February 5, 2012

From Kashmir, with love

Mudar Patherya
What do a team of middle-aged corporate execs have in common with a team of young men from Kashmir? Cricket, that's what

My Rotarian side became possibly the first civilian cricket team to tour Kashmir in 25 years when we flew to Srinagar in November 2011. Six days later, when we said our farewells on the way out, we reckoned it was the last we had seen of the people we played fleetingly against.

We were wrong. The Kashmiris undertook a 50-hour train journey from Jammu to Kolkata last month, and became possibly the first civilian team from that state to tour Bengal to play cricket.

How did this team of young men end up 2000km from their state?

They had been sent out by the army in Kashmir, as part of their efforts to keep them off the streets and out of trouble, as it were, in one of the most politically fraught regions in the world. After decades of high taxpayer spending aimed at achieving that end, the armed forces had come to the conclusion that a cheaper and more effective balm on the young Kashmiri's wound was a game they played, a game we played, but not a game we played together.

And so cricket turned out to be both an agent and laboratory. Using the ticket of cricket, the young men of Kashmir would travel for the first time to Chennai, Jamshedpur and Kolkata - hosted in the first two places by corporates, and in the last by the Rotary Club of Central Calcutta - to make friends, integrate better with their neighbours from the "mainland", and return "sufficiently reformed".

Even as everyone politely applauded this intention, we Rotarians fretted. What if the boys came and saw the kind of turf wickets we usually played on and concluded that they had been bilked for decades? What if they ended up feeling that Kolkatans viewed them with distrust and returned more alienated than ever? What if? What if?

And sure enough, when the Kashmir team arrived late on a Saturday night, the Rotarian hosts weren't quite present at the railway station to receive them. The Rotarians didn't turn up the following day either, on the grounds of bad weather (terribly rainy), and stayed away on Monday as well (ditto). I mean, what can you go and speak to strangers about? How was the journey, you must be tired, isn't the weather terrible, actually it must be much worse in Srinagar, how thick was the ice on your doorstep, does the temperature really go down to minus eight where you live… And then what?

Predictably enough, on a rainy Tuesday we invited the Kashmir team to an eight-a-side competitive scuffle at Kolkata's largest indoor cricket facility (ironically called Spring).The Kashmir team practised on their own; we gawked at how fast they bowled. They collected their refreshment plates and whispered among themselves; we shook hands at the team introduction and said our names, but conversation braked thereafter and the broad conclusion was that this experiment was going nowhere. You can't put Kolkata industrialists and other professionals in the same arena with Kashmiri students and expect "hail fellow, well met" things to happen. Unlikes don't combust.

That evening after the cricket matches - the Rotarians were thrashed in each of the three we played - when we hosted our first restaurant dinner, we put some science into the seating, so that a player from each team would sit beside one from the other, and that the respective players would at least exchange a few sentences. The experiment achieved what was feared. A few words, then silence. Then a quiet switching of seats. Then back to us guys cracking our mainland jokes within our pack and them guys conversing in their Kashmiri zubaan (where one didn't know whether they were discussing the quality of our hospitality, our waistlines or our bowling).

What kept the tour going? Simply the prospect of playing at the Eden Gardens two days later. (The General Officer Commanding, Kashmir, had put in a word with the GOC Bengal; the GOC Bengal had called the Cricket Association of Bengal and the CAB had agreed to accommodate its principal landlord.) The Rotarians were convinced: keep up a show until the big match, then quietly disappear behind our desks, organise a few excursions for the team, and land up on the last evening to shake hands, bid our cheerios and take a picture for the weekly Rotary circular.

But something happened.

The Rotarians said it wouldn't go down well. The Lieutenant General had been a great host when we had been in Kashmir; the least we could do was take the team home. So why don't we split up: Shekhar bhai, you take two players home; Sundeep, you take two; Kanishka, can you take the captain home; Sunil, please volunteer for two players?

The players came to collect their allotted guests on the appointed evening and then dispersed for an hour's quiet dinner at home before the guests were dropped back for the night.

I can't say what happened at the homes of the other Rotarians but this is what happened at mine: I got to know that Asif was from Pampore the saffron capital; that Mudasir lived partly in Delhi with his mother and partly in Srinagar. Both heard every word of what Devang Gandhi, also invited, had to say.

