Old-timers in Abu Dhabi will remember the old St. Joseph's Church. It stood by the sea-side probably right where the Ajman Palace Hotel stands today. I was too young to remember anything of course. All I can remember is a large brown dome and a chandelier with yellow light bulbs inside. and a cotton-candy man outside. But maybe it was ice-creams he was selling. I really don't remember. That was when the gulf was a wild carefree place. The jobs were many and lucrative and the rules were lax. You could pick up bread, butter, some frozen chicken and a few extra passports on the way from work.
Then of course things changed and the only thing that flowed thicker than the oil were the expatriates. St. Josephs grew too small for the parish and shifted to a spanking new location near the Old Airport Road. Back then it was just the Airport Road. When you entered, through understandably secular gates, you stepped into a smooth concrete courtyard. At one end was the main entrance to the Church, to the left the residences of the priests and nuns and to the right some office buildings. The Church was a remarkable building at that age for me, all shiny marble, sturdy pews and monstrous chandeliers. The school building was right behind the church. In between was a long flat ground that served as a venue for the midnight service every Christmas and Easter. But the remaining days of the year it served one evil, sinister purpose. A purpose that to this day makes me shudder when I think of my school days. The EVIL PLAYGROUND.
In the beginning it was all not so bad. We were enclosed in a small corner of the playground with a little grass, some sand and a few flowers. There were slides and a nice set of swings. The kindergarten kids were enclosed behind a wire fence not unlike the ones undercover agents cut through with pliers. I was a peaceful child in school, never pulling ponytails too much or peeing in my shorts too often. I enjoyed the presence of other children and their wide variety of lunch boxes on offer every noon. (Jibu Joseph if you are out there I owe much of my current weight problems to your sausages in ketchup.)
I should have taken the hint early on though. Especially when I was commended for my excellent rendition of "I am a teapot" in the famous rhyme of the same name. But I think reality hit me when I was trying to use the playground toys. To cut a long story short, the slides didn't and swings seldom did without effort. I was never really very keen on swings in the first place. Having grown up in a first floor flat all my life I was not too used to heights. (Not like I was chicken or something... I just was not brought up appreciating 10 feet or above.) But I had a passion for slides that just was not mutual. I would climb up the steps well enough and my slide down began eagerly enough. I would scream in delight as I began descent. But it went more like this: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-THUK-CRUNCH.
The first part was the scream in delight. Followed by the sound of one kid wedged mid-slide. The third bit in that symphony of agony was of the stupid kid who couldn't wait for me to finish. He had crashed into me wedging me even further. This story repeated itself many times over each time I went to parks and playgrounds. Little did I know then that I was being driven down the path of TV gameshows, boardgames and career umpiring/referreeing.
Things went steadily downhill from there. In primary school I was annually subject to that self-esteem depriving exercise called annual day sport trials. You were expected to meet at various times of the week, depending on which house you belonged to, and were then expected to participate in a variety of sports, some of them downright ridiculous. Everyone who has gone through that "potato race" buffoonery raise your hands now. The scars from potato races mentally torture me to this day. They lay out a row of potatoes, each goddamn tuber a couple of meters apart, with a bucket at one end. They laid out a few rows like this and then you had to start running from bucket to potato, run back, drop it in the bucket and then go back to the next one and so on. It was okay if you did this alone. But that would have been conducive to some maintenance of self-pride. So they made you "compete" against another bunch of young, lithe, fleet footed bastards who ate one slice of brown bread every three days and had jet-pack metabolisms.
By the time I had my last frigging potato in the bucket the waifs were half way through their post-run mineral water bottles. Next time you notice someone watching an AB-Slim-Pro infomercial with gnashing teeth and reddening eyes you can be sure he has many a potato race in his past. And if you managed to fall sick suitably on a day when they had potato race trials and thought you escaped, you were so wrong. They always had "lets all have fun and lose our front teeth" sack-racing, "mmmm... lemony cutlery, my favourite" lemon-and-spoon races and of course that old classic, "are these legs yours?" three-legged races.
That is not to say I did not have my few and far between moments of triumph. How can I, or Neerak Mark D'mello, forget the summer of 1989? We were the champions of chariot racing. Almost. It was a sport that was meant for the both of us. It was a sport for two people where the driver held the chariot by his ankles, while the chariot was face down parallel to the ground propped up on his arms, palms down. The race was pretty simple then. The chariot pulled himself along the rack while the driver pushed him along like a wheel barrow. It was perfect. Neeraj was a pickle of a kid while I could easily lift him and literally pummel him down the track. We participated in the trials amidst considerable politics. (I somehow had a reputation for these trials and it was a challenge to get him to agree to partner with me. He had apparently seen one too many potato race trials.) But wonder of wonders we qualified for the finals. And then went and made utter fools of ourselves. We finished a respectable fourth, and that too only because, when I noticed we were slipping out of the medals, I picked him up and lobbed him over the finish line. It was a finish fit for champions. As Neeraj bounced away into the sunset I looked at the scorekeeper only to be told it was not enough.
