September 26, 2012

Of cricket bats and economic divisions

A cricket field brings together twenty-two players, encapsulating diversity that goes beyond the merely physical: class, religion, language

A cricket field brings together twenty-two players. A number that large, in the right sort of social contexts, can, unsurprisingly enough, encapsulate diversity that goes beyond the merely physical: sometimes language, sometimes religion, sometimes class, and sometimes, all three. Growing up in Delhi meant that such diversity was an inescapable part of my cricket playing, even if awareness of it was pushed well to the peripheries. But sometimes, it intruded, reminding me that some of my team-mates and opponents (and their families) occupied stations in life that were very different from the ones my family and I inhabited. Sometimes those reminders came about because of matters cricketing.

One small occasioning of this took place in my middle-school years. In those days, I played cricket in a variety of venues: in school, in the local parks around my street, and once in a while, I travelled by bus to another South Delhi location to play cricket with a friend of mine. Our fathers had served in the Air Force together; they were now both retired; as far as I was concerned, we were both military brats, brought together by a shared background. I was dimly aware that there were differences in our families' material circumstances following the retirement of our fathers from military service: my family rented the second floor of a multiple-family home and lived in a small one-bedroom apartment; my friend's family owned a house with three floors to themselves; he had a room of his own, as did his brother, unimaginable luxuries for my brother and me, for we still shared a room (and not even a proper bedroom at that).

But somehow, these differences meant little for they had little to do with cricket. A couple of days a week, I walked up to his front-door, rang the bell to summon him, he would appear with his cricket gear, and we would walk together to the park to join dozens of other boys in a game of cricket. That was all there was to it. The centrality of cricket ensured there was little time for me to think about how different my friend's world was from mine.

And then, shortly after my friend's father had returned to India from one of his business-related trips overseas, a cricket bat made an appearance and demonstrated that difference quite graphically. One day, as we rode home in the school bus, my friend remarked, glowing with pride and barely contained excitement, 'My Dad got me a new bat from England, you should check it out.' Later that afternoon, before the day's game, I walked up to his room and did so.

When I first saw it, I almost stopped breathing. It wasn't just any old cricket bat; it was a Duncan Fearnley, its distinctive three-stump logo emblazoned in black just below the handle. I had seen photographs and live footage of Viv Richards using it to demolish England; it was a talisman that belonged in temples and altars, a wand flourished by magicians, a sword wielded by gallant heroes. I had never imagined that I would be in the company of one. I asked if I could pick it up, and turning to a mirror, posed for a brief second, savoring its unexpected heft, before handing it back. I didn't feel worthy.

My head reeling, I crassly blurted out, 'How much was it?' The answer - 'Fifty pounds' - stunned me: a quick mental calculation converted that into a thousand rupees. I was used to buying fifty-rupee bats from our local market, and even those were rare occasions; my parents could never have bought me a Duncan Fearnley. Never. Suddenly, I became acutely conscious of the house that surrounded me, the room we were standing in; I remembered the two cars parked in the driveway; the size of the living-room and the kitchen downstairs.

A few minutes later, the DF wrapped up in its plastic sheath, we walked to the park for the game. As I walked, I lagged a bit, still processing the bat-borne missive that had informed me of one particularly acute difference between my friend and I. We remained cricket buddies, but I never quite saw him in the same light again. He was, after all, someone whose parents could afford a Duncan Fearnley.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here