Saturday, March 13, 2010

Vignettes of Sri Lanka: Who took my cricket ball?

Ravi woke up with a start and looked around. Daylight had barely broken, and it was an unusual, but interesting feeling to be awake. He looked with a hidden pride at his new watch to see what time it was. Not many of his friends had digital watches. This one had the most basic of functions: the time, an alarm, and a beeper for the hour. Some of his other friends had stop watches, and even a calculator. But this was good enough for now.

He quickly went through his morning routine, put on the clean white shirt mom had washed and ironed for him, along with the blue shorts black socks and black shoes that completed the uniform for school. It would be two years before he was in 8th grade, at which point the boys were required to wear long white pants instead of the shorts he now threw on everyday. He absently wondered how some of his classmates' parents were going to have the money to buy those new clothes. He knew many that had exactly one shirt and one pair of shorts for school. There were people like Murugesh (who everybody called Murukku) who endured constant humiliation because he wore his Bata rubber slippers to school - simply because he didn't own any shoes.

He quickly slurped down the half boiled egg. The slimy texture was interesting as it coated his throat and slithered into his aesophagus. He needed strength today, and he needed to get to school quickly.

'Amma, school pohiren'
'Mom, going to school'

He put his lunch box into his satchel and hurried out the door answering 'yes' 'yes' 'yes' to all his mom's usual queries.

'Thambi, do you have your lunch'
'Are you taking the bus'
'Remember to come home early so Appa can take you to practice'

It was sort of interesting and exciting to be out and going to school alone. It was only recently that he had started doing this. He didn't like to remember the trauma of being caned by his school principal for being late. After all, why was it his fault if his dad was delivering a baby and couldn't drop him off in time? 'He shouldn't have just caned the boys who came in cars' he muttered to himself. He increased his walk to a slow trot to try and push that out of his mind. As he did, he thought about the fact that it had catalyzed the permission to walk to school or take the bus. His parents wouldn't have agreed if that hadn't happened.

He walked out on the big pavement on the main road. Reaching down, he patted his pocket to make sure that the two 25 cent coins were there. His eyes darted down the road to see if the 103 was in sight. The public TATA bus was better. First, because it only cost 25 cents, and second because it took him right up to the school. The private buses were smaller, more crowded, charged 50 cents, and turned off before his school stop.

But the thing is that they were so much more frequent.

Today he wasn't going to try and save 25 cents for an ice palam at school. He needed to get to school. He turned around to look at the big block of flats behind him. Naren and his brother lived there. Everybody at school called Naren 'nondi'. Cruel, because he had polio at an early age, and one of his legs was irreversibly damaged. Naren was a survivor though, so he never let any of these comments get to him. It was unlikely that he or his brother would be on the bus. They took the general school bus that came by. That's what most of the boys used to come to school. He frowned slightly as he looked at his watch again. It was 6:50, which meant it would be 7:05 before he got to school, and class started at 7:30. Just as he started to worry, the familiar frame of the 103 bus appeared on the horizon.

He silently congratulated himself as he jumped on. He paid the 25 cents and hovered close to the exit. He never liked to sit. It was kind of fun to stand and see if he could balance when the turns were made. Sometimes he would hold on with one hand. He never tried what some of his friends did, which was to let go. His bag was a little clunky and he knew he would go flying if he tried that. He always remembered the words of his current teacher in school.

'They don't call us para Demalayas (Damn Tamils) for nothing. If you're too scared to stand up and fight, then you better learn to get around quietly.'

Thinking about that always sobered him. He knew that the Sinhalese boys made trouble, and he always wondered why they as a class never retaliated. The class above them somehow was more together. Their Sinhala classmates never bothered them. But it was hard to tell what it was. This got him thinking about his own classmates. He was thinking about each one of them and their characteristics as he routinely got off at his stop and walked to school. As he hit the gates, he came back to the moment with a start. He looked at down at his watch to see the digits staring back at him. 7:05. Instead of going to class he ran to the field, reaching inside his satchel to pull out the tennis ball as he motored. He and Sashi were batting today, and if he wasn't there by 7:10 then they were automatically out. It wasn't often that he got a chance to get in a good partnership. Usually they put him in the tail end. Not necessarily because some of the others were better than him, but they were bigger and more persistent.

He made it in time. The wickets were set up - two bricks set about a 24" width apart. The other team was mostly there, and his classmates were waiting. He quickly grabbed a bat and surrendered his tennis ball. Wellington, the captain walked up and grabbed him by the elbow 'We need runs, but singles and doubles ok? No heroics. Don't whack the ball around. Try not to get out and let Sashi score the runs' Naren was there, in his usual position as head umpire. Who knows where he would have been in the batting order if he wasn't a nondi?

