Posts Tagged ‘India’

Cricket: India versus Sri Lanka: Bigger than the Super Bowl (and a lot of other things, too)

June 27, 2011

You think the Super Bowl is a big event?

At least half of the 300 million people in the USA tune in for the country’s biggest sporting event each year. There’s a two-week buildup to the championship game of America’s most popular sport; there’s no escaping the conversations in the days before the game. It’s the crown jewel of American sporting events. Everyone knows about it. And it happens every year.

But the spectacle is exclusively American. Unlike premier events in other major sports – such as basketball’s NBA Finals or tennis’ U.S. Open – no one but North Americans know or care about it. Half of the people who watch the Super Bowl would admit they only do so for its famous commercials and the halftime show. There’s a difference, see, between an event everyone knows about and one everyone cares about.

In India, not only does everyone know about the Cricket World Cup, everyone cares.

The only single-sport event that compares to the Cricket World Cup is soccer’s FIFA World Cup. In fact, the international football tournament eclipses cricket in both number of viewers and countries in which the tournament is relevant.

But there is no other country in the world with as many people that care about one particular sport as India.

And on 2 April, India was in the final of the sport’s premier event. In Mumbai.

This was certainly going to be a home game.

———

It’s an eight-hour match, but I planned to keep my eyes fixated on every ball bowled. My host family had recently bought a new HD TV, and everyone in the household, including me, was engrossed in the action.

Sri Lanka wins the opening coin toss and opts to bat first. Early on, things look good for India, and they keep Sri Lanka’s total low. But Sri Lanka picks up their strike rate towards the end of their innings, and as Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene finishes Sri Lanka’s innings with a stoic “6”, winning looks like it will be a difficult task for India.

Throughout the match, Franzi and Anaïs text me, asking for explanations of what’s going on. Neither is a cricket fan. That means something. When non-sports fans are so invested in the outcome of a match, there must be something significant about its result. Cricket is on almost everyday in India, but this is not an ordinary match. Everyone is watching – even the foreigners who know nothing of yorkers, dot balls and cover drives.

This game matters.

India’s innings begins. The team’s two opening batsmen – Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, two of the world’s best cricketers – are out within the first few overs. It’s like if the Packers had lost both Aaron Rodgers and Donald Driver five minutes into the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Like the Spanish football team losing David Villa and Andrés Iniesta five minutes into the second half of the World Cup final.

Sri Lanka’s blond-dreadlocked fast bowler – Lasith Malinga – is responsible for Tendulkar’s wicket. I inform Franzi, but she’s already heard. “I really dislike this crazy hair mob guy for that!” she tells me.

For a good hour or so, an India win looks improbable. 1.2 billion people are stunned. For now, everything depends on Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir, and whether they can amass the rest of the 260-some runs required to win. As the overs pass, the required rate begins to increase ominously. Kohli performs well, but then his wicket is the third to be taken.

MS Dhoni enters as Kohli’s replacement.

At that moment, the game changes.

Dhoni is the face most synonymous with Indian cricket, the face you’re most likely to see in advertisements across the country. The wicket-keeper and captain, he is arguably the most important player on the field. Cricket’s team captains are like baseball’s extinct breed of player-managers, the ones held most responsible for their team’s performance. Dhoni has made some questionable decisions in the tournament so far, but he’s led India this far. Now he has the chance to lead his team to the round of one.

He’s given himself that chance.

See, Dhoni has put himself in early. Yuvraj Singh, who would later be named MVP of the tournament, is listed ahead of Dhoni in the order, but the captain wants to be on the field with the game on the line. It’s a legal move in cricket, and a bold one.

Dhoni proceeds to lead his team to the finish line.

First with Gambhir as his partner, then with Singh, the captain plays the best innings of his life in the most important game of his life. India’s required run rate – the best measure of the feasibility of India’s win – decreases. That’s good. Soon it’s on par with the completed run rate. And then India needs just a run to win with seven balls remaining. Dhoni’s on strike.

