June 18, 2013

Returning home to the cricket magazine

Coming back to India from the USA was incomplete without a visit to the local news stand

There's something about a cricket magazine, a glossy repository of treasures © AFP

In December 1989, I returned to India after two and a half years spent in the US; it would be my first vacation at "home" after commencing graduate school. Irritatingly enough, my flight to Delhi was unable to land thanks to the city's perennially obnoxious winter pea-soupers, and was diverted to Bombay. After a long break for refuelling and breakfast, we took off again and landed in Delhi, eight hours after the scheduled arrival.

My family met me at the arrivals gate and drove me to my grandmother's home for my first home-cooked meal - parathas included - in what seemed like, and had been, a very long time. Later, feeling the urge to really let the desi in me hang all out, I strolled over to a local paan shop, stuffed my mouth with one of its betel-infused offerings, lit up a Gold Flake Kings off the smouldering bit of rope the paanwallah had strung up outside his stall, and contentedly puffed away. I was back "home".

But not quite. For one thing, I wasn't in my old 'hood just yet. That would come later in the evening when my mother, brother and I drove back across over the great East of Kailash-Greater Kailash divide, back to my mother's then current residence, right next to the local market that had been my favoured haunt in my rather indolent college days.

A few minutes after we had parked the car and deposited my luggage, I was off for another walk. My navigation was unerring. I walked straight to a little news stand that I hoped would still be set up outside a general provisions store in the centre of the market. It was. As I approached, I could see the rows and rows of colourful magazine covers, arranged according to some mysterious taxonomic scheme, their titles creating a typographic accordion of sorts. I could see the ones I wanted: Sportstar, Sportsworld, Sportsweek.

I didn't have to ask for them. The young man running the stall looked up as I approached, smiled in recognition, and spoke: "Badi der ke baad aaye ho magazines ke liye? [You've come for magazines after a long time.]"

I stopped, smiled back, reached into my wallet - helpfully replenished by my mother with Indian currency - and handed over the requisite amount for the trio of periodicals that would allow me to read the first articles and look at the first colour photographs of cricket that I would have encountered since my departure from India in August 1987.

The young storekeeper had been my dealer for my cricketing fix through my college years; we had settled into an easy rhythm through that period, as I showed up with metronomic precision on the day the magazines were due, to pick up the latest issues. We were each other's lodestars; he knew I would be around in the evening for my collection, and I knew my stash would be waiting for me. On the rare occasions that I was late, or god forbid, delayed by a whole day, he simply kept aside "my" copies.

It was a simple system and it worked: he had a dependable customer; I, a reliable supplier. I do not know if he was a cricket fan; I never discussed scores or games with him. I never found out his name; he certainly never knew mine. But he was most certainly mildly amused by my obsession; he often smiled when he would see me begin to read the stories in the magazines while standing next to his stall. Perhaps that's all he needed to know: here is a straightforwardly expressed need, one that I can address.

On that day, we did chat for a bit. He asked where I had been, and I told him. He asked whether I bought cricket magazines in the US and commiserated when I told him that I couldn't and didn't. A few minutes later, three glossy repositories of cricket treasures richer, I returned to my mother's apartment.

Now I was really "home".

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