More than an all-knowing God, or medicine, or Metallica or marriage, I believe in sport. Sport is salvation, and sport will break your heart. Sport will polarize, and come together. In fact, religious devotion to a sports team throughout one's life will put you through the paces -and then some- of a classical romance, or star-crossed love: agony, ecstasy, faith, loss of faith, joy, despair, terrible tattoos, denial, depression, annoying nicknames, addiction, betrayal, those ridiculous couple tee shirts, abuse, violence, self-destruction, euphoria and -in these times- a few hundred gigabytes of memories captured on the digital retinae of assorted electronic devices.
While sport fandom, like any parallel universe, is populated with villains and heroes and average Joes alike, India is, on the whole, a nation of mild-mannered sport obsessives. "Mild-mannered", save for the rare occasions of setting cricket grounds on fire or hurling stones at the home of the captain of the national team, but these instances are few and far between. Unlike my experiences on the football terraces of England and Scotland, watching the game from the stands at cricket grounds in India will invoke neither fear for life or lust for blood. Indian sports fans are masters of compartmentalization; the joys and sorrows of sport are rarely allowed inside the uncompromising walls of real life.
Or so I thought till a few days ago. The family home was still a place of hope and order and warmth as I hurried back from the beach in the dying daylight last Sabbath. I swerved, sped, braked, honked, out-maneuvered, cursed. I was in no mood to let something as pedestrian as traffic laws slow down my march towards our living room to watch two-time winner and serial finalist Chennai Super Kings bash it out against the young pretender Kolkatta Knight Riders in the final of the Indian Premier Leage 2012. The whole family was rooting for the underdog, KKR, and we had even come up with some chants and celebrations for the event.
Dad is waiting outside. One look at his ashen face, and I know there's a giant meteor headed our way, or maybe our worlds have already collided and he's waiting outside to ease me in.
"What's wrong, Dad?" I ask.
"It's Grammy," he can barely say the words.
Of course. Well, she's nearly ninety. She's had a good run, the old bird.
"What happened?" I decide the questions still need to be asked.
"Must have been all the hype in the media. She's fallen off the wagon."
Of course. A tumble off a speeding wagon would certainly kill a lady her age. Horses do what, 60 an hour? Definitely enough to...wait. Where the fuck would she find a horse in this town? Grammy may be old, but this is 2012.
"Dad," I soothe, "you're still in shock. There's no wagon."
"No," he's in tears now, "it's like old times. She's fallen off the wagon. She's inside raising hell right now."
It hits me like a ton of bricks. I'd heard about it before - Grammy's infamous past as a cricket hooligan. The last cricket match she watched was in 1983: the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup which India won against West Indies by a whopping 43 runs. That was over a year before I was born. Legend has it that world cup resulted in the destruction of nearly three dozen chicken coops, eight uncommissioned murals on the church spire of dancing phalluses that refuse to come off to this day, and six ritualistic beheadings of oxen- one for each Indian victory in the cup- in Grammy's village. An immigrant farmhand, and the postman, who both reported sightings of a woman stumbling around in the dark holding an axe in one hand and (what looked like) an ox's head in the other on different nights, died in their sleep within hours of the final, their faces scrunched up in vicious mimes of delirium. Grammy disappeared the same night. A week and four moons after the final, an axe was discovered clogging the municipal water tank, it's contents a bloody mix of ox nerve and muscle. Still seven nights later, Grammy re-appeared. She never watched a cricket match again. The village would have to wait another year for a new postman.
I can hear the pre-match analysis on the TV before I even step into the living room. Uncle Psy is in my seat, nursing a whisky. Cousin Chaz, his wife Flora and Aunt Florence are all spread out around the living room, suitably uncomfortable at having crashed a party only to find out it blows. Mom sits in the corner, sobbing into the Knight Riders scarf she ordered over the internet. The atmosphere is funeral, but sporty. Grammy is on the recliner, her hands cuffed on either side to the armrests. I reach over, and gently pull the sock out of her mouth.
Grammy swears like a parrot in a Judd Apatow movie. Most of her insults are quaint in an old world kind of way. Between overs, she rocks back and forth, alternating periods of calm with resounding screeches and wails. I hold her hand through the game, holding her mug for her as she sips her Ovaltine through a straw. At the end of the first inning, I wink and silently uncuff one of her hands. Grammy may have resurrected her inner badass, but I wasn't going to rob her off her dignity. She hurls her mug at the TV, but her throwing arm's not what it used to be. It clutters limply on the floor next to her feet. We laugh, relieved.
KKR overcomes a poor start to their inning to seemingly take control of the match. Then they lose another wicket. And another. In our living room too, things take a bad turn. Grammy, who has been silent for a while now, starts cussing again. As Yusuf Pathan walks in to bat, she yells: "oh great, it's the ugly sister." She has a point. I suppose Yusuf is somewhat uneasy on the eyes, especially in comparison to his brother Irfan who plays for Delhi Daredevils. He's got this mullah beard thing going, and he looks a bit like a gnome. But her words have somehow gotten under my skin. I sat through a barrage of Grammy's spitballs, I calmed my Dad down when she called him a little girl, I let it go when she poked me in the eye for holding her too tight. But this feels unpardonable somehow. Grammy has crossed a line.
The Brothers Pathan: Irfan and Yusuf
"Oh, you're one to talk about looks," I sneer, "you don't even have teeth."
When I come to, I'm on the floor. The family, with the exception of Grammy, lean over me, their faces a mixture of mirth and concern. "What the hell happened?" I ask.
"Grammy headbutted you," says Uncle Chaz, struggling to contain a chuckle.
I rub my forehead where it hurts.
"That seems to have let the wind out of her sails," says Dad, "she's been quiet as a baby since."
I sit up and smile. Grammy looks more herself now, half asleep on her recliner.
We watch the rest of the game like normal families do, cheering and cracking jokes. Dad wakes Grammy up for the last over, and we see out a tense victory for the Knight Riders. Gammy pecks me on the forehead, and retires early to bed.
Much later, after the drinks and snacks are cleared away, I decide to make sure Grammy is alright. Light seeps out from under her door. I knock softly, and enter. Grammy stands by the window, her back to me. She has been waiting. "Grammy," I say, "I'm sorry about earlier." But she has other plans. She lifts up her dress in one last hooray, and clearly visible on sagging butt cheek, is a tattoo of the face of Kapil Dev, independent India's first real hero and world cup winning captain. It's a pity Grammy didn't blind me when she had the chance.