldered a lot of responsibility at home. The younger one was carefree and was always a part of the group, but less vocal and let others talk, also a huge Thalaivar fan like Keshav. Also known for a big appetite, he could devour a whole loaf of bread in one sitting, leaving the rest of the gang in awe of the achievement.
Self: A dreamer who tried to meddle in too many things and thus was a master of none, was the quizzer of the group, a better athlete than a cricketer, good knowledge of all sports, short tempered and a loud-mouth too.
As I jumped the short walls to run after the tennis ball that ricocheted off my lower palm on to Circular Road, a girl coming in the opposite direction nonchalantly picked it and threw it back at me with a smile. My attention was not on the ball, but the hazel eyes of that not so coy beauty. I’d be lying if I did not admit to being blown away by her. It took a while to continue the intense hand-tennis game with Keshav, who also sensed that something had hit me in a nice way.
That road where it all started, Circular Road, happens to be the outer ring road of United India Colony, a quaint well laid out middle-class locality tucked at one end of Kollywood aka Kodambakkam, Chennai. A 15-minute stroll would bring you back to your starting point. The radial roads at 120 degrees connected you to the inner ring road called Park View road, which you could walk in under five minutes, and in the middle was a small nice park.
It also had three long vertical roads and a bunch of horizontal roads, the most famous among the latter being the 4th cross street which is where a good part of the action took place in this story, the other being Circular road itself. The 4th cross street stretched right from the old Uma lodge (which was a landmark for Malayalam movie stars in their early days) and across the Loyola school and Fatima church, all the way to the end of the other side with Gokul apartments, one of the first flats in that area. The Circular road was tangential to the 4th cross street. It was such a beautiful layout and could bring out either the romantic or the mathematician in you. I guess I ended up with the former more than the latter.
Our cricket games were played in one of the 120-degree sectors of Park View Road. Traffic would be neatly diverted to the other side using a set of bricks and people around that small community were used to this at certain times of the day. Would people have trouble with what we did? No. We are talking about the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when vehicular traffic on those roads was light. The brave were allowed to walk through though, and we had a good set of brave regulars who would field for us as well. We played cricket in front of Arvind’s house, along with our star player Keshav, Srikanth, Karthik, Kunal, CS, and my two brothers.
We were sometimes joined by the swashbuckling batsman Gopu, and his two younger siblings. The core group was between the 8-12 grades and was sometimes joined by three first graders – Unni, Mukul and Pravin. They were brave to play with us older kids, and would feign ignorance at some big talk. I guess they graduated sooner thanks to our influence. You see, those were the days when teenagers would include the smaller kids and also give them their batting gaaji (time with the bat).
Space was never a constraint for cricket and we had rules for all situations. You were out if you hit into any house or into the park. Most residents were cooperative and let us go in and retrieve the ball anytime, except for the one at the corner. It was a six if you hit the walls of that house, but you were out if the ball crossed the walls into the house, go figure the logic. Once it cleared the walls, there was no guarantee of the ball coming back as the Marwari family there was strict, except for a daughter who would throw the ball back to us. Oh no, this is not Her, and I will come to that soon. It was great fun playing cricket on the street.
We chatted a lot, fought a lot, made fun of each other, but had a great time overall. Every evening we’d go home only after it became dark. Most days we played short 6-8 over games, but during the summer break, we’d play full test matches stretching over days, though Kunal would be in no mood for them as he was always in the T20 mode back then. I loved my gaaji (occupying the crease) and preferred the old style. Keshav was the toughest to get out and usually ended up on the winning side, and I was always paired opposite him and as you guessed would end up on the losing side more often than not. Srikanth was tough to face with his left-arm spin, and Arvind had a tough to read action that could go both ways. We would invariably not finish the game as the ball usually ended up at the Marvadi home and that meant pack-up. I still wonder what they did with all those balls. Weekends and holidays meant real cricket against other teams in the area, mostly at the Trustpuram or Somasundaram grounds. Once Srikanth’s thatha (Grandpa) came all the way to the ground early in the morning to check if he had brushed his teeth, and then went on to interrogate each of us to make sure we did too.
We also had a blast playing cricket at the terrace of Govindham Apartments. At the terrace, if you hit outside it was not a six but you were out, and that was not it, you had to climb down four floors to fetch the ball and then haul yourself all the way up. You could get a reprieve if there was a kind person walking on the road who was willing to throw the ball back at us over four floors, which was always a 50-50 chance. A good straight drive had a high likelihood of the ball going over the parapet wall and on to the neighbouring Loyola school. Then you needed the expertise of either Keshav, Srikanth, or me to climb delicately over the walls topped with colorful broken bottles and jump over, get the ball and then carefully climb back without getting hurt. If any of our moms saw us doing it, that was the end of the game, but luckily that never happened as we had guys watching over our back.
The reverse sweep was the most productive shot as most scoring opportunities were square off the wicket on the offside, except for the lotte (leftie) in Srikanth who could play to his leg side. Bowling was usually underarm spin. I still wonder at how those who lived on the 3rd floor never complained about the noise of the big kids jumping around. It did help that the younger Unni and Mukul were staying on the 3rd floor, so that took care of two families out of four. We had fun with the simple things in life, starting the day early with the morning newspaper, chatting with friends devoid of any devices, enjoying whatever food we get to fill our stomach, watching TV as a group on the only channel we got and of course playing cricket wherever we find space.
(To be continued next fortnight)