Half a century ago , I was ten years old.
And I distinctly remember weekday mornings. 30 Suryanamaskars and 300 jumps , the norm, was the pre-requisite for breakfast. The Sanskrit shlokas with the namaskars mentioned 12 different names of Surya, to be pronounced with 12 namaskars, but we were never able to convince anyone about why we needed to bunk the remaining 18. And so 30 it was.
My folks encouraged, nay, forced us, to participate in all sports at school, and summer holidays were dedicated to picking up useful things like swimming. This involved alarming things like throwing us in deep water once we had the rudimentary strokes in hand., and any kind of sissie behaviour was dutifully reported at home by the brothers.
So it was with a great sense of wonder that I approached the very civilized game of badminton.
Those were days when wooden rackets were making way for some slim-stem type metal rackets. I played with the existing wooden variety we had at home. We had zilch knowledge of "makes" and "names", and we used to think that squash rackets were made when material was not enough for badminton rackets. We ensured the shuttlecocks lasted a longish time, and used them over and over again.
In those days, there were few well meaning souls who ran training set-ups for children, and I was duly enrolled in one. Three times a week, evenings, regardless of the weather, amount of homework, visiting cousins or similar things, I would cycle a couple of miles to the PYC courts , where you could reserve courts by the hour. We had 2 hours.
There were a total of two courts, which were used very imaginatively by our coach. He gave us individual practice, doubles practice, backhand practice, tossing, drop shots , and every session also had us playing actual games, so we learnt about the game itself and how you faced an opponent.
Once the coach thought you were worth further training, he asked you , to get stitched, what was then called , a short "divided" skirt. (There was no concept of being fitted out in fancy sports apparel even before you hit the first shot of your badminton-life. Your folks spent the money only if the coach indicated so) .
We felt very glamorous after that, although wearing these short skirts outside in public was considered an outrageous thing to do.
So we would wear these skirts inside, then a voluminous long skirt over it, and cycle over, a vision in 2 tight pigtails, with an abnormally flared skirt, manoevering in the road traffic, with a racket stuck on the rear rack of the bicycle. Rucksacks etc weren't even available or in fashion then, and we would simply carry stuff in anything that , say , had a zippered top. The highlight of the session , was drinking cool water from a matka kept in a corner of the premises, after a rough and tiring sweaty game.
My most amazing memory of those days is of practicing for what were to be the State Junior Tournaments, which were to be held in Pune. By then I had played for my school, and won. My coach had had some words with my folks, who seemed to look at me in a different light. The practice hours now were more, I practiced for the doubles with another girl, and our coach always tried to have senior players as opponents for us, just in case we got complacent.
Two days before the D-day, I raised my arm to hit a deep toss, and wonder of wonders , the top part of my racket flew along with the shuttlecock across the net.
Bereft is a very mild word to describe how I felt then. My first thought was that someone was going to shout at me for this. It ranked way up there with losing compass boxes, pens, gold earrings , books etc at school.
Those weren't the days of telephones or cell phones, and so my coach came home to meet the folks. I then learnt what "prioritizing " was all about. My coach, mother and I , left to go to the best sports shop , and a brand new racket was ordered for me , which I would get "gutted" the next day. No one shouted, glared at me , or made faces at me behind my mothers back. Folks actually felt bad. And I felt terribly important .
To cut the story short, I participated in the Junior State levels. Preened like mad when the umpire would announce stuff like "On my left, so and so", before the game. Almost felt like bowing, but didn't.
I won my initial rounds, and the semi final was what is described today as a nail biting finish, that went to 3 games. They even gave you shuttles to test for speed and you could choose. No one had given me so much power before, and so I felt particularly thrilled rejecting shuttles , just like that.
Then came the final.
The opponent was a powerful, confident , well built girl from Mumbai, whose entire family had come down. ("Minoti, if you are reading this, Hi!"). They were all very westernized, wore lipstick, and the sort of clothes you saw in western magazines, were often seen drinking orange squash, and we'd often feel unnecessarily overcome by all that.
Of course, the final match was wonderful. Lots of cheering and shouting from both sides. Some who made fun of me in the coaching class were there, and actually hoarsely cheering for me......
It wasn't a David and Goliath thing, but more of a "Aishwarya Rai meets Gangubai" thing and Gangubai was enjoying it all. There were good shots, wonderful returns, unmeant fake apologies across the net, slipping on the floor, beads of perspiration, the works. And it went to best of 3.
Till I lost the last game.
No one had taught me how to lose. Cheerfully and Bravely.
I sat on the sidelines, wrapped in a sweater. It was hot, but that's what you were supposed to do. Those were not the days of specialized shoes, matching tracksuits and wind breakers. No monogrammed towels. I had my friends around me.
My coach came up, smiled, patted me on the back, and said to get organized as they would announce the runners-up trophy next.
I don't know what happened, but suddenly , the tears started. My throat got full. Which was nice since it precluded me from crying in the usual highly audible siren style.
The more my friends held my shoulders, the more I cried. My shoulders shook. My folks sitting in the audience, gave me encouraging nods, and imperceptible nods to urge me to stop the crying. My opponent's folks shook their heads, and looked at me in a way that implied that they had been through all this stuff earlier themselves.
My name was announced. I went up, blowing my nose, rubbing my eyes, and clutching my sweater around me. I think the chief guest was some tough looking mustachioed army type, of high rank.
No, I didn't salute.
Instead he gave me my trophy and certificate. Put a firm hand on my shoulder, and said,
" Young lady, you win some. You lose some. What matters is how you tried. Well played !".
They then did a photograph of both the players with the chief guest.
I played for many years after that, at the school and college level. Lost track of the tournaments and games. Took things in my stride.
But this has been my most abiding sporting memory , as it taught me how life is never always about winning. It is almost always , about , looking back, learning, being grateful, taking a deep breath , and moving on......
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