The politics of playing

The Hindu Goddess of wealth, Laxmi, resides at the tip of our fingers; Saraswati, the Goddess of learning below her; and Gauri, who symbolises Shakti (power), at the bottom of one’s hands—or so goes a prayer. Each morning, we rose to the sound of this sloka in school and mostly stared at our hands drowsily. Other times, we stared at them long and hard as though we would see the faces of the goddesses on our palms. And after another half an hour of wishing a ‘Suprabhatam’ (Good morning) to the almighty—most slept through them cross-legged and their heads banging against the backs of those in front of them—all excuses to keep sleeping would come to an end.

It was time to exercise. In those days, there used to be an open field in Gaushala which, true to its name, would release a very light smell of cow dung and urine. The field would be covered with dew and if one fell down, there would be a small wet patch on one’s trousers along with brown bits of grass. Every twice or thrice a week, on days we did not have either karate or yoga classes; the ground was ours to play football on.

What I remember most vividly about those games is not scoring a goal but kicking a ball high up in the sky, above the three-storeyed building nearby and very much enjoying the act. I remember my friends as tracksuits of different colours and a goalpost made by using four bricks, two on each side. The laziest among us would always take the position of a left and right back. As players chased the ball in another corner of the field, the backs would place their butts on the two bricks and take a quick nap, resting their heads on their knees. So the goalkeeper’s job, among other things, was also to wake these sleepyheads when the ball neared the post. These games continued as long as the ground existed. Once buildings filled the space, we had to find a new game and place to play.

On the other side of the school building was a smaller ground where we could play badminton. The benefit of playing there in addition to the game itself was a bit of exposure to the world outside our institutionalised life. A person who lived in the single-storeyed building which bordered the ground mostly played English songs throughout our ‘play hour’ in the evenings. For us—kids who prayed to gods of all religion, from Mahabir to Allah to Jesus to Zarathustra, multiple times a day, and to whom Gosurvan, the soul of the ox in the Zend-Avesta, who clamours like a thousand-strong army was the most interesting of mythical character—getting to listen to The Real Slim Shady was too good to be true.

Moreover, a good game was always more than chasing a ball across the field, focusing on a shuttlecock or tennis ball. There was freedom in coming out of the school gates and running on an open ground.  It was time to catch up on some sleep during the Shavasana, also called the corpse-pose in yoga, usually done at the end of the session and is supposed to relax one’s body. In the later days, as the SLC drew close, a quick game of table tennis or a ride in the budo cycle of a kitchen staff was our only break from monotonous studying.

Being a carromboard-junkie and chasing a football on a hot Saturday afternoon as an eight-year-old, and doing so at 13, however, meant different things. Nobody ever told us not to play in school but they told enough by telling us other things. Hitting puberty meant being a ‘big girl’ who now had to be careful about the position of one’s shawl over the kurta. The constant reminder of having grown up, having had our first periods, turned us into extremely self-conscious beings. We would constantly tug at our t-shirts so that it would not stick to our bodies revealing its new shape. Play we did, but no game would be complete without pulling our t-shirts dozens of times.

Our bodies, once a source of joy, a tool to twist around in Astabakrasana and laugh about, was not supposed to be rejoiced.  At 14, it felt as though we would never have our, “I want to live want to run through the jungle, the wind in my hair and the sand at my feet…” Savage Garden moment, except in our imagination. What made me feel particularly good then was reading a Sweet Valley High edition, part of the American young adult book series, where one among the Wakefield twins—the protagonists—has her first period and her mother decides to celebrate it. There was still hope in the world, was my conclusion.

But Kathmandu was no ‘Sweet Valley’ and over time it became utterly clear that the abandon that comes with games is not something accorded to the female body-bearer. Playing became political. Every time I took up a racquet or chased a ball, the act came with the constant burden, imagined or real, to prove that women play because they like to, just for the fun of it. Plus, there was this pressure to know more about the game even before making a passing comment just to be taken seriously. Things have definitely changed over the years. But going by Pratichya Dulal’s piece on the absence of toilets for women in the TU cricket ground in these very pages some time ago—perhaps, the assumption being women don’t come to watch cricket—maybe it has not.

Still, things do seem somewhat different once every four years, during the football World Cup. Few days back, for instance, when I was walking on the street clad in a German team jersey, all the comments I received were only concerned with the team. This is not to say such remarks are welcome but sports wise, the content of the comments are an improvement. For once, it feels good not to have to justify one’s love of sports in general or any game in particular. To just watch a game, say a goal was good because you thought so and make a political statement by merely watching a game without feeling the burden of the act.

Often, I am at a loss for words when people talk of football as a beautiful game. But it is definitely a sweet escape from reality for me. And the World Cup is a fleeting experience which somewhat masks the politics of playing.

Perhaps it is the escape that is beautiful.

 Published on June 28, The Kathmandu Post

football, worldcup

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