Ravi nodded a quiet assent.

He did well, and listened. As he watched, played some cautious front foot strokes, and played a few down the line, exhibiting a straight bat, he could see Wellington and some of the others nodding. Around them other groups of other cricket matches had welled up. There were no teachers in sight. This was their time. They figured things out amongst themselves on the field.

And then it came.

A badly pitched ball down the leg side. It was fast, but not too fast, bounced about midway down the pitch and just hung there. It happened often because the bowlers often forgot that he was lefty and would bowl as though he was right handed. He pulled at it and made contact. The ball soared through the air and flew away. It was easily going to be a boundary.

Damn it.

His heart froze. He looked over apologetically at Wellington, who was then the leg umpire. He got icy stares all around, from his team, as well as the other team. Wellington jogged past him and smacked him sharply on the head. 'Finished'. He said curtly. As a whole, the group of players moved in the direction of the ball. If they were lucky, there was a bunch of Tamil boys playing in the direction the ball went in. Today however, his luck had run out with catching the 103 bus. No ball came flying back. They went towards the group and Wellington asked for the ball.

Blank stares.

Now the games would begin. The Sinhalese boys would hide the ball. They would throw it around amongst themselves. In the worst case scenario, they would pick a fight with one Tamil boy, and then then everybody on the field would gang up. Sadly, in those cases, the other Tamil boys would stand and watch, not wanting to be part of the massacre.

Today, it looked like it would be Bhavanathan. He was a scrapper, and usually lost his cool before everybody else. He'd call people names, and would the first one that got jostled around. He was in there being aggressive. Just then, his heart quickened. He saw Fernando.

Fernando was a Sinhalese Christian boy on the soccer team with him. It was the one place where he got to talk to and spend time with Sinhalese boys from school without being attacked. Their eyes met. He raised his head in a silent acknowledgement. Fernando responded. Strange how they talked and joked during practice, and tried to get out of the hard exercises together, and here they were on opposite camps.

Ravi stepped forward and put his hand on Bhavanathan's shoulder. It got brushed off. Bhavanathan didn't need him as an ally. Ignoring the rejection, Ravi spoke directly to Fernando.

'Machan, ball'
'Hey man (literally, cousin), ball'


The familiar term in Sinhalese, connoting friendship or a connection.

A nod of relief

Give it!

The word was barked out. Fernando wasn't the clan leader by any means so everybody was nervous to see him assert himself in this fashion. As we stood, there was a slow thaw. The tension broke. The tennis ball emerged slowly from behind somebody's back. Ravi smiled sheepishly and held his hand out.

'Malli, yanda'
'Little brother, go.'

The Sinhalese boy said it sarcastically and then threw the ball up in the air, in the direction of where they had set up their wicket and stumps. Everybody turned almost in unison and tore after the ball.

Usually, if the ball got taken like that, whoever hit it out there was automatically out, for wasting time. The irony of being out for scoring a boundary was never lost on him. But today, they let Ravi and Sashi bat for the remaining 3 minutes after the ball fiasco. This decision simultaneously evoked elation and nervousness. Elation that he was not out, that he would be batting at interval today; nervousness and anxiety at what had just happened, and the very real prospect of it happening again with each ball that was bowled to him.

The bell rang, and everybody started walking toward class. The tennis ball was returned to him and he put it back in his satchel. As he walked he felt his knees buckle under him. Somebody had just kicked him behind his kneecap. He started, and then stopped when he saw it was a grinning Fernando. On the soccer field, it was a common move that punished the unaware. Ravi regained his balance.

'Hey thanks machan'

'For the kick?'

'No you bugger. You know what I meant'

Fernando became serious again for an instant, then his eyes lightened. In Sinhalese he said

'You better buy me an ice palam at practice today.'


Ravi watched as Fernando jogged to catch up with his classmates. With a certain heaviness he realized that Fernando had already gotten over the incident. After all, it's easy for the predator to be gracious in victory.

He patted the 25 cent coin in his pocket. Easy come easy go.

'At least I'm batting at lunch today'.

He went in and sat down and waited for class to begin.


  1. Nice story. It really fills in a lot about what it must have been like growing up there.

  2. Thanks Bill. Yes, it is an amalgamation of observations and experiences. I remember that my childhood was good, but it was filled with fear and apprehension because of this dimension. Best way to express it seemed to be with a short story