It happened a couple months ago, but still feels like yesterday. “Bhaiyya Ball” yelled out a colony kid as I got down from my bike. Just back from office, I bent down to get the rubber ball, my back ache showing signs of a man who travels seventy minutes a day in auto rickshaws. Determined to not show my age, I smiled as I threw the ball back to the kids. They scattered back to their respective positions to continue their game, leaving me staring at them longingly as I made my way towards the elevator (‘lift’ as we Indians call it). I stopped, turned around and walked towards the podium to witness a familiar sight. Bunch of kids, not a single hair on their face, running around making the most out of an evening break. Free from school, homework and their helicopter parents. Laughing, yelling, running, claiming wicket dismissals that didn’t exist. A warm feeling ran through my heart and I knew what it was. I wanted to play too.
Lowering my bag to a safe place in a corner, I nervously approached this gang of hyperactive kids. I smiled sheepishly as I approached them and did to them what I hated as a kid. Choosing my moment carefully, I approached them and blurted awkwardly “Can I join you guys?”. Silence. I scanned their collective faces as they stared at me with blank expressions, gauging my appearance. Formals ransacked by local trains, a part of my shirt sticking out my trousers, unkempt hair showing signs of a man who hadn’t seen a mirror in more than four hours. I was every bit an uncle they saw everyday – sometimes yelling at them to keep their voice down, oftentimes complaining about their balls hitting their expensive cars. Some kids stared at me for what felt like an eternity while others stared at the leaders.
You see, if you’ve ever played in a playground with a bunch of kids, you’ll know they’re not dissimilar to an official set up. Everyone is out there to play, but most of them are there to make the numbers. There’s a select few who make the decisions. Which game do we play today, who goes in which team in case of a dispute, who goes to the watchman for help in case they need their help, and most importantly, who gets to play and who doesn’t. My age had equipped me to spot the leaders or the ‘buying centre’ as I was taught in my MBA college. I approached this one relatively tiny kid wearing a Real Madrid ‘Ronaldo’ jersey. “Hi. I am Saurabh. Seventh floor!” I said walking towards him with an arm outstretched. Silence still. Time was running out. I had to convince them of my credentials before they got weirded out. “Ninad bhaiyya ka bhai” I added with a smile. “Oh. Okay. Yes of course. Join us! We were just about to get done with our game.” lied Ronaldo.
He looked at the other kids and instructed them with his eyes to abandon the current proceedings. I heaved a sigh of relief as they began shuffling players to join their respective teams. Ronaldo was nice (smart?) enough to include me in his team and chose to bat first. The rules of the playground hadn’t changed much and I knew I had to wait until two wickets were down to get a chance to bat. It wasn’t long before these pint sized metronomes were all over the podium giving their hundred percent. A man’s character is forged majorly on the playground and I could see that happening real time as Ronaldo opened the batting and shot through the covers to score a four off the first ball. He took a single the next ball and dared his strike partner to give his wicket away cheaply. Alas, Ronaldo could only gesticulate in frustration as two of his team-mates got out in successive balls, falling to the devious spin of the opposition bowler. As another kid lined up to face the marauding spinner, Ronaldo walked towards the wicket and stopped him. “Give the bat to him” he said pointing towards me with authority that belied his age. I got the bat. “Bhaiyya chill. You’ll smack him” said Ronaldo with a smile as he walked off to the non strikers end.
Hattrick ball. The field was set. Everyone got closer to build pressure on me. The bowler kept staring as I made myself comfortable with the bat. I had bit more than I could chew. What started off as a means of blowing steam after work had now turned into a battle of pride. Holding a bat for the first time in years, I ensured I didn’t expose too much of my stumps. The fielders surrounded me with even more intent. Like a pack of jackals, knowing every bit that the prey was for the taking. I was breathing heavily. I had to calm myself down. “You have done this a million times before Saurabh. You aren’t scared of this. This was your bread and butter ten years ago.”. “Ten years ago”, the devil in my head reminded me as I prepared to face the half pant wearing jackals.
