How to beat the blues

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As India chokes against South Africa, writer Avtar Singh  finds good cheer at a girls hostel and discovers that qawwalis and kebabs can soothe cricket-bruised souls

Avtar at the girls hostel, Lady Irwin College, Delhi
Photo: Garima Jain

HOPEFULLY, BY now, you’ll have had a chance to get over the rather spectacular flashback to the bad old days provided by our current Indian team, while playing (or rather losing to) South Africa. Batting collapse? Right. Triggered by Tendulkar’s dismissal? Of course. Ageing bowlers, unfit fielders, panic on the field and silence in the stands?
So ’90s. So unmissed. Really not happy to have you back.
And it all started so well.

A quite lovely day found us lurking outside Lady Irwin College in Delhi. We lurked because it is a women’s college, and we thought the guards, wardens and assorted inmates might find it hard to believe that our business inside was legit. Happily, it was and we had no difficulty getting in. The campus itself is a cool oasis in Central Delhi, with parks and trees and attendant birdlife partying it up in the shade. The common room in the rather well-built hostel is cavernous as well, with ranks of comfy pews set up facing the appropriately gigantic flatscreen television. The girls, far more clued up than the management of any sports bar I’ve yet encountered, were watching the game in High Definition. The grass is greener, the cricket more immediate, the meaty chunk of a Sehwag flash through covers set off by Morne Morkel’s sweaty bewilderment.
Nice.

Meanwhile, the lady scholars are just getting settled. A few work simultaneously on their homework. “Can you actually work with that on in the background?” I ask curiously. They all nod at me as if I’m mad. For good measure, one has her iPod plugged in as well. They’re from all over the country, I find, though the NCR finds representation too. Reinforcements troop in carrying refreshments and cheer lustily when they see that Sehwag and Tendulkar look set to break all previous batting records. Messages are sent, phone calls made and further young women, who’d rather watch cricket than study, walk in. Sehwag reaches 50, India posts a hundred without loss, and life seems one grand sweet song.

I ask whether the college has a cricket team. No, it doesn’t, but I’m informed the basketball team is pretty special. On-screen, the carnage continues and it seems as good a time as any to get on the road.

Over the course of the afternoon, I check in with the cricket as I go about my business, and Gambhir’s partnership with Tendulkar seems to be going as scripted. Then, as I’m getting in the car, the dreaded batting powerplay is taken. A tired-looking Tendulkar falls trying to push the tempo, but how much worse can it get? I run back upstairs and find that Gambhir and Pathan have followed him back into the hut. Well, time to go. Over the radio, I hear the grim news. AIR’s Hindi commentator is caustic and spot-on and tears into the team’s “shameful” display. His outlook gets progressively darker, and there’s almost a hint of glee as he bears witness to the end of India’s innings.

The lady scholars are just getting settled. Reinforcements arrive with refreshments and cheer lustily at Sehwag and Sachin, who look set to break all records

That sense of “I-told-you-so”, the melancholy pleasure of “we-had-itcoming” that is so much a part of our national sporting psyche, is effervescing in 4S bar, where a bunch of shellshocked tipplers tear into the bluetinged ineptitude of our latter batsmen as hungrily as if they were pieces of crispy lamb. The table where I sit isn’t particularly cricket-obsessed but even they seem caught up in the moment.

A friend leans over to tell me in a confidential whisper that the pitch is slow. Like our Indian bowlers. He raises an eyebrow at me impressively, and I see his point. On the television, Graeme Smith’s slow start would seem to bear him out.

BUT IT is 4S, after all. This haven of the in Delhigentsia has interests beyond the plebeian and the game fades away into the background. In truth, it doesn’t seem much of a contest, not when the home team are light of at least 50 runs from where they should’ve been. The South Africans seem to come to terms with the pitch and positively enjoy the sluggish nature of our bowling attack, and they’re gliding along as I leave.

Later, on a terrace overlooking the Arab ki Sarai, venue of the Sufi music festival Jahan-e-Khusrau, my innocent pleasure in enjoying for free what other Dilliwalas have paid to see is tempered by the commentary filtering through the fancier phones of the folks around me. The saunter of the South Africans has turned to a gallop, and the pinched faces of some cricket-fanciers in my immediate vicinity have nothing to do with the sound emanating from the stage below. Indeed, the ecstatic qawwali we’re listening to is ill-suited to the news: perhaps a marsiya would be more appropriate.

But the music is captivating and the evening is fine and we all, attuned to the inevitable, have given up on the Blue cause. So it comes as something of a shock to me to discover, later in Sujan Singh Park, that India has succeeded in making a match of it. I descend from the terrace where the kebabs are being prepared and dispatched and find a spot in front of a television, and find, to my horror, that it isn’t the ’90s we are being transported to after all: poor old Nehra has chosen to channel an earlier decade made infamous by Chetan Sharma. But I find the mood strangely mellowed, even benign. You can hardly only blame Nehra, says one man there. It isn’t as if the batsmen did what they’re paid to do either. There is a murmur of approval. And anyway, points out one sage, better to lose now than do it in the knockout stages; it isn’t as if an Indian team can win nine games in a row.

It is with jaunty steps and uplifted hearts that we make our way out to the light-strewn terrace above.

Singh is the former editor of Time Out, Delhi, and author of the novel The Beauty of These Present Things

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