Dhoni hits the ball high in the Mumbai air. The fans anticipate the result long before the ball lands about 12 rows deep. An entire country rises together.

Six runs. India wins the World Cup.

Franzi texts me moments later.

“INDIA WON!!! 🙂 I FREAKING LOVE THIS COUNTRY!”

Me too.

———

I’d been rooting for India the whole time. I wanted them to win because they were my team, as much a part of my heart now as the Chicago Cubs have been for years. But I was also keen to see what the aftermath of an Indian victory would look like, and how it would compare to the celebration three days earlier after the Pakistan win.

It’s better.

Less than a minute after Dhoni’s six, I stick my head outside and just listen. The firecrackers are louder and last longer than the ones set off at Diwali. The horns I’m hearing are not car horns – the usual – but air horns squeezed for no reason but celebration. Music is being blared from so many portals I can’t discern a single song. So many people are shouting and screaming in the streets, it sounds a never-ending roar, as if all 33,000 fans in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium had been picked up and dropped blocks from our house.

“IN-DI-AAAA IN-DIA!!!”

My host family is watching the postgame show as intently as they watched the game. Tendulkar is being paraded around the field on his teammates shoulders, the only hole on his impressive cricket resume just having been filled. Players and coaches spray champagne, conduct interviews, and make laps around the field. The trophy is lifted into the air. I look into my host grandparents’ eyes, and they seem to be a little wet.

I go out into the street and watch the party. Standing atop a median on the corner of the intersection, I get a good view of Shankar Nagar square, grateful my height gives me an advantage over the many Indians around me. Normally one of Nagpur’s better-functioning intersections, the square has been absolutely overtaken by humanity. The scene is like the aftermath of the Pakistan win, but somehow more…complete. People aren’t holding back. Men are dancing everywhere to whatever tune is being played – in cars with open windows, standing atop motorcycles, or with both feet jumping on the ground. I pity whatever vehicles need to get through; drivers are bemoaning the fact they didn’t take a shortcut. Saket-dada disappears into the crowd somewhere, and doesn’t return until he calls for me to unlock the door at 2 a.m.

At home, we celebrate with ice cream for the second time in four nights. We watch the news, where news of celebrations similar to those in Nagpur are pouring in. The reporter in Delhi is shouting desperately above the hysterical crowd, which the videographer is having trouble shooting due to the crowd’s inability to stay still. It’s like this all over India. 1.2 billion people are rejoicing. To them, there is no better place in the world to be right now than India. And I have to agree. There is no better place to be.

As I say goodnight to my host dad that evening, I try to find some words to put the day in perspective.

“Once in a lifetime,” I tell him. “That’s all I can say.”

🙂

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Cricket: India versus Pakistan: The aftermath of winning and losing

June 26, 2011

Continued… From 30 March, 2011

“India versus Pakistan. The greatest rivalry in the world of sports.”

I thought it rather haughty and cricket-centric of the local papers to proclaim this. After all, we have rivalries in America. The NBA has Lakers-Celtics. College basketball has Duke-North Carolina. Baseball has Yankees-Red Sox. I spent my childhood immersed in the rivalries of every sport, every season. These were prestigious rivalries, deep-rooted in their fans. I knew the fervor with which fans cheered their teams against the archenemy. I knew how much it meant for your favorite team to win those games. And I knew how much it hurt to lose.

Then I watched India and Pakistan play for a spot in the final of the Cricket World Cup.

I now firmly believe there is no rivalry in any sport, anywhere in the world, that means more than India-Pakistan cricket.

India was batting first. Sachin Tendulkar, perhaps the greatest cricketer of this generation, was on strike. Our living room TV had my host family in hypnosis. Every eyeball in the subcontinent was watching every minute of the matchup – at least if not, that’s the impression I got from the silence outside. After ten overs or so, I left home and went to watch the match with some friends in a public location. The streets were devoid of activity. No rickshaw bells or vegetable vendors. No mopeds or cars. No cows – even they seemed preoccupied with the match.