Things got marginally better as I went up grades. We had things like discuss, javelin and shot put. I could throw ok. Not annual sports quality but I threw well enough to walk back with pride. (A regular reader will remember the time I knocked out myself with a javelin. That was an exception.) But except for that chariot thing I never made it into the big leagues ever again for a long time till I went to boarding school in Kerala. I was an eager participant at most games. But soon I discovered a great skill which revolutionised my entire approach towards the field of competitive sport. I could absorb the impact of most sporting equimpent and some reasonably sized people on my body without anything more than a shrug of inconvenience. As soon as the implications of this hit me, I leapt out of the shower, changed into shorts and ran down the sporting field in joy while everyone else screamed "you-streaka you-streaka"...
Thus began a long and illustrious career as keeper of wickets in cricket and keeper of goal in a variety of field games. I excelled in handball and football in particular. I had good anticipation, went really hard into tackles and made death and gravity defying dives. (Other peoples deaths and my gravity to be precise.) My jealous friends wrote off my ability to keep the ball out to probability (something about ratio of exposed areas...). But I worked hard at my skills. The transition into cricket was inevitable. Once I had worked out which crease was which and that "Leg Before Wicket" was not a motto like "Death Before Disinvestment" things went well. I blocked many catches with a deftly placed thigh and more than once dived to catch a direct throw from the fielders directed at the stumps. I was obsessed with wicket keeping. And sometimes kept wickets for both teams. (That I did not have to bat or field thus were added benefits). Which meant I had twice as many catches as anyone else after every match. My stats were good.
But I never got chosen for any of the teams though. I was not versatile. Apparently being an excellent wicket-keeper and outstanding leg-umpire wasn't good enough for them pricey captains. Which left only two things to do for a sporting and enthusiastic guy like me. Water and lemon wedges boy or match official. After a couple of months I got sick of the water boy job and could never look at lemons again for years. Thus I became a match official. That meant I got to be on the field, got refreshments, got included in all the photos and sometimes got a medal of my own. And all this without needing to know where third man, extra cover, around or over the wicket was and what "follow on" meant. (The latter caused problems on occassions but I managed to nod my way through mostly with statements like "But that just isn't cricket is it?") There were tough calls sometimes. At a particular staff-student match there was a controversy over a line call which would have determined the match. It was a heated argument between teacher and priests on one side and rabid students on the other. I had to intermediate and a weaker man would have folded under the pressure. But I held on and after listening to both parties, deliberating extensively, and having a brick thrown at me by the students, I decided in favour of the priest team. They had god and many more bricks on their side.
Basketball was always a fleeting passion for me. Our school had an excellent basketball team. But most of the team were all these tall fast guys. But sometimes miracles happen. Sometimes, when you put your mind to it, you can overcome the most impossible odds and achieve the improbable. You could be short and slow and still make it to the first 5 in the basky team. After hours of training and dedicated effort, and more than a few meals skipped for fitness, it happened. My friend Arun made it into the team. I was so happy for him.
One afternoon I was walking from the mess to the sporting field when I passed by the junior basketbal team practising. They were concentrating on last-minute long-range shots and were particularly struggling to get the slow motion part right. One of them, in that arrogant fashion of the first 5 school team, said something about fat people not being able to run or even shoot. I was inflamed. I strode up to him, grabbed the wretched spheroid from his orc-like hands and turned Aragorn-like to my goal, the daunting basket to the west. I was driven by a need to uphold the pride of my peoples, the fat of the land, and because he had wagered one small "5 star" chocolate as well. I shot, and I scored!!! (Those who, led by the general tone of this post, thought I may have missed, shame on you!!! You have no appreciation for free chocolate.)
I was hooked after that. Whenever I saw a basketball I had to go and buy a "5 star" chocolate. It compounded the Slide Wedge Syndrome. But I did play a lot of basket ball after that. I had a decent shot and was solid and portly in defence. Boarding school also taught me volleyball and table tennis. I had a pretty good backhand serve. Dont remember in which sport though.
My sporting career flamed out after that except for a brief resurgence in college when, for a brief period, I represented the college in football. But that ended when I had a fallout with the coach. He wanted me to warm-up before each session with several push-ups, sit-ups and 10 rounds of the jogging track. I would not settle for anything more than a short motivational speech. He send a 6-page email to the PE Instructor which got leaked into the school paper. It got dirty and I was moved out unceremoniously.
Business school saw me dabbling in volleyball and basketball with mixed success. In Ahmedabad the zenith was when I line-judged a women's volleyball match. I made an excellent close call and there was much screaming and howling and hugging of the line judge after that. When they left me, the opposition merely abused me profusely and slapped me about a bit. That event helped me explore many sides of my kinkiness.
Life since then has been pretty much unsporting. Except for the occassional running after local trains and running out of office at 5:30 before boss comes back from restroom I have been sitting around doing little that is not sedentary. But sometimes I lean back and my eyes focus into the distance. I smile to myself when I think of all those great sporting moments in my life. I have been truly blessed havent I? I mean a whole "5 star".