The spinner made his run up and sent a googly my way. The ball was lower than I expected but it was more of a case of me being one of the taller guys in the field (for once). I pushed the ball to the covers and ran towards the non striker’s end as Ronaldo too sped off to complete the single. I safely reached the other side and turned back to shower myself in the gaze of a proud Ronaldo. I had saved my captain and more importantly myself of embarrassment! I don’t remember much of what happened afterwards, but I do remember hitting a few fours before getting out to an over-hit shot that travelled outside the podium. Any kid worth his salt would know instinctively that is OUT! I didn’t even ask them if that was the rule. I just knew it!
We bowled well with me being promoted by Ronaldo to open the bowling. I was glowing with the trust bestowed upon me by my captain until I overheard him pacifying a team mate with “He is new. The opposition doesn’t know what to expect. He’ll slow their start.” “Smart little bastard” I said to myself as I got ready to bowl. I bowled well. Ronaldo was right! The opposition was nervous while facing me and made mistakes. We won the game and Ronaldo hugged me before sauntering off to the opposition captain, already planning the next game and dividing the teams. I played a couple more games that evening before I left that oasis of fun to head to my room. My Mom smiled as me I entered and told me she saw what I was doing. I rushed to have a bath and resumed my routine of sitting in front of my PC for hours before hitting the bed. I woke up the next day with joint pain, my body’s way of telling me my irregular attempts at staying fit do not afford me the luxury of matching the energy levels of twelve year olds on a random Thursday.
Today I play with my colony kids regularly. They love me and wave at me every time I pass the podium on my bike. I often refuse their requests to play but if I am in the mood, I join them to forget I have Microsoft Outlook to open the moment I reach my room. It feels good to be with them. We’ve nothing to give each other but our limbs and enthusiasm. Times change and it warms my heart to see even the girls play with the boys sometimes. Dodgeball, football, cricket, anything that takes their fancy, the boys and girls partake in almost every evening. It makes me happy to see them off their screens, off their books and without their oversized bags. It reminds me of my childhood when all I did in the evenings was call my friends of all ages and plan a blast. Any sport, it didn’t matter as long as we competed and went home exhausted to finish our homework.
At twenty five though, it’s different. Today I had a fifteen minute conversation with my colleague about different credit cards, their pros and cons and why he shouldn’t opt for one that doesn’t give him airport lounge access. I spent thirty minutes with the same colleague a month ago discussing why my endowment LIC policy was slightly shit and why I should open a Recurring Deposit. Three months ago I sent broadcast messages to my circle enquiring about which medical insurance is good and two months before that I was complaining to a friend that our common ENT specialist was actually a batshit insane lady! When the fuck did we become this? Why do I have an Excel sheet of all my expenses and when did Home Loan EMIs replace the imaginary ghost under my bed as my biggest fear? Who saw this coming!? I didn’t! It just happened.
Today I sometimes work on the weekends when I am bored. I have scheduled meetings with friends instead of school ground fist fights meant to take the edge off God-awful chemistry lectures. Outlook has replaced Pokemon, cigarettes have substituted Pepsi and alcohol has replaced cartoons. I am still the same person in a way but most of my activities are either boring, necessary or harmful to my body. Do not mistake the above statements as dog whistles for pity, but rather introspect and ask yourself how far you are from what you once were. There’s nothing wrong with getting older and participating in grown up stuff, but there’s a lot wrong with just accepting this is it and getting deeper into the cesspool of endless adult responsibilities.
We must stop taking ourselves so seriously from time to time. I know, it can get extremely overwhelming when everyone around you is getting married, moving countries, changing jobs, pursuing further education, starting a business or vacationing in far off continents. Social media doesn’t make it any easier. Like a live scoreboard of adult achievements, we participate in this self imposed dick measuring contest of comparing milestones on an imaginary ladder. It’s good to forget who are meant to be once in a while and remember what we once were. Because it is only in these moments that we are truly ourselves. Carefree, joyous and honest. Just a bunch of a kids, trying to get through the day.
I won’t lie. I’ll be hitting my bottle of Jack Daniel’s after this. It’s Friday evening come on! I have my weekend fully planned out and my multi platform to-do list will not let me forget that I’ve to change my Netflix payment plan, buy new socks, apply for a leave at my workplace and of course, meet my friends at scheduled times over the weekend. But even after all this, I will make sure I spend 30 minutes with Ronaldo and gang on Sunday evening. Grow up, but never let the child within wither away. Happy weekend y’all!