Nothing but coolers and the faint sounds of the match they were obscuring.

Everyone in India was watching. And there are 1.2 billion people in India.

It takes a lot to get India to shut up and shut itself in like this.

It’s not so much what the teams were playing for as the fact that they were playing at all. So the stakes only increased with a matchup against Sri Lanka (who had defeated New Zealand in the other semifinal) in the World Cup final on the line. In a matter of days, the loser might see their most hated rival spraying champagne, at the top of the cricket world. The fans of whichever South Asian team didn’t make the final would certainly become Sri Lanka fans, if only for the day.

It’s precisely this situation – how you feel after the rivalry game – that tells you what a rivalry really means.

Case in point: American football’s 2011 NFC Championship Game.

I am a fan of the Chicago Bears. Not quite a diehard fan – that’s a title I’d reserve for only the Chicago Cubs baseball team – but still a fan enough to follow the team from India. When it comes to American football, I’m a Bears fan, and I was satisfied to learn they’d made it to the final four of the sport’s annual tournament. A berth in the Super Bowl – the sport’s annual championship – was just a win away.

The Bears’ opponent? The Green Bay Packers.

What a win that would have to be.

Bears-Packers is another one of those rivalries that you grow up with as a kid in America. The teams share at least two of their sixteen contests every year, and each matchup means a little more than the other ones. Players give it a little extra when they see the other team’s jerseys across from them. And the fans, I think, root a little harder too.

India doesn’t care much for American football, so of course I had no chance of catching the game live. I logged into ESPN the day after the game with my heart pounding, and found the Super Bowl matchup set.

The Bears weren’t in it.

My heart sank. The Packers had won. America’s biggest sporting event would be played between my favorite team’s rival and a team to which I carried no allegiance – the Steelers. Green Bay had celebrated on our turf, in Chicago. And they would be playing for the biggest championship in the sport, not us.

So who did I root for in the Super Bowl?

The Packers.

Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m just not a big enough fan of the Bears. But there’s something about the Bears-Packers rivalry that goes beyond blind hatred. Fans root against the other team not because they want the other to do poorly, but because they want their own team to do well. When the two clash, the desire to win is intensified. The stakes increase because you want to say your team is better, not that the other team is worse. The rivalry has a subtle, unspoken, mutual respect. For the most part, it has peace.

Giving the Packers my fandom on loan was actually a way of validating the Bears’ loss, as if a Packers championship would make the Bears’ season worth a little more. The Bears’ season was unsalvageable at this point, and the Packers had ended it. That’s exactly why I rooted for the Packers. Why root against them? If you’re going to lose to anybody, you might as well lose to the best team in the sport. And when the Packers won the Super Bowl two weeks later, I felt a measure of redemption from the Bears’ loss. It provided closure.

Would I rather the Bears have been in their place? Of course. But I’m glad the Packers won the Super Bowl.

As India played Pakistan, I wondered which team I’d root for in the final if Pakistan were to win. By the same logic I’d applied to the Packers two months before, it would have to be Pakistan. But I can’t see anyone in India ever rooting for Pakistan, no matter the reason or the circumstances. In India, a Sri Lanka-Pakistan final would be overwhelmingly partisan towards Sri Lanka, geographical proximity of the island irrelevant. A Pakistan win in the final would be just as bad as its preceding loss.

I spent eight hours with my butt on the edge of my seat that day watching India and Pakistan play, wondering if I’d face that dilemma, and hoping I never would. I came home after India’s innings and watched them bowl, hoping the target they’d set would be enough for an India win.

It was.

India beat Pakistan.

Had you not known there was a cricket match going on that day, you might have thought one of India’s many festivals had been deemed to start three hours after sunset. Families, friends and strangers that had been cooped up watching the match all day came outside simultaneously. Firecrackers exploded. Car horns blared. Music and patriotic chants were sung in the streets. Vans became portable discotheques, and the streets became too crowded to navigate except by foot.

