‘My Rajput friends believed that polo was reserved for them’

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By Karan Tejpal

Illustration: Samia Singh

WHEN MOST boys at my school were striving to excel at sport or academics, I busied myself breaking every rule in the book. I would sneak out for movies, lunches, dinners and midnight snacks at the local railway station; play pranks on students and teachers. The only thing I cared for, more than the pursuit of personal indulgence, was polo. No matter how long I had stayed out at night, I would be at the stables without fail at six every morning.

While my boarding school encouraged equestrian sport, there were also unwritten rules at boarding school about who could play polo. Traditionally a sport dominated by the Rajputs, I found that my illicit love for the game was enough to turn long-standing friendships and brotherhood sour. For the first time, I had found a passion I did not wish to relinquish, no matter what the cost.

If they did not let me play at school, I would find some other way. Since my father was in the army, I spent my vacation practising at the Delhi Riding and Polo Club.

After three months of living the sport day and night, I went back to school certain that I could change the rules, confident that my improved game and my status as a senior would break the old ways. But I was wrong. Some of my closest friends who were Rajputs still believed that playing polo was a tradition exclusively reserved for them. I was not allowed to play for the school team. I continued practising on my own, but my perseverance placed a significant strain on my friendships. I refused to believe that it could all come down to what my last name was not.

Around the time that I managed to play a few tournaments in Delhi, my seniors decided that they had had enough. The polo captain turned me into his personal slave, and though I made my displeasure clear, the ironclad code of conduct at school meant I had to do everything asked of me. Punishments, drills and beatings became a regular affair.

I had received permission from my school to play tournaments at the club, and in spite of all the pressure I was under, I managed to have a great season, and made some friends. The alumni of the school took a liking to me and encouraged my passion for the sport.

As with every tale of forbidden love, the situation had to reach a dramatic climax. An annual polo tournament in Jaipur, organised by the school for ex-students and current students became the flashpoint. I desperately tried to be included in the school team, to no avail. Left with no alternative, I contacted the former students I had befriended during my training. They got in touch with the captain and insisted that I be included in the team.

I had won, but it was an expensive victory. That I had overstepped an unwritten bound and irked the captain. Summoning me to the stables, he asked for an explanation. I feigned innocence, which didn’t go down well with him either. Soon, I was on the floor, crouched in a foetal position while he kicked and punched me mercilessly. I’m not sure at what point, I stopped feeling the pain, and floated away from my body, to a place where his frustration began to amuse me. As he continued to rain blows at my body, I became convulsed with laughter. Finally, confused and exhausted, he walked away. I was badly hurt, but I knew that things could not get worse. I had faced all, that day.

We went to play the tournament in Jaipur and my team won. 3-2. I scored one goal. It was the winning goal. It was not a goal of excellence but a goal of chance. Soon after, our friendships healed and life returned to normal. I stopped playing polo after college. But that time in school taught me a valuable lesson in life — to never give in if you want something badly enough, and that the hardest battles are usually the only ones worth fighting.

Karan Tejpal is 27. He is an Assistant Director based in Mumbai

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