Most of the Kashmiri players live in joint families that have a custom of eating together, which means that they will wait until the last person has come in for the meal before bread is broken. In a Kashmir winter a power outage means you have no heaters to keep you warm and you sit out all evening with your gloved hands under your thighs and stare at each other. There are just two turf wickets in the whole of Kashmir, whereas there are six in my Kolkata pin code. Mudasir dreams of opening the batting for India.

They spoke with pride when describing the beauty of rural Kashmir. Devang punched their numbers into his BlackBerry and resolved that his next vacation would be in Kashmir, and would they help with finding places to stay and things like that? Money is not easy in their families but what keeps them going at the game is a dream that one day they may play for Kashmir, then North Zone, and then someone might call, breathless, to say, "Haven't you just heard seen what they've announced on TV?"

Just the dreams we dreamt; just the dreams my son dreams.

The following morning, we Rotarians furiously exchanged messages. How was it? "Unbelievable" said one. "Cannot describe," wrote another. "Can we invite them home again?" asked a third. This was completely outside the script.

Cricket moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform. So when we finally played the Kashmir team at the Eden Gardens, this vastly superior side was now respectful of our meagre talent; they hammered our first two overs, then sent a word out to their batsmen to take it easy and keep the heat on only to the point that the match remained competitive for us throughout. When our 52-year-old medium-pacer asked why the batsman had not swatted him out of the ground, the boy looked down and said, "But you had been a good host when I visited your residence two evenings ago. How could I hit you for a six?"

One evening ago, we would have looked into our restaurant plates and masticated in silence; a home meal later, we had added the brotherly suffix to each of their names. Two days ago we avoided eye contact; when the Kashmir team played Bengal Under-22 in a day-night match at Eden Gardens two days after they played us, almost the entire Rotarian team turned up to cheer the visiting side. After the Kashmir team had thrashed the Bengal side with seven wickets to spare, there were more cheering Rotarians running onto the field than Kashmiris. The following morning, when the Kashmir side played Calcutta Cricket and Football Club, a Rotarian (who could not make it) called to ask "How is our team doing?" After this unknown Kashmir club side had beaten CCFC, the Rotarian BBM circuit was thick with "They got Manoj Tiwary for 4" and Our boys hammered Ranadeb Bose for 40 runs in four overs." One of the most reserved Rotarians, with business interests across a number of countries, was seen yelling, "Majidbhaaai, we want a six!"

Two of the most touching moments were reserved for the farewell a couple of hours before the train took them back to Jammu. Our opener - a Bikaneri Maheshwari - presented each member of the Kashmir side with a box of ethnic confectionery, with the postscript, "Not for you, but for your family members back home. Tell them it is from their brothers in Kolkata." Orthodox Kolkata Marwaris bear-hugged meat-eating Muslim Kashmiris.

The Kashmir team rose to the emotional pitch. They presented the Rotarians with a miniature bat that was signed by their team - a mix of English and Urdu signatures. One of them spoke for his team: "Next time you come to play cricket in Kashmir, you will be guests of our team and not of the Indian army." Another added: "The next time you come to Kashmir, you will not bring your bats, pads and gloves; you will play with our kit - as one."

Then the manager said that their quiet fast bowler wanted to make an announcement. This young man, who had hardly spoken on the trip, was comfortable in the shadow of his more voluble colleagues, and was probably only a student, produced a full-fledged Kashmir willow from behind his back and presented it to our captain. "Aapki poori team ke liye [For your entire team]. Play with it and remember me." Near the splice was written in black ink, "With love from Mehjoor Ali." Some of us could have wept.

We woke to an emotional hangover the following morning. Someone from our team had his Buddha moment: that in a world that is increasingly friendless, in a world where we run off the field after the last ball has been bowled to check how many important calls we may have missed while we ran after mis-hits to the boundary line, and in a world where we make a dash for the car after the game so that we can be at the next appointment in seven minutes, we are missing a big opportunity to share a cold drink with the "enemy", raise a cheer for the catch that turned the match, and savour the peaceful eye in life's cyclone before we return to the maelstrom of our existences.

If ten days can bring strangers into our BBM lists and Facebooks, we don't need counselling sessions and group therapy to paper over our synthetic existences. All we need is a good game of cricket.

Once a professional cricket writer, Mudar Patherya is now a communications consultant. He lives his passion for the game through wicketkeeping. He also cleans lakes and plants bird boxes on trees