Pure, unadulterated jubilation.

I asked my host family what it’s like when India loses to Pakistan.

I’ll guess it’s good that I’ll never have to know.

🙂

To be continued…

Cricket: What’s more exciting than a World Cup match?

June 23, 2011

Continued… From 25 February, 2011

17 months ago, when I submitted my application for this exchange, my mom wrote that it would be my dream to go to a country on the verge of hosting a major international sporting event. True. But at the time, we were thinking of a different country, a different event, and a later year. Neither of us had cricket in mind.

Funny how these things work out even better than they’re planned.

The 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup took place in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and Nagpur’s state-of-the-art VCA Stadium played host to four of its matchups. With front row seats under seven dollars a ticket, a visit to one of its matchups was compulsory. No way would this sports writer miss the showcase event for the world’s second-most popular sport – especially when it’s just a rickshaw ride from home.

Three days before the North Tour, Anaïs, Brii, Franzi, Serenity and I travel 20 kilometers south of Nagpur to see Australia take on New Zealand. Jakob is already at the stadium, his driver having taken him in time for the 9:30 a.m. start time. Now the match is halfway over, and we’re walking around the complex looking for tickets. We take a peek at the playing field through a gap in the stands. Half of the seats are empty. That’s good news.

But there’s also some bad news. The men at the ticket counter are refusing to sell us tickets. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a ticket counter. Not that it resembles one. The booth is a 100-meter walk through weeds and dirt from the fence outside the stadium, and I’ve seen outhouses larger and less shabby than this quickly constructed piece of plywood. There’s only two men inside – one is on his phone, and the other is more interested in his lunch than in talking to the five of us.

The match is halfway over, but this is a One Day International, not a college basketball game. ODIs regularly last around eight hours, and there are still four hours or so remaining. “Halftime”, so to speak, has just arrived. Even these four hours would stretch the attention span of the four fans in my company who know nothing of strike rate, yorkers or cover drives, but we’ve gone through a lot to get here. All of us are anxious to get in the stadium.

Franzi plays the pathos card. The man eating lunch waves off our pleas for tickets, giving us a lazy excuse about internet booking. We tell him about our rickshaw accident. We explain we’re exchange students. Some of us try to force out tears. Either he doesn’t understand us, he doesn’t care about us, or (most likely) both. Desperate, we lie, saying we’d flown from abroad for the sole purpose of watching this match.

The man continues to eat his samosas.

There appears to be no other option for buying tickets but this shabby small booth, save the idea of pawning overpriced seats from hawkers outside the stadium. So we don’t relent, and we continue to wrestle with this man’s lunch for his attention. After a ten-minute wait, the samosas have been swallowed and he directs us to the other man in the booth. This man has been on his cell phone since we got there, and he hands it to us as we walk towards the stadium. It seems we’re having a conversation mostly for the sake of talking – the man on the other end of the phone is saying nothing important, conversing with us simply for his own pleasure. But we can’t complain, and so we play along. He has our tickets, after all. After some time, they’re given to us.

As we walk, a great roar arises from the crowd. Hundreds of people are shouting at the top of their lungs, creating that overwhelming combination roar that usually signifies an extraordinary achievement. We can’t even hear ourselves talk. What’s happened? A wicket? A six? Did a New Zealand fielder just make a fantastic diving catch?

No. We’ve just walked past a queue of a couple hundred young Indian men, each wild-eyed and hoarse with the excitement of shouting towards us. The only thing keeping them from running at us is their queue and the uniformed police officers at the front of it.

The five of us walk past the men about four times.

Their reaction is the same each time.

