Our return to India should have marked a return to cricket. This is what I expected, and an evening watching matches at the Mumbai gymkhanas along Marine Drive seemed only to confirm it. We sat on the low wall surrounding the police gymkhana and watched a mini-tournament, hosted by a company for its employees. The walls of the gymkhanas seem permanently filled by people who just come by and watch, happy to see any cricket even if it is just a CEO dislocating his shoulder to bowl at his underlings.
We went from the gymkhana grounds to board a sleeper bus to Ahmedabad, a new experience for me. I tucked myself in to the far corner of our lower bunk, trying not to think about how trapped we were, and was lulled to sleep by the movement of the bus.
We looked for cricket in Ahmedabad, we really did. We drove through the streets, peering down alleys and into dusty fields, listening for that now-familiar *thock*. We even went to the stadium itself, but were stopped at the gate by a moustachioed man in uniform who told us we could not enter. We tried arguing, tried pleading, tried “but we’ve come so far,” but he couldn’t be moved. Even our autorickshaw driver, now invested in our plight, joined in. Finally the man went to call some mysterious floating head on the phone, while the rest of the guards stood around, smiling sheepishly at me, something like an apology. The man behind the curtain, whoever he was, rejected us as well, and the guards made room for the auto to turn around. I started to take a picture of the stadium looming in the distance, and was told I couldn’t do that either.
Another city, another bus ride, on to the town of Jamnagar. It was a lovely place, with doe-eyed cows roaming the streets even more than usual, and camels pulling loaded carts through the streets. It also happens to be the birthplace of Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, the man more popularly known as just Ranji, the batting legend after whom India’s premier domestic competition is named. I had first learned of him when we visited a castle he stayed in in Ireland. We visited the sports club where he once played, and as I stood beneath his portrait, dark and dusty in the evening light, I had to laugh at the twists and turns life brings. I, who had never heard of cricket eight years ago, had now been to Ranji’s house on not one, but two different continents.
The cricket history in Jamnagar was all well and good, but for my cricket-tragic husband, only the real thing will do. Much like Ahmedabad, we drove through the city in the evenings, after school let out but before darkness fell, in search of the suddenly elusive sport. The closest we came was seeing once-empty party plots where we were assured people normally played, now looming with wedding tents and folding chairs. The wedding season seemed to have eaten up all the flat spaces, growing like strange weeds in the empty fields. If there were kids playing in the field a few weeks before, they weren’t here now.
Another bus, the miles rumbling by, to the city of Udaipur. Now this was my kind of place, tucked into rolling hills, with narrow winding staircases and elaborate paintings decorating walls. For three days we strolled the twisting lanes, soaking it all in. In one forgotten corner we heard the tell-tale sound of a ball being struck, but rounded the corner to see a small boy, alone, kicking a deflated football up the hill. It rolled back down, making a sad wobbling sound, to be kicked again, the hill an ideal playmate for a boy with no one else.
I started asking people if any kids played cricket in Udaipur. I was curious what the answer would be, and if it would change from one to the next. To my surprise, it didn’t. The answer was always no.
In a way, it was like a vacation for us. Without cricket to divide our interests, we spent our time together, holding hands and marvelling at the many skilled artisans and their work. I took an art class, using paint ground from different stones, making swooping lines on a piece of silk. In the evenings, we relaxed in our guesthouse, listening to the trumpets and fireworks of weddings, the ringing of bells from the many temples, the echoing calls from the mosques.
On one of our last nights, we climbed the winding stairs to one of Udaipur’s many rooftop restaurants, all of which claim to be the tallest. The sun was setting in the distant hills, outlining the city in gold. The view stretched far into the distance, small rivers of roads meandering among the houses, rooftops speckled with water tanks, drying clothes, and there! Just four or five houses over, the blue roof, a small boy in that tell-tale stance, a bat clutched in his hands. A tiny girl with a yellow dress and a bob haircut draws stumps on the wall behind him, and another boy, unseen at this angle, bowls to him. Their spot atop the world is precarious, and at times the ball goes careening off the side of the roof, bouncing far into the streets below. They scamper down after it, disappearing into the building and reappearing a few moments later at the bottom. After one particularly troublesome retrieval, the boy hits it off the roof again on the very next ball, and his cry, “abeeeeyaaaaar” echoes across the space. Despite these trials and tribulations they keep playing, returning with the ball and taking up again as if it is really no trouble. They have some kind of system worked out, a game adapted to their limited space, and the batter runs back and forth, bat clutched in a little hand. So this is where the cricket is! In a city of hills it has moved to the rooftops, small flat spaces.
The light is fading but the game goes on, and even after it is too dark to see their small bodies across the space, I can still hear them. The “thock” of the bat, their cries of excitement as they swing at the ball, the patter of small feet beating out a tympani, a percussive reminder that cricket, like life, finds a way.