Certainly we’re not the only foreigners in Nagpur for the match. People have come from all around the world to support their teams, and many of them have white skin like us. A macho brown-bearded Australia fan is wearing his country’s flag as a shirt. A group of paunchy old English fans stand idle outside a gate. I even see a foreigner wearing what is unmistakably a Chicago Cubs spring training baseball cap. I doubt anyone else in the stadium recognizes the hat for what it is.

But it’s me and my four Sheila‘s that are attracting the most attention. Or maybe they think the girls are the game’s cheerleaders.

Inside the stadium it’s not much better. We ascend the stairs to our section at field level. We have nice seats, and since the stadium is half empty, there are several seats in the lower rows to choose from. From behind our section, we stand and take in the view. It’s a nice new stadium. There’s a lot to see in front of us – namely, a cricket match.

Then in the span of about five seconds, each head in the section before us swivels backwards.

At least 1,000 eyes are simultaneously locked on us.

I’m dumbfounded. This is a cricket match, not a Miss World pageant. I point at the field and shout. “The foreigners are over there! Those foreigners are famous! Why aren’t you looking at them?” Australia is batting as I speak, and they have one of the best sides in the world.

Apparently the 1,000 accompanying ears to those 1,000 eyes take my question as a rhetorical one, because the attention on us never ceases.

We find seats that allow us to conceal our conspicuity. For a while, anyhow. We choose a patch of empty seats and sit ourselves as far from our paparazzi as possible. But the chairs around us always continue to fill, as the Indians a section or two away never seem satisfied with their original seats for some reason. Every half an hour or so, we move to an empty part of the section in pursuit of peace. But our sought solitude never lasts long.

Once we sit by a fence perpendicular to the field’s boundary. As we focus our attention on the match, dozens of young Indian men slowly gather on the other side, standing and watching us like we’re the purple polar bear exhibit at the zoo. After sitting through this for about twenty minutes, a policeman comes up the aisle to disperse them, brandishing his stick at these men with vigor. Some of the swings he took at the ground were more ferocious than those of the batsmen down on the pitch.

We end up sitting in about five different seats over the course of the match. It’s like a bizarre human version of whack-a-mole. We’re the moles. And the young Indian men around us are trying to whack us.

A TV cameraman on the field spots us while we’re sitting about ten rows back, his camera unabashedly aimed towards us. It’s apparent he wants our fair and lovely skin on television. For once, we actually don’t mind. But whenever the red light is about to turn on, the Indians in the first three rows stand up and block us from his view. This happens several times. The cameraman throws up his hands and shakes his head, exasperated. It seems the Indians in our section want to keep us a secret.

Too late. The secret’s out. Official pictures of us later end up on the internet. Friends of ours tell us we’ve ended up on TV. The world now knows we’ve been to a cricket match.

It’s a shame the match itself wasn’t too exciting, else the fans might have paid more attention to the players on the field than on us. New Zealand batted first, and the low target they set was an easy one for Australia to chase. Without too many exciting plays, we sat in the sun and watched most of the match in anticipation of a relatively easy Australia win. Australia was definitely the Goliath in this matchup. Their squad hadn’t lost a World Cup match since 1999, and they’d won three World Cups in a row.

But India played the 3-time defending champs a month later, and came out on top in a gritty quarterfinal win. A new champion would be crowned this year. Only New Zealand, India, and two other South Asian teams remained.

But most importantly, the win sent India to the semifinals of the Cricket World Cup.

Against Pakistan.

🙂

To be continued

RYLA, Part two

June 21, 2011

From 7-10 November, 2010, continued.

The third and final day of the RYLA camp had been the longest yet. Again we’d been forced out of bed before sunrise, awoken at 5:30 for yoga with a counselor yelling in our ears.

“GOOD MORNING!”

It had been another long day. Not so much because of the attention from the other students, which I had grown used to. Rather, I was tired from dance practice, which had been going on since 9 a.m. and eaten up most of my free time. At the beginning of the day, I’d had just one minute of our dance memorized. After the morning’s three-hour practice, I’d taken only half of the five-minute song to memory. And at the end of our final practice, the performance less than an hour away, I still had no idea what I’d be doing for the final 30 seconds of the song.

Nor did our choreographer, but he had an idea. As the song’s final chorus began, we’d break away from our positions and I’d run to the front. Whereas I’d been hidden at the back or shunted to the side for most of the dance, I was to be the centerpiece as the song came to an end. Sitting on the pool’s edge, surrounded by the other students, I was to sit down, put one leg up, and shake both my arms with my palms inward, each pinky and forefinger my only digits extended.

This, apparently, is the American “Yo!” and it’s how we party in the U.S.A.

I understood what this man wanted me to do, but he didn’t understand my English. This posed a minor problem. I vehemently disagreed with what he wanted me to do, but I had no way of offering to him my own suggestion. No way would I portray American culture like this. No, I told him. He had no further suggestions.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

I was left with three options:

Option one: Do exactly what had been suggested to me. Perhaps I could even find a black Yankees baseball cap and an oversized hooded sweatshirt for added effect.

Option two: Run off the stage before the end of the song and stand arms crossed, crying, as the crowd and the dancers look at me in disbelief.

Or option three:

Improvise.

———

Like a good boy, I’m doing exactly what’s asked of me. I’m sitting quietly, going over the dance steps in my head. I’m wearing the largest purple sequined shirt the dance crew could provide for me, though it’s still comically small. I’m even wearing makeup, though I know it won’t make any difference, given how far away the crowd is sitting.

Heh. They still don’t know my plan for the end of the show.

Oh yeah. I don’t know my plan either.

It’s too late to think of one, however – the presentation has begun. Actually, it’s technically a Rotary club meeting, just one in which the RYLA campers are playing a prominent role. There’s also several speakers, whose involvement in the community means little to the small kids fidgeting around me. The kids don’t understand the importance of the people on stage, let alone their English.

Franzi wins an award. Most Outstanding Camper, Girl, or something like that. If it comes to a shock to anyone in the crowd, it doesn’t to me. The man with the microphone is heaping praise on her – well-deserved praise at that. She was the first asked to come to the camp, and was the only Rotary student to come without hesitation. She was asked to make a speech minutes earlier, and she did. Franzi’s the only exchange student in Nagpur who would have been here no matter what. And though she later understates the award and the accompanying positive words of the camp’s director, no one at RYLA deserves an award more than Franzi.

I also win an award. Best Campfire Performer – Boy. The night before, we’d gathered around a fiery pile of logs and plastic, playing two games of luck and concentration. Mostly luck. In game one, a competition of shouting other teams’ numbers, I’d caused my team to bow out early, saying the wrong word at the wrong time. In game two, an elimination game which required knowledge of nothing more than the English alphabet and the first letter of one’s own name, I was one of the final five competitors. I earned a bar of chocolate and the award.

The chocolate was enough for me. This award won’t be going on my resume.

The power goes out. This is an outdoor venue with no backup lighting except two small lights and the stars above. We’re plunged into darkness, but the speaker continues to talk, unfazed. This is India. We listen, and wait for our performance to start.

The speakers finish. The lights turn back on. We make our way around the pool and gather backstage.

Franzi’s dance goes ahead of ours. Only later would I learn of the tension she felt before she’d gone onstage, something she could blame on learning just an hour beforehand how seriously her costume sari would limit her leg movement. But from my vantage point, it looks like it goes off without a hitch, and it can’t look any worse to the parents sitting on the other side of the pool.

It always looks better to the audience than the performer. I think that’s just a rule of entertainment – no matter where you are in the world.

Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani begins to play.

It’s time.

I’ll skip to the end, because the first four minutes or so go more or less as choreographed. I’m slow to remember my steps a couple times, but it’s nothing too noticeable. But then the final chorus begins. And I have no idea what to do. The spotlight is shoved upon me.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

Option three: Improvise.

I continue to shake my body and dance in tune to the beat, as do the others. But after five seconds of this, it becomes clear there’s a desperate need for additional choreography. I slowly make my way to the front of the stage, and the other campers are ceding the center to me, egging me on. Still I have no fixed dance to perform. I resort to the type of dance I know best – head-nodding, arm-thrashing upper body chaos. Better for the dim light of discotheques than the focused spotlight of the RYLA camp stage.

This doesn’t seem sufficient.

I look to the others. They’re looking at me anticipatively, shouting, wondering why I haven’t already begun my “Yo! Yo!” performance. But I have no intention of “Yo! Yo!”-ing in front of this crowd, however poor its view of the stage. I sit down and continue flailing my arms my own way, anticipating the final note of the song.

The song doesn’t stop.

The final 20 seconds of the song feel like an eternity. The music doesn’t cease. The bright lights don’t turn off. Unless I want to run off the stage in tears, I have no choice but to keep flailing my arms without coordination. It’s the least prepared I’ve ever been for a performance of this magnitude, but it doesn’t really matter. The audience doesn’t know that I’ve done anything wrong. Nor do they care.

They just keep watching me.

There’s just no avoiding the spotlight.

🙂

RYLA, Part one

June 20, 2011

From 8-10 November:

Five days before my tour of South India. I’m standing by the only swimming pool I’ve seen in four months. My costume, which has been given to me minutes earlier, consists of jeans, sneakers, and a purple sequined long-sleeved shirt about two sizes too small for me. A crowd of small school age Indian kids has gathered around me, some costumed and sitting quietly, others in plainclothes and joking loudly in their native tongues. The choreographers of our Bollywood dance have their cameras out, and they’re pointing them at me. The sun has set. Loud speakers are blaring loud Hindi music to entertain the hundred or so parents of these children, but the stone bleachers on the other side of the enormous pool are mostly empty.

Funny. If the people sitting forty meters away knew they were about to see a 6′ 3″ blond-haired foreigner perform a choreographed dance to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani, there probably wouldn’t have been any empty seats.

The three-day Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp, otherwise known as RYLA, has culminated in this performance. My group has spent the last three days learning a dance to a recent popular Bollywood song, and several other students – including the camp’s only other foreigner – have dances to perform as well. I’d been coerced into the optional performance just 32 hours before, under the impression it was compulsory. Thus I was shocked when all but three of the boys my age opted out. Now it’s too late.

I didn’t realize I had a choice.

———

In the weeks before RYLA, the Nagpur exchange students and I had been bombarded with requests for activities, usually on one or two days’ notice. We attended some. We turned down others. Some were interesting. Some were awful. It was always better when the others were present, so at least if the proceedings were unbearable, we’d have each other. But I was relying on the other exchange students for my RSVPs. I needed assurance that I wouldn’t venture into the unknown alone. Otherwise my response to an invitation would be “maybe.” And “maybe” normally becomes “no”…

Franzi, who had turned into a courier of sorts for these activities, was the one to break the news of RYLA to us. In fact, she’d given us a week’s notice, enough time for us to discuss amongst ourselves whether or not we should go. But except for Franzi, we’d all decided not to go, unwilling to subject ourselves to the attention we’d receive. It wasn’t worth it.

My host dad had found out about the camp the day before its onset. I told him I didn’t want to go. “Why aren’t you going?” he said. A legitimate question. I had no reply. For a month and a half or so, I’d been caught in the daily timepass I’d vowed to avoid. And indeed, I had no valid reason not to attend. So it was set. I packed my bag, and the next morning I was out the door. But reluctant to leave, I couldn’t help but think:

Why am I doing this?

———

Indeed, I considered that a legitimate question as I ventured the grounds of Bhonsla Military School just outside Nagpur on the morning of 8 November. I was the tallest and oldest in a group of about two dozen boys, but I was having trouble standing up straight. The sanitation of the breakfast that had been provided was suspect, and the bus ride in had violently jarred the contents of my stomach. Now my innards were in disarray; even though the Hindi-speaking army officer in full military regalia was instructing us to stand straight, I couldn’t.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

But a military camp is not the place to be weak, show weakness, or quit.

As the day went on, I was relieved to learn RYLA wasn’t really a military camp. Saket-dada had told me stories from camps in his childhood, how he’d been forced to run for miles on end and had been deprived of sleep for nights on end, unsmiling officers in the background shouting and pushing him on. But quick glances at the other members of the camp showed me it wouldn’t be like that. Though some of the boys came within an inch of my height and a year of my age, many of the boys and girls stood about two-thirds my height and looked as if a 100 meter jog would exhaust them – let alone a 10,000 meter one. So we spent the morning walking, not running, through the Bhonsla grounds and Vidharba fields, stopping at regular intervals as much for our rest as the attractions we were stopping for.

My stomach settled as morning gave way to afternoon, which was good – otherwise the day’s swimming and horseback riding would have been impossible for me. There was nothing significant about these activities to me – I’d ridden horses before, and I’d spent regular intervals each summer in swimming pools. But seeing the excitement of the younger kids vanquished my apathy. I saw it as the small kids smiled proudly on horseback – probably their first rides on such steeds, maybe their last. I saw it as they splashed wildly in the swimming pool large enough to accommodate five times as many campers as it did – especially in India. I saw it in the dingy Spartan sleeping quarters – a place where ones goods mattered not as much as the good friends around you.

Naturally, these kids took an interest in me, the likelihood of an ulterior motive correlating with age and ability to speak English. I was surrounded at every available moment, asked the normal foreigner-in-India questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? How do you find India? Do you like Indian food? What kind of music do you like? How do you find the heat? After dinner, the crowd around me had swelled to 30 and the questions had ventured into dangerous territory: Indo-Pak relations. Which country do you like more, Chris?

I was relieved when the group dissolved to assemble for the night’s nature walk.

Day two was more of the same. An early morning run through an obstacle course. Some laughably inaccurate attempts in riflery and archery. Military men teaching us about guns. People trying to teach me the prescribed steps to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani. Again, I was unintentionally surrounded by kids for an evening interview, and again the questions ceased to relent.

This time I tried taking a different approach, seizing the opportunity when a brief lull arose. I turned the same questions back on the people asking them: What are your names? What are you all studying? What are your hobbies? These were group questions, and their replies were curt; they seemed uninterested in giving me the same information they were requesting of me. Most of these students were in the higher standards; the younger ones generally stood idle, either unconfident or unwilling to try their English on me.

It soon became clear there were two rather distinct groups of boys. The first group mostly consisted of 9th or 10th standard boys who would ask me peculiar, often crude questions and follow up my answers by turning to the others with laugh-arousing remarks in Hindi or Marathi. Unable to understand them, their remarks didn’t frustrate so much as confuse me.

(And these were only boys. The girls were strictly separated from us for almost every activity of the camp. My contact with them was limited to the occasional brief conversation with Franzi or a quick five-second self-introduction. It was probably better that way. Most members of the camp were wrongly convinced Franzi was either my girlfriend or my sister.)

But whatever this older group was saying, it was clearly affecting the members of the younger one. Most of the younger boys were in my camp – at least that’s the way it was made to appear. On the eve of night two, a group of older boys were sitting on bunks 12 feet away from me, telling jokes in Marathi that I couldn’t understand. The young Hindi-speaking boys around me couldn’t understand them either, but they’d gathered the older boys were speaking of me unfavorably. These small children – none probably higher than 8th standard – had firmly chosen righteousness, and to them, that meant sticking with me. Despite their difficulties with English, they sat in the bunks surrounding me, trying to communicate to me the atrocity of some things that had been said against me, surprised that I remained unfazed.

I reassured them that I was fine. I was.

They were just trying to help. But I didn’t need it. Not this kind